BORN: 1879, Yanovka, Ukraine
DIED: 1940, Mexico City
My Life (1930)
The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk (1932)
The Revolution Betrayed (1937)
Leon Trotsky was a principal strategist of the Russian revolution and a central leader in the founding of the Soviet Union. He played an important role in the revolution that brought the communist Bolsheviks to power, and he organized the Red Army during the ensuing civil war. Trotsky was also a brilliant and influential author who contributed thousands of essays, letters, and political tracts to the literature of Marxism, as well as important works of history, biography, and literary criticism. Trotsky was the foremost critic of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader from 1924 to 1953, whose repressive policies resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. Exiled by Stalin, Trotsky became—and remains—a figure of international controversy.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youthful Activism Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in the Ukrainian village of Yanovka in 1879 to a relatively prosperous Jewish farming family. (The name on Bronstein's false passport—Trotsky—would remain with him.) From the ages of nine to sixteen he lived in Odessa with his mother's nephew, journalist and publisher Mossoi Filipovich Spentzer, who oversaw his education. The boy was strongly influenced by the intellectual atmosphere of the Spentzer home, where journalists and other writers frequently visited.
Trotsky was sent to the nearby seaport of Nikolaev for his last academic year. There he met Russian socialists for the first time and joined a radical discussion group. One member of this group, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, considered herself a Marxist, and Trotsky almost immediately opposed her ideology. He instead preferred the populist view that education of the peasants was the best way to achieve social progress.
Trotsky played a role in the formation of the Southern Russian Workers' Union, an underground group of students and workers devoted to improving the lives of the laboring class. Trotsky also wrote and printed leaflets for the group, pointing out abuses in factories and in the government. These leaflets provoked the ire of the authorities, and he and his companions were arrested as dissidents in 1898.
Trotsky was held in prison for the next two years and then sentenced to four years of exile in Siberia. While awaiting deportation, he first heard of Vladimir Lenin and his writings about Russian capitalism. Trotsky married Alexandra Sokolovskaya before leaving. During his exile, he studied works by such political theorists as Lenin and Karl Marx, and gradually his views became inclined toward Marxism. He wrote a steady stream of political essays and pamphlets for clandestine circulation among prisoners, and he began to develop a reputation.
Insurrection of 1905 Urged by his wife, Trotsky escaped from Siberia in 1902 using a fake passport. Leaders of the Russian underground movement directed him to London, where he joined the circle of exiled revolutionists, including Lenin and Julius Martov of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Trotsky was set to work writing for their newspaper, Iskra and within months was an established party leader.
The Social Democratic Party split the following year, divided on the question of whether to limit or expand party membership. In opposition to Lenin and his Bolsheviks, Trotsky found himself in the middle of the dispute, siding with Martov of the Menshevik faction in favor of a broad-based party. Trotsky wrote that Lenin's preference for concentration of power could eventually lead to dictatorship. History proved him correct—as Stalin's rise to power demonstrated—but his words mainly served to estrange him from Lenin. Ironically, Trotsky soon parted ways with the Mensheviks as well. Suspended between both factions, Trotsky discovered A. L. Helfand, a German-born Marxist theoretician, who wrote under the pen name of Parvus. Under his influence, Trotsky adopted the political theory that would later be associated with him, the notion of “permanent revolution.”
In January 1905, government soldiers in St. Petersburg fired upon a group of citizens who had gathered to petition Czar Nicholas II for civil and political rights. Trotsky returned to Russia almost immediately and produced incendiary essays and pamphlets calling for insurrection. Demonstrations continued, culminating in a general strike that brought Russian industry and transportation to a standstill. This led to the formation of Russia's first elective body to represent the working class, the Council (or Soviet) of Workers' Deputies. Trotsky became a leader of the St. Petersburg Soviet, but by December its leaders were under arrest and martial law declared. The revolution was put on hold. Meanwhile, Trotsky was put on trial, and again exiled to Siberia. Again, he escaped.
Central Role in Bolshevik Revolution Trotsky spent most of the next decade in Vienna, Austria, editing the revolutionary newspaper Pravda and contributing political journalism to the European press. He refined his ideas of “permanent revolution,” advocating a socialist revolution that would carry beyond Russia's borders. As Trotsky saw it, since Russia had not developed a powerful capitalist middle class, or bourgeoisie, the success of a revolution would depend on the lower class, or proletariat. Leadership of the state, Trotsky argued, should then pass immediately to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—that is, the vanguard, or Communist elite. Furthermore, the survival of such a revolution would depend on economic support from abroad. The history of the Soviet revolution would bear out much of this theory; as historian Irving Howe has observed, “of all the Marxists it was Trotsky who best foresaw the course of events in Russia.”
Threatened with internment by Austria as World War I broke out, Trotsky journeyed to Switzerland, France, and the United States. As the war progressed, Russia's domestic situation became increasingly unstable. In March 1917, the news arrived that the czar had been overthrown. By the time Trotsky arrived in Petrograd in early May, the country had fallen into political chaos. Trotsky quickly reconciled with Lenin and joined the Bolshevik Party, becoming its most eloquent orator. When Lenin, suspected of being a German spy, went into hiding, it was Trotsky who organized Bolshevik military regiments and spearheaded the bloodless takeover of the government, hereafter called the October Revolution.
In the Bolshevik government formed after the coup, Trotsky was offered the chairmanship of the ruling body, the Council of People's Commissars. He declined the post, offering instead to become press director for the new regime. Out of hiding, Lenin assumed the chairmanship and later persuaded Trotsky to serve as commissar for foreign affairs. In this capacity, he led the Soviet delegation to the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations that ended Russia's participation in World War I. Soon afterward, civil war broke out in Russia between supporters and opponents of the Soviet regime. Trotsky became war commissar, assuming command of an exhausted and demoralized force of less than ten thousand soldiers. In what historian E. H. Carr calls his supreme achievement, Trotsky rebuilt the Red Army to over 5 million men, restored order and discipline, and by 1921, achieved victory over the anti-Bolshevik White Army, which had been armed by Britain, France, and the United States.
Exiled by Stalin As powerful an orator and capable a leader as Trotsky was, however, he was a blunt, arrogant man who made numerous enemies. When Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922, many believed Trotsky to be the best choice for his successor, but he had a small political base. His main opponent, Joseph Stalin, had better tactics and a stronger network of alliances. Stalin gradually gained control of the bureaucracy of the party and the Soviet state. He also reached out to Trotsky's enemies and effectively used Trotsky's own words, such as his previous attacks on Lenin, to discredit him. For his part, Trotsky made the error of declining to reply to many of Stalin's attacks. His dignified silence cost him even more political support. Between 1925 and 1927 he was forced to relinquish his political responsibilities. Trotsky, along with fifteen hundred other “Trotskyists,” was expelled from the party in 1927 and exiled to central Asia in 1928.
Trotsky remained in exile until his death twelve years later, living at times in Turkey, France, Norway, and, finally, Mexico. He turned to literature, and wrote his most critically acclaimed Books during this period, including The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk (Von Oktober bis nach Brest-Litovsk) (1932), My Life (Moya zhizn) (1930), and The Revolution Betrayed (1937). In this last work, Trotsky denounced Stalin's creation of a bureaucratic elite that sought to stifle opposition and extend its dominance.
During his final period of exile, Trotsky labored to create a Fourth International, a federation of socialist organizations dedicated to worldwide revolution; Stalin had taken over the Third (or Communist) International and made it an instrument of his own policies. However, the Fourth International never achieved a large membership. Stalin never let up his assault on Trotsky's reputation. In 1936, Trotsky was tried in absentia in the Soviet Union for treason, murder, conspiracy, and espionage. The Soviet courts convicted him, but a Western commission of independent scholars found him innocent of all charges. In 1940, a Stalinist assassin killed Trotsky in Mexico City.
Works in Literary Context
Political Leader vs. Author Despite his renown as a political leader, Trotsky considered himself primarily an author. In fact, at many times in his life he remarked that the revolution was interfering with his literary work. Trotsky's combination of literary talent and political skill is particularly evident in his historical writings, most notably in 1905 and The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk. 1905, Trotsky's first major work, was written early in his career and completed before the development of many of his important political ideas. Critics note that as a result, the work is free of the sweeping theoretical generalizations that characterize his later historical writings, although the influence of Marx and Lenin is evident.
Political Historian and Biographer The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk is considered both Trotsky's masterpiece and the greatest Marxist history ever written. The work portrays on an epic scale the interaction of masses and individuals in the months between February and December of 1917. Trotsky maintained that “the most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses in historic events.” Although the History is dominated by a Marxist perspective, the author's analysis emphasizes the dynamics of mass psychology along with economic factors.
Trotsky hurriedly composed a biography of Lenin after the leader's death in 1924, intending to complete a full-scale biography later. He completed only the first volume, entitled The Young Lenin (Vie de Lenine, jeunesse) (1936). This work has been widely praised for its sensitive and poetic portrayal of Lenin's childhood and youth. The opening chapters of Trotsky's autobiography, My Life, have been similarly praised for their vivid remembrance of childhood, earning favorable comparison to self-portraits by Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. The later chapters of the work, however, have been criticized for their concentration on political and public matters to the exclusion of Trotsky's inner and personal life. Trotsky himself noted that his Diary in Exile (1935), a journal kept during his exile in France and Norway, was dominated by political commentary and literary criticism. “And how could it actually be otherwise?” he wrote. “For politics and literature constitute the essence of my personal life.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Trotsky's famous contemporaries include:
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924): Russian revolutionary and first leader of the Soviet Union.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Russian composer of classical works such as The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913).
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924): U.S. president from 1913 until 1921.
James Joyce (1882–1941): Irish expatriate author who wrote modern classics such as Finnegans Wake (1939) and Ulysses (1922).
Marxist Literary Critic Trotsky's works of literary criticism also have considerable historical value. His most important work in this genre, Literature and Revolution (Lituratura i revolyutsiya) (1923), surveys prominent Russian authors and includes a controversial theoretical essay. Trotsky opposes “proletarian art,” a concept championed after the revolution by artists and writers who believed that art and literature should reflect class consciousness and Marxist values. Trotsky maintained that “proletarian culture and art will never exist,” arguing instead that the Russian Revolution “derives its historic significance and moral greatness from the fact that it lays the foundation for a classless society and for the first truly universal culture.” His theories were strongly opposed by Soviet officials who sought to control intellectual life through regulation of the arts and by literary groups who sought official endorsement for their particular doctrines. In the years preceding Trotsky's exile to central Asia, his opponents cited these “anti-proletarian” views of art and culture as evidence that his thought was fundamentally counterrevolutionary. Among Western critics, however, Literature and Revolution is praised for its wit, originality, and insight, and is generally considered the definitive exposition of Marxist literary theory.
Works in Critical Context
Union of Thought and Action Although the controversy surrounding Trotsky has subsided somewhat since his death, few public figures of the century have inspired such intense emotions from both admirers and detractors. Decades after Stalin, Trotsky was still denounced in the Soviet Union as a heretic of Marxism. He was denounced as well by Western anticommunists who considered him a ruthless, or at best, misguided revolutionary fanatic. At the same time, many political leftists worldwide consider him among the most brilliant proponents of classical Marxist thought. Trotskyite political parties that campaign for worldwide revolution still exist in many countries. His achievements and his tragic life have inspired adulation by Western intellectuals who see in Trotsky the perfect union of thought and action.
Objectivity Critics are nearly unanimous in praising Trotsky's compelling prose style, especially in his History of the Russian Revolution. However, no consensus exists as to Trotsky's success in achieving the dispassion that historical scholarship requires. George Vernadsky, among others, calls the work “an impassioned invective against [Trotsky's] enemies” that is “undeniably permeated by ill-suppressed bias.” Trotsky himself distinguished between “objectivity” and “impartiality,” writing that he sought the former while disdaining the latter, and many critics agree that he succeeded in achieving intellectual honesty without sacrificing his commitment to a particular ideological perspective. According to Deutscher, “extreme partisanship and scrupulously sober observation go hand in hand” in the History.
The question of Trotsky's objectivity is even more central to his writings on Stalin. His scathing biography of Stalin, which denounces his personality and rise to power, is perhaps the most controversial of Trotsky's writings. Left unfinished at the time of Trotsky's death, the manuscript was pieced together from the author's notes by editor Charles Malamuth and submitted for publication in 1941. According to Bertram Wolfe, Malamuth's version differed enough on crucial issues from Trotsky's known views that the author's literary executors threatened legal proceedings to prevent its publication. This proved unnecessary, however, as the manuscript was voluntarily withheld by the publisher at the behest of the United States government, which was at that time allied with Stalin's Russia in World War II. Upon its appearance in 1946, the work was viciously received by many critics, who considered it a malicious and unjustified attack on Stalin and Stalinism motivated solely by personal vindictiveness. Such critics as Robert H. McNeal, on the other hand, assert that “it is rather to be wondered that the polemical reaction of a leader so naturally proud and combative as Trotsky was so restrained, considering the provocation that Stalin gave him.” Trotsky's intellectual integrity in this matter has some prominent defenders, but even those critics who consider the biography an accurate depiction of Stalin's personality and career agree that Stalin is largely unsuccessful as a work of literature.
Responses to Literature
- What do you think Russia would have been like from 1940 to 1960—politics, economy, standard of living, art—if Stalin had been exiled in 1928 instead of Trotsky?
- Evaluate Trotsky's theory of worldwide or “permanent” socialist revolution, in light of the rise and fall of Soviet communism in the twentieth century.
- Research the cultural theory proposed by Trotsky in Literature and Revolution. How do his ideas shed light on the artistic genre of “socialist realism” that emerged from the Soviet Union?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The writings of Leon Trotsky are among the classics of revolutionary literature. Here are some other essential titles in the revolutionary's library:
The Communist Manifesto (1848), a political treatise by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This famous work suggests a course of action for working-class revolution to overthrow the social order created by industrial capitalism.
State and Revolution (1917), a political treatise by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin defends Marxist theory and outlines the role of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” following the revolution.
Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (1964), a political treatise by Mao Tse-tung (or Zedong). The “little red book” was required reading in the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution.
The Wretched of the Earth (1961), a nonfiction work of political theory by Frantz Fanon. A defense of national liberation from imperialism, this work was written during the Algerian struggle against French colonial rule.
Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, 1917–1921. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Daniels, Robert V. Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.
Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929–1940. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Dictionary of Russian Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971.
Howe, Irving. Leon Trotsky. New York: Viking, 1978.
Knei-Paz, Baruch. The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1978.
Poggioli, Renato. The Spirit of the Letter: Essays in European Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Rowse, A. L. The End of an Epoch: Reflections on Contemporary History. London: Macmillan, 1947.
Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein) was born in the Ukraine in 1879 and assassinated in Mexico in 1940. Trotsky was not only a leader of the October revolution of 1917, commissar of foreign affairs in the first Soviet government, founder of the Red Army and commissar of war from 1918 to 1925, cofounder of the Communist International, member of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist party from 1918 to 1927, and Stalin’s chief antagonist and critic; he was also an outstanding thinker and original theorist of Marxism, whose ideas strongly influenced socialism and communism in the first four decades of this century.
The theory of permanent revolution is Trotsky’s principal contribution to Marxism and the leitmotiv of his political activities. He first formulated that theory in a treatise called Results and Prospects, written and published in 1906, while he was in prison awaiting trial by a tsarist court for his leading role in the 1905 St. Petersburg Soviet. The origins of the theory can be traced back to the writings of Karl Marx, and it was also influenced by A. L. Helphand-Parvus, a Russo-German Marxist of note. But its actual formulation and application to the revolution of the twentieth century, and to Russian circumstances, was Trotsky’s own work.
Trotsky viewed the transition of society from capitalism to socialism, postulated by Marxism, as an immense succession of socioeconomic and political upheavals leading to the establishment of an international classless and stateless society. No single phase of this revolution, whatever its social character or geographic limitation, can be regarded as self-contained or self-sufficient. The process of society’s transformation is in the nature of a chain reaction that cannot be arbitrarily interrupted or arrested. The revolution develops intensively, by “deepening” and affecting the whole structure of society, and extensively, by assuming international scope.
From these general premises Trotsky developed a specific, prognostic analysis of the character of the Russian revolution. He rejected the view, which had been generally accepted by Marxists, that the Russian revolution would have to be bourgeois in character, as the French revolution of 1789-1793 had been. In this traditional Marxist view, the “task” of the revolution was to overthrow tsardom, sweep away obsolete semifeudal relationships and institutions, and establish a parliamentary democratic republic, under which Russia’s productive forces would be free to develop on a capitalist basis and its working class free to wage its class struggles until such time as Russian society became sufficiently “mature” for socialism. Up to World War I even Lenin and the Bolsheviks adhered to this view, although Lenin occasionally deviated from it.
The differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks centered at that time on the question of which social class, the bourgeoisie or the workers, should exercise leadership in the revolution. The Mensheviks maintained that since the revolution was bourgeois, the bourgeoisie should lead it, while the workers should lend the bourgeoisie their critical support. Lenin argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was frightened of revolution and willing to compromise with tsardom; consequently, only the working class, with the support of the peasantry, could accomplish this bourgeois revolution—despite and against the bourgeoisie. Trotsky agreed with Lenin’s view that the industrial workers were the chief motive power of the upheaval, but he pointed out that precisely because of this the revolution could not remain bourgeois. He asserted that it would be driven by its own momentum beyond the limits set to it a priori by the traditionalist theory and that it would present a peculiar combination of two revolutions, a bourgeois one and a socialist one. Once the proletariat had assumed the leading role, it would be compelled by the logic of its own class interest to turn against the capitalists as well as against tsardom and the landlords; and it would proceed to establish its own dictatorship and to socialize the means of production. Russia, Trotsky predicted, would be the first country to set up a proletarian dictatorship. This was a startling and hotly contested conclusion: all Marxists, including the Leninists, still held that such a dictatorship could first be established only in one of the advanced industrial countries of the West.
Trotsky went on to point out that because of its industrial and cultural backwardness and poverty, Russia could only begin the socialist revolution (or the building of socialism) but could not achieve or complete it except in association and cooperation with the industrial countries of the West. Indeed, the Russian revolution would not be a purely national phenomenon; it would be the prelude to European or global revolution. Just as the revolution would not be contained within its bourgeois stage, so it could not be brought to a halt within any national boundaries. Internationally as well as nationally the revolution would be “permanent.”
As author of this theory, Trotsky linked up with the classical Marxist tradition, but he also departed from it. He was the first Marxist to proclaim that the initiative for the anticapitalist revolution of this century would come from the underdeveloped part of the world rather than from the West. But he remained within the classical Marxist tradition insofar as he continued to see in the industrialized countries of the West the terra firma of socialism, its decisive domain, its chief potential center. A backward country like Russia could and would have the lead in revolutionary initiative, but the lead in the actual establishment of socialism would still belong to the West.
Shortly before 1917 Lenin arrived independently at the same conclusion, and this induced Trotsky to join the Bolshevik party. The idea of permanent revolution was embodied in the programmatic statements of the Communist International during the time that Lenin and Trotsky were its leading lights. It should be added that Trotsky did not favor coups or putsches staged by revolutionary minorities unsupported by the mass of the workers and that he was categorically opposed to “carrying revolution abroad on the point of bayonets.” Permanent revolution, as he saw it, was an organic historic process, inherent in the logic of the class struggles and political conflicts of the age.
The most dramatic implication of Trotsky’s theory emerged in the 1920s, at the time of his conflict with Stalin. The great ideological controversy in the Bolshevik party after Lenin centered on the doctrinal opposition between two theories: Trotsky’s permanent revolution and Stalin’s socialism in a single country. Stalin asserted the self-sufficiency of the Russian revolution; and, at least up to World War Ii, his doctrine was manifest in a policy of Soviet isolationism and self-containment. As such it was necessarily antagonistic to the idea of permanent revolution. Trotsky proceeded to demonstrate theoretically the impossibility of an autarchic socialism, of a socialism confined to any single country, especially to a backward country in which the small-holding peasantry formed the majority of the population. He characterized the Soviet regime as a transitional social order, combining socialist and capitalist (and even precapitalist) elements; but he refused to recognize it as genuinely socialist. He viewed the isolation of Bolshevism within Russia’s boundaries as a mere interval between two acts, as it were, of permanent revolution, an interval unduly prolonged by Stalinist errors and opportunism, but not a definite interruption of the revolutionary process. (Trotsky probably would have regarded the revolutionary aftermath of World War n, culminating in the Chinese revolution, as a continuation of the process begun in Russia in 1917, the long overdue new phase of permanent revolution.)
Among Trotsky’s many contributions to Marxist thinking, the one next in importance to his theory of permanent revolution is his critique of the Soviet bureaucracy. He was, with Lenin, an uncompromising advocate of proletarian dictatorship, and, again like Lenin, he held that this dictatorship ought to be based on “proletarian, or Soviet, democracy.” Its purpose was to consolidate the conquests of the revolution, to suppress the resistance of the former possessing classes, and to guarantee the social and political supremacy of the working class. This aim could not be achieved unless the workers, the poor peasants, and the social groups close to them enjoyed full freedom of expression and association. During the civil war such freedom was severely curtailed; and in the early 1920s the single-party system was established. Trotsky at first treated this as a kind of emergency measure and refrained from elevating the practice of the single-party system to a principle. Presently, he came into conflict with the practice. As early as 1923 he had diagnosed the onset of a postrevolutionary reaction and the incipient “degeneration” of the Bolshevik party; and he had protested against the growing preponderance and arbitrary behavior of the party’s bureaucracy. Between 1926 and 1928, characteristically invoking various precedents from the French Revolution, he warned of the dangers of a Russian Thermidor, Bonapartism, and Restoration. (Later still, in the 1930s, he maintained that Thermidor and Bonapartism were no longer dangers threatening the revolution but accomplished facts.)
Trotsky saw the bureaucracy and the managerial groups of the Soviet Union as the new privileged strata who had usurped the fruits of the revolution and deprived the working class of its rights; he attacked Stalinism as the ideology of the new privileged strata. Up to 1934-1935 he advocated a reform of the Soviet Union, aiming at the revival of Soviet democracy; but in his last years he called for the overthrow of the bureaucratic dictatorship and of Stalin’s personal rule by means of revolution. However, he insisted that the Soviet bureaucracy was not a new and independent social class, exploiting other classes, but a “cancerous growth on the body of the working class” that the Soviet Union was, even under Stalin, a “workers’ state,” although a “degenerate” one; and that Marxists were obliged to defend the Soviet state “unconditionally” against its capitalist-imperialist enemies. He advocated a revolution against Stalinism that, as he explained, was to be political, not social: its aim was to do away with Stalin’s oppressive government, to reduce the new inequality, to abolish the single-party system and the “leader cult,” and to bring the state under workers’ control. But the revolution was not to change anything in the basic system of social ownership of the means of production; on the contrary, it was to preserve that system and revitalize it. These views aroused vehement controversy among Trotsky’s adherents, some of whom (like James Burnham and others) considered the Soviet bureaucracy to be a new exploiting class and Soviet society a “managerial society,” not different in kind from the German society under Hitler or the Italian under Mussolini. (In consequence they renounced all political solidarity with the U.S.S.R. and broke with Trotsky.)
While the ideas just summarized are at the core of so-called Trotskyism, the importance of Trotsky’s contribution to the strategy and tactics of the Communist International should also be stressed. Trotsky was in 1921-1922 one of the chief initiators of the policy of the “united front” and in his later critique of the Stalinized Comintern his analysis of the rise of Nazism was most remarkable. He was the first, if not the only, Marxist to grasp clearly the totalitarian character, the destructive explosiveness, and the imperialist fury of Nazism. While Stalin and his followers underrated Nazism, treating it as a more or less conventional form of reaction (“one of the agencies of finance-capitalism”), Trotsky, as early as 1929-1930, diagnosed it as a new plebeian form of counterrevolution, drawing its dynamic force from the despair of the petty-bourgeois and lumpenproletarian masses faced with the unemployment and misery of the great slump of 1929-1932. He advocated, in vain, joint socialist-communist action to prevent the seizure of power by Hitler and the new world war Hitler’s victory could bring. In 1935-1936 he criticized as opportunistic and defeatist the Stalinist “popular front” policies, especially as applied in France and Spain. In subsequent years he exposed the great purges and the Moscow trials by which Stalin exterminated all his communist critics and opponents; and he founded the Fourth International.
Trotsky was a many-sided personality, a man of action as well as a theorist, a prolific author and an orator of genius. He was unrivaled as a Marxist writer on military theory. While Clausewitz treated war as a “continuation of politics by different means,” Trotsky showed it to be a continuation also of economics, class struggle, and social psychology. He was a historian of the highest order; his History of the Russian Revolution (1931-1933) is a huge artistic canvas depicting the events of 1917 as well as a theoretical interpretation. His biographical gifts are evident in My Life (1930a), in his various writings on Lenin, and to a lesser extent in his Stalin (1941). He was outstanding also as a literary critic. His use of Marxism as a tool of artistic criticism was free from dogma; and he was uncompromisingly opposed to the manufacturing of any “proletarian culture” or “proletarian literature” and to any form of party tutelage over the sciences and the arts. He defended Freudian psychoanalysis against Bolshevik and Pavlovian critics; and in one of his popularizations of dialectical materialism he confidently predicted, in the year 1926, the advent of the atomic age and forecast that the new technological revolution would coincide with and accelerate the social revolution of this century.
He was defeated in his lifetime, slandered, and assassinated. His works and memory were still banned from his native country even in the 1960s, well after the collapse of the Stalin cult. But his ideas—his views on capitalist society, his critique of postrevolutionary bureaucratic privilege and of nationalist (Stalinist and Social Democratic) distortions of socialism—remain relevant to the issues agitating the communist camp and the world at large in the second half of this century.
[For the historical context of Trotsky’s work, see Communism; Marxism; Socialism; and the biographies of Leninand Marx.]
1904 Nashi politicheskiia zadachi: Takticheskie i organizatsionnye voprosy (Our Political Tasks: Tactical and Organizational Questions). Geneva: Rossiiskaia Sotsialdemokraticheskaia Rabochaia Partiia, Tipografiia Partii.
(1906) 1965 Results and Prospects. New York: Pioneer. → First published in Russian. The 1965 edition is bound together with Trotsky 1930b.
1918 Our Revolution; Essays on Working-class and International Revolution: 1904-1917. New York: Holt. → A collection of essays first published separately in Russian.
(1920) 1935 Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky. New ed. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published in Russian. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by the University of Michigan Press.
1923-1925 Kak vooruzhalas revolutsiia (How the Revolution Armed Itself). 3 vols. Moscow: Vysshii Voennyi Redaktsionnyi Sovet. → A collection of Trotsky’s military writings, orders of the day, and speeches.
(1924) 1959 Lenin. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Books. → A collection of character sketches about Lenin, first published in Russian.
1925-1927 Sochineniia (Works). Vols. 2-21. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel’stvo. → A projected complete edition of Trotsky’s works; its publication was discontinued in 1927, at the time of Trotsky’s expulsion from the party.
(1930a) 1960 My Life. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. → First published in Berlin in two volumes as Moia zhizn’.
(1930b) 1965 Permanent Revolution. New York: Pioneer. → First published in Russian. The 1965 edition is bound together with Trotsky 1906.
(1930c) 1957 The Third International After Lenin. New York: Pioneer. → First published in French.
(1932) 1962 The Stalin School of Falsification. 2d ed. New York: Pioneer. → First published in Russian.
(1937) 1957 The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going? New York: Pioneer. → First published in English.
(1941) 1958 Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. → First published in English.
The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology. Edited with an introduction by Isaac Deutscher. New York: Dell, 1964.
Basic Writings. Edited and introduced by Irving Howe. London: Seeker & Warburg, 1964. → A paperback edition was published by Random House in 1965.
Diary in Exile, 1935. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958.
The Trotsky Papers, 1917-1922. Edited and annotated by Jan M. Meijer. Vols. 1—. The Hague: Mouton, 1964—.
Deutscher, Isaac 1954 The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Deutscher, Isaac 1959 The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Deutscher, Isaac 1963 The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Eastman, Max 1925 Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth. New York: Greenberg.
Harvard University, Library 1959 Guide to the Papers of Leon Trotsky and Related Collections in the Harvard College Library. Unpublished manuscript.
Levine, Isaac D. 1959 The Mind of an Assassin. New York: Farrar.
Wolfe, Bertram D. (1948) 1964 Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History. 4th rev. ed. New York: Dial.
The Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a principal leader in the founding of the Soviet Union. He played an important role in the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power; and he organized the Red Army during the ensuing civil war.
Leon Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein near Elisavetgrad (later Kirovograd). He derived from an almost completely Russified Jewish family that lived in the province of Kherson, in the small town of Yanovka. His father, David Leontievich Bronstein, had by dint of hard labor grown fairly prosperous as a farmer, but his uncultured middle-class family lived an extremely simple life. At the age of 7 the boy was sent to a Jewish private religious school in the nearby town of Gromokla. Since he knew no Yiddish, his stay was brief and unhappy but nonetheless valuable, for he learned to read and write Russian.
Shortly after his return home, a cousin, Moisey Filippovich Shpenster, arrived at the Bronstein household to recuperate from an illness. He played the role of tutor to Lyova (Lev's nickname) and when it came time for him to return to Odessa, Lyova returned with him.
In Odessa, Lyova attended a preparatory class for an entire year. At St. Paul's Realschule he quickly overcame his early deficiencies and rose to the head of his class. Seven years in Odessa expanded the already existing differences between father and son. For some reason David Bronstein decided to have his son finish his last academic year in the nearby seaport of Nikolaev instead of in Odessa. Here Lyova had his first contacts with the Russian revolutionary movement.
Revolutionary Activities and First Exile
A relatively large concentration of old exiles of the group called Narodnaia Volia (The People's Will) lived in this small town. Lyova became acquainted with this circle through Franz Shvigovsky, a gardener who played a prominent role in a small discussion club. One member of this Narodnik group, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, considered herself a Marxist and was almost immediately opposed by the 17-year-old Lyova. He knew almost nothing of Marxist doctrine, but his ability as an orator and his intellectual prowess soon made him the focal point of the group. The more involved he became, the more his schoolwork declined, although he graduated in 1897 with first-class honors.
As news of strikes began to grow, Lyova found himself becoming more and more inclined toward Marxism. This period saw the formation of the South Russian Workers' Union. The clandestine activities of its members were for the most part harmless, but police spies successfully infiltrated the group. After an extended period of interrogation, Bronstein was exiled to Siberia for 4 years by administrative verdict. While awaiting deportation, he first heard of V. I. Lenin and his book The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Before leaving, Bronstein married Alexandra Sokolovskaya.
During his stay in Verkholensk, Bronstein began forming his ideas on national coordination and on centralized party leadership. In a little-known essay he composed his thoughts on the subject, and the result was an organizational scheme that practically paralleled that of the Bolsheviks, of whom he later was so critical. He also turned to literary criticism, but the young revolutionary grew restless. Urged on by his wife, he escaped after 4½ years of prison and exile.
Exile and Formulation of Theory
The name on Bronstein's false passport was Trotsky, a name that remained with him. He joined Lenin in London in October and began writing for Iskra. Trotsky shared his quarters with V. I. Zasulich and J. Martov and drew closer to these two than to Lenin. Only Georgi Plekhanov showed any dislike for Trotsky. The split among the Iskra editors was already taking shape, and Trotsky became the special focus of Plekhanov's scorn.
In July 1903 at Brussels the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party produced, instead of one party, two. Trotsky emerged as Lenin's most implacable opponent on the question of the organization of the party. Despite his early writings favoring a high degree of centralization, Trotsky sided with Martov and the Mensheviks in favoring a broader-based party. Plekhanov had sided with Lenin, but their relationship was a fragile one. When Plekhanov invited the Iskra board to return, Lenin broke with the editorial staff completely. Trotsky returned, but Plekhanov's dislike of him only grew. Thus began Trotsky's estrangement from the Menshevik wing of the party. No rapprochement, however, with Lenin was forthcoming.
Suspended between both factions, Trotsky came under the influence of A. L. Helfand, whose pen name was Parvus. Under this influence Trotsky adopted a theory of "permanent revolution" that called for a telescoping of the bourgeois revolution into a socialist one that would carry far beyond Russia's borders. An important basis for this concept was the recognition by Helfand, Trotsky, and Lenin that Russia, far from having been a feudal country, was an Asiatic despotism, with the consequence that Russia's cities, unlike those of the West, had not produced an advanced entrepreneurial bourgeois elite. This made it unlikely, in Trotsky's view, that a sophisticated capitalist development would occur in Russia, and thus it was unprofitable to rely on such development as a basis for revolution. Trotsky argued that the revolution should result in the immediate establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat (meaning power for its vanguard, the Communist elite). The question of whether such a "permanent" or telescoped revolution could be attempted without a great risk of reestablishing the old bureaucratic despotism under Communist leadership preoccupied the Fourth (or Unity) Party Congress in Stockholm in 1906. Lenin offered certain relative guarantees against this Asiatic restoration (no police, no standing army, no bureaucracy, to avoid turning the proletarian dictatorship into a bureaucratic despotism) and an absolute guarantee of a socialist revolution in the West to follow the establishment of Communist power in Russia.
The first news of "Bloody Sunday, " the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution, found Trotsky in Geneva. After a brief respite at Parvus's home, Trotsky went to Kiev in February. With the end of those hectic days at the beginning of the year, revolutionary turmoil abated, and Trotsky, under the assumed name of Peter Petrovich, moved in and out of the clandestine circles of St. Petersburg.
October 1905 Revolution and Second Exile
In the middle of October 1905 a general strike broke out in St. Petersburg, and Trotsky hurriedly returned to the capital from Finland. On the first day of his return he appeared at the Soviet, which had assembled at the Technological Institute. He was elected to the Executive Committee of the Soviet of St. Petersburg as the chief representative of the Menshevik wing and played the dominant role in the brief life of this new type of institution. For his part in the Revolution of 1905 Trotsky was exiled to Siberia in 1907 for life with the loss of all his civil rights. On the trip to Siberia, he decided to escape. His second exile lasted 10 years, until the February Revolution of 1917.
At the London Congress in April 1907, Trotsky maintained his position of aloofness and implored both sides to coalesce in the name of unity. For the next 7 years he lived with his second wife in Vienna, where he made the acquaintance of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, Rudolph Hilferding, Eduard Bernstein, Otto Bauer, Max Adler, and Karl Renner. It did not take long for Trotsky to become aware of the differences between "his" Marxism and theirs. He became the editor of a Viennese paper called Pravda. In August 1912 he organized in Vienna a conference of all Social Democrats, hoping that this would lead to a reconciliation, but Lenin's refusal to attend was a severe disappointment. An August bloc consisting of Mensheviks, Bolshevik dissenters, the Jewish Bund, and Trotsky's followers was formed.
With the outbreak of World War I Trotsky left Vienna for Zurich in order to avoid internment. The question of the war and the Zimmerwald Conference seemed to draw Lenin and Trotsky closer together, and, conversely, Trotsky and the August bloc seemed to become less and less amicable. Parvus's stand on the war also conflicted with Trotsky's internationalism, and their friendship was ended on Trotsky's initiative.
Return to Russia
In September 1916 Trotsky was deported from France, where he had resided during the previous 2 years. On Jan. 13, 1917, he landed in New York. By mid-March the first news of the Revolution began to arrive. He took a negative view of the new government almost immediately. Certainly his stand was firmer on this issue than Stalin's. Trotsky's differences with Lenin were indeed growing less severe. With his family, Trotsky attempted to return to Russia, but he was removed from his ship at Halifax by British authorities, who forced him to remain in Canada for an entire month. Not until May 4 did he finally arrive in Petrograd.
Trotsky assumed the leadership of the Interborough Organization, a temporary body composed of many prominent personalities opposed to the "war, Prince Lvov, and the social patriots." At the Bolshevik party's Sixth Congress in July-August, Trotsky led the entire group into Lenin's fold even though at this time he was in prison as the result of the abortive July coup. With the growth of Bolshevik strength in Soviet representation, the Petrograd Soviet elected Trotsky as its chairman on September 23. He had also been raised to Central Committee status during his prison term.
Trotsky and Lenin prodded the Bolsheviks on to revolution over the objections of such men as Lev Kamenev, Trotsky's brother-in-law, and Grigori Zinoviev, and Trotsky alone forged the "machinery of insurrection." He scurried from meeting to meeting agitating whoever would listen. By his own estimate no more than 25, 000 or 30, 000 (the actual number was probably less) took part in the final coup, a testament to his organizational ability.
In the Soviet government founded by Lenin after the coup, Trotsky was given the position of people's commissar for foreign affairs. He also led the Soviet delegation at the Brest-Litovsk Peace Conference. While he negotiated, Karl Radek distributed pamphlets among German soldiers designed to provoke unrest in the enemy camp.
The German demands were so extensive that the Bolshevik party split over the question of war or peace. Lenin was almost alone in wanting to accept the terms dictated by the Germans. Profound disagreement had existed between Lenin and Trotsky on the question of Brest-Litovsk, but Lenin convinced Trotsky once again to approach the Germans for terms. This time the terms were even more unfavorable, but again Lenin persuaded Trotsky to side with the peace faction. Trotsky cast the deciding vote in favor of signing the highly unfavorable Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Although Trotsky had resigned as commissar of foreign affairs he was immediately appointed to the post of commissar for war. In that capacity he rebuilt the Red Army and directed the campaigns on four fronts during the civil war. Despite wholesale opposition throughout the Bolshevik party, he persisted in the use of former czarist officers, buttressed by a system of political commissars and terror. From a force of fewer than 10, 000 reliable armed soldiers in October 1917, he had built an army numbering more than 5 million 2½ years later. He alone proved capable of imposing centralization upon a highly fragmented force.
Toward the end of the civil war in 1920, Trotsky proposed that the machinery for military mobilization be employed for the organization of civilian labor. Civilian labor was to be subjected to military discipline, and the army was to be reorganized on the basis of productive units. Lenin wholeheartedly supported Trotsky's suggestions. Trotsky's strong-arm methods in shaping the army and in forcing industrial production created a large number of bitter enemies who were soon to be heard from.
Opposition to Stalin
From Lenin's death in 1924 until Trotsky's exile in 1928, Trotsky fought a long, hard, and losing battle against Stalin, who cultivated the many enemies that Trotsky had made as a revolutionary. Despite the fact that Lenin in his last testament seemed to favor Trotsky over Stalin and even had proposed removing Stalin from power, Trotsky proved no match for Stalin. The plethora of positions that Stalin had attained, some important and some not so important but all with patronage, strengthened his position and undermined the power of his opposition. In the final analysis, Trotsky had only his personal brilliance and the army as bases for power, the latter without its crucial political control apparatus. Stalin not only controlled a variety of organizations, but he skillfully appealed to the class interest of the new bureaucratic elite and decisively asserted his claim to Lenin's mantle at the funeral of the dead founder and in the Foundations of Leninism, published in early 1924. Trotsky did not bother to attend Lenin's funeral.
Exile and Assassination
Trotsky allied himself with the so-called left opposition of Kamenev and Zinoviev; but Stalin successfully opposed him by breaking up the alliance, aided by Nikolai Bukharin and the right wing of the party. After his defeat Trotsky was expelled from the party, and in 1928 he was exiled to Alma-Ata in Central Asia. Forced to flee the Soviet Union, he went first to Turkey, then to France and Norway, and finally to Mexico. Throughout his sojourn he continued to attack Stalin, returning to his early critical themes of bureaucratic centralism and one-man dictatorship. Implacable as he was in his criticism, Trotsky did not draw on the most powerful polemical weapon available to him: that the cause of socialism had been lost in an "Asiatic restoration, " through the consolidation of a new bureaucratic despotism under Stalin. That would have meant the rejection of Soviet communism and the party. Trotsky, unable to do so, could attack only Stalin and his policies.
On Aug. 20, 1940, Trotsky was mortally wounded in Mexico City by an ice ax wielded by Ramon Mercador, a Soviet assassin talked into this crime, according to one account, by his mother, who held the Order of Lenin for masterminding assassinations for the Soviet secret police.
Trotsky wrote his memoirs in exile, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1930; trans. 1930). His vivid History of the Russian Revolution (3 vols., 1931-1933; trans., 3 vols., 1932) recounts his role in the Revolution. Isaac Deutscher's superb biographical trilogy will probably remain the standard work on Trotsky for many years: The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (1954); The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (1959); and The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940 (1963). Countless studies of the Russian revolutionary movement and the Revolution exist. Among the best are William Henry Cham-berlin, The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921 (1935); Adam B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia (1965); Robert V. Daniels, Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917(1967); and Richard Pipes, ed., Revolutionary Russia: A Symposium (1968).
Recommended for general background are Edward Hallett Carr, A History of Soviet Russia (9 vols., 1951-1971); Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 1890-1918 (1966); and Adam B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-67 (1968). □
Trotsky, Leon 1879-1940
Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Trotskii [Bronshtein]) was a leading Russian revolutionary. Born into a Jewish farming family in present-day Ukraine, Trotsky became a Marxist publicist and organizer in the 1890s. During Russia’s 1905 Revolution, he became chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies just before its suppression by the tsarist government. Forced to flee Russia, he spent the next several years as a journalist in Europe.
After 1917’s February Revolution overthrew the tsarist regime, Trotsky returned to Russia. Despite fifteen years of disputes with Vladimir Lenin, Trotsky now found their views congruent, and joined Lenin’s Bolsheviks to help lead the October coup d’état that overthrew Russia’s provisional government. Trotsky served briefly as Soviet foreign minister before shifting in spring 1918 to building the Soviet military to fight the Russian civil war. After the Red Army’s 1920 victory, Trotsky struggled against other Bolsheviks to take the ailing Lenin’s place as head of the Soviet Union. For some historically conscious Bolsheviks, Trotsky’s talent, military authority, and arrogance raised the specter of a new Bonaparte; a coalition of enemies, led by Joseph Stalin, first removed him from power then exiled him in 1929.
Trotsky produced a remarkable amount of work, including history, military theory, and even literary criticism, but his key contribution is his concept of permanent revolution (perhaps more aptly termed uninterrupted revolution ). According to classical Marxism, proletarian revolution can take place only after a successful bourgeois revolution and the consequent long-term development of capitalism create material abundance, socioeconomic polarization, and a self-conscious working class. After the 1905 Revolution, however, Trotsky suggested that in Russia, the bourgeoisie alone was too weak to overthrow the autocracy and establish bourgeois capitalism. This created an opportunity for the proletariat to hijack the bourgeois revolution, by collaborating with the bourgeoisie to overthrow the tsarist regime, then immediately destroying the bourgeoisie and establishing a proletarian government—precisely what Lenin and Trotsky later did in 1917. Though Trotsky’s theory had a specifically Russian context, he noted its applicability to other backward societies.
Russian backwardness was, however, a double-edged sword. While it allowed direct transition from bourgeois to proletarian revolution, it produced a socialist regime in an underdeveloped country. Without accompanying revolutions in industrially advanced countries, the new Soviet state was vulnerable. This led Trotsky after 1917 to promote revolution abroad to protect Soviet Russia, a stance Stalin distorted. Painting Trotsky as pessimistic about Soviet prospects, Stalin used nascent Soviet nationalism against him. Soviet backwardness also led Trotsky to push industrialization, if necessary at the peasantry’s expense. Though Stalin attacked this policy during the struggle for power, he adopted it upon consolidating victory.
Trotsky’s theoretical work continued in exile. Trotsky did not attribute his defeat to Stalin, who he dismissed as a nonentity, but instead to Russian backwardness. Material want and a scarcity of class-conscious workers, Trotsky argued, created the conditions for the ascendance of the Soviet bureaucracy, which employed Stalin as a tool to solidify its own position. In analyzing the bureaucracy, Trotsky anticipated later criticisms that suggested that Marxist revolutions merely substituted a new exploitative ruling class for the old one. Trotsky, however, did not see the Soviet bureaucracy as a class, for that would mean that Russia’s proletarian revolution had failed. Though deformed and twisted by the bureaucracy, the Soviet Union remained for Trotsky a genuine workers’ state, the fruit of a true proletarian revolution.
Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin led to his assassination in 1940 by a Stalinist agent in Mexico City. He was a nonperson for the rest of the Soviet Union’s existence, his achievements expunged from the historical record. Elsewhere, however, his charisma, anti-Stalinism, rhetorical flair, and reputation as the ne plus ultra of the revolutionary left ensured that Trotskyism remained an important force on the far left.
SEE ALSO Bolshevism; Bureaucracy; Communism; Industrialization; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Marxism; Revolution; Socialism; Stalin, Joseph; Stalinism; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Deutscher, Isaac. 1963. The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929–1940. New York: Oxford University Press.
Knei-Paz, Baruch. 1978. The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
David R. Stone