Leon Trotsky

Photograph of Trotsky, ca. 1929

Biography

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was a leading Marxist revolutionary of the first half of the 20th century. He is famous for playing leading roles in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and for organising the Red Army during the ensuing Russian Civil War.

In the 1920–30s, Trotsky was an important figure in the Marxist opposition against Joseph Stalin. He critiqued what he saw as the degeneration of the Soviet regime, and inspired many socialists who continued working for an international working-class revolution in opposition to the model of ‘socialism in one country’. He was expelled from the USSR in 1929 and killed in 1940.

Trotsky is also well known as a theoretician, cultural commentator and historical chronicler. His body of work informs the movement known as Trotskyism.

How did Trotsky become involved in the revolutionary movement?

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November (Old Style: 26 October) 1879 to a family of Jewish land-owners in what is now southern Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire. He became an active revolutionary while still a teenager and celebrated his 20th birthday in prison.

After escaping from Siberia in 1902, Bronstein adopted the pseudonym Trotsky, according to legend, the name of one of his jailors. He became involved with London’s community of exiled revolutionaries, establishing a friendship with Lenin and writing for Iskra, the newspaper of Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

This friendship broke down, however. Trotsky criticised the centralised ‘vanguard party’ model advocated by Lenin, seeing it as an authoritarian approach. In the years up to 1917 Trotsky maintained independence from both the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, hoping for their reconciliation.

What was Trotsky’s role in the 1905 Revolution?

In 1905, Trotsky returned to Russia, intending to take part in the revolutionary movement more directly and proved that he had a talent for practical mass politics, writing for various revolutionary newspapers, making stirring speeches and pushing for the end of the Tsarist regime.

He soon became a leading figure of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which had been organised by workers to co-ordinate demonstrations and strike action.

Trotsky was arrested in December 1905 as the autocracy reasserted its grip. For the second time, he was exiled to Siberia and escaped, settling in Vienna in 1907.

What was Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’?

Trotsky formulated the theory of ‘permanent revolution’ in the aftermath of 1905, seeking to develop the Marxist theory of revolution.

Before 1917, most Marxists believed that society would progress through a series of ordered stages. They interpreted the previous great revolutions as marking the leap from feudalism to capitalism. Only once capitalism had been firmly established could there follow a further revolution – a working-class, socialist revolution.

By the early 20th century Russia had yet to achieve its ‘bourgeois’ revolution, with the majority of its peasant population barely integrated into the capitalist system. Russian Marxists, therefore, commonly sought an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie to remove the remnants of feudalism and Tsarist absolutism which impeded the full development of capitalism.

Like Lenin, Trotsky was dissatisfied with this alliance between socialists and liberals. He thought the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of leading a successful revolution. According to Trotsky, the ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution would have to be accomplished by the working class movement itself, which would then pass directly into the struggle for socialism.

He argued that the victory of Russian socialists might be the spark to rouse the working class to revolution in the industrialised capitalist nations. Revolutionary Russia could become part of a fraternal network of European socialist states which would aid its economic development. The fate of Russia would depend on the fate of the world revolution.

How did Trotsky become a key figure in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917?

Trotsky felt vindicated by news of the Revolution in 1917, and returned to Russia, plunging once more into practical revolutionary politics. Trotsky made common cause with the Bolsheviks, seeking to radicalise the revolution further. He was arrested after the July Days, though and then released as part of Kerensky’s effort to mobilise revolutionary workers against the Kornilov revolt.

In September Trotsky was again elected Chairman of the revived Petrograd Soviet. In this position he moved quickly to organise a Military Revolutionary Committee, preparing armed insurrection against the Provisional Government. He was the principal organiser of the Bolshevik uprising in October 1917.

What role did Trotsky play during the first years of the Soviet state?

Trotsky took on the role of the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the new government headed by Lenin. Trotsky assumed there would be little to the job, famously saying that he would ‘issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the people of the world then shut up shop’.

In the absence of a rapid international uprising, the new Soviet government was forced to seek a peace treaty with the Central Powers. Trotsky oversaw the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, taking a position in-between Lenin’s desire for peace, and the plan to turn the conflict into a revolutionary war. Lenin prevailed and peace was established at great cost.

Trotsky was then appointed to transform the Red Army from a disorganised group of volunteers into an effective military machine. Commanding the Red Army from his iconic train, Trotsky became known for his organisational ability, and for the strict discipline he expected of the revolutionary army. His leadership was a crucial factor in the victory of the Reds over the Whites in the Russian Civil War.

Trotsky hoped to apply this discipline to the Soviet state generally – arguing for the ‘militarisation of labour’ to aid Russia’s economic reconstruction. Trotsky played an important part in preserving Soviet power during its precarious first years, though he was also in part responsible for the centralised, authoritarian apparatus which would later be taken over by Stalin.

How did Trotsky lose power?

The period after the end of the Civil War saw heated debates within the Bolshevik leadership about all aspects of Soviet policy, including the shift to the New Economic Policy (NEP), foreign relations and the prospects for international revolution, and the potential sources of instability facing the government.

With Lenin’s death in 1924, the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks now called themselves) lost its unifying figurehead, and the party began to split into opposing factions.

As a leading figure of the so-called Left Opposition in the mid-1920s, Trotsky warned against the bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime, and feared that the Stalinist policy of ‘socialism in one country’ would mean abandoning the attempt to support world revolution.

Many leading Communists distrusted Trotsky, who had joined the party relatively late after being critical of the Bolsheviks for many years. Trotsky was marked out by his personal arrogance, and disdained to act decisively to secure his powerbase until it was too late. By 1926 Stalin’s hold on the Communist Party had become unassailable and in 1927 Trotsky was expelled.

How did Trotsky die?

Trotsky was exiled to Soviet Central Asia, and then to Turkey in early 1929. Like Nicholas II a decade before, Trotsky sought refuge in Britain, and was also rejected. After being hounded out of France and Norway, Trotsky was granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

Trotsky’s political agitation did not cease with his exile from the USSR. He sharpened his attacks on Stalin, and sought to organise an international Left Opposition to continue the struggle.

In the 1930s Stalin’s Great Purges claimed the lives of many ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who had led the party in Lenin’s time. During the Moscow Trials (1936–38), many of the defendants spuriously confessed to being part of a joint Trotskyist-Nazi plot against the USSR, and were executed.

After surviving previous assassination attempts, Trotsky himself was killed by a Stalinist agent in August 1940.

Facts about Trotsky

  • While exiled in Mexico, Trotsky famously undertook an affair with the artist Frida Kahlo.
  • His one-time follower Max Eastman recorded: ‘He did not “smoke, drink, chew, swear, dance nor play cards”. He could not bring an improper word to his lips’.
  • Trotsky used dozens of other pseudonyms during his revolutionary career, including ‘Pero’ (‘The Pen’) in his early career and ‘Old Man’ towards the end.
  • Trotsky suffered frequent blackouts, including one on the day of the October Revolution.
  • In Mexico Trotsky developed an interest in farming and started breeding chickens and rabbits.

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