Leon Trotsky: A Letter on the Italian Revolution

Today, 25 April, is a day of celebration in Italy. It is the anniversary of the final fall of the hated Fascist regime in 1945. The official history books tell us that the anti-fascist movement, the hundreds of thousands of armed partisans who fought in the resistance, were fighting for a democratic republic, which is what was finally established. This ignores the fact that what was taking place was a social revolution – not just for democracy, but for workers’ power. In this brilliant text written in 1930 – 15 years before these events – Leon Trotsky predicted that a “democratic republic”, i.e. a bourgeois-democratic regime, would only emerge from a defeat of the revolutionary movement, as he put it, in the form of a “counter-revolution with a democratic face”. That is precisely what happened in 1945.

The bourgeoisie came very close to losing power in Italy. Its state had collapsed, as the Fascist regime fell to pieces. The period saw a massive wave of strikes and an explosion of trade union membership (the CGIL reached 5 million members). Two million workers joined the Communist Party, and another 800,000 joined the Socialist Party, and there were 300,000 armed anti-fascist partisans.

For a period there was dual power. Committees of National Liberation were formed. These were dominated by the Socialist Party (PSI) and Communist Party (PCI) and could have been used to take power. But the workers were held back from this task, principally by the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party. The latter explained that first it was necessary to consolidate the ‘democratic’ i.e. bourgeois revolution.

As a result, Italy saw the convention of a Constituent Assembly, a new constitution, various democratic concessions, but no revolution. Instead, a new Parliament was formed, and the PCI and PSI entered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, a classical Popular Front. This prepared the ground for the defeat of the working class and the consolidation of the new bourgeois regime, with all the trappings of bourgeois democracy. What we had was what Trotsky presciently predicted, “the abortion of an insufficiently matured and premature proletarian revolution”, a “counter-revolution with a democratic face”.

This ability of Trotsky as far back as 1930 to see how events would unfold was not due to any magic formula, or to any kind of crystal ball. It was based on years of experience in the movement combined with a thorough Marxist understanding of the processes that had unfolded in many revolutions around the world. Today we must learn the same method so as to use it as a guide in our actions, in our task of building a revolutionary alternative.

1944 New International introduction

Trotsky’s letter was written in 1930 on the occasion of one of the most encouraging developments in the history of the International Left (Trotskyist) Opposition. Three leaders of the Italian Communist Party, Blasco, Feroci and Santini, issued a public declaration of political and organisational solidarity with the revolutionary struggle for Marxian internationalism which Trotsky had so long conducted. They established the group called the New Italian Opposition (in distinction from the “old” Italian Left Opposition led by Amadeo Bordiga). The Stalinists, of course, immediately expelled them from the Central Committee to which they belonged and from the party. It is hardly necessary to call attention to the perspicuity of Trotsky’s analysis of the Italian situation and of the problems and positions of the Italian revolutionists. It is sufficiently underscored by the fact that although it was written a good fourteen years ago, there is not the slightest flavour of archival mustiness about it – it reads almost as if it were written just a day ago! Trotsky, uncompromisingly intolerant of opportunism, took good care never to feed it with the verbose but dessicated radicalism of ultra-leftism. He had little patience for it in revolutionary politics, as he demonstrates again, and so ably, in his letter on the Italian situation. It is especially timely on this first anniversary of the uprising of the Italian proletariat against fascism, the past year having more than amply confirmed the’ wisdom of Trotsky’s views on the place occupied by the fight for democratic rights in the struggle for the socialist victory. If anything, his contribution is more valuable to the Fourth International today than it could possibly have been in 1930. – Editor [of New International]

Dear Comrades,

I have received your letter of May 5. Thanks very much for this study of Italian communism in general and of the various tendencies within it in particular. It filled a great need for me and was most welcome. It would be regrettable if your work were to be left in the form of an ordinary letter. With a few changes or abridgments, the letter could very well find a place in the pages of La Lutte de classes.

If you do not mind, I will begin with a general political conclusion: I regard our mutual collaboration in the future as perfectly possible and even extremely desirable. None of us possesses or can possess pre-established political formulas that can serve for all the eventualities of life. But I believe that the method with which you seek to determine the necessary political formulas is the right one.

You ask for my opinion concerning a whole series of grave problems. But before attempting a reply on some of them, I should formulate a very important reservation. I have never been closely acquainted with Italian political life, for I have spent only a very short time in Italy, I read Italian very poorly, and during my time in the Communist International I did not have the opportunity to dig deeper into an examination of Italian affairs.

Partisans Image public domainThe official history books tell us that the anti-fascist movement, the hundreds of thousands of armed partisans who fought in the resistance, were fighting for a democratic republic / Image: public domain

You should know this fairly well yourselves, for how explain otherwise the fact that you undertook so detailed a work to bring me up to date on the pending questions?

It follows from the foregoing that my answers, in most cases, ought to have only an entirely hypothetical value. In no case can I consider the reflections that follow as definitive. It is quite possible and even probable that in examining this or that other problem I lose sight of certain highly important concrete circumstances of time and place. I will therefore await your objections and supplementary and corrective information. Inasmuch as our method, as I hope, is common, it is in this way that we shall best arrive at the right solution.

1. You remind me that I once criticised the slogan “Republican Assembly on the Basis of Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees”, a slogan formerly put forward by the Italian Communist Party. You tell me that this slogan had an entirely episodic value and that at present it has been abandoned. I would like nevertheless to tell you why I consider it to be erroneous or at least ambiguous as a political slogan. “Republican Assembly” constitutes quite obviously an institution of the bourgeois state. What, however, are the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees”? It is obvious that they are some sort of equivalent of the workers’ and peasants’ Soviets. Then that’s what should be said. For, class organs of the workers and poor peasants, whether you give them the name of Soviets or committees, always constitute organisations of struggle against the bourgeois state, then become organs of insurrection, to be transformed finally, after the victory, into organs of the proletarian dictatorship. How, under these conditions, can a Republican Assembly – supreme organ of the bourgeois state – have as its “basis” organs of the proletarian state?

“Republican Assembly”

I should like to recall to you that in 1917, before October, Zinoviev and Kamenev, when they came out against an insurrection, advocated waiting for the Constituent Assembly to meet in order to create a “combined state” by means of a fusion between the Constituent Assembly and the workers’ and peasants’ Soviets. In 1919 we saw Hilferding propose to inscribe the Soviets in the Weimar constitution. Like Zinoviev and Kamenev, Hilferding called this the “combined state”. As a new type of petty bourgeois, he wanted, at the very point of the most abrupt historical turn, to “combine” a third type of state by wedding the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie to the proletarian dictatorship under the sign of the constitution.

The Italian slogan expounded above seems to me to be a variant of this petty-bourgeois tendency. Unless I have understood it in a wrong sense. But in that case it already has the incontestable defect of lending itself to dangerous misunderstandings. I profit by it to correct here a truly unpardonable error committed by the epigones in 1924: they had found in Lenin a passage saying that we might be led to wed the Constituent Assembly with the Soviets. A passage saying the same thing may likewise be discovered in my writings. But what exactly was involved? We were posing the question of an insurrection that would transmit the power to the proletariat in the form of Soviets. To the question of what, in that case, we would do with the Constituent Assembly, we replied: “We shall see; perhaps we shall combine it with the Soviets”. We understood by that the case where the Constituent Assembly, convoked under the soviet regime, would have a soviet majority. As this was not the case, the Soviets dispersed the Constituent Assembly. In other words: the question was posed of whether it was possible to transform the Constituent Assembly and the Soviets into organs of one and the same class, and not at all of “combining” a bourgeois Constituent Assembly with the proletarian Soviets. In one case (with Lenin), it was a question of the formation of a proletarian state, of its structure, of its technique. In the other (with Zinoviev, Kamenev, Hilferding), it was a question of a constitutional combination of two states of enemy classes with a view to averting a proletarian insurrection that would have taken power.

Social character of the anti-fascist revolution

2. The question we have just examined (the Republican Assembly) is intimately connected with another which you analyse in your letter, namely, what social character will the anti-fascist revolution acquire? You deny the possibility of a bourgeois revolution in Italy. You are perfectly right. History cannot turn back a considerable number of pages, each of which is equivalent to half a decade. The Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party already tried once to duck the question by proclaiming that the revolution would be neither bourgeois nor proletarian, but “popular”. It is a simple repetition of what the Russian Populists said at the beginning of this century when they were asked what character the revolution against Czarism would acquire. And it is still the same answer that the Communist International gives today with respect to China and India. It is quite simply a pseudo-revolutionary variant of the social democratic theory of Otto Bauer and others, according to which the state can raise itself above the classes, that is, be neither bourgeois nor proletarian. This theory is as pernicious for the proletariat as for the revolution. In China it transformed the proletariat into cannon fodder of the bourgeois counter-revolution.

Every great revolution proves to be popular in the sense that it draws into its wake the entire people. Both the Great French Revolution and the October Revolution were wholly popular. Nevertheless, the first was bourgeois because it instituted individual property, whereas the second was proletarian because it abolished individual property. Only a few hopelessly belated petty-bourgeois revolutionists can still dream of a revolution that would be neither bourgeois nor proletarian, but “popular” (that is, petty-bourgeois).

Now, in the imperialist period, the petty bourgeoisie is incapable not only of leading a revolution, but even of playing an independent role in it.

In this way the formula of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” henceforth constitutes a simple screen for a petty-bourgeois conception of a transitional revolution and a transitional state, that is, of a revolution and a state that cannot take place in Italy or even in backward India. A revolutionist who has not taken a clear, point-blank position on the question of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry is doomed to fall into error after error. As to the problem of the anti-fascist revolution, the Italian question, more than any other, is intimately linked to the fundamental problems of world communism, that is, of the so-called theory of permanent revolution.

The transitional period in Italy

3. Following from what has been said comes the question of the “transitional” period in Italy. At the very outset it is necessary to establish very clearly: transition from what to what? A period of transition from the bourgeois (or “popular”) revolution to the proletarian revolution – that is the one thing. A period of transition from the fascist dictatorship to the proletarian dictatorship-that is something else.

If the first conception is envisaged, the question of the bourgeois revolution is posed in the first place, and it is then a question of establishing the role of the proletariat in it. Only after that will the question of the transitional period toward a proletarian revolution be posed. If the second conception is envisaged, the question is then posed of a series of battles,” disturbances, changing situation, abrupt turns, constituting in their entirety the different stages of the proletarian revolution. These stages may be many. But in no case can they contain within them a bourgeois revolution or its mysterious hybrid, the “popular” revolution.

Counter-revolution with a democratic face

Does this mean that Italy cannot, for a certain time, again become a parliamentary state or become a “democratic republic”? I consider – in perfect agreement with you, I think – that this eventuality is not excluded. But then it will not be the fruit of a bourgeois revolution, but the abortion of an insufficiently matured and premature proletarian revolution. In the event of a profound revolutionary crisis and mass battles in the course of which the proletarian vanguard will not have been in a position to take power, it may be that the bourgeoisie will restore its rule on “democratic” bases. Can it be said, for example, that the present German republic is a con-quest of the bourgeois revolution? Such an assertion 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. But the bourgeois counter-revolution nevertheless was forced to adapt itself to the circumstances resulting from this crushing of the proletarian revolution and to assume the form of a parliamentary “democratic” republic. Is the same – or about the same – eventually excluded for Italy? No, it is not excluded. The enthronement of fascism resulted from the fact that the 1920 proletarian revolution was not carried through to its completion. Only a new proletarian revolution can overturn capitalism. If it should not be fated to triumph this time either (owing to the weakness of the Communist Party, manoeuvres and betrayals of the social democrats, the Freemasons, the Catholics), the “transitional” state that the bourgeois counter-revolution would then be compelled to set up on the ruins of the fascist form of its rule would be nothing else than a parliamentary and democratic state.

Partisan line Image public domainEvery great revolution proves to be popular in the sense that it draws into its wake the entire people / Image: public domain

What in the long run is the Antifascist Concentration? Foreseeing the fall of the fascist state by an uprising of the proletariat and in general of all the oppressed masses, the Concentration is preparing to arrest this movement, to paralyse it, and to thwart it in order to pass off the victory of the renovated counter-revolution as a supposed victory of a democratic bourgeois revolution. If this dialectic of the living social forces is lost sight for a single moment, the risk is run of getting inextricably entangled and of swerving off the right road. I believe there cannot be the slightest misunderstanding between us on this score.

Democratic and transitional slogans

4. But does this mean that we communists reject in advance all democratic slogans, all transitional or preparatory slogans, limiting ourselves strictly to the proletarian dictatorship? That would be a display of sterile, doctrinaire sectarianism. We do not believe for one moment that a single revolutionary leap suffices to cross what separates the fascist regime from the proletarian dictatorship. In no way do we deny a transitional period with its transitional demands including democratic demands. But it is precisely with the aid of these transitional slogans, which are always the starting point on the road to the proletarian dictatorship, that the communist vanguard will have to win the whole working class and that the latter will have to unite around itself all the oppressed masses of the nation. And I do not even exclude the possibility of the Constituent Assembly which in certain circumstances, could be imposed by the course of events or, more precisely, by the process of the revolutionary awakening of the oppressed masses. To be sure, on the broad historical scale that is from the perspective of a whole number of years the fate of Italy is undoubtedly reduced to the following alternative: Fascism or Communism. But to claim that this alternative has already penetrated the consciousness of the oppressed classes of the nation is to engage in wishful thinking and to consider as solved the colossal task that still fully confronts the weak Communist Party. If the revolutionary crisis were to break out, for example, in the course of the next months (under the influence of the economic crisis on the one hand, and under the revolutionary influence coming from Spain, on the other), the masses of toilers, workers as well as peasants, would certainly follow up their economic demands with democratic slogans (such as freedom of assembly, of press, of trade union organisation, democratic representation in parliament and in the municipalities). Does this mean that the Communist Party should reject these demands? On the contrary. It will have to invest them with the most audacious and resolute character possible. For the proletarian dictatorship cannot be imposed upon the popular masses. It can be realised only by carrying on a battle – a battle in full – for all the transitional demands, requirements, and needs of the masses, and at the head of the masses.

It should be recalled here 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 boldly than all the other parties. We said to the peasants: “You demand equal distribution of the land? Our agrarian programme goes much further. But no one except us will assist you in achieving 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 to war against all oppressors. But you are not ready to go so far. You are striving to escape from the imperialist war. No one but the Bolsheviks will help you achieve this”. I am not dealing with the question of what exactly the central slogans of the transitional period in Italy should be right now, in the year 1930. To outline them, and to effect correct and timely changes, it is necessary to be far better acquainted with Italy’s internal life and in much closer contact with its toiling masses than it is possible for me to be. For, in addition to a correct method, it is also necessary to listen to the masses. I want simply to indicate the general place of transitional demands in the struggle of communism against fascism and, in general, against bourgeois society.

Democratic charlatanism

5. However, while advancing this or that democratic slogan, we must fight irreconcilably against all forms of democratic charlatanism. The “Democratic Republic of Workers”, slogan of the Italian social democracy, is an example of this petty charlatanism. A republic of the workers can only be a proletarian class state. The democratic republic is only a masked form of bourgeois state. The combination of the two is only a petty-bourgeois illusion of the social democratic rank and file (workers, peasants) and an impudent falsehood of the social democratic leaders (all the Turatis, Modiglianis, and their ilk). Let me once again remark in passing that I was and remain opposed to the slogan of a “Republican Assembly on the Basis of Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees” precisely because this formula approaches the social democratic slogan of the “Democratic Republic of the Workers” and, consequently, can make the struggle against the social democracy extremely difficult.

Fascism and social democracy

6. The assertion made by the official leadership (of the Communist Party) that the social democracy allegedly no longer exists politically in Italy is nothing but a consoling theory of bureaucratic optimists who wish to see ready-made solutions where there are still great tasks ahead. Fascism has not liquidated the social democracy but has, on the contrary, preserved it. In the eyes of the masses, the social democrats do not bear the responsibility for the regime, whose victims they are in part. This wins them new sympathy and strengthens the old. And a moment will come when the social democracy will coin political currency from the blood of Matteotti just as ancient Rome did from the blood of Christ.

It is therefore not excluded that in the initial period of the revolutionary crisis, the leadership may be concentrated chiefly in the hands of the social democracy. If large numbers of the masses are immediately drawn into the movement and if the Communist Party conducts a correct policy, it may well be that in a short period of time the social democracy will be reduced to zero. But that would be a task to accomplish, not yet an accomplishment. It is impossible to leap over this problem; it must be solved.

Let me recall at this point that Zinoviev, and later the Manuilskys and Kuusinens, announced on two or three occasions that the German social democracy also essentially no longer existed. In 1925 the Comintern, in its declaration to the French party written by the light hand of Lozovsky, likewise decreed that the French Socialist Party had definitely left the scene. The Left Opposition always spoke up energetically against this flighty judgement. Only outright fools or traitors would want to instil the idea in the proletarian vanguard of Italy that the Italian social democracy can no longer play the role that the German social democracy did in the revolution of 1918.

It may be objected that the social democracy cannot succeed again in betraying the Italian proletariat as it did back in 1920. This is an illusion and a self-deception! The proletariat has been deceived too many times in the course of its history, first by liberalism and then by the social democracy.

What is more, we cannot forget that since 1920 ten full years have elapsed, and since the advent of fascism eight years. The children who were ten and twelve years old in 1920–22, and who have witnessed the activities of the fascists, today comprise the new generation of workers and peasants who will fight heroically against fascism, but who lack political experience. The communists will come into contact with the full mass movement only during the revolution itself and, under the most favourable circumstances, will require months before they can expose and demolish the social democracy which, I repeat, fascism has not liquidated but on the contrary has preserved.

To conclude, a few words on an important question of fact, about which there cannot be two different opinions in our circle. Should or can Left Oppositionists deliberately resign from the party? There cannot be any question about this. Except for rare exceptions, and they were mistakes, none of us ever did that. But I do not have a clear idea of what is required of an Italian comrade to hold on to this or that post inside the party in the present circumstances. I cannot say anything concrete on this point, except that not one of us can allow a comrade to accommodate to a false or equivocal political position before the party or the masses in order to avoid expulsion.

I shake your hand.

14 May 1930


Leon Trotsky

[Source: Marxist Internet Archive]

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.