Who was Leon Trotsky?

The Russian revolutionary leader has been in the news recently as British Labour Party Blairites have been denouncing Corbyn supporters as ‘Trotskyite entrists’. Against this background James Granell reviews Trotsky’s autobiography ‘My Life’.

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Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky’s My Life is a remarkable work. First published in 1930 while Trotsky was living in exile in Constantinople; the book demonstrates how his life was inseparably bound up with some of the most important events of the early twentieth century. Crucially, Trotsky was the only Bolshevik leader to write his memoirs and thus provides the reader with a fascinating perspective of one of the greatest events of world history.

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November 1879, in what is now Ukraine. His family were well-to-do farmers of Jewish origin. Educated in Odessa, he first became involved in revolutionary activities after moving to Nikolayev in 1896. He authored the theory of permanent revolution and anticipated the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was elected to the Petrograd Soviet in 1905 and organised the October 1917 insurrection that brought the Bolsheviks to power. During the Civil War, 1918-1921, he led the Red Army in defence of the revolution against both internal and external counterrevolutionary forces.

The memoir begins with an account of his childhood, upbringing and education. In the final chapters of the work Trotsky deals with his attempts to defend the internationalist programme of Marxism from the Stalinist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. He situated the emergence of Stalinism within the context of Russia’s economic isolation and backwardness, and in the series of setbacks which had been suffered by the international working class.

Interestingly, Trotsky also argued that when revolutionaries lose power it, ‘signifies either a decline in the influence of certain ideas and moods in the governing revolutionary circles, or the decline of the revolutionary mood in the masses themselves. Or it may be both at the same time.’ This is the process by which Trotsky explained his fall. He located its genesis in a rejection of revolutionary principles within the party. He argued that, ‘The revolt against the exacting theoretical demands of Marxism and the exacting political demands of the revolution gradually assumed … the form of a struggle against “Trotskyism”.’

Along with his first-hand accounts of the early Communist government, the former People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs delivered a chilling and prophetic warning of the horrors of the Stalinist regime. This same regime had Trotsky murdered in Mexico in 1940, thus ending the life of this great advocate of permanent world revolution.

My Life is much more than the simple apologia of an exiled revolutionary. By situating the various events of his life within the context of the revolutionary process, Trotsky’s memoir serves as an inspiration to those of us who still struggle for international revolution. Trotsky was a human, a man shaped by the historical process – a process he describes as ‘a refraction of the historical law through the accidental’. His potential to achieve remarkable victories in the face of adversity and his dedication to a set of ideals aimed at alleviating the burdens of the mass of the people are as alive in the heart in every revolutionary reader of this text as they were in the author’s. In Trotsky’s own words: ‘To understand the casual sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place – that is the first duty of the revolutionary.’

It is likely that Trotsky would be delighted that his name is still used as a label for ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ and a ‘disturber of the political peace’.

The full text of Trotsky’s My Life is available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/     

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