Trotsky, Gramsci, and the Emergence of the Working Class as Hegemonic Subject

Employing the words of Trotsky and Gramsci, the authors analyze the development of the working class as a social and political subject in “Western” countries, with their complex socio-political structures. To argue against the idea of conquering spaces within the regime and coexisting peacefully with the bureaucracies of the mass movement, as well as against the adaptation to administering the state’s social assistance or to the current structure of unions, they draw on Trotsky’s writings on France, in which he introduces the concept of “committees of action” of the vanguard and sectors of the masses as a way to unify and coordinate their struggles.
  • Matías Maiello | 
  • March 13, 2021

Among the left-wing intelligentsia in general, and even among those who recognize Trotsky’s important contributions to Marxist theory, it became commonplace to point out that, unlike Gramsci, Trotsky somehow failed to successfully address the problem of the proletariat in the West. There is Michael Burawoy, pointing out that “Trotsky’s analyses were time and again shipwrecked on the rock of the Western proletariat,” and that “it would be another Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who would carry Marxism forward, incorporating Trotsky’s understandings into a broader interpretation.”1Michael Burawoy, “Two Methods in Search of Science: Skocpol versus Trotsky,” Theory and Society 18, no. 6 (1989), 789. There is Razmig Keucheyan, who maintains that Trotsky’s mistake consists in “having stuck to a conception of the social world, and therefore of revolutionary strategy, from prior to the structural changes described by Gramsci,” particularly the differentiation “between the ‘Eastern Front’ and the ‘Western Front,’ that is, between still-fluid Eastern societies and Western societies in which civil society and the State are solidly interpenetrated.”2Razmig Keucheyan, “Machiavel, la politique, le prince moderne et les classes subalternes” [Machiavelli, Politics, the Modern Prince, and the Lower Classes], in Antonio Gramsci, Guerre de mouvement et guerre de position [War of Maneuver and War of Position: Texts Chosen and Presented by Razmig Keucheyan (Paris: La fabrique éditions, 2012), 163. And even Perry Anderson, who on the one hand stressed that Trotsky’s writings “on the three major social formations of Western Europe [Germany, England, and France] in the inter-war period are commensurately superior to those in Prison Notebooks” of Gramsci, but on the other hand added that Trotsky “never posed the problem of a differential strategy for making the socialist revolution in them … with the same anxiety or lucidity as Gramsci.”3Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” New Left Review 100 (November-December 1976).

As we have developed in Socialist Strategy and Military Art, the analysis of Trotsky’s theoretical and practical work not only widely contradicts that common sense, but also provides a solid foundation of a political theory — little explored in its complexity — on the  emergence of the working class as a revolutionary subject. In this article, we concentrate on one of its aspects in particular, based on the series of works that came to be known under the title Whither France?4Leon Trotsky, Whither France? (1934–36). That aspect is Trotsky’s proposal to build “committees of action” as a way to concentrate the vanguard forces and sectors of the masses to strengthen the force of the revolutionaries, “break” the resistance of the bureaucratic apparatuses, and deploy the power of the workers movement.

The “Western” Political Scenario

Trotsky and Gramsci both analyzed in great depth the problems of the Western capitalist democracies. They were part of the constellation of revolutionaries of the Third International that confronted the complexities of the revolution in Europe, where the influence of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism as ideology held sway among the majority of the masses, and where important reformist workers’ apparatuses had developed with their respective political and trade union bureaucracies. This stood in contrast to the “gelatinous” and precarious character of the institutions in pre-1917 Russia, characterized as an example of “oriental” socio-political structure.

Gramsci developed the concept of the “extended State” and his formula of the State “in its integral meaning: dictatorship + hegemony,” with which he proposed to explain the fact that the bourgeoisie goes far beyond the “passive expectation” of consensus and develops an entire series of mechanisms to organize the state. The “enlargement” of the State was a response to the emergence of the workers’ movement at the beginning of the 20th century.5In this respect, Gramsci points out that “the newly formed social elements, which previously had ‘no dog in the fight’ … modify the political structure of society simply by uniting. … The modern State replaces the mechanical block of social groups with its subordination to the active hegemony of the ruling and dominant group, and consequently it abolishes some autonomies that are nevertheless reborn in another form, such as parties, unions, cultural associations.” (Gramsci, “Some General Notes on the Historical Development of Subaltern Social groups in the Middle Ages and in Rome,” Q25, §4). In the same sense, as we pointed out in “Gramsci, Trotsky, and Capitalist Democracy,” Trotsky saw in these institutions “elements of proletarian democracy” that the working class developed, through its struggle, in bourgeois society (see Trotsky, “The United Front for Defense — A Letter to a Social Democratic Worker” (February 1933). The statization of mass organizations and the expansion of bureaucracies within them is one of the fundamental elements, with its double function of “integration” to the state and fragmentation of the working class.6See Socialist Strategy and Military Art, chapter 9; see also Juan Dal Maso, El marxismo de Gramsci, Notas de lectura sobre los Cuadernos de la cárcel (Gramsci’s Marxism: Reading Notes on Prison Notebooks).

The workers bureaucracy has been (and is) the advance detachment to “organize” bourgeois hegemony within the organizations of the proletariat. This objective is pursued by employing both ideological and coercive means in different combinations depending on the circumstances. In this sense, as Trotsky points out, “Monopoly capitalism is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of trade unions. It demands of the reformist bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy who pick the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class.”7Trotsky, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” (1940). Gramsci approaches the question in similar terms when he points out that the bourgeoisie had managed to conquer a “set of forces organized by the state and by individuals to protect the political and economic domination of the ruling classes,” and adds that for this reason “entire ‘political’ parties and other economic or other organizations must be considered political police agencies, of an investigative and preventive character.”8Gramsci, “El cesarismo” (Caesarism), Q13, §27.

Bureaucracy, the “Popular Front,” and the Subject Problem

There were important touch points between Trotsky and Gramsci when it came to characterizing the role of the bureaucracy. This can be seen in Trotsky’s assessment of the defensive united front; it only requires comparing some of the best pages of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks with Trotsky’s analysis of the united front in Germany as fascism was beginning to rise at the beginning of the 1930s.9Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello, “Trotsky and Gramsci: Debates on Strategy Concerning the Revolution in the ‘West’,” International Strategy, February 16, 2015. However, it will be Trotsky who will clearly develop the passage from the defensive to the offensive united front and, in that framework, the ways to overcome and defeat the bureaucracies that are rooted in the mass organizations. He proposes a solution to the problem of the emergence of the working class as a political subject in “Western” societies.

In general, Trotsky’s writings on the rise of fascism in Germany10Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971). are much more studied and defended than those on France. It is not by chance, since in the latter he openly confronts the policy of class collaboration of the “Popular Front” that Gramsci — imprisoned in Mussolini’s jails — was not able to analyze. However, it will be in Whither France? that Trotsky reveals the full caliber of his conception of revolutionary politics. He paid special attention to the French situation, and even resided for a time in the country — albeit under difficult conditions — from 1933 until he was expelled in June 1935. He lived through the change of situation in 1934 with the February 6 uprising of the fascist leagues and the important workers’ response of February 12.  The action of the workers’ movement had struck a blow against the bureaucratic apparatuses of the Socialist Party (SFIO) and the Communist Party (PCF), giving renewed impetus to the Trotskyist organization, which had a few hundred militants and that beginning in September 1934 concretized its “entryism” tactic into the Socialist Party to link up with the socialist workers who were becoming radicalized.11The Communist League, the Trotskyist group in France, became the Bolshevik Leninist Group (GBL) and entered the SFIO with the policy known as the “French turn,” which consisted of a tactical “entryism” approach into the socialist party with the aim of converging with sectors of the workers’ movement that were radicalizing, integrating with them, and on that basis strengthening the construction of independent revolutionary parties. But by 1935, social democrats and Stalinists formed the “Popular Front” together with the Radical Party, a party linked to French colonial oppression (with its traditional base among the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie), supporting the policy of “national defense” of the French government.

Faced with the relative strength of the reformist apparatuses and the weakness of the revolutionaries, how can the power of the working class as a revolutionary subject be deployed? This is the question that Trotsky would place at the center of his thinking in Whither France?, and it is in this framework that develops the debate on the “committees of action.” In them, Trotsky sees a possibility for the revolutionaries, then with very few forces, to strengthen those forces by linking the development of the revolutionary party to the unification and regroupment of the vanguard and the masses in struggle.

The proposal begins by “taking the word” of the resolution of the VII Congress of the Communist International (1935) on the call for the formation of Popular Front “committees of action.” At the same time that Trotsky is implacable in his criticism of the conciliatory character of the Popular Front, he makes this proposal his own, defining it as the only correct one in the entire resolution and which, as was to be expected, would not be implemented by the bureaucratized French Communist Party. Trotsky saw in the proposal a way to break the subordination to the bourgeoisie, strengthening the weight of the vanguard through the development of the committees of action linked directly to the class struggle, which would greatly facilitate the expulsion of the “bourgeois merchants” from the Radical Party and the defeat of the policy of class conciliation dictated “from Moscow.”

Institutions for the Unification and Coordination of Struggles to Break Bureaucratic Resistance

Trotsky would develop that initial approach until it became a key element of what we could define as a theory on the ways of constituting the working class as a subject in a scenario “saturated” with bureaucratic apparatuses typical of Western socio-political structures.

In his famous article “Committees of Action — Not People’s Front” of November 26, 1935, Trotsky takes a tour of the different angles and different processes of radicalization from which to approach the committees. His first example is the struggle of the dockworkers in Toulon and Brest in mid-1935 against the wage reductions decreed by the Radical Party government. The leaderships of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party protested, but did nothing more. However, the workers went out to fight, raised the red flag at the prefecture in Brest, and erected barricades in Toulon against repression. The clashes left three dead and dozens wounded, and an important strike was unleashed in solidarity, in the face of which the official leaderships called for calm and denounced the presence of “provocateurs.”12Jean-Paul Joubert, “Trotsky y el Frente Popular” [Trotsky and the Popular Front], CEIP León Trotsky Bulletin 12 (July-August 2009). Trotsky illustrates his approach by pointing out, “During the struggle in Toulon and Brest, the workers would have created without any hesitation a local fighting organization had they been called upon to do so.”13Trotsky, Whither France?, “Committees of Action — Not People’s Front,” November 26, 1935.

He then refers to the struggles in Limoges in mid-November of the same year, which had a similar character to those of the dockworkers and would suffer the propaganda of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party against “provocateurs” and the calls for the government to take action against the “factional groupings.” Against this, Trotsky points out another example of what would be the policy of committees: “On the very next day after the bloody assault in Limoges, the workers and a considerable section of the petty bourgeoisie would have indubitably revealed their readiness to create an elected committee to investigate the bloody events and to prevent them in the future.”14Ibid. He also sees the potential for “committees of action” among the soldiers, pointing out, “During the movement in the barracks, in the summer of this year, against Rabiot (the extension of the term of military service), the soldiers, without much ado, would have elected battalion, regimental and garrison committees of action had such a road been suggested to them.”15Ibid.

That is to say, in the Toulon and Brest process, Trotsky sees the committees of action as a “local fighting organization”; in Limoges as “committees to investigate the bloody events and prevent them in the future”; and in the barracks as committees against the prolongation of military service. The conclusion he draws is that with the evolution of the revolutionary elements, “Similar situations arise and will continue to arise at every step,” in every place, linked to the conflicts and processes that cross different regions — and are opportunities to establish institutions of the sectors in struggle on a local scale and, if possible, on a national scale. For the revolutionaries, writes Trotsky, “The task is not to miss a single situation of this kind” — not to lose any opportunity to organize into permanent institutions of the “committees of action” type the vanguard and the sectors of the masses that engage in struggle.

In this way, Trotsky goes on to outline a more general conception that starts from the need for “understanding of the Committee of Action as the only means of breaking the anti-revolutionary opposition of party and trade-union apparatus.16Ibid. His starting point is to link this need for “breaking the opposition” of the bureaucracies to the enormous danger posed by partial conflicts remaining isolated, thus wasting the energy of the masses in isolated explosions and ending up generating apathy. Hence, he points out that in the face of strikes, demonstrations, street skirmishes, or direct uprisings, which are inevitable in a situation that is becoming revolutionary, the key task of the revolutionaries consists “unifying them and investing them with the greatest possible force.”17Ibid.

Now, how does Trotsky foreshadow the formation of these committees? He points out that “it would be a mistake to think that it is possible at a set day and hour to call the proletarian and petty-bourgeois masses to elect Committees of Action on the basis of a given statute” — which would be a bureaucratic way of posing the question. Instead, the committees must be directly linked to the action:

The workers will be able to elect a Committee of Action only in those cases when they themselves participate in some sort of action and feel the need for revolutionary leadership. In question here is not the formal democratic representation of all and any masses but the revolutionary representation of the struggling masses. The Committee of Action is an apparatus of struggle. There is no sense in guessing beforehand precisely what strata of the toilers will be attracted to the creation of Committees of Action: the lines of demarcation in the struggling masses will be established during the struggle itself.18Ibid.

But neither is it a question of these “committees of action” replacing parties and trade unions:

The masses enter into the struggle with all their ideas, traditions, groupings and organizations. … During elections to the Committees of Action each party will naturally seek to elect its own adherents. The Committees of Action will arrive at decisions through a majority (given complete freedom of party and factional groupings). In relation to parties, the Committees of Action may be called the revolutionary parliament: the parties are not excluded but on the contrary they are necessarily presupposed; at the same time they are tested in action and the masses learn to free themselves from the influence of rotten parties.19Ibid.

In this way, Trotsky moves from the consideration of the committee of action in particular to a broader formulation regarding the formation of this type of organizations as a lever to defeat the bureaucracy’s policy of class collaboration. As Trotsky counterposes: “The rule of Bolshevism on the question of blocs reads: march separately, strike together! The rule of the leaders of the present Comintern is: march together in order to be smashed separately.”20Trotsky, Whither France?, “France at the Turning Point,” March 26, 1936. That is, if with the policy of the “popular front” the bureaucracies of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party intended to make the proletariat “march together” with the bourgeoisie via the Radical Party and support the “national defense,” this is correlated with leaving the different conflicts and uprisings of the proletariat isolated so the bourgeoisie can defeat the vanguard and the mass sectors that went out to fight place by place and case by case, and thus prevent the struggles from becoming increasingly revolutionary.

Conversely, what Trotsky is proposing with the committees of action is to concentrate the strength of those sectors in struggle in institutions capable of transcending each specific conflict and joining together the different sectors that come out to fight. And, with this, to multiply the force of the revolutionaries to work with the trade union rank and file by taking their most immediate demands and linking them to a transitional program (embodied in this case in “a program of action for France”21Trotsky, “A Program of Action for France” (June 1934).) that can constitute a bridge between the reformist illusions of the mass movement and the need to fight for power. The objective is to make even a small revolutionary group capable of influencing a sufficient portion of the working class so that the tactic of the workers’ united front — “March separately, but strike together!” — is not just an impotent demand of the bureaucracy but has the force to impose it effectively.

As can be seen, the “committees of action” were not equivalent to “soviets,” which, strictly speaking, are mass united front organizations, but the tool with which to prepare their development and the development of the revolutionary party during a situation such as that in France in 1935 — which while acute was not openly revolutionary, and in which there were quite radicalized conflicts but that were fragmented. There was not yet a generalized rise of the class struggle. In this sense, Trotsky remarked that common sense associated the “soviets” with power already conquered, and that was not the case of what he was proposing. In fact, at the time he criticized the Stalinist leadership of the PCF which, as a hangover of the “Third Period,”22The “Third Period,” according to Stalinism, began in 1928 and was said to be the period of capitalism’s coming disappearance. Hence, the policies of the Stalin-led Third International between 1928 and 1934 — characterized by ultra-leftism and the refusal to form united fronts with other workers’ organizations — are known by this name. had raised the slogan “Soviets everywhere!” Trotsky considered that an untimely postulation and a vulgarization of the slogan. It was only when the strikes became generalized with the factory occupations of 1936 that he would point out the relevance of the call to build “soviets” as a slogan for action — as reflected in his article “The French Revolution Has Begun!”23Trotsky, Whither France?, “The French Revolution Has Begun!” (June 9, 1936).

Now, what was the relationship between the committees of action and the future development of councils or soviets? Trotsky himself clarifies this: “Under certain conditions the Committees of Action can transform themselves into soviets.”24Trotsky, “Committees of Action — Not People’s Front” But he points out the situation in 1935 France is far from those conditions. He defines it this way: “The situation is revolutionary, as revolutionary as it can be, granted the non-revolutionary policies of the working-class parties. More exactly, the situation is pre-revolutionary.”25Trotsky, “Once Again, Whither France?” (March 28, 1935). And, in turn, he warns against a mystified vision of the Russian soviets, noting that “during their initial stages [they] were not at all what they subsequently became and in those days they were often called by the modest name of workers’ or strike committees.”26Trotsky, “Committees of Action — Not People’s Front.” In this sense, Trotsky writes, “Committees of Action at their present stage have as their task to unite in a defensive struggle the toiling masses of France and thus imbue these masses with the consciousness of their own power for the coming offensive.”27Trotsky, “Committees of Action — Not People’s Front.” Whether or not they could advance in that last sense would depend not only on the action of the vanguard but also on the evolution of the objective conditions of the situation itself.

Pathways for the Revolutionary Emergence of the Working Class

All these elements we have outlined form an integral part of Trotsky’s reflection on the problem of the emergence of the working class as a revolutionary subject in a “Western” scenario. Far from the innumerable caricatures of Marxism that have proliferated in recent years, it is a not an issue reduced to an “ontological” problem but refers to much more worldly political and strategic questions. The development of institutions for the unification and coordination of the sectors in struggle, such as the “committees of action” (much earlier than the soviets), is posed as the only means of breaking the resistance of the bureaucratic apparatuses, effectively imposing the united front and deploying a strategy of self-organization as part of the perspective of constituting councils or soviets that would be the basis for alternative power. At the same time, it is posed as a fundamental force for the development of the revolutionary party. Trotsky bets on strengthening the revolutionaries as organizers of the force deployed by the most advanced sectors of the workers and mass movement, and counterposes this perspective to the “unity of the apparatuses” separated from the needs of the struggle — a perspective held by the Revolutionary Left group of left centrists headed by Marceau Pivert.28Marceau Pivert (1895–1958) joined the Socialist Party after the Tours split in 1919. He was been a leader of the “unitary” tendency Bataille Socialiste [Socialist Battle] and one of the leaders of the Fédération de la Seine [Federation of the Seine]. In September 1935 he founded the Gauche Revolutionnaire [Revolutionary Left] faction in the Socialist Party.

In this way, Trotsky provides an answer to one of the main problems for the working class to become a hegemonic subject within the framework of what Gramsci called “the massive structure of modern democracies”29Gramsci, “Question of the ‘Collective man’ or of ‘social conformism’,” Prison Notebooks, Q13, §7. with their state organizations and complex of associations in civil life that modify the scenario of political intervention. It is an alternative conception, one counterposed to the “togliatian”30Palmiro Togliatti was a leader of the Italian Communist Party, mentor of the “Salerno svolta,” which with the pact with Marshal Badoglio, “national unity,” and the disarmament of the partisans played a fundamental role in saving Italian capitalism at the end of World War II, becoming a pillar for the bourgeoisie in the entire subsequent period. interpretations of Gramsci’s elaborations that, based on the particularities and complexities of “Western” socio-political structures, seek to identify the Sardinian revolutionary’s elaborations on the “war of positions” either with a battle for hegemony in eminently cultural terms or with the possibility of constituting the working class as a subject based on the evolutionary development of certain apparatuses (“hegemonic apparatuses,” as Peter Thomas puts it) more or less outside the class struggle and the struggle with the different bureaucracies entrenched in the organizations of the mass movement.31Special mention must be made of certain currents of the Left that have criticized the PTS for our approach to Gramsci’s thought, which supposedly led us to abandon the Marxist theory of the state and the struggle for revolution and replace it with a “struggle for cultural hegemony.” The only thing these critics have demonstrated is that their reading of Gramsci never went beyond the first few pages of one of Togliatti’s compilations, if even that far. Gramsci has his strong points and his ambiguities, but as Juan Dal Maso shows in his books (Gramsci’s Marxism and Hegemony and Class Struggle), identifying the thought of the author of the Prison Notebooks with Togliatti’s reformist interpretation is as ridiculous as superficially repeating — as do many “Gramscians” — those mistaken characterizations of Gramsci on Trotsky’s thought. Then there are those who, taking up what has been put forward by writers such as Nicos Poulantzas, consider that the state in its broad sense (beyond the “physical space of the state”) could be considered as “the terrain of a strategic field” that would be in dispute. 32See Henri Weber’s interview with Nicos Poulantzas in “L’État et la transition au socialism” [The state and the transition to socialism], Critique Communiste 16, June 1977.

But Trotsky’s conception has been misunderstood even within Trotskyism. Ernest Mandel criticized Trotsky for supposedly having exaggerated the characterization of the situation in France in the mid-1930s. Trotsky’s error, according to Mandel, was a byproduct of considering that in “Western” societies a revolutionary crisis can exist without there being a terminal crisis of illusions in bourgeois democracy among the masses.33Ernest Mandel, “Consideraciones sobre estrategia revolucionaria” [Considerations on revolutionary strategy] (interview by Henry Weber), Crítica de la economía política 26 (1984): 114. Mandel thus reduces the problem of the revolution to a question of democratic legitimacy, without referring to the central role of the bureaucracies in this operation — that is, without realizing that it is not only an ideological problem but a problem of material forces. Trotsky’s assessment of France is very different:

The People’s Front coalition, absolutely impotent against fascism, war, reaction, etc., showed itself to be a tremendous counterrevolutionary brake upon the mass movement, incomparably more powerful than the February coalition in Russia, because: (a) We didn’t have such an omnipotent workers’ bureaucracy, including the trade union bureaucracy; (b) We had a Bolshevik party.”34Trotsky, “Letter to James P. Cannon” (December 5, 1938).

In fact, after the Popular Front government was elected in May 1936, an enormous strike movement developed in which more than 2 million workers participated in factory occupations. The strikes had raised the question of power, but the Socialist Party and the Communist Party undertook to stop them in exchange for a series of “concessions” such as a wage increase, the 40-hour work week, and so on. These came to be known as the Matignon agreements. Once finished, there followed two years of currency devaluation, layoffs, and repression that liquidated these conquests. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie — with the fundamental collaboration of the workers’ bureaucracy — deactivated and defeated the pockets of resistance one by one, and thus managed to prevent a second generalized wave after 1936. Finally, the Popular Front exited the scene, giving way to the government of Édouard Daladier, who signed the Munich agreements with Hitler. The strike movement, which had threatened to go beyond the limits of private property and the state, collided with the action of the Popular Front government.

Much closer to Trotsky’s explanation than to Mandel’s, Daniel Guérin — who in 1936 was a member of Pivert’s group — returned years later to a critical balance sheet of that process, raising the importance of the perspective Trotsky had put forward. He points out that:

Trotsky’s admirable article  “The French Revolution Has Begun!,” which appeared in the seized issue of La Lutte Ouvriere, was read only by a few initiates. Had we truly fulfilled our mission within the popular movement, we would have had effective means to make ourselves heard. Stalinism had not yet consolidated its empire over the millions of newly unionized, and we could have competed with it. The striking masses were certainly not consciously revolutionary. They were driven by immediate motives: bread and human dignity. … But, even blind or at least confused, the behavior of the masses was, although not entirely conscious, certainly revolutionary because it broke with the established order.35Daniel Guérin, Front Populaire, révolution manquée [The Popular Front: A Failed Revolution] (Paris: Éditions Julliard, 1963). We thank Juan Dal Maso for having brought Guérin’s interesting conclusions to our attention. More broadly, we thank him and Fredy Lizarrague for their opinions and contributions that contributed to the final version of this article.

And in the face of this, he bitterly concludes, “In June 1936 we missed the boat of history.”

The problem is that in “Western” or “Westernized” formations, the emergence of dual power differs from the classic example of the Russian Revolution. As Juan Dal Maso points out in Hegemony and Class Struggle, while in the latter the power of the soviets or councils competes directly for the development of public functions, in the “Western” formations the competition is primarily for the conquest of the popular masses:

If we take into account the Gramscian conceptualization of the integral state (or Trotsky’s analysis of Bonapartism and the statization of the trade unions) insofar as the distinction between public and private spheres [becomes] blurred, the struggle takes place in a framework in which the state tends to incorporate the traditional workers’ organizations and therefore the development of instances such as the councils or soviets confronts a state based to a large extent on the bureaucratization of the workers’ movement. … [Hence] the development of organs of workers’ power has as its task to break the statization and on this basis build hegemony to conquer power and create a workers’ state by destroying the apparatus of the bourgeois state.”

Faced with this problem, Trotsky formulates a response with the generalization of the proposal for “committees of action” and raising ways in which even small groups can open a path to advance in influencing a sector of the masses by positioning themselves as organizers of the strength of all the sectors that are suffer and go out to fight. In this sense, confronted with bureaucracies dominating the French political space and the weakness of the revolutionaries, Trotsky wrote in 1935:

It would be absurd to believe that we have enough time to create a very powerful party that could eliminate all the other organizations before the decisive conflicts with fascism or before the outbreak of war, but it is entirely possible in a short time — events help — to win the broad masses not for our program, not for the Fourth International, but for those committees of action. But once these committees of action are created, they would become a magnificent springboard for a revolutionary party. In a committee of action, for example, Pivert will be forced to speak a completely different language than the stuttering of the Revolutionary Left. The authority and influence of the courageous, resolute, and far-sighted elements would be immediately increased. This is not just another matter; it is a question of life and death.36Letter from Trotsky to Jean Rous (November 13, 1935.

And indeed it was.

A Very Topical Discussion

The situation of the workers’ movement in Western countries has changed a lot since the French events of the 1930s analyzed by Trotsky. And it has changed even since the May-June 1968 events in France. Marx famously quotes Hegel as having said that history appears first as tragedy and then as farce, and in 1968 the actions of the French Communist Party were a farce of 1936. This, though, is more than a question of historical interest.

Since then, the characteristics of the “Western” socio-political formations that in the time of Trotsky and Gramsci were typical of Europe and a handful of central countries have today been greatly extended to the most diverse latitudes. Although in recent decades, with the retreat of the trade unions and the extension of their statization, the function of the union bureaucracies as guarantors of the class fracture came to the forefront, what happened was not the liquidation of the “integral state.” Along with the reformulation of the role of the traditional workers’ bureaucracies, “new” bureaucracies have developed in parallel with the development of the so-called “new social movements,” with their subsequent statization either through the so-called NGOs and their links with the state or via specific state “departments” (ministries, secretariats, agencies) that carry out the tasks of co-optation and regimentation within the “movements.” These interact in a complementary manner. The former restricts union organizations to the highest sectors of the working class, displaying an anti-popular corporatism. The latter act by separating the struggle for civil or “social” rights from the demands of the working class as a whole.

Today, if the Left faces a danger, it is to yield to the pressures of the state through the administration of social assistance in the unemployed movement; or by adapting to the structure of the unions as they are; or to student service organizations; or to the “NGO-ization” and statization of the women’s movement, the environmental movement, and other movements; or to parliamentarism through seats separated from the class struggle. That is, the danger is in adapting one’s own activity to the structures of the “expanded state.” It is even more so in situations such as the one we are beginning to go through in Argentina, where a pre-revolutionary stage (still incipient) is opening.

In this framework, the theoretical developments outlined by Trotsky around the “committees of action” go far beyond those committees and their specific formulation for France in the 1930s. They pose, on the one hand, the more general problem that “soviets” or “councils” never arise out of nothing, and even less so in complex “Western” societies marked by the deployment of bureaucracies in mass organizations. Although we cannot address it here, this question would not be difficult to trace in the rise of workers in Argentina during the 1970s, from all the previous processes of the 1960s onwards, which ultimately led to the constitution of the Coordinadoras Interfabriles in 1975.37See Ruth Werner and Facundo Aguirre, Insurgencia obrera en la Argentina 1969 –1976 [Worker Uprising in Argentina 1969–1976]. On the other hand, they reveal the potential of this political logic as a way for revolutionary parties, with some thousands of militants linked to these processes, to open a path toward the masses and effectively impose the united front. What Trotsky’s proposal shows is the need for permanent institutions of the sectors in struggle, with the revolutionaries putting all their energies into not losing any opportunity to develop them. This is a fundamental element to prevent the energy of the mass movement from being diluted in isolated battles without continuity, and serves the emergence of the working class as a subject, blowing up the bureaucratic structure that hovers above the workers’ and mass movement. From this source can spring the enormous power necessary for the construction of a revolutionary party worthy of the name.

This is very relevant debate in Argentina, where after the land occupations of 2020 that had their epicenter in Guernica, we are already going through a new wave of struggles in practically all the provinces, which contrasts with the complicity of the union leaderships in the face of the crisis. Sectors of workers have occupied their companies or set up blockades and encampments against closures and massive layoffs, in conflicts such as at the Arrebeef meat packing plant, Hey Latam of Rosario, Ternium Canning, and so on. These struggles range from small establishments, through mobilizations of the unemployed, to strikes of large unions such as the teachers’ unions in Mendoza, Tucumán, Neuquén, Río Negro, among others. Many of these conflicts are the product of real anti-bureaucratic rank-and-file “rebellions” that go beyond the union leaderships — as is the case, for example, in the health sector in Neuquén.

All the aspects we have developed in this article are another example that those who maintain Trotsky was unable to account for the political structures and strategy for the “West” are based on a superficial reading of his theory in general and his conception of strategy in particular. The approaches — both vulgar and academic — to the works of Gramsci and Trotsky that place them outside of history, with its concrete battles and the problems to which they sought to respond, omit what for revolutionary Marxists is an invaluable asset when reflecting on Marxism as a guide for action. It is precisely there where the elaborations we have been addressing — both Gramsci’s on the state and Trotsky’s as a theoretician and strategist, and only on the revolution in the East but also in the West — acquire their full dimension. 

First published in Spanish on March 7 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper

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Matías Maiello

Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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