Trotsky, Leon

Trotsky, Leon
(originally Lev Davidovich Bronstein)
   One of the central figures in the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Leon Trotsky was a leading figure in the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), a major Marxist theoretician and historian, and an insightful military tactician. His writings and thought remain an inspiration to a major school of Marxism. Trotsky’s political activism began when he joined a group of Populists in Mykolayiv in 1896, but he soon turned to Marxism, and in 1897 he helped found the South Russian Workers’ Union and was duly exiled to Siberia for doing so. On escape he fled to London in order to join Vladimir Ilich Lenin in editing the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party newspaper, Iskra. Drifting toward the Menshevik line of thought, Trotsky was critical of the centralized revolutionary party Lenin’s Bolsheviks were rapidly becoming. In 1905 he returned to Russia and led the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in the failed revolution attempt that year. Exiled for this activity, Trotsky was once again banished to Siberia, and once again escaped. He then spent time in Austria, Switzerland, France and New York.
   Trotsky returned to Russia following the March 1917 revolution. Joining the Petrograd Soviet he soon became a leading figure, and, despite his concerns about the increasing centralization of the party, accepted Lenin’s invitation to become a member of the Bolsheviks. He was elected to the party’s Central Committee and became chair of the Petrograd Soviet and also of the Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee that planned the October 1917 Russian Revolution. In the inaugural cabinet after the Bolsheviks came to power Trotsky was the peoples’ commissar for foreign affairs, and then became peoples’ commissar for war, and in this position founded and led the Red Army to an improbable victory in the Russian civil war waged to defend the young republic.
   With Lenin’s stroke in 1922 preventing him from taking a fully active role, leadership of both the party and the state increasingly shifted toward the “Troika” group of Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin. Trotsky opposed Stalin as part of the “Left Opposition” within the party, but he was outmaneuvered by the Troika and by Stalin in particular. He was removed from his post as commissar for war in 1925, expelled from the Politburo in 1926, and exiled to Alma Ata in Soviet Central Asia in 1927. Two years later, Trotsky was deported to Turkey, and for the rest of his life sought refuge in France, Norway and Mexico. In Mexico in 1938 he founded the Fourth International as an alternative to the Stalinist Third International (Comintern). During exile Trotsky wrote extensively and polemically on the way in which Stalin had betrayed the 1917 Revolution. His criticisms did not go unnoticed in Moscow, and in 1940 a Stalinist agent, Ramón Mercarder, assassinated Trotsky at his home in Mexico with an icepick. Despite the process of glasnost, Trotsky never received formal rehabilitation from the Kremlin. The Red Army leader’s strong internationalism and advocacy of “permanent revolution,” the antithesis of Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” put him at odds with many in the party, and was a motivational factor in his dismissal by Stalin. Trotsky’s permanent revolution entailed two main tenets of thought. First, as world capitalism had developed so unevenly and in Russia created only a tiny bourgeoisie, a workers’ government could be formed immediately following revolution, with no need for a period of middle-class rule. Secondly, a country as agrarian and undeveloped as Russia could not exist as a sole workers’ state encircled by hostile capitalist states. As such, events in Russia would be a precursor for revolution elsewhere, inspiring proletarian insurgencies in more advanced Western nations, and relying upon their success for the continuance of the Soviet Union. In his latter years, Trotsky, most notably in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), was forced to account for the continued survival of the Soviet Union despite the absence of successful revolution in Western countries. He argued that, in order to avoid collapse as a consequence of its isolation, the Soviet state had gone through a period of degeneration, attempting to solve pre-socialist problems (e.g., low economic development, the effects of world and civil war) with socialist approaches (e.g., collectivization).
   Trotsky’s anti-Stalinism never abated, and he used a number of works such as My Life (1930) and The History of the Russian Revolution (1931–1933) to criticize the direction the Soviet Union had taken following the death of Lenin. Trotsky somewhat prophetically warned that the only consequence of a party that commanded the proletariat would be a ruthless, bureaucratic dictatorship, and with that borne out he called for a new, political revolution to return the Soviet Union to the ideals of socialist democracy behind 1917.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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