In Issue 16 (July 2003) Joe Conroy began an examination of Trotsky’s life and politics.
Lev Davidovich Bronstein was born in the Kherson province of the Ukraine on 26 October 1879 (7 November by the western calendar) to a family of well-off Jewish farmers. By his late teens he had become involved in a group of revolutionaries working to overthrow the rule of the Tsar over the Russian empire. Although initially resistant, he became an enthusiastic Marxist, involved in organising strikes in the region. This earned him arrest in 1898 and deportation to Siberia. In 1902 he managed to escape, writing the name of one of his prison guards in his false passport, a name that stuck to him: Trotsky.
He made his way to London, where many of Russia’s leading socialists were gathered in exile. Like most of them—most notably, Vladimir Lenin—Trotsky advocated a centralised organisation to unite the scattered circles of socialists across Russia in co-ordinated action. But the congress that was to establish such an organisation in 1903 led to a deep split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.
Trotsky saw two very different conceptions of revolutionary organisation at issue: “In the one case we have a party which thinks for the proletariat, which substitutes itself politically for it, and in the other we have a party which politically educates and mobilises the proletariat”. The first conception, that of the Bolsheviks, would mean “the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee”.1 The relationship between a socialist party and the working class, he maintained, had to be a two-way street: “It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward.”2 Defending a party’s revolutionary essence was a question of politics, not organisational rules: “I do not believe that you can put statutory exorcism on opportunism.”3
Trotsky’s arguments did go somewhat overboard. His doom-filled prophecies of Bolshevik dictatorship were not fulfilled in the ensuing years. And while rules couldn’t defeat reformism, they could play some part in defining the nature of socialist activity. But at the same time, he did have a point. The arguments of Lenin and the Bolsheviks did too often put the building of their own party ahead of the struggle of the workers, and what progress they made was often due to quietly ignoring these ideas in practice. Trotsky’s insistence on the centrality of the working class and its activity to any socialist project was a necessary corrective.
All these theories were put to the test of an actual revolution in 1905: when troops opened fire on a demonstration seeking reform from the Tsar, it set off a wave of strikes and rebellions. Trotsky returned to Russia to play a central role, being elected leader of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in the capital St Petersburg. Workers elected such councils, or ‘soviets’, in workplaces all over the country, and they constituted a potential challenge to capitalist rule:
a freely elected parliament of the working class… the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo… the organized expression of the class will of the proletariat… the democratic representative body of the proletariat at a time of revolution… It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureaucracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment.4
The phenomenon of workers’ councils confirmed Trotsky’s refusal to join either faction of Russian socialism, because he envisaged greater revolutionary possibilities than either of them. The Mensheviks held that, in an economically backward country like Russia, replacing Tsarist rule with parliamentary democracy was as far as the revolution could hope to go for the time being. The job of the working class, as a small minority of the population, was to encourage liberal capitalist politicians to oppose Tsarism. The Bolsheviks had no such faith in the liberals, and aimed for a government in which workers would share power with the peasantry. While this would make a clean sweep of Tsarism, socialist change would not be on the agenda.
Although the working class formed only a fraction of Russia’s population, Trotsky argued, it was concentrated in the decisive areas of industry, giving it a disproportionate political weight. The hesitancy and political cowardice of Russia’s capitalist class were matched by the revolutionary spirit of its young working class. In such conditions, “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.”5
Once in power, the working class would immediately set about getting rid of Tsarism and introducing democratic reforms, but this would inevitably bring it into conflict with capitalism. Legislation to limit the working day, for instance, would meet the opposition of capitalists closing down factories and locking out workers. The workers’ government would have no alternative but to take over their factories: “the very logic of its position will compel it to pass over to collectivist measures”. The workers would have to take economic as well as political control: “The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement.”6 The revolution would become permanent, moving directly from the overthrow of Tsarism to the overthrow of capitalism.
But the rule of the workers could not survive in isolation, least of all in a country as economically undeveloped as Russia. Their only hope would be for their revolution to inspire workers in other countries to follow their example and come to their aid. “The workers’ government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolutionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship.”7
The workers could not hold power without the support of other exploited sections of the people, especially in Russia’s vast countryside:
The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages and in this manner destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits. From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonisms between the village poor and village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie.
The revolutionary government should include representatives of the peasantry, but “the hegemony should belong to the working class”.8
Trotsky was right to insist that, rather than an alliance of equal partners, it would be a case of the peasantry following the lead of the workers. The position of the working class in the economy gave it a far greater collective strength, and its direct, immediate interest in carrying out socialist measures would give it the leading role in the revolution’s development. But he went too far in assigning only a passive role to the peasantry, asserting that “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasantry as the class which has emancipated it.”9 Rural revolt would add an extra dimension of its own to the revolution. He was wrong, too, in assuming that they would inevitably turn against the workers at some stage, that “The primitiveness of the peasantry turns its hostile face towards the proletariat.”10 A successful revolution would bring the rural poor to see the advantages of socialism for themselves.
The revolution of 1905 didn’t realise the potential Trotsky saw in it. By the end of the year, the ruling class was beginning to regain the upper hand. The leaders of the St Petersburg workers’ council were arrested and sent to Siberia. Again, Trotsky escaped and went into exile for what proved a barren period for Russia’s socialists.
Trotsky took a prominent part in the international socialist opposition to the first world war. Tsarist Russia’s involvement in the slaughter proved to be the last throw of the dice for the regime. Growing discontent erupted in revolution in February 1917 which replaced the Tsar with a provisional government. Shortly after 1905 Trotsky had forecast that “the first new wave of revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country”,11 and 1917 proved him right as workers’ councils mushroomed. In May he succeeded in getting back to St Petersburg.
His first port of call was the workers’ council, where he argued that the revolution’s next step should be “to transfer the whole power into the hands of the Soviets”.12 The Mezhrayontsy, a group of socialists Trotsky had been linked to for a couple of years, had been advocating such a policy since February. At Lenin’s prompting, the Bolsheviks too were now calling for the workers’ councils to take power, dropping their old position. “The Bolsheviks de-bolshevised themselves”, commented Trotsky.13 The Mezhraiontsy merged with the Bolsheviks and many of their leading figures, including Trotsky, were elected to the party’s leadership.
After six weeks’ imprisonment at the hands of the government, Trotsky emerged in September to a situation where the call for a second, workers’ revolution was winning majority support among the working class. He was elected president of the capital’s workers’ council again, and organised the insurrection of 25 October that overthrew the provisional government and handed power to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets.
The workers’ council, foundation of the new government, was an “irreplaceable organization of working-class self-rule”, argued Trotsky.14 Delegates were elected by and responsible to a specific workplace, and so the councils truly reflected the workers’ will:
They depend directly on organic groups… there is the far more important guarantee of the direct and immediate contact of the deputy with his electors. The member of the municipal council or zemstvo depends on an amorphous mass of electors who invest him with authority for one year, and then dissolve. The Soviet electors, on the other hand, remain in permanent contact with one another by the very conditions of their life and work; their deputy is always under their direct observation and may at any moment be given new instructions, and, if necessary, may be censured, recalled, and replaced by somebody else.15
As commissar for foreign affairs in the new workers’ government, Trotsky took prime responsibility for what he had long ago identified as the first necessity of a Russian revolution. “Our whole hope is that our revolution will kindle a European revolution”, he announced on taking up the post. “The Russian revolution will either cause a revolution in the West, or the capitalists of all countries will strangle our [revolution].”16 To this end, the Bolsheviks established the Communist International. “It has no aims or tasks separate and apart from those of the working class itself”, said Trotsky. It wanted to help establish, not “tiny sects, each of which wants to save the working class in its own manner”, but in each country “a genuine revolutionary organization, one that doesn’t tell the workers lies, doesn’t deceive them, doesn’t hide from them nor throw sand in their eyes, doesn’t betray them in the cloakrooms of parliamentarianism or of economic conciliationism but leads them unswervingly to the end”.17
Generalising from the Russian experience, he concluded that the heartlands of capitalism would likely be the toughest nuts for socialism to crack, while the system gave way at its weakest links:
The more powerful a country is capitalistically—all other conditions being equal—the greater is the inertia of “peaceful” class relations… Countries with a younger capitalist culture are the first to enter the path of civil war inasmuch as the unstable equilibrium of class forces is most easily disrupted precisely in these countries.… the task of initiating the revolution, as we have already seen, was not placed on an old proletariat with mighty political and trade union organizations, with massive traditions of parliamentarianism and trade unionism, but upon the young proletariat of a backward country. History took the line of least resistance. The revolutionary epoch burst in through the most weakly barricaded door.18
The class overthrown by the Russian revolution showed no signs of giving up without a struggle. Their resistance went on for years with the help of invading foreign armies, forcing the new-born workers’ republic to fight a war for its very existence. As commissar for war from 1918 Trotsky organised a Red Army from scratch that succeeded in beating back the forces trying to crush the revolution. Ruthless combat went hand in hand with humanitarian concern: “Let the hand be cut off of any Red Army man who lifts his knife on a prisoner of war, on the disarmed, the sick and wounded”, ran one of Trotsky’s orders.19
Violence in defence of the revolution was clearly justified in Trotsky’s eyes: “When a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer to save the child?” Renouncing violence would mean renouncing revolution itself. However, Trotsky tended to make an unfortunate necessity into a positive proposition:
the principle of the ‘sacredness of human life’ remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.… we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life’.… The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror.20
Recognising the necessity for a socialist revolution to terrorise its enemies is one thing: sanctioning every single use of terror is another. Regarding human life as sacred is not the sole preserve of Kantian priests and vegetarian Quakers. Socialists should only kill, or support killing, if and when it proves absolutely necessary. Even then, it is the exception to the rule, an evil to be tolerated and kept to a minimum, not a principle to be exalted.
Years before the revolution, Trotsky had insisted that the dictatorship of the proletariat “wouldn’t be the dictatorship of a little band of conspirators or a minority party, but of the immense majority… the political rule of the organised working class”. The multitude of problems faced by the workers in power could be solved only
by long ‘debates’, by way of a systematic struggle not only between the socialist and capitalist worlds, but also between many trends inside socialism… No ‘strong authoritative organisation’… will be able to suppress these trends and controversies… for it is only too clear that a proletariat capable of exercising its dictatorship over society will not tolerate any dictatorship over itself.21
The revolution’s early years came surprisingly close to this ideal. For a period the Bolsheviks shared governmental power with another left-wing party. Other parties and schools of thought took a full part in political debate. Within the Bolshevik party itself various factions contended openly. The isolation of the revolution and its need to fight for survival threatened this democracy, however. Very little opposition remained within the framework of the workers’ power, as parties colluded with or surrendered to those trying to bring back the old regime. Soviet Russia effectively ended up as a one-party state.
This situation could be explained, at least in part, by the desperate straits the revolution found itself in. Trotsky, though, chose to justify and praise it as a good thing in all circumstances:
The exclusive role of the Communist Party under the conditions of a victorious proletarian revolution is quite comprehensible.… The revolutionary supremacy of the proletariat pre-supposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear programme of action and a faultless internal discipline.
The policy of coalitions contradicts internally the regime of the revolutionary dictatorship. We have in view, not coalitions with bourgeois parties, of which of course there can be no talk, but a coalition of communists with other ‘socialist’ organisations… In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental…22
He personally took a hand in ‘re-organising’ trade unions that disagreed with industrial directives from the government: “our state is a workers’ state… Hence the trade unions must teach the workers not to haggle and fight with their own state”.23 But if the workers had no say in how the state was run, how could it be a workers’ state? Those who raised such questions were shut up, with Trotsky’s full support:
They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party, as it were, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.… The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship… The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy…24
A greater and greater distance was opening up between an exhausted, decimated, isolated working class and the state power that ruled in its name. Meanwhile Trotsky noted the advent of the “new Soviet bureaucrat” who was becoming increasingly powerful: “This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution”.25 To his eternal credit, Trotsky was to fight a life-and-death battle against this bureaucracy. But that battle was severely weakened before it began by the excuses he himself made for state rule over the workers rather than workers’ rule over the state.
- Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (London, no date), p 72, 77.
- Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p 279.
- Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (London, 1989), p 44.
- 1905, p 235, 266, 268.
- Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London, 1962), p 195.
- Ibid, p 232-3.
- 1905, p 333. It should be stressed that the dictatorship Trotsky has in mind here is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the undivided rule of the working class, as discussed further on.
- Results and Prospects, p 208, 202.
- Ibid, p 203.
- Ibid, p 209.
- The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, edited by Isaac Deutscher (New York, 1964), p 56.
- Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford, 1954), p 254.
- Quoted in Cliff, p 209.
- Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one (London, 1973), p 51.
- The Essential Trotsky (London, 1963), p 47. Zemstvos were rural councils in Tsarist Russia.
- Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The sword of the revolution 1917-1923 (London, 1990), p 21.
- The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one, p 159, 94.
- Ibid, p 82, 84-6.
- Quoted in Deutscher, p 461.
- Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (London, 1975), p 81-3.
- Quoted in Cliff, Towards October, p 42, 63.
- Terrorism and Communism, p 122-3. The Bolsheviks had renamed themselves the Communist Party in 1918.
- Quoted in Cliff, The sword of the revolution, p 165.
- Quoted in Deutscher, p 508-9.
- Quoted in ibid, p 427.