In the darkest days of the Italian labour movement in the early 1930s, shortly after Mussolini had consolidated his grip on power, and as many Italian Communists and Socialists languished in fascist prisons or were forced to live in exile, a small group of Communist Party members, including three Central Committee members, turned to Trotsky as they attempted to build an opposition to the Stalinist leadership of Togliatti. Here we publish five letters of Trotsky to the newly formed group.
In 1985 the Militant International Review, the theoretical magazine of the Militant Tendency, published – for the first time in English – five letters of Trotsky to the NOI (Nuova Opposizione Italiana, the New Italian Opposition), an opposition grouping within the Italian Communist Party which had drawn similar conclusions to Trotsky’s. The three most notable leaders of the new opposition were Alfonso Leonetti, Pietro Tresso, and Paolo Ravazzoli.
The 1985 Introduction in the Militant International Review provides a good, brief overview, but has one misleading sentence in it, which states that “Only Leonetti continued the Italian work and maintained regular correspondence with Trotsky.” This is only partially true as Leonetti in the second half of the 1930s broke with the Left Opposition and gravitated back to Stalinism, first supporting Popular Frontist ideas, after which in 1944 he was admitted to the French Communist Party and eventually rejoining the PCI in 1962.
Pietro Tresso was the one leading Italian Trotskyist who remained firm on the ideas of Trotsky. He joined the French section of the International Left Opposition. He was arrested by the Vichy police in Marseilles with a group of Trotskyist activists in June 1942 and imprisoned. When a group of partisans eventually broke open the prison he was being held in, unfortunately for Tresso there was to be no “liberation”. He eventually “disappeared” while being held by Stalinist killers between November 1943 and June 1944.
These letters should be read in conjunction with Trotsky’s work on Italy, Problems of the Italian Revolution published on 14th May, 1930, available on our website.
Original introduction from Militant International Review, No. 28, Winter 1985
The X Plenum of the Communist International in July 1929 made a decisive break with the ideas of its founders, Lenin and Trotsky, and accelerated the change from the party of world revolution to a simple arm of the Stalinist bureaucracy and a counter-revolutionary force.
The Plenum ratified the theory that capitalism had entered its "third period", its final crisis, that throughout Europe there was a great polarisation of classes, and that all the social democratic parties had become "social fascists". "The aims of fascists and socialists are the same"— proclaimed Kuusinen at the Plenum— "the difference is in the words they use and in their methods."
Thus, the Stalinists suddenly decided that social democracy was a worse enemy than fascism. This represented abandoning the tactic that was at the centre of the October Revolution: the United Front.
Given the existence of two workers parties in Europe (Social Democrats and Communists), it was necessary for revolutionaries to work with the reformists. This alliance, however, was made on the basis of a clear programme laid down by the Communists. Moreover, the Communists reserved their right to criticise and ex- pose reformism constantly, while at the same time trying to win their best elements over to Marxism.
The United Front tactic, developed by Lenin and Trotsky was the only realistic revolutionary tactic that could lead the working class to victory. Stalin's "theory" of social fascism instead, called for an armed struggle against the socialist parties, and thus split the working class into two camps instead of uniting it against fascism. This led to the disastrous defeat of the German workers and the rise of Hitler.
The new 'line' was imposed on all the Communist Parties with no discussion whatsoever, as we shall see with the case of Italy.
This change of policy had a very serious effect on the Italian CP (PCI) for two main reasons: Firstly, the party had been working underground or in exile since Mussolini came to power in 1922; and their first leader and "father", Antonio Gramsci, had been in prison since 1926. The PCI had practical experience of fascism.
Secondly, the new line was diametrically opposed to the one worked out by Gramsci and Togliatti of joint action with all anti-fascist forces.
In July 1929, Palmiro Togliatti, by then General Secretary of the party, went to Moscow to discuss the new line. As he would do again in 1956 after the XX Congress of the CPSU and later the invasion of Hungary, Togliatti accepted the new ideas without a single criticism, although they contradicted his own beliefs. On his return to Italy, he said: "Is it right to discuss these questions with all the comrades in the party? If the Cornintern says it is not, then we shall not discuss them (!)"
This event in the history of the PCI, known as "The U-turn" (la svolta) is still a subject of constant discussion today.
On September 12 at a meeting of the CC of the Young Communists, Togliatti declared: "Fascism and social democracy have a common ideological basis" echoing Kuusinen. Thirty years later, however, he wrote in Rinascita, the theoretical journal of the PCI (July/August 1959): "The most serious error was defining social democracy as social fascism and the political consequences that derived from this theory were mistaken (!)"
In 1930 a split was developing in the politburo of the PCI over an organisational issue. However, this soon developed into a political split, over the new course. Three members made a definite stand against it: Alfonso Leonetti, Pietro Tresso, and Paolo Ravazzoli.
The split became more and more serious and they were accused of revisionism, "Trotskyism" and so on for criticising the new course as "adventurist and opportunist". When it became obvious that "the three" were irreconcilably opposed to the rest of the CC, they prepared a very detailed report of the situation and sent it to Trotsky for advice. He replied in a letter published in New International (July/August 1944) as "Problems of the Italian Revolution."
In this letter, Trotsky explained that an anti-fascist revolution had to be of necessity a proletarian revolution and not a bourgeois one. The working class, he explained, was the only force in society that could overthrow fascism, but once it began to move, it would not stop at the establishment of bourgeois democracy. It had to complete the socialist transformation of society, unless it was betrayed by the leadership. In this case, the establishment of bourgeois democracy would follow, and the victory of counter-revolution would be passed off as the victory of the bourgeois democratic revolution. This brilliant prognosis was proved totally correct after the overthrow of Mussolini.
Leonetti replied (3.6.30) "We were not surprised to see that all you say on the Italian situation generally coincides with our ideas... There is no doubt that in future your collaboration will be particularly valuable not only for us, but for all the Italian workers."
This initial contact was immediately followed by the expulsion of Leonetti, Tresso and Ravazzoli, and the birth of the New Italian Opposition (NOI).
Of the three, Ravazzoli broke with the opposition shortly afterwards and Tresso got involved in the work of the French Trotskyists. Only Leonetti continued the Italian work and maintained regular correspondence with Trotsky.
These letters have remained unpublished, and for the first time in Britain we reproduce five of them. These are the first five to be published in Italy, out of a total of 37 (all but one unpublished), and although they are very general, they give an insight into Trotsky's determination to build the International Left Opposition under the most demoralising circumstances; they reflect the crises and splits that marked the life of the ILO in a period of reaction and they point to the lively discussion that existed between Trotsky and the NOI which will be found when the rest of the letters are published.
(Juan Perez, Winter 1985)
An Attack Is The Best Defensive Tactic
Buyuk Ada, June 12, 1930
Dear Comrade Torino,
These are only a few hurried lines. I understand how difficult your situation is after an abrupt change caused by the Italian problems which, nevertheless, encompass problems of an international nature. I can imagine how the enemies will use "Trotskyism" against you after your "U-Turn". Yes, it is a difficult situation, but the more difficult the situation becomes, the more firm and courageous your position must be to defeat these problems. An undecided "wait-and-see" position, and above all, a wrong position can on- ly weaken you. I believe you should not wait until you are asked questions or until unacceptable demands are made by Ercoli (Togliatti-JP) who really masters this technique. An attack is the best defensive tactic, and sometimes even an unexpected attack. It is now too late for the latter. But an attack is still possible, and moreover necessary. I see this offensive in the form of a declaration addressed to the CC or to the party as a whole. In this declaration you must explain what is happening, without hiding anything. You must refer in detail to the Italian and international situation, make a stand on the International Left Opposition and so-called "Trotskyism", before our enemies do so. I also think that in the document you should make it clear that you remain unreservedly loyal to the party and the International, abide by its discipline and at the same time, will defend your ideas with the method of proletarian democracy...
Let's Build The International
Buyak Ada, December 15, 1930
Dear Comrade Torino,
... I am very sorry that our correspondence was interrupted after a good start. The situation of the NOI is an exceptional and very difficult one. All there is in front of you is a group of Italian émigrés, already demoralised and divided. You can't make great gains there. Contact with the interior of the country is difficult. The discredit of the official party has fallen on you after the split. You can't draw directly on the youth. All this puts you for a time, and perhaps not a short one, in the position of a propagandist group. I am not saying this to spread "pessimism", but simply to evaluate the situation as it really is. I think your group could have another area of ; work, the international field.
Under these conditions, the fact that some of the leading comrades of your group were not only members of the official party but also in its central organs up to the last few months, is a great advantage for us. This is why I insisted that comrade Suzo (Leonetti—JP) should join the International Secretariat. The active and permanent participation of the NOI must help to create a truly international organisation, something which so far, has not been successfully done.
With best regards,
You Are Few But Good
Saint Palais, September 17, 1933
Dear Comrade Feroci,
I have not replied immediately because at present I am ill in bed and find it very difficult to work. I shall reply with a few lines. If in my last letter I spoke of a "last attempt" it was not just to use emotive expressions, but to underline the extreme seriousness of the situation. Today, great possibilities open up in front of us...
This new stage will bring an influx of new elements, much greater in number but with no education. Every comrade with a communist past who is not bitter or demoralised, who realises what our responsibilities are, will be invaluable in this new stage of education of the youth. That is why I value so much the political friendship with the Italian group which is not large but composed of very able comrades. The tone of my letter is explained in the fear of a possible split with your group. Your letter says this danger does not exist. I am very glad, I say this sincerely. I hope to see you soon so we can discuss the questions that remain unresolved.
My best regards,
Honefoss, June 7, 1936
Dear Comrade Martin,
Your letter coincides with the last chapter of my book on the USSR (The Revolution Betrayed—JP). I am writing this chapter now. But I was surprised by something in your letter: You quote Mussolini saying: "Three quarters of all production are in the hands of the fascist state". I have always considered this formula as pure boasting. The "Corporate State" simply means that the great official of capital, fascism, tries to manage the business of industrialists and bankers, to reduce and alleviate, etc. But it would be totally mistaken to identify this role of mediator on the basis of private property with a planned economy. Could you point me to a re- cent work on the stage of the Italian economy? This is very important for the last chapter of my book. In order to have some clarification on the Italian economy I am prepared to postpone the work for one or two weeks.
My best regards,
Honefoss, June 22, 1936
I warmly thank you for the precious material you sent me and for your last letter which has clarified a few misunderstandings. In my book I do not go into Germany, Italy, the Roosevelt experience, De Man, etc. All I want is to establish clearly the definition of state capitalism and show briefly the difference between the system in the USSR and the fascist and Nazi regimes. I would like to use a couple of quotes from the essay you sent me (quoting you as Feroci since you still sign your articles like that, don't you?).
Only one point of clarification. The impasse of capitalism is determined by two historically linked causes: private property and the nation state. The fundamental difference between the USSR and Italy is in the abolition of private property by the October Revolution. A certain similarity can be seen in the autarchical tendencies of the economy. Nevertheless, this analogy is limited since that autarchy is directly linked to the economy, and the direction of the economy depends on the forms of property. I don't think there are any disagreements between us on this point. There is no need for you to send any more material on Italy, what I have now is sufficient, and I thank you once again.
PS I have now received your last letter. I will return everything very soon. You are a really good comrade. Thank you.