By Leon Trotsky
Dover Publications Inc.
By Steve Halpern
My Life by Leon Trotsky is one of my favorite books of all time. Why? I’ve read many books about the history of the world. Most of those books are written by liberals, who worked to give their spin on the events of the past. Then, there are the books written by radicals, who give a more plausible explanation of history. My problem in reading these books, comes from the fact that I usually need to read between the lines to gain my own perspective.
Reading Trotsky is a completely different experience. Trotsky dedicated his entire life to the liberation of working people and farmers throughout the world. He was a central leader of the Russian Revolution. Lastly, he was an excellent, powerful, and inspiring writer.
In reading his autobiography, we see that Trotsky didn’t want to spend a good part of his life writing excellent books. He would have rather continued being a leader of the Soviet Union. However, because of a combination of events, this became impossible. So, we are left with Trotsky’s life example, as well as a full library of his writings. His history of the Russian Revolution is, no doubt, one of the most important books written in the twentieth century.
The early life of Leon Trotsky and Fidel Castro
When we look at the early lives of both Leon Trotsky and Fidel Castro, there are many similarities. Both Trotsky and Fidel were raised on farms in agricultural areas. Their fathers were middle class farmers who had enough resources to hire many farm laborers. They were both appalled at the way those farm laborers were treated by the authorities.
In Czarist Russia, Trotsky saw how peasants could be brutally whipped using the Russian knout. Landowners had the right to murder peasants, without trial. In Cuba Fidel witnessed similar conditions experienced by farm workers.
Trotsky and Fidel were both leaders of revolutionary uprisings that the authorities defeated. Trotsky was the leader of the Petrograd Soviet during the failed 1905 uprising. Fidel Castro led the raid on the Moncada military garrison on July 26, 1953. The authorities defeated both those uprisings and many lost their lives as a result.
Both Fidel Castro and Leon Trotsky served time in prison as a result of those defeats. Trotsky and Fidel gave outstanding speeches at their trials. Fidel’s speech in known as: History Will Absolve Me. Trotsky had this to say at his trial in 1905”
“The government has long ago drifted away from the nation to its military-police-Black Hundred apparatus. What we have is not a national power but an automation of mass murder. I can not define in any other way a government machine which is hacking to pieces the living body of our country.”
Responding to that reality Trotsky acknowledged that, “we armed immediately and directly against the form of government of the Russian empire.”
Both Trotsky and Fidel became obsessed with learning the politics of the world, and both became two of the most astute leaders of their generation. Clearly Trotsky recognized that Vladimir Illyich Lenin was the most important leader of the Russian Revolution.
The title of the autobiographies of both these leaders happens to be My Life. So, at this point we can begin to see how the life of Leon Trotsky was unique.
From the eastern arctic regions of Russia to the United States
Czarist Russia had the reputation of being one of the most repressive nations in the world. That nation was the largest in the world because there were numerous nationalities that experienced routine victimizations.
The Jewish people of Russia invented the Yiddish word pogrom. This word was about the terrorist raids on the Russian Jewish community where thousands of people were murdered. These raids were similar to the raids on the Black community in this country by the Ku Klux Klan.
The monarch known as the Czar, who ruled Russia, openly supported the terrorist organizations known as the Black Hundreds. The Czar also had the power to close down the Russian parliament known as the Duma.
The police had absolute power in this environment. Workers who organized meetings needed to speak in a code language. They understood that secret agents of the Okhrana attended those meetings. Anyone who made statements critical of the Czar could be arrested and sent to prison.
During the uprising of 1905 huge demonstrations erupted in St, Petersburg. They asked the Czar to hear their grievances. The armed forces of Russia mobilized to murder thousands of those protesters. This was the atmosphere in Russia at the time when Leon Trotsky was arrested for being a leader of the 1905 uprising.
Before the 1905 uprising, Vladimir Illyich Lenin felt that the organizational structure for revolutionaries needed to change. Up to that point, revolutionaries with different ideas and different tactics operated as they felt it was appropriate. Lenin felt that a national organization needed to coordinate politics and tactics. At national conventions the politics of the organization would be discussed and debated. After decisions were made, the leadership would carry out the decisions made at those conventions. These ideas of Lenin prompted a split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.
Although Trotsky agreed with Lenin on most issues, he didn’t agree with splitting the revolutionary movement. Looking back, we might think that this was a mistake by Trotsky. However, Trotsky argued that at this point in his life he wasn’t ready to join Lenin. Later in his life, when he joined the Bolsheviks, he understood that their program was necessary. Many others who joined the Bolsheviks earlier would adapt to the counter-revolutionary program of Joseph Stalin.
In those days, the Czar chose to send prisoners to the far-east rather than housing them in prisons. Trotsky and his wife were sent to the arctic regions of eastern Russia. Vladimir Illyich Lenin was also sent to eastern Russia after he was arrested.
Because the weather in this area was so cold and the roads appeared to be nonexistent, the authorities didn’t feel that many guards were necessary. Trotsky managed to escape and travelled vast distances bundled up in the back of a sled. He then managed to travel to Germany, where he joined with other revolutionaries. Many other Russian revolutionaries had similar experiences in those years.
The secret police of Czarist Russia operated throughout Europe. Those police agents had connections with the governments of those nations. At that time, the First World War erupted and things became more difficult for Trotsky. Seeking refuge, he was forced to travel from Germany, to Britain, to France, to Spain, and then to the United States.
Then, after he was living in the United States for only a few months, he learned that a revolution had erupted in Russia. Trotsky immediately made plans to return to his homeland.
On his return to Russia, his ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia and the authorities arrested Trotsky. He was held in a concentration camp with German prisoners of the First World War. The German prisoners had been divided into groups of officers and rank and file soldiers. Trotsky spoke to the rank and file soldiers about their problems as workers. This enabled Trotsky to have good relations with those soldiers.
A leader of the Revolution and the Red Army became a political outcast
After his release, Trotsky returned to Russia and became the leader of the Petrograd Soviet. At this time Trotsky understood the importance of joining the Bolshevik Party that was headed by Lenin. In the past, the Bolsheviks argued that Russia was a monarchy and needed to go through years of capitalism, before a socialist revolution would be possible.
After learning of the revolution in Russia, both Trotsky and Lenin argued that working people would need to take power. Failing to do this would be a horrendous defeat for workers and farmers.
At the time of the revolution, Russia was loosing the war against Germany. Millions of Russian soldiers would die because of that war. While Russia was an extremely productive agricultural area, the war caused severe shortages of food.
So, the Bolsheviks responded to those conditions with the demands of Peace, Bread, and Land. Peace being an end to the war. Bread meaning a guaranteed allotment of food for everyone. And Land meaning a land reform, so all those who worked the land would have ownership of that land.
The pro-capitalist government that had taken power after the first Russian Revolution argued that the demand for peace was an act of treason. That government decided to continue the war in spite of the fact that millions had been killed and there was no chance of a Russian victory.
So, in that environment the government arrested Trotsky and issued an arrest warrant for Lenin. However, after nine months of the pro-capitalist Russian government, the Russian people began to understand that this government wasn’t going to make any of the basic changes the people were demanding. So, the Bolshevik demand of Peace, Bread, and Land became overwhelmingly popular.
For those reasons, another revolution erupted in Russian in October of 1917. On the eve of the revolution, Lenin drafted a proclamation that gave land to the peasants who worked that land.
Trotsky represented the new government of the Soviet Union at the Best-Litovsk peace conference. He invited all the governments who had armed forces in the First World War to participate in that conference. Should they decline that offer, he asked them to explain in plain language why they choose to continue that international slaughter.
Since the allied powers refused to accept this offer, Trotsky appealed to the workers of those nations:
“The workers and soldiers must wrest the business of war and peace from the criminal hands of the bourgeoisie and take it into their own hands. We have the right to demand this from you because this is what we have done in our own country.”
In order to obtain a peace agreement with Germany, the new Soviet Union had to give up vast areas of land. However, the Russian army was in no way prepared to continue the war, and the Bolsheviks had promised peace. After the German defeat in the war, the Soviet forces took back most of the land that had been conceded to Germany.
Then, after the war the Bolsheviks took extraordinary measures to ensure that everyone had a basic allotment of food. During those same years fourteen different nations in the world joined with the counter-revolutionary forces of Russia in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet government.
Lenin asked Trotsky to become the commissar of the Red Army charged with defending the country. Trotsky argued that he had no military experience and didn’t believe he was qualified to carry out that task. Lenin then asked, who else would do this decisively important job? After Trotsky thought about that question, he accepted his new position as commissar of the Red Army.
During the next two and one-half years Trotsky travelled by train across the vast Soviet frontier to every battlefield in the civil war. His train travelled the equivalent of perhaps two times around the world.
We might think about the fact that the Bolsheviks needed to organize an armed force to defend the country after Russia had been decisively defeated by Germany in the First World War. Trotsky was the person who organized that task. This is what Vladimir Illyich Lenin had to say about Trotsky’s leadership in the Civil War:
“Show me another man able to organize almost a model army within a single year and win the respect of military authorities. . . “We have such a man. We have everything. And we shall work wonders.”
Trotsky won the respect of the soldiers, not just by bringing them needed supplies. He explained in clear language what the war was about. He told them how all the millions of lives that had been lost in the First World War only benefitted the capitalists. The Russian Revolution changed all of that, and for the first time in the history of the world there was a government of workers who held power. Armed with that information, and a determined effort by the soldiers, the Red Army succeeded in defeating an invasion of the Soviet Union aided by 14 of the most powerful nations of the world.
After the Soviet victory in the Civil War, Lenin had a stroke that sidelined him from his leadership role. Trotsky also suffered from an illness that kept him bedridden.
At that time, Joseph Stalin became the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As history has shown, Stalin cared more for his personal advancement, rather than the goals of the Russian Revolution.
During those years there were many Russians from the middle class who wanted to maintain the privileges they had before the revolution. Stalin allowed many of those people to join the Communist Party, if they followed his dictates. So, membership in the Communist Party was no longer a means of advancing the interests of workers and farmers. Now, that membership was about gaining privileges that most of the population didn’t have.
During Lenin’s illness, he saw these changes in the Communist Party and argued that this trend in the Party needed to be reversed. Trotsky was in full agreement with that perspective. However, both Lenin and Trotsky were too ill to advance that perspective.
After Lenin’s death, Stalin’s efforts to isolate Trotsky intensified. Trotsky was able to fight back, and thousands of Russians supported his efforts to continue advancing the goals of the Russian Revolution. Those efforts prompted Stalin to exile Trotsky to the Russian border with China at Alma Ata.
At this point it is natural for readers of Trotsky’s life to ask a basic question: How did a central leader of the Russian Revolution loose so much influence within the Communist Party? Trotsky answered that question in several ways.
He argued that when the Revolution was in its ascendancy, a genius of the caliber of Lenin attracted the imagination of the masses. However, after World War One, the Civil War, the destruction of the economy, and the isolation of the Soviet Union in the world, the Revolution was no longer in its ascendancy. In this period the Russian workers became attracted to the mediocre political orientation of Joseph Stalin.
Many of Trotsky’s supporters felt that there might be some strategy that might have returned Trotsky to his leadership position in the party. Trotsky opposed that point of view and argued that victory for a revolutionary perspective would take time, and there would be no immediate overturn of the Stalinist regime.
Stalin advanced his theory of Socialism in One Country. This meant that the revolution of the world would be subjugated to the interests of Stalin’s regime. For this reason, Stalin asked the Chinese communists to follow the orders of the nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek.
Trotsky understood that Chiang made alliances with imperialist interests. He argued that if Chinese communists followed Chiang’s orders, the result would be a disaster. Then, in the year 1927 there was a revolution in China. Because the Chinese communists were disarmed by Chiang, they were helpless in defending themselves. As a result, thousands of communists were murdered by Chiang’s Guomindang.
Trotsky’s supporters in the Soviet Union felt that this defeat of the Chinese communists would show the correctness of his politics. Trotsky argued that only successful revolutions would strengthen the working class and not defeats as the class suffered in China.
From his isolated location in Alma Ata, Trotsky continued to keep up his limited contact with revolutionaries throughout the world. Stalin found those contacts to be intolerable and ordered him to be deported from the Soviet Union to Turkey. Stalin would eventually be responsible for the murders of the entire leadership of the Russian Revolution.
At this point Trotsky needed medical attention as well as a visa that would allow him to live in a nation outside the Soviet Union. Trotsky explained that the right to asylum is a basic democratic right that had been respected even in feudal societies. In those societies, all that was required was for anyone to enter a Church and asylum was granted.
With the advent of capitalism, governments argued that they believed in democratic rights. However, in the most advanced capitalist nations governments refused to give Trotsky asylum.
In the United States President Harding argued that because the people had the right to go fishing, there was a democracy. But Harding refused to respect Trotsky’s basic democratic right to asylum. Trotsky argued that his denial of asylum was just one example that the capitalist claim of “democracy” was a complete sham.
Eventually the Mexican government gave Trotsky asylum. From there he gained supporters from around the world. In the United States his supporters organized the Socialist Workers Party and distributed their newspaper The Militant.
Members of the SWP played an invaluable role in the history of this country. They advanced a political course arguing that mass movements were the primary way that workers can advance our interests.
Armed with that perspective, members of the SWP became leaders in both the labor and anti-war movements. Members of the SWP gave assistance to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched the Civil Rights Movement. The members of the SWP also organized Pathfinder Press that continues to publish the speeches of Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, W.E.B. DuBois, Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, Fidel Castro, and Ernesto Che Guevara.
Today we see a profound crisis is erupting in the world capitalist system. The United Nation estimates that about 29,000 children die of preventable diseases every day. About forty percent of the world’s population lives on $2 per day or less. Capitalist politicians, in effect, give us an ironclad guarantee that as long as they will hold power, there will be war, poverty, destruction of the environment, discrimination, as well as alienation.
The life of Leon Trotsky is an important part of the revolutionary heritage of working people throughout the world. Reading his life story gives us a unique insight into how revolutionaries can begin to transform the world, so that human needs will be seen as more important than corporate profits.