An anatomy of revolution: Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution, 1931-1935 (Part I)


Read Part II – Trotsky’s Marxism and the Test of Events, 1931-1935 here

The enmities that gave rise to the Civil War were not of sudden growth. They had been steadily developing since the fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic in April, 1931…”1

  • Burnett Bolloten

[R]evolution itself must not by any means be regarded as a single act… but as a series of more or less powerful outbreaks rapidly alternating with periods of more or less complete calm.2

  • V.I. Lenin

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) witnessed the most significant military confrontation between revolutionary workers and fascists of the 20th century. Workers’ control of industry and political life in the cities accompanied collectivization movements in the countryside. This historical moment cannot be fully understood without looking at the pre-Civil War period – the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1931 until the election of the left-wing Popular Front government in February of 1936. These pre-revolutionary years pushed to the surface a plethora of political parties, organizations and tendencies vying for leadership in the eventual struggle against fascism, and for democracy and socialism. Leon Trotsky offered considerable insight and clarity into the nature of the revolution during these years despite an assortment of competing political forces, vast geographical distance, and the constraints of political exile. The purpose of this two-part article is to examine the pre-Civil War years (1931-1935) utilizing Trotsky’s analysis of Spain (part 1) and assess the accuracy of Trotsky’s approach by looking at the historical events as they unfolded from 1930-1935 (part 2).3 This is necessary in order to understand how critical these years were to shaping the Civil War and revolution of 1936 and, ultimately, how the revolution failed to become socialist.4

Trotsky brought to the Spanish Revolution the experience of generations of revolutionary struggle. By 1931, Trotsky had participated in, and had led, the Russian revolutionary movement for three decades and through three Russian Revolutions: 1905, February 1917, and October 1917. During the 1920’s, Trotsky opposed Joseph Stalin’s abandonment of international socialism and his role in stifling a promising pre-revolutionary moment in England and a revolutionary one China. For his dedication in defending an internationalist and socialism-from-below perspective, Trotsky was expelled from the USSR in 1929. He had already spent a year within the USSR as an exile, physically and politically barred from the Communist Party and living in Alma-Ata (present day Kazakhstan).

By the end of 1931 – about one year after a mass movement for democracy had begun to sweep Spain – Trotsky had already articulated a thorough analytical and strategic approach to pre-revolutionary Spain. Trotsky’s writings of 1930 and 1931 are compilations of articles, letters, pamphlets, and bulletins that were written to the Communist Opposition of Spain (Oposición Comunista de España – OCE), a group that hoped to build a revolutionary workers’ party. Trotsky’s writings were not meant to provide day-to-day coverage on the events unfolding in Spain; rather, they provide a general analysis regarding the character of the revolution and articulate a political strategy that the OCE would utilize in shaping its political and organizational activity.5

Through this correspondence, Trotsky sought to answer this central question: how can workers win political power and collectively administer society in their interests? Trotsky’s answer can be summarized with the following series of interrelated questions:

  1. What are the peculiarities of Spanish economic development?
  2. What social classes result from that economic development? What is the relative weight of the working class in relation to other social classes?
  3. What political parties and organizations exist, in the interests of which social class(es) do they speak, and within which social class(es) have they established leadership?
  4. How can the working class politically lead itself and the diverse middle class surrounding it?
  5. What reforms should be fought for, and what demands should be advanced, that can unify parties and organizations on the left – and all social classes subordinated to capital – in order to fight the political forces on the right who defend capitalism in decline?

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