Leon Trotsky

Ultralefts in General and Incurable Ultralefts in Particular

(A Few Theoretical Considerations)

Written: September 28, 1937
First Published: Internal Bulletin, Organizing Committee for the Socialist Party Convention (New York), No. 1, October 1937.
Source: Thanks to the Holt Labor Library collection of internal Trotskyist discussion bulletins from the Socialist Party.
Transcription/Mark-up: David Walters.

September 28, 1937

Marxist thought is concrete, that is, it looks upon all the decisive or important factors in any given question, not only from the point of view of their reciprocal relations, but also from that of their development. It never dissolves the momentary situation within the general perspective, but by means of the general perspective makes possible an analysis of the momentary situation in all its peculiarities. Politics has its point of departure in precisely this sort of concrete analysis. Opportunist thought and sectarian thought have this feature in common: they extract from the complexity of circumstances and forces one or two factors that appear to them to be the most important (and sometimes are, to be sure), isolate them from the complex reality, and attribute to them unlimited and unrestricted powers.

In that way, for the long epoch preceding the world war, reformism made use of the very important but temporary factors of that time, such as the powerful development of capitalism, the rise in the standard of living of the proletariat, and the stability of democracy. Today sectarianism makes use of these most important factors and tendencies: the decline of capitalism, the falling standard of living of the masses, the decomposition of democracy, etc. But like reformism in the preceding epoch, sectarianism transforms historic tendencies into omnipotent and absolute factors. The “ultralefts” conclude their analysis just where it should really begin. They counterpose a ready-made schema to reality. But since the masses live in the sphere of reality, the sectarian schema does not make the slightest impression on the mentality of the workers. By its very essence, sectarianism is doomed to sterility.

Imperialist capitalism is no longer capable of developing the productive forces of humanity. For this reason it can grant the workers neither material concessions nor effective social reforms. All this is correct. But it is only correct on the scale of an entire epoch. There are branches of industry that have developed since the war with prodigious force (automotive, aviation, electricity, radio) despite the fact that the general level of production has not risen, or has risen very little, above the pre-war and wartime levels. Moreover, this decrepit economy has its ebbs and flows. The workers are almost continually passing from one struggle to another, and sometimes they are victorious. Of course, capitalism takes from the workers with its right hand what it has given them with its left. That is how the rise in prices is wiping out the great gains of the Léon Blum era. But this result, determined by the intervention of various factors, in its turn impels the workers upon the road of struggle. It is precisely this potent dialectic of our epoch that opens up a revolutionary perspective.

A trade union leader who would let himself be guided by the general tendency of rotting capitalism in order to abandon all economic and partial struggle would be, in actuality, in spite of his “revolutionary” concepts, an agent of reaction. A Marxist trade union leader must not only grasp the general tendencies of capitalism, but also analyze the specific features of the situation, the conjuncture, the local conditions – the psychological element included – in order to propose a position of struggle, of watchful waiting, or of retreat. It is only on the basis of this practical activity, intimately linked with the experience of the great mass, that the trade union leader is able to lay bare the general tendencies of decomposing capitalism and to educate the workers for the revolution.

It is a truism that our epoch is characterized politically by a relentless struggle between socialism (communism) and fascism. But unfortunately this does not mean that the proletariat is already and everywhere conscious of this alternative, nor that in any given country, at any given moment, it may ignore the partial struggle to safeguard its democratic liberties. The fundamental alternative, communism or fascism, established by Lenin, has become for many a hollow formula, which the left centrists use only too often to cover up their capitulations, or the sectarians to justify their inaction.

Upon entering the government of the Catalan Generalitat, [1] the unfortunate Andrés Nin began his broadcast declarations with the following thesis: “The struggle that is beginning is not the struggle between bourgeois democracy and fascism, as some think, but between fascism and socialism.” This formula, moreover, was in current usage by the POUM. All the articles of La Batalla were only interpretations and variations of it. We saw some sectarians, in Belgium, for example, seize upon this formula to in order to find in it the complete or partial justification of the policy of the POUM. However, in practice, Nin transformed the Leninist formula into its opposite: he entered a bourgeois government whose objective was the spoliation and the stifling of all the gains, all the props of the incipient socialist revolution. The substance of his thoughts was the following: since this revolution is a socialist revolution “in essence,” our entry into the government can only aid it. And the pseudo-revolutionary sectarian exclaimed: “Nin’s participation in the government is perhaps a mistake, but it would be a crime to exaggerate its importance. Hasn’t Nin recognized that the revolution is socialist ‘in essence’?” Yes, he proclaimed it, but only in order to justify the policy that sapped the foundations of the revolution.

The socialist character of the revolution, determined by the fundamental social factors of our epoch, is not, however, given ready-made and completely guaranteed right from the beginning of revolutionary development. No, from April 1931 onward, the great Spanish drama has taken on the character of a “republican” and “democratic” revolution. During the years that followed, the bourgeoisie was able to impose its stamp upon events, even though the Leninist alternative, communism or fascism, retained – in the last analysis – all its value. The more the left centrists and the sectarians transform this alternative into a suprahistorical law, the less they are capable of tearing the masses away from the grip of the bourgeoisie. Still worse, they only strengthened this grip. The POUM paid dearly for this experience – moreover, unfortunately, without drawing the necessary lessons.

If the left centrists hide behind Lenin in order to imprison the revolution within its original framework, that is, the framework of bourgeois democracy, the ultralefts draw from the same Leninist alternative the right to ignore and to “boycott” the real development of the revolution.

“The difference between the Negrín government and that of Franco,” I said in a reply to an American comrade, “is the difference between decaying democracy and fascism.” It is with this elementary consideration that our political orientation begins. What! exclaim the ultralefts, you want to restrict us to a choice between bourgeois democracy and fascism? But that’s pure opportunism! The Spanish revolution is fundamentally a struggle between socialism and fascism. Bourgeois democracy does not offer the slightest solution . . . And so on.

The alternative, socialism or fascism, merely signifies, and that is enough, that the Spanish revolution can be victorious only through the dictatorship of the proletariat. But that does not at all mean that its victory is assured in advance. The problem still remains, and therein lies the whole political task, to transform this hybrid, confused, half-blind and half-dead revolution into a socialist revolution. It is necessary not only to say what is but also to know how to use “what is” as one’s point of departure. The leading parties, even those who speak about socialism, including the POUM, are doing everything they can to prevent the transformation of this despoiled and disfigured halfway revolution into a conscious and completed revolution. At the moment of revolutionary upsurge, the working class, impelled by its instinct, succeeded in establishing important landmarks on the road to socialism. But these are landmarks that have been swept away by the leading parties. It is not at all difficult to skip over this contradictory reality by contenting oneself with a few sociological generalizations. But that does not advance developments by a hairsbreadth. It is necessary to overcome material difficulties in action, that is, by means of a tactic suited to reality.

The military struggle in Spain is at the present time being conducted by Franco on one side, and by Stalin-Negrín on the other. While Franco represents fascism, Stalin-Negrín do not at all represent socialism. On the contrary, they represent a “democratic” brake that obstructs the movement toward socialism. The historic alternative, communism or fascism, has not yet achieved its political expression. Far from it. Since July 1936, the Spanish revolution has even been thrown far behind the objective that Nin formulated without understanding it. But the civil war in Spain remains, in spite of everything, a fact of capital importance. It is necessary to understand this fact for what it is, that is, an armed struggle between two armed camps, subordinated on the one hand to bourgeois democracy and on the other to avowed fascism. It is necessary to find a correct attitude toward this hybrid struggle in order to transform it from within into a struggle for the proletarian dictatorship.

The Stalin-Negrín government is a quasi-democratic obstacle on the road to socialism; but it is also an obstacle, not a very reliable or durable one, but an obstacle nevertheless, on the road to fascism. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, the Spanish proletariat may perhaps be able to break through this obstacle to seize power. But if it aided, even passively, in tearing it down today, it would only serve fascism. The task consists not merely of theoretically evaluating the two camps at their true worth, but moreover of utilizing their struggle in practice in order to make a leap forward.

The left centrists as well as the incurable ultralefts often cite the example of Bolshevik policy in the Kerensky-Kornilov conflict, without understanding anything about it. The POUM says: “But the Bolsheviks fought alongside Kerensky.” The ultralefts reply: “But the Bolsheviks refused to give Kerensky their confidence even under the threat of Kornilov.” Both are right . . . halfway; that is, both are completely wrong.

The Bolsheviks did not remain neutral between the camp of Kerensky and that of Kornilov. They fought in the first camp against the second. They accepted the official command as long as they were not sufficiently strong to overthrow it. It was precisely in the month of August, with the Kornilov uprising, that a prodigious upswing of the Bolsheviks began. This upswing was made possible only thanks to the double-edged Bolshevik policy. While participating in the front lines of the struggle against Kornilov, the Bolsheviks did not take the slightest responsibility for the policy of Kerensky. On the contrary, they denounced him as responsible for the reactionary attack and as incapable of overcoming it. In this way they prepared the political premises of the October Revolution, in which the alternative Bolshevism or counterrevolution (communism or fascism) evolved from a historic tendency into a living and immediate reality.

We must teach this lesson to the youth. We must inculcate the Marxist method into them. But as to the people who are a few decades past school age and who persist in counterposing to us at all times – to us as well as to reality – the same formulas (which they have, by the way, taken from us), it is necessary to recognize them publically as incurables who must be kept a few feet away from the general staffs who are elaborating revolutionary policy.

September 29, 1937

It appears that while we were writing these lines, a new “purge” was being carried on in Spain on a grand scale. Insofar as it is possible to understand the reports, which are deliberately confused, the blows are directed this time against the anarcho-syndicalists especially. It is possible that this is a preparation for a conciliation between Stalin-Negrín and Franco. But it is not excluded that the Moscow bureaucracy, which thinks that everything can be solved by means of the GPU, is in this way preparing a “victory” of the sort that is continually escaping it. In reality, it can prepare only the triumph of Franco or the military dictatorship of some “republican” Miaja, [2] which will resemble that of Franco as one drop of water resembles another.

Only complete imbeciles can have any illusions on the objectives or methods of the Stalinist clique or of Negrínist democracy. The struggle between the two camps can very well cease in an instant. The new situation thus created would dictate a new tactic, in line with the same strategic goal. But for the present, the military struggle between Negrín and Franco still continues, and the tactic for today must be dictated by the situation as it is today.


1. The Generalitat was the local government in Catalonia.

2. General José Miaja Menant (1878-1958) was a “republican” career officer who enjoyed special support by the Communist Party and who was left in charge of the defense of Madrid when the government fled to Valencia in November 1936. Toward the end of the war he broadcast a manifesto repudiating the republican government and proposing surrender to the fascists.

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Last updated on: 28 March 2016