Sixty years since Leon Trotsky's murder
Relentless fighter for a better world
By Hazel Croft
SIXTY YEARS ago this month the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of the Russian dictator Stalin.
Trotsky had dedicated his whole life to the fight against inequality and oppression, and for international socialism. In February 1940, just months before his murder, he wrote: "If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today than it was in the days of my youth."
Trotsky was persecuted for his beliefs and revolutionary activity for nearly his whole life. He was first imprisoned in 1897 at the age of 18 for fighting against the despotic Tsarist regime in Russia. He was sent to Siberia before escaping abroad.
Western rulers have always tried to discredit the Russian Revolution by claiming that the terror of Stalin's regime was its inevitable outcome. They claim that revolution will always lead to tyranny.
But Trotsky's ideas and struggle give the lie to such notions. Stalin's regime was the opposite of everything that Trotsky had fought for. At the centre of Trotsky's ideas and struggle was his belief in workers' ability to bring about their own liberation.
TROTSKY WAS thrown into the leadership of the revolutionary movement when a wave of struggle swept Russia in 1905. At the age of just 26 he was elected as the head of the Petrograd Soviet-one of the democratically elected workers' committees which sprung up in the course of the revolution.
With the defeat of the 1905 revolution Trotsky was again imprisoned by the Tsar. He used the time to write pamphlets and essays which were smuggled out. He argued that workers could fight for a socialist revolution even in an economically backward country like Russia.
He saw that although Russia had a mainly peasant population, workers were concentrated in giant factories such as Petrograd's giant Putilov engineering works, which employed 40,000 workers. Trotsky used the trial that followed the defeat of the 1905 revolution as a platform for these revolutionary convictions.
Again he was sent to Siberia. Again he escaped across the frozen wastes and into exile to organise the revolutionary movement from abroad. Trotsky's beliefs were vindicated in 1917. Workers smashed the old Tsarist regime and established their own state.
Workers took control of factories, banks, offices and the transport system. Peasants seized the land from despotic landlords. The Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and Trotsky was able to steer workers in their conquest of a new society.
Trotsky was again elected head of the soviet in Petrograd and organised the insurrection itself. He also played a crucial role in building the new workers' state. He negotiated the peace treaty when the new workers' government pulled out of the carnage of the First World War.
He was head of the international grouping of communist organisations, the Third International, which had the support of millions around the world. And he led the five million strong Red Army which fought to defend the revolution against the invasion of 14 foreign armies and counter-revolutionary forces.
Above all, Trotsky argued that the revolution had to spread internationally to survive. Tragically Trotsky was proved right. Although the Red Army beat off the imperialist invasion and the counter-revolutionary forces, the workers' regime was left economically decimated and isolated.
STALIN'S RISE to power came out of this situation of economic collapse and international isolation. In the course of the 1920s power shifted into the hands of a growing layer of bureaucrats centred around Stalin. His doctrine of "socialism in one country" destroyed hopes of spreading the revolution.
In the late 1920s he embarked on a massive industrialisation programme to try to compete with the West. Workers were ruthlessly exploited. To seal his rule Stalin had to physically wipe out the memory of 1917 and the generation which had made the revolution. In the 1930s he systematically executed all the leaders of the revolution in grotesque show trials. Of the two dozen or so of Lenin's general staff of 1917, only one survived Stalin's bloodbath-the ambassador to Sweden Alexandra Kollontai.
All the others were listed as shot, dead, missing, as having committed suicide or disappeared. Stalin tried to erase Trotsky from history. His image was even removed from pictures of the revolution.
Trotsky undertook a life and death struggle against Stalin, who he called "the gravedigger of the revolution". He was expelled from the party in 1927, kicked out of Russia in 1929 and hounded from one country to the next. Stalin persecuted Trotsky's family.
His first wife was sent to die in a Siberian labour camp. Two of his four children were murdered by Stalinist agents and one committed suicide. Another daughter died after her health broke down following the deportation of her husband. Even the wives, husbands and children of Trotsky's family were executed or "disappeared".
But despite such tragedy Trotsky never relented in his fight against Stalin. In a series of brilliant writings, such as his marvellous History of the Russian Revolution or in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky insisted that Stalinism had absolutely nothing in common with the real Bolshevik tradition.
He wrote of the forced industrialisation that "in scope of inequality in the payment of labour, the Soviet Union has not only caught up to, but far surpassed the capitalist countries." This "process of extermination" took place in every area of life, argued Trotsky.
Women's oppression had returned as the bourgeois family was rehabilitated and glorified, and prostitution reappeared. Stalin's strangulation of the revolution extended "in like measure to the concentration camps, to scientific agriculture and to music," he wrote. "It would be difficult to imagine a contrast more striking than that which exists between the schema of the workers' state according to Marx, Engels and Lenin, and the actual state now headed by Stalin."
At the height of the show trials Trotsky wrote, "The present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a blood line, but a whole river of blood." IN EXILE Trotsky never ceased-whether on a remote Turkish island, in a Norwegian village or finally in Mexico-to try to rebuild the revolutionary tradition based on the real legacy of the Russian Revolution.
Even though he was far removed from events, Trotsky produced some of his best and most important writings during the 1930s-years of economic crisis, the rise of fascism and the lead up to the Second World War. Tragically Trotsky did not have the forces on the ground which could influence the course of events.
But Trotsky's work was invaluable in providing a link with the genuine Marxist tradition. That is why Stalin and his murderous agents pursued him across continents, until they finally succeeded in assassinating him. Trotsky's murderer, Ramon Mercadier, was acting under Stalin's orders. He had posed as a supporter of Trotsky. On 20 August he visited Trotsky's home on the pretext of showing him an article about Russia.
As Trotsky read the article Mercadier smashed the back of Trotsky's skull with an ice pick. To the very end Trotsky fought for his life. One account tells how "Trotsky uttered a terrible cry and threw himself at his assailant. Trotsky bit his hand and wrenched away the axe then staggered back." He told his wife, Natalya, who had rushed into the room, "Now it has happened," before slumping to the floor.
Trotsky died the next day. At his funeral Trotsky's body was carried through the working class suburbs of Mexico City where huge crowds of poverty-stricken people lined the streets. But Stalin could not wipe out the revolutionary tradition Trotsky stood for. Trotsky's struggle and his writings enabled a new generation of socialists to reclaim the tradition of socialism from below that was so inspirationally put into practice in the 1917 revolution.
When the next revolutionary upsurge takes place it will be the name of Trotsky, not Stalin, on people's lips. As Trotsky himself wrote in 1927, "The vengeance of history is more powerful than the vengeance of the most powerful general secretary."