Trotsky, Leon (1879–1940)

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TROTSKY, LEON (1879–1940)


Russian Communist leader.

A leading Marxist theorist, writer, orator, and political activist, Trotsky was a consistent advocate of revolutionary overthrow in tsarist Russia, and a thorny critic of revolutionary practice in Soviet Russia.


Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in Yanovka, Kherson province, in present-day Ukraine, on 7 November 1879 (26 October Old Style) into a Russified Jewish family of comfortable means, he attended a private Jewish religious school in nearby Gromokla at the age of seven. He was soon sent away to school, first to Odessa until 1896, and then to nearby Nikolayev for his final year.

In Nikolayev he came into contact with exiles from the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) populist group. Trotsky was drawn, however, more to clandestine Social Democratic agitation work among the dockworkers and factory workers of Nikolayev through the South Russian Workers' Union. Arrested by the police, he was imprisoned in Odessa, interrogated, and sentenced to four years of Siberian exile. Trotsky escaped and worked in exile in London with leading Russian Social Democrats, including Georgy Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; 1870–1924), Yuli Martov, and Vera Zasulich on a revolutionary newspaper, Iskra (Spark). He attended the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in Brussels in 1903, at which the party formally split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions over the issue of the most suitable organizational form of the party for Russia's particular revolutionary needs.

Trotsky was in Geneva at the time of the massive labor unrest in St. Petersburg in 1905. He returned to Russia immediately and became a major force on the executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet that grew out of the strike committees in that city. The heady "Days of October" were short-lived, and as tsarist repression followed the tsar's promised October Constitution in 1905, Trotsky was sentenced for his political activities to life in Siberian exile. He escaped and lived in the émigré centers of Europe until his return to Russia in May 1917.

From 1907 to 1912, he resided in Vienna, where he was politically active in Austrian Social Democracy, and engaged in a number of publishing and literary endeavors. With the gradual revival of legal political activity inside Russia from 1910 onward, and disillusioned with the feuds of émigré politics, Trotsky spent almost two years from October 1912 intermittently reporting from Belgrade on the First and Second Balkan Wars for the Kievskaya mysl (Kievan Thought) newspaper. He spent much of World War I in France until his expulsion in September 1916. He arrived in New York on 13 January 1917, and, on hearing news of the February Revolution in Russia, returned to Petrograd on 4 May, after a month-long internment by British authorities in Halifax, Canada.

He was instrumental in the Mezhrayonka (Interdistrict Group), which, while formally nonfactional, supported Bolshevik calls to end the war and to push for immediate revolution. He took his group into the Bolshevik Party in August 1917, and joined Lenin's Central Committee. He was also elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet in September 1917. Trotsky helped organize the military strategy of the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917. He was appointed commissar of foreign affairs in the new Bolshevik government, the Sovnarkom (Council of People's Commissars), in December 1917. Shortly thereafter, Lenin made him commissar of war, and he organized a new Red Army that was capable of fighting the civil war.

In the 1920s, Trotsky fought, and lost, a series of political battles within the Bolshevik Party. In 1923–1924 Trotsky attacked the other party leaders for violating party democracy, but was isolated by the Central Committee and in turn denounced for violating the party's 1921 rule against factionalism. In 1926–1927, partly in response to the "Socialism in One Country" policy of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), which appeared to undermine the principle of international revolution, Trotsky briefly—and futilely—allied with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev against Stalin. Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo in 1926, and from the party and the Communist International (Comintern) in 1927.

He was sent into exile in January 1928 to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, and in January 1929 was deported to Turkey. He moved to France in 1933, was expelled under Soviet pressure two years later, and then expelled from Norway in 1936. He spent his final years in the more receptive environment of a Mexico dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI). He was the inspiration for the establishment of the Fourth International in October 1938 in Paris as a challenge to the Stalinist Third International. In the town of Coyoacán on 20 August 1940 he was murdered by a blow to the head from an ice axe wielded by Ramón Mercader, a Stalinist agent.


Trotsky's political behavior and actions were guided by a consistently held belief in Russia's suitability for revolution. This consistency of belief garnered him a reputation as a brilliant and creative, if uncompromising, young intellectual. At significant moments in his life, he articulated views that placed him at odds with the prevailing currents of the Russian revolutionary tide. In the face of the tsarist suppression of the revolutionary events of 1905, for example, Trotsky put the finishing touches on a theory of "permanent revolution," which he and another Marxist, Alexander Parvus (Izrail Lazarevich Gelfand), had been working on since 1904. In the traditional revolutionary model, the national bourgeoisie would first take power, ceding it to the worker masses at a later undefined date. Trotsky argued that the bourgeoisie would inevitably betray the revolution for its own self-interest, and that through "permanent revolution" the proletariat and the poor peasantry should sweep through this stage to take power directly, thereby ushering in broad Europe-wide revolution.

While these views certainly brought him ideologically close to Lenin's views, Trotsky nonetheless kept his distance from the Bolshevik faction. He pursued the "permanent revolution" between 1905 and 1917 on two fronts. He published an illegal nonfactional newspaper, Pravda (Truth), in Vienna to try to rally the suppressed and scattered Social Democratic organizations in Russia; and he published a legal journal, Borba (Struggle), in St. Petersburg in 1914 for the enlightenment of the newly organizing workers there. He was publicly critical of the fractious and self-defeating squabbles of émigré politics, and their irrelevance to the needs of the workers and political activists inside tsarist Russia. He also sought to reconcile the divided leadership of Russian Social Democracy in the émigré community.

Galvanized by Lenin's conference in Prague in January 1912, at which Lenin essentially claimed the mantle of the entire RSDLP in the name of his small faction of Bolsheviks, and firm in his belief that the workers in Russia desperately needed a united party leadership and organization, Trotsky organized an all-party conference in August 1912 in Vienna. At the Vienna conference he was hampered by the difficult task of reconciling the disparate trends of Russian Social Democracy, each of which had been articulated by eminent individuals with whom he had enjoyed at best uneven and distant relationships. The conference was scuttled by the desire of the participants to avoid factional confrontation at all costs and produced tepid and contingent resolutions that contrasted sharply with the uncompromising resolutions produced by Lenin in Prague. This, together with rumors of its infiltration by agents of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, stripped it of any real authority or influence.

Throughout the prerevolutionary period, Trotsky's belief in the urgent need for proletarian revolution in Russia kept him at arm's length—at least in formal terms—from the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. His late adherence to the Bolshevik Party in August 1917 and his new closeness to Lenin merely increased the distrust of him among leading Bolsheviks. During his years in positions of political power in the Soviet leadership after October 1917, Trotsky put his political beliefs into practice in often brutal and uncompromising fashion. His negotiations as commissar of foreign affairs with Germany and Austria for a separate peace were long and bitter and guided in part by a deep belief that the traditions of secret diplomacy had no place in revolutionary Russia. He resigned his portfolio over the acceptance by a majority of the Central Committee to accede to what he deemed were Germany's unreasonable demands at Brest-Litovsk in the peace treaty of March 1918.

As commissar of war, he successfully waged the civil war by rejecting calls inside the party for a volunteer, militia-style army, instead forging from the small, disintegrating tsarist army a formidable Red Army of five million soldiers, based on traditional principles of discipline and hierarchy. In the face of calls by Lenin early in 1921 for a temporary retreat from the war communism policies of the civil war (which introduced tight state control of the wartime economy) to the mixture of state and private practices launched in the form of the New Economic Policy (NEP), Trotsky argued instead for the creation of "labor armies" for deployment in every corner of the socialist economy. In March 1921 he helped organize the armed suppression of the Kronstadt sailors' revolt against Bolshevik power, denouncing them as counterrevolutionaries.

Despite this bloody defense of the Bolshevik Party's revolutionary role at that time, Trotsky, in the so-called literary discussion of 1924–1925, openly accused a bureaucratized and antidemocratic Bolshevik Party of betraying the October Revolution. He had foreseen this possibility already in 1904 in Nashi politicheskie zadachi (Our political tasks), in which he attacked Lenin's theory of the "party of a new type," predicting that power in the party would eventually be concentrated first in the party organization, then in the Central Committee, and ultimately in the hands of a dictator.

In his Uroki Oktyabrya (Lessons of October) of 1924, among other writings, Trotsky depicted the Bolshevik Party as an essentially failed organization: he denied that it had had any mass profile at all in its early years, and argued that it had been able to seize power only because of Lenin's (and his own) resoluteness and foresight, despite frequent vacillations from the other Bolshevik leaders, notably Zinoviev and Kamenev. Since October, he continued, the party had become an oligarchy with few links to its many new members, and even this oligarchy was defined largely by its internal disagreements. The party, he concluded, had failed to educate Russia or the world about the meaning of the October Revolution. At a time when the new Soviet state was trying to legitimize itself through the reification of both the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky's relentless criticisms in the mid-1920s amounted to heresy. He was anathematized by his fellow Bolsheviks. Excommunication and execution eventually followed.

Ironically, perhaps, given his distance for so many years from formal party politics, and his critique of the Bolshevik Party in the mid-1920s, Trotsky embraced the concept of the revolutionary party in the 1930s. "For a revolutionary to give himself entirely to the party signifies finding himself," his recorded voice informed a mass meeting of the Fourth International in New York on 28 October 1938. Throughout the 1930s, he reserved his most ferocious criticism for Stalin. Stalin's party, he argued, bore no resemblance to Lenin's Bolshevik Party. It had become a monstrous bureaucratic machine that had destroyed not only the Old Bolsheviks, but also any competent leaders of the economy, industry, agriculture, and the military, replacing them with unfit functionaries beholden only to Stalin.

Trotsky occupies a special place in the pantheons of Soviet communism and world communism. While he was publicly celebrated in the early 1920s in Soviet Russia for his part in the creation of the Red Army, the term Trotskyism was coined by his political opponents in the mid-1920s as coterminous with counterrevolution, defined as stubborn opposition to the policies of the Bolshevik Party. This same term was later embraced by his supporters outside Soviet Russia to signify self-sacrificing opposition to Stalinist policies. For them, Trotskyism became one of the "roads not taken," a potentially more benign alternative to Stalinism. Through his writings in exile, Trotsky himself was engaged in the cultivation of his mythic status. His autobiography and other writings downplayed his many past differences with Lenin, stressing instead how his and Lenin's political and ideological views had coincided at the critical junctures of Russian's revolutionary journey. With the zeal of the recent convert, perhaps, he identified his life wholeheartedly and retrospectively with a mythicized prerevolutionary Bolshevik Party.

See alsoLenin, Vladimir; Russian Civil War; Russian Revolutions of 1917; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph.


Primary Sources

Trotsky, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going? Translated by Max Eastman. Garden City, N.Y., 1937.

——. The Stalin School of Falsification. Introduction and explanatory notes by Max Schachtman, translated by John G. Wright. New York, 1937.

——. Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961.

——. My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography. New York, 1970.

——. 1905. Translated by Anya Bostock. New York, 1971.

——. The History of the Russian Revolution. London, 1977.

Secondary Sources

Brotherstone, Terry, and Paul Dukes, eds. The Trotsky Reappraisal. Translated by Brian Pearce, Jenny Brine, and Andrew Drummond. Edinburgh, 1992.

Broué, Pierre. Trotsky. Paris, 1988.

Day, Richard B. Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.

Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879–1921. New York, 1954.

——. The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921–1929. New York, 1959.

——. The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929–1940. New York, 1963.

Knei-Paz, Baruch. The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. Oxford, U.K., 1978.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary. New York, 1996.

Wolfe, Bertram D. Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History. New York, 1948.

Frederick C. Corney