On August 21, 1940, an assassin killed Leon Trotsky while he was living in exile. This cowardly murder was the culmination of more than a decade of persecution and slander by Joseph Stalin that saw Trotsky driven from the Soviet Union and forced to travel the planet without a visa. Whereas many other opponents of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union capitulated and rallied to Stalin, Trotsky never laid down his arms and remained unconquered. Trotsky had to die since he fought for and symbolized revolutionary internationalism and the renewal of the hopes of 1917. For revolutionary militants today, Leon Trotsky not only serves as an example, but his Marxism is a necessary tool in the struggle for communism.
The Pen and the Sword
Trotsky was a true Renaissance figure who excelled in nearly every pursuit to which he devoted himself. He was a journalist with impeccable style, one of the twentieth century’s great orators, a literary critic, a political analyst, a theorist, and a historian whose work ranks among that of Thucydides and Edward Gibbon. However, Trotsky was not simply an intellectual, but a man of action. After joining the underground Marxist movement in Tsarist Russia as a young man, he fought heart and soul for the proletarian revolution during his entire life. He was the leader of the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905, one of the main organizers of the Bolshevik insurrection of 1917, the founder of the Red Army that defended Soviet power against the counterrevolution, the chief antagonist against Stalin and the bureaucratic caste that he represented, a Cassandra-like figure on the dangers of Nazism, and the founder of the Fourth International. He led a heroic life that represented the fusion of uncompromising dedication — in ideas and action — to the struggle for a world free of exploitation and oppression.
One of Trotsky’s chief contributions to Marxism is the theory of permanent revolution. He developed the theory based on the experience of the 1905 Russian Revolution. The chief wings of the Russian socialist movement believed that Russia was too underdeveloped for socialism, but ripe for a bourgeois one. The Mensheviks believed that the bourgeoisie would lead this revolution and that the working class should limit themselves to a supporting role by not putting forward any radical demands for fear of frightening them. While the Bolsheviks agreed with the Mensheviks that Russia was facing its 1789, they believed that the bourgeoisie was too frightened of upheaval from below to lead the struggle against Tsarism. Therefore, the workers would have to play a leading role.
Trotsky developed a different theory. He agreed with Vladimir I. Lenin that Russia was backward and that the workers were central to the forthcoming struggle. However, he argued that Russia was not following the same classical path of development as Britain and France. Rather, the uneven development of the world economy meant that Russia imported the latest technology from Western Europe. This created a highly concentrated, combative, and powerful working class with the potential to lead the revolution in alliance with the peasantry.
While it would fall to the working class to fight for the bourgeoisie revolution, Trotsky argued that the workers would not stop halfway, but would fight for socialism. In other words, there would be no lag between the bourgeois and socialist stages of the revolution, but the process would be uninterrupted and “permanent.” However, Trotsky recognized that Russian backwardness meant that the revolution stood little chance of survival unless it spread abroad to more advanced capitalist countries. This was a break with stagist Marxism, which dominated the major socialist parties of the Second International and later the Stalinist Communist parties of the Third International. According to stagist Marxists, underdeveloped countries needed to undergo a prolonged period of capitalist development before they would be ripe for socialism. This conception effectively consigned workers to supporting the bourgeoisie and effectively took socialism off the historical agenda. In contrast, Trotsky argued that it was possible for a socialist revolution to occur in underdeveloped countries first. The theory of permanent revolution was confirmed during the actual course of the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the workers took power away from the feeble bourgeoisie.
Originally, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was written to explain the peculiarities of the Russian Revolution. After the failure of the Chinese Revolution of 1925—1927, he generalized it to explain the possibilities for socialist revolution in the colonial world. Trotsky argued that in colonial countries, the bourgeoisie was weak and too bound to imperialism to lead the struggle for national liberation, agrarian reform, and democracy. Rather, that task fell to the proletariat, which would not simply achieve the goals of national liberation but also social revolution, something confirmed by the struggles in China (1949), Cuba (1959), and Vietnam (1975). In understanding the Stalinist folly of viewing the national bourgeoisie as a revolutionary force, and in defending the need for the proletariat to take up the tasks of national liberation and socialism, Trotsky’s analyses have had few equals.
The Anti-Fascist United Front
In the misery of Depression-era Germany, both the Communist Party and Nazi Party were gaining ground. Analyzing the situation, Trotsky believed that there was a real possibility of Adolph Hitler taking power, but he did not believe this outcome was preordained. The German Communist Party (KPD) was one of the largest revolutionary parties in the world, with millions of supporters. If the KPD formed a united front with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), then the possibility existed to forestall the Nazi rise to power.
However, the KPD and the Communist International’s “third period” condemned social democrats as “social fascists.” Instead of directing its main blows against the Nazis, the KPD went after the SPD and this for all practical purposes, foreclosed any united front action. As the Nazi vote climbed upward, Trotsky kept raising the call for a united front between the SPD and KPD.
Trotsky’s anti-fascist strategy was also an analysis of bourgeois democracy. He knew that the liberal bourgeoisie was more inclined to support brownshirts against workers than defend democracy. Trotsky did not have much hope in the antifascist potential of the SPD, which not only strangled the 1919 German Revolution, but also advocated support for liberals and faith in parliament in place of mass struggle from below. Instead, Trotsky advocated that a united front between the two worker organizations would rely upon extra-parliamentary means that would defeat the fascists. Beyond the role of defending democratic freedoms, the united front would allow communists to expose social democratic reformism as inadequate and win those workers to revolutionary politics. The united front would not only enable the communists to defeat fascism but serve as a springboard for a future revolutionary offensive.
It was all to no avail, and Hitler took power in 1933. The largest workers’ movement in Europe was crushed without mass resistance. Following this disaster, Stalin and the Communist International embraced the strategy of the Popular Front. In place of revolutionary sectarianism, Communist parties now advocated opportunist alliances with the liberal capitalists and curtailing workers’ struggles in the name of anti-fascism. The Popular Front had tragic results during the Spanish Civil War, when communists betrayed the revolutionary struggle of the working class. Against the dead ends of both ultra-leftism and relying on the bourgeoisie, Trotsky’s strategy linked anti-fascism and a united front with the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
Degeneration, Defense, and Renewal
According to the theory of permanent revolution, socialism cannot exist in a single country like Russia, but the revolution must spread internationally to survive. This was tragically confirmed by the degeneration of the Russian Revolution in the face of blockade, civil war, and the failure of the German Revolution — which the Bolsheviks were counting on to provide material support. While the Soviet Republic prevailed against its enemies, it did so in conditions of isolation and extreme poverty.
During the 1920s, a new bureaucratic caste developed, personified in the figure of Joseph Stalin, which usurped political power from the working class. The failure of the German Revolution pushed forward the idea of “socialism in one country” that Russia could not expect aid from abroad but could only develop by its own efforts. To Trotsky and the Left Opposition, “socialism in one country” was a nationalist vision and a rejection of the original Bolshevik program of international revolution. During the 1920s, the Left Opposition fought for increased soviet and party democracy, industrialization, and internationalism. Despite its defeat, the Left Opposition’s revolutionary vision continued to haunt the Soviet bureaucracy. That Trotsky was named as the figurehead of the conspiracies “unmasked” during the Great Purges of the 1930s was no accident. The kernel of truth was that Stalin knew Trotsky’s vision symbolized revolt against the bureaucracy’s power and privileges.
Even though the working class had been deprived of political power, Trotsky recognized that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state. The USSR’s economy was nationalized and planned, not run according to the logic of capital. Even though the bureaucracy operated as a parasitic element, it did not own the means of production. Ultimately, Trotsky argued that the bureaucracy would dispense with the socialist façade and restore capitalism. This could be stopped only by a political revolution of the Soviet working class, which would overthrow the bureaucracy and restore soviet democracy. Sadly, the Soviet Union’s restoration of capitalism in the 1990s confirmed Trotsky’s theory, whose analysis had allowed him to understand and criticize the USSR’s degeneration.
Trotsky recognized the progressive achievements of the Russian Revolution and that, however degenerated it had become, imperialism remained socialism’s main enemy. In any direct confrontation between the USSR and imperialism, Trotsky was unflinching in calling for the unconditional defense of the former. It was the task of the Soviet workers to deal with the bureaucracy, not imperialism. Trotsky’s analysis allowed him to understand the USSR’s degeneration. He also recognized that the revolution’s achievements were conquests of the working class that must be defended.
Trotsky’s perspective allows Marxists to avoid the simple binary of either condemning revolutions as “dictatorial” and nothing else, or uncritical adulation that leads to overlooking betrayals and problems. The former perspective can lead to de facto support for Western imperialism as a “lesser evil” against “totalitarianism,” whereas the latter lends itself to whitewashing bureaucratic regimes and identifying them as socialist. With Trotsky’s position, we can defend the USSR and other workers’ states against capitalist restoration and imperialist attack while remaining unsparing in criticizing their bureaucratic leadership and fighting for political revolution. It can be a fine line, but this is a principled standpoint sadly lacking on much of the Marxist left.
Carrying the Red Flag Forward
Leon Trotsky was one of the twentieth century’s great figures. He fought for the socialist revolution with both the pen and the sword. His struggle against Stalinism was not a personal feud; it was a defense of Bolshevik internationalism against bureaucratic degeneration. Every revolutionary owes Trotsky a debt of gratitude for undertaking this struggle.
Trotsky understood that capitalism offers no way out for humanity. The struggle for communism requires rejecting reformist shortcuts, bureaucratic betrayals, and looking to “benevolent” sectors of the bourgeoisie. The only force that can free the world from oppression, ignorance, and slavery is the working class. For militants today, it is necessary to defend and advance this communist perspective. By doing so, we show true fidelity to the life and legacy of Leon Trotsky.
The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher