Leon Trotsky

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A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.
—Leon Trotsky[1]
♫♬ Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? He got an ice pick[note 1] that made his ears burn.
—The Stranglers[2]

Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, (1879–1940) was a communist leader, along with Vladimir Lenin, during the Russian Revolution. A split between Trotsky and Lenin's successor Stalin led to Trotsky's exile from the Soviet Union and eventual assassination (via severe headache) in Mexico in 1940, at the hands of a Stalinist agent named Ramón Mercader.[3]:418

Revolutionary leader[edit]

Conditions in pre-revolutionary Russia presented unexpected strategic dilemmas for Marxists within the Russian socialist movement. Marxist orthodoxy saw the development of industrial capitalism and a strong proletariat as a prerequisite for the socialist revolution. Being a largely agrarian society with a large holdover of feudal relations, the Russian Empire was far from meeting those conditions. The issue of revolutionary strategy gained urgency as unrest leading up to the 1905 revolution indicated that revolutionary conditions were imminent. The Russian Social Democratic Labour PartyWikipedia became divided into two camps, the Menshevik (minority) tendency that favored an alliance with the rising bourgeoisie to overthrow the feudal aristocracy, and the Bolshevik (majority) tendency led by V. I. Lenin, that was skeptical that the bourgeoisie would align with the proletariat against the aristocracy. The Bolsheviks instead proposed a socialist-led coalition based on the proletariat and the peasant class to compensate for the numerical weakness of the Russian proletariat, which would seize power then oversee the development of capitalism until the requisite level of development for a socialist economy was reached. The Menshevik strategy of seeking alliances within the bourgeoisie to achieve socialist goals became the international foundation of the social democrats. The results of the 1905 Russian Revolution lent credence to the Bolshevik position; an alliance of agricultural socialists, social democrats, and bourgeois democrats won political concessions from the Tsar that were quickly rolled back, and repression of dissidents, including executions, increased to even greater levels in the following years.

The notion of a socialist revolution fostering capitalism didn't sit so well with Trotsky, after 1905 a member of the Menshevik bloc in exile as a leader of the defeated 1905 revolution. His opinion was that managers of socialist-led capitalism would bear the potential to derail a socialist revolution. He instead proposed the doctrine of Permanent Revolution, in which a centralized socialist planned economy would be implemented without an intermediate capitalist phase. His ideas didn't fit in so well with the Menshevik bloc either; he became non-aligned between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and concentrated instead on promoting his ideas independently of either bloc's doctrines. Trotsky also foresaw an urgent need for socialist revolutions outside Russia in more developed economies, especially Germany, if a revolution in Russia were to survive. To promote that, he formed the Mezhraionka (Internationalist) tendency in 1914, a group based around promoting the international socialist revolution.

The factional battle between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks came to the fore in the aftermath of the February Revolution in 1917 — a broad coalition led by the Mensheviks under Alexander Kerensky, which was the dominant faction of the socialist movement at that time. The revolution forced the Tsar to cede power, but the path forward became chaotic. Kerensky made too many concessions to the old Russian state apparatus and capitalists for the Bolsheviks' liking and continued the war against Germany over Bolshevik objections. The Bolsheviks saw replacing the old state structures as urgent for heading off a counterrevolution. The Bolsheviks were expelled from the ruling coalition. Trotsky was arrested along with Bolshevik leaders shortly after his return and, while imprisoned, became an unequivocal Bolshevik.

Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks had formed an alternate power base in the Soviets (Workers' Councils). Kerensky saw the Soviets as illegitimate and sought the help of the Russian Army to suppress them. However, there were signs that Army Generals were taking that opportunity to plan a military coup, leading Kerensky to seek the help of armed Workers' Brigades under the directorship of the Petrograd Soviet to fend it off, freeing Trotsky and other imprisoned Bolsheviks as part of the deal. The balance of power in Petrograd shifted dramatically in favor of the Bolsheviks. Trotsky was soon elected chair of the Petrograd Soviet. With Lenin back from exile in Switzerland as the leader of the Bolsheviks and working alongside Trotsky, and the Workers' Brigades feeding off defections from the Russian Army under Lenin and Trotsky's agitation, Kerensky's position grew so weakened that his government toppled with the first shots of armed rebellion in the name of the Soviets during the October Revolution. Trotsky's role in leading the Petrograd Soviet to seize power was, in fact, vital,[4] but in later years, his Menshevik past was used against him as a sign of his untrustworthiness.[5][6]

Trotsky with the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet war

The travails of the Russian Revolution were far from over, with a Tsarist counterrevolution soon launched with support from the world's most powerful nations. Trotsky's record as Foreign Minister and Commissar of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War contained brilliance, bloopers, and brutality. In an irony of ironies, Trotsky blew the initial negotiations for peace with Germany, leading to the extension of the war that had led to the downfall of the Tsar and Kerensky. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 ratified the seizure of large amounts of Russian territory by Germany in the aftermath of the first failed attempt at peace, which was only reversed by the defeat of Germany later that year. Poland's war of eastward expansion against Russia in 1919 (following their war against the Ukrainian People's Republic) was at first brilliantly defended against under the most trying of circumstances at the height of the Russian Civil War, with Russia able to regain all of its lost territories. However, Trotsky extended that battle to the point that Britain and France intervened, providing Poland with airpower, armor, and other resources that the Red Army lacked. The result was the seizure of western Ukraine and part of Belarus by Poland, ratified by the Treaty of Riga in 1921. The record of the Red Army with national minorities was mixed, often aligning with nationalist forces in an alliance against the Tsarists, who the local populations tended to deeply resent, then engaging local leadership in power struggles that often turned bloody. But the Red Army directed a special repressiveness towards ethnic Russians, in whose Russian Orthodox faith the role of the Tsar in Holy Mother Russia was sanctified, leading to suspicion of Tsarist sympathies, particularly among the peasants. Orthodox priests were often summarily executed, and those who objected to the sacrilege got rubbed out. The privations of war often led to confrontations over scarce resources; protests over genuine grievances were often regarded as "counterrevolutionary". Trotsky's violent suppression of the Kronstadt and Makhnovist anarchist movements made him a hated figure in the anti-Bolshevik left.[7] The Bolsheviks' greatest political success outside of Russia was in gaining the loyalty of the Ukrainian People's Republic with a territorial reward of the Donbas (which the Red Army had violently seized from anarchist communes influenced by anarchist partisans like Nestor Makhno and Maria Nikiforova after the latter drove out the Tsarist forces). The arrangement was also suitable for the Ukrainians as a security bolster against Poland, who had shown their designs on the Ukrainian territory. However, the international wave of revolution, central to the survival of the Bolshevik Revolution, according to Trotsky, clearly was not happening.[8]

Trotsky's leadership of the Red Army and the Russian Civil War's successful conclusion left him in high esteem as a commander who prevailed against great odds, even among military historians not aligned with communism. But the success of the Red Army owed partly to the fact that their opponents were divided, pursuing their own agendas, and sometimes in conflict with each other. The nationalities question was resolved with the system of Soviet Socialist Republics that hardwired the interests of national minorities into the central bureaucracy (later instrumental in the rise of the Georgian Stalin and the Ukrainian Khruschev) and lent a measure of stability. The relative outcomes of the Bolshevik Revolution and the German Revolution of 1918, which was led by social democrats who then aligned themselves with the bourgeoisie against the truly socialist Spartacist uprising, established the Bolshevik-aligned faction of the socialist movement internationally as the go-to for revolutionary socialists.

The death of Lenin allowed Stalin and other "centrists" in the party to move against him — Trotsky was portrayed as a splitter for his opposition, rooted in his doctrine of Permanent Revolution, to the then "New Economic Policy", which allowed some small-scale capitalist production. Stalin deftly made common cause with the "right" against Trotsky's "Left Opposition", and by the time the right realized they too were being outmaneuvered, the "United Opposition" to Stalin was facing an invincible enemy. In 1928 Trotsky found himself expelled from the Soviet Union and refused entry to several countries before settling in Mexico. He became good friends with Mexican communist artists Diego Rivera and Selma HayekWikipedia Frida Kahlo (with whom he had an affair) before his assassination in 1940 by a Soviet agent of the NKVD (secret police).


At the time of the Stalin-Trotsky split in the 1920s, the Stalinist and Trotskyist branches of the world communist movement separated and took different ideological directions. Most of the national communist parties took their direction from Moscow and expelled Trotsky's supporters. In the United States, the Trotskyites became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In the UK, they united briefly in 1944 under the name of the Revolutionary Communist PartyWikipedia.[note 2] Trotskyism took a communist but anti-Stalinist line and advocated political opposition to Stalinism, which they saw as leading to an entrenched bureaucracy and developing a new ruling class under the guise of Communist Party leadership.

Logo of the Fourth International

Trotsky founded the Fourth International in 1938 to counter the Soviet-led Third International (or Comintern). Ironically, Trotsky initially opposed establishing parallel communist parties or a parallel international communist organization that would compete with the Third International. However, he changed his mind after the Nazi takeover in Germany (1933) and the Comintern's response. Trotskyists often used the communist hammer-and-sickle symbol with the number "4" superimposed on it, referring to their allegiance to the Fourth International rather than to the Third. The Fourth International proclaimed capitalism was in its "death agony", and the principal barriers to successful workers' revolutions were the leaderships of the (reformist) social democrats and (especially) the orthodox Stalinist communist parties. The Fourth International's main tactic was to be the "Transitional Demand" — a series of slogans that looked quite like the traditional demands of social democratic parties but which were, in fact, so extreme that they could only be achieved through the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order (i.e., as opposed to social democratic reform). This tactic is still central to Trotskyist practice today. Trotskyites can often be seen mirroring the demands of the mainstream reformists or trade unionists except in a highly amplified form.

Trotskyism in the United States split into different tendencies after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. One tendency, led by Max Shachtman, regarded the Soviet Union as irredeemably corrupt and no longer worthy of support under Marxist solidarity. Some Schachtmanites merged into their own Trotskyist group, the International Socialist Organization. Others softened their revolutionary Marxism in favor of social democracy and adopted an increasingly anti-Soviet line that led to support for Cold War policies. Going in the opposite direction were the followers of Sam Marcy during the 1950s, for whom worldwide opposition to so-called "U.S. imperialism" took priority over opposition to Stalinism; hence, Marcy's followers defended the Soviet Union's invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and declared support for any communist government regardless of ideology from the relatively moderate Yugoslavia to the hard-line cranks ruling Albania and the hereditary monarchy in North Korea. In the United States, Marcy's followers became the Workers World Party. They gained a great deal of recent attention due to their leadership roles within The Committee to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary and A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). The breakaway faction Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL) assumed WWP's role in those two groups.

It has occasionally been posited that Shachtmanism is an ideological forebear of neoconservatism, but this is primarily a smear campaign by paleoconservatives with at best tenuous evidence.[9]

In Britain and elsewhere, many of the divisions in later years came between those who advocated that they were the followers of the "true" Fourth International. In 1953 the Fourth International split into the International Secretariat of the Fourth InternationalWikipedia (ISFI) and International Committee of the Fourth InternationalWikipedia (ICFI) over the issue of entryism towards non-Trotskyist parties. By 1963 adherents of the ICFI and ISFI saw a possibility for reconciliation and formed the United Secretariat of the Fourth InternationalWikipedia (USFI). The move was opposed by ICFI hardliners, who mainly coalesced behind Gerry Healey and the British Socialist Labor League. ICFI adherents in the SWP led a factional struggle that saw them expelled piecemeal in 1964, first the group who formed the Spartacist League, then a smaller group that affiliated itself with the ICFI and formed the Workers League. The splinter groups mainly occupied themselves with critiquing the USFI-affiliated groups while claiming to be the "true" Fourth International and were weakened by further internal conflicts. One of the strangest and richest of (former?) Trotskyists to emerge from that split, Lyndon LaRouche, went the same direction as the Shachtmanites with an anti-Soviet line while taking his followers into the lunatic world of conspiracy theories and cult status. More recently, LaRouche identified the British Royal Family as the world's #1 bogey.[10] In all these deviations, the Socialist Workers Party kept its status as the largest Trotskyist organization in the USA until it formally broke with Trotskyism in favor of Castroist ideology in 1983. The USFI sought to revive the moribund American Trotskyist movement by launching the Labor Militant organizing project in the late 1980s, giving rise to Socialist Alternative (SAlt). SAlt gained a following through building the Fight for Fifteen campaign, support for Black Lives Matter, and their success in electing SAlt member Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. ICFI rebooted itself by launching the World Socialist Web Site[11] (WSWS) in 1998 and Socialist Equality Party organizing projects. WSWS offers critiques of SAlt that echo the Workers League's critiques of the Socialist Workers Party in an earlier era, alleging opportunism in supporting the identity politics of the postmodernist left, which WSWS regards as petty-bourgeois and anti-Marxist, and a misguided emphasis on electoralism.

They are often called "Trots" in the UK and are often a fixture at left-wing and labor events, distinguishing themselves by their abrasive tendentiousness. The most popular of these iterations is usually found to be an heir to the teachings and platform of Israeli-British immigrant Tony Cliff, in which Christopher Hitchens launched his writing career before moving to America. The International Socialist Organization is one of these in the USA, though Cliff expelled them from his fold over a dispute over large sums of money.

There's a strange (but often true) stereotype of Trotskyists wanting to sell newspapers.[12][13] Despite Trotskyists being a relatively small minority of the left, they have a good number of publications. Trotskyist newspapers are mostly uncomfortable-to-read propaganda, although sometimes stuff like the Socialist WorkerWikipedia gives good information on Third World and labor news that the mainstream media typically wouldn't cover.

Obligatory George Orwell reference[edit]

George Orwell was somewhat sympathetic to Trotsky, possibly because he fought alongside the POUMWikipedia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) militia in the Spanish Civil War, many of whose members were Trotskyists.[14]:62 In Animal Farm, the role of Trotsky is given to Snowball. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is Emmanuel Goldstein.

But even with that being said, he is still well known for his rather insightful quote: "The fact that Trotskyists are everywhere a persecuted minority, and that the accusation usually made against them, i.e. of collaborating with the Fascists, is obviously false, creates an impression that Trotskyism is intellectually and morally superior to Communism; but it is doubtful whether there is much difference."[15]

Trotsky and the term "racism"[edit]

According to certain alt-right and white nationalist circles, Trotsky was the inventor of the term "racism" as part of his supposed Cultural Marxist agenda in dividing and destroying traditional Western civilization. While Trotsky did use the word расисты[note 3] (racists) in the original Russian text The History of the Russian Revolution (1930),[16][17] the first recorded use of the term "racism" in English was in c. 1900, but became common by 1928.[18][19]


In addition to the happiness of being a fighter for the cause of socialism, fate gave me the happiness of being [Natalia's] husband. During the almost forty years of our life together she remained an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity, and tenderness. She underwent great sufferings, especially in the last period of our lives. But I find some comfort in the fact that she also knew days of happiness.

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. 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. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. 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.

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.
—"Trotsky's Testament" - 27 February 1940; Coyoacan, Mexico[20]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Actually a modified ice axe, a rather different tool
  2. The Revolutionary Communist Party (UK, 1944) is distinct from both the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, which is Maoist and the Revolutionary Communist Party (UK, 1978), which swung from Trotskyism to far-right politics.
  3. The source provided actually has "расистов", which is the genitive case of this word


  1. Their Morals and Ours by Leon Trotsky (June 1938) The New International 4(6):63-173. via Marxists' Internet Archive.
  2. No More Heroes by The Stranglers (1977) Genius.
  3. The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest (1990) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195055802.
  4. cf. Jack Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World.
  5. cf. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed.
  6. cf. Any copy of Reed's book published after 1930 purged Trotsky from the narrative, despite the fact he is a main protagonist in the story.
  7. cf. Voline, The Unknown Revolution.
  8. cf. Deutscher.
  9. Trotskyism and Neoconservatives by Bill King (March 22, 2004) Enter Stage Right .
  10. Image captioned "Mickey Mouse & Pluto Move to Washington" Queen Elizabeth appears as the top image surrounding a Star of David by Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., Lyndon Larouche Watch (archived from February 3, 2012).
  11. World Socialist Web Site
  12. Can someone explain the Trotskyists and newspapers meme to me? r/communism101 (c. 2016) Reddit.
  13. Time to ditch the paper: the Leftover Left and the newspaper (January 28, 2011 at 6:42 pm) Shiraz socialist.
  14. Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Secker & Warburg.
  15. Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell (1945) Polemic 1.
  16. "Racist" — A Word Invented by USSR's Leon Trotsky by Dustin Stanley (January 07, 2010) The Unpopular Truth, Blogspot (archived from July 15, 2010).
  17. The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky, translated by Max Eastman (1932) Marxists' Internet Archive.
  18. racist (n.) Online Etymology Dictionary.
  19. racist, n. and adj., Oxford English Dictionary.
  20. The Testaments of Trotsky by Leon Trotsky (1959) Fourth International 7:30. Via Marxists' Internet Archive.