21 August 2014
Forgetting Leon Trotsky (7 November 1879 - 21 August 1940)
Leon Trotsky died 74 years ago today. He was a Marxist revolutionary and theorist, Soviet commissar, first leader of the Red Army, and founder of the Fourth International. Trotskyism, his theory of Marxim, involved support for a vanguard party of the working class, proletarian internationalism, the need for 'permanent revolution', and advocacy of a United Front of revolutionaries and workers throughout the world opposing capitalism and fascism.
He was born Leiba Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November 1879. He was one of eight children. His parents, David Leontyevich Bronstein (1847–1922) and Anna Bronstein (1850–1910) were wealthy, middle-class Jewish farmers, based in Yanovka, which is now in southern Ukraine.
David was not an observant Jew, and what he desire most was for his son not to be disadvantaged educationally, as he'd been. To this purpose he was content to send Leiba to a Christian school. At the age of 9, he was sent to Odessa, where he was enrolled in a German school, St Paul's Realschule. The city, founded by Catherine the Great, had been a free port between for nearly 40 years, which had turned into a seething stew of ethnicities, nationalities, and religions—an environment that may have influenced his outlook. As a student, Leiba was bright, hard-working, and dependable. He lived with his cousin Moshe Shpentser and his wife Fanni. Moshe taught him urbanity and politeness. David was proud of his son and was keen to keep him on the straight path: an older son, Alexander, had done nowhere near as well in school, and had yet managed to become a doctor. Leiba showed both the intelligence and the ambition to really make something of himself.
While still 15 years of age, Bronstein moved to Nikolaev, bent on becoming a mathematician. This was against his father's wishes, who thought a career in engineering would be more lucrative; yet, the wilful adolescent paid no attention. He associated himself with rationalism and progress. Now, if he had stuck to the integration exercises and the slide rule, history may have been different, but, unfortunately, after a couple of years, he fell in with a rotten crowd, grew bored of mathematics, and was permanently set on the wrong path. This, much to the distress of his father, who'd broken his back in the fields to pay for his education.
As is always the case, it happened by chance: at the Nikolaev Realschule, where he was enrolled, he came across Vyacheslav Shvigovski, who had an intellectual older brother in his late 20s, Franz. No longer under the watchful gaze of the Shpentsers, he Bronstein was free to do as he liked. And got to know this Franz. Now both he and the younger sibling subscribed to revolutionary ideas and were tolerant of Marxism. They had a circle of friends very interested in politics, and they met for discussions in Franz's garden. This circle of friends included Alexandra Sokolovskaya, an 'obdurate' Marxist. Leiba joined this circle and became acquainted with their literature. Not only that, but he found he enjoyed this free-wheeling, urban, intellectual atmosphere much better than the cramping one of the Bronstein family. He adopted a Russian name Lëva (diminutive of Lev) and became a narodnik (revolutionary populist).
After a while, discussion was no longer enough; the group decided they wanted action. Bronstein threw himself into revolutionary agitprop with relish, and was soon making a name for himself in the city, littering the streets with pamphlets and proclamations, spewing socialist ideas among naive students and industrial workers.
Naturally, this could not end well, and by the beginning of 1898, he had been arrested and imprisoned. In fact, they'd been under surveillance for a while—the Tsar's government wasn't stupid. Transferred from one prison to the next , he ended up in Moscow, where he met other convicts with revolutionary ideas, heard about Lenin, and read his book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Our chap had already been introduced to Marxism three years earlier, and Alexandra, no wilting lilly, had been gaining ground on him, despite his being an intellectual bully, though he'd still had enough sense then to resist the poison. Alas, no more: influenced by criminals and Lenin's diatribe, he finally succumbed and became a full-on Marxist. Within two months of his incarceration, the newly formed Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held its first congress, following which Bronshtein identified himself as a member.
During the two-year wait for his trial, Bronstein and now fellow jailbird Alexandra fell in love. A Jewish chaplain wedded them in 1900. The timing was contrived to keep them together, because Bronstein was then sentenced and had he not already married the girl, he would have had to enjoy his four years' exile in Siberia not only freezing but also celibate.
For the next two years, Bronshtein studied the Marxist classics. He could have studied philosophy, and learnt the love of wisdom; instead, he learnt to recognise the party currents. One faction was not bothered about changing the government, and cared only about better conditions for the workers; the other wanted to overthrow the monarchy and thought it essential to have a well-organised and disciplined revolutionary party. Well, guess which side this fellow chose? Of course, Bronstein sided with the worst of the lot and began writing for their propaganda organ, Vostochnoe obozrenie. He also got involved with the rash of 'democratic organisations' along the Trans-Siberian railway, churning out hand-written leaflets and proclamations.
Then, having just fathered two girls, he decided to run off, abandoning his wife and the two tiny babies in the wilds of Siberia to fend off as best they could in the approaching winter. He later claimed that Alexandra supported his decision, but this was bunk. The great man craved the world stage, and he wasn't going to let a family get in the way. Bronshtein went ahead, hiding in a wagonful of hay. Alexandra saw out the rest of her sentence, but by then Bronshtein, the ungrateful scoundrel, had taken a new lover in Paris—Natalya Sedov—and the marriage ended in divorce. The girls were shifted to other relatives, and Alexandra would many years later be swallowed up by the Great Terror, ending her days in Siberia while Trotsky sunned himself in Mexico City, merely because she'd once been married to this man.
It was at this juncture that Bronshtein changed his name, taking 'Trotsky' from a jailer he'd known in Odessa. From Siberia he'd gone to London, where he'd joined the editors of Iskra, of which he'd became an assiduous contributor. This got Lenin's attention and, seeing promise in the 23-year-old escaped convict, he used him a pawn in his political manoeuvrings to wrest control of the publication from the 'old guard' within the editorial board, led by the founder of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov. (Lenin led the 'new guard', together with Julius Martov).
Communist politics were a dirty and messy affair, however, and it was not long before Trotsky turned against his mentor. After years of arrests, convictions, and internal confusion, in 1903 the RSDLP managed to cobble together a second party congress, which met first in Brussels but which, unwelcomed by the Belgian police, was then forced to scurry into a smokey meeting room at the English Club in Charlotte Street in Bloomsbury. Supporters of Iskra, which constituted 60% of the delegates, bickered about points in the programme and fell out over wording and definitions of membership. All wanted clandestinity. But Lenin wanted a party of professional hardcore revolutionaries, while Martov wanted a loose membership. The vote favoured Martov, but some then changed their minds and stormed out, leaving Lenin in the majority, supported by Plekhanov, who would subsequently flog him with criticisms. Accordingly, the Iskraists split into Bolsheviks (majoritarian faction) and Menshevik (minoritarian faction). Martov submitted to this designation, and Trotsky went with him, which led Lenin to denounce him as a 'Judas', a 'scoundrel', and a 'swine'.
But the following year Trotsky also changed his mind and left the Mensheviks. By the Summer, sick of the factionalising and the changing of sides at the drop of a hat, he relocated to Munich, where he met Alexander Parvus (born Israel Lazarevich Helphand, or Gelfand), a Marxist theoretician who'd been derailed as a teen by the socialist ideas of Alexander Herzen, an ideological forerunner to the Narodniki. Parvus had revived Marx's idea of the 'permanent revolution' and told a very attentive Trotsky his views on it.
The year 1905 began with unrest in Saint Petersburg. A factory strike became a general strike, which ended with a march to the Tsar's Winter Palace on 9 January. Led by Georgi Gapon, an Orthodox priest of peasant stock who'd become involved with factory workers, the march aimed at having the Tsar proclaim universal civil rights. It was peaceful, and Gapon's union was legal, but the atmosphere was tense and the Palace guards fired on them, killing hundreds of individuals. This became known as Bloody Sunday.
Seeing an opportunity, Trotsky slipped back into Russia, where he quickly set to work pumping out propaganda, mixing indiscriminately with Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The latter he laboured to radicalise, but they had been infiltrated by the secret police and Trotsky was forced to flee all the way to rural Finland. There, he took Parvus' idea of 'permanent revolution' and ran with it, resulting in articles that were later collected and two volumes, 1905 and Permanent Revolution.
It then came Moscow's turn to be paralysed by strikes. As before, it began with one factory and spread elsewhere: within two weeks, the initial walk-out at the Sytin Print Works had spread to typesetters throughout Moscow and Saint Petersburg and from there to the Moscow-Kazan Railway. And, as before, seeing an opportunity, Trotsky slipped back into Russia, where he again set to work pumping out propaganda. With Parvus, he took over the Russian Gazette and boosted its circulation from 30,000 to 500,000 copies. Trotsky also joined the Saint Petersburg Soviet, of which he became vice-chairman and then chairman after the arrest of its leader. A capable orator, he even began eclipsing Lenin politically. However, the good times were not to last, for by December he was arrested and incarcerated on charges of supporting armed rebellion, and by October 1906 he was duly tried and convicted. His sentence: exile in Sibera.
But on this occasion Trotsky didn't even make it to the region; he escaped while on route and returned to London, in time to attend the RSDLP congress, by now on its fifth iteration. He then removed himself to Vienna, where, besides participating in the activities of both the Austrian and the German Social Democratic parties, he befriended Adolph Joffe, a Russian émigré who'd also had his mind poisoned by social democratic ideas while still in school. Together they launched Pravda, ostensibly a bi-weekly newspaper, which was then smuggled into Russia—when it appeared, that is, because Trotsky couldn't keep it regular, and managed only five issues in the first year. The fact is that from the paper's inception in October 1908, Trotsky had to count his pennies to keep it going, and was forced to go begging to the Central Russian Committee for money. He eventually succeeded in making it a party-funded central organ, wriggling past Lenin's requirement to have a Bolshevik as co-editor through nepotism: he installed his brother-in-law in this position. The relative, however, resigned acrimoniously and Trotsky just about managed keep the paper in existence until April 1912, when it finally went bust.
That same month, however, Lenin's Bolsheviks started their own paper, calling it also Pravda. Trotsky was incensed at the usurpation, and wrote an angry letter denouncing Lenin. It was intercepted by the police and they filed it for future use. Later, Trotsky's communist enemies contrived to dig it up in order to embarrass him.
Now, if Trotsky was bad, Lenin was even worse, because one of the disagreements the former and the Mensheviks had with Lenin was the Bolshevik policy of funding their party through armed robberies. The 5th Congress had shown enough of a conscience to ban this practice, but the Bolsheviks didn't care, and Lenin had his opponents expelled from the party. Trotsky tried to reunite the party in Vienna, but failed.
Still in Vienna, while a young Adolf Hitler eked out an existence as a labourer and bohemian water colourist, Trotsky kept pouring out agitprop for various Russian and Ukrainian newspapers, under cover of various pseudonyms. While a correspondent in the Balkans to cover the war there, he became friends with Christian Rakovsky, who later proved useful to him, for he would become a leading Soviet politician and an ally within the Soviet Communist Party, until Stalin got of him. He was back in Vienna in 1913, but the Great War broke out the following year, and, with Austria-Hungary fighting against the Russian Empire, Trotsky, facing arrest as a Russian émigré, fled to neutral Switzerland.
The war completely realigned the RSDLP. Now Lenin, Trotsky, and Martov were on the same side, opposing the war. Trotsky spent some of his time writing a book against the war (The War and the International), and he then went to France as a war correspondent for Kievskaya Mysl. In Paris, he began editing yet another newspaper, Nashe Slovo, initially with Martov, who soon became disgruntled as paper moved even further to the Left. Trotsky also attended a congress of anti-war socialists. Not long after this, the French authorities decided they'd had enough, and deported Trotsky to Spain. Spain, however, didn't want him, and quickly passed him on to the United States, a number of whose powerful financiers were already funding the Bolsheviks. Trotsky arrived in New York in January 1917 and took residence in the Bronx.
And he wasted no time: he wrote articles for a local Russian-language socialist newspaper and for a Yiddish daily, and used his oratory to agitate Russian émigrés. Officially, he lived on $15 a week.
In March 1917, which was still February in Russia, since they still used the Julian calendar, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, giving way to the Russian Provisional Government. Trotsky set sail back to Russia, where he arrived with some vicissitudes in May. He supported the Bolsheviks and joined the Mezhraiontsky, a regional social democratic organisation based in Saint Petersburg, and became a leader. By August he was once more under arrest, but, foolishly, he was let loose after only 40 days. By October (Julian calendar) the Bolsheviks had stormed the Winter Palace and by the end of the year, with the Bolsheviks firmly in power, Trotsky was second only to Lenin.
Lenin wanted to pull out of the war, so Trotsky was made Commissar of Foreign Affairs and sent to negotiate with the Germans. Again, there were divisions. Left Communists wanted no peace with a capitalist country, and the whole of Europe under the Soviet claw. Lenin worried that the inherited Russian military was falling apart, and he realised that the newly formed Red Army, which was puny and consisted of ill-trained peasants, was a bad joke, particularly after having their bottoms kicked by the disciplined German army; his main concern was to hold on to power. Therefore, he advocated signing a peace treaty with capitalist Germany in the event of an ultimatum, although he was willing to stall as much as possible. Trotsky also recognised the uselessness of the Red Army, but he was against a treaty, thinking it would be a blow to Soviet morale and prestige. Eventually, face was saved by the usual means: subjecting the matter to a vote, thereby dispersing responsibility. And as the Bolshevik Central Committee voted in favour of a peace treaty, the latter was duly signed and Trotsky saw no option but to resign.
(Peace treaty or not, Germany would lose the war, and the aforementioned Hitler, now a soldier in the German army, would learn of it while recovering from blindness following a mustard gas attack. He would blame treason on the home front at the hand of Marxist agitators, and this soon would set him on a collision course with Bolshevism.)
By the time of his resignation, Trotsky had already formed a Supreme Military Council, to address the Red Army situation, and within days he was appointed People's Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs, and chairman of the aforementioned council. In full control of the army, Trotsky was answerable only to the Communist Party leadership. He took harsh measures: forced conscription, party-controlled blocking squads, compulsory obedience, officers chosen by the leadership, and political commissars. Of course, the death penalty was essential: soldiers had to face possible death at the front, and certain death at the rear.
Russia was now in a state of civil war, so Lenin appointed a Politburo, consisting of five members, two of which were Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, the 'man of steel'. Trotsky sent Stalin off to Tsartsyn, where, with new allies, Stalin imposed his will on the army, challenging many of Trotsky's decisions. The Man of Steel organised mass killings of counter-revolutionaries, the torching of villages, and public executions of deserters and renegades as traitors.
Trotsky was vain, arrogant, prickly, egotistic, and overbearing, and as a leader he routinely stepped on toes and elbowed people aside, not bothering to apologise, so it's unsurprising that before long his leadership came under attack. Stalin, to whose camp went many of those whom Trotsky had offended and annoyed, encouraged the criticisms with gusto. The situation came to a head and Stalin was already pressuring Lenin to fire Trotsky, but when the latter anticipated this by tendering his resignation, it was refused, so he survived for the time being.
By 1920, the final year of the Russian Civil War, Trotsky wanted to focus on rebuilding the economy, but Lenin was fixated on War Communism, and put Trotsky in charge of militarising railways while allowing him to keep control of the Red Army. The Polish-Russian War then broke out, and Trotsky thought the army was too exhausted to do anything other than sign a peace treaty as quickly as possible, but Lenin's demonic thirst for blood had not quite been slaked yet. If fact, as far as he was concerned he was only getting started, and thought to switch from 'defensive' war (against imperialism) to 'offensive' war. But the offensive on Warsaw was botched up by Stalin because he ignored Trotsky's orders, so in the end the latter got his way.
Nevertheless, there was to be no peace for this restless man, for next came a wrangle over trade unions, which split the Communist Party, pitting Trotsky against Lenin. The latter accused his opponent of 'bureaucratically nagging the trade unions'. By 1921, it was Lenin's victory and he switfly claimed his scalps, which included several Trotsky supporters (they were summarily dismissed). Lenin said that Trotsky was 'in love with organization', but that in working politics 'he has not got a clue'. Indeed, Trotsky was a loner, a scribbler, and a poor team mate; certainly not a professional revolutionary.
In 1922 Trotsky was still second to Lenin, but when the leader's health went steeply downhill, Stalin, now Central Committee general secretary plotted with two others to ensure Trotsky wouldn't get a bite at the cherry. They formed a troika and began by nominating Trotsky for secondary jobs, in the expectation that he would indignantly refuse and they could then use that as an excuse to get rid of him. Speculation also circulated as to whether blackout-prone Trotsky was an epileptic. Lenin got wind of this and thought it idiocy, for he viewed Trotsky as an asset; however, debilitated by a succession of strokes, his manoeuvrings failed to prosper. The fiendish Stalin had been, in the meantime, using his power of appointment to staff the Central Committee with his lackeys, undermining also his partners in the troika. With the latter he had Trotsky's ally, Christian Rakovsky reassinged to London; regional party secretaries who protested were also reasigned, scattered throughout the Soviet Union. Moreover, Trotsky's recommendations for intra-party democracy, which received a standing ovation at the XIIth Party Congress, were ignored. Meanwhile, Stalin's relationship with Lenin, which had been deteriorating, eventually broke down when the Man of Steel rudely insulted the leader's wife. Yet, it was all the same to him, because by this time he was in control and not going anywhere.
Trotsky retained all his positions and it was publicly maintained that there was no question of removing him, but Stalin succeeded in gradually having him cut off from the decision-making process.
Trotsky, who'd been ill, travelled to a resort in Abkhazia in order to recover. While there, Lenin died at last. Trotsky, upon learning of it, began to make his way back, but in a telegram came via the Cheka telling him that the funeral would be on Saturday that week; too early for him to make it back on time, he thought, given that his outbound journey had been slowed down by snow. In the end, the funeral was held on the Sunday, which led Trotsky to speculate he'd been deceived so as to damage his chances of succeeding Lenin, but he never found out what really happened. Stalin, who was of course devious, made sure Trotsky received the utmost care and attemtion, stressing his physical security was paramount.
Dissatisfaction within the party caused the Left Opposition to take shape. Naturally, Trotsky was on the sinister side, foul of the Man of Steel. His attempts at conciliation fell on deaf ears, and Stalin ensured Lenin's testament, which would have favoured Trotsky, was defused. Stalin also ensured references to Trotsky's 'mistakes' were constantly made. Politburo meetings became theatrical performances, going through the motions with all decisions agreed in advance. And when Trotsky published Lessons from October, a polemical essay about the revolution, the troika denounced him on multiple fronts. Moreover, while Trotsky fell ill again, rendering him unable to respond, his enemies wasted no time, straining every sinew to discredit him—an easy task. Eventually, they succeeded in shredding even his military reputation, forcing him to resign as Commissar of Army and Naval Affairs. He kept his politburo post (though on probation) and escaped being chucked out of the Communist Party altogether, thanks to Stalin's tactical game. All the same, Trotsky began 1925 unemployed.
A few months later, Trotsky was given three new positions, but (according to him) interference and sabotage instigated by Stalin led him to resign two. Meanwhile, as the young and angry Ayn Rand—whose family driven into poverty by the communists—was making her way across the Atlantic, en route to New York, Stalin finally got rid of his troika allies, Zinoviev and Kamenev, having no further use for them, and these formed the New Opposition. Trotsky initially refused to get involved, but over time the out-manoeuvred ones wheedled their way into his good books, and with him formed the United Opposition. Bear in mind that Zinoviev had not too long before demanded that Trotsky be chucked out of the Communist Party—that's the sort of hypocrisy we're dealing with here.
But if they thought they would get anything past Stalin, they had another thing coming. Stalin ratcheted up the harassment, and by the XVth Party Conference, Trotsky faced catcalls, mockery, and constant interruptions. This was followed by mass expulsions, arrests, and exiling of opposition members. Many caved in and renounced all opposition. Trotsky stood firm, but his supporters gradually buckled in too, and would eventually vanish in the Great Terror. He would eventually lose all his posts, and not only be expelled from the Communist Party, but also expelled from the the Soviet Union altogether. Stalin thoroughly owned him.
Trotsky found himself in Turkey, where he stayed four years. The Radical politician, Édouard Daladier, who in 1933 was enjoying his first brief stint as Prime Minister of France, offered him assylum in France. But two years later, Daladier's successor told him to get lost. Some damage had already been done, however, for Trotsky got involved with French communists; founded the Fourth International, spurred by the triumph of Hitler's party in Germany; and even had enough leisure to read French novels, all of which he despised.
Trotsky then went to Norway, then under a Labour government. But Stalin was not quite done with Trotsky yet, and, having organised show trials in which Trotsky was linked to an assassination plot, conspiracies, and various crimes, had him found guilty and sentenced to death in absentia. The Norwegian government realised the value of staying in Stalin's good graces, so they quickly removed him to a remote region and placed him under house arrest.
Fortunately for him, former tax collector and jailkeeper Lázaro Cárdenas, the President of Mexico, needed to keep the support of the left and the labour unions to hold on to power and keep his agrarian reform independent from American capitalism, so he welcomed Trotsky. The latter would have preferred emigrating to the United States, but the latter wouldn't hear of it. So Mexico it was. Cárdenas, having obtained Trotsky's assurance that he would not meddle in Mexican politics, arranged for a train to bring him to Mexico City.
By now, in poor physical condition and unemployed, there was nothing left for him but to write for popular appeal. One was Their Morality and Ours (1938), in which this vain old man ridiculed his many young critics without engaging their arguments. His books didn't produce enough money, however, so he gave lectures and began charging for interviews—he demanded $1000 to speak to the Baltimore Sun, for example, except that he was no longer anyone important. He also sold copies of his old political correspondence for quick cash. All the while he was kept under close surveillance: the Mexican government watched him round the clock; the Mexican Communist Party did the same, and send reports about him to Moscow; and the United States' government, who'd barred him permanently from living there, also kept a file on him. Still, he worked closely with American communists, sought to organise the Fourth International, and even found time to have an affair with Frida Kehro, a young painter, right under Natalya's nose.
Trotsky spent the 1930s seeing Hitler rise with impotence, so when World War II broke out, he hoped it would destroy Europe's political stability and instigate a 'proletarian revolution'. But he was out of touch, increasingly erratic, intellectually rigid, and completely irrelevant, save to his starry-eyed admirers.
Over in Moscow, Stalin had further in store for Trotsky, and arranged for his assassination. An armed raid on Trotsky's home was the first attempt, led by a secret police agent and locally recruited assassins. The attack was seen off by his guards. But The second attempt succeeded. Ramón Mercader had began visiting Trotsky, posing as a sympathiser. One day, on 20 August 1940, while they were alone in Trotsky's study and the old man was seated at his desk, glancing at an article written by Mercader and preparing to opine on it as he'd agreed, Mercader walked behind him and, gripping the mountaineer's ice-axe hidden under a raincoat, whipped it out and delivered a tremendous blow to the head. Mercader's ice-axe penetrated three inches into Trotsky's head, but it was delivered with the wide end and was not severely fatal. A piteous cry alerted the guards and these burst in and quickly beat the assailant unconscious. Trotsky was taken to hospital, where he survived more than a whole day still, before he finally died.
Trotsky caused enormous harm during his sixty years of life. Without him there would have been no October Revolution. Without him there would have been no Communist victory in the Russian Civil War. Nor would, consequently, Europe have ended up in the grip of Communism for half a century. And without him, there would have been no Fourth International. Or Trotskyists. He failed at much, but when he succeeded, he changed history for the worse. On his conscience—not that he had one in any functioning state—should be tens of millions of dead, including artists, doctors, and intellectuals.
If there was ever a place for Trotsky's soul it was burning in Gehenna, along with all the other rubbish; purifying it will probably take eternity.
 Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 2009) 44.
 Ibid 67.
 Ibid 427.