“Life is not an easy matter … You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.”
There are few historical figures who have been subject to as much abuse as Leon Trotsky. For six decades, he was slandered in the Soviet Union as a Nazi collaborator or agent of Western imperialism. British conservative prime minister Winston Churchill reviled him as the “ogre of Europe” leading a Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
Historians continue to publish new books every year trying to prove anew that Trotsky was no more than a blood-thirsty tyrannical ideologue.
The ire that Trotsky has provoked in defenders of capitalism stems from his uncompromising struggle against a world built on exploitation, violence and oppression. He dedicated his life to the socialist revolution and held a profound belief that the working class has the ability to lead it.
Trotsky can be only a figure of hatred and scorn for the ruling classes and their mouthpieces. But for generations of radicals and revolutionaries, his life has served as a guide and model. His story begins more than a century ago, in eastern Europe.
Trotsky was a student in the small town of Nikolaev, in southern Ukraine, during Russia’s first mass strike. In the summer of of 1896, a strike wave culminated in a general strike of 30,000 textile workers in the capital, St Petersburg. Students from Moscow and St Petersburg would arrive in Nikolaev bringing news of the great unrest. Trotsky was recruited to one of these revolutionary groups.
In 1905, he was thrust into the centre of a massive working class revolution. For month after month, mass strikes shook the country. In coordinating their struggle, workers found new ways to organise and debate the path forward. A new form of democracy emerged: the soviet. The soviet was a workers council, to which workers in all workplaces were invited to elect delegates. It was radical, direct democracy from the factory floor up. At the age of 25, Trotsky was elected to lead the St Petersburg soviet.
The revolution was eventually suppressed, but the soviet held a place in the collective memory of the Russian working class. With the revolution of February 1917, the call to resurrect the Soviets resounded across the Russian Empire.
World War I had created a tinderbox into which a match was thrown in late January. Millions of lives had been lost, martial discipline ruled in the factories and living standards declined dramatically. A wave of strikes won the support of the military, and the tsar was forced to abdicate.
The soviets existed alongside a provisional government, but they were the real power. The country was run by workers, who elected delegates at the factory level. Over the course of 1917, Trotsky learned a lesson he would later consider to be one of most important of his life.
The soviets were institutions of workers’ democracy, while the provisional government was an executive of princes and capitalists; one would have to prevail over the other. All of the radical political parties in Russia argued that it was insanity for workers to think that they could run the country and that the soviets could win out. There was an exception – Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Trotsky joined Lenin’s party in July. Th Bolsheviks won over a majority in the soviets to a working class seizure of power and a disbanding of the capitalist government. Workers could then proceed to use their political power to end the war, seize control of the factories and reshape the country into a society based on collective control and democracy.
At the end of the year, an insurrection was organised. The main police and telegraph stations were seized and the soviets were declared the supreme power. Workers had taken control, but the society they had won was in a state of utter collapse. The Russian working class staked its faith on the spread of the revolution internationally.
In Britain at the end of 1918, classified government reports spoke of “a very widespread feeling among the working class that thrones have become anachronisms, and that the Soviet may still prove to be the best form of government for a democracy”.
This was not paranoia, but a real threat. In Germany, soldiers mutinied at Kiel and spread revolt across the country, bringing down the kaiser. Soviets emerged there, as they had in Russia. So too in Italy, Hungary and Austria.
But the greatest lesson of 1917 – the need for a politically clear and cohered organisation built before the revolution – was proved in all of these cases in the negative. Time after time, parties committed to winding up the workers’ councils and stabilising capitalism wrangled control over these potentially revolutionary movements. Nowhere was a revolutionary party like Lenin’s Bolsheviks able to win leadership.
With the hope dashed of international revolution in the immediate future, the situation in Russia worsened. The working class was decimated by economic collapse, and had to fight against an invasion by 14 foreign armies, which allied with the tsarists against the revolution. The soviets – by their nature dependent on the strength of workers – became empty shells, and the Bolshevik Party enlarged as it was forced to substitute for an increasingly defeated working class.
A new layer of bureaucrats and administrators took power – a new ruling class, personified by Stalin. Stalin’s ascension came with the reversal of the gains of the revolution. Workers were stripped of any control over society and were severely repressed. Of all of the revolutionaries of 1917, Trotsky stood as the most ardent defender of the legacy of the revolution and upholder of workers’ democracy.
For this, he was subject to a vicious campaign of slander and abuse within the party. Every attempt he made to voice criticism and reorient the Bolsheviks (now renamed the Communist Party) was obstructed by the bureaucracy. By 1927, he was driven from the party.
Trotsky was exiled, first to Turkey, then Norway, France and finally Mexico. He was not reduced to inactivity or passive spectatorship.
Trotsky wrote a definitive history of the Russian Revolution, with the aim of countering the Stalinist myths of the revolution. He produced blistering polemics against Stalin’s foreign policy, which subordinated international revolution to the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy.
He also organised. After the criminal policies of the Stalinist German Communist Party allowed Hitler to rise to power without a fight, Trotsky recognised the necessity of building new revolutionary organisations across the world. This was a mammoth task during a period in which the most militant workers in every corner of the globe still looked to Russia as the centre of workers’ power. But Trotsky viewed it as essential to the survival of the Marxist tradition.
Trotsky once wrote that the essence of tragedy lies in the contrast between great ends and insufficient means. There could not be a more fitting description of his own situation in the last years. The organiser of the Russian revolution, commander of the Red Army, chairman of the St Petersburg Soviet, leader of millions, was now the leader of tiny, scattered, often squabbling groups. However, Trotsky never succumbed to fatalism or despair. In 1935 he wrote:
“Nobody remains … And I still think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life. More important than 1917, more important than the civil war or any other.”
The international working class was crushed between twin pillars of fascism and Stalinism. Defending the real Marxist tradition required heroic exertion. All around him, former revolutionaries were making peace with the status quo, whether liberal capitalism in the West or Stalinist dictatorship.
Trotsky resisted cynicism and despair, and fought to leave behind a legacy for the workers’ movement. It is for this reason that there survives a Marxist tradition that has at its centre working class self-emancipation.
No matter how small the forces he commanded, Stalin knew that as long as Trotsky lived and could write and organise, the security of the Soviet bureaucracy could not be assured.
Trotsky was murdered, not once, but many times. Of his four children, two died in concentration camps, one committed suicide in Berlin and another was murdered in Paris. His followers in Russia put up a heroic struggle before succumbing to the same fate.
History salutes the Trotskyists in the Vorkuta prison camp, who organised a hunger strike, categorically refusing to work below ground in the mines, and not for more than eight hours. Convoy by convoy, the hundreds were driven out into the blinding white of the tundra and executed.
Trotsky met his fate at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940. Foreseeing the likelihood of his death, he had the opportunity in his last months to summarise the lessons of his life and give advice to his followers across the world:
“Whatever may be the circumstances of my death I shall die with unshaken faith in the communist future. This faith gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion … Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”