International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

Leon Trotsky - 60th Anniversary of his Assassination

Nicky Mckerrill

"The great brain of Trotsky was what was feared by all his enemies. They couldn't cope with it. They couldn't answer it. In the incredibly horrible method by which they destroyed him there was hidden a deep symbol. They struck at his brain! But the richest products of that brain are still alive. They had already escaped and can never be recaptured and destroyed."

James Canon, American Trotskyist, after Trotsky's murder 1940.

The sixtieth anniversary of Leon Trotsky's assassination took place in August of this year. The first year of the twenty first century seems a world away from the era of Trotsky. But this is far from the truth. Trotsky's ideas and struggle to keep socialism alive- which he paid for with his life- are even more relevant in this world, where capitalism runs rampant across the globe causing human and environmental devastation.

Trotsky died almost in the middle of the bloody twentieth century. In many ways his life symbolised the struggles faced by the working class in that period. He was central to nearly all the significant events of that period.

The 1905 revolutionary movement in Russia which shook the new century to its foundations; the great October revolution of 1917 which created the first workers state anywhere in the globe; the war to defend the revolution; the battle against Stalinism; the Spanish Civil War; the rise of Nazism and fascism; the Second World War- Trotsky was involved in all of these. Some of them directly, and others through his analysis and writings.

The twentieth century saw the capitalist system stumble from crisis to crisis, from war to war. It also saw the working class emerge as a political force determined to build a new society. This occurred successfully in Russia where the revolution was led by the Bolshevik Party. Unfortunately other movements in Germany, China, Spain, Italy and many others were not. This led to the isolation of Russia and the growth of an undemocratic bureaucracy personified by Joseph Stalin. Eventually this regime grew to such a monstrous caricature it discredited the very idea of socialism. Throughout his life Trotsky struggled against this

In the late 1980s the remnants of these regimes collapsed. Amongst his many achievements Trotsky predicted such events would happen because of his analysis of the Stalinist regime.

The life of Trotsky needs to be celebrated and his murder remembered because his ideas and his life long struggle is testament to the lasting power of socialism which will make itself felt in this new century.

Trotsky became an active socialist at the age of 17 in Southern Russia. Although from a middle class, semi-rural background he was attracted to Marxism. Russia at the end of the nineteenth century was in turmoil particularly in its industrialised areas. With some of his friends they literally adopted a local factory and spoke to the workers there about Marxism, and published some newsletters.

Tsarist Russia- at that time ruled by Nicholas II- was a police state where trade unions and all socialist political activities were banned and faced brutal repression. Incredibly Tsar Nicholas has just been made a saint by the Russian Orthadox Church. This meant that Trotsky faced his first prison sentence at 18 for his production of propaganda.

At this time Trotsky joined the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a Marxist Party which wanted to overthrow Tsarism. The SDLP was affiliated to the Second International. As a result of this Trotsky had to spend his young life in exile. Unfortunately he would also end his life in exile from Russia.

The tensions in Russia erupted in 1905 when a revolutionary movement engulfed the country. This affected the army and navy with the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin being a key incident, the Russian working class -which was a relatively small force then - the students and importantly the peasantry in the largely agrarian society.

Trotsky played a leading role in1905 eventually becoming the chair of the St Petersburg Soviet. This was the first time in history that Soviets came into being. Essentially they were worker's councils made up of delegates from local workplaces. They also involved soldiers and sailors and in some areas the peasantry. Soviets were the creation of the Russian workers themselves although the SDLP participated in them they did not initiate them. These organisations were to be critical 12 years later in the Socialist Revolution.

The 1905 revolution was defeated meaning that many Marxists had to go back to a period of exile and underground political activity.

The SDLP at that time, although nominally a Marxist party, had many different factions within it. The main battle was between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This split had developed over a secondary organisational question over the make-up of a committee in 1903. At the time the differences seemed minor.

Trotsky at this time belonged to neither faction. Although he was quite close to some of the Menshevik leaders like Martov he preferred to retain his independence. At some points he argued that there should be a reconciliation between the two factions.

However Trotsky wrote on how he thought the socialist revolution would develop. The traditional Marxist view was that undemocratic feudal Russia would have to go through a capitalist revolution before socialism could occur. That is the situation in Russia in the early twentieth century was similar to France prior to 1789, or England prior to the English Civil War in the seventeenth century which brought capitalism to those countries. If the socialist revolution was to occur it would be in one of these more advanced societies.

Trotsky thought the 1905 events disproved this. Although the 1905 revolution had democratic demands the representatives of the weak capitalist class in Russia supported the Tsar the key force in promoting these demands had been the working class. This led Trotsky to promote his theory of permanent revolution.

In essence this meant that in the period that capitalism had now entered in the twentieth century it could no longer play a progressive role anywhere in the globe. That is to say it could not successfully carry out the democratic demands of the bourgeois revolutions: democracy, the solution of the national question, the distribution of land and the separation of church and state. This was especially true in agrarian countries where these questions were critical like Russia.

Thus the task of Russian socialists was to promote the Russian working class as the key force of change. They alone in their battle for socialism could solve the democratic demands of the capitalist revolution. Thus the revolution would be permanent not relying on the stage of capitalist democracy.

Such ideas led to his isolation from the Menshevik faction who believed in the capitalist revolution idea. His ideas were much closer to Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik's theories.

World events had also shown the differences between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks to be anything but minor. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 had led to the break-up of the Second International with the leadership of each party supporting their own ruling class, this included the Mensheviks. Opponents of the war were isolated but included Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

In Marx's phrase this war was the "midwife" of the Russian Revolution. In March 1917 Tsarism crumbled in the face of revolutionary insurrection. Power passed to the capitalist politicians. It is not possible here to explore all that happened. Trotsky himself did this in his masterful "History of the Russian Revolution". But essentially they failed to satisfy the demands of the workers and peasants as predicted by Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. Lenin argued that the revolution needed to be taken to a new level with the working class taking power under the phrase "All power to the Soviets". Trotsky supported him in this although most of the Bolshevik leadership initially did not.

This meant that in October a second socialist revolution was led by the Bolsheviks transferring power to the Soviets.

Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917 and was a central leader of the October Revolution along with Lenin. He also headed the Red Army and successfully led it to victory in the Civil War against Russian reactionaries and International capitalism.

During the revolution Trotsky was a powerhouse addressing literally thousands of meetings with his brilliant oratory. In the Civil War he had a special train which he commandeered and travelled from battle-front to battle-front.

The creation of the first workers' state was a massive step forward. Even after all the horrors of Stalinism and the collapse of those regimes the 1917 October revolution still represents the greatest event in modern history. However from its beginning it was isolated after revolutionary movements across the world were defeated.

This was disheartening for the Bolsheviks for whom internationalism was central. One of their first actions was the launch of the Communist International.

However Russia's isolation and its relative backwardness led to a growth of a bureaucratic group whose grip got stronger and stronger as time passed without another successful revolution. This was personified by Joseph Stalin who launched a campaign against Trotsky on the Central Committee following the death of Lenin.

To do this Stalin and others sought to portray Trotsky as a maverick figure removed from Lenin who propounded his own theory of Trotskyism as opposed to Marxism or latterly Marxist-Leninism. This was utter nonsense as Trotsky later explained "From 1917 to 1924 not a word was spoken of the contrast between Trotskyism and Leninism. In this period occurred the October Revolution, the Civil War, the construction of the Soviet state, the creation of the Red Army, the working out of the party program, the establishment of the Communist International, the formation of its cadres, and the drawing up of its fundamental documents".

Above all else Trotsky was a Marxist. His writings on the permanent revolution were an attempt to apply the Marxist method to the situation in Russia and Lenin came to similar conclusions. His campaign against bureaucracy and his writings on spreading the international revolution were similarly genuine Marxist ideas.

To protect his power base Stalin labelled all his enemies "Trotskyists". Trotsky launched the Left opposition to counter the bureaucracy. For a period this was carried out as an open campaign within the Communist Party but as Stalin consolidated his power base the most violent and brutal methods were used against Trotsky and his supporters.

Trotsky was sent into exile. However no capitalist state wanted him and his promotion of revolution. He travelled from Turkey to Norway to Mexico.

Stalin's campaign against genuine socialism did not stop at the borders of his country. His international policy was leading to devastation. From a grotesque caricature of Marxism the Stalinists promoted the idea of "socialism in one country". Thus all Communist Parties across the globe had to act as a brake on revolution in their own country.

In Spain this resulted in the defeat of the revolution and the victory of Franco as the Stalinists attacked Trotskyist opposition. This conflict was brilliantly shown in Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom. In Germany the strongest Communist Party outside Russia allowed Nazism to come to power in 1933 - in Hitler's own phrase -"without breaking a pane of glass" It was this event which led Trotsky to conclude that the Communist International had degenerated beyond repair and he launched the Fourth International.

Stalin used his police state to pursue Trotsky and all other socialist opponents to their deaths. He killed thousands and exiled many to the far reaches of Siberia. The reason for this was clear the conscience of the revolution had to be killed.

The Marxist historian Rogovin in his writings on Stalin's great terror quotes the French Revolutionary Victor Serge "Could you imagine that there were alive in the world today perhaps ten people who correctly understood Einstein's theory of relativity? Imagine, if those people were suddenly exterminated, how far back mankind as a whole would be pushed." Similarly as Rogovin argues "destroying thousands of people who understood how to free mankind from inequality and oppression, Stalin was throwing mankind back many decades."

Some shallow capitalist historians and analysts write that Stalin was a practical politician as opposed to the idealist Trotsky but this was far from the truth. Stalin's success could only come on the back of persecution and murder of thousands such was the fear of the ideas of Trotsky- which were in effect the Marxist opposition to his police state.

Even under these conditions of persecution Trotsky still managed to produce a masterful analysis of Stalinism the "Revolution Betrayed". This analysed the growth of the bureaucracy which had got to power on the back of the revolution and the planned economy. From being a relative drag on the success of Russia they would become an absolute barrier. If not challenged they would collapse allowing capitalism to be reintroduced or a new political revolution had to be launched. As history shows the former happened.

Trotsky eventually paid for his Marxism with his life in 1940 when he was murdered by a Stalinist agent but as Jim Cannon put it beautifully: "They killed Trotsky not by one blow; not when this murderer, the agent of Stalin, drove the pickax through the back of his skull. That was only the final blow. They killed him by inches. They killed him many times. They killed him seven times when they killed his seven secretaries. They killed him four times when they killed his four children. They killed him when his old coworkers of the Russian Revolution were killed."

Still thousands of people across the world ascribe to Trotsky's ideas. Unfortunately the adherents of his ideas split into different groups following his death. Faced with the Second World War, the strengthening of Stalinism and the new growth of capitalism there were many disagreements over the application of Trotsky's method to the current period.

But his unshakable belief in the power of the international working class to transform society still holds true. With the majority of humanity still living in backward societies after being betrayed by mis-leaders the theory of permanent revolution is still true.

During the Civil War after 1917 it was pointed out that at one point the revolution was isolated to a small geographical area of Petrograd and Moscow. But the Red Army fought back and won. As Marxists we should believe class forces are the dominant force in change: individuals are always secondary but in Trotsky for a period in the brutal twentieth century he kept the flame of genuine Marxism burning almost on his own. From his writings he fought back and spread his ideas across the world.

Trotsky's living testament should be the ability of Marxists to use his method in the current society they operate in and to successfully promote the ideas of genuine socialist revolution.

Worth Reading by Trotsky

The Permanent Revolution
The History of the Russian Revolution
The Revolution Betrayed
My Life

By Others

1937 Stalin's year of terror- Rogovin

All these and many more of Trotsky's works are available from the CWI at Socialist Books.