On August 21, 1940, the man known as Leon Trotsky lay dead on a cot in a local hospital near his home in Mexico City. Looking at this event may be the simplest way to understand the difference between Trotsky and other communists of his time. Just as the death of Lenin marked the beginning of a future for the early Soviet Union filled with doubt, the death of Trotsky marked the conclusion of it. His death solidified the legitimacy of the Communist Party in Moscow, and ensured that the leadership in the Kremlin was lead forever by the decisions of Trotsky’s rival: Jospeh Stalin and his ideology of Marxism-Leninism. There’s little doubt that the leaders in Moscow, especially Stalin, wished to see the memory of Leon Trotsky fall to the wayside, as to continue the rise of the USSR as an industrial powerhouse without interruption. However, the memory of Trotsky, to the dismay of some, lives on in many places throughout the world and has become one of the most famous splits in far-left ideology.
Trotsky’s ideas stem from those of Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, whose death in 1924 prevented him from enacting the large reforms of Russia’s economic system promised after the Russian Civil War. Stalin, who favored small capitalist reforms, had been elected as general secretary in 1922 and was the primary overseer of the country’s affairs. Trotsky formed an opposition based on the claim that Russia, still a feudalist society, could be lead to socialism without having to go through a separate stage of capitalism beforehand. This may present a contextual barrier for modern readers, considering that there are arguably no more feudalist countries left in the world. There was disagreement on whether a revolution could truly happen in feudalist countries, considering that Marx himself thought that the revolution would need to start within capitalist societies. Leninists, and Trotsky in particular, disagreed with this. As long as the proletariat leads the peasantry (the distinction being that peasants are workers under a feudalist system and proletariat are workers under capitalist bosses, both of which were found in Russia during the revolution) a socialist revolution would be able to succeed without requiring an intermediate capitalist stage to free all workers from feudalism. However, this point is now moot, since without any existing feudalist societies all workers are now members of the proletariat in some form or another. After the Russian Revolution, there was a growing problem of bureaucratization of the USSR that would continue under Stalin, which Trotsky found very unfortunate. In order to deal with the Civil War, the party had to be centralized, but Trotsky thought it should be as unbureaucratic as possible. This is one of his main disagreements with Stalin and ultimately lead to his expulsion from the country.
In any case, this brings us to probably the most publicized part of Trotsky’s ideology. Permanent Revolution vs Socialism in one country. Permanent revolution may sound like an odd idea now, when revolutions are seen to be one distinct event that stop or start periods within history. If this is the case, how can a revolution truly be “permanent”? It makes more sense when you’re looking at the historical context of Trotsky’s life.
During 1918, the last year of WW1, massive strikes and mutinies hit Germany, Britain, and other western countries in opposition to the war, arguably ending it. There was a time in Europe where it seemed like the entire continent could be plunged into a revolutionary wave. This was the context Trotsky came out of. If they could convince half of Europe to turn to socialism they could put up a united front against capitalism and bring an end to the system. However, this never happened. The failure of any Revolutions in Germany and other developed Western countries made it much more difficult for the Soviet Union to truly put up a complete attack against the capitalist system. For Joseph Stalin it was time for the USSR to settle down, and try to defend itself against imperialist outsiders. After all, if socialism were to only succeed in Russia, what is good for Russia must be good for Socialism. Trotsky completely disagreed with this and even after the failure of many socialist revolutions in Western countries, still campaigned for the support of revolutions in the rest of the world, including in China. As Joseph Stalin thought that the Chinese Communist Party should join the Kuomintang (Chinese nationalists), Trotsky thought that the USSR should fully embrace the revolution in China and support the communists. This is probably clearest example of Trotsky directly advocating for his theories while still in the USSR. Then, in 1928, Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union. He traveled to several different countries in Europe (most notably starting the Fourth International in France), he was subsequently exiled from each one eventually, eventually making his way to Mexico. This provides the context in which Trotsky’s most publicized idea, that of permanent revolution as opposed to socialism in one country, becomes clear. Permanent revolution may sound like an odd idea now, when revolutions are seen to be one distinct event that stops or starts periods within history, but Trotsky’s idea of revolution was one of constant change of a society for the better. The results of the Russian Revolution ending lead to Trotsky’s constant criticism of the Soviet Union as a “deformed workers state”, where the gains from the social revolution (the centrally planned and communal economy) were still there, but there needed to be a political revolution to get rid of the state bureaucrats. One may have thought that Trotsky could live out the rest of his life peacefully in Mexico, but his fiery denunciation of Stalin’s leadership would contribute to Stalin ordering Trotsky to be assassinated.
So what is the legacy of Trotsky? Some might say not much. The country he helped found, the USSR, moved on without him, fully embracing socialism in one country and industrialization. Other revolutions throughout the rest of the 20th century were overwhelmingly inspired by either Marxist-Leninist or anarchist ideals, with both of them viewing Trotskyism as a defunct ideology. But Trotskyism lives on, most notably in Latin America, in which hundreds of different Trotskyist organizations still live on today. The Trotskyist tendency to publish newspapers is a defining motif of their ideology, and their influence can be seen throughout leftist literature. Their relative distance from the policies of the USSR worked to their benefit, at least in the West, where the Cold War drove anti-Russian Hysteria to its maximum height; being separated from Russia might have been seen as a better thing, allowing more Trotskyist organizations to not be infiltrated like the CPUSA, a very Soviet friendly party, and so more Trotskyist parties could survive over the years. Whatever form the ideas of Trotsky are in, he continues to influence and inspire Marxist movements around the world.
Walsh, Lynn, The Assassination of Trotsky, Militant International Review, Summer 1980; retrieved 29 July 2007
Trotsky, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed. 1937. Print.
Trotsky, Leon. Theory of Permanent Revolution. 1931. Print.
Trotsky, Leon. Peasant War in China and the Proletariat. The Militant, 1932. Print.
A Left Communist History of World War I. International Communist Current. 2015. Documentary.