Powerful Ideas for Today’s Struggles
Trotsky’s legacy on the 75th anniversary of his death
Leon Trotsky was second only to Vladimir Lenin in leading the 1917 Russian Revolution. As elected chair of the St. Petersburg Soviet (workers council), he organized the uprising that put the working class in power. He formed and led the Red Army to victory in the Civil War in which 16 capitalist armies intervened. This ensured the world’s first victory of the working class over capitalist exploitation.
The revolution was initially a shining beacon to the toilers of the world. But due to the destruction caused by the civil war and the early death of Lenin, a conservative grouping led by Joseph Stalin was able to take power.
Trotsky remained true to revolutionary principles. He led the Left Opposition against Stalin’s counterrevolution of “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism.
As a result, he became Stalin’s enemy number one. Ramon Mercader, one of Stalin’s henchmen, infiltrated Trotsky’s exile compound in Mexico and assassinated him with an ice axe. The “old man,” as his comrades fondly called him, died the next day, August 21, 1940.
But Stalin could not kill his ideas. Trotsky predicted correctly that the working class, not peasants or the middle class, would lead revolutions. He taught that revolutions would spring up permanently as long as capitalism remained. He was the first to warn of the mortal danger of fascism, and to stress the importance of fighting for the most oppressed sectors of the working class.
Trotsky’s social and political thought and his concrete revolutionary experience developed and enriched the revolutionary thought of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Building a successful revolutionary movement today is unthinkable without his penetrating insights.
Exiled in 1928 to Turkey, then France and finally Coyoacán, Mexico, Trotsky was undeterred from his tireless struggle for world socialist revolution.
Although the fundamental enemy was capitalism, Lenin and Trotsky recognized that the Social Democratic (i.e., Socialist) parties of Europe transformed themselves into enemies of the working class when each supported its own country’s capitalist class on the eve of World War I. Following the death of Lenin, Trotsky, more than anyone, grasped a similar truth about Stalinism and its control over Communist Parties globally. It too betrayed workers struggles, as a backdoor for capitalist propaganda to the workers movement. He dedicated the rest of his life to explaining the historical and social roots of this reactionary phenomenon and how to win.
In fighting against a new enemy sworn to his physical elimination, Trotsky was animated by a cause larger than his own mortal life. He penned profound words on this: “Life is not an easy matter. You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.”
For Trotsky, that great idea was the real possibility of a world free from the economic compulsion for war, poverty, greed, and prejudice—a world where people can discover and pursue their dreams, without fear or intimidation, and love freely.
Lenin died in 1924. With the masses of Russians exhausted from fighting an imperialist invasion and civil war, beset with poverty and famine, and isolated by the failure of revolutions in Germany and elsewhere, the right-wing bureaucracy took over.
Stalin orchestrated show trials of his former comrades, framing up and executing virtually all the Bolshevik leaders of the Revolution. In exile, Trotsky was also charged with bogus crimes. A commission of inquiry led by the renowned philosopher and educator John Dewey declared Trotsky innocent of all accusations.
Stalin’s strategy was to make peace with the imperialists by backtracking on support to the struggles of workers, oppressed nations, and women. While workers and peasants faced privation, the bureaucracy engorged on material privileges. This meant reversing the Bolshevik revolutionary course.
Trotsky explained this social transformation; the conservative bureaucracies arose in response to the defeat of the European working class after World War I. In revolutionary Russia, this defeat led rightward to Stalinism. In capitalist Germany, it led rightward to Nazism.
The Stalinist policy of collaboration with capitalism resulted in countless tragedies. Stalin’s “popular front” coalitions with capitalist parties in Spain, France, China and elsewhere, subordinated the workers movement to its enemies and led to millions of workers paying with their lives.
To oppose Stalin’s popular fronts, Trotsky called for a united front of workers’ parties, especially as a strategy to fight the rise of fascism. Since most German workers in the 1930s regarded themselves as socialists or communists, this strategy was a mighty one. But the Stalinist German Communist and the Socialist parties fought each other, and divided the working class.
Throughout the twentieth century, Stalinist Communist Parties continued to support popular fronts and “peoples power,” in contrast to Trotsky’s working-class united fronts and workers power. These are life and death distinctions in today’s struggles for justice and radical change.
Closer to home
Stalinist class collaboration in the U.S. takes the form of the Communist Party USA’s open support to the Democratic Party. This misleads workers about that Party’s real class allegiance. Bought and paid for by Wall Street, it is a capitalist party, not a workers party.
The Black Lives Matter movement provides an important example of how the Democrats hold back social movements. Young protesters are arrested, curfewed, told to stay off the streets and let the racist legal system deliver justice. This is just what happened in Baltimore around the most recent protests against police brutality.
This same party is leading the campaign to privatize public education and has done little to defend women’s reproductive rights. Obama backed the massive public bailout of the banks and has prolonged U.S. wars in the Middle East and backing for racist Israel.
Trotsky’s enduring lesson is that workers and the oppressed cannot trust the capitalist class, not even its “friendly” defenders. We must create our own political parties and organs of struggle. Overcome our differences by building united fronts. And continue to fight through every obstacle.
Trotsky’s life and works are a monument to these ideas.
—Freedom Socialist, August 2015