Into the Whirlwind: Trotskyism in the 1930s

The 1930s were a decade of revolution and counter-revolution. On the one extreme was the victory of fascism in Germany and the atomisation of the German working class, on the other, after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931, was the unfolding proletarian revolution on Spanish soil.

Spain was to become the key to the international situation. Under the circumstances, with the historic defeat in Germany, the outcome of the Spanish revolution would decide the fate of humanity. It was a beacon to the working class internationally. The revolution unfolded in a protracted fashion until the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of February 1936. This provided a new fillip to the revolution, as the masses attempted to actively carry out the programme of the Popular Front themselves. This in turn provoked a fascist rebellion in July under General Franco, and the beginning of the Spanish civil war.

Despite calls for assistance from the Republic, the "democratic" governments of Europe refused to give aid to the legitimate government of Spain under the pretext of the "non-intervention pact". In the meantime, the fascist powers backed Franco to the hilt. By the autumn of 1936, 150,000 Italian and 50,000 German troops were fighting on Franco's side, and German and Italian ships were blockading Spanish shores.

At first, Stalin also adhered to the policy of "non-intervention". While backing the republican government in words, the Stalinist regime refused to send arms, fearing involvement in a wider war. Only in the fall of 1936, when the Republic was in a desperate position, did Stalin send arms, but at a price. They wanted payment in gold, and there were other strings attached - political ones.

"We cannot allow Spain to become a free camping ground for all anti-Soviet elements that have been flocking there from all over the world," stated Slutsky. "After all, it is our Spain now, part of the Soviet front…and as for the anarchists and Trotskyists, even though they are anti-fascist soldiers, they are our enemies. They are counter-revolutionaries, and we have to root them out."

According to Walter Krivitsky, "the problem of world revolution had long since ceased to be real to Stalin. It was solely a question of Soviet Russia's foreign policy." This policy was dictated by the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy that was interested at this time in striking a deal with the Western "democracies". In this way it would secure its borders and be allowed to build "socialism in one country".

Revolutionary revival

However, the Spanish revolution that was spurred on after the Franco uprising, especially in Catalonia, threatened the position of the Stalinist bureaucracy. A successful revolution in Spain would become a beacon of attraction for the Soviet masses, whose revolutionary spirit would be rekindled. Under these conditions there would be a revolutionary revival within the USSR and the likelihood of a political revolution that would restore workers' democracy.

Stalin therefore sought to derail the unfolding revolution in Spain. Using the lever of arms, he set about attempting to influence the Republican government. Soviet troops were dispatched to Spain under the guise of volunteers. Besides the military personnel, a large group of NKVD officials were despatched to Spain under the control of Alexander Orlov, military adviser to the Republican government.

Another angle for Stalin was an attempted alliance with the Western "democracies". To further this aim, Stalin was prepared to betray the Spanish revolution. This action would prove to the imperialists that the objective of world revolution had been abandoned and that he was a man that could be relied upon.

Spontaneously in Catalonia, the workers had stormed the barracks and taken power into their own hands. Here, the anarchists and the POUM were at their strongest. Their militias provided a powerful defence of the Republic. The POUM was continually attacked by the Stalinists as a Trotskyist organisation, focusing on "provocations, raids and murders". This was completely false. Although, anti-Stalinist, some of its leaders like Andrés Nin, who had originally come from the Left Opposition, had politically broken with Trotsky a few years earlier. Trotsky described the party as centrist in character: very radical in words, but essentially reformist in deeds.

"The Communists contended that the POUM propaganda divided and weakened the government forces and thus endangered the war," wrote George Orwell, who fought with the POUM in Spain. "Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the government forces not by bad judgement but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the fascist cause…This implied that scores of thousands of working class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the frontline trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against fascism, often sacrificing their livelihoods and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy. And this story was spread all over Spain by means of posters, etc, and repeated over and over in the Communist and pro-Communist press of the whole world."

In reality, there were two civil wars being fought out on Spanish soil. One was the Republican struggle against the forces of Franco, while the second was being waged secretly by the Soviet secret services against all those who defied the orders of Moscow and the Comintern.

The very logic of the civil war, beginning in Catalonia, was its transformation into a revolutionary war. The resistance to the fascists led to revolutionary actions by the working class, by nationalising the factories and distribution. In turn, the land-hungry peasants seized the land. Organs of workers' power sprang up spontaneously, with revolutionary committees deciding how things would be run. As the old bourgeois state disappeared, workers' militias sprang up organised by the trade unions and the political parties.

Obviously, the liberal bourgeoisie was alarmed by these developments and attempted to curb them wherever possible. They were supported by the Communist Party! For them, under instructions from Stalin, the main task was not the socialist revolution, but to defend bourgeois democracy. First win the war, was their cry. "At present nothing matters except winning the war," they said. "Without victory in the war all else is meaningless. Therefore this is not the moment to talk of pressing forward with the revolution…At this stage we are not fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat, we are fighting for parliamentary democracy. Whoever tries to turn the civil war into a socialist revolution is playing into the hands of the fascists and is in effect, if not in intention, a traitor."

This was the line of the Stalinists. The revolution, rather than being encouraged and promoted, must be stopped in its tracks. The revolution would frighten the liberal bourgeoisie, who are needed to restore "democracy". Therefore the Communist Party carried out a counter-revolutionary policy in Spain, dictated by the interests of the Moscow bureaucracy. According to Orwell, the Communists "showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders."

Trotsky clearly understood the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism. The forces of Trotskyism in Spain were very weak. Trotsky appealed directly to the leaders of the POUM to conduct a consistent revolutionary policy aimed at winning over the best of the anarchist workers, and preparing the ground for the conquest of power. This was the only way the fascists could be defeated. Military means were not sufficient.


"How many members does the POUM now have?" wrote Trotsky. "Some say twenty-five thousand, others say forty thousand. This question does not have, however, decisive significance. Neither twenty-five thousand nor forty thousand can by itself guarantee victory…Forty thousand members with a hesitant and vacillating leadership are capable of only lulling the proletariat, thereby preparing a catastrophe. Ten thousand, with a firm and insightful leadership, can find the road to the masses, break them away from the influence of the Stalinists and Social Democrats, charlatans and windbags, and guarantee not only the episodic and fragile victory of the Republican forces over the fascists, but the complete victory of the toilers over the exploiters. The Spanish proletariat has shown three times that it is capable of achieving such a victory. The whole question lies in the leadership."

Unfortunately, the leadership of the POUM was not up to the task. The provocation of the Stalinists in May 1937, resulted in the "Barcelona Uprising", and the crushing of the revolutionary forces and a tragic end to the Spanish revolution. This episode prepared the way for the victory of Franco and the second world war.

In the USSR, at the beginning of the Spanish civil war, the Stalinist bureaucracy was terrified by its revolutionary implications. A successful revolution in Spain would have meant the end of the bureaucracy and the restoration of workers' democracy. The revolutionary events in Spain could have pushed a layer of "Old Bolsheviks" into opposition to the regime. At this time, Stalin was feeling increasingly isolated in the leadership. He was fearful that any of the "Old Guard" could move against him. He therefore set out to remove all threats to his position in an ever-widening purge. After eliminating Kirov, a top Stalinist official, in late 1934, Stalin prepared the ground to isolate his potential enemies. Eventually, this led to the horrendous Purge Trials which began in August 1936. This "one-sided" civil war, as Trotsky described it, was aimed at eliminating all those with connections to the Bolshevik Party of 1917.

Evidence and charges had to be invented to carry though this ghastly crime. Everything was manufactured, people were broken, and confessions extracted in the most monstrous show trials in history. The revolutionaries were put on trial for counter-revolution. The main defendant was Leon Trotsky, tried and found guilty in his absence, for the organisation of a fascist take-over of the Soviet state!

The first show trial in August 1936 placed on trial Kamenev and Zinoviev, known as the Trial of the Sixteen or the case of the "Unified Trotsky-Zinoviev Centre". Endless filth was poured on the revolutionaries. "The case of Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev breathes its stench upon us from the bandits' underground," wrote Pravda. "The snakes slither up to what we hold dearest of all…We uncovered ties between the Zinovievists with Trotsky's foreign counter-revolutionary organisation, and systematic ties with the German fascist secret police…No mercy, no leniency for enemies of the people who have tried to deprive the people of its leaders."

A hue and cry was launched against Trotskyism both within the USSR and internationally. This was to prepare public opinion for what was to come. The Stalinists had embarked on a murder spree, which had as its central plan the assassination of Trotsky and his close entourage.

"A revolutionary epoch brings the popular masses together," wrote Trotsky. "On the other hand, a period of reaction signifies the triumph of centrifugal forces. During the last 14 years not one single breach in the Bolshevik party has been closed up again, not one wound has healed, not one conflict has ended in reconciliation. Capitulations and acts of self-abasement have not helped. The centrifugal forces have acted to enlarge the slightest opening until it is transformed into an unbridgeable chasm. Anyone drawn into this opening, even by his little toe, has lost irredeemably…[Stalin] seeks to strike not at the ideas of his opponents, but at his skull."


Stalin had expelled the Left Opposition from the party. He had exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union and taken away his citizenship. He was effectively exiled on a planet without a visa, hounded and persecuted by the Stalinist press, and the physical threat from the GPU. But Trotsky carried on a daily exposure of the mistakes and betrayals of the Stalinists, which was a constant thorn in Stalin's side.

Unable to immediately reach Trotsky, Stalin sought revenge on his friends, children and close collaborators. Trotsky's son Sergei disappeared in the concentration camps. Leon Sedov, his son and close political collaborator, was murdered in Paris. Other secretaries and political associates were also systematically eliminated. Rudolf Klement was kidnapped and killed in France; Erwin Wolf in Barcelona; Walter Held crossing Russian territory; Ignace Reiss murdered after he broke with Stalin and joined the Fourth International; Krivitisky was eliminated in Washington; Nin and Landau were killed by the GPU in Spain; and finally Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in August 1940. This was the bloody trail left by the Russian secret services at the behest of Stalin.

Between 1936 and 1938, Stalin had physically destroyed all those cadres of Bolshevism linked with the victory of the October Revolution. Revolutionary leaders like Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov, Radek, Piatakov, Sokolnikov and many others, were slandered and shot. The great military minds like Tukhachevsky, Yakir, Uborevich and Eideman were also eliminated, serving to behead the Red Army, and providing Hitler with greater confidence to attack the Soviet Union in June 1941.

How did these revolutionaries confess to the crimes they were falsely accused of? Trotsky explained that this was a process that had lasted 10 years, when they had repeatedly capitulated, hoping to save the situation and themselves. "For 10 years they had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For 10 years they had been suspended between life and death, first in the political sense, then in the moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined, and fiendish destructive work upon the spines and nerves, upon all the elements of the human spirit?"

The horrendous destruction of Bolshevik cadres in the name of "enemies of the people" grew into millions throughout the purges of the 1930s. On their bones was created the Bonapartist dictatorship of Stalin and the bureaucracy. All vestiges of workers' democracy had been utterly destroyed. Trotsky once remarked that apart from the nationalised planned economy that remained from the October Revolution, the Stalin regime was very similar to the regime of Hitler.

Trotsky explained that while defending the Soviet Union from the attacks of imperialism, the main task facing the Soviet workers was the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Without that, the USSR could not move towards socialism - on the contrary, the bureaucracy would move towards capitalist property relations. After 50 years delay, this prognosis was borne out by events in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism.

Today, we have entered the most disturbed period since the war. The euphoria of the bourgeois after the collapse of Stalinism has disappeared. The so-called war against terrorism threatens to further destabilise world relations, with the prospect of new conflicts and wars. The partial economic recovery threatens to run out of steam, as the world's stock markets plunge and the dollar slides. The crisis of capitalism has manifested itself in the economic crisis sweeping Latin America where there are no longer any stable capitalist regimes.

The revolution in Argentina is a mirror of what is to come in the rest of the continent. The mass demonstrations and general strikes in Italy and Spain, as well as the protest movements in France have witnessed the reawakening of the European proletariat. Since the collapse of the USSR, Trotskyism, which has been an isolated current in the workers' movement due mainly to the block of Stalinism, has new opportunities for connecting with leftward moving workers. The new epoch that opens up is also one of revolution, counter-revolution and war. On the basis of events, genuine Trotskyism can become a mass tendency, and prepare the ground for socialist revolution worldwide.

June 2002