BORN: 1879, Yanovka, Ukraine
DIED: 1940, Mexico City
My Life (1930)
The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk (1932)
The Revolution Betrayed (1937)
Leon Trotsky. Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Leon Trotsky was a principal strategist of the Russian revolution and a central leader in the founding of the Soviet Union. He played an important role in the revolution that brought the communist Bolsheviks to power, and he organized the Red Army during the ensuing civil war. Trotsky was also a brilliant and influential author who contributed thousands ofessays, letters, and political tracts to the literature of Marxism, as well as important works of history, biography, and literary criticism. Trotsky was the foremost critic of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader from 1924 to 1953, whose repressive policies resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. Exiled by Stalin, Trotsky became—and remains—a figure of international controversy.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youthful Activism. Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in the Ukrainian village of Yanovka in 1879 to a relatively prosperous Jewish farming family. (The name on Bronstein’s false passport—Trotsky— would remain with him.) From the ages of nine to sixteen he lived in Odessa with his mother’s nephew, journalist and publisher Mossoi Filipovich Spentzer, who oversaw his education. The boy was strongly influenced by the intellectual atmosphere of the Spentzer home, where journalists and other writers frequently visited.
Trotsky was sent to the nearby seaport of Nikolaev for his last academic year. There he met Russian socialists for the first time and joined a radical discussion group. One member of this group, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, considered herself a Marxist, and Trotsky almost immediately opposed her ideology. He instead preferred the populist view that education of the peasants was the best way to achieve social progress.
Trotsky played a role in the formation of the Southern Russian Workers’ Union, an underground group of students and workers devoted to improving the lives of the laboring class. Trotsky also wrote and printed leaflets for the group, pointing out abuses in factories and in the government. These leaflets provoked the ire of the authorities, and he and his companions were arrested as dissidents in 1898.
Trotsky was held in prison for the next two years and then sentenced to four years of exile in Siberia. While awaiting deportation, he first heard of Vladimir Lenin and his writings about Russian capitalism. Trotsky married Alexandra Sokolovskaya before leaving. During his exile, he studied works by such political theorists as Lenin and Karl Marx, and gradually his views became inclined toward Marxism. He wrote a steady stream of political essays and pamphlets for clandestine circulation among prisoners, and he began to develop a reputation.
Insurrection of 1905. Urged by his wife, Trotsky escaped from Siberia in 1902 using a fake passport. Leaders of the Russian underground movement directed him to London, where he joined the circle of exiled revolutionists, including Lenin and Julius Martov of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Trotsky was set to work writing for their newspaper, Iskra and within months was an established party leader.
The Social Democratic Party split the following year, divided on the question of whether to limit or expand party membership. In opposition to Lenin and his Bolsheviks, Trotsky found himself in the middle of the dispute, siding with Martov of the Menshevik faction in favor of a broad-based party. Trotsky wrote that Lenin’s preference for concentration of power could eventually lead to dictatorship. History proved him correct—as Stalin’s rise to power demonstrated—but his words mainly served to estrange him from Lenin. Ironically, Trotsky soon parted ways with the Mensheviks as well. Suspended between both factions, Trotsky discovered A. L. Helfand, a German-born Marxist theoretician, who wrote under the pen name of Parvus. Under his influence, Trotsky adopted the political theory that would later be associated with him, the notion of ‘‘permanent revolution.’’
In January 1905, government soldiers in St. Petersburg fired upon a group of citizens who had gathered to petition Czar Nicholas II for civil and political rights. Trotsky returned to Russia almost immediately and produced incendiary essays and pamphlets calling for insurrection. Demonstrations continued, culminating in a general strike that brought Russian industry and transportation to a standstill. This led to the formation of Russia’s first elective body to represent the working class, the Council (or Soviet) of Workers’ Deputies. Trotsky became a leader of the St. Petersburg Soviet, but by December its leaders were under arrest and martial law declared. The revolution was put on hold. Meanwhile, Trotsky was put on trial, and again exiled to Siberia. Again, he escaped.
Central Role in Bolshevik Revolution. Trotsky spent most of the next decade in Vienna, Austria, editing the revolutionary newspaper Pravda and contributing political journalism to the European press. He refined his ideas of ‘‘permanent revolution,’’ advocating a socialist revolution that would carry beyond Russia’s borders. As Trotsky saw it, since Russia had not developed a powerful capitalist middle class, or bourgeoisie, the success of a revolution would depend on the lower class, or proletariat. Leadership of the state, Trotsky argued, should then pass immediately to the ‘‘dictatorship of the proletariat’’—that is, the vanguard, or Communist elite. Furthermore, the survival of such a revolution would depend on economic support from abroad. The history of the Soviet revolution would bear out much of this theory; as historian Irving Howe has observed, ‘‘of all the Marxists it was Trotsky who best foresaw the course of events in Russia.’’
Threatened with internment by Austria as World War I broke out, Trotsky journeyed to Switzerland, France, and the United States. As the war progressed, Russia’s domestic situation became increasingly unstable. In March 1917, the news arrived that the czar had been overthrown. By the time Trotsky arrived in Petrograd in early May, the country had fallen into political chaos. Trotsky quickly reconciled with Lenin and joined the Bolshevik Party, becoming its most eloquent orator. When Lenin, suspected of being a German spy, went into hiding, it was Trotsky who organized Bolshevik military regiments and spearheaded the bloodless takeover of the government, hereafter called the October Revolution.
In the Bolshevik government formed after the coup, Trotsky was offered the chairmanship of the ruling body, the Council of People’s Commissars. He declined the post, offering instead to become press director for the new regime. Out of hiding, Lenin assumed the chairmanship and later persuaded Trotsky to serve as commissar for foreign affairs. In this capacity, he led the Soviet delegation to the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations that ended Russia’s participation in World War I. Soon afterward, civil war broke out in Russia between supporters and opponents of the Soviet regime. Trotsky became war commissar, assuming command of an exhausted and demoralized force of less than ten thousand soldiers. In what historian E. H. Carr calls his supreme achievement, Trotsky rebuilt the Red Army to over 5 million men, restored order and discipline, and by 1921, achieved victory over the anti-Bolshevik White Army, which had been armed by Britain, France, and the United States.
Exiled by Stalin. As powerful an orator and capable a leader as Trotsky was, however, he was a blunt, arrogant man who made numerous enemies. When Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922, many believed Trotsky to be the best choice for his successor, but he had a small political base. His main opponent, Joseph Stalin, had better tactics and a stronger network of alliances. Stalin gradually gained control of the bureaucracy of the party and the Soviet state. He also reached out to Trotsky’s enemies and effectively used Trotsky’s own words, such as his previous attacks on Lenin, to discredit him. For his part, Trotsky made the error of declining to reply to many of Stalin’s attacks. His dignified silence cost him even more political support. Between 1925 and 1927 he was forced to relinquish his political responsibilities. Trotsky, along with fifteen hundred other ‘‘Trotskyists,’’ was expelled from the party in 1927 and exiled to central Asia in 1928.
Trotsky remained in exile until his death twelve years later, living at times in Turkey, France, Norway, and, finally, Mexico. He turned to literature, and wrote his most critically acclaimed books during this period, including The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk (Von Oktober bis nach Brest-Litovsk) (1932), My Life (Moya zhizn) (1930), and The Revolution Betrayed (1937). In this last work, Trotsky denounced Stalin’s creation of a bureaucratic elite that sought to stifle opposition and extend its dominance.
During his final period of exile, Trotsky labored to create a Fourth International, a federation of socialist organizations dedicated to worldwide revolution; Stalin had taken over the Third (or Communist) International and made it an instrument of his own policies. However, the Fourth International never achieved a large membership. Stalin never let up his assault on Trotsky’s reputation. In 1936, Trotsky was tried in absentia in the Soviet Union for treason, murder, conspiracy, and espionage. The Soviet courts convicted him, but a Western commission of independent scholars found him innocent of all charges. In 1940, a Stalinist assassin killed Trotsky in Mexico City.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Trotsky's famous contemporaries include:
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924): Russian revolutionary and first leader of the Soviet Union.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Russian composer of classical works such as The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913).
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924): U.S. president from 1913 until 1921.
Maxim Gorky (1868-1936): Russian author and proponent of socialist realism in literature.
James Joyce (1882-1941): Irish expatriate author who wrote modern classics such as Finnegans Wake (1939) and Ulysses (1922).
Works in Literary Context
Political Leader vs. Author. Despite his renown as a political leader, Trotsky considered himself primarily an author. In fact, at many times in his life he remarked that the revolution was interfering with his literary work. Trotsky’s combination of literary talent and political skill is particularly evident in his historical writings, most notably in 1905 and The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk. 1905, Trotsky’s first major work, was written early in his career and completed before the development of many of his important political ideas. Critics note that as a result, the work is free of the sweeping theoretical generalizations that characterize his later historical writings, although the influence of Marx and Lenin is evident.
Political Historian and Biographer. The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk is considered both Trotsky’s masterpiece and the greatest Marxist history ever written. The work portrays on an epic scale the interaction of masses and individuals in the months between February and December of 1917. Trotsky maintained that ‘‘the most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses in historic events.’’ Although the History is dominated by a Marxist perspective, the author’s analysis emphasizes the dynamics of mass psychology along with economic factors.
Trotsky hurriedly composed a biography of Lenin after the leader’s death in 1924, intending to complete a full- scale biography later. He completed only the first volume, entitled The Young Lenin (Vie de Lenine, jeunesse) (1936). This work has been widely praised for its sensitive and poetic portrayal of Lenin’s childhood and youth. The opening chapters of Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life, have been similarly praised for their vivid remembrance of childhood, earning favorable comparison to self-portraits by Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. The later chapters of the work, however, have been criticized for their concentration on political and public matters to the exclusion of Trotsky’s inner and personal life. Trotsky himself noted that his Diary in Exile (1935), a journal kept during his exile in France and Norway, was dominated by political commentary and literary criticism. ‘‘And how could it actually be otherwise?’’ he wrote. ‘‘For politics and literature constitute the essence of my personal life.’’
Marxist Literary Critic. Trotsky’s works of literary criticism also have considerable historical value. His most important work in this genre, Literature and Revolution (Lituratura i revolyutsiya) (1923), surveys prominent Russian authors and includes a controversial theoretical essay. Trotsky opposes ‘‘proletarian art,’’ a concept championed after the revolution by artists and writers who believed that art and literature should reflect class consciousness and Marxist values. Trotsky maintained that ‘‘proletarian culture and art will never exist,’’ arguing instead that the Russian Revolution ‘‘derives its historic significance and moral greatness from the fact that it lays the foundation for a classless society and for the first truly universal culture.’’ His theories were strongly opposed by Soviet officials who sought to control intellectual life through regulation of the arts and by literary groups who sought official endorsement for their particular doctrines. In the years preceding Trotsky’s exile to central Asia, his opponents cited these ‘‘anti-proletarian’’ views of art and culture as evidence that his thought was fundamentally counterrevolutionary. Among Western critics, however, Literature and Revolution is praised for its wit, originality, and insight, and is generally considered the definitive exposition of Marxist literary theory.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The writings of Leon Trotsky are among the classics of revolutionary literature. Here are some other essential titles in the revolutionary's library:
The Communist Manifesto (1848), a political treatise by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This famous work suggests a course of action for working-class revolution to overthrow the social order created by industrial capitalism.
State and Revolution (1917), a political treatise by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin defends Marxist theory and outlines the role of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" following the revolution.
Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (1964), a political treatise by Mao Tse-tung (or Zedong). The ''little red book" was required reading in the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution.
The Wretched of the Earth (1961), a nonfiction work of political theory by Frantz Fanon. A defense of national liberation from imperialism, this work was written during the Algerian struggle against French colonial rule.
Works in Critical Context
Union of Thought and Action. Although the controversy surrounding Trotsky has subsided somewhat since his death, few public figures of the century have inspired such intense emotions from both admirers and detractors. Decades after Stalin, Trotsky was still denounced in the Soviet Union as a heretic of Marxism. He was denounced as well by Western anticommunists who considered him a ruthless, or at best, misguided revolutionary fanatic. At the same time, many political leftists worldwide consider him among the most brilliant proponents of classical Marxist thought. Trotskyite political parties that campaign for worldwide revolution still exist in many countries. His achievements and his tragic life have inspired adulation by Western intellectuals who see in Trotsky the perfect union of thought and action.
Objectivity. Critics are nearly unanimous in praising Trotsky’s compelling prose style, especially in his History of the Russian Revolution. However, no consensus exists as to Trotsky’s success in achieving the dispassion that historical scholarship requires. George Vernadsky, among others, calls the work ‘‘an impassioned invective against [Trotsky’s] enemies’’ that is ‘‘undeniably permeated by ill-suppressed bias.’’ Trotsky himself distinguished between ‘‘objectivity’’ and ‘‘impartiality,’’ writing that he sought the former while disdaining the latter, and many critics agree that he succeeded in achieving intellectual honesty without sacrificing his commitment to a particular ideological perspective. According to Deutscher, ‘‘extreme partisanship and scrupulously sober observation go hand in hand’’ in the History.
The question of Trotsky’s objectivity is even more central to his writings on Stalin. His scathing biography of Stalin, which denounces his personality and rise to power, is perhaps the most controversial of Trotsky’s writings. Left unfinished at the time of Trotsky’s death, the manuscript was pieced together from the author’s notes by editor Charles Malamuth and submitted for publication in 1941. According to Bertram Wolfe, Malamuth’s version differed enough on crucial issues from Trotsky’s known views that the author’s literary executors threatened legal proceedings to prevent its publication. This proved unnecessary, however, as the manuscript was voluntarily withheld by the publisher at the behest of the United States government, which was at that time allied with Stalin’s Russia in World War II. Upon its appearance in 1946, the work was viciously received by many critics, who considered it a malicious and unjustified attack on Stalin and Stalinism motivated solely by personal vindictiveness. Such critics as Robert H. McNeal, on the other hand, assert that ‘‘it is rather to be wondered that the polemical reaction of a leader so naturally proud and combative as Trotsky was so restrained, considering the provocation that Stalin gave him.’’ Trotsky’s intellectual integrity in this matter has some prominent defenders, but even those critics who consider the biography an accurate depiction of Stalin’s personality and career agree that Stalin is largely unsuccessful as a work of literature.
Responses to Literature
1. What do you think Russia would have been like from 1940 to 1960—politics, economy, standard of living, art—if Stalin had been exiled in 1928 instead of Trotsky?
2. Evaluate Trotsky’s theory of worldwide or ‘‘permanent’’ socialist revolution, in light of the rise and fall of Soviet communism in the twentieth century.
3. Research the cultural theory proposed by Trotsky in Literature and Revolution. How do his ideas shed light on the artistic genre of ‘‘socialist realism’’ that emerged from the Soviet Union?
Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Daniels, Robert V. Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967.
Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Dictionary of Russian Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971.
Howe, Irving. Leon Trotsky. New York: Viking, 1978.
Knei-Paz, Baruch. The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1978.
Poggioli, Renato. The Spirit of the Letter: Essays in European Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Rowse, A. L. The End of an Epoch: Reflections on Contemporary History. London: Macmillan, 1947.