80 years after his death: the revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky
80 years ago, on 20th August 1940, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of the Stalinist GPU, in an effort to silence the fiercest opponent of Stalin’s bureaucratic counter-revolution in the Soviet Union, and one of the staunchest defenders of genuine Marxism.
For much of the early 20th century, Trotsky was on the front lines of the class struggle. Like many great revolutionaries, his life is rich in lessons and experience that socialists can learn from today, although of course it is impossible to cover all his achievements and ideas in one article.
Trotsky played a key role in the 1917 Russian Revolution, which put ordinary people, through the ‘soviets’ (roughly translated as workers’ councils) in full democratic control of society for the first time in history. This allowed huge advances in the rights of working class people including women and other oppressed sections of society still unsurpassed in many countries over 100 years later. The workers established a planned economy, paving the way for unprecedented economic development – taking Russia from a semi-feudal, backward nation to an industrialised global superpower in just a few decades, and ending the endless boom-bust cycle that plagues capitalist society.
The events of 1917 are living proof of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution – that in the struggle for democratic rights and national liberation, the fledgling capitalist class in the under-developed world is too weak, entwined with the local landlord class and dominated by global imperialism and foreign capitalist classes to carry out their historic role. Instead, necessary developments traditionally carried out by the capitalist revolution in the French, American and similar revolutions, such as creating a republic and a modern economy, can only be carried out successfully by the working masses. But the workers leading the democratic revolution would, once in power, be forced to go beyond these historical examples and begin carrying through socialist change such as nationalisation of industry and collectivisation of the land. This was played out in practice in Russia, and elements of this can be seen in numerous democratic struggles since. In 1917, Trotsky and Lenin argued that, having overthrown the authoritarian Tsarist monarchy, the workers of Russia should not hand power back to the bloodthirsty capitalists who were keen to continue their involvement in the imperialist World War, and who would continue to exploit and oppress the people of Russia. Instead, they called for “all power to the soviets”.
But Trotsky’s role was more than merely an analyst. He was an active participant in the events of 1917, at the forefront of the struggle against war, hunger and poverty in Russia and internationally. He led the Petrograd Soviet, the main organising body of the revolutionary workers in 1917 and led the Red Army in defence of the revolution against 12 imperialist foreign armies.
In defence of Marxism and revolutionary internationalism
The Bolsheviks never planned on building socialism in one country alone. For Marxists, socialism necessitates a level of production beyond modern capitalism – this means international co-operation and economic development. The Russian revolution was only ever expected to be the first step in the chain of world revolution, to be completed by the workers in industrialised nations. This was exemplified by the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky setting up the Communist International in 1919 – the world party of socialist revolution. But without a leadership like the Bolsheviks in the advanced capitalist nations, the wave of revolution that swept countries such as Hungary, Italy, Britain, France and most importantly Germany, failed to bring the workers to power anywhere else. Under the dire conditions of a backward, semi-feudal economy ravaged by war, where the workers’ main focus was survival not political life, a bureaucracy began to develop, unchecked and unaccountable, with control over rationing and policing. This bureaucracy began to crystallise as a parasitic and conservative clique, skimming privileges off the state-owned economy. Through their political representatives, chiefly Joseph Stalin, the bureaucracy consolidated ever more power in its hands, rolling back the progressive gains won in 1917 until the nationalised economy was the only element remaining.
Trotsky was one of the first to analyse and organise against this process of degeneration, alongside Lenin himself who in the final months of his life penned urgent warnings against the emerging bureaucracy. After Lenin’s death, the task of defending and revitalising the achievements of the October Revolution fell to Trotsky. Alongside other leading Bolsheviks, he founded the Left Opposition to defend the genuine Bolshevik ideas of workers’ democracy, and of genuine internationalism against the Stalinist position of ‘socialism in one country’. The Left Opposition faced heavy repression from its outset, and Trotsky himself was expelled from the party, and finally exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929
Trotsky in exile
Even in exile, Trotsky and other Left Opposition supporters worked tirelessly to build the forces of international socialism. The Stalinist-controlled Comintern – the international revolutionary organisation founded by the Bolsheviks – had become a tool for the foreign policy and the stability of the Soviet bureaucracy. This led it to play an outright counter-revolutionary role, such as in the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s.
Just as the Bolsheviks themselves had done after the pro-war betrayal of the Second International, Trotsky helped found the Fourth International in 1938. Their founding document – The Transitional Programme – remains an influential document for Marxist parties internationally, outlining the task of linking immediate struggles for jobs, wages, democratic and social demands, and public services with the wider need for socialist change.
Understanding the threat Trotsky and the growing forces of the Fourth International posed to the bureaucracy’s position and influence, Stalin and the Comintern undertook a frantic campaign to destroy the growing opposition to their dictatorship. The infamous show trials and purges of the 1930s saw the imprisonment, torture and killing of thousands of former leading Bolsheviks as well as young supporters of the Left Opposition, drawing, in the words of Trotsky, “not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood” between genuine Bolshevism and Stalinism.
For the Stalinists, Trotsky was too dangerous even as an exile in Mexico. In 1940, after several failed attempts, a Stalinist agent successfully assassinated Trotsky in his home. With many leading members of the Fourth International murdered or imprisoned by Stalinist and fascist forces and confronting a deeply confusing world political situation, the fledgling Fourth International fractured in the years following WWII. But even after his death, Trotsky’s theories proved their value to Marxists grappling with the issues of post-war reformism, revolutions in the neo-colonial world, and the eventual collapse of Stalinism.
Ideas for the 2020s
In the 21st century, the ideas of Marxism and Trotskyism can serve as an incredibly relevant guide to action for socialists around the world. In the struggle for democratic rights in Thailand and Belarus the ideas of Permanent Revolution can take on a renewed importance. For the millions of young people taking to the streets worldwide to fight issues such as racism and climate change, there are invaluable lessons to be taken from previous revolutionary internationals and Trotsky’s analysis of fascism. And importantly, the example and methods employed in the Transitional Programme can help us fight for the systemic change these movements have correctly identified.
Socialist Alternative and International Socialist Alternative base ourselves on the best traditions of Trotsky and other Marxist thinkers, especially Marx, Engels and Lenin. This is why we are not just a discussion group, we are active in leading struggles all over the globe, from the fight to Tax Amazon in the US, the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland, to the mass democratic movement in Hong Kong. As capitalism heads into a new period of deep economic crisis, international polarisation and climate catastrophe, the need for a revolutionary organisation that can fight for socialist change has never been clearer.