Seventy years ago this week an agent of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin murdered the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky by smashing his skull with an ice pick.
Trotsky was at his home in Mexico when the assassin came into his study and attacked him. This was not Stalin’s first attempt.
Only a few weeks earlier, a group of his Mexican followers had launched an armed attack on Trotsky’s household, killing a guard.
In fact, Stalin was so determined to crush Trotsky and his legacy that he had already murdered, or driven to suicide, most of Trotsky’s immediate family.
He forced Trotsky into exile in 1929 and slandered him as a fascist spy and enemy of the workers”.
An exhibition at a museum in St Petersburg last year exposed some of the ludicrous lengths the Russian regime went to wipe out any trace of Trotsky’s real legacy.
Among the exhibits was a teachers’ union scarf from 1925 bearing portraits of revolutionary leaders. The picture of Trotsky had been carefully cut out and replaced with blank cloth.
Hundreds of photographs from the revolutionary years were also doctored to remove Trotsky from his place in history.
Yet by the time he was killed Trotsky had been in exile for 11 years.
He had only a small handful of supporters scattered in different countries and no real influence on world events. His allies in Russia had either been killed or broken by Stalin’s terror.
So why did Stalin still see him as a threat?
Trotsky was a key leader in the 1917 Russian Revolution, helping to usher in what was for a brief time the most radical and liberated society we have yet seen.
He successfully led the Red Army—a revolutionary force built almost from scratch to defend the new society from Russia’s old rulers and more than a dozen invading armies.
Trotsky refused to capitulate to Stalin’s lies and persecution—and so remained a living emblem of what socialism and the Russian Revolution were really about. This is what Stalin was determined to wipe out.
Many historians have seen the battle between Trotsky and Stalin as a fight between two power-hungry individuals.
But in reality the conflict rested on two different visions of change, and two different social forces.
Trotsky, like Karl Marx, believed that ordinary people have the capacity to run society and that workers hold the key to successfully overthrowing capitalism.
He had been part of making this happen in 1917.
Trotsky was an internationalist—on principle and because it was clear that, in a global economic system, the very survival of the revolution depended on it spreading.
Stalin, in contrast, played a minimal role in 1917. He came to prominence as the revolution was being strangled—isolated internationally, subject to foreign invasions, and ravaged internally by famine and the impact of the civil war.
The desperate conditions this created threw up a new class of bureaucrats and state officials that formed the base of Stalin’s rule.
Trotsky explained in 1929, “The majority of this officialdom which has risen up over the masses is profoundly conservative... It is this conservative layer, which constitutes Stalin’s most powerful support.”
Thousands of the most committed revolutionaries had been killed defending the new society. And the working class that had been central to making the revolution was severely weakened by the dire poverty and famine that followed the civil war. Russian industry had all but collapsed by 1921.
So by the end of the civil war there were about 5.9 million state officials, compared to only 1.25 million productive workers.
But the rise of a new bureaucracy was not inevitable. For Trotsky, the key to turning things around rested on the question of spreading the revolution, especially to western Europe.
He saw that this would be the only way to stop the isolation and destruction of revolutionary Russia, and to rebuild industry and the political strength of the working class.
This was not a far-fetched idea. Europe was in turmoil with huge struggles in Germany, Spain, Hungary, Britain and beyond in the years following the Russian Revolution.
Trotsky played a key role in setting up the Communist International to bring together revolutionaries from across the world to discuss strategy and tactics.
In contrast to Trotsky’s internationalism, Stalin declared in 1924 that it was possible to build “socialism in one country”.
The logic of this was nothing to do with socialism—it was about competing militarily and economically with other capitalist states.
And in order to compete, Stalin decided Russia had to play catch-up with far more industrialised nations.
Stalin explained to a group of managers in 1931, “We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do this or they crush us.”
This process was what Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, called state capitalism—competition on a global stage organised through the state rather than through individual firms.
This competition shaped everything about Russian society. It meant brutal repression and terrible conditions as workers and peasants were forced to pay the price for driving up Russia’s productive capacity.
Stalin’s first Five Year Plan, which began in 1929, meant mass starvation for millions, and a huge drop in living standards for others. Thousands were forced into labour camps.
When Stalin’s regime reversed the economic basis of the revolution—workers’ power—it also reversed the political gains.
Rights for women and national minorities, as well as religious freedoms were ended. Even the art that had blossomed during the early days of the revolution was brought under strict control.
The international movement that had been about spreading the revolution was subjugated to the needs of Russia’s foreign policy.
And, of course, Stalin’s opponents were brutally crushed. Almost every leader of the 1917 revolution was murdered under his rule.
So there was what Trotsky called “a whole river of blood” between the 1917 revolution and Stalin’s monstrous regime.
Trotsky never gave in—writing, speaking and organising in every country he lived in. He believed the work he carried out in exile was some of his most important.
And while Trotsky himself was ultimately a victim of Stalin, his perseverance and unwavering commitment ensured that the ideas of socialism from below—that workers can free themselves and create a new and equal society—have survived.
An inspiration for today
Trotsky was not only exiled from Stalin’s Russia, he was also refused entry to all the Western “democracies”.
Trotsky was intolerable to Stalin and Western leaders alike as he was a living representative of a dangerous idea—that ordinary people can take power and change the world for themselves.
He was the first socialist to develop a detailed critique of Stalinist Russia, laying the foundation for future generations to build on his analysis.
Trotsky lived and wrote at a time of huge upheavals—of crisis, war, revolution and the birth of fascism. His ideas are of huge relevance today.
Trotsky’s writings on the “united front” are still a guide for how revolutionary socialists can work with others in a principled and united way while still spreading the influence of revolutionary ideas.
Trotsky developed an analysis of fascism and a strategy for defeating it, though tragically he was too isolated to have any real impact on events.
Every area of human experience was of interest to Trotsky. He wrote on literature, art, history, and even the role of librarians. He also wrote on women’s liberation.
Like all great Marxists, Trotsky learnt from his experiences. In 1905 he was involved in a huge strike wave that led to revolution.
This revolution was eventually crushed, but Trotsky learned about the power and creativity of workers.
He participated in and was elected as a leader of the Petrograd soviet—a workers’ council of delegates elected from the factory floor.
His experiences of the 1905 revolution also helped him develop his theory of “permanent revolution”, which looked at the crucial role of workers in revolutionary struggle—even in developing countries where they were not the majority.
Trotsky’s many writings are worth reading today—they offer essential insights and lessons from someone at the heart of the struggles to rid the world of war, exploitation and the misery of capitalism.
All of Trotsky’s writings are worth reading, especially:
- History of the Russian Revolution
- The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany
- The First Five Years of the Communist International
On Trotsky’s life try:
- My Life, Trotsky's autobiography
- Isaac Deutscher’s three volume biography: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast
For an introduction to his ideas try:
- Trotsky’s Marxism by Duncan Hallas
- A Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky by Esme Choonara
All available at Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3QE, 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk