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The New International, January 1944

Leon Trotsky

Problems of the Italian Revolution

Timely Observations for Discussion Today

(May 1930)


From The New International, Vol. X No. 1, January 1944, p. 14—17.
A more complete version in a slightly different translation can be found here.
Originally published in Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, September–October 1930.
First published in English in The Militant, Vol. VII No. 32, 7 August 1943, p. 3.
Translated by John G. Wright [Joseph Vanzler].
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



It would be hard to find a more timely and important contribution to the discussion of the problems of the Marxian vanguard in the revolutionary struggle against fascism and for workers’ power than Trotsky’s comments in 1930 on the coming revolution in Italy.

The relevance and perspicacity of Trotsky’s contribution are underlined by two things: the applicability of the views he expresses about a revolution which occurred only thirteen years after he wrote about it, thirteen years of the most tumultuous and complicated events in modern history; and their applicability in face of the recent events in Italy, which could not possibly have been foreseen in their concreteness by anyone, especially not thirteen years ago.

Now that the captains of the “Anti-Fascist Concentration” are actually back in Italy, they are proving to be even more miserable Punchinellos than could have been foreseen thirteen years ago. The Stalinists, the Social-Democrats, the Sforzas and the Croces do not even reach to the hips of a Kerensky. Kerensky held power of a sort in a great state; his facsimiles in Italy hardly have the power of speech. Kerensky declaimed and shouted and strutted; the Italian Social-Democrats look inquiringly to Amgot, Sforza whines and Croce moans unintelligibly. Under Kerensky, the Czar was under arrest and a democratic republic was proclaimed – more or less; the “six anti-fascist parties” earnestly implore the Allied commanders to do them the great favor of lifting the crown from the anointed head of the King, with the minimum of pain to all concerned, and of granting them a democratic regime, plus a few democratic liberties when and as it suits the military requirements of their patrons.

Meanwhile, the popular revolution which began in Italy has not succeeded in developing to the point of the seizure of power by the working class. Apart from the difficulties which the military situation in Italy presents to the revolution, this frustration is due primarily to the absence of a well-organized revolutionary vanguard party capable of leading the workers to a socialist victory.

This is another way of saying that after almost a generation of fascist rule in Italy, the working class, with all the remarkable powers of recuperation it has once more disclosed, is still deeply affected by all sorts of democratic illusions, is greatly confused and disoriented. Neither Sforza, the Social-Democrats, nor the Stalinists, who are allowed to operate after a fashion in Southern Italy, are expending any efforts to dispel these illusions and introduce clarity. That is not their rôle. The masses will have to learn from events. Fortunately, there will be no lack of events, events that will be very instructive as to the real rôle of Anglo-American imperialism and of the “anti-fascists” of all stripes who cling to its caissons.

The masses will learn most speedily, and most effectively, if the Marxists in Italy organize their forces well, and understand how to teach the masses by whose side they fight. That there are revolutionary Marxists in Italy, who can and will re-unite on a national scale, even if they are now isolated, not overly numerous and scattered, is, in our opinion, a certainty. That they unite and adopt a fighting Bolshevik program, is the urgent task in Italy.

It is impossible to consider this task without frankly expressing the same apprehensions that really underlie Trotsky’s comments in 1930. They were made in reply to a number of queries addressed to him by a group of Italian Communist-Oppositionists. Trotsky could not be – and he was not – unaware of the strong influence still exerted among the Italian Marxists by the doctrines and prejudices of the early left wing in the Italian communist movement, commonly referred to as the Bordiguists, after their leader, Araadeo Bordiga. His observations about the Italian revolution were obviously aimed not merely and perhaps not even so much against the Stalinists, the Social-Democrats and the bourgeois liberals, as against the doctrinary ultra-leftism of the Bordiguists which could only result in isolating the Marxists from the main stream of the coming revolution, and reducing them to ineffectualness.

Trotsky’s admonitions against the juiceless and brittle leftism which does not understand the significance of democratic slogans in connection with the struggle for workers’ power, especially in the period of struggle against political despotism, were flawlessly valid in 1930. Today, in light of the way events are actually unfolding, it can be said that his admonitions are not merely valid, but that to ignore them would be a first-class disaster for the revolutionary vanguard and, correspondingly, for the revolution itself.

Nobody could ask for a clearer confirmation of the wisdom of Trotsky’s views than is offered by the situation in Italy today. The advocates of a revolutionary workers’ government need a political instrument with which to expose the hollowness of bourgeois democracy, and particularly of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois democrats, with which to shift the masses from the tutelage of the enemies of socialist power – ranging from Amgot, through Sforza and the Social-Democrats, to the Stalinists – to the conscious struggle for socialist power. There are no better instruments than the “transitional slogans,” the democratic demands which, as Trotsky put it, “always open up the road for the proletarian dictatorship,” the dictatorship that “cannot be imposed upon the popular masses.”

If some still living leftists look down upon “democratic demands” because “we are in a revolutionary situation,” it is because the experiences of at least thirty years have left them blissfully unaffected. The fact that Sforza, the Social-Democrats and the Stalinists (and their similars in other countries of Europe) also mumble something about free speech, free press, free assembly, elections, etc., is important only in that they find themselves compelled to reflect the aspirations of the masses who were so long without any semblance of these rights. The fact is that they only mumble about these democratic rights. They “caution” the masses to subordinate the struggle for them to the interests of private property, or the interests of imperialism, or the interests of the imperialist war. Or they tell the masses that the way to gain these rights is by lying quietly in bed until some gracious personage or personages condescend to grant them to the people.

These are only added reasons why the revolutionists should become the most ardent and uncompromising champions of these demands, investing them, as Trotsky writes, “with the most audacious and resolute meaning.” It was precisely by acting in this way that the Russian Bolsheviks demonstrated to the masses that the only way of achieving their simple and legitimate democratic aspirations was to break from the democratic poseurs, the promisers and the compromisers, and take power into their own hands.

In this connection, we call attention to the resolution of the Workers Party on the situation in Europe, with special reference to the revolutionary struggle for national liberation, which was printed in the February 1943 issue of The New International. In it will be found an exposition of the Marxian policy in Europe today which is inspired by the same approach to the problem of the socialist revolution that marks Trotsky’s contribution of thirteen years ago.

Trotsky’s article was first published in the September–October 1930 issue of The Bulletin of the Russian Opposition. It was translated by John G. Wright and published in The Militant of August 7, 1943, from which it is reproduced here in full. – The Editor

* * *

You deny the possibility of a bourgeois revolution in Italy, and in this you are absolutely correct. History hasn’t the capacity for turning back a considerable number of pages, each denoting a decade. The Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party used to try to skate around this question by declaring that the revolution would be neither bourgeois nor proletarian but a “people’s revolution.” This is a mere repetition of the answer given at the beginning of our century by the Russian Populists [Narodniki] to the question of what will be the nature of the revolution against czarism. This is the same answer that the Comintern has given and continues to give with respect to China and India. It is a pseudo-revolutionary rehashing of the social-democratic theory of Otto Bauer and others, a theory proclaiming that the state can rise above the classes, i.e., be neither bourgeois nor proletarian. This theory is fatal for the proletariat and for the revolution. In China it turned the proletariat into cannon fodder for the bourgeois counter-revolution.

Every great revolution in history is a people’s revolution in the sense that the entire people enters into the channel of the revolution. The great French Revolution and the October Revolution were people’s revolutions in the full sense of the term. But the former was bourgeois inasmuch as it established private property, whereas the latter was proletarian inasmuch as it abolished private property.

Only hopelessly belated petty bourgeois revolutionists are still capable of envisaging nowadays the perspective of neither bourgeois nor proletarian revolutions but a “people’s” (i.e., petty bourgeois) one. But in the imperialist epoch the petty bourgeoisie is utterly incapable not only of leading the revolution but of playing an independent rôle in it.

[With regard to the “transitional” period in Italy after the downfall of fascism, a question closely linked with the foregoing, Trotsky wrote:]

Two Diametrically Opposed Conceptions

First of all it is necessary to pose clearly the question – a transitional period from what to what? A transitional period between a bourgeois (or “people’s”) revolution and the proletarian revolution – that is one thing. A transitional period between the fascist dictatorship and the proletarian dictatorship – that is something else again. In accordance with the first conception, on the order of the day is a bourgeois revolution and one must fix the place of the proletariat in it, and only after this will there open up the transitional period to the proletarian revolution. According to the other conception, at issue is a series of battles, social shocks, changing situations, and partial turns which comprise the stage of the proletarian revolution. There might be several such stages. But between them there cannot and will not be either a bourgeois revolution or the mysterious hybrid of a “people’s” revolution.

Does this mean that Italy might not again turn tor a certain time into a parliamentary state or become a “democratic republic”? I consider – apparently in complete agreement with you – that such a perspective is not excluded. But it can manifest itself, not as the product of a bourgeois revolution, but as the abortion of the proletarian revolution, which had not fully matured and which had not been brought to its conclusion. In the event of a profound revolutionary crisis and mass battles, in the course of which, however, the proletarian vanguard proves as yet incapable of coming to power, the bourgeoisie might restore its rule on “democratic” foundations.

A Phase of the Counter-Revolution

Is it permissible to say, for instance, that the existing German [Weimar] Republic is the conquest of a bourgeois revolution? Such a characteriation would be absurd. What took place in Germany in 1918–19 was a proletarian revolution which for lack of leadership was deceived, betrayed and crushed. The bourgeois counter-revolution, however, was forced to adapt itself to the situation created by the crushing of the proletarian revolution and to assume the forms of a parliamentary “democratic” republic.

Is something similar (within certain limits, of course) excluded for Italy? No, it is not. The enthronement of fascism came as a result of the 1920 proletarian revolution which was not carried to its conclusion. The fascists can be overthrown only by a new proletarian revolution. Should this again not be carried to its conclusion (owing to the weakness of the Communist Party, the maneuvers and betrayals of the Social-Democrats, the Free Masons, the Catholics), then the “transitional” state which the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie would be compelled to create after the foundering of the fascist form of its rule could not be anything else but a parliamentary and democratic state.

What in reality is the political aim of the Anti-Fascist Concentration? Foreseeing the collapse of the fascist state, as a consequence of the rising of the proletariat and, generally, the oppressed popular masses, the Concentration is making preparations to check this movement, to paralyze and rob it by passing off the victory of refurbished counter-revolution as the victory of the democratic bourgeois revolution.

If one does not constantly keep in mind this dialectic of living social forces, then it is possible to become hopelessly confused and lose one’s way. As I see it, there are no disagreements on this score among us.

Marxist Attitude to Democratic Slogans

Does this mean that we communists reject in advance any and all democratic slogans and, generally, all transitional and preparatory slogans, and limit ourselves slosely to the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat? This would be hopeless sectarian doctrinairism. We do not at all think that the proletarian dictatorship is separated from the fascist regime by a single revolutionary leap. We do not at all deny a transitional period with its transitional demands, including democratic demands. With the aid of these transitional slogans, which always open up the road for the proletarian dictatorship, the communist vanguard must conquer the entire working class to its side, while the working class as a whole must rally around it all the oppressed masses of the nation.

I do not exclude even the slogan of a Constituent Assembly which under certain conditions can be imposed by the course of the struggle, or, more correctly, by the process of the revolutionary awakening of the oppressed masses. On the broad historical scale, i.e., from a perspective of a whole number of years, the fate of Italy is undoubtedly concentrated in the alternative: fascism or communism! But to assert that this alternative has already today become the conscious attainment of the oppressed classes in the nation is obviously to indulge in wishful thinking and to consider as solved the colossal task which still fully confronts the weak Communist Party.

Should the revolutionary crisis unfold, say, in the course of the next few months – under the influence of the economic crisis on the one hand, and under the impact of the revolutionary impulse from Spain on the other – then vast masses of toilers, not only peasants but also workers, would undoubtedly advance, alongside of economic demands, democratic slogans (freedom of assembly, of the press, coalitions, unions, democratic representation in Parliament, municipalities, etc.). Does it mean that a communist party must reject these demands? On the contrary. It must invest them with the most audacious and resolute meaning. The revolutionary dictatorship cannot be imposed upon the popular masses. It can be realized in life only by conducting the struggle – the entire struggle for all the transitional demands, tasks and needs of the masses – at the head of these masses.

Bolshevik Policy in 1917

Let me recall that Bolshevism by no means came to power under the abstract slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We fought for the Constituent Assembly much more resolutely and boldly than all the other parties. We said to the peasants: “You demand equal distribution of land? Our agrarian program goes much further. But no one except us will assist you peasants in realizing the equal use of the land. For this you must support the workers.” In regard to the war we said to the popular masses: “Our communist task is the war against all oppressors. But you are not ready to go so far. You are striving to break out of the imperialist war. No one but us Bolsheviks will help you achieve this task.”

I do not touch here at all upon the question of what should be the central slogans of the transitional period in Italy, right now in the year 1930. In order to outline the proper slogans, and to effect correct and timely changes, it is necessary to be far better acquainted with Italy’s internal life and to be far closer to her toiling masses than is possible for me. Here, in addition to the correct method, it is also necessary to be able to listen to the masses. I want here simply to indicate the general place of transitional demands in the struggle of communism against fascism and, in general, against bourgeois society. While advancing one or another set of democratic slogans, we must irreconcilably fight against all forms of democratic charlatanism. Such low-grade charlatanism is represented by the slogan of the Italian Social-Democracy: “The Democratic Republic of the Toilers.” The toilers’ republic can be only the class state of the proletariat. The “Democratic Republic” is only a masked rule of the bourgeoisie. The combination of the two is a naive petty bourgeois illusion of the Social-Democratic rank and file (workers, peasants) and deliberate treachery on the part of the Social-Democratic leaders (all these Turatis, Modiglianis, and their ilk). Let me once again remark in passing that I was and remain opposed to the formula of a “National Assembly on the basis of worker-peasant committees” precisely because this formula approaches the Social-Democratic slogan of the “Democratic Toilers’ Republic” and, consequently, can render extremely difficult for us the struggle against the Social-Democrats.

The Threat of Social-Democratic Betrayal

The assertion of the official leadership [of the Comintern] to the effect that the Social-Democracy no longer exists politically in Italy is a consoling theory for optimistic functionaries who see ready-made conquests where it is still a question only of great tasks. Fascism did not liquidate the Social-Democracy but on the contrary has conserved it. In the eyes of the masses the Social-Democrats do not bear the direct responsibility for the regime whose victims they are to a certain extent. This gains them new sympathies or strengthens the old ones. At a certain moment the Social-Democracy will coin political currency from the blood of Matteotti just as proficiently as Rome coins Christ’s blood. It is not at all excluded that in the initial period of the revolutionary crisis the leadership can turn out to be concentrated chiefly in the hands of the social-democracy. If large masses are drawn immediately into the crisis, and if the communist leadership conducts a correct policy, then the Social-Democracy can be reduced to a cipher within a brief period of time. But this is a task and not a conquest already attained. One cannot leap over this task: one must solve it.

Let me recall in passing that Zinoviev, and later the Manuilskys and Kuusinens, have already announced on two or three occasions that the German Social-Democracy no longer exists in essence. In 1925, in a statement to the French party, written by the flighty Lozovsky, the Comintern announced that the French Socialist Party had completely departed from the scene. Against this lightmindedness the Left Opposition protested resolutely each time. Only boobies or traitors will seek to instill in the proletarian vanguard of Italy the idea that Italian Social-Democracy can no longer play a r61e analogous to that played by the German Social-Democracy in relation to the German revolution of 1918.

It may be objected that inasmuch as the Social-Democracy has already deceived and betrayed the Italian proletariat [in 1920], it will not succeed in repeating its treachery. Illusions! Self-deception! In the course of its entire history the proletariat has been deceived many times, first by liberalism and then by Social-Democracy.

Apart from everything else, it is impermissible to forget that since 1920 a decade has passed; and since the victory of fascism – eight years. Ten and twelve-year-old boys and girls, who witnessed the fascist activities of 1920–22, comprise today the new generation of workers and peasants who will struggle most selflessly against the fascists, but who lack, however, political experience. Communists will come in contact with the masses themselves only in the course of the revolution itself, and in the best case they will require a number of months in order to expose and abolish the Social-Democracy, which, I repeat, was not liquidated by fascism, but, on the contrary, conserved.

May 14, 1930

Leon Trotsky

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