Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a close associate of Lenin during the Russian Revolution and Early days of the Bolshevik State. He held a seat on Russia’s powerful Communist Party eight member Politburo until 1926. He shared Lenin’s undying belief in the Dictatorship of the Proletariat through violent revolution and class struggle. He held to that fanatically until his last day. He wrote voluminously throughout his life in newspapers, journals and books, including his own biography and an extensive history of the Russian Revolution.
The Bolsheviks, who undertook a successful coup in Petrograd in November 1917, began immediately to stifle democratic governance. The first day that the popularly elected Constituent Assembly convened, of which the Bolsheviks were a minority, they used the military to shut it down and dispersed it (January 1918).
Karl Marx promoted a hypothesis, based on Hegelian dialectics, which presumed historical determinism would inevitably be the end of capitalism. Feudalism is succeeded by Bourgeois society then subsumed by large capitalist enterprises that dominate the society. However, Capitalism’s increasing efficiencies will predictably impoverish the working class or rather Imperial competition will lead to international warfare, both would precipitate a revolution led by this Revolutionary Proletariat. This revolutionary proletariat over a period will produce a classless society.
Lenin advanced the idea a small, disciplined revolutionary Marxist Party could become the vanguard of the proletariat and conduct a society into a Communist utopia, skipping the stages that included Bourgeois parliamentary politics. Russia as you would know had a tiny working class of a couple million industrial workers and 100 million peasants. It was far from a state typified by Marx that was heavily industrialized and would be expected to see this transition into revolution and a communist classless society. Under Lenin’s ideas this revolutionary Proletariat would violently struggle against counter-revolutionary forces, using whatever means necessary for their success.
Trotsky, while ostensibly a Menshevik (Minority) since the 2nd Party Congress of 1903, joined the Bolsheviks(Majority) in the 1917 after the overthrow of the Romanov monarchy and the institution of parliamentary government. From then on he clung to Lenin’s nostrum of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the justice of violent class struggle against counter-revolutionary forces. Bolsheviks had abjured any participation with parliamentary government, in opposition to the Mensheviks. Bolsheviks insisted on a party of highly disciplined, dedicated revolutionary workers, not simply political supporters.
The handles for each of the factions of the Russian Socialist Party were due to the boycotting of the 1902 Congress by the Mensheviks that left the Bolsheviks the majority of the party at the Congress.
Trotsky, who was already well known for his energetic work in the 1905 failed Revolution, participated in the coup d’etat of November 1917 that overthrew the Provisional government and for his leading military role in the Russian Civil war. His energy at rallying the Red Army Forces contributed significantly to the Bolsheviks regime to survive and led to great popularity with Russian people. In an army that lacked strictness, he was not above using violent measures including summary execution to enforce military discipline.
Trotsky had asked Stalin to be removed from the Southern Front for insubordination but Lenin and the leadership never consented for his removal. During this conflict Stalin had reached out to Trotsky to make some tentative amends but was rebuffed, according to Volkogonov in his biography, Trotsky, Eternal Revolutionary. This certainly contributed to the animosity between these two future candidates for the leadership of the Party.
In March 1921 when it appeared that the Bolsheviks had won the Civil War, Trotsky endorsed the crack down on the Kronstadt naval rebellion that protested violent suppression of strikes in Petrograd and demanded democratic reforms. Kronstadt sailors had been one of the first to support the 1917 Revolution. The Bolsheviks took 12 days of fighting to suppress the rebellion. 3,000 sailors were killed or wounded and more than 1,200 were executed afterwards. For many this was the end of the hopes for a truly democratic revolution. Trotsky, a member of the Politburo, condoned the crackdown.
At that very same time in 1921 the 10th Party Congress banned dissent; internal factions were forbidden. These included the Workers Opposition that promoted syndicalism and Democratic Centralists that desired more power to the Soviets (Councils). The party becomes dedicated to being monolithic. Discussion, dissent or disagreement becomes forbidden unless directed by the leadership of the Party. Lenin and Trotsky sanctioned this regime. By the Civil War (1918-1921) Lenin and the Bolshevik party, along with Trotsky, had built a one-party state, ready, willing and able to crush opposition. It would come to haunt Trotsky in the power struggles between him and the leadership in the Politburo.
Trotsky believed in the justice of using terror and repression in Class Struggle against counter-revolutionaries, as mentioned above with the crackdown on the Kronstadt naval base. And he was additionally amoral when it came to economic matters. Trotsky wrote in Terrorism and Communism (1920):
Repression for the attainment of economic ends is a necessary weapon of the socialist dictatorship.
The same Party he did so much to support would come to crush him, his family and his associates. Ironically, his prescription for Stalin’s ever increasing control over the party was to demand more democracy in the Party. It was this same Party he helped create that had violently suppressed opposition and had outlawed dissension, internal factions, within the Party at the 10th Party Congress.
One of the first glaring missteps to claim Lenin’s mantel was Trotsky’s absence from Lenin’s funeral. He was on holiday in Odessa and was told that the funeral was Saturday when in fact it became Sunday. Nonetheless, Trotsky should have made all efforts to reach Moscow at the earliest hour, instead of consigning himself not to be present. Trotsky’s absence made a very bad impression on the Party.
After Lenin’s early death in January 1924, a power struggle began for leadership of the Bolshevik party and the leadership of Soviet Russia. Earlier Lenin had asked Trotsky to be his deputy in the government (Sovnarcom), basically second in line, but he demurred; he was too busy with his publishing activities. This was a colossal blunder.
Stalin, named General Secretary of the party, had control of the membership and was ready to join with Kamenev and Zinoviev within the Politburo to outnumber Trotsky. Trotsky found himself outvoted 7-1 immediately in issues before the Politburo. Critically, Trotsky held himself above the fray and chose to absent himself for long periods from Moscow, mostly excusing himself for health reasons and occupying himself with his writing. He was a haughty, prima donna and I wonder if he in some way expected the party to recognize he was Lenin’s successor by acclamation, due to his popularity based on roles in the Revolution and the Civil War.
Nearing death, Lenin had written a testament with negative characterizations of Stalin, calling for his removal from the General Secretariat, but the testament was never allowed to be released to the party faithful. The Testament was read out to the 13th Party Congress Central Committee after Lenin’s death, but Party members were not allowed to take notes. Little was made of it, contrary to Trotsky’s expectations. Enough criticism was leveled to others in the leadership beside Stalin that few wanted dwell on his testament. Stalin’s position in the Party was not shaken.
Trotsky, ever the revolutionary, insisted that Soviet Russia needed Permanent revolution to be successful, a revolution rolling across national boundaries. This view was not nearly as popular with the Party as Stalin’s claim that Russia could successfully build socialism in the one country of Russia without an expanded Permanent revolution. Trotsky assumed without it, Soviet Russia would be in the throes of militarism, defending itself from capitalist attack.
Not engaged in any effective political coalition building, he was continually outmaneuvered my Stalin. Trotsky was ousted from the Politburo in 1926; he was removed from the Central Committee in October 1927. Trotsky hadn’t made alliances in the military, either, despite his leading military role in the Revolution and the Civil War.
Trotsky and his small faction of Oppositionists resorted to attempting to ignite an uprising against the Party, so securely ensconced in power. His supporters went to factory gates, trying to stir up the workers. At the 10th Anniversary of the November 1917 revolution parade in Moscow supporters of Trotsky, Kamenev (his brother in law) and Zinoviev attempted to publicly protest. The troika is said by Trotsky to have been driving around Moscow, stopped by police, they were led to the Platform to the accompaniment of cheers. These types of demonstrations were utterly futile and Trotsky was deluded to think otherwise.
This public disruption (November 1927) was not taken kindly by the leadership of the Party. Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev were expelled from the Communist Party. Kamenev and Zinoviev recanted their opposition soon after and was graciously allowed to return to the Party; they will fall under Stalinist oppression nonetheless in 1936 at the Show trials.
Trotsky had little respect people of lesser intellect, unless they were assisting him with his writing. Note Trotsky, Jewish from Odessa region, had to enhance his Russia, and went on to learn to speak and write German and French and some English; he studied mathematics and physics until politics took over his life. He had a brilliant intellect. This is a classic case of high IQ and mediocre emotional intelligence, something Stalin was superb at. In his ascent to dictatorship, no one allied with Stalin thinking here is some sinister monster who’s going to kill us all. Later in the purges in the 1930’s he eliminated all of his prior allies and a couple of his secret police henchmen like Yagoda and Yezhov, who were executed as well after they had fulfilled their usefulness. Stalin was a master manipulator.
Trotsky was essentially a polemicist and historian. Not a great theoretician, his one contribution to Communist thought was the aforementioned idea of Permanent Revolution. He wrote voluminously, much of which was to pay the bills after his exile.
After his expulsion from Soviet Russia, Trotsky began to advocate violent overthrow of the Stalinist regime. He had virtually no means to see this accomplished, but paranoid Stalin was incensed at his rhetoric and insisted on him being silenced. Stalin’s paybacks were legendary. Trotsky himself had to take ever increasing safety measures and often moved. He first took up residence, after being expelled from Soviet Russia, on the island Prinkipo, in the Sea of Marmara in Turkey in 1929, deemed sufficiently safe. But there were exiled White Russians who would have loved to see his death as well. Something Stalin would love to blame Trotsky’s death on. He remained there for 4 years hoping some western country would accept him. He subsequently went from France to Norway then in 1937 to Mexico and lived with Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican painter for two years. They had a falling out, due to it seems his too intimate relationship with his artist wife Frieda Kahlo. In May, 1940 a group of assassins led by the KGB, shot up his house with over a hundred bullets and a couple bombs that failed to explode. He miraculously survived. He was assassinated in August 1940 at his heavily guarded house by an ice pick of an associate of his trusted female assistant, she being unaware of his true identity as KGB agent.
Stalin wouldn’t be satisfied with Trotsky’s death. His entire family fell under the wheel of Stalin’s organs of oppression except for his second wife, Natalia. His youngest daughter succumbed to tuberculosis for lack of medical care in 1928. His eldest daughter Zinaida committed suicide in 1933, out of despair in Berlin. Zinaida left her young daughter in Russia, never to be heard from again. His first wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, who introduced him to Communism and he abandoned in 1902 in Siberia with two children, was swallowed up by the Gulag and died sometime around 1938. His son, Lev Sedova, from his second marriage, who worked closely with him, died after complications from an operation for appendix, in a private clinic, in 1938. He went to the private facility under an assumed name fearing discovery by the NKVD. His operation, initially successful, turned to fatal complications. Some point to the NKVD as possible agent in his death. Sergei, his younger son, was apolitical became an engineer, but Stalin came for him nonetheless and died in the Gulag in 1937, charged with a trumped accusation of poisoning co-workers. His wife died in the Gulag. His sister, Olga, wife of Kamenev of Show Trial fame, was executed in 1941 in the Medvedev Forest. Her sons were executed in 1937 and 1938. Wives of his sons, uncles and aunts, sisters and their husbands all went under the maw of Stalinist oppression. His parents who help support him throughout his adult life died prior to the rise of Stalin’s full power, his father in 1920’s and his mother in 1910.
Finally, Trotsky was dedicated to violent class struggle, command control of the economy, a one Party Communist State. It is not very likely his rule would have been radically different than Stalin’s. He advocated collectivization of agriculture and the rapid industrialization of the economy before Stalin began to implement them in the late 1920’s after his exile. Even after being exiled from Soviet Russia and advocating leadership change, he makes no mention of the ghastly effects of the collectivization of agriculture or the extensive Stalinist purges.
“Above all [the Proletariat] must be completely free from the fictions of religion, ‘democracy’ and transcendental morality- spiritual chains forged by the enemy to tame it and enslave it…..Welfare of the revolution – that is the supreme law!” He and his family died under that law.