Econ-Atrocity {special History of Thought series} Leon Trotsky, Theorist and Revolutionary

By Alejandro Reuss

Mention the name of Leon Trotsky and you might be asked, “Didn’t he have an affair with Frida Kahlo?” (He did.) Or, “Wasn’t he murdered with an ice pick?” (He was.)

He was also, however, known to dabble in revolutionary politics.

The triumph of Stalin and his falsification of history have obscured Trotsky’s importance, writing him out of the Russian Revolution and airbrushing him from photos of the era (especially those showing him with Lenin). Trotsky was a principal leader of the workers’ council, or soviet, movement in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the main strategist of the October 1917 insurrection and the principal architect of the Red Army, Lenin’s most prominent lieutenant until the latter’s death in 1924, and a leading opponent of Stalin’s rise to dictatorial power. In short, he was one of the major figures of the 20th century.

Trotsky is mainly known for his thought on two key issues: the possibility of socialist revolution in “backward” Russia, and the rise of the bureaucratic dictatorship led by Stalin. Trotsky did not just apply Marxist theory by rote, but added new and “heretical” ideas needed to explain new phenomena. His balance sheet on the 1905 revolution, Results and Prospects (1906), argued that Russia’s leaps-and-bounds industrialization had set the stage for a revolution in which the proletariat – rather than the bourgeoisie – would be the protagonist. He would be vindicated by the October Revolution of 1917.

His masterpiece, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), presented a withering critique of the Soviet bureaucracy. In the long run, Trotsky argued, either the working class would overthrow the bureaucracy and clear the way for renewed progress toward socialism or the bureaucracy would formalize its privileges by reinstituting private property and restoring capitalism outright. Trotsky did not imagine that the system of bureaucratic rule would last another half century, but of course, he was eventually vindicated on this point as well.

Exiled from Russia in 1929, Trotsky lost the power and prestige of high position in a revolutionary government, and his efforts to build a new world party of socialist revolution (the “Fourth International”) could offer little to rival the rising tide of reaction worldwide. Nonetheless,
he considered this “the most important work of my life – more important than 1917, more important than the Civil War.”

In the founding program of the Fourth International, known as the Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (1938), Trotsky emphasized that while mass struggles continued to rage, they were not imbued with the perspective of overturning capitalism and creating a new society. He argued, therefore, that the central task for revolutionaries was to build “bridges” from current consciousness to revolutionary politics. This did not mean, in Trotsky’s view, repeating radical-sounding slogans from the past, postponing revolutionary aims in favor of immediately “winnable” struggles, or pining for a reformed version of capitalism. Rather, it meant that revolutionaries must frame their positions on the burning issues of the day in a way that connected these issues to the aim of revolution.

Trotsky’s life and politics ought to be viewed critically, especially in light of his role (with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in general) in building a state machine that would grow into a totalitarian juggernaut. Ideas like those in the Transitional Program, however, should be put to work in the
present whatever we conclude about the author’s past. Trotsky was not the only, or even the first, theorist to insist on drawing the connections from every immediate issue to the fundamental problems of capitalist society. I learned this lesson from the writings of Trotsky and from his disciples. Today’s revolutionaries need not learn this from Trotsky as well – but those who do not learn it from him should make sure to learn it from someone else.

Further reading by and about Trotsky:

Two good short introductions to Trotsky’s life and thought are:
Phil Evans and Tariq Ali, Introducing Trotsky and Marxism, Icon Books, 2000.
Ernest Mandel, Trotsky as Alternative, New Left Books, 1995.

The following are Trotsky’s most important books (all published by Pathfinder Press):
The History of the Russian Revolution.
My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography.
The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects.
The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going?
The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution.

For an excellent collection of these and other writings online, see The Leon Trotsky Internet Archive.

Isaac Deutcher’s monumental three-volume biography of Trotsky (Oxford University Press, 1970) is the definitive work on the subject:
The Prophet Armed – Trotsky: 1879-1921
The Prophet Unarmed – Trotsky: 1921-1929
The Prophet Outcast – Trotsky: 1929-1940

(c) 2004 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.