The Problem with Trotsky

Trotsky in 1918 - Every Inch an Avid Bolshevik
Trotsky in 1918 – Every Inch an Avid Bolshevik

‘Nobody wrote as many caustic, malicious, offensive, vile, and degrading remarks about Stalin as Trotsky.’

General Dmitri Volkogonov – Biographer of Trotsky

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) played a prominent role in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) since its formation in 1896, and for much of the early 1900’s, he remained a fervent opponent of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik (i.e. ‘Majority’) faction – choosing to support instead the Menshevik (i.e. ‘Minority’) faction founded by Julius Martov. Ironically, at the time of this RSDLP split – in 1903 – the Bolsheviks had fewer adherents than the Mensheviks, but they (and Lenin) would eventually go on to dominate not only Russian, but also world political affairs. Understanding the ideological differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks is important if Trotsky’s political views are to be understood. The Mensheviks advocated alliances with liberal-left bourgeois political movements – whilst Lenin advocated an independent party (strongly led from the centre) with no alliances or compromises with other bourgeois political entities. Both Lenin and Martov philosophically justified their respective ideological positions by claiming authoritative (and orthodox) interpretations from the work of Marx and Engels. Indeed, both factions shared a common goal – namely the transition from capitalism to socialism and then communism – but differed in agreement about how this might be carried-out and achieved. Lenin preferred an approach of total independence for a vanguard party that led the people through strict discipline and direct action, whilst Martov advocated a non-centralised approach to the party, with a broad membership that involved alliances with the liberal-left. The Mensheviks advocated compromise and a leisurely approach to revolution, whereas Lenin demanded a far more concentrated, dynamic and direct approach to the attainment of political power.

This dichotomy is important in the understanding of Trotsky and the influence that his thought has had on the West. He was not a supporter of Lenin nor his Bolshevik thinking, and indeed actively campaigned against it. Trotsky was a Menshevik and as events transpired, something of an opportunist. He only officially joined Lenin’s Bolshevik faction in 1917, when it was obvious that the Bolshevik faction was in the best position to take and consolidate power in Russia following the collapse of the monarchy during the February Revolution. Whereas the Menshevik tendency was always toward the principle of compromise with the political bourgeoisie (with some members actually supporting the imperialist war with Germany!), Lenin – who had always denounced Russia’s participation in WWI – called for an immediate revolution with all power going to the soviets, or committees of industrialised workers. For Lenin, this move was indicative of a vanguard communist party leading the workers, successfully seizing power, and immediately transferring it to the workers. On this point of political realism, the Mensheviks dithered and this lack of directed political activity further discredited their ideological position. Trotsky, motivated no doubt by the apparent and sweeping success of the Bolshevik thinking in times of tumultuous change for Russia – simply changed sides and left the Menshevik cause which he had supported for years as a means of opposing Lenin. It is interesting to note that Lenin (and later Stalin) continuously criticised Trotsky for lacking political vision, although admitting that he knew how to organise.

Despite being a relative late comer to the Bolshevik cause Trotsky was nevertheless propelled into the upper echelons of Communist Party power – holding a number of influential posts – one of which was Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs in 1918. Trotsky was given the remit to reform the original Red Army which was compromised of revolutionary volunteers and elected officers. He did this by immediately dismantling this communistic arrangement, and instigating the re-organisation around the old style czarist model – with professional generals leading conscripts who were subjected to draconian discipline. To many, this seemed something of a counter-revolution and the turning back of the revolutionary clock. Here was a man who had participated in revolutionary politics for decades, and yet when it came to applying that revolutionary zeal, his apparent Menshevik preferences for co-operation with bourgeois institutions came to the fore. Trotsky faced ardent criticism for the manner in which he set about reforming the Red Army and his re-instigation of bourgeois militarism – an aspect of the USSR that the capitalist West would use in its anti-communist propaganda offensives after WWII. Furthermore, in early 1921, soldiers, sailors, and workers staged an uprising in Kronstadt, the home of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. This was essentially a protest about the austerity measures involved in the Soviet Union during the Civil War, initiated through the policy of War Communism. All food and resources had been centralised in an attempt to keep the USSR fed and clothed during the conflict, but as the Western forces assisting the Russian bourgeoisie had been defeated – workers and military personnel began to agitate for the relaxing of these harsh austerity measures. However, there is some evidence that foreign powers may have been at work in Kronstadt, trying to undermine the Communist Revolution by sowing seeds of discontent amongst the Soviet people. Whatever the case, Trotsky unleashed tens of thousands of Red Army troops upon the base, and killed or wounded thousands of rebels. In this action, the Red Army also suffered thousands of casualties. It is clear that Trotsky – and Trotsky alone – gave the order for the Red Army to attack the rebels in Kronstadt in the manner that it did.

During this time, (around 1920/21), Trotsky openly disagreed with Lenin over the position of Trade Unions within the Soviet System. Lenin preferred a more open arrangement where all citizens willingly partook in meaningful labour through constructive interaction and co-operation. Trotsky’s ideas were very different. Trotsky viewed each individual worker as a ‘soldier’ who should have no choice in the following of orders. The military-style discipline the worker should be subjected to, has to be enforced and directed by the Trade Union – which is expected to act like a military authority. Any worker who disobeys or refuses to follow an order is to be considered guilty of insubordination and considered a deserter. Lenin stated that true worker co-operation is a matter of building class consciousness through a process of full labour inclusion, and that this type of development cannot be enforced ‘from above’ as Trotsky appeared to be doing. This criticism of Trotsky reveals that Lenin in no way viewed him as a suitable candidate to lead the USSR, despite the position of influence that he had attained. Again, Trotsky’s top-down attitude and approach to organisation has been yet another feature that Western capitalist countries have used in the past in their propaganda against the USSR – when in fact Lenin was thoroughly opposed to such behaviour in both principle and practice.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky made a grab for power that saw him lose to Stalin. Trotsky supporters in the West have contended that Trotsky was Lenin’s ‘true’ successor, when in fact even a broad assessment of Lenin’s opinions point to the exact opposite position. According to Lenin, Trotsky was not ideologically fit to lead the Soviet Union because he lacked the correct attitude and relevant political insight. This is because at heart, Trotsky always remained a Menshevik and only followed the Bolshevik cause for reasons of personal advancement. When it came to tackling Joseph Stalin, Trotsky’s limitations were readily exposed. All along, Stalin had agreed with Lenin about the dangerous limitations of Leon Trotsky, and when the time came, Stalin and his supporters in the Bolshevik Movement ensured that Trotsky did not attain to supreme power. In many ways, this can be viewed as the defeat of political deception at the highest levels of the Bolshevik Movement, although in the West, Trotsky cultivated the myth that he was the ‘true’ face of the October Revolution, and that Stalin was a usurper. Trotsky’s continued opposition to Stalin and the Bolshevik regime eventually led to his expulsion firstly from the Central Committee, and then from the Communist Party in the late 1927. He was finally deported from the Soviet Union to Turkey in early 1929. This exposed Trotsky to possible threats from former white Russians, and Westerners opposed to the Soviet regime.

Between 1929 and 1940 – a mere 11 yeas – Trotsky set-about a propaganda offensive in the West (designed to attract supporters and adherents) that essentially was a justification for why he thought he should have run the USSR and not Stalin. Trotsky the unrepentant Menshevik with draconian ideas and tyrannical policies – managed to convince gullible Westerners that something had gone wrong in the USSR – and that he ‘Trotsky’ was the only possible answer to this error. In this regard, Trotsky’s denigration of the USSR played firmly into the hands of the Western bourgeoisie, which although in no way agreeing with either socialism or communism, were happy to accept Trotsky as long as he was powerless and seen to be criticising the then only communist regime in the world. In an attempt to soften the blow for Westerners, Trotsky started to refer to his belief system as ‘Socialism’ rather than ‘Communism’, and a number of socialist movements in the West claim a lineage to Trotsky-thought. This is true of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party, amongst others, and many Trade Unions- including the newly formed Trade Union Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which seeks to replace a historically broadly leftist Labour Party, with a narrow Trotskyite Movement disguised as a popular front. In reality, movements like TUSC exhibit the ‘entryism’ and deception associated with Trotsky, whereby the ‘true’ political aims of participants are ‘hidden’ behind false agendas. Just as Trotsky tried to usurp power from Stalin using deception and subterfuge – TUSC and its socialist supporters are attempting to replace a Labour Party that has lurched to the right, with a Trotskyite alternative that although professing leftist policies, actually adheres to the obvious tyrannical aspects of Trotsky’s character and preferred rightest methods.

In the mid-1930’s – the USSR moved to end all of Trotsky’s influence from within its government organisations. These trials sentenced many supporters of Trotsky to death – with Trotsky also being sentenced in abstentia. These actions appear to have been triggered by Trotsky deliberately splitting the Communist Movement by giving his backing to a Fourth International in 1933, and thus undermining Lenin’s Third International (founded in 1919 and dissolved by Stalin in 1943). This formed part of Trotsky’s parallel communist universe where he viewed himself as the evolved intellect controlling everything from the centre. Instead of advocating solidarity with the socialist and communist cause around the world at the rise of Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany in 1933, Trotsky sought to divide and weaken it further. This is typical of Trotskyite tendencies today that seek to use deception and sleight of hand to gain influence and political power. It is odd that so-called socialists still persist in this method when it obviously did not work for Trotsky or any of his early followers. This situation unleashed a robust political backlash in the USSR that severely punished Trotsky’s former allies – and which is believed by some to have led directly to Trotsky’s death in 1940. Trotsky died before the USSR was invaded by Nazi German forces, and did not live to see the eventual victory of Stalin over Hitler – a victory that cost the Soviet Union around 27 million dead. All this was achieved regardless of the fact that followers of Trotsky continued to oppose the Soviet Union even during its Great Patriotic War (1941-45) against Nazi fascism.

Trotsky helped to build the Soviet Union, and although not a central architect by any means, he was pivotal in the development of its perceived ‘militarism’, as well as its apparent top-down approach to planning and leadership, through his actions at Kronstadt, and his known undemocratic ideas regarding the unions, it is clear that he both differed from Lenin whilst attempting to mould the Soviet regime in his own image. It is remarkable that the socialist tradition Trotsky is linked with in the West espouses the exact opposite, and links Trotsky with ‘freedom’ and ‘true democracy’. This has come about through the Menshevik habit of trying to be all things to all people. Although it can be argued that the differences may have been slight between Lenin and Martov at the beginning of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, nevertheless these differences proved to be crucial and decisive. Lenin was a revolutionary Marxist who saw directly what had to be done and when to do it. Trotsky was a leftist opportunist who sought to gain power and influence whenever he could, not because he possessed an earth-shattering theory or interpretation of Marx, but in fact because he did not. Trotsky made a name for himself by doing just what he wanted – or by opposing the official line of the USSR. When residing in the West, he clearly pandered to Bourgeois sentiment and criticism of the Soviet Union, whilst claiming to formulate a ‘different’ approach to communism. Not only is Trotsky’s ideas seen as unique – but Trotsky himself is afforded an almost religious status of infallibility. These kind of socialists in the West, whilst aligning themselves with the anti-Soviet criticism of the Western bourgeoisie, nevertheless purport to be representing a ‘different’ strand of socialist thought to that of Lenin. In reality, however, Trotsky – despite being a follower of Marx and Engels – is very much a child of Lenin and Stalin. Lenin made Trotsky and Stalin (through his criticism), moulded him, but Trotsky always pursued the over-riding imperative of attempting to attain personal power at all costs. When this failed – he turned to criticising the very Soviet Union he had helped build, and had tried to lead. This is surely a clear demonstration that Trotsky’s intentions were motivated primarily by a search for personal power and not the freedom of the people.   This has tainted the historical reputation of the Third Communist International in the West, and has misled millions of otherwise left-leaning individuals into the arms of Trotsky’s deception. The American Marxist Howard Zinn (1922-2010) for instance, did much good work in promoting the thinking of Marx and Engels to new generations of young Americans – but as a member of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP), he did this by denigrating not only the memory of the Soviet Union, but also that of any regime that grew out of support from the USSR – such as the communist regimes of China, Vietnam and Cuba, etc., and this re-writing of history remains the de facto apriori position of the Trotskyite left in the world today. From a Marxist perspective, this type of deceit packaged as superior knowledge cannot even rescue itself from bourgeois exploitation – so how can it be used to rescue the oppressed masses? It cannot in any way, shape or form. Indeed, the climate of disunity that Trotsky created for international communism led directly to the 1956 Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin – and the subsequent Sino-Soviet Split.

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