by Shaun Harkin
September 2, 2010
Leon Trotsky’s life spanned the inspiring highs and tragic lows of the international socialist movement in the 20th century–a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution that gave us our first and best glimpse of a workers’ state, and the victim of the Stalinist counter-revolution, assassinated 70 years ago in August. Shaun Harkin pays tribute to Trotsky and his immense contributions to the revolutionary tradition.
For 43 years of my conscious life, I have remained a revolutionist; for 42 of them, I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again, I would, of course, try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent; indeed, it is firmer today than it was in the days of my youth.
Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.
WITH THOSE words, Leon Trotsky–a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, now living in exile in Coyoacán, Mexico–ended his “Testament,” to be published after his death.
Several months later, on August 20, the tragedy engulfing the international communist movement delivered its final assault on the living Trotsky.
Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, wanted Trotsky dead. Operating under orders from the USSR’s secret police organization, the Spanish Communist Ramón Mercader traveled to Mexico in May 1940 and developed an acquaintance with Trotsky, visiting his guarded home with chocolates and offers to take the family on climbing trips.
On the fateful day, Mercader plunged an ice ax into the back of Trotsky’s head. Trotsky fell into a coma; he died the following day at age 60. Mercader was arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison. On his release in 1960, he was decorated by the Soviet Union.
Trotsky’s premature death was a tragic loss to the revolutionary socialist movement in which he had played a monumental role and to which he had given so much. The assassination was the culmination of Stalin’s unyielding attempt to destroy any trace of the meaning of Marxism as the “self-emancipation of the working-class.” Trotsky was Stalin’s chief opponent–he fought the degeneration of the Russian revolutionary experiment and labeled Stalin its counter-revolutionary “gravedigger.”
Before Trotsky’s battle to preserve the Marxist tradition from the distortions of Stalinism, he was a central figure in its most important achievement–the Russian Revolution of 1917. Duncan Hallas, author of Trotsky’s Marxism, summarized Trotsky’s political contributions in the final decades of his life, starting with opposition to the First World War and, in February 1917, the overthrow of Russia’s tsar:
Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party, by now a real mass workers’ party, in July, and such was his force of personality, talent and reputation that within a few weeks, he stood second only to Lenin in the eyes of the mass of its supporters. He was entrusted with the actual organization of the October rising and, at the age of 38, became one of the two or three most important figures in party and state, and, a little later, also one of the most significant leaders of the world communist movement, the Communist International. He was the main creator and director of the Red Army and influential in every field of policy.
From these heights, Trotsky was destined to be cast down. The fall was not simply a personal tragedy. Trotsky rose as the revolution rose and fell as the revolution declined. His personal history is fused with the history of the Russian Revolution and international socialism.
From 1923, he led the opposition to the growing reaction in Russia–to Stalinism. Expelled from the party in 1927 and from the USSR in 1929, his last 11 years were spent in an heroic struggle against impossible odds to keep alive the authentic communist tradition and embody it in a revolutionary organization. Vilified and isolated, he was finally murdered on Stalin’s orders in 1940. He left behind a fragile international organization and a body of writings that is one of the richest sources of applied Marxism in existence.
Trotsky’s murder demonstrated the almost global dominance of what came to be known as Stalinism, a monstrous counter-revolutionary distortion of the goals of socialism. Stalinism succeeded in marginalizing those who believed that socialism meant workers’ control of society, the abolition of classes and human liberation.
However, the words of his testament reveal, despite everything, Trotsky’s refusal to capitulate and his unshakable belief in the capacity of the downtrodden to struggle for their own emancipation and construct a new society. Trotsky’s magnificent History of the Russian Revolution, written in 1930, eloquently captures this vision:
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times, the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business–kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists.
But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime…The history of a revolution is for us, first of all, a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.
Amid the terrible human slaughter of the First World War, this is what occurred in Russia in 1917. The revolution was the high point of Trotsky’s life–and the world-historic high point so far of the great effort to save humanity from inequality, subservience and ignorance.
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TROTSKY’S REAL name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein. He was born in October 1879 in the Southern Ukraine. His father was a reasonably well-off farmer. Because of anti-Semitism, it was only in the southern plains of the tsar’s empire that Jewish families were allowed to possess their own land. In his autobiography My Life, Trotsky wrote of his early years:
My childhood was not one of hunger and cold. My family had already achieved a competence of people still rising from poverty and having no desire to stop halfway. Every muscle was strained, every thought set on work and savings. Such a domestic routine left but a modest place for the children. We knew of no need, but neither did we know the generosities of life–its caresses.
My childhood does not appear to me as a sunny meadow, as it does to a small minority; neither does it appear as a dark cave of hunger, violence and misery, as it does to the majority. Mine was the grayish childhood of a lower-middle-class family, spent in a village in an obscure corner where nature is wide, and manners, views and interests are pinched and narrow.
Trotsky first participated in the revolutionary movement in 1896 when he joined a study circle of the Narodniks, a Russian populist movement. At the time, he supported the “peasant socialism” of the Narodniks and derided Marxism as didactic, mechanistic and materialist.
But by 1897, Trotsky, at the age of 18, had been won over to Marxism. Capitalist development had surreptitiously spread in Russia, giving birth to a new working class that announced itself with militant strikes in the 1890s. On this rising wave of working-class struggle, Trotsky and his friends successfully organized the South Russian Workers’ Union, establishing eight or nine chapters in Odessa. As Trotsky recalled:
If it had been possible for anyone to look at this with a sober eye, at this group of young people scurrying about in the half-darkness around a miserable hectograph, what a sorry, fantastic thing it would have seemed to imagine that they could, in this way, overthrow a mighty state that was centuries old. And yet this sorry fantasy became a reality within a single generation; and only eight years separated those nights from 1905, and not quite 20 from 1917.
Their organizing efforts were so successful that 28 members of the union were arrested in 1898. As a result, Trotsky spent two years in prison and was transported to Siberia for four further years of exile. Here, in exile, he first read Darwin, Freud, Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? Again, writing in My Life, Trotsky gave an example of how the Russian revolutionary left’s debates developed:
The old structure of the state was cracking all through its foundations. The students were still the ringleaders in the struggle, and in their impatience began to employ the methods of terrorism…
After individual vacillations, the Marxist section of the exiled went on record against terrorism. The chemistry of high explosives cannot take the place of mass action, we said. Individuals may be destroyed in a heroic struggle, but that will not rouse the working class to action. Our task is not the assassination of the tsar’s ministers, but the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism…While my theoretical views were formed in prison, my political self-determination was achieved in exile.
Trotsky managed to escape from Siberia in 1902, hiding under bales of hay in a peasant’s wagon. His new passport was so badly forged that he had to fill in his own details–this is how he came to adopt his famous pseudonym “Trotsky,” the name of one of his prison guards in Odessa.
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FROM SIBERIA, Trotsky arrived in Europe, meeting Lenin for the first time in London in 1902. For the next three years, Trotsky developed a reputation as a writer, speaker and debater for revolutionary Marxism across Europe and became fully acquainted with the exiled Russian revolutionary movement.
In 1903, Trotsky participated in the second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party (RSDLP), held initially in Brussels, but moved to London because of surveillance by Belgian authorities.
The congress witnessed a series of stormy debates on questions such as the Jewish Bund’s proposal for autonomy within the party, the critique of the “economists” against revolutionary politics and, finally, party rules and membership. Rather than being a “unity” conference, the RSDLP split into two permanent factions: the Bolsheviks (which means “majority” in Russian) and the Mensheviks (which means “minority”). The question of party rules was the most controversial and triggered the split.
Against Lenin’s conception of a professional and disciplined party membership–what became known as the “vanguard” party–Trotsky argued that such an approach would lead to a situation in which “the organization of the party substitutes itself for the Party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally ‘the dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”
Trotsky rejected Lenin’s vanguard party because he feared too strident centralism would undermine workers’ self-activity. He feared the party would attempt to substitute itself for the revolutionary working class, and top-down control would stifle workers’ revolutionary initiative.
However, later on, in My Life, Trotsky wrote: “I thought of myself as a centralist, but there was no doubt that at the time, I did not fully realize what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order.”
The experience of revolutionary struggle in Russia taught Trotsky the need for a party that could unite the most advanced workers. By the time of the 1917 revolution, “Lenin’s position came through to me with full force,” Trotsky wrote in 1924. “What had seemed to me to be ‘splitterism,’ ‘disruption,’ etc., now appeared as a salutary and incomparably far-sighted struggle for the revolutionary independence of the proletarian party.”
First, though, came Russia’s first encounter with workers’ power–and Trotsky’s, too. In 1905, the rising militancy of the working class and peasantry clashed with imperial Russia’s defeat in its 1904-05 war with Japan.
On January 9, 1905, 200 protesters were massacred by the tsar’s soldiers during a peaceful march on the Winter Palace–the demonstrators wanted to present a petition begging for reforms. Immediately following this “Bloody Sunday,” a tremendous strike wave engulfed Russia. Millions of workers struck to challenge the tsarist regime, and in the countryside, rebellious peasants ransacked landlord estates.
The battles of 1905 gave rise to the first “soviets”–the Russian word for “workers’ councils”–to direct the struggle against the autocracy. Trotsky’s described these driving forces of Russia’s great revolutionary “dress rehearsal” in his book 1905:
What was the essential nature of this institution which within a short time assumed such an important place within the revolution and marked the period of its maximum power? The Soviet organized the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers and protected the population against pogroms…
The secret of this influence lay in the fact that the soviet grew as the natural organ of the proletariat in its immediate struggle for power as determined by the actual course of events. The name of “workers’ government,” which the workers themselves on the one hand, and the reactionary press on the other, gave to the soviet, was an expression of the fact that the soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo.
When the revolutionary wave erupted, Trotsky immediately returned from forced exile and entered the fray, becoming a leading voice and organizer of the insurrectionary movement. He was elected president of the soviet in the capital of Petrograd.
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ULTIMATELY, THE 1905 revolution was defeated. But Trotsky’s active participation and insights allowed him to develop his greatest theoretical contribution to Marxism: the theory of permanent revolution. In the first volume of his biography of Trotsky, Tony Cliff summarized Trotsky’s theoretical breakthrough:
Traditional Marxism looked upon backward countries in the light of Marx’s well-known formula that the advanced industrial countries showed the more backward countries their own future development. As Marx put it in the preface to Capital: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed the image of their own future.”
The conclusion the Mensheviks drew from this statement was that with all the differences in national conditions, the historical tasks that faced young capitalism in France in 1789 would face newly developing capitalism in Russia and other relatively backward countries in the future. Trotsky rejected this mechanical and linear approach to Russia’s historical development.
When he developed the theory of permanent revolution in 1906, he saw it as applicable to Russia. With the experience of the Chinese revolution (1925-7), he generalized it to embrace all relatively backward countries.
The commonly held Marxist view was that it would be impossible for a backward country to “skip” over stages of economic development. Therefore, all that socialists could expect from the coming revolution in Russia would be the political and economic dominance of the bourgeoisie, which would subsequently develop Russia’s economic foundation as a prerequisite for socialism. Thus, the workers’ movement should limit its demands, role and aspirations.
Trotsky rejected this, arguing that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to lead the fight for “democracy” in the way its European ancestors had. The working class would have to take the lead in this struggle, in alliance with the peasantry, and the coming revolution would combine the struggle for democracy with the struggle for workers’ power.
In Results and Prospects, written in 1906, Trotsky argues:
Should the Russian proletariat find itself in power, if only as the result of a temporary conjuncture of circumstances in our bourgeois revolution, it will encounter the organized hostility of world reaction, and on the other hand, will find a readiness on the part of the world proletariat to give organized support.
Left to its own resources, the working class of Russia will inevitably be crushed by the counter-revolution the moment the peasantry turns its back on it. It will have no alternative but to link the fate of its political rule, and hence, the fate of the whole Russian revolution, with the fate of the socialist revolution in Europe.
That colossal state-political power given it by a temporary conjuncture of circumstances in the Russian bourgeois revolution it will cast into the scales of the class struggle of the entire capitalist world. With state power in its hands, with counter-revolution behind it and European reaction in front of it, it will send forth to its comrades the world over the old rallying cry, which this time will be a call for the last attack: Workers of all countries, unite!
Trotsky was arguing that a combination of factors created unique revolutionary possibilities in Russia, because of which the overthrow of tsarism didn’t have to lead to a modern capitalist state. However–and crucially–a revolution led by workers and allied with Russia’s massive peasantry had to spread beyond Russian borders to the more technically advanced Europe in order to survive.
The two revolutions of 1917–the first in February against the tsar, and the second in October against the Provisional Government that succeeded the tsar–confirmed Trotsky’s theoretical insights.
The representatives of Russia’s bourgeoisie were actually thrust into power by the February revolution, but they remained intent on preserving the policies of tsarism without the tsar. The October revolution that established the workers’ soviets as the sole power in Russia was necessary to preserve the democratic gains of February, but it had to go beyond the confines of the bourgeois revolution.
During 1917, Trotsky’s smaller organization of 4,000 members fused with Lenin’s larger Bolshevik Party, with some 200,000 members rooted in Russia’s factories and working-class districts.
Trotsky was not only the Russian Revolution’s theorist, but he became one of its foremost practical leaders. For example, when the time was ripe to topple the Provisional Government in October, Trotsky played a key role, as Isaac Deutscher wrote in his majestic three-volume biography of Trotsky:
Trotsky was approaching the problem from his new vantage as president of the Petrograd Soviet. He agreed with Lenin on the chances and the urgency of insurrection. But he disagreed with him over the method, especially over the idea that the party should stage the insurrection in its own name and on its own responsibility.
Instead, Trotsky argued that the Soviets should seize state power as the representative of Russia’s entire working class and peasantry. The victory in October proved Trotsky correct in this regard as well.
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TRAGICALLY, THOUGH a great wave of revolutionary struggles erupted across Europe following 1917, none of these rebellions resulted in the establishment of a workers’ state in an advanced economy. In Germany, revolution brought down the Kaiser in 1918, and workers’ councils were established across the country. But by 1923, the chances for the German working class to carry through its own October revolution and establish a workers’ state had been defeated. Russia was doomed to isolation.
This isolation–along with Russia’s economic backwardness and the scarcity and desperation caused by a civil war fomented by the remnants of tsarism, with the active support of imperialist countries, including the U.S.–forms the backdrop of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
In The Prophet Unarmed, Deutscher described Russia’s dire situation:
The material foundations of its existence were shattered. It will be enough to recall that by the end of the civil war, Russia’s national income amounted to only one-third of her income in 1913, that industry produced less than one-fifth of the goods produced before the war, that coal mines turned out less than one-tenth and the iron foundries only one-fortieth of their normal output, that the railways were destroyed, that all stocks and reserves on which any economy depends for its work were utterly exhausted, that the exchange of goods between town and country had come to a standstill, that Russia’s cities had become so depopulated that in 1921, Moscow had only one-half and Petrograd one-third of its former inhabitants.
The Russian workers’ state survived the civil war, but at an immense cost–the effective destruction of the working class. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, took one emergency measure after another in the hopes that revolution in Germany would finally bring aid to the Russian Revolution and a rebirth of the working class.
Hallas describes what this meant in practical terms:
Did the workers’ state of 1918 still exist? Soviet democracy had, in practice, been destroyed in the civil war. The Communist Party had “emancipated” itself from the need for majority working-class support. The soviets had become rubber stamps for party decisions. Moreover, the process of “militarisation” and “commandism” within the Communist Party had grown apace, and for the same reasons…
The party had been driven to substitute itself for a vanishing working class, and within the party, the leading bodies had increasingly asserted their authority over a growing but ill-assorted membership.
The process of “militarization” and “commandism” was symbolized most of all by the rise of Joseph Stalin. Stalin was a veteran Bolshevik, but by the 1920s, he was at the center of the bureaucratized party and state.
Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922 that partially incapacitated him. In the final months of his political life, he grew further alarmed at the distorted character of Russia’s workers’ state, and in particular at Stalin’s abuses of power, including his brutal treatment of national minorities.
In his “Testament,” Lenin urged Trotsky and other remaining party leaders to remove Stalin from his post as general secretary. But by this point, Stalin had grown too powerful.
In 1923, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks formed the Left Opposition, campaigning for a different economic policy, more democracy and a rejection of Stalin’s newly minted theory of “socialism in one country” and a return to the Marxist principle that socialism must be international.
However, with the defeat of the German revolution and other opportunities for working class advance, particularly in China and Britain, the party bureaucracy under Stalin grew stronger. Stalin was able to outmaneuver Trotsky and the opposition by relying on a combination of repression, reforms, encouragement of Russian nationalism and a growing system of privilege and power for the bureaucratic elite. With every move designed to marginalize Trotsky, the features of class society and class rule were returning to Russia.
Even in the face of all this–an incredible campaign of slander against him personally and of violence against any Russian revolutionary with the authority to challenge Stalin–Trotsky didn’t relent. He was forced into exile in 1928, and spent the rest of his life fighting to keep the genuine socialist tradition alive.
As Trotsky was driven out of Russia, Stalin launched the first of the five-year plans, aimed at rapid industrialization–with grim consequences for Russian workers and peasants. With the bureaucracy’s consolidation of power, the level of repression against all voices of opposition, real or perceived, grew to grotesque proportions, culminating in Moscow show trials of 1936-37. As Trotsky’s follower Ernest Mandel later wrote:
The terror unleashed by Stalin was one of the most gruesome crimes in modern history. Millions of workers, peasants, intellectuals and communists lost their lives. More than a million communists, among them practically the whole of Lenin’s Central Committee and a large part of the leadership of party and state between 1924 and 1933, became victims of the murder machine. The victims were slandered and accused as enemies of the people, terrorists, agents of foreign imperialism and supporters of capitalist restoration. Confessions were forced from them by means of the most gruesome methods of torture.
In exile, Trotsky continued to put forward the genuine Marxist tradition. He analyzed the rise of fascism in Europe and how it could be defeated, the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of the 1930s, and the inter-imperial rivalries that led to the Second World War. Trotsky’s writings were so brilliant that each of these subjects deserves an article to itself. But Trotsky and his followers were a tiny minority compared to the forces commanded by Stalin.
In 1936, Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed, a pioneering interpretation of Stalin’s counter-revolution in Russia. In it, Trotsky called for a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and the creation of a new international revolutionary movement. He recognized that the rebuilding of a socialist alternative based on genuine Marxism would only be possible through revolutionary opposition to Stalinism.
These are only a few glimpses of the immense contributions that Leon Trotsky made to revolutionary Marxism. His defense of the soul of Marxism–that socialism must be the self-emancipation of the working class–in the face of Stalin’s distortions preserved the tradition for a new generation to discover, first in the 1960s and ’70s, and later after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
Whatever flaws and weaknesses we see in hindsight, we should aim to approach Marxism the way that Trotsky did–as a living, breathing guide to action that can bring about a new world based on workers’ power and cleansed of all evil, oppression and violence.
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