Who was Leon Trotsky?

Submitted by cathy n on 26 August, 2007 - 9:22 Author: Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman

The disclosure [in Trotsky’s diary of 1935] that Trotsky contemplated taking his own life, or, as he put it himself, reserved the right to determine the time of his death, will startle, perhaps even dismay, many who followed his rich and robust career.

Traditional opinion among revolutionists, especially among Marxists, has always run counter to such an extreme measure — the revolutionist does not have the right to deprive his cause of his services. There have been, it is true, numerous instances, especially in the course of the development of the Bolshevik revolution, where suicide occurred. The eminent poets, Yessenin, Mayakovsky, and Vladimir Piast, killed themselves. But not only poets. There were other Communist leaders who took the same course during the nightmare years of Stalin’s rise to power and the destruction of the entire generation of the Revolution.

In virtually all these instances, however, despair — the feeling of hopelessness or disillusionment — was the fatal impulse. But every person who worked with Trotsky, or lived with him for some time, or knew him well, was impressed by his endurance and tenacity (“tenacity” was a word he favoured), above all by a profound optimism rooted both in his personality and in his doggedly held intellectual convictions. He never abandoned these convictions, indeed they are reiterated in his Testament. Despair was not in the nature of his spirit or his mind. Why then this unexpected statement in the Testament? A brief suggestion of his motivation, of the tumultuous and terrible events which led him to consider such a step, should illuminate. For it forces us to see his writings in the context of a tragically rich life.

All of Trotsky’s conscious and adult existence was devoted to the cause of socialism. These forty-three years, beginning when he was eighteen in the revolutionary movement in the Ukraine and ending only a few weeks before his sixty-first birthday with the fatal blow of the assassin, can be roughly divided into three periods.

For twenty years he was engaged in combat against Tsarist absolutism; for six years he enjoyed in the new revolutionary state an authority and power second only to Lenin’s; and for seventeen years he led an increasingly bitter opposition to the Stalinist regime, which succeeded to the power which he had so outstandingly helped to establish.

All these years were difficult ones, many of them harsh ones, some cruelly harsh. Trotsky possessed most extraordinary physical and intellectual capacities which can be measured by comparison with others of his revolutionary generation who were not known for frailty. But each new year made more urgent claims on his “reserves of moral strength” and in no one are they illimitable.

The period of struggle against Tsarism was difficult enough in itself, and wearing. But it was surely the easiest period of Trotsky’s life. At nineteen he was arrested, and spent the next four years of his life in prison and as a deportee in Siberia. After flight, he spent two and a half years in Europe, where he met the exiled Lenin for the first time. Then in February, 1905, hearing the first whispers of the revolutionary stirrings in Russia, he returned secretly to his homeland, first to Kiev and then to St Petersburg. At that point, the young writer and agitator was elected, at the age of twenty-six, to the presidency of the first Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. But with the dispersal of the Soviet, the fatal chain was fashioned anew: arrest, conviction, deportation to Obdorsk, just on the Polar Circle, nearly 1000 miles from any railway. But he never reached his destination, for he escaped and fled once more to Europe.

Trotsky was able to live for seven years in Vienna, and to publish a revolutionary newspaper in Russian. But then war came, and on August 3, 1914, he was forced to flee once again, this time under threat of internment. In this period, Trotsky carried on an unceasing struggle of opposition to the war, first from Zurich, then from France. Finally, after his expulsion from France and arrest and expulsion in Spain, he made his way to the United States. On March 27, 1917, a few months after he arrived in New York, he was on his way back to Russia and the Revolution. Fittingly enough, he was arrested by the British during his homeward voyage and imprisoned in a German war prisoners’ camp at Amherst, Nova Scotia. It took a month of pressure from the Russian Provisional Government to secure his release.

Trotsky arrived in Petrograd on May 4, 1917. Seven months later he was to lead the Bolshevik insurrection to its victory, and to embark on a new period of his life. As a leader of the revolutionary state, by Lenin’s side, he found infinitely more freedom of thought and action than in the days of struggle against Tsarism. But superior social forces began inexorably to reduce the possibilities of solving the new problems posed by a revolutionary victory limited to one land, and to a land of painful backwardness. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the revolution which Trotsky led was crushed by the rise to power of Stalin. And after six brief years in the top leadership of the new state, he faced seventeen long years of unrelenting struggle, of exile, persecution of himself, his family, his political associates, seventeen years that were to be ended by an assassin in Mexico.

Beginning in 1923, Trotsky led a fight within the Russian Communist Party. It lasted for four years. On November 7, 1927, the tenth anniversary of the Revolution which he led and defended, he was obliged to leave the Kremlin and find shelter for his family in a tiny room belonging to Opposition friends. A week later, he and Gregory Zinoviev, first Chairman of the Communist International, were expelled from the Party. The next day, Trotsky’s close personal friend, Adolph Yoffe, sick and near despair, killed himself as a protest against the regime and the expulsions which it had ordered. He was one of the first of a host of Trotsky’s friends, comrades, and associates who were to be driven to their death or directly murdered by a regime whose calculated and merciless persecution of political adversaries and critics is unequalled in modern times.

In January, 1928, the restless, hunted life of exile began for Trotsky once again. First he was sent to Alma-Ata, a Russian city near the Chinese border, and from there he was deported to Turkey. Toward the end of his Turkish exile, there came a cruel blow. His first-born, Zinaida, sick and broken in spirit, took her life in Berlin. Her husband, Platon Volkov, a young Opposition militant, was arrested and deported and disappeared for ever. Trotsky’s first wife, Alexandra Lvonva Sokolovsky-Bronstein, the woman who first introduced Trotsky to socialist ideas, was deported to a concentration camp where she was hounded to death. Trotsky’s son Sergey, who had academic but no political interests or associations, was arrested on the charge of “poisoning the workers”.

The grisly toll of the GPU continued to mount: it struck not only at Trotsky’s family and friends, but at his secretaries, his political associates, at any one who was in any way close to him. And he moved from one country to another, to France, to Norway where Russian Government pressure succeeded in securing his expulsion, and finally to Mexico. But more, these were the years of the Moscow Trials, and one can only imagine the deep personal suffering which this terrible spectacle must have caused Trotsky. In Mexico, he earned that his son, companion, and political associate, Lyova, had died under suspicious circumstances during an operation in France. A few months later, the mutilated and decapitated body of his secretary, a young German revolutionist named Klement, was discovered floating in the Seine. Erwin Wolf, a young Czech who had been Trotsky’s secretary in Norway, was kidnapped in the streets of Barcelona, where he had gone to enlist in the Spanish Loyalist cause. Perhaps the stiffest blow of all came in March 1938 when Kristian Georgevich Rakovsky was forced to stand up before a Moscow court during the Trials and to attack Trotsky with the accusation that he had had criminal relations with the German intelligence in 1921. Rakovsky was Trotsky’s oldest and closest personal friend.

There is a limit to the endurance of the body and the nerves, said Trotsky in explaining why so many of the old revolutionists who had stood so staunchly for years could finally capitulate and even grovel before Stalin. The limit applied to this exceptional man as well, even if in exceptional dimensions. In the second French exile, there were the trip-hammer blows which have been only briefly described here.

In Mexico, he was constantly guarded by his political comrades, and subject to such rigorous restrictions on his freedom that he could not even fully enjoy a holiday trip to the countryside, to say nothing of a ride to the centre of the city. He would never complain, least of all about his personal problems.

Thus, the arithmetic of Trotsky’s life: at liberty, more or less, in Russia, under Tsarism and later under the Soviet regime, no more than twelve years of his life; in prison, in places of deportation in Russia, and in exile abroad in over a dozen different countries, thirty-one years of his life. In this context, what he wrote in his Testament is perhaps exceeded in remarkableness by the endurance he displayed, by the amazing power of will he was able to summon out of himself to overcome, if he could not vanquish, the ills and vicissitudes that beset him.

But Trotsky did not take his own life. On August 20 1940, an assassin of the GPU who had tricked his way into Trotsky’s presence smashed Trotsky’s skull with an Alpine pickaxe. For so much did Stalin fear this man that he could not rest in peace until the harrowed and hounded revolutionist, the bitter foe of the regime which had destroyed the Revolution, was murdered.