Click on title to link to the important chapter 42, "The Last Period Of Struggle Within The Party", giving Trotsky's take on the inner-party fights in the late1920s, from the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive's version of his "My Life" of 1930.
MY LIFE, LEON TROTSKY, PATHFINDER PRESS, NEW YORK, 1970
THIS YEAR MARKS THE 66TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE ASSASSINATION OF LEON TROTSKY-ONE OF HISTORY’S GREAT REVOLUTIONARIES. IT IS THEREFORE FITTING TO REVIEW HIS BOOK MY LIFE WHICH TELLS HIS STORY IN HIS OWN WORDS.
Today we expect political memoir writers to take part in a game of show and tell about the most intimate details of their private personal lives on their road to celebrity. Refreshingly, you will find no such tantalizing details in Russian Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky's memoir written in 1930 just after Stalin had exiled him to Turkey. Instead you will find a thoughtful political self-examination by a man trying to draw the lessons of his fall from power in order to set his future political agenda. This task is in accord with his explicitly stated, and many times repeated, conception of his role as that of an individual agent at service of the historical struggle toward a socialist future. Thus, underlying Trotsky’s selection of events highlighted in the memoir such as the rise of the revolutionary waves in Russia in 1905 and 1917, the devastation to the traditional socialist program caused by the capitulation of European social democracy to their individual national capitalist classes at the start of World War I and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, especially in the aftermath of the failure of the German Revolution of 1923 and Lenin’s untimely death is a sense of urgency about the need for continued struggle for a socialist future. The book also provides Trotsky, as always, a platform for polemics against those foes and former supporters who had either abandoned or betrayed that struggle.
At the beginning of the 21st century when the validity of socialist political programs as tools for change is in apparent decline or disregarded as utopian it may be hard to imagine the spirit that drove Trotsky to dedicate his whole life to the fight for a socialist society. However, at the beginning of the 20th century he represented only the most consistent and audacious of a revolutionary generation of mainly Eastern Europeans and Russians who set out to change the history of the 20th century. It was as if the best and brightest of that generation were afraid, for better or worse, not to take part in the political struggles that would shape the modern world. As Trotsky noted elsewhere this element was missing, with the exceptions of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and precious few others, in the Western labor movement. Trotsky, using his own experiences, tells the story of the creation of this revolutionary cadre with care and generally proper proportions. Here are some highlights militant leftists should think about.
On the face of it Trotsky’s personal profile does not stand out as that of a born revolutionary. Born of a hard working, eventually prosperous, Jewish farming family in the Ukraine (of all places) there is something anomalous about his eventual political occupation. Always a vociferous reader, good writer and top student under other circumstances he would have found easy success, as others did, in the bourgeois academy, if not in Russia then in Western Europe. But there is the rub; it was the intolerable and personally repellent political and cultural conditions of Czarist Russia in the late 19th century that eventually drove Trotsky to the revolutionary movement- first as a ‘ragtag’ populist and then to his life long dedication to orthodox Marxism. As noted above, a glance at the biographies of Eastern European revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Martov, Christian Rakovsky, Bukharin and others shows that Trotsky was hardly alone in his anger at the status quo. And the determination to something about it.
For those who argue, as many did in the New Left in the 1960’s, that the most oppressed are the most revolutionary the lives of the Russian and Eastern European revolutionaries provide a cautionary note. The most oppressed, those most in need of the benefits of socialist revolution, are mainly wrapped up in the sheer struggle for survival and do not enter the political arena until late, if at all. Even a quick glance at the biographies of the secondary leadership of various revolutionary movements, actual revolutionary workers who formed the links to the working class , generally show skilled or semi-skilled workers striving to better themselves rather than the most downtrodden lumpenproletarian elements. The sailors of Kronstadt and the Putilov workers in Saint Petersburg come to mind. The point is that ‘the wild boys and girls’ of the street do not lead revolutions; they simply do not have the staying power. On this point, militants can also take Trotsky’s biography as a case study of what it takes to stay the course in the difficult struggle to create a new social order. While the Russian revolutionary movement, like the later New Left mentioned above, had more than its share of dropouts, especially after the failure of the 1905 revolution, it is notably how many stayed with the movement under much more difficult circumstances than we ever faced. For better or worst, and I think for the better, that is how revolutions are made.
Once Trotsky made the transition to Marxism he became embroiled in the struggles to create a unity Russian Social Democratic Party, a party of the whole class, or at least a party representing the historic interests of that class. This led him to participate in the famous Bolshevik/Menshevik struggle in 1903 which defined what the party would be, its program, its methods of work and who would qualify for membership. The shorthand for this fight can be stated as the battle between the ‘hards’ (Bolsheviks, who stood for a party of professional revolutionaries) and the ‘softs’ (Mensheviks, who stood for a looser conception of party membership) although those terms do not do full justice to these fights. Strangely, given his later attitudes, Trotsky stood with the ‘softs’, the Mensheviks, in the initial fight in 1903. Although Trotsky almost immediately afterward broke from that faction I do not believe that his position in the 1903 fight contradicted the impulses he exhibited throughout his career- personally ‘libertarian’, for lack of a better word , and politically hard in the clutch.
Even a cursory glance at most of Trotsky’s career indicates that it was not spent in organizational in-fighting, or at least not successfully. Trotsky stands out as the consummate free-lancer. More than one biographer has noted this condition, including his definitive biographer Isaac Deutscher. Let me make a couple of points to take the edge of this characterization, though. In that 1903 fight mentioned above Trotsky did fight against Economism (the tendency to only fight over trade union issues and not fight overtly political struggles against the Czarist regime) and he did fight against Bundism (the tendency for one group, in this case the Jewish workers, to set the political agenda for that particular group). Moreover, he most certainly favored a centralized organization. These were the key issues at that time. Furthermore, the controversial organizational question did not preclude the very strong notion that a ‘big tent’ unitary party was necessary. The ‘big tent’ German Social Democratic model held very strong sway among the Russian revolutionaries for a long time, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks. The long and short of it was that Trotsky was not an organization man, per se. He knew how to organize revolutions, armies, Internationals, economies and so on when he needed to but on a day to day basis, no. Thus, to compare or contrast him to Lenin and his very different successes is unfair. Both have an honorable place in the revolutionary movement; it is just a different place.
That said, Trotsky really comes into his own as a revolutionary leader in the Revolution of 1905 not only as a publicist but as the central leader of the Soviets (workers councils) which made their first appearance at that time. In a sense it is because he was a free-lancer that he was able to lead the Petrograd Soviet during its short existence and etch upon the working class of Russia (and in a more limited way, internationally) the need for its own organizations to seize state power. All revolutionaries honor this experience, as we do the Paris Commune, as the harbinger of October, 1917. As Lenin and Trotsky both confirm, it was truly a ‘dress rehearsal’ for that event. It is in 1905 that Trotsky first wins his stars by directing the struggle against the Czar at close quarters, in the streets and working class meeting halls. And later in his eloquent and ‘hard’ defense of the experiment after it was crushed by the Czarism reaction. I believe that it was here in the heat of the struggle in 1905 where the contradiction between Trotsky’s ‘soft’ position in 1903 and his future ‘hard’ Bolshevik position of 1917 and thereafter is resolved. Here was a professional revolutionary who one could depend on when the deal went down. (A future blog will review the 1905 revolution in more detail).
No discussion of this period of Trotsky’s life is complete without mentioning his very real contribution to Marxist theory- that is, the theory of Permanent Revolution. Although the theory is over one hundred years old it still retains its validity today in those countries that still have not had their bourgeois revolutions. This rather simple straightforward theory about the direction of the Russian revolution (and which Trotsky later in the 1920’s, after the debacle of the Chinese Revolution, made applicable to what today are called “third world" countries)has been covered with so many falsehoods, epithets, and misconceptions that it deserves further explanation. Why? Militants today must address the ramifications of the question what of kind of revolution is necessary as a matter of international revolutionary strategy.
Trotsky, taking the specific historical development and the peculiarities of Russian economic development as part of the international capitalist order as a starting point argued that there was no ‘Chinese wall’ between the bourgeois revolution Russian was desperately in need of and the tasks of the socialist revolution. In short, in the 20th century ( and by extension, now) the traditional leadership role of the bourgeois in the bourgeois revolution in a economically backward country, due to its subservience to international capitalist powers and fear of its own working class and plebeian masses, falls to the proletariat. The Russian Revolution of 1905 sharply demonstrated the outline of that tendency especially on the perfidious role of the Russian bourgeoisie. The unfolding of revolutionary events in 1917 graphically confirmed this. The history of revolutionary struggles since then, and not only in ‘third world’ countries, gives added, if negative, confirmation of that analysis. (A future blog will review this theory of permanent revolution in more detail).
World War I was a watershed for modern history in many ways. For the purposes of this review two points are important. First, the failure of the bulk of the European social democracy- representing the masses of their respective working classes- to not only not oppose their own ruling classes’ plunges into war, which would be a minimal practical expectation, but to go over and directly support their own respective ruling classes in that war. This position was most famously demonstrated when the entire parliamentary fraction of the German Social Democratic party voted for the war credits for the Kaiser on August 4, 1914. This initially left the anti-war elements of international social democracy, including Lenin and Trotsky, almost totally isolated. As the carnage of that war mounted in endless and senseless slaughter on both sides it became clear that a new political alignment in the labor movement was necessary. The old, basically useless Second International, which in its time held some promise of bringing in the new socialist order, needed to give way to a new revolutionary International. That eventually occurred in 1919 with the foundation of the Communist International (also known as the Third International). (A future blog will review the first years of the Communist International). Horror of horrors, particularly for reformists of all stripes, this meant that the international labor movement, one way or another, had to split into its reformist and revolutionary components. It is during the war that Trotsky and Lenin, not without some lingering differences, draw closer and begin the process of several years, only ended by Lenin’s death, of close political collaboration.
Secondly, World War I marks the definite (at least for Europe) end of the progressive role of international capitalist development. The outlines of imperialist aggression previously noted had definitely taken center stage. This theory of imperialism was most closely associated with Lenin in his master work Imperialism-The Highest Stage of Capitalism but one should note that Trotsky in all his later work up until his death fully subscribed to the theory. Although Lenin’s work is in need of some updating to account for various technological changes and the extensions of globalization it holds up for political purposes. This analysis meant that a fundamental shift in the relationship of the working class to the ruling class was necessary. A reformist perspective for social change, although not specific reforms, was no longer tenable. Politically, as a general proposition, socialist revolution was on the immediate agenda. This is when Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution meets the Leninist conception of revolutionary organization. It proved to be a successful formula in Russia in October, 1917. Unfortunately, those lessons were not learned (or, at least, learned in time) by those who followed and the events of October, 1917 stand today as the only ‘pure’ working class revolution in history.
An argument can, and has, been made that the October Revolution could only have occurred under the specific condition of decimated, devastated war-weary Russia of 1917. This argument is generally made by those who were not well-wishers of revolution in Russia (or anywhere else, for that matter). It is rather a truism, indulged in by Marxists as well as by others, that war is the mother of revolution. That said, the October revolution was made then and there but only because of the convergence of enough revolutionary forces led by the Bolsheviks and additionally the forces closest to the Bolsheviks (including Trotsky’s Inter-District Organization) that had been prepared for these events by its entire pre-history. This is the subjective factor in history. No, not substitutionalism, that was the program of the Social Revolutionary terrorists and the like, but if you like, revolutionary opportunism. I would be much more impressed by an argument that stated that the revolution would not have occurred without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky. That would be a subjective argument, par excellent. But, they were there.
Again Trotsky in 1917, like in 1905, is in his element speaking seemingly everywhere, writing, organizing (when it counts, by the way). If not the brains of the revolution (that role is honorably conceded to Lenin) certainly the face of the Revolution. Here is a revolutionary moment shown in every great revolution when the fate of the revolution turned on a dime (the subjective factor). The dime turned. (See blog dated April 18, 2006 for a review of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution).
One of the great lessons that militants can learn from all previous modern revolutions is that once the revolutionary forces seize power from the old regime an inevitable counterrevolutionary onslaught by elements of the old order (aided by some banished moderate but previously revolutionary elements, as a rule). The Russian revolution proved no exception. If anything the old regime, aided and abetted by numerous foreign powers and armies, was even more bloodthirsty. It fell to Trotsky to organize the defense of the revolution. Now, you might ask- What is a nice Jewish boy like Trotsky doing playing with guns? Fair enough. Well,Jewish or Gentile if you play the revolution game you better the hell be prepared to defend the revolution (and yourself). Here, again Trotsky organized, essentially from scratch, a Red Army from a defeated, demoralized former peasant army under the Czar. The ensuing civil war was to leave the country devastated but the Red Army defeated the Whites. Why? In the final analysis it was not only the heroism of the working class defending its own but the peasant wanting to hold on to the newly acquired land that he just got and was in jeopardy of losing if the Whites won. But these masses needed to be organized. Trotsky was the man for the task.
Both Lenin’s and Trotsky’s calculation for the success of socialist revolution in Russia (and ultimately its fate) was its, more or less, immediate extension to the capitalist heartland of Europe, particularly Germany. While in 1917 that was probably not the controlling single factor for going forward in Russia it did have to come into play at some point. The founding of the Communist International makes no sense otherwise. Unfortunately, for many historical, national and leadership-related reasons no Bolshevik-styled socialist revolutions followed then, or ever. If the premise for socialism is for plenty, and ultimately as a result of plenty to take the struggle for existence off the agenda and put other more creative pursues on the agenda, then Russia in the early 1920’s was not the land of plenty. Neither Lenin, Trotsky nor Stalin, for that matter could wish that fact away.
The ideological underpinnings of that fight center on the Stalinist concept of ‘socialism in one country’, that is Russian socialist development alone versus the Trostskyist position of the absolutely necessary extension of the international revolution. In short, this is the fights that historically happens in great revolutions- the fight against Thermidor (from the overthrow of Robespierre in 1794 by more moderate Jacobins). What counts, in the final analysis, are their respective responses to the crisis of the isolation of the revolution. The word isolation is the key. Do you turn the revolution inward or push forward? We all know the result, and it wasn’t pretty, then or now. That is the substance of the fight that Trotsky, if initially belatedly and hesitantly, led from about 1923 on under various conditions until the end of his life by assassination of a Stalinist agent in 1940.
Although there were earlier signs that the Russia revolution was going off course the long illness and death of Lenin in 1924, at the time the only truly authoritative leader the Bolshevik party, set off a power struggle in the leadership of the party. This fight had Trotsky and the ‘pretty boy’ intellectuals of the party on one side and Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev (the so-called triumvirate)backed by the ‘gray boys’ of the emerging bureaucracy on the other. This struggle occurred against the backdrop of the failed revolution in Germany in 1923 and which thereafter heralded the continued isolation, imperialist blockade and economic backwardness of the Soviet Union for the foreseeable future.
While the disputes in the Russian party eventually had international ramifications in the Communist International, they were at this time fought out almost solely with the Russian Party. Trotsky was slow, very slow to take up the battle for power that had become obvious to many elements in the party. He made many mistakes and granted too many concessions to the triumvirate. But he did fight. Although later (in 1935) Trotsky recognized that the 1923 fight represented a fight against the Russian Thermidor and thus a decisive turning point for the revolution that was not clear to him (or anyone else on either side) then. Whatever the appropriate analogy might have been Leon Trotsky was in fact fighting a last ditch effort to retard the further degeneration of the revolution. After that defeat, the way the Soviet Union was ruled, who ruled it and for what purposes all changed. And not for the better.
In a sense if the fight in 1923-24 is the decisive fight to save the Russian revolution (and ultimately a perspective of international revolution) then the 1926-27 fight which was a bloc between Trotsky’s forces and the just defeated forces of Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin’s previous allies was the last rearguard action to save that perspective. That it failed nevertheless does not deny the importance of the fight. Yes, it was a political bloc with some serious differences especially over China and the Anglo-Russian Committee. But two things are important here One- did a perspective of a new party make sense at the time of the clear waning of the revolutionary tide the country. No. Besides the place to look was at the most politically conscious elements, granted against heavy odds, in the party where whatever was left of the class-conscious elements of the working class were.
As I have noted elsewhere in discussing the 1923 fight- that “Lenin levy” of raw recruits, careerists and just plain thugs was the key element in any defeat. Still the fight was necessary. Hey, that is why we still talk about it now. That was a fight to the finish. After that the left opposition or elements of it were forever more outside the party- either in exile, prison or dead. As we know Trotsky went from expulsion from the party in 1927 to internal exile in Alma Ata in 1928 to external exile to Turkey in 1929. From there he underwent further exiles in France, Norway, and Mexico when he was finally felled by a Stalinist assassin. But no matter when he went he continued to struggle for his perspective. Not bad for a Jewish farmer’s son from the Ukraine, of all places.
The last period of Trotsky’s life spent in harrowing exiles and under constant threat from Stalinist and White Guard threats- in short, on the planet without a visa -was dedicated to the continued fight for the Leninist heritage. It was an unequal fight, to be sure but he waged it and was able to cohere a core of revolutionaries to form a new international. That that effort was essentially militarily defeat by fascist or Stalinist forces during World War II does not take away from the grandeur of the attempt. He himself stated that he felt this was the most important work of his life- and who would challenge that assertion. But one could understand the frustrations, first analysis of the German debacle then in France and Spain. Hell a lesser man would have given up. In fact, more than one biographer has argued that he should have retired from the political arena to, I assume, a comfortable country cottage to write I do not know what. But, please dear reader, have you been paying attention? Does this seem even remotely like the Trotsky career I have attempted to highlight here? Hell, no.
Many of the events such as the disputes within the Russian revolutionary movement, the attempts by the Western Powers to overthrow the Bolsheviks in the Civil War after their seizure of power and the struggle of the various tendencies inside the Russian Communist Party and in the Communist International discussed in the book may not be familiar to today's audience. Nevertheless one can still learn something from the strength of Trotsky's commitment to his cause and the fight to preserve his personal and political integrity against overwhelming odds. As the organizer of the October Revolution, creator of the Red Army in the Civil War, orator, writer and fighter Trotsky he was one of the most feared men of the early 20th century to friend and foe alike. Nevertheless, I do not believe that he took his personal fall from power as a world historic tragedy. Moreover, he does not gloss over his political mistakes. Nor does Trotsky generally do personal injustice to his various political opponents although I would not want to have been subject to his rapier wit and pen. Politicians, revolutionary or otherwise, in our times should take note.
REVISED JULY 25, 2006
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