Eighty years ago in Mexico City (on Aug. 21), Leon Trotsky, one of the great revolutionaries of the 20th century, was murdered by agents of Stalin. Trotsky left behind an incredible amount of written work that laid the foundation for building a revolutionary socialist party today.

On Aug. 28, 1940, James P. Cannon stated at the Trotsky Memorial Meeting in New York, “Comrade Trotsky’s entire conscious life, from the time he entered the workers’ movement in the provincial Russian town of Nikolayev at the age of eighteen up till the moment of his death in Mexico City forty-two years later, was completely dedicated to work and struggle for one central idea. He stood for the emancipation of the workers and all the oppressed people of the world, and the transformation of society from capitalism to socialism by means of a social revolution. In his conception, this liberating social revolution requires for success the leadership of a revolutionary political party of the workers’ vanguard.”

This article will look at the current relevance of many of the key issues that Trotsky analyzed in his last years, with a focus on his unfinished article, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay.”

As he lay dying in Mexico City from the blow of one of Stalin’s operatives, directing the defense of his home with his final breath, Trotsky’s article on the trade unions sat waiting for the “old man”. What exists of the article gives us a look inside Trotsky’s thinking on the conjuncture of trade unions, the state, and world imperialism. Even in an unfinished form it has tremendous value for workers today.

Why should young socialists and trade-union militants care about an 80-year-old unfinished article? How is it relevant in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis for the working poor? Can it help revitalize a stagnant labor movement now further damaged by massive unemployment? The answers to those questions involve an exploration of the role of trade unions in society from past to present. This article will investigate how relationships between contending social classes have shaped unions and led to their general political impotence.

In particular, when reading Trotsky, workers are shown how the development of capitalism toward an increasingly centralized profit-driven society draws in, like a whirlpool, the elementary units of class struggle. Even the most “left-wing” and radically posturing unions are susceptible to being drawn closer to the capitalist class’s influence.

The influence of the ruling class is inevitable in all spheres of society and culture. Profound art is turned into a commodity, education is designed to better exploit our labor, our skills vanish as they are replaced by technology, and our union leadership takes privileges at the expense of workers. How can workers overcome this phenomenon of our unions yielding to the pressure of the capitalist ruling class?

The revolutionary workers’ movement has tried to answer this question with a variety of strategies and tactics that range from reformist to ultra-left. Some have tried to win leadership of the union, others have tried to form their own “red,” communist, or anarchist unions, and others look to “bore from within” the existing unions and win over workers. All strategies, in one form or another, are attempts to overcome the bureaucratized leadership of the trade unions. But what actually works?

The most successful strategies develop from a practical understanding of the labor movement and how to advance the struggle based on that experience. While not outlining it explicitly in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” Trotsky meant to elaborate on the use of the “Transitional Program” in confronting the bureaucracy. The Transitional Program expressed a need “to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution.” A transitional program aimed to aid the fight against the capitalist class would at the same time expose the union bureaucracy and make its collaborationist role in the class struggle more apparent to every worker.

Trotsky builds the Left Opposition while in exile

Before discussing the article further, an outline of the historical context of “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”—including events that led to the murder of the author—might be helpful in understanding the significance of the text and how we can build real class-struggle trade unions today.

By the late 1930s, Stalin had succeeded in wiping out nearly the entire leadership of the Soviet Union who had led the Russian Revolution in 1917. By silencing the experienced voices who created the world’s first workers’ government, Stalin maintained bureaucratic control at the expense of the world working-class movement. The justification for this was developed through Stalin and Buhkarin’s 1924 theory of “Socialism in One Country.” This eventually became the state policy of the Soviet Union “and an ideological underpinning of Stalinism and the degenerated Comintern.”

As Stalin began to consolidate power following the death of Lenin in 1924, he removed all opposition. Trotsky, a fierce opponent, counterposed to “Socialism in One Country” the need of the working class to spread the revolution across the globe—as he explained in his “Theory of Permanent Revolution.” However, Trotsky was forced into exile by Stalin and compelled to build an opposition to Stalinism from outside the Soviet Union. This opposition would eventually become an entirely new international movement and organization—the Fourth International.

Trotsky represented a direct connection to Lenin and the Russian Revolution going back to 1905, when he served as a leader of the Petrograd workers council (soviet). Trotsky had witnessed numerous momentous occasions in the workers’ movement and had a good sense of what was possible with the right political program in the hands of determined revolutionaries. He first learned these lessons as a young Marxist, moving from study groups to distributing revolutionary leaflets to industrial workers and helping establish the South Russian Workers’ Union in Nikolayev in early 1897. He was arrested, exiled, and witnessed the decay of the Second International (1889-1916) leading up to the First World War.

In exile many years later, he constantly urged workers into action around a revolutionary strategy and explained how Stalin was derailing the revolution through opportunist betrayals. Trotsky was leading a fight to save and expand the gains made by workers through the Russian Revolution. But Stalin, knowing first hand the potency of Trotsky’s leadership and ideas, wanted him silenced. At the time of his murder, Trotsky was deeply committed to building a new international organization to carry out the task of leading the socialist revolution.

Trotsky had helped to lay the foundations of the Third (Communist) International, 1919-1943, which galvanized revolutionary parties everywhere around the world under its banner. With the degeneration of the Third International under the Stalinist leadership, Trotsky felt an urgent necessity to bring together Marxist revolutionary workers who opposed Stalin. The task was especially pressing with another world war looming. The Fourth International would attempt to gather like-minded forces from the workers’ movement in many countries to wage a political struggle against the degenerated Stalinist parties on one hand, and against the world capitalist class, who were advancing their imperialist interests, on the other hand.

Who made up this vanguard leadership of Marxist workers coalescing around Trotsky in the form of a left opposition to Stalin? It was a very disorienting time for revolutionaries, but one by one, Marxists began to learn and understand what was happening in Russia. In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky describes the reactionary and the progressive as “two ends of necessity” each pulling at opposite ends. In Russia, Stalin was pulling at the reactionary end, while Trotsky and his followers were building a barricade on the progressive end.

Acting as a U.S. Communist Party delegate in Moscow in 1928 James P. Cannon, a leading member of the Communist Party, was one of those comrades who had Trotsky’s views dropped in his lap in a moment of serendipity. He then brought those ideas back to the U.S., and he and other comrades were expelled from the party for supporting Trotsky.

In the United States, Trotskyists around Cannon formed the Communist League of America. A few years later, the CLA led two massive labor struggles—a hotel workers strike in 1933 in New York City, and then the historic Minneapolis Teamster strike in 1934. Every step of the way they had to defend their work against their former comrades in the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) as well as against fascists in the form of the “Silver Shirts.” They built solidarity with the fight against fascism in Spain and confronted rising fascist forces in the U.S. by organizing a massive united-front response to a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in NYC.

As the forces of fascism grew and took power across Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, Trotskyists heeded the call to action. They fought in Spain—for the most part, in the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM)—to support the Spanish revolution and fight General Franco’s fascist reaction. In Nazi Germany, at great risk, Trotskyists agitated secretly among workers and soldiers in the heart of fascism. In Vichy France, Jewish Trotskyists like Martin Monath gave their lives trying to convince Nazi soldiers that that their working-class interests had nothing in common with Hitler and German nationalism.

Trotskyists believed that if German workers and soldiers could topple the Kaiser following the First World War, they could also work to defeat fascism, end the Second World War, and create a socialist republic. If members of the Fourth International were successful in influencing and winning German workers, then there would be no doubt that an opposition to Stalin could be forged and workers could regain democratic control of their revolution in Russia.

Trotsky died in 1940, just as World War II was ramping up. A year earlier Stalin had again betrayed the workers’ movement by signing a pact with Hitler that opened fascist expansion in Europe and eventually sent millions of Jewish workers, communists, and other oppressed minorities into concentration camps. World imperialism was plunging workers into a slaughterhouse to re-divide land and resources for capitalist profits. The war, of course, culminated in the barbaric destruction by American forces of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastating the civilian population of mostly poor workers and farmers with atomic bombs.

Monopoly capitalism and trade-union bureaucracy

Although Trotsky could not predict the post-war “economic boom” in the U.S. or the relative strength of post-war Stalinism, as a Marxist he was able to perceive the bureaucratic trends in the world labor movement through observing its relationship to world imperialism and the Soviet Union. These observations are still relevant today. “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” contains important insights to help us understand the union bureaucracy as a lap dog of the capitalist class and the methods workers need to “free the unions” from the grip of their class enemy.

Capitalism’s method for making profits is the exploitation of the labor of the working class. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels showed that capitalists live off of the unpaid labor of the working class, called surplus value or profit. All capitalists, regardless of their intentions or goodwill, are forced to drive down the wages and benefits of all workers to take in the greatest amount of profits possible.

As profits grew for the capitalists, as technology like the loom began to replace the need for the skills of the craftsmen or artisan, as peasants were pushed from their fields to the cities and labor became more abundant, the modern working class was established. To fight increasing exploitation, workers found the need to form their own associations or unions.

Unions are an elementary form of workers’ struggle to challenge capitalist exploitation. Lenin wrote in 1920, “The trade unions were a tremendous step forward for the working class in the early days of capitalist development, inasmuch as they marked a transition from the workers’ disunity and helplessness to the rudiments of class organization.”

How did this elementary form of worker self-organization become tied to the system that it was meant to fight? The answer comes from a deeper understanding of how the economy became a highly centralized monopoly capitalist system.

Lenin writes, “Imperialism’s economic relations constitute the core of the entire international situation as it now exists. Throughout the twentieth century, this new, highest and final stage of capitalism has fully taken shape. Of course, you all know that the enormous dimensions that capital has reached are the most characteristic and essential feature of imperialism. The place of free competition has been taken by huge monopolies. An insignificant number of capitalists have, in some cases, been able to concentrate in their hands entire branches of industry; these have passed into the hands of combines, cartels, syndicates and trusts, not infrequently of an international nature. Thus, entire branches of industry, not only in single countries but all over the world, have been taken over by monopolists in the field of finance, property rights, and partly of production. This has formed the basis for the unprecedented domination exercised by an insignificant number of very big banks, financial tycoons, financial magnates who have, in fact, transformed even the freest republics into financial monarchies.”

Competition between capitalists is the driving force that led to monopolies, imperialist expansion, greater centralization of society, and a more thorough exploitation of the working class. Through this process of centralization, smaller capitalist firms are completely consumed by stronger ones, putting control of the economy into the hands of fewer and fewer people. The cycle has continued along this path, occasionally disrupted by a reshuffling for control of resources and labor through war between capitalists in differing nations. Then, inevitably, as Marx first outlined, the whole system goes again into periods of crisis due to overproduction of the remaining competitors. The rate of profit continues in a downward spiral and the capitalists devise new ways to try and maintain their profits.

Unions are not a vehicle to dismantle capitalism but rather a vehicle to fight for the rights of workers within capitalism and to negotiate with the capitalist bosses. A union contract with a company does not end the exploitation of workers; it simply deals with the degree to which workers are exploited.

Nevertheless, monopoly capitalism and imperialism have needed the acquiescence of the trade unions to fully develop. A tremendous amount of pressure and coercion is put on the union leaders to conform to the interests of the capitalist class and the capitalist state. As a result, a layer of paid full-time elected officials and staff becomes entrenched in the unions as a privileged bureaucracy. Constant negotiations inch forward the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the capitalist class. The bureaucracy, a distinct and separate entity from the ranks of the workers, takes certain privileges (financial kickbacks, political appointments, etc.) in its role as negotiator. Holding on to these privileges again brings the bureaucracy under the heel of capitalism.

Trotsky writes, “This process is equally characteristic of the neutral, the Social-Democratic, the Communist and ‘anarchist’ trade unions. This fact alone shows that the tendency towards ‘growing together’ is intrinsic not in this or that doctrine as such but derives from social conditions common for all unions.”

Twists and turns of Stalinist policy toward the unions

Trotsky refers to several forms that unions have taken in the past century or more of class struggle. He alludes in the above quote to the Stalinist “Third Period” trade union policy. During this period, Soviet policy took a sharp turn to the left; internationally, the Stalinists split the trade union movement and formed their own CP-led “Red” unions. The maneuver had no basis in the real class struggle and was a complete reversal of the curse laid out by Lenin and Trotsky. It went against the prevailing communist tactic of the united front and “boring from within” the unions.

The policy in many ways distanced the CP from the broader worker’s movement. Although the theory proposed that world revolution was around the corner, in reality this was largely a maneuver to oust the Left Opposition Trotskyists from Communist Parties around the world and to consolidate the Stalinist ranks. In just a few years, the Soviet policy would sharply turn again, this time to the right, with the Popular Front strategy that would align the Communist Parties with left bourgeois parties.

In the United States, Communist Party members and supporters like Harry Bridges of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) would fully back the capitalist war efforts during World War II. They provided a left-wing cover for Democratic Party President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a period of intense class struggle all across the country, Bridges and other CP union leaders, signed “no strike” pledges that weakened the labor movement and kept production going for the war effort. From Spain, Germany, Chile, and beyond, there have been many examples in the workers’ movement of how these Stalinist policies led to serious defeats. All experienced betrayals and wild political swings from right to left and back again.*

In the same period, Trotskyist trade unionists in the United States were using their influence in the Minneapolis Teamsters to build class consciousness and opposition to World War II. The local Teamsters newspaper, Northwest Organizer, ran numerous articles educating their membership and the labor movement on the coming war, the growth of capitalism into monopoly and then world imperialism, and they explained how workers should respond. For example, Tex Norris, a comrade assigned to write for the Northwest Organizer, wrote, “Imperialism was a natural development in any advanced capitalist nation. Just as U.S. business operated outside its home base, so did British, French, Italian, and Japanese. The competition between those different imperialist interests within a contracted world market was growing keener daily, and that was leading to the most terrible of all the consequences of imperialism—war.”

American Trotskyists through the trade unions worked to develop opposition to the inter-imperialist war (while supporting defense of the beleaguered Soviet Union and the colonial countries). As a consequence, top leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party went to jail for more than a year under the repressive Smith Act in 1943.

Trade unions and imperialism today

Today, the decay of world Imperialism has again intensified international capitalist relations. The long boom after World War II, with a general rise in living standards for workers in the United States and Western Europe, lasted around 20 years. Today, as living standards stagnate or decline, the trade unions are today considerably weaker and thoroughly adapted to the capitalist class. This didn’t happen overnight but was a drawn out process over several decades.

The working-class militancy of the 1930s and ’40s transitioned to a perspective of relying on politicians to pass legislation. Even in 1940, following the militant rise of the CIO in the U.S., Trotsky could see this bureaucracy move closer to capitalist class. He writes, “In the United States the trade-union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade-union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.”

Today what has changed? The entry of China and Russia as new imperialist powers is an important factor. The trade tensions between the U.S. and China, the increased incursion of Chinese and Russian capital alongside traditional imperialism in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa are all also symptomatic of a higher level of capitalist competition. This elevated tension can’t go on forever and at any moment could pivot in the direction of war.

New competition over the control of resources and the ability to exploit weaker nations has certain consequences for organized labor as it is drawn in to support the needs of the ruling class. Since the trade-union bureaucracy sees its relationship with the bosses in terms of negotiations, nothing stops them from accepting an offer that might help workers in their home country while undermining the workers’ movement in another country.

In the United States, the trade-union movement is an important part of imperialist intervention abroad. The AFL-CIO, the main trade-union federation in the U.S., dutifully fulfills its international obligations for the U.S. ruling class by assisting interventions in many places around the world. AFL-CIO presidents from George Meany and Lane Kirkland to Trumka exemplify the class-collaborationist trade-union policy in the service of U.S. imperialism. Meany, for example, helped lead the charge of “anti-communist” containment following the revolution in Cuba in 1959.

One way that collaboration between U.S. imperialism and the labor movement takes place is through the Solidarity Center. The Solidarity Center, aligned with the AFL-CIO and the largest U.S.-based international workers’ aid organization, is funded largely by U.S. government agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). NED has been a driving force for supporting U.S. interests internationally. This type of funding always comes with strings attached and represents one of the many ways the trade unions have been drawn in closer to the state.

Solidarity Center has a contradictory existence. For example, it is active in recent fights to organize casino workers in Cambodia, but at the same time it has also worked to undermine democratically elected governments in Venezuela. It functions almost like a skeleton laid out across the globe ready to be fleshed out with resources when it serves U.S. interests. In a stunning rejection of working-class solidarity, the AFL-CIO gave financial and technical support for the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and CTV president Carlos Ortega, who backed the 2002 coup against democratically elected Hugo Chavez.

Conversely, trade unions existing in exploited, colonial, and semi-colonial nations, can be directly co-opted into state institutions as part of a process of drawing the trade unions to the state. Trotsky gives the example of Mexico and writes, “In Mexico the trade unions have been transformed by law into semi-state institutions and have, in the nature of things, assumed a semi-totalitarian character. The stateization of the trade unions was, according to the conception of the legislators, introduced in the interests of the workers in order to assure them an influence upon the governmental and economic life. But insofar as foreign imperialist capitalism dominates the national state and insofar as it is able, with the assistance of internal reactionary forces, to overthrow the unstable democracy and replace it with outright fascist dictatorship, to that extent the legislation relating to the trade unions can easily become a weapon in the hands of imperialist dictatorship.”

If we look back again at Venezuela we see yet another example of leaders like Hugo Chavez or Maduro who try to walk a fine line between the workers on one hand and the capitalists on the other. Like tightrope walkers, they try to balance their own national bourgeois interests with the needs and pressures of the international capitalists, and at the same time give enough mild reforms to pacify the working class.

Sometimes the needs of imperialism come in conflict with a wing of the national bourgeoisie, and there are tensions that cannot be resolved other than through a show of force on the part of the imperialists. This can cause a lot of confusion around who is and who is not an ally of the working class. Many fall into the trap of blindly giving political support to this or that capitalist regime because at any given moment they may be in conflict with the U.S. or another imperialist power.

Freeing the unions under fascism and today

With such a high level of class collaboration, corruption, and bureaucratization, how should workers relate to the labor movement? Have the unions gone so far in the direction of class collaboration that they are ruined and socialists should ignore them all together? Trotsky takes these questions and poses an additional scenario: What do socialists and militant left workers do when fascism is actually in power, as it was in Spain, Italy, and Germany? Do they abstain from the fascist-run trade unions?

Fascism is the most repressive form of capitalism; it permeates every aspect of life through coercion and force, and this includes the trade unions. Fascism is a last resort to save capitalism in the event of extreme crisis, especially when workers are threatening to take power. Many today are throwing around the term “fascist” to describe Trump, but that designation lacks a thorough understanding of what fascism looks like in power.

“Fascism and Big Business,” a book by Daniel Guerin, offers many insights for anyone looking to understand how fascist culture penetrates society and how truly dangerous it is for the workers movement. Guerin writes, “Fascism, in fact, has brought to the highest degree of perfection the methods of police repression used in modern states. It has made the political police a truly scientific organization. The Italian Ovra, the German Gestapo—real ‘states within the state,’ with ramifications in all classes of society and even in every dwelling house, with enormous financial and material resources, and with limitless powers—are in a position literally to annihilate at birth every attempt at opposition wherever it appears. They can arrest at any time, ‘put away’ on a remote island or in a concentration camp, even execute without a semblance of a trial, anyone they wish.”

Even with these horrible conditions, Trotsky urged workers to dig in, go to the masses, and win them from fascism. He writes, “We cannot select the arena and the conditions for our activity to suit our own likes and dislikes. It is infinitely more difficult to fight in a totalitarian or a semi-totalitarian state for influence over the working masses than in a democracy. The very same thing likewise applies to trade unions, whose fate reflects the change in the destiny of capitalist states. We cannot renounce the struggle for influence over workers in Germany merely because the totalitarian regime makes such work extremely difficult there.”

The most advanced and militant workers took on these regimes under very difficult circumstances. They used every opportunity to undermine the regime. They worked underground, secretly, distributing literature and organizing resistance. Guerin writes, “Added to these methods of police repression is the state of ‘forced disunity, dispersion and helplessness’ in which fascism keeps the working class. Certainly in neither Italy nor Germany can the regime boast of having all the proletariat with it; quite the contrary. Mussolini himself is forced to confess, ‘I cannot say that I have [with me] all the workers … They are perpetual malcontents.’”

Guerin also writes, “In Germany, the elections to the factory ‘confidential councils’ have twice (April, 1934, and April, 1935) constituted a stinging defeat for the regime. According to the later admission of Dr. Ley himself, scarcely 40 per cent of the electors voted in 1934. In 1935 at least 30 per cent of the electors abstained or voted against. In 1936, 1937, and 1938 the elections were ‘postponed’ as a precautionary measure, and in June, 1938, it was decided that the ‘confidential men’ would no longer be ‘elected’ but appointed by the head of the company.”

Workers in most countries today face conditions that are nowhere near as onerous as those under fascism. Nevertheless, highlighting the tactics and courage of workers in those extremely difficult situations helps in gaining understanding of the organizing tasks of workers inside capitalist workplaces in our own time—where workers must often confront repression as well as cooptation.

Revolutionary socialist trade unionists have many opportunities to politicize their coworkers and win them to a left-wing class-struggle perspective. The key question is leadership and finding a path to building an independent party of the working class that can strive to construct a workers’ government and to guide the working class and its allies toward the taking of state power. Trotsky highlights the struggle for working-class independence of the unions and building union democracy as vital to this process.

How do we extricate the unions from the capitalist state? How do we turn the unions into vehicles of left-wing class struggle? How can we build a party for revolution?

Trotsky affirms that independent revolutionary trade unions are absolutely necessary and possible. They can be achieved through the use of the Transitional Program laid out at the founding of the Fourth International. Transitional demands include a sliding scale of wages and a sliding scale of hours. The demand for 30 hours work at 40 hours pay is a classic demand of the labor movement that highlights the need for full employment and livable wages. Workers waging the fight for these types of demands will learn both the deficiencies of the labor bureaucracy to wage a real struggle and the inability of the capitalists to deliver a real living wage. They will also see all the ways in which the two collaborate to pacify or even smash the workers movement.

The Transitional Program states, “‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”

A renewed democratic and fighting labor movement armed with the Marxist conception of the Transitional Program would instill confidence in the workers’ ability to fight on their own terms, and thus have consequences for both the labor bureaucracy and the capitalists. This new confidence could propel the class struggle forward and be the impetus for constructing a mass workers party that challenges the capitalists for power. After all, workers make society run. Why shouldn’t they run society?

“Important work for every revolutionary party”

Now, 80 years after the assassination of Leon Trotsky, his methods for the liberation of the working class remain a powerful tool in the hands of revolutionaries. Trotsky writes, “Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.”

This passage from “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” is a powerful reminder to revolutionaries of our own time. We cannot ignore the unions. History shows that work in the existing trade unions opens many possibilities for socialist organizers. Not only can it help win economic gains and better conditions for the workers but it can train revolutionary cadres, test slogans, politicize coworkers, and build the ranks of the party.

When different socialist groups have common experiences in trade-union work, tested on the picket line, shop floor struggles, or in new organizing efforts, a strong basis will be laid for the regroupment of diffuse revolutionary forces today. The current crisis brought on by the pandemic and economic hardships makes this task increasingly urgent.


* Anarchists similarly supported capitalist governments. Notoriously, they supported the Popular Front government during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. The anarchists refused to initiate a drive to take political power, claiming they were “against every type of dictatorship.” Their inability to establish workers control in Spain showed the bankruptcy of their anarcho-syndicalist doctrine and ultimately helped lead to the counterrevolution and rule of fascism.

Trotsky writes, “The renunciation of the conquest of power inevitably throws every workers’ organization into the swamp of reformism and turns it into a toy of the bourgeoisie; it cannot be otherwise in view of the class structure of society. In opposing the goal, the conquest of power, the Anarchists could not in the end fail to oppose the means, the revolution. The leaders of the CNT and FAI not only helped the bourgeoisie hold on to the shadow of power in July 1936; they also helped it to reestablish bit by bit what it had lost at one stroke. In May 1937, they sabotaged the uprising of the workers and thereby saved the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Thus, anarchism, which wished merely to be anti-political, proved in reality to be anti-revolutionary and in the more critical moments—counter-revolutionary.”

Illustration by General Strike Graphics