The Life of Leon Trotsky: “We Know Our Duty. We Will Fight to the End.”

May 6, 2020 11:27 pm

November the 7th was the 140th anniversary of the birth of Lev Davidovich Trotsky, with Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution

Rob Jones  Socialist Alternative (ISA in Russia)

On 20th August 1940, the Stalinist agent Ramon Mercader attacked and killed Leon Trotsky with an ice-axe at his home in exile in Mexico. In this way, Stalin and his henchmen practically brought to an end his bloody campaign to annihilate the old Bolsheviks, the leaders of and participants in the October revolution.

Even in death, Trotsky struck the ruling class with fear. The US State department would not even allow his body to be buried on its territory. Instead Trotsky laid in state for five days in Mexico. During that time, three hundred thousand people passed by to pay their respects. They were barefooted proletarians from the city slums and peasants from the land, from a country in which the memory of the Mexican revolution was still vivid. Mexico had been the only country in the world that had been prepared to grant a visa to the revolutionary exiled from Russia.

Photo: Wikimedia

Always with his class

The life and death of Leon Trotsky reflects both the history and the tragedy of the Russian revolution, the workers’ movement and Marxism itself in the first half of the twentieth century. He participated directly in the main events of that time, the 1905 Russian revolution, and then that of 1917, which shook the world to its very foundations. In both 1905 and 1917 he led the Petrograd Soviet. His name is inextricably tied to the formation of the Red Army, which he led to victory in the Civil War.

Revolution goes in waves. And a real revolutionary is distinguished not just by how he conducts himself during the upturns of revolutionary struggle. It is more important how he conducts himself as the revolution recedes. Many revolutionaries have been broken during the dark years of reaction and repression — whether Tsarist, Stalinist or fascist. Even legendary heroes of the Russian revolution such as Smirnov, Smilga, Mrachkovskii, Muralov, Serebryakov and even Christian Rakovskii were forced, even if just in words, to betray their ideals during the years of Stalinist reaction.

Stalin broke many, but he couldn’t break everyone. Thousands of revolutionaries met their death instead in the prison camps of Vorkuta, above the Arctic Circle, and in the prison cells of Lyubanka, the Headquarters of the Stalinist political police. Leon Trotsky was one of the soldiers of the proletarian revolution who could not be broken. Not only was he murdered by Stalin. Before Trotsky met his fate, his brother, sister and her husband, his first wife, two of his children and four of their partners were also murdered by Stalin, as well, of course, were many of his comrades and friends.

Notwithstanding this huge personal suffering, Trotsky remained loyal to the end to the working class. He not only refused to recognize the authority and accusations of Stalin’s clique. He was also able to give a theoretical explanation of what had happened, and proposed a real political programme for struggle with the bourgeoisie, with fascism and with Stalinism.

Even in the darkest days of his life, Leon Trotsky looked optimistically on the future. In his will, written in February 1940, he wrote:

“For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two 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.”

1905 and the theory of permanent revolution

The key moments in Trotsky’s life are, of course, inextricably linked to those ideas, which he added to the arsenal of Marxism and they all remain valid to this day. The theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky’s first theoretical work is, to this day, the least known and least understood. In actual fact it is really a development of ideas first proposed by Marx and Engels, following the 1848 revolutions in Europe.

Many Marxists understood and still understand schematically Marx’s conception of the development of society. Somewhere they seem to have heard that feudalism should replace capitalism, and that will give way to socialism. The bourgeoisie should implement the bourgeois revolution and the proletariat — the socialist.

In 1905, Russia was shaken by the first revolutionary wave, a rehearsal for 1917. Trotsky rushed back to Russia as soon as it started. He later described the great October strike of that year:

“It was not the opposition of the liberal bourgeoisie, not the elemental risings of the peasantry or the terrorist acts of the intelligentsia, but the strike of the workers that for the first time brought Czarism to its knees. The revolutionary leadership of the proletariat revealed itself as an incontrovertible fact…. If the young proletariat of Russia could be so formidable, how mighty the revolutionary power of the proletariat of the more advanced countries would be!”

My Life

Trotsky, based on the experience of 1905, pointed out that in the epoch of imperialism, the world develops in a combined and uneven way. As less technically developed societies advance, they won’t reinvent the telegraph but buy already made smart phones. Tsarism, under pressure from the West would not wait, he said, for the step-by-step development of industry, but would start with the building of gigantic factories.

But the national bourgeoisie of the underdeveloped countries, including Russia, tied as they are to their “stronger imperialist patrons” are too weak and cowardly to act as an independent progressive force to resolve the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. This is unlike in the classic bourgeois revolutions such as England, 1642–1651, and France, 1789–1794. In this situation, the proletariat should place itself at the head of the struggle for democratic rights and at the same time, as part of this struggle, push to the fore and fight for its own socialist transformation.

The Liberal Pavel Milyukov, then a leader of the cadet party found such a programme horrifying. It was he who first termed those Social-Democrats who supported this approach “Trotskyists”.

In this way, Trotsky foresaw the way in which the revolution would develop in 1917. His approach remains absolutely valid today in Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. But this approach is not accepted by all who call themselves Marxists. Support for the “nationally orientated bourgeois” has long become the distinguishing mark of those communists with Stalinist roots. Even today those “communist” parties that maintain any base still pose their main task as building a developed bourgeois society, the fight for socialism can be put off to the future.

In September 1906, 52 members of the Petrograd Soviet with Trotsky as their leader were charged in the Tsarist courts with organizing an armed insurrection. Ignoring the advice of his lawyers, demonstrating the brilliant oratory for which he later became famous, Trotsky defended the policy of the Soviet in court. He was sentenced to exile in Siberia from where he soon escaped and fled abroad.

1907–1916 — the years of reaction and war

The defeat of the revolution dealt the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which at that time contained all Russian Marxists, an almost fatal blow. Many of its members left, never to return. Defeat followed defeat. The number of branches declined ten times, and many of those that were left were led by provocateurs.

A large part of the Mensheviks, those who then supported the capitalism first and then, later, socialism approach proposed establishing a “broad legal party” demanding the dissolution of the underground committees. This lead to a new fraction struggle within the party with renewed force, involving several different fractions — the Bolsheviks, Vperedovtsi, Trotsky’s group, Mensheviks, liquidators, the Jewish workers Bund and others. The situation was made much worse by the support given to the Mensheviks by the German Social-democrats, a situation that caused Lenin serious concern. These were the years of the most serious disagreements between Lenin and Trotsky.

In August 1912, Trotsky tried to organize a block to unite all the factions. But as the Bolsheviks refused to join, Trotsky found himself de-facto in a block with the Mensheviks. Recognising he had been mistaken to try, he later explained this as being due to his desire for compromise, and a fatalistic belief that somehow during the coming revolution all the factions would merge into one.

In 1927, Adolf Joffe, for many years Trotsky’s secretary, in his last letter to Trotsky, written when he was terribly ill and about to commit suicide described how he saw the earlier relationship between Lenin and Trotsky.

“I have never doubted the correctness of the way you have pointed out, and you know that for more than twenty years, ever since the “Permanent Revolution”, I have been with you. … You have always been right politically, beginning with 1905, and I have often told you that with my own ears I have heard Lenin admit that in 1905 it was not he, but you, who was right. In the face of death one does not lie, and I repeat this to you now… But you have often renounced your right position in favour of an agreement, a compromise, whose value you overestimated. That was wrong.”

After August 1912, Trotsky made no more such mistakes. By the end of that year, Trotsky was already disillusioned with this block, so left it. At this time, the tangle of Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish contradictions exploded into the Balkan Wars. Trotsky travelled to the Balkans as military correspondent for the paper “Kiev thought”. This experience gave him an invaluable understanding of the national question. It was here he met the Rumanian revolutionary Christian Rakovsky, who was later to become leader of Soviet Ukraine and Trotsky’s closest friend.

His experience in the Balkans helped Trotsky, not only during the Civil War but later in the conflict with the horrific position of Stalin over the question of autonomy in the Caucasus at the beginning of the 1920s. In the 1930s he returned to the National question in discussing Finland, Spain and Ukraine.

The Zimmerwald manifesto

In 1914, there was a new and far graver split both in the party and in the international socialist movement. Many social-democrats decided to support their own homeland, their own capitalist class in the imperialist world war. The Second International collapsed within days. Only a handful of revolutionaries remained faithful to their class. Trotsky could not but be one of them.

In 1915, he was among the 38 delegates who participated in the Zimmerwald anti-war Conference — he wrote the manifesto. After this, surely but slowly Trotsky and Lenin began to move closer to each other. Whilst in Paris, Trotsky published a paper “Our word” with sharp anti-war agitation. When copies of his paper were found in the hands of Russian soldiers in France, Trotsky, who by this time had been deported to Spain, was quickly kicked expelled, accused of being a “German agent.” The Spanish transferred him to Portugal from where he was forcibly put on a ship to America.

1917 — Permanent revolution in action

When revolution broke out in Russia again in 1917, Lenin quickly returned in April. Trotsky left New York in March but was held in a concentration camp in Canada until he was released in May. But once he returned to Russia, he and Lenin became inseparable allies.

When Lenin launched his struggle against the Menshevik tendencies in the leadership of the Bolshevik party represented by Kamenev, Rykhov and Stalin, he knew he would get the most serious support from Trotsky. Kamenev at this time claimed that Lenin had become a “Trotskyist” as he had, on his return to Russia in his “April theses” called for the party to cease supporting the provisional government and instead called for the socialist revolution — a policy fully in line with Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

In the dark days of July 1917, when the Bolsheviks were being slandered and driven underground, when Kamenev had been arrested and was sitting in the “Peter and Paul Fortress” prison and thugs were scouring the streets looking for Lenin and Zinoviev, Trotsky was essentially left to lead the Bolshevik faction and the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet. He publicly declared his full solidarity with the position of the Bolsheviks and on that same day was himself arrested. “Since that day” wrote Lenin “There has been no better Bolshevik than Trotsky”.

In September he was elected President of the Soviet, now fully accepted as a member of the Bolshevik party. In the October Revolution, Trotsky was one of the leaders and the main organizer of the insurrection.

The Menshevik leader Dan, attacking the insurrection described it as a conspiracy. Trotsky replied:

“What is happening is an insurrection, not a conspiracy. An insurrection of the masses needs no justification. We have steeled the revolutionary energy of the workers and soldiers. We have openly forged the will of the masses for insurrection. Our insurrection has been victorious. And now they tell us: reject your victory, make an agreement. With whom? You miserable individuals, you — who are bankrupt, whose role has been played out. Get off to where you are from now on destined to be — in the dustbin of history!”

Red army — forward march, march!

Millions were killed on the battlefields of the First World War. The Bolsheviks promised to get Russia out of this bloodbath. But the international ruling classes did not agree and tried to force Russia into submission. The new Soviet government tried to implement its promises and at the Brest-Litovsk peace talks resisted the German threats. But just days later the countries of the Entente launched its intervention against the Soviets. It was necessary to set up the “Worker-Peasant Red Army” and Lenin convinced Trotsky to lead it as critical to the life and death of the revolution.

The history of the Civil War, when the young workers’ republic was invaded by armies from over a dozen capitalist powers, from 1918–20 is full of feats on the edge of human understanding. Many leading military commanders developed during this period. But it was Trotsky who played the central role in leading this unprecedented military operation.

To combat the superior white cavalry, Trotsky organised the formation of the Red Horseback Army. His slogan “Proletarian onto horseback” spread like wildfire amongst the masses.

About 40,000 former Tsarist officers were recruited into the Red Army as the central military cadre. To control them, Commissars were appointed. In certain special cases, to high ranked military specialists two workers would be attached with a direct order from the President of the Revolutionary Military Council — Trotsky — not to let them out of sight whether at day or night.

For two years, Trotsky’s famous train traveled up and down the country, supporting the different fronts, inspiring deserters to return to the army and resolving problems. One of the most critical moments was around Petrograd. The Red army regiments were not able to hold back the stormtroopers of the Whiteguard Yudenich. Ziniviev lay prostrate on his divan with a migraine and was unable to do anything. The decision to surrender Petrograd had already been taken. But Trotsky’s train arrived in time to lead the defence of the city. Yudenich was defeated and the heart of the revolution saved.

1923–1927 — The Left Opposition

Among the many, many falsifications surrounding the name of Trotsky there is one which suggests that Trotsky did nothing to prevent Stalin’s rise to power or alternatively, that Trotsky himself was hungry for power and if he had taken over instead, nothing would have changed. And of course there are those who say Trotsky would have been even worse.

Official ‘historians’ continue to talk of Trotsky having a self-satisfied, power seeking, hypocritical character. That’s completely untrue. Trotsky could not tolerate cowardice, political and moral laziness. But he never built bureaucratic combinations or intrigues behind the backs of his political semi-friends or opponents. He always told scoundrels to their face that they were scoundrels. Trotsky’s partner Natalia Sedova described how:

“You know, two or three months before our exile to Alma-Ata there were frequent and lively meetings of the PolitBuro. Close comrades and friends gathered in our flat to wait for the end of the PolitBuro and the return of Lev Davidovich and Pyatakov, to learn what had gone on. I remember one of these meetings. We were waiting impatiently. The meeting was dragging on. The first to appear was Pyatakov, we waited to hear what he would say. He was silent, pale, his ears burning. He was very upset. He stood up, poured himself a glass of water, then a second drinking them. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he said “Well I was at the front and I’ve never seen anything like that!” Then Lev Davidovich came in. Pyatakov turned to him and said: ‘Why did you say that to him (Stalin). What has got into your tongue? He will never forget you for that, or your children, our your grandchildren!’ It seems that Lev Davidovich had called Stalin ‘gravedigger of the party and revolution’ … Lev Davidovich didn’t reply. There was nothing to say. It was necessary to tell the truth whatever the cost.”

But the most serious mistake of those making these inferences is that they look on Trotsky not just as a leading figure, but as a separate stand-alone personality. As if just one person, by force of character could turn back the tide of history.

Of course, he was not alone. Thousands, tens of thousands of Bolsheviks stood in the way of the Stalinist counter-revolution. Many of them were leading revolutionaries, people with the intellect of Preobrazhensky or Smirnov, the organizational genius of Pyatakov, the class instincts of Sapronov, all of whom were united in the platform of the Left Opposition (1923–27), the main author of which was Trotsky. Even Lenin is his last years wrote letters critical of Stalin and the rising bureaucracy. Lenin’s death in early 1924, was used by Stalin to strengthen his position.

The Political demands proposed by the Left Opposition in opposition to the policies of the majority of the PolitBuro headed by Stalin and Bukharin consisted of 5 main points:

They demanded an increase in the tempo of the country’s industrialization, bringing the New Economic Policy under the control of the plan, improving the living standards of workers and strengthening the role played by the working class. Bukharin at that time would only agree to a “plan’ that relied on market mechanisms and he was appealing to peasants to “enrich yourselves”. Stalin ridiculed the ideas of the Left Opposition, saying the building of Dneprogec, a large hydroelectric dam, would be like a peasant buying a record player instead of a cow. At the same time, work norms were increased as vodka was put on sale in the shops (the Bolsheviks had campaigned to reduce the consumption of strong spirits).

The Left Opposition demanded a federation of national republics. Stalin proposed only regional autonomy with a strong centre. It was easier to rule that way.

The Left Opposition demanded inner-party and soviet democracy, justifiably proposing that the building of socialism is meaningless without widespread discussion and debates about differences. For the Stalinist faction which relied on bureaucratic maneuvers, privilege and the destruction of the Bolshevik party, this would have been suicidal.

Like the Bolsheviks in 1917, the Left opposition believed that the Russian revolution was just the first step in a world revolution. The Stalinist bureaucracy thought that the revolution had finished, that it had achieved all it could. There credo became “socialism in one country”.

Finally, revolutionary parties in other countries looked on the USSR as their bastion. The Left Opposition proposed a bold “October’ strategy — in particular independent class tactics. Stalin had by then already adopted the Menshevik “theory of stages” — first bourgeois democracy, then socialism. Or first independence from colonialism, then socialism.

But for these ideas to be adopted a radical change in direction of the party was needed, and for that to happen, much depended on international developments.

Lev Trotsky sharply criticized the suicidal policy proposed by Stalin for the Chinese revolution 1925–1927 (Comintern after Lenin, 1928). Stalin proposed that the Chinese Communist Party should join the Kuomintang, the party of the national bourgeoisie. The Communist party was thus disarmed political, and in return the Kuomintang then conducted an unprecedented massacre of the communists.

Therefore, no-one should forget that between the Bolsheviks and the Stalinists, there were not just theoretical differences, but a river of blood of the Russian, Chinese, German, Spanish, Austrian and other revolutionaries.

In the 1920s, Russia was exhausted following the civil war and destruction. The working class had suffered serious losses. The backwardness of peasant Russia was coming to the fore. The failure of the proletarian revolutions in Europe were having an effect. The party and bureaucracy which had strengthened during the period of the New Economic Policy had taken over one commanding height after another. Not one, even the most decisive revolutionary could stand alone and oppose the retreat of the revolution. The Left Opposition understood that its chances were not great. This Trotsky himself understood. He wrote from exile to the Central Committee on 16th December, 1928:

“Each to his own. You want to further implement the policies of those class forces hostile to the proletariat. We know our duty. We will fight to the end.”

How to fight fascism

The policies of the Communist International, dominated by Stalin, in Germany had led to the isolation of the German Communist Party (KPD) particularly from the millions of workers in the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The bureaucratic leadership appointed by the Kremlin was simply unable to understand what was going on or to give the working masses a clear political lead. The revolutionary opportunities in the 1920s were missed by the German communists. This prepared the ground for Hitler to come to power. Trotsky never ceased fighting for the German Communist Party to adopt the tactic of the United front, which had been developed by the second congress of the Comintern. This tactic was based on the need to establish a militant unification of the mass workers organisations in the common fight against fascism. For this, he explained, it was necessary not just to fight side by side with rank and file social democrats but also to propose agreements to the leadership of that party, although they would find any excuse to reject such proposals. In his brilliant work “The German revolution and the Stalinist bureaucracy” (1932) Lev Trotsky gives a detailed analysis of fascism and how to fight it.

The KPD however rejected the United front tactic and instead issued ultimatums to the SDP. It proposed to the SDP to “fight together”, but only on the condition that this should be under the leadership of the KPD. In this way, instead of winning the confidence of the social democratic workers, they drove them away with ultimatums using ultimations. When the situation became even more dangerous, Comintern tactics became even more “radical”. The KPD even cooperated with the Nazis against the social democrats, because they said “social-fascism is more dangerous that open fascism.” When, in 1933, Hitler came to power, the leadership of the KPD cynically declared that the next election would be a guaranteed victory for the communists! After the Stalinists surrendered Germany without a struggle, Trotsky came to the conclusion that the Comintern was no longer a revolutionary force and proposed establishing a new International.

What is the USSR and where is it going?

“Revolution Betrayed,” despite all his previous achievements was probably Trotsky’s most important work. Published in 1936, he analysed Stalinism and how to fight it. Trotsky explained many issues here that had still not been clear in the 1920s.

Stalinism, he said, is a reaction against the October revolution. The driving force of this reaction was the layer of party and Soviet bureaucrats who, in order to maintain their position rested now on one class, and then on another in society. The working class and its political organizations, including the Bolshevik party had been removed from power by a one-sided civil war — repression by the Stalinists of their political opponents. The bureaucratic caste of former revolutionary and careerists managed to strengthen their position because of the exhaustion of the working class after the revolution and civil war, the massive reactionary pressure of the peasantry on the young workers’ state and the failure of the revolutionary movements in Germany and elsewhere.

Trotsky used an analogy with the French revolution (1789–1794). The counter-revolutionary retreat, which had clearly started in 1923–24 could be compared he said to Thermidor. Thermidor is not a classic counter-revolution, but the political back-sliding of the revolution from the radicals, first to the moderates and then conservatives. In this way, the new ruling caste strengthened its position. But this “caste” is only able survive resting on the gains of the revolution: on state ownership and the planned economy. Such a regime had to develop and defend the planned economy, but using its own methods and in its aims.

In this way the USSR remained a workers’ state only in form, but deformed. The USSR was a deformed workers’ state. In it, the ruling class was removed from political power, and the dictatorship of the proletariat found its deformed reflection in the proletarian bonapartism of Stalin. In order to take back power, the proletariat needed a political, but not social, revolution against Stalinism and the restoration of workers’ democracy. A political revolution was not a luxury but a desperate necessity because sooner or later, Trotsky predicted in order to protect its privileges would need to begin the restoration of capitalism.

The Fourth International

In the pre-war period it required extraordinary courage to begin building a new International. Created in 1939 it had powerful enemies — Stalinism, the toothless social democracy, imperialism and of course fascism. When it was formed it consisted of about 3,000 Marxists. Following the murder of Trotsky in 1940, it went through a difficult period of the post-world war economic boom. Part of the International developed a false political perspective, another part rejected the working class’s role as the driving force behind socialist revolution. In 1989–91, when the Soviet bloc collapsed leading eventually to the restoration of capitalism, the whole left and workers’ movement internationally became disorientated. The Committee for a Workers’ International, which rejected the turn away from the working class through that period has continued to maintain the legacy of Trotsky, building patiently the first cadres and organisations internationally. Now following the start of the global economic crisis in 2008, a new radicalization is taking place in the world. The CWI is well placed to take advantage of the this and is taking the steps necessary for the building of a new revolutionary socialist international.