This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The past is no longer a foreign country, it’s an alien planet. From public statues to university curriculums, looking back into history has never been such a tricky process. Historical figures are only worth remembering fondly if they align with modern sensibilities.
And so it’s unsurprising that 80 years after his assassination at the hands of a pick-axe-wielding Stalinist mole, Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein) has somewhat fallen out of favour. While his revolutionary career and unwavering polemics against the Stalinist regime won him support among lefties from Birmingham to Bolivia during the twentieth century, the slow (and painful) death of the left has all but killed off Trotskyism.
For many of today’s wannabe revolutionaries, ideas such as the dictatorship of the proletariat or even the transformative power of the working class are not as attractive as jam-making socialists and knighted lawyers in the Labour Party or farting about in fancy dress for “the climate”.
The few people who still talk about Trotsky are those who want to turn him into a twenty-first-century bogeyman. Philistines seeking to enflame their fanbase on social media write articles comparing him to the Nazi Ernst Rohm, drawing the kind of parallels between communism and fascism that would make a schoolboy laugh.
Communism has been so warped by historical inaccuracy it’s easy for people to project their own prejudices onto it
Not that Trotsky would have been at all fazed by this calumny. “Let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality,” he wrote in 1938, marking the difference between violence for oppressive means and violence in the pursuit of liberation. But even so, if all hope of revolutionary communism has been dead in the water for decades, and all that’s left is crass characterisations, why should we remember a man like Trotsky?
Born in Ukraine in 1879 to a Jewish family, arrested at 17 and exiled by the turn of the century, Trotsky is best known as founder and leader of the Red Army, defender of the original and true aims of that radical moment in Russian history and an uncompromising believer in the progressive potential of an international revolution. He was an inspiring orator and organiser, ricocheting around Russia on his famous armoured train during the 1917 revolution to motivate and lead Soviets and soldiers across the country.
He had guts and knew when the timing was right. Lenin and Trotsky were the only members of the party to defend the need for insurrection during the Petrograd Soviet of 1917. Unlike others, they knew the will of the workers. In John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, a “rough workman” comes to their defence: “I speak for the Petrograd proletariat … we are in favour of insurrection … I tell you now that if you allow the soviets to be destroyed, we’re through with you!” Trotsky often had the satisfaction of being proven right. In a later passage Reed describes him as “positively Mephistophelian” while taking down a Menshevik for advocating that the land be given back to the peasants, or what Trotsky calls “what we did six months ago”.
But perhaps the most important thing to know about Trotsky is that his real strength lay in his desire to inspire the masses to take control for themselves. In chapter 24 of My Life, he pays tribute to Nikolay Markin — a shy sailor “with the sullenness of a force driven in deep” who became an important figure in the revolution and a close friend to Trotsky’s own family.
Trotsky describes how Markin quietly took charge of small things at first — such as the hostility Trotsky’s family was facing in the “big bourgeois” house they were lodging in — and then larger tasks, including establishing a printers to publish The Worker and the Soldier. Inspired by the revolutionary politics of the Bolshevik Party, and the rousing speeches given by Trotsky, workers like Markin realised they had the ability and the ambition to seize control of the means of production.
Trotsky describes how Markin became, for a time, “an unofficial minister of foreign affairs”, writing pamphlets that Baron von Kühlmann and Count Czernin “read eagerly” at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky writes that it didn’t matter that he “had no academic degree, and his writing was not free from grammatical errors” or that “his comments were sometimes quite unexpected” because Markin “drove the diplomatic nails in firmly, and at the very points where they were most needed”.
Trotsky and his Bolshevik comrades were not seeking to stand in the place of the masses, but instead inspired them to seize the reins of power for themselves. In Trotsky’s words, “through him, or rather through a collective Markin, the October revolution was victorious”.
It’s hard to imagine a world where such radical change seemed possible — 103 years is a long time in politics. Thanks to the prevalence of post-modern relativist thought, any form of ideology is today met not only with scepticism but an air of incredulity. Communism has been so warped by historical inaccuracy and failed attempts to put it into practice that it’s easy for people to project their own prejudices onto it.
The few people who still talk about Trotsky are those who want to turn him into a twenty-first-century bogeyman
And while Trotsky’s writing and aspirations were specific to the historical moment he was acting in, some things haven’t changed so much. Capitalism might have evolved and transformed itself beyond anything Bolsheviks might recognise, but its inherent weaknesses and limits remain the same. What has changed is our unwillingness to mount a challenge to it.
In a 1921 critical assessment of the Paris Commune, Trotsky remarks that “neither overseers, nor police, neither jail-keepers nor executioners could hold the masses in subjection were it not for this habit which does faithful service to capitalism” and that it was only war or revolution which “tears the people from their habitual condition, awakens with its thunder the most backward and dark elements, and compels them to take stock of themselves, and to look around”.
But if Trotsky’s strengths lay in his capacity to organise and defend the revolution, his failings in part contributed to its downfall. Unlike Lenin, who was so adept at managing internal party manoeuvring, Trotsky was incapable of working out what to do with the power struggle following Lenin’s death. His refusal to take the deputy leadership of the party after 1924, and his blindness to the threat that Stalin posed, were disastrous for the Bolsheviks.
But ultimately it was the failure of the revolution to spread internationally that led to the collapse of the first working-class revolution in history. Where Stalin destroyed the gains of the revolution, enforcing socialism in one country, Trotsky was a firm believer in the need for workers of the world — not just Russia — to unite.
Why is Trotsky still relevant today? Because we could use the dynamism, imagination and sheer ambition of a Trotsky in our current risk-averse, stagnant political climate. The Thatcherite slogan of TINA — there is no alternative — has imbued all aspects of political engagement.
Thanks to the successive crushing of any challenge to the status quo in Britain — from the miners’ strike to the struggle for a united Ireland — left-wing movements have slowly decayed into such a bland soup it would even insult Mensheviks to compare the two. So arrogant are today’s bourgeois elites that they dare to use the word “change” when offering a reheated version of the same low expectations year after year.
There is no point in returning to figures like Trotsky for a rehash of what could have been. But his unshakeable belief in a working-class revolution inspired millions. Unlike other historical figures who live to regret their intervention in history, Trotsky remained resolute in his belief in working-class independence to the end. That’s what made him such a threat.
In his final words, predicting his end was near, he wrote: “I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist . . . Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”
Even in death, the ideas Trotsky and the Bolsheviks stood for continue to rattle those who seek to preserve the status quo. In 1917, he struck fear into the hearts of Russia’s ruling class by telling the workers to “tumble all the parasites from their thrones!” If the response to Brexit has shown us anything, it’s that the fear of the working man’s and woman’s ability to intervene in, and change, society continues to haunt today’s ruling elite. He reminds us that there is always an alternative, always a future and always the potential
to change it.
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