A revolutionary whose ideas and methods retain their validity
On 21 August 1940, the revolutionary socialist, Leon Trotsky, was murdered by a Stalinist agent. Along with Lenin, Trotsky had been the foremost leader of the October 1917 socialist revolution in Russia.
When the Stalin-led counterrevolution destroyed that revolution and crippled the international communist movement, Trotsky set about reconstructing the forces of genuine Marxism.
That legacy has been taken up by the Socialist Party and is explained in a new book published by the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.
Below, we publish extracts from the book’s introduction written by Tony Saunois, secretary of the CWI.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader, a secret police agent under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union.
The Stalinists hoped that the assassination of Trotsky would also bury the ideas he defended. You can kill a human being but not the ideas the person advocated.
Today, representatives of capitalism and their agents on the right wing of the workers’ movement have tried to dismiss Trotsky and his ideas as irrelevant.
This is usually accompanied with a bucketful of distortion, slander and bile. Yet they have failed to bury his ideas.
What Trotsky stood for, and his analytical and programmatic methods, are even more relevant today. In this era of profound capitalist crisis they are destined to win even greater support.
Like all of the great Marxist leaders – Marx, Engels and Lenin – Trotsky was not an abstract theoretician.
He was also an inspirational fighter and activist in the revolutionary movement who tested out his ideas and programme in the fires of revolution and counterrevolution.
The immense sacrifices made for the ideas he defended and in the building of a new socialist world, are something today’s revolutionaries can only aspire to.
Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November 1879 in Yanovka, Ukraine, Trotsky moved to Nikolayev to complete his schooling in 1896.
Here he was rapidly drawn into the underground socialist circles and introduced to Marxism.
In January 1898, after two years of committed political activity, he was arrested for the first time and spent four-and-a-half years in exile in Siberia, enduring brutally harsh conditions.
He escaped in 1902 using a false passport, adopting the name Leon Trotsky which he used for the rest of his life.
In Paris he met his second wife Natalia Sedova who was active in Lenin’s Iskra group, and had two sons with her, Lev and Sergei.
Eventually making his way to London, he first met Lenin there and worked with him and others on the paper, Iskra – ‘The Spark’.
This opened a period of intense ideological struggle and debate over ideas, methods and programme.
Initially, the sharp political and theoretical divide that was to develop between Lenin’s Bolshevik ‘hard’ faction and the reformist Menshevik ‘softs’ in the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) was not fully clear. The extent and differences over programme and tactics took time to emerge.
Trotsky wrongly, like others at the time, attempted to facilitate the coming together of the two factions which brought him into conflict with Lenin.
Trotsky’s autobiography – ‘My Life’ – reveals his ingrained honesty in recognising the mistake he made at this time.
He harboured the false hope that the Mensheviks, under the hammer blow of events, could be shifted to the left.
But he also explains why this mistake was made and that when he “came to Lenin” the second time, he did so with a full understanding of the issues and with total conviction.
Others, who merely repeated the phrases of Lenin without understanding them, were exposed in Lenin’s absence and after his death, when they capitulated to Stalin and his regime, proving themselves incapable of independent thought.
Debates and tactics
This honest appreciation of differences and a willingness to recognise a mistake was to be revealed in a series of debates and discussions in the Bolsheviks, and between Lenin and Trotsky during the revolution and after they had taken power.
The debates on tactics during the civil war, peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, the New Economic Policy, the role of the trade unions during the period of ‘war communism’, and other vital questions, refute the false claims of capitalist commentators and historians that Bolshevism, and the Soviet regime in the period immediately following the revolution, were simply bywords for a ‘Leninist dictatorship’, where no debate or dissent was tolerated.
Having broken connections with both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks following the 1903 RSDLP congress, Trotsky found his way back to Russia in time for the 1905 revolution and immediately threw himself into the struggle.
He was elected Chairman of the Soviet (council or assembly) of Workers’ Deputies. The forming of the soviet was a decisive step by the St Petersburg workers.
These democratic organisations of the working class became the decisive organs of struggle and the basis for the new workers state which was formed after the revolution in October 1917.
While Trotsky realised the importance of the soviet, some of the leading Bolsheviks present in the country at the time did not recognise the crucial importance of this new form of workers organisation.
They saw this new organisation as a threat to the party. It took Lenin’s arrival to correct this sectarian mistake.
It is important that Marxists do not have a fetish about the forms of organisation that can emerge during revolutionary upsurges.
Trotsky recognised the crucial role of the soviet in Russia. But in 1905 it was a new form of organisation; he did not insist on an exact replica of the Russian soviet model in other revolutions.
In Germany in 1923 he recognised the crucial importance of the factory committees, for example, in Spain he advocated the formation of workers’ committees or “juntas”.
The defeat of the 1905 revolution saw Trotsky arrested and thrown into exile, once again in Siberia. It was there, incarcerated, that he wrote one of his most important works, based, in part, on the experience of the 1905 revolution – ‘The Permanent Revolution’.
In it, Trotsky clarified the question of the character of the revolution in countries such as pre-revolutionary Russia, where capitalism existed side-by-side with elements of feudalism, and where the tasks of the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution – the development of industry, solving the landing question, unification of the nation, and establishment of a bourgeois parliamentary system – had not been completed.
Within these countries, and also internationally, there was a process of what he termed “combined and uneven development”.
Within nations, and between nations, a high level of development exists alongside a lack of development and backwardness.
In countries like Brazil or India today, sophisticated and developed sectors of the economy coexist with feudal conditions and even slavery.
Trotsky argued that the capitalist class, entwined with the feudal landlords and their system was too weak to carry through these tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution and was too terrified of the working class to allow it to do so.
Only the working class was able to carry through a ‘democratic revolution’, but having taken power would immediately be in conflict with the capitalists and landlords, and the revolutionary process, to succeed, would have to pass on to the socialist revolution, thereby ending capitalism and feudalism.
Moreover, for the socialist revolution to survive, the workers’ state in Russia would need to rapidly link up with the working class in the more industrialised capitalist countries carrying out socialist revolutions.
Permanent revolution today
These ideas of the ‘permanent revolution’ were confirmed later in the October 1917 revolution. The ideas developed by Trotsky on this question clarified Lenin’s position on the character of the revolution and which class was to lead it.
Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ is crucial for an understanding of the class struggle in the neocolonial world of Asia, Africa and Latin America today, where an even more favourable situation exists for the development of the socialist revolution in these continents than when Trotsky developed his ideas.
The outbreak of World War One in 1914 saw the capitulation of the leaderships of the mass workers’ parties throughout Europe to national chauvinism, and support for their respective national capitalist class.
Only a tiny minority of revolutionary Marxists was able to resist this pressure and maintain a principled working-class internationalist stance, including Lenin and Trotsky.
With the outbreak of the Russian revolution in February 1917 – a confirmation of the permanent revolution – Trotsky returned, with difficulty, to Russia via Canada in May 1917.
Lenin arrived from his own exile in April and proclaimed his ‘April Theses’, which clearly set out the character of the revolution and the need for the working class to take power, giving no trust to the capitalist provisional government which had been established.
It took a major struggle inside the Bolsheviks by Lenin to convince the party of the correctness of this position.
The ‘July Days’ saw a premature working-class uprising in St Petersburg, followed by repression from Kerensky’s government against the Bolsheviks. Trotsky was arrested and Lenin forced into hiding.
It was during this period that Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and was elected to its central committee, reflecting the authority and standing he had, despite not formally being a member until this point.
Released from prison in September he was immediately elected chair of the Petrograd Soviet and then led the Military Revolutionary Committee, which was to play the crucial role in organising the insurrection and bringing the working class to power in October (November in the new calendar).
The future success of the Russian revolution depended on the working class in the industrialised countries of Germany, Britain, France and elsewhere casting off their own capitalist class and linking together with the Russian workers to begin building socialism.
However, the delay in the international revolution after the October revolution meant that it was necessary to take a series of emergency steps to win time and hold onto power in Russia.
Trotsky played a crucial role in this. He constructed the Red Army from nothing to combat the 21 armies of imperialism and the counterrevolutionary ‘Whites’ sent to try and crush the revolution.
At one point the revolution hung by a thread. The battle to recapture Kazan, east of Moscow, was a crucial turning point.
Trotsky’s role in rebuilding the fifth army regiment and transforming it into a fighting unit was decisive.
Even today, Trotsky’s achievement in building the Red Army to win the civil war and defeat the armies of imperialism is legendary.
1924 was the decisive turning point in revolutionary Russia, marked by Lenin’s death. The isolation of the revolution, years of economic devastation caused by the civil war and imperialist intervention, and the loss of thousands of the most committed Bolsheviks in the civil war, all laid the basis for the emergence of a political counterrevolution and the eventual formation of a ruthless bureaucratic regime which Trotsky and the Left Opposition fought against.
The adoption of the reactionary idea of ‘socialism in one country’, and through it the abandonment of the ideals and aspirations of the October revolution, was the theoretical expression of this bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin.
Eventually it would reduce the Communist International from being the world party of the socialist revolution into loyal border guards for the Stalinised Soviet Union.
For this process to be completed, it was necessary to drive out and crush those who continued to defend the ideals of October, in particular Leon Trotsky and his supporters. A campaign to denigrate Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’ was unleashed.
Lenin was aware of the dangers present in the bureaucratic degeneration of the new regime, and prior to his death he had proposed a pact with Trotsky to oppose Stalin and fight the growing bureaucratisation. However, he was struck down by a second stroke before this could be enacted.
As Trotsky put it in ‘My Life’: “A regime was established that was nothing less than a dictatorship of the apparatus over the party. In other words, the party was ceasing to be a party”.
By 1925 Trotsky had been removed from his duties as People’s Commissar of War and increasingly sidelined.
The reactionary idea of ‘socialism in one country’ was having disastrous consequences internationally; in particular, the derailment of the Chinese revolution (1927-29).
Stalin drove Trotsky into internal exile in 1927. Yet even that was not enough, so desperate was Stalin to remove the ‘Trotskyist’ challenge to his regime.
Thousands of supporters of Trotsky and the ‘Left Opposition’ were to be imprisoned and executed.
Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union in 1929. Driven into exile, he was left “on the planet without a visa” when country after country refused him entry.
Eventually, the left populist government of Lázaro Cárdenas granted Trotsky and his wife Natalia shelter in Mexico.
Even this was not enough for Stalin, who enacted the murder of Trotsky’s sons Lev, who was active in the Left Opposition, and Sergei, who remained in the Soviet Union and was not active in politics.
In Mexico, Trotsky continued his revolutionary work. In some ways what he regarded as his most important work of preparing to rebuild the Marxist movement.
The coming to power of Hitler in Germany in 1933, due to Stalin’s fatal policies imposed on the Communist International, led Trotsky to conclude that reforming the communist parties was now impossible and that a new revolutionary international had to be built.
For this reason he took the step of founding the ‘Fourth International’ and published its key document, the ‘Transitional Programme’.
This document retains its crucial importance in the global capitalist crisis unfolding today.
In 1937 he published ‘Revolution Betrayed’, which analysed for the first time the new phenomenon of the Stalinist bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union.
Between 1936 and 1938 Stalin unleashed his vicious show trials, particularly directed against the Left Opposition. Thousands were rounded up, tortured and executed.
From Mexico, Trotsky painstakingly worked to defend his political and theoretical ideas and to build a new international organisation.
He participated in a political struggle that took place among Trotskyists in the USA, which centred on the class character of the Soviet Union, questions on Marxism, and the orientation of the party towards the organised working class. This has many lessons for the work of revolutionaries today.
In this renewed period of capitalist crisis, the ideas and methods defended by Trotsky will resonate in a way that they have not done in recent decades.
A study of Trotsky’s ideas and methods is an essential political weapon for a new generation of revolutionary socialists fighting for socialism as the only future for humankind.
To assist workers and young people with that, the CWI is publishing this work on the 80th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination.
Leon Trotsky – A Revolutionary Whose Ideas Couldn’t Be Killed book cover (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)
New book on Trotsky’s life and ideas from the Committee for a Workers International, published by Socialist Books, and available through Left Books
£8. Pre-publication special offer price £6.50 including postage. Also bulk orders available.
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80 years since the murder of Leon Trotsky: can they kill his ideas?
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