Trotsky’s “The Class, the Party, and the Leadership”
The Spanish Revolution is in many ways a how-to guide for how not to take power and implement a revolutionary workers’ democracy. Actually, it was studying the Spanish Revolution that convinced me personally that revolutionary Marxism was correct, and that revolutionary anarchism—at least in practice—didn’t actually exist.
As we know, the Spanish Revolution failed, and we saw fascist reaction not only gain control of Spain, but ultimately most of Europe. So why did the Spanish Revolution fail? Was this a failure of leadership, or were the workers simply not “mature” enough to carry through a revolution?
In his posthumously published article, “The Class, the Party, and the Leadership,”1 Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky answers that question by politically body-slamming the editors of Que Faire (“What To Do”), which was a left-leaning bourgeois intellectual paper published in Paris in the late 1930s. It is interesting that Trotsky made sure to write that the paper itself was of no importance, i.e., it wasn’t going to do much other than give a few left liberal types a venue to write their muddle to share amongst themselves (we can draw numerous parallels with this today!). However, he found the piece to be of “symptomatic interest.” In other words, it was characteristic of the reasons given by those who Trotsky called “pseudo-Marxists” for the failure of the Spanish Revolution.
The beginning of the document starts with a quote from Que Faire’s review of a pamphlet entitled Spain Betrayed,2 by Casanova (which was the pen name of a Polish Marxist named Bernstein who was in Spain during the revolution). At first glance, they might appear to be offering an interesting criticism of Casanova’s argument that the leadership of the Communist Party in Spain followed the wrong policy. But at root, Que Faire argues that the workers simply weren’t ready for a revolution, and reject those like Casanova who blame bogeymen like Stalin and inept anarchist leaders in order to explain the workers’ failure. The following is taken from Que Faire’s criticism of Casanova’s analysis (quoted in Trotsky’s article):
“Why was the revolution crushed? “Because,” replies the author [Casanova], “the Communist Party conducted a false policy which was unfortunately followed by the revolutionary masses.” But why, in the devil’s name, did the revolutionary masses who left their former leaders rally to the banner of the Communist Party? “Because there was no genuinely revolutionary party.” We are presented with a pure tautology. A false policy of the masses; an immature party either manifests a certain condition of social forces (immaturity of the working class, lack of independence of the peasantry) which must be explained by proceeding from facts, presented among others by Casanova himself; or it is the product of the actions of certain malicious individuals or groups of individuals, actions which do not correspond to the efforts of “sincere individuals” alone capable of saving the revolution. After groping for the first and Marxist road, Casanova takes the second. We are ushered into the domain of pure demonology; the criminal responsible for the defeat is the chief Devil, Stalin, abetted by the anarchists and all the other little devils; the God of revolutionists unfortunately did not send a Lenin or a Trotsky to Spain as He did in Russia in 1917.”3
Under closer examination, however, we see that Que Faire’s criticism is nothing but empty rhetoric. (It is quite ironic they refer to Casanova’s central argument as a “tautology”!) Why were the workers not ready for revolution? Because the revolution failed. Why did the revolution fail? Because the workers were not ready for the revolution. In the end, we are left no closer to understanding what happened in Spain than when we started.
Trotsky then masterfully lays out an exposition of a truly dialectical approach to questions such as this. He gives concrete examples of the “immature” workers being correct and their leadership being wrong. Trotsky writes:
“In July 1936…the Spanish workers repelled the assault of the officers who had prepared their conspiracy under the protection of the Popular Front. The masses improvised militias and created workers’ committees, the strongholds of their future dictatorship. The leading organisations of the proletariat, on the other hand, helped the bourgeoisie to destroy these committees, to liquidate the assaults of the workers on private property, and to subordinate the workers’ militias to the command of the bourgeoisie, with the POUM moreover participating in the government and assuming direct responsibility for this work of the counterrevolution.”4
Trotsky points out—which I think is extremely important and interesting given this is still a belief held by many anarchists—that the beginning logic of the “the workers aren’t ready” argument is that there will eventually come a point when the workers will be so ready that they won’t need any sort of leadership. They will simply wake up one day and decide to take power. When and how this develops under capitalism is left unsaid. I suppose we can assume it is done mainly by reading periodicals such as Que Faire?
Trotsky anticipates the question of “why would the workers subordinate themselves to poor leadership?” and answers it with more concrete examples of the workers not at all being subordinate to their leadership, and in some cases actively fighting against it. He brings up the well-known fact that the CNT leadership actually refused to take power, and then bragged about it on several occasions. This most certainly wasn’t the wish of the masses who fought, and often died, for such power. Unfortunately, the Spanish workers were unable, in the middle of a civil war, to produce new leadership that corresponded to the demands of the revolution. Not just the Stalinists and anarchists, but also the POUM.5
To fully answer the subordination question, we also need to examine the old myth that “people get the government they deserve.” To the social-evolutionist liberals, society moves in a straight line from despotism to “freedom”—by which they mean bourgeois parliamentarism. Trotsky takes this on quite well and I think it is worth quoting at length. He says:
“The secret is that a people is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers that fall under different leadership; furthermore every people falls under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes. Governments do not express the systematically growing “maturity” of a “people” but are the product of the struggle between different classes and the different layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of external forces— alliances, conflicts, wars, and so on. To this should be added that a government, once it has established itself, may endure much longer than the relationship of forces which produced it. It is precisely out of this historical contradiction that revolutions, coups d’état, counterrevolutions, etc., arise.”6
This same dialectical approach is needed when dealing with leadership. Again from the text:
“A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events.
“A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often caught unawares by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot immediately improvise a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.”7
In Spain, the working class was able to move far beyond their leadership, yet they were not able to actually replace them.
As we can see by the example of the Russian working class, workers’ “maturity” is not unchanging. In the Bolshevik Party at the beginning of 1917, it was basically just Lenin who had a truly revolutionary understanding of the moment. Many of the other Bolsheviks were scattered around and not sure what move to take next. Many even supported Kerensky’s Provisional Government. This highlights exactly how important it is to have a revolutionary leadership during revolutionary times. The maturity of workers is relative to the situation and can change rapidly. The same Russian working class that overthrew the tsar also “allowed” a bureaucracy to rise from within its ranks and betray the revolution.
Que Faire goes on to ask why the revolutionary masses, who left their former leaders, now decided to follow the Communist Party. Trotsky points out this is a falsely posed question. They rallied around the Communist Party and its popular front strategy largely because of the authority the Comintern had gained by carrying out the only successful workers’ revolution, in Russia. It isn’t as simple as the working class going “window shopping” for new leadership. Tradition and loyalty play a large role in the decision. It is only through their experiences that workers move to new leadership, and new revolutionary parties can grow very rapidly given the right circumstance mixed with the right policies.
The leaders of the POUM—as the party to the left not linked to anarchism or Stalinism—refused to reveal the bourgeois nature of the other parties and of the Popular Front. This was the only way to move the POUM and the revolution forward, but they refused to do it. Trotsky noted of the POUM, “It participated in the ‘Popular’ election bloc; entered the government which liquidated workers’ committees; engaged in a struggle to reconstitute this governmental coalition; capitulated time and again to the Anarchist leadership; conducted, in connection with this, a false trade union policy; and took a vacillating and non-revolutionary attitude toward the May 1937 uprising.”8
This, however, isn’t simply a reflection of the Spanish working class; it is a reflection of concrete events and of the dialectical manner in which revolutions unfold and develop. The working class was far more revolutionary than the POUM, which in turn was more revolutionary than the bourgeois leadership they subordinated themselves to. Why did the POUM leadership subordinate itself to the leadership of the bourgeois state? As we can see, the leadership had risen above its class and was subject to pressures of other classes. When the degeneration of the POUM leadership became known, the working class, in the middle of a revolutionary struggle, was unable to replace them before the counterrevolution got the upper hand.
It is clear that the central point the folks at Que Faire were trying to make is that the workers simply weren’t ready for a revolution. We can see similar arguments today in places like Venezuela, where despite the masses being far more revolutionary than their leaders, many academics have blamed the slow pace of the revolution on the “maturity” level of the workers. We also see shades of this in the United States, as cynical liberals berate workers for being “stupid” and “backwards.” The left sects abandon mainstream unions because of their poor leadership, and some question whether developed economies even have workers!
This is why we study things like the Spanish Revolution, as events today take such a similar course. The folks at Que Faire liked to think they were Marxists, and they did that by throwing in phrases like “condition of class forces” and “condition of social forces.” This, they thought, gave them a material basis for claiming the workers simply weren’t ready for a revolution. The same goes for countless organisations today—all more or less ignored by your average person. Trotsky addresses this with extreme clarity by saying, “Naturally, the ‘condition of class forces’ supplies the foundation for all other political factors; but just as the foundation of a building does not reduce the importance of walls, windows, doors, roofs, so the ‘condition of classes’ does not invalidate the importance of parties, their strategy, their leadership.”9
Que Faire and their present-day equivalents won’t tell us how we will know when the working class will be “ready” for revolution. Presumably, someday, off in the distant future, we will all just wake up and spontaneously decide to take power; a divine rapture of sorts. This theory has been proven to be absolutely ridiculous. We can and must learn from the tragedy of the Spanish Revolution. Far from leaving things to chance or spontaneity, we must work to build a political leadership that can directly confront the bourgeois state when revolutionary situations inevitably arise in the years ahead.
To some, and especially to the anarchists, this may seem a contradiction: to organise the working class for state power. But understanding contradictions is central to achieving, and wielding, power. You cannot merely “ignore” power; we must build a new kind of power, one that represents the interests of the working majority, not an unelected and unaccountable minority. In short, the answer to bad leadership is not no leadership. We must work to build a democratically accountable leadership that can lead our class to victory and end class exploitation once and for all. That’s the kind of leadership the world working class needs and deserves.
1 An online version may be found here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/party.htm
2 An online version may be found here: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/spain2/index.htm
3 Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931–39) (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), 354–55.
4 Ibid., 356.
5 POUM—Partido Obrero de Unificación Marixista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification.) A left party formed by fusion in 1935 that vacillated between reformism and revolution. Led by Andrés Nin, a former secretary of the Comintern’s Red International of Labour Unions, and a leader of the former Left Opposition forces in Spain.
6 Trotsky, 357–58.
7 Ibid., 358.
8 Ibid., 363.
9 Ibid., 364.