Like most human beings, Leon Davidovich Bronstein was born and he died. He was born in 1879 in Ukraine, became active in left politics in Russia as a student and was imprisoned in 1905 for participating in protests and a failed uprising against the brutal Tsarist regime. It was a regime that was still feudal, barely developing capitalist economic relations that many Marxists at the time saw as being the necessary prerequisite for a transition to socialism. Leon, our hero, escaped from internal exile, taking the name of his jailor in Odessa to avoid capture, and that name is the one we know today as Trotsky.
One of the lessons of 1905 for Trotsky was that in place of a static ‘stage’ view of historical change, the globalisation of the world economy that had already been picking up pace at the time Marx was writing, led to the possibility that protest could grow over from anti-feudal to anti-capitalist revolutionary politics. A ‘permanent revolution’ would therefore be one that was intrinsically internationalist, linking different kinds of struggles against exploitation and oppression. Actually, in practice, Trotsky himself as an individual was a little behind his own analysis. There was a gap. He had to shift rapidly during the 1917 October Revolution across Russia to join the Bolsheviks, something his enemies held against him afterwards. He then became one of the leaders of the Soviet Union, and of the Red Army which was combating invasion by fourteen capitalist countries keen to prevent this revolution from growing over into a genuinely ‘permanent’ and international one.
This is where another gap opens up between Trotsky as leader, now an inspiring strong personality able to lead the regime and its troops, and the revolutionary process itself. His role in the suppression of the rebellion by sailors in the fortress at Kronstadt near St Petersburg, then renamed Petrograd, made him complicit in the formation of the very bureaucracy he analysed so well. But personal failings do not invalidate the diagnosis he gave and his brave attempt to reassert what was most progressive and democratic about the revolution against Stalin’s ban on rival parties, internal factions and then on any dissent. Trotsky’s book ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ was the fruit of his own direct participation and reflection on the mistakes that had been made, and recognition that this crushing and distortion of the revolution was a function of its isolation. There could be no ‘socialism in one country’ as Stalin claimed while he massively increased his own power and that of the apparatus.
The Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s was determined to root out its internal enemies, and Trotsky was portrayed as the root of all evil, with claims that he was working with the fascists alongside a grotesque revival of Russian antisemitism used to target him and his followers. It is true, he was a revolutionary Jew who saw autonomous collective self-organisation of the oppressed as an energising force for authentic internationalism. He warned against the trap of closed nationalist politics, and against the disastrous mistake of Zionism which would itself settle Israel on the land of others. He worked as a journalist before the revolution – they are not all bad – and after that he became the conscience of the revolution, a reminder of what it should have been. That meant connecting political-economic protest with cultural rebellion, including on the position of women as an index of how progressive or reactionary a regime is. Trotsky’s activities and writings on culture span engagement with psychoanalysis – meeting with Wilhelm Reich in exile in Norway, for example – and surrealism, writing a manifesto for revolutionary art while in Mexico toward the end of his life, a manifesto that was published under the names of André Breton and Diego Rivera.
That broad contradictory open and inclusive practice of revolutionary politics is what characterises the best of Trotsky, and it provides the background for two further key innovations. We can link the two. The first was the recognition that there was a marginalisation of revolutionary groups with the rise of fascism and Stalinism and then of the Cold War, and a domination of left politics by large reformist social democratic parties or, in some places, by communist parties tied to the Soviet Union. In these new conditions, Trotsky argued for what has been called ‘entrism’; not the secretive manipulation of the larger party apparatus, but direct membership and participation in the mass movement organisations. This is one way of drawing those who thought voting would change the world into action themselves, to themselves become those who would change things.
The second innovation was voiced in the founding document of a new international organisation in 1938 the Fourth International, a document known as the ‘transitional programme’. For Trotsky, ‘transitional demands’ like a sliding scale of wages or for opening the books of the corporations were eminently reasonable and democratic calls that capitalism could not and would not agree to. It was ‘transitional’ because it brought those in struggle up against the limits of the regime, and it then became transitional in practice, growing over from a series of demands into a linked political challenge to capitalism itself. Again, what was crucial for Trotsky was that it would be through the collective self-activity of people themselves rather than through diktats by their leaders that any revolutionary change worth the name would happen. In this, Trotsky is close to the revolutionary democratic politics of Rosa Luxemburg who was killed in 1919 in Berlin on the orders of the social democrats after an uprising that would have broken the isolation of Russian revolution.
All this is anathema to big dictators and those who want to be like them. Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin in Mexico, the only country that would give him a visa, in 1940. His son had already been murdered in Paris. The agent plunged an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head. Those who use the term ‘Trotskyite’ as a term of abuse sometimes joke about ice-picks, and they focus on the personality of Trotsky himself, avoiding the theory and practice he helped to build. Those of us who call ourselves ‘Trotskyists’ admire his life struggle and try to learn from that, drawing a balance sheet which puts that life in context, and aiming to build a different context in which such a hardening of character and brutality of politics will no longer exist. He didn’t drink much, and by all accounts lunchtimes in exile before he died were not a bundle of laughs. There are no pictures of Trotsky with cats, something which makes him less immediately internet-friendly, but if you twist a Trotskyist’s arm they will sometimes admit that they did once name their cat ‘Rosa’ or ‘Leon’.