Trotsky, Leon Davidovich

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(18791940), number-two leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, and subsequent rival of Stalin.

A prominent left-wing Menshevik after his leading role in the Revolution of 1905, Leon Trotsky (né Lev Bronstein) joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, became Vladimir Lenin's de facto second in command during the October Revolution and the civil war, and then went into opposition until he was exiled and eventually murdered at Josef Stalin's behest.


Trotsky was born in the village of Yanovka in what is now Ukraine on November 7 (October 26, O. S.), 1879. His father was a prosperous farmer of Russified Jewish background. Young Bronstein was sent to school in Odessa, where he lived with a relative who belonged to the intelligentsia, and he began to display the intellectual brilliance that marked his entire life. He was attracted to the revolutionary movement and Marxism, helped organize an illegal workers' movement, and was arrested in 1898. He spent four years in prison and in Siberian exile, but escaped in 1902 (under the pseudonym Trotsky), leaving behind a wife and two baby daughters.

Making his way to Western Europe, Trotsky joined Lenin in publishing the Marxist paper Iskra (Spark), but at the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party in 1903 he sided with the Mensheviks and spoke out against Lenin's authoritarian concept of the party. Meanwhile he married Natalia Sedova, by whom he had two sons.

When revolutionary uprisings shook the tsarist regime in 1905, Trotsky returned to Russia. He joined the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers' Deputies and became its most vocal leader. For this he was arrested, put on trial, and again sent to Siberia. In jail he wrote Results and Prospects, setting forth his theory of permanent revolution to predict that a bourgeois revolution would go on permanently until it turned into a workers' revolution in Russia and triggered proletarian revolution elsewhere.

After escaping from Siberia again in 1907, Trotsky settled in Vienna to work as a journalist (notably during the Balkan Wars of 19121913) and to participate in émigré Social-Democratic politics as a left-wing Menshevik. With that group he opposed Russian participation in World War I, a position for which he was expelled from one European country after another, and he found himself in New York when the February Revolution broke out.


Trotsky welcomed the fall of the tsarist regime as the beginning of the permanent revolution he had predicted. Following a brief detention in Canada he made his way back to Russia in May 1917. There he took the lead of the left Mensheviks who called themselves the Interdistrict Group and agreed with the Bolsheviks on opposing the war and pushing for a new revolution. Although jailed by the Provisional Government after the abortive July Days uprising, Trotsky and his group were absorbed into the Bolshevik Party at the Sixth Party Congress in August 1917, and Trotsky was elected to the Central Committee.

Released from jail after the failed right-wing putsch by General Lavr Kornilov, and responding to the upsurge in popular revolutionary sentiment, Trotsky took the lead in agitating for a revolutionary takeover by the Petrograd Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. Yet, like most of the Bolshevik leaders, he resisted Lenin's call for an armed coup prior to the Second Congress of Soviets that was scheduled for late October 1917. As chairman of the Petrograd Soviet from September on, Trotsky is generally credited with being the organizer of the October Revolution, though how deliberately the Bolshevik takeover was prepared is debatable. Evidence of a planned uprising is lacking, apart from improvised steps to mobilize pro-Bolshevik troops and workers' Red Guards to defend the Soviet against the Provisional Government. When the government attempted a preemptive raid on October 24, Trotsky sent troops and workers' Red Guards out to take over the city of Petrograd; proclaimed the overthrow of the Provisional Government; and presented the Congress of Soviets with a fait accompli when it convened on October 25. Subsequently he denied that he had differed with Lenin about waiting for the Congress of Soviets, claiming that his statements to that effect had only been intended to deceive the government.

Immediately after the Bolsheviks' takeover of Petrograd and their capture of the Winter Palace, the Congress of Soviets approved a new Soviet government with Lenin as Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars. Trotsky became Commissar of Foreign Affairs. In the next few days he directed pro-Bolshevik forces in beating back an attempt by Alexander Kerensky to regain power, and he supported Lenin in rejecting a government coalition with the moderate socialists.

As foreign commissar Trotsky directed diplomatic overtures to end the war, and, failing that, to negotiate a separate peace with the Central Powers. Repelled by Germany's demands, he and his supporters abstained in the crucial 7-4 vote in the Central Committee to accept the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and he resigned the foreign affairs portfolio in protest. However, he was immediately made Commissar of War, and in this capacity set about organizing a new, disciplined Red Army to replace the old army that had virtually disintegrated. He rejected the guerrilla tactics favored by many Bolsheviks and made the controversial decision to employ former tsarist officers as military specialists under the supervision of political commisssars. When civil war broke out in May 1918, Trotsky commanded the communist Red forces and turned back offensives by the counterrevolutionary White forces that year and the next. He became a member of the Communist Party Politburo when it was created in 1919. Once victory had been won over the Whites in 1920, Trotsky proposed a military approach to rebuilding the country's economy, including militarization of labor and absorption of the trade unions into the state, an approach that

led later commentators to regard him as a precursor of the Stalinist planned economy. However, in the Trade Union Controversy of 1921, Trotsky and his friends were defeated by Lenin in the name of a more moderate policy of state capitalism, presaging the New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin was supported by Trotsky's future rivals Josef Stalin and Grigory Zinoviev, with whom Trotsky had already clashed during the civil war. Nevertheless, Trotsky took charge of suppressing the March 1921 rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base near Petrograd that had been brought on by Communist abuses.


Set back at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, Trotsky remained Commissar of War during Lenin's subsequent illness, while the troika of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev maneuvered to keep him from succeeding Lenin as party leader. In his celebrated Testament, Lenin noted Trotsky's exceptional abilities, but faulted his too far-reaching self confidence.

He nevertheless invited Trotsky to lead an attack on Stalin, but Trotsky passed up the opportunity (fearing anti-Semitism, as archives opened in 1990 revealed). Some months later, in October 1923, Trotsky launched a behind-the-scenes attack on the rest of the communist leadership for violating democratic procedures within the party. Going public with a series of articles, "The New Course," Trotsky was in turn denounced by his rivals for violating the party's rule against factionalism. While Trotsky fell ill, his supporters were crushed in the New Course controversy and condemned at the Thirteenth Party Conference in January 1924 as a petty-bourgeois Menshevik deviation. Coming barely a week before Lenin's death, this was the decisive defeat for Trotsky and his friends, and for political pluralism within the Communist Party. Trotsky's subsequent struggle against Stalin was futile and anti-climactic.

Denounced again at the Thirteenth Party Congress in May 1924, Trotsky sarcastically affirmed the infallibility of the party. He took the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution to denounce Zinoviev and Kamenev as failed revolutionary leaders. This act triggered a new out-burst of official denunciation of Trotskyism and the theory of permanent revolution as anti-Leninist heresy. In January 1925 the leadership went further and removed Trotsky from the Commissariat of War.

When Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin later in 1925, Trotsky sat on the sidelines. After their defeat, he belatedly joined them in the United Opposition, vainly fighting Stalin in 1926 and 1927 over the issues of party democracy, excessive concessions to the peasantry, and Stalin's theory of "socialism in one country" that downplayed world revolution. Trotsky was removed from the Politburo in October 1926 and from the Central Committee just one year later. After attempting a demonstration on the tenth anniversary of the revolution in November 1927, he was expelled from the party. The same fate awaited his followers at the Fifteenth Party Congress in December, where not a single voice was heard in defense of the opposition.

Despite his declining political fortunes, Trotsky wrote widely during the mid-1920s, producing such works as Literature and Revolution and Problems of Life, along with a series of books on international politics and a stream of platforms and polemics that remained unpublished in his lifetime.


In January 1928 Trotsky and many of his followers were exiled; many were sent to Siberia and Central Asia, Trotsky himself to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan. There he continued to correspond with his sympathizers and to criticize Stalin's new industrialization drive. As a result, in January 1929, he was deported from the Soviet Union to Turkey, where he continued to write, completing his autobiography and his History of the Russian Revolution. In 1933 he moved to France, and in 1934 he proclaimed the formation of a Fourth International challenging the legitimacy of the Third Communist International. In many countries Trotskyist parties split off from the communists, including the Socialist Workers' Party in the United States and, in Spain, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), suppressed by Stalinist sympathizers in the course of the Spanish Civil War.

Expelled from France in 1935, Trotsky moved to Norway, whence he was expelled under Soviet pressure in 1936. He then settled in Mexico, in the town of Coyoacán, where he lived until his assassination in 1940. Trotsky was virtually expunged from official Soviet history, becoming an "unperson" in George Orwell's term; writings by or about him were completely suppressed. During the Moscow Trials of 19361938 he was vilified in absentia as a counterrevolutionary traitor, a charge of which he was absolved by an American investigating committee headed by the philosopher John Dewey. Trotsky fired back in numerous writings, notably The Revolution Betrayed, charging that Stalin's regime was a bureaucratic perversion of socialism and calling quixotically for a new workers' revolution.

Trotsky was murdered on August 20, 1940, by an undercover agent of the Soviet secret police, a Spanish communist named Ramón Mercader, who had gained entry to the victim's household under a pseudonym. The Soviet government denied involvement, though its role has since been well established. Mercader served a twenty-year prison sentence. Trotsky continued to be demonized in the Soviet Union, and the Gorbachev government never got around to rehabilitating him officially as it did other purge victims. His personal archive has been preserved at Harvard University.

Trotsky was a brilliant writer and a charismatic revolutionary leader. As a politician, however, he was by all accounts arrogant and arbitrary, and he antagonized most of his communist associates in the years when personal opinions still counted. His military methods during the civil war are often regarded as an anticipation of Stalinism, though in later years he protested the violation of democratic procedures and the growth of bureaucratic privilege in the Soviet Union. He is often viewed as an apostle of world revolution, in contrast with Stalin's nationalism. In any case, Stalin became obsessed with destroying Trotsky and anyone connected with him, including family members.

See also: bolshevism; lenin, vladimir ilich; mensheviks; permanent revolution; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Breitman, George, and Reed, Evelyn, eds. (1969) Writings of Leon Trotsky. 14 vols. New York.

Brotherstone, Terry, and Dukes, Paul, eds. (1992). The Trotsky Reappraisal. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The Case of Leon Trotsky: Report of Hearings on the Charges Made against Him in the Moscow Trials. (1937). New York.

Daniels, Robert V. (1960). The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daniels, Robert V. (1991). Trotsky, Stalin, and Socialism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Deutscher, Isaac. (1954). The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 18791921. London: Oxford University Press.

Deutscher, Isaac. (1959). The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 19211929. London: Oxford University Press.

Deutscher, Isaac. (1963). The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 19291940. London: Oxford University Press.

Howe, Irving. (1978). Leon Trotsky. New York: Viking Press.

Knei-Paz, Baruch. (1978). The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Molyneux, John. (1981). Leon Trotsky's Theory of Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Trotsky, Leon. (1930). My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography. New York: Scribners.

Trotsky, Leon. (1975). The Challenge of the Left Opposition (19231925), ed. Naomi Allen. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Volkogonov, Dmitri A. (1996). Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary. New York: Free Press.

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

Wolfenstein, E. Victor. (1967). The Revolutionary Personality: Lenin, Trotsky, Gandhi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Robert V. Daniels