Leon Trotsky

On the Causes for the Defeat
of the Spanish Revolution

(March 1939)

Written: 4 March 1939.
Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 17, 21 March 1939. Unsigned.
Transcription from Socialist Appeal: Martin Fahlgren.
HTML Markup: D. Walters.
Public Domain: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive 2005. This work is completely free to copy and distribute.

The inventors of the umbrella

An old French humorist once wrote an account of how a petty bourgeois came to invent the umbrella. Walking the street in the rain, he began pondering how fine it would be if the streets were covered with roofs ... But that would interfere with the free circulation of air ... It would have to be moved by the pedestrian, holding some sort of lever in his hands, etc., etc. Finally, our inventor exclaimed, “Bah! Why, that’s an umbrella!” Inventors of the umbrella can nowadays be encountered at every step among the “leftists”!

In its time, Bolshevism discredited reformist politics for a number of years. But with the coming of reaction, the Stalinists together with all their underlings have begun inventing anew the umbrella of reformism: “the Popular Front” (coalition with the bourgeoisie); the duty of the proletariat to defend the democratic fatherland (social patriotism); and so on. And they do it with all the vigor of ignorance!

Another newly invented umbrella

In the Mexican newspaper El Popular, which has achieved almost international fame for the profundity of its erudition, its honesty of thought, and the revolutionary character of its politics, Guillermo Vegas León, who is not altogether unknown to our readers, comes to the defense of the policies of the Spanish Popular Front with the aid of a newly invented umbrella. The war in Spain, you see, is not a war for socialism but rather a war against fascism. In the war against fascism, it is impermissible to engage in such adventures as the seizure of factories and land. Only the friends of fascism are capable of proposing such plans. And so forth and so on. Historical events obviously exercise no sway over people who live in the kingdom of cheap newspaper copy.

Mr. León is unaware that the same umbrella was used in their operations by the Russian Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (the party of Kerensky). They never tired of repeating that the Russian Revolution was “democratic” and not socialist; that in a war with Germany, which was menacing the young democratic republic, any attempt to engage in such adventures as the expropriation of the means of production was to give aid to Hohenzollern. And inasmuch as there were not a few scoundrels among them, they also asserted that the Bolsheviks did all this for some secret reason ...

The class character of the revolution

Whether a revolution is “anti-fascist” or proletarian, bourgeois or socialist, is determined not by political labels but by the class structure of a given nation. For León, the development of society from approximately the middle of the nineteenth century has passed unnoticed. Yet this development in capitalist countries has washed away the petty and the middle bourgeoisie, pushing them into the background, degrading and lowering them. The principal classes in modern society – including Spain – are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The petty bourgeoisie cannot – at all events, for any lengthy period – wield power; that must be either in the hands of the bourgeoisie or in the hands of the proletariat. In Spain, the bourgeoisie, driven by fear for its property, went completely over into the camp of fascism. The only class capable of waging a serious struggle against fascism is the proletariat. It alone could have rallied the oppressed masses, above all, the Spanish peasantry. But workers’ power could only be socialist power.

The example of China and Russia

But, objects Mr. León, the immediate goal is the struggle against fascism. All our forces must be centered on this immediate goal, etc., etc. Of course, of course! But tell us, pray, why during a struggle against fascism must the land belong to the landlords and the factories and mills to the capitalists, all of whom are in Franco’s camp? Is it perhaps because the peasants and workers “have not matured” for the seizure of land and factories? But they proved their maturity by seizing on their own initiative the lands and factories. Reactionaries, who call themselves republicans, under the leadership of the Stalinists, were able to smash this powerful movement allegedly in the name of “anti-fascism”, but in reality in the interest of bourgeois proprietors.

Let us take another example. At present China is engaged in a war against Japan, a just, defensive war against plunderers and oppressors. With this war as a pretext, the government of Chiang Kai-shek, aided by Stalin’s government, has crushed all revolutionary struggle and above all the struggle of the peasants for the land. The exploiters and the Stalinists say: “Now is not the time to solve the agrarian question. Now it is a question of a common struggle against the Mikado.” Yet it is self-evident that were the Chinese peasants precisely at the present time in possession of the land, they would defend it tooth and nail against the Japanese imperialists. We must recall once again that if the October Revolution was able to triumph in a war of three years duration over countless enemies, including the expeditionary forces of the mightiest imperialist powers, it was only because this victory was assured above all by the fact that during the war the peasants had gained possession of the land while the workers held the mills and factories. Only the fusion of the socialist overturn with the civil war made the Russian Revolution unconquerable.

Gentlemen like Mr. León determine the character of a revolution by the name given it by bourgeois liberals and not by the manner in which it is expressed in the actual class struggle, nor by how it is sensed – even if not always clearly understood – by the revolutionary masses. But we look upon the Spanish revolution not through the eyes of the liberal philistine Azaña but through the eyes of the workers of Barcelona and Asturias, and the peasants of Seville who were fighting for the mills and factories, for the land, for a better future, and not at all for the old parliamentary umbrella of the Popular Front.

The empty abstraction of “anti-fascism”

The very concepts of “anti-fascism” and “anti-fascist” are fictions and lies. Marxism approaches all phenomena from a class standpoint. Azaña is “anti-fascist” only to the extent that fascism hinders bourgeois intellectuals from carving out parliamentary or other careers. Confronted with the necessity of choosing between fascism and the proletarian revolution, Azaña will always prove to be on the side of the fascists. His entire policy during the seven years of revolution proves this.

On the other hand, the slogan “Against fascism, for democracy!” cannot attract millions and tens of millions of the populace if only because during wartime there was not and is not any democracy in the camp of the republicans. Both with Franco and with Azaña there have been military dictatorship, censorship, forced mobilization, hunger, blood, and death. The abstract slogan “For democracy!” suffices for liberal journalists but not for the oppressed workers and peasants. They have nothing to defend except slavery and poverty. They will direct all their forces to smashing fascism only if, at the same time, they are able to realize new and better conditions of existence. In consequence, the struggle of the proletariat and the poorest peasants against fascism cannot in the social sense be defensive but only offensive. That is why León goes wide of the mark when, following the more “authoritative” philistines, he lectures us that Marxism rejects utopias, and the idea of a socialist revolution during a struggle against fascism is utopian. In point of fact, the worst and most reactionary form of utopianism is the idea that it is possible to struggle against fascism without overthrowing the capitalist economy.

Victory was possible

Truly astonishing is the total ignorance of these people. They have no inkling of the existence, beginning with Marx and Engels, of a world literature in which the very concept of the democratic revolution and its inner class mechanism have been subjected to analysis. It is obvious that they never read the basic documents of the first four congresses of the Communist International nor the theoretical research of the Fourth International, which prove and explain and enable even an infant to digest the fact that the struggle against fascism is unthinkable in modern conditions other than by the methods of the proletarian class struggle for power.

These gentlemen picture history as painstakingly preparing the conditions for the socialist revolution, apportioning roles, inscribing in large letters on a triumphal arch: ENTRANCE TO THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION, guaranteeing victory and then politely inviting the honorable leaders to assume the prominent posts of ministers, ambassadors, etc. No. The question stands somewhat differently; it is far more complex, difficult, and dangerous. Opportunists, reactionary blockheads, and petty-bourgeois cowards never have recognized and never will recognize the situation that places the socialist overturn on the agenda. To do so one must be a revolutionary Marxist, a Bolshevik; to do so one must be able to despise the public opinion of the “educated” petty bourgeoisie, which reflects only the egotistic class fears of capitalism.

The proletariat was strong enough

The leaders of the CNT and FAI themselves declared after the uprising of May 1937: “Had we wished, we could have seized power at any time, because all the forces were on our side, but we did not want any dictatorship,” etc., etc. What the Anarchist servitors of the bourgeoisie did or did not want is in the long run a secondary issue. They did, however, admit that the insurrectionary proletariat was strong enough to have conquered power. Had it possessed a revolutionary and not a treacherous leadership, it would have purged the state apparatus of all the Azañas, instituted the power of the soviets, given the land to the peasants, the mills and factories to the workers – and the Spanish revolution would have become socialist and unconquerable.

But because there was no revolutionary party in Spain, and because there was instead a multitude of reactionaries imagining themselves as Socialists and Anarchists, they succeeded under the label of the Popular Front in strangling the socialist revolution and assuring Franco’s victory.

It is simply ridiculous to justify the defeat by references to the military intervention of Italian fascists and German Nazis, and to the perfidious conduct of the French and British “democracies”. Enemies will always remain enemies. Reaction will always intervene whenever it can. Imperialist “democracy” will always betray. This means that the victory of the proletariat is impossible in general! But what about the victory of fascism in Italy and Germany itself? No intervention there. Instead we had there a powerful proletariat and a very large Socialist Party and, in the case of Germany, a large Communist Party as well. Why then was there no victory gained over fascism? Precisely because the leading parties tried to reduce the question in both these countries to a struggle “against fascism” when only a socialist revolution can defeat fascism.

The Spanish revolution was the supreme school. It is impermissible to allow the slightest frivolity toward its dearly bought lessons. Down with charlatanism, phrasemongering, smug ignorance, and intellectual parasitism! We must study seriously and honestly and prepare for the future.

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