“There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method…”

– Trotsky, Diary in Exile

The Old Testament prophets belonged to a religious order devoted to the study of sacred texts, which they interpreted, and from which they proclaimed the obligations of the leaders of their nation to the people. From these scriptures they envisioned the coming of the Messiah, who would usher in an era of justice and goodwill toward men.

Like the prophets, the young Russians drawn to the Bolshevik Party were devoted to the study of what they considered sacred texts, the classics of Marxism. From the interpretation of these they identified their people, the working class, and proclaimed its unique role in overthrowing capitalist society. Socialism would be the result of an international revolution led by the working class, and would consist of democratic control of the state and the economy.

Leon Trotsky was one of these young Russians, and Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet is the definitive biography of his life and times. I first read it in the late sixties, as a college student and activist against the War in Vietnam. Not only was it was the beginning of my Marxist education, but it was the most thrilling tale about the most extraordinary human being that I had ever encountered.  Just consider his career:

President of the Petersburg Soviet. Chief Counsel for its defense. Director of the October Insurrection. Creator of the Red Army and victor in the Civil War. Inspirer of the Communist International.  Marxist theorist of “Permanent Revolution” and “Fascism”. Author of the History of the Russian Revolution. Leader of the Stalinist Oppositions.  Exile railing against Hitler’s rise to power. Repository of the memory of the working class movement. I urge you to follow this man-of-many-lives through Deutscher’s magnificent portrait. This essay is merely a sketch of his life and thought.


On October 26, 1879, Lev (or Leon) Bronstein was born, one of a number of sisters and brothers, on a prosperous farm in the “…peaceful and sunlit steppe of the southern Ukraine (15)…” The Bronsteins were Jews who lived in a farming colony outside the ‘pale’, the over-crowded ghettos of Russia in the western provinces annexed from Poland. His father, David, was “…illiterate, indifferent to religion…(a) hard-working farmer…determined to develop his farm into a flourishing estate (17)…” His mother, Anna, unlike her husband, was of the middle-class, interested in Russian literature and an orthodox Jew. He had a comfortable childhood:

“…The Bronstein’s cottage was built of clay and had five rooms…During Lyova’s childhood the family grew in wealth and importance. The crops and herds of cattle were on the increase; new farm buildings     sprang up around the cottage. Next to the cottage stood a big shed containing a workshop, the farm kitchen and the servants’ quarters (18)…”

At the age of seven, his parents sent him to a school a few miles away, where he stayed with relatives. There, he learned to read and write. Returning home, he “…wrote compositions, recited verses…began to help his father with accounts and book-keeping. Often he would be shown off to visiting neighbors…he grew accustomed to receiving admiration (21, 22)…” A few years later he moved to Odessa, where his relatives, the Spentzers, introduced him to the Russian poets, Tolstoy and Dickens. They selected a school for him to attend, where he became the top pupil in his class. This only added to his growing self-confidence:

“…He was handsome…took unusual care with his appearance: neat and tidy, well and even stylishly dressed…dutiful and well-mannered. Like many a gifted youth, he was also strongly self-centered and eager to excel (25)…”

At the Spentzers, who owned a publishing house, the fifteen-year-old fell in love with language and the world of literature.  A local author happened to read one of his essays, and expressed praise for the young boy’s talent. He also became enamored with the theater and Italian opera. In addition to literature, he was fascinated by pure mathematics, and argued with his practical father about his future career. In 1896, he left Odessa for Nikolayev, where he was to complete his secondary education. Lodging with a family whose sons were familiar with socialist ideas, he first made acquaintance with the worldview to which he would dedicate his life:

“…The talks about prevailing social injustice and about the need to change the country’s whole way of life had already started a ferment in his thoughts. The Socialists’ arguments brought out and focused the scenes of poverty and exploitation that since childhood had been stored in his mind (32)…”

Now he met a gardener, Franz Shvigovsky, who in a hut in an orchard outside of town, sponsored a discussion group for students and workers. A single member of the circle, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, spoke on behalf of Marxism; the others represented the Narodnik tradition of peasant radicalism. These were the years of revolutionary revival. In 1896, the year young Bronstein left Odessa, students and workers, who considered themselves Marxists, were springing up throughout the country. In that very year they were asked to take an oath of allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas II. In cities, in large numbers, these students had refused.  And at the Tsar’s coronation, a police riot broke out which resulted in thousands being killed or injured. The coronation was followed by a strike of 30,000 Petersburg workers, one of unprecedented scale in the nation’s history.

It was during this time that a Marxist organization, the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, founded by Lenin, Martov and Potresov, began to demonstrate its influence:

“…The new socialism relied primarily on the industrial worker. It repudiated terrorism. It recognized the need for further capitalist industrialization in Russia, through which the working class would grow in numbers and strength. Its immediate purpose, however, was to fight for civil liberties and to move the workers to economic and political action and organization (34, 35)…’

It was in this heated atmosphere that the young Bronstein first entered into debate with Alexandra Sokolovskaya in their circle at Shvigorsky’s orchard. He was the “…’most audacious and determined controversialist’ of the group and spoke with ‘pitiless sarcasm’ about the theories of Karl Marx, as expounded by the young woman (35)…” In the summer of 1897 he graduated with first-class honors. On vacation at their family home, the returning son became embroiled in arguments with his father over politics. His father forbid that he return to the bad influence of Shvigorsky’s orchard. But young Bronstein had refused to submit to paternal authority. He moved out of their family home and gave up his allowance. Now he took up private tutoring, moving into Shivgovsky’s hut. Later, he entered the University of Odessa, where he showed an exceptional gift for mathematics. Here, he also came into contact with the burgeoning radical movement.

Then, in the spring of 1897, a girl imprisoned in the Peter-Paul fortress for her political convictions committed suicide, burning herself alive. The universities exploded with protest. In reprisal, large numbers of students were deported. Young Bronstein and his circle were finally moved to pass from words to action. He made contact with revolutionary groups in Odessa and nearby cities, creating a Marxist organization in Nikolayev called the Southern Russian Workers’ Union:

“…About 10,000 workers were employed in the docks and factories of Nikolayev, mostly skilled and well-paid craftsmen with enough leisure to read…they had no organization…He recruited the first members…He grouped them in small circles which met regularly. Before the year was out the Union counted about 200 members…This transformation of the boy, who the year before seemed a rich man’s worldly son, into the founder of a clandestine organization…was startlingly rapid…He needed a cause to serve, a cause exacting sacrifice; and when he found it, his youthful and passionate temperament came into the open…he was…the moving spirit, the mouthpiece, the organizer (40-42)…”

The Union circulated leaflets and a newspaper to the workers in the docks and factories. Young Bronstein, himself, wrote, copied and illustrated this literature; he supervised its distribution, as well. Between bouts of writing, the group held the usual meetings and endless discussions. Although most of the editorials called for purely economic gains, the modest success of this venture convinced him of the power of the written word. Sokolovskaya, a member of the organization who would later become his first wife, described the young revolutionary:

“…he could be very tender and sympathetic but also very assertive and arrogant; in one thing only he never changed, in his devotion to the revolution. ‘In all my experience I have never met any person so completely consecrated’ (45)…”

But this was Tsarist Russia, and the consequences of organizing workers were dire.  Young Bronstein was now arrested in Nikolayev and transferred to a prison at Kherson, where he was kept for several months:

“…Through a bitterly cold winter they kept him in strict isolation in a tiny, unheated, unaired, and vermin-ridden cell…Starved, dirty, covered with lice, he paced his cell…This treatment…was still milder than that meted out to a few other members of the union, who under torture were committing suicide… or breaking down and agreeing to serve as informers…he was at last transferred to a prison in Odessa, in which he was to remain for a year and a half…The prison was overcrowded and alive…(He) began to transform his own experience into literature (46, 47)…”

During the two and a half years of his detention, Bronstein read widely in politics and world literature. At the end of this period he was deported to Siberia with a four-year sentence. He was first taken to prison in Moscow, where he met experienced revolutionaries from all over Russia. It was here that he first heard of Lenin, and read his path-breaking The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Despite the hardships, Bronstein lost none of his self-confidence, and went on reading, debating and writing. He led a hunger strike and numerous demonstrations in solidarity with his fellow prisoners. This led to his confinement in solitary, once again. Before his journey into exile, he married his comrade, Alexandra Skolovskaya. Their lengthy passage by a series of trains led to distant Siberia, and the god-forsaken village of Ust-Kut. It was here that he first plunged into Marx’s Capital, ‘…brushing the cockroaches off the pages…”

From Ust-Kut, the Bronsteins moved with their newly-born daughter to Verholensk, the oldest of the Siberian settlements. Here, they lived in relative comfort. Bronstein quickly became the leader of the recently established Social Democratic Siberian Union. It was by this time the spring of 1901, and once again demonstrations were taking place in the universities and strikes breaking out in the cities. Students and workers were arrested: some deported; others conscripted into the army. This upsurge in the Tsarist opposition was totally lacking in national leadership. Abroad, the older generation of Marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin and Martov, advocated a national organization in their newly-founded newspaper Iskra (The Spark). Young Bronstein wrote an essay in agreement, advocating the type of party that would later be championed by the Bolsheviks. He also wrote literary essays – on Nietzsche, Spencer and Ibsen for an Irkutsk newspaper – as he began to develop his talent as a literary critic.

In the summer of 1902, after four and a half years of exile, Bronstein first read Lenin’s What is to be done?  Impatient with Siberian exile, he and his wife had longed to escape. He was now twenty-three years old, and Sokolovskaya had just given birth to their second daughter. Realizing that he was destined for greatness – and shouldering the burden of their two young children – she now urged that he attempt escape.

On a summer night, in 1902, he had hidden under a load of hay in a peasant’s cart, which slowly made its way to the village of Irkutsk. A false passport was provided by friends, in which he first assumed the name of ‘Trotsky’, his jailer. His long journey eventually led to Samara, where Iskra’s Russian headquarters were located. Preceded by his literary reputation, he was nicknamed “the pen” by one of Lenin’s associates. A glowing report of his talents was sent to London, Iskra’s main headquarters, where Lenin urged that the young man report. Now began Trotsky’s career in the Russian Social Democratic (i.e. Marxist) movement.

In London he met Iskra’s editorial board: Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Axelrod, veterans of the older generation; and Lenin, Martov and Potresov, leaders of the younger. All were extraordinary individuals. The professorial Plekhanov was “the father of Russian Marxism”. Vera Zasulich, in the year before Trotsky’s birth, had, as a peasant radical, attempted the assassination of the Tsarist General Trepov.  Martov, a Jew like Trotsky, was the descendant of a family of Hebrew scholars; and had, with Lenin, founded the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of Workers. But Trotsky soon realized that “Lenin was made of different stuff.” Years before, his elder brother, Alexander, had been executed – hung from the gallows – for an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Tsar. So Lenin knew the price of failure:

“His task, as he saw it, was to infuse in them a spirit of realism…train them in precise, efficient methods of work…his mind moved along a single track, but that track was as broad as society itself and it led to the transformation of society (71)…”

In July 1903, nine months after Trotsky’s arrival in London, the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party took place. It was at this congress that the historic split between Menshiviks and  Bolsheviks (minority and majority) had occurred. Already, Trotsky’s unique gift as an orator was apparent to his listeners, who described “…the elan, the passion, the wit, and the thunderous metallic voice, with which he roused audiences (79)…” The issues that motivated the split concerned the nature of the party and its membership. Lenin insisted that members be activists, participants in the daily work of the organization. For him, the party should organize only the “vanguard” of the working class, its most class-conscious and devoted members. To fight the mighty Tsarist Empire, a party must possess the discipline of a military staff and its army. In contrast, Martov advocated a less demanding standard of membership, one that included dues-paying individuals and financial supporters, as well. The demarcation line between the working class and its party was the issue at stake.

At the congress Trotsky had sided with the Menshiviks (which he would soon leave). And he assailed Lenin with such invective, that it left a scar on their relationship for years. In April 1904, Trotsky left the staff of Iskra; and in August of that year, he wrote Our Political Tasks, in which he lambasted Lenin once again. Years later, when he came to agree with Lenin, Trotsky would regret nothing so much as what he had said on that occasion. And these words would return to haunt him: used time after time against him by his political opponents. It is worth examining them because they were the first example of Trotsky’s “prophetic vision”. He had compared the future Russian Revolution to its French precursor, and Lenin to its leader, Robespierre. Then he described the process of its degeneration:

“…Lenin’s method leads to this: the party organization…at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally a single ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee (100)…”

Trotsky’s analogy with Robespierre and the French Revolution was, at that time he was writing, pure fantasy. Nevertheless, his clairvoyant imagination cast Lenin in the very role that would later be assumed by Stalin. As our author suggests:

“…yet this was the faithful mirror of the future, although the Russian Robespierre shown in it was to be not so much Lenin as his successor…Moreover, the mirror showed in advance the stages through which, in its ’substitutism’, the party of the revolution would move…And then there is the…image of the morbidly suspicious dictator , ‘invested with the power to degrade and liquidate’, who sees enemies creeping from every crevice around him (105, 106)…”

Like the Old Testament prophets, Trotsky “…was possessed of a sixth sense…an intuitive sense of history (107)…” This would not be the last time that he foresaw a vision that would later come to pass.

Moving to Paris, Trotsky now met his second wife, Natalya Sedova, a student of the fine arts. “…She was to remain his companion for the rest of his life and to share with him the full triumph and defeat (81)…” While abroad, Trotsky immersed himself in the study of Marxism and the history of the working-class movement.

Then, on the January 23, 1905, “Bloody Sunday”, the workers of Petersburg, led by a Tsarist spy, Father Gapon, marched in a peaceful procession to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the Tsar. Refusing to receive it, the Tsar ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd: 800 unarmed civilians were killed. Thus, the first Russian Revolution had begun. For the classic account of these events, there is no substitute for Trotsky’s 1905. In the Preface to the First Edition, he says:

“The events of 1905 formed a majestic prologue to the revolutionary drama of 1917…The revolution of 1905 grew directly out of the Russo-Japanese war, just as the revolution of 1917 was the direct outcome of the great imperialist slaughter…a general strike of the proletariat with its subsequent transformation into an armed rising would become the fundamental form of the Russian Revolution (p. 7)…”

Trotsky now returned to Kiev, where he met Leonid Krasin, second in command to Lenin in the Bolshevik Pary; together they had travelled to Petersburg. Having returned to Russia ahead of the other Social Democratic leaders, Trotsky found himself at the forefront of the movement. In October, a general strike took place in Petersburg. Beginning with the printers’ purely economic demands, it quickly spread to other industries and to the provinces, assuming the political character of a “mass strike” (Rosa Luxemburg):

“…A tremendous wave of strikes swept the country from end to end, convulsing the entire body of the nation…The strike involved something like a million men and women. For almost two months, without any plan…the strike ruled the land (p. 98, 1905)…”

Now sprang into being an institution new to history – the first Council, or Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Only during the Paris Commune of 1871 had such a radically democratic body first been anticipated:

“The nucleus of the Soviet was set up by the strikers of fifty printing shops, who elected delegates and instructed them to form a council. These were soon joined by delegates of other trades…The Soviet instantaneously gained an extraordinary authority. This was the first elective body which represented the hitherto disenfranchised working classes (135, 36)…”

Trotsky appeared before the Soviet on October 15th, and was elected to its Executive. He rapidly rose to the role of spokesman, author of manifestoes and its chief moving spirit. In November, Lenin’s return to Russia enabled the disputes between Menshiviks and Bolsheviks to be put aside. The two factions had once again united:

“…Trotsky, invited by Krasin to a meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee, urged its members to join the Soviet without any preliminary conditions. No party or group, he pleaded, could aspire to exclusive leadership. The Soviet should be a broad representative body embracing all shades of working-class opinion, for only then would it be able to provide a united leadership in the general strike and in the revolutionary situation that might develop (136)…”

On October 17, in panicked reaction to the mass strike, the Tsar issued a Manifesto promising a constitution, civil liberties and universal suffrage. Learning of the Manifesto, a huge crowd had rushed through the streets of Petersburg with Trotsky in their midst. They marched towards the University, where numerous meetings were held and speakers had harangued them. Now Trotsky thrust himself through the crowd and up to the balcony, above, to address them:

“…citizens! Our strength is in ourselves…The Tsar’s Manifesto…is only a scrap of paper.’

With a theatrical gesture he flourished the Manifesto in front of the crowd and angrily crumpled it in his fist:

‘Today it has been given us and tomorrow it will be taken away and torn into pieces as I am now tearing  it into pieces…before your very eyes (139)…”

Trotsky’s proceeded to analyze the weaknesses of the 1905 Revolution. The movement was still confined to the workers in the cities; it had as yet to penetrate the vast peasant countryside. The nation was composed of a tiny working class, a capitalist class (who feared the workers more than they did the Tsar), and a huge peasantry, who made up the army. And this peasant army had yet to be infected by the spirit of the revolution.  Above all:

“…the working class was unarmed; and it could not get arms, in sufficient quantity, until the army itself was in rebellion…it takes time before the prevalent rebellious mood seeps through to the barracks. The mood in the Russian army depended on the state of mind of the peasantry (140)…”

The Petersburg Soviet elected its Executive, with Trotsky as their leader. He spoke on its behalf, wrote its manifestos and edited its newspaper. But because of the isolation and weakness of movement, the general strike had finally been called off. A solemn funeral was now held for its martyrs. “…A general strike could not be waged indefinitely. Its sequel ought to be insurrection, but for this the Soviet was not ready (144)…”

After fifty days, the Petersburg Soviet was surrounded by the Tsar’s military, and its members arrested. But, in the prisons to which they were taken, they were allowed to meet and engage in politics. Here, Trotsky prepared the Soviet’s defense at trial, his prison cell becoming “a sort of library”.  He had also begun writing his first major contribution to Marxism, the theory of “Permanent Revolution”. Deutscher calls it “…the most radical restatement…of the prognosis of Socialist revolution undertaken since Marx’s Communist Manifesto (p. 160)…” Let us attempt a sketch of this theory.

Marxists had expected socialist revolution to first occur in the industrialized nations of Europe.  Each revolution would occur in “stages”, with the “tasks” of uprooting feudal and capitalist institutions accomplished before proceeding to those required to build socialism. That it should instead take place in backward Russia, was the result of its peculiar development within world capitalism:

“The military pressure of superior European power, not the impulses coming from Russian society, molded that state…”;

“The state, and not private enterprise, had laid the foundations of modern industry…”;

“Thus, the economic preponderance of the state, the numerical weakness of the middle classes…all combined to make Russian bourgeois liberalism stillborn. Yet modern industry…brought the proletariat to the fore. The more belatedly Russian industry expanded, the more readily did it adopt the most advanced forms of organization…The few modern factories that Russia did possess were larger and more concentrated than any western European or even American establishments. Consequently, the political strength of the Russian proletariat, its capacity to organize itself and to act…was all the more concentrated (p. 161-63)…”

Trotsky argued that only Russia’s small but strategically situated proletariat, rather than its weak capitalist class, could provide leadership for the revolution. And that the very notion of “stages” (e.g. feudal, capitalist, socialist) was outmoded. The “permanence” of the revolution would be expressed by the fact that at no time should the working class cease to fight for its own interests. Each country’s revolution must proceed immediately from capitalist to socialist tasks, and then to internationalist support for revolutions abroad. Because of the power of the world market (with its uneven distribution of resources and technology), no nation could hope to succeed in building socialism unless it was followed by and supported by others. This was especially true in the case of “backward” Russia. Finally, under no circumstance should the support of other nation’s revolutions be subordinated to the defense of one already accomplished. The extension of the revolution to other nations was the only way to defend the long-run interests of the international working class.

The trial of the Petersburg Soviet began on September 19, 1906. A state of siege had been declared in the district; the courtroom was surrounded by Cossacks and tsarist police. For several weeks attorneys conducted the defense, examining hundreds of witnesses. “So striking was the evidence that the Soviet had had overwhelming popular support…that the prosecution could not base its case on these activities and concentrated instead on the count of insurrection (p. 174)…”

On October 4, Trotsky rose to speak to this charge. He explained that a general strike created a condition of dual power, one in which the state could not provide necessary services to the public. Hundreds of thousands of workers had been thrown out of the factories into the streets, and had suddenly become conscious of their condition. This consciousness had led to the creation of the democratically-elected factory committees and the Petersburg Soviet. With the Tsar’s regime paralyzed, due to the general strike, only the Soviet could function as a government. It was, therefore, the Tsarist regime, not the Soviet, that represented “anarchy and violence”. To maintain order and avoid bloodshed was the sole purpose of the Soviet. It was only in self-defense that it had prepared for insurrection:

“…The masses had no arms…Not the ability…to kill others, but their great readiness themselves to die, this secures in the last instance the victory of the popular rising…’ For only when the masses show readiness to die on the barricades can they win over the army, on which the old regime relies…Here on the barricade, for the first time in his life, the soldier hears honest, courageous words…and, as a consequence of this contact between soldiers and citizens…the bonds of the old military discipline snap (p. 176, 77)…”

The army is the ultimate defense of the capitalist state. Engels had characterized it as “bodies of armed men”.  Consequently, the appeal of workers to their peasant brothers in the army would be “the pivot on which a revolution turns” (Armies and the Art of Revolution by Katherine Chorely). In 1905 the revolution was still confined to the workers in the cities, not yet spreading to the peasants in the countryside. And the peasant soldiers had yet to be infected with its spirit, as they would later be during the First World War.

On November 2, the verdict was delivered. Members of the Soviet were declared not guilty on the chief count of insurrection, but were sentenced to deportation to Siberia for life. The newspapers were still carrying reports of the convicted Soviet leaders’ journey to the Polar Circle, when Trotsky – having miraculously escaped along the way – arrived back in Petersburg to be re-united his wife and their newly-born son!

With the Tsarist police in hot pursuit, Trotsky fled with other revolutionary émigrés from Petersburg to Helsinki, Finland. At the end of April, he attended the last congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, in London.  There, Lenin tried to convince him to side with the Bolsheviks’ program of underground activity, against the Menshiviks’ advocacy of a broad public movement. Under Tsarism, an open “western-type” party would be smashed and its leaders imprisoned. Although Trotsky refused to take sides, he continued to speak out harshly against Lenin. Now Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades had begun the absolutely crucial work of building the party.

For the next seven years, till the outbreak of the First World War, Trotsky had settled in Vienna. There, he edited the Viennese Pravda. He was now mostly engaged in writing and digesting the lessons of 1905, so as to prepare for the next stage of the revolution.

The years between the two revolutions – those of Tsarist reaction – were bleak. During this period Nicolas II had exacted his revenge:

“…A new law disenfranchised the bulk of the people…The revolutionary parties were crushed, their clubs and newspapers suppressed, and thousands of their members massacred. Court marshals and gallows dominated the scene…The influence of socialism…shrank and dwindled…The Socialists were being driven back into the underground (p. 185)…”


“The years of reaction were over; the terror had spent itself; the Labour movement was experiencing a new revival…A new generation of revolutionaries was coming of age and flocking into the…clandestine organizations…Lenin was now reaping the fruits of his labors: his men led the Social Democratic underground, while Menshivism was a farrago of weak and disconnected groups…Trotsky had misjudged the outcome (p. 210)…”

Before the First World War, the Second International – and particularly its crown jewel, the German Social Democratic Party – had openly espoused the revolutionary doctrines of Marxism.  The German party had gained a major role in the government, dominated the trade unions, published hundreds of newspapers and possessed cultural institutions throughout the country. But the more successful it became through reform – working through the government and in cooperation with its employers – the more its revolutionary pronouncements had faded into insignificance. Then, in 1914, its politicians (with the sole exception of Karl Liebnecht) voted to support Germany in the First World War.

The outbreak of the war found Trotsky in Vienna, where General mobilization was taking place. He had witnessed crowds in the streets carried away by war hysteria. Learning that Russian émigrés were to be interned, he and his family boarded a train for Zurich, a refuge for revolutionaries. Russians Karl Radek, Nicolai Bukharin and Lenin would arrive soon after. Only two months later, Trotsky was forced to leave Switzerland for France, where he helped edit Martov’s anti-war newspaper, Golos (The Voice), and earned his living as a war correspondent. Menshivik and Bolshevik disputes were again put aside, as Martov and Lenin had largely agreed in their condemnation of the war. In 1915 Trotsky, along with a number of prominent Russians, began to publish another newspaper, Nashe Slovo. Through its editorials, he had gradually grown closer to Lenin and began to distance himself from Martov.

Then, on September 5, 1915, an international conference of socialists had assembled at Zimmerwald, Switzerland. Thirty-eight delegates from eleven countries attended to reassert their international working-class solidarity, and opposition to the imperialist war. The majority were pacifists; a minority, headed by Lenin, urged “…a defeatist attitude towards all warring governments, to call upon the peoples to ‘turn the imperialist war into civil war’, and to proclaim the need of a new International (p. 236)…” Trotsky drew up its statement of principles, the Zimmerwald Manifesto.

As the war dragged on, the views among Zimmerwald members grew increasingly antagonistic. Trotsky finally made a gesture toward the Bolsheviks, in Nashe Slovo, which caused Martov to resign from the paper. At the end of April 1916, at Kienthal, Switzerland, the second Zimmerwald Conference took place. Lenin’s anti-war views now carried the day. Trotsky was unable to attend, but published his solidarity with Lenin in Nashe Slovo. Although differences remained between them (over Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism”), these would disappear when Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party.

On September 15, 1916, the French police banned Nashe Slovo. The next day Trotsky was ordered to leave France for Spain. A few months later, he left Spain for New York City, where he and his wife had lived in an apartment in the Bronx. Here, together with Bukharin, Kollontai and Volodarsky, he wrote for the New York Daily, Novyi Mir (New World). On March 13, 1917, having learned of “bread riots” in Petrograd, its columns had proclaimed: “We are the witnesses of the beginning of the second Russian Revolution…”

Now meetings took place among the Russian émigrés, with Trotsky’s speeches the main attraction. He condemned the imperialist war, and the Menshiviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who went along with it.  It was now the Bolsheviks’ task to turn the peasant’s reluctant support for the war back to its hunger for peace and land.

On March 27, Trotsky, his family, and a small group of émigrés left New York City, aboard ship for Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there, they were taken to a German prisoner of war camp at Amherst, where he addressed German prisoners about the ideas of Zimmerwald. On April 29, they left Amherst; and after a sea voyage of nearly three weeks, had arrived in Finland. Then they travelled by train to Petrograd. There, on May 4, a crowd with red banners met Trotsky at the train, and carried him on its shoulders through the streets. He headed for the Smolny Institute. Here, the Petrograd Soviet had met; its Executive was then in session. Lenin, who had arrived only a month before, had spent that time arguing with the rightwing of his party. On this occasion, he had been accused of abandoning Bolshevism for Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”. Deutscher describes the convergence of their views:

“In truth, the roads of Lenin and Trotsky, so long divergent, had now met…the events of the war had gradually driven Trotsky to take the view that…it was the duty of revolutionary internationalists to form new parties…long before the war, Lenin had arrived at this conclusion…Trotsky had foreseen the combination of anti-feudal and anti-capitalist revolutions in Russia and had described the Russian upheaval as a prelude to international revolution…During the war…(Lenin) came to reckon with Socialist revolution in the advanced European countries and to place the Russian Revolution in this internationalist perspective…he no longer saw any reason why the Russian Revolution should confine itself to its so-called bourgeois objectives…this meant ‘proletarian dictatorship’ (266, 67)…”

At a meeting on May 10, Lenin finally asked Trotsky and his small organization to join the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky’s gifts as an agitator were now at the service of the Bolsheviks. He addressed meeting after meeting in the capital, and was enormously popular among the sailors at the Kronstadt, where the navy was in rebellion. Toward the end of May, the sailors were indicted, and Trotsky returned to defend them. And each evening he had lectured on the topics of the day at the amphitheater of the Cirque Moderne. “Later in the year, Lenin unstintingly paid tribute to Trotsky, saying that since he had broken with the Menshiviks there was no better Bolshevik (269)…”

At the beginning of June, the first All-Russian Congress of the Soviets took place in Petrograd. For the first time the various parties confronted each other in this nationally-elected body. The Cadets, then dominant in the government, were rapidly losing influence, having suffered defeat in recent municipal elections. The Menshiviks polled half the votes, hoping to become the Soviet’s leaders. The Bolsheviks influence was dominant in the working-class suburbs, and growing rapidly elsewhere. The main issue before the congress was the condition of the army. The General Staff was preparing a new offensive, for which it sought the Soviet’s approval. It was on this occasion that Trotsky: “… warned the government that after the prodigious losses the army had suffered…(it) was incapable of further fighting. The offensive would end in disaster (276)…”

At one point in the congress, the Menshivik, Tseretelli, pleaded for another coalition, and challenged the delegates to produce a single party willing to shoulder the burden of government. Lenin had answered from the floor that his party was prepared to do so. Although the Bolsheviks were by no means ready take power, he realized that a coalition not opposing the war was useless. Summarizing Lenin’s strategy, our author says: “As long as the Bolsheviks were a minority in the Soviets, he urged his followers not to play at seizing power but ‘patiently explain their attitude to the masses’, until they gained the majority. This was the crux of his Soviet constitutionalism (278)…”

A mass demonstration, on June 10, called by the moderate socialists, was drowned in banners with Bolshevik slogans. This popular defiance of the moderate party had startled them all. Then the nation was suddenly shaken by the crisis of the July Days:

“…The patience of the garrison and of the working population of Petrograd was exhausted. Bread queues grew interminably. Money…was depreciated. Profiteering was rampant…On top of this came the costly offensive, now in progress…Finally, a number of regiments confronted Bolshevik headquarters…and called an armed demonstration for 3 July…Bolshevik headquarters made an attempt to cancel the demonstration…Lenin then tried to place his party at the head of the movement in order to keep the movement within the limits of a peaceful demonstration (280, 81)…”

Two days and nights of angry demonstrations followed, with enormous crowds marching through the streets. A violent group besieged the Tauride Palace, where the executive of the Soviets had their office. They threatened the moderate socialists within, who appealed to the garrison. But the soldiers now stood squarely with the Bolsheviks. Then Chernov, one of the government ministers, was seized by the crowd, outside. Trotsky, fearing they might lynch him, now had rushed to the scene:

“…the crowd was raging…on the back seat of the car sat Chernov…Trotsky began his speech…they listened to Trotsky in a sullen mood…

Finally, Trotsky defied the crowd and asked those who wanted violence to be done to Chernov openly to raise their hands. Not a hand went up. Amid silence, he took Chernov, half-fainting by now, by the arm and led him into the Palace (282)…”

After the crowds had finally dispersed, news came that the military offensive had collapsed. The right-wing parties and their followers blamed the Bolsheviks for the army’s defeat. One of their newspapers accused Lenin of being in the pay of the German General Staff. The upper-classes and their military leaders needed a scapegoat for the disastrous offensive. Fearing arrest or assassination, Lenin now  went into hiding. Bolshevik headquarters were demolished by right-wing demonstrators, and the Bolshevik newspaper banned. Trotsky spoke throughout the city against these absurd accusations against Lenin. Then he, himself, was arrested on July 23, together with his Bolshevik comrades. They were placed in Kresty Prison.

Following the July Days, another coalition government was formed under Kerensky. General Kornilov,  champion of the conservatives, was appointed Commander-in-Chief. Then, on August 24, he declared war on the government, ordering his troops to march on the capital. But Kerensky could not defeat Kornilov without the garrison, whose members were loyal to the Bolsheviks. Kerensky had desperately appealed to them. Won over to the revolution, Kornilov’s troops had disobeyed their officers. Not by force of arms, but by Bolshevik agitation were they defeated. They had deserted without firing a shot. Our author suggests: “From Kornilov’s defeat started a new chain of events leading straight to the October Insurrection (292)…”

Kornilov’s attempted coup convinced most of the Soviet members that a coalition with capitalist parties would never end the war. When the Menshiviks and Socialist Revolutionaries nevertheless continued to advocate such a coalition, they were deserted by their followers and their majority in the Soviet disappeared. Trotsky spoke to its members, proposing a motion of no confidence in the Menshiviks. For the first time the Bolsheviks received a majority in the Soviet:

“In the Soviets, the Bolsheviks went from strength to strength. At the beginning of September they had a majority in Petrograd, Moscow, and other industrial cities….On 23 September the Petrograd Soviet elected Trotsky as their President. As he mounted the dias, ‘a hurricane of applause went up…the only question was whither Trotsky would lead them.’…On behalf of the new Soviet he sounded the first summons to the second revolution, calling for Kerensky’s resignation and the transfer of governmental power to the Congress of Soviets (296, 97)…”

Now Lenin, from his place of hiding, placed the issue of insurrection before the Bolshevik Central Committee. His two chief assistants, Zinoviev and Kamenev, had opposed him. Lenin argued that the drastic change in the mood of the Soviets, the rising tide of peasant revolt, and the unwillingness to fight in the army, made it imperative that they act:

“…He was confident that if the party seized the opportunity it would gain the support of an immense majority of the people. But history offered a fleeting opportunity only: if the Bolsheviks missed it, another Kornilov would soon be ready…and crush…the revolution (299)…”

Lenin spoke in favor of the insurrection being made by the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky, in his new role as President of Soviet, argued that since the Bolsheviks had conducted their agitation under the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets!”, that the rising should be made in its name. It would coincide with the opening of its Congress, in whose hands they would place the power.

In the beginning of October, the crisis mounted. Economic chaos increased, as the provisioning of the cities broke down. In the countryside, peasants were seizing the landlord’s estates and burning their manors. The German navy now threatened Petrograd from its battleships in the Gulf of Finland. The question ‘Who would be master of the garrison?’ now became paramount. Kerensky’s regime faced the Soviet, preparing for a military showdown. He intended to deploy the Petrograd soldiers to the front, ostensibly to defend the nation. But these troops, now loyal to the Soviet, knew they would have been condemned to slaughter in the trenches. Trotsky, beginning preparations for the insurrection, argued that Petrograd would be exposed to German invasion if the garrison were evacuated.

On October 9, at a session of the Executive of the Soviet, the Military Revolutionary Committee was appointed, with responsibility for the city’s defense. This would be the chief organization of the insurrection, with Trotsky at its head. The next day the Bolshevik Central Committee met with Lenin; and after heated debate, voted ten to two in favor of the rising. Zinoviev and Kamenev voted against. Lenin  returned to hiding in Finland. Trotsky now spoke throughout the city, at factories and in military barracks: “…Every worker and soldier of Petrograd knew him and listened to him. His influence on the masses and the leaders alike was overwhelming. He was the central figure of those days (310)…”

On October 16, the regiments of the garrison declared they would disobey Kerensky and remain in Petrograd. Later, Trotsky called this “the silent rising which in advance decided the outcome of the contest.” The Bolshevik Central Committee now met, with a heavily disguised Lenin, and issued a call for  insurrection. Zinoviev and Kamenev repeated their opposition; published their views in Gorky’s newspaper. Lenin had branded them ‘strikebreakers of the revolution.’

On October 21, Trotsky presented a resolution to the garrison that it must answer to the Military Revolutionary Committee, alone. The regimental committees adopted it, stating:  “…The Petrograd garrison solemnly pledges itself to put at the disposal of the All-Russian Congress all its forces, to the last man…Rely on us…We are at our posts, ready to conquer or die (314, 15)…”

By October 23, the Military Revolutionary Committee had a detailed plan of action. It provided for the occupation of all strategic positions in the capital, liaison between the committee and the garrison, and military units ready for action. So overwhelming were the superiority of forces on the Soviet’s side, that they were confident they could win with little violence. Now Trotsky waited for Kerensky’s provocation, hoping to launch the insurrection as a defensive measure.

Kerensky had obliged him: banning the Bolshevik’s newspaper; ordering the closing of its editorial offices and printing-press. Workers from the press appeared before the Military Revolutionary Committee to report to Trotsky, who ordered a company of riflemen to guard the newspaper.

Now an extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet took place, at which Trotsky reported on the steps taken by the Military Revolutionary Committee to countermand Kerensky’s orders:

“We are not afraid to shoulder responsibility for maintaining revolutionary order in the city…Our principle is — all power to the Soviets…Tomorrow the Congress of the Soviets opens. It is the task of the garrison and of the proletariat to put at its disposal the power they have gathered…If the government tries to…stab the revolution…the revolution will meet attack with attack and steel with steel (318, 19)…”

During the night of 24-25 October, Red Guards and regular regiments occupied strategic points throughout the city. The overthrow of Kerensky’s government took only a few hours. He had escaped from the city in the automobile of a foreign embassy. Later that day, Trotsky reported these events to the Petrograd Soviet: the entire city was now under its control. The only place that still resisted, the Winter Palace, was bombarded with blank shells by the cruiser Aurora in the harbor.

At the Congress of the Soviets the Bolsheviks commanded a majority of two-thirds. With the Left Social Revolutionaries, they had three-quarters of the votes. The defeated parties raised an outcry, demanding yet another coalition government. And when this was rejected by the Soviet, they declared a boycott. Trotsky now rose to address their leader, Martov (his old Menshivik comrade):

“The rising of the popular masses needs no justification…Our rising has been victorious. Now you tell us: Renounce your victory, yield, make a compromise. With whom?…You are miserable, isolated individuals…You have played out your role. Go where you belong: to the dust heap of history! (323, 24)…”

The Soviets would form the constitutional foundation for the new state. The Bolsheviks had been willing to share it with any parties willing to endorse this principle, but the Menshiviks and Socialist Revolutionaries had refused. So the Bolsheviks – the majority – took full responsibility for the new regime:

“Never before had any body of men seizing power assumed so prodigious a burden of commitments as that which the Bolshevik leaders shouldered when they read out to the Congress their first hastily scribbled decrees. They promised to give the people Peace, Land, and Bread. The distance from promise to fulfillment was immeasurable (324)…”


“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents…he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast…to all his principles…what he ought to do cannot be achieved (Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, p. 135, 36)…”

Ever since 1905, Trotsky had maintained that the Russian Revolution could not succeed without the aid of revolution in the advanced nations of Europe. And on every occasion on which the subject arose, Lenin had agreed, declaring: ‘The ripening and inevitability of world socialist revolution can be under no doubt.’ Nevertheless, our author is forced to conclude:

“What was wrong in their expectations was not merely the calendar of revolutionary events but the fundamental assumption that European capitalism was at the end of its tether. They grossly underrated its staying power, its adaptability, and the hold it had on the loyalty of the working classes. The revolutionary ferment in Europe was strong enough for a minority of the working class to be determined to follow in Bolshevik footsteps. The majority… were in no mood to embark upon the road of revolution (459)…”

Based on the Bolshevik’s hope for revolution in Europe, the Comintern (Third Communist International) was established, in March 1919, to provide leadership for the parties of the world’s working class. The Second International’s support for the First World had brought it into universal disrepute. But this had been because of revulsion against the war, rather than support for revolution. Trotsky had appeared before the Comintern’s founding congress; had authored its manifesto.

The years 1918-1919 saw the destruction of the monarchy, following military defeat in Germany and Austria. In Hungary and Bavaria soviet governments briefly took power; in Italy, there was the “occupation of the factories”. Then the armies of fourteen capitalist nations and Russia’s own counter-revolutionary forces launched a civil war to overthrow the Soviet regime. In March 1918, Trotsky was appointed Commissar of War, and President of the Supreme War Council:

“He undertook to conjure an army out of an apparent void. The armed forces of the old regime had vanished…all that survived…was a single division…Red guards and bands of partisans…From such slender beginnings sprang into being the Red Army which, after two and a half years, had five million men under arms (415)…”

Throughout the civil war, Trotsky travelled back and forth across the country in an armored train. “In a battle of this sort the leader is constantly before the eyes of the men: his faith, his presence of mind, and his courage may work wonders. He has to establish his military authority…by personal example (430)…” Lenin, himself, said of Trotsky “Show me another man able to organize almost a model army within a single year and win the respect of military experts. We have such a man (440, footnote 1)…”

During the civil war Russia was subject to imperialist blockade. Industrial and agricultural productivity dropped precipitously; transportation ground to a halt. Cities were emptied, famine and epidemics raged: “…Russia’s national income amounted to one-third of her income of 1913…the railways were destroyed…exchange of goods between town and country had come to a standstill…cities and towns had become…depopulated…people…lived on a food ration of two ounces of bread and a few frozen potatoes and had heated their dwellings with the wood of their furniture (546)…”

Then a calamity of biblical proportions had stricken the nation: “One of the worst famines in history visited…the Volga…Uncounted multitudes fled before the sand blizzards and the locust and wandered in aimless despair over the vast plains…Cannibalism reappeared (547)…”

The world war – in which Russia suffered 2.5 million deaths –  revolution, and civil war had so ruined its economy that, by 1921, the Russian working class had almost ceased to exist: “The ordinary men and women who had made it were no longer…The best of them had perished (522)…” It was in these – the worst of times – that backward Russia was forced to attempt to build socialism. Trotsky would later write:

“As long as man is not yet master of his social organization, that organization towers over him like Fate itself…The stuff of contemporary tragedy is found in the clash between the individual and a collective, or between hostile collectives represented by individuals (542)…”

So I propose we view the Russian Revolution as a social tragedy, consisting of three dilemmas.  The Bolsheviks had been certain that the Russian Revolution would be followed by others in the advanced nations of Europe. These would have shared their wealth and technology with war torn, backward Russia. But this did not occur. (Dilemma 1: Isolation of the revolution.) The world war was followed by a civil war, which destroyed the revolution’s leading class, the industrial proletariat. (Dilemma 2: Workers’ state without a working class.) Finally, the revolution was based on a class alliance. The small but strategically situated working class in the cities was supported by the great majority, the peasantry in the countryside. What would happen if this alliance broke down? (Dilemma 3: Majority support for the regime disappears.) These three tragic dilemmas would lead to what Trotsky called ‘substitutism’ (i.e. the successive replacement of class by party, faction and individual).

And within this larger social tragedy, there was another, personal one (i.e. “between hostile collectives represented by individuals”). This was the contest over party leadership between Trotsky and Stalin after the death of Lenin. These two individuals represented the collective policies of “Permanent Revolution” and “Socialism in One Country”. And the eventual victory of Stalin, and “Socialism in One Country”, led not only to the betrayal of the Russian Revolution, but to the sacrifice of the Chinese revolution and to Hitler’s rise to power. Let us begin with the larger social tragedy (with the aid of the Chris Harman’s “How the Revolution Was Lost”):

“The revolutionary institutions of 1917 – above all the soviets – were organically connected with the class that led the revolution…The Bolshevik Party was merely the body of coordinated class-conscious militants who could frame policies and suggest courses of action alongside other such bodies…but only if the mass of workers would follow them…

Until the civil war…this democratic dialectic of party and class could continue. The Bolsheviks held power as the majority party in the soviets…But other parties continued to exist…The decimation of the working class changed all this……the soviet state of 1917 had been replaced by the single-party state of 1920 onwards (18, 19, Harman)…”

And the revolution had been based on a class alliance in which the peasantry supported the working class. Although the peasantry had been encouraged to seize the land, the Bolsheviks realized that to feed the workers in the cities, agriculture would eventually have to be collectivized. With the end of the civil war, this long-term conflict emerged with the uprising at Kronstadt. Having gained control over the land – and having made enormous sacrifices to feed the nation during the civil war – the peasantry was facing starvation. The only thing now uniting them was opposition to the forcible collection of grain by the Bolsheviks:

“…the revolution in Russia had reached the stage where it involved the exploitation of the country by the towns, maintained through naked physical force…this meant that the revolution must remain in danger of being overthrown by peasant insurrections.

There seemed to be only one course open. This was to accept many of the peasant demands, while maintaining a strong, centralized socialist state apparatus. This the New Economic Policy (NEP) attempted to do (21, Harman)…”

And the concessions to the peasantry, represented by NEP, worsened the position of the working class. Having been decimated by the civil war, now its standard of living was further reduced. And NEP gave birth to a new privileged group – the directors and managers of industry – one with significantly higher salaries.

“Holding the Russia of NEP together meant mediating between different social classes…Arrangements had to be made to satisfy the individualistic aspirations of the peasants, as well as the collectivist democratic aims of socialism. In the process, the party, which had been lifted above the different social classes, had to reflect their differences (26, 27, Harman)…”

Let us pause in the social drama of classes, to examine its expression by individuals in the policies of the Bolshevik Party. These policies were personified by Trotsky and Stalin. From the issues of party and class, our author now explores the psychology of his characters. He begins with our protagonist:

“Trotsky’s volcanic passion and his mighty language stirred the souls of the people in a way in which Lenin’s incisive didactic prose never could…The contrast in their temperaments extended to other qualities as well…(Trotsky) did not possess the habits of free and easy teamwork which make the strength of a real leader of men…(he) had never succeeded in organizing any stable group of followers (352)…”

In sharp contrast was his antagonist, Joseph Stalin, who:

“…spent all his political life in the underground. He had…(a) gift for organization…for handling men…(an) empirical mind, and…firmness of character (353)…”

And these two characters had been at odds from the beginning. Trotsky:

“…was hardly aware of Stalin’s existence until after the October Revolution…Stalin’s ‘greyness’ concealed from him Stalin’s strength. He continued to treat his future rival with an unintentional yet all the more hurtful haughtiness…It is hardly surprising that Stalin’s pride was stung (353, 54)…”

Deutscher summarizes Trotsky’s character:

“Thus almost everything in him, his fertile mind, his oratorical boldness, his literary originality, his administrative ability…his exacting demands…his aloofness… all this induced in the members of the Old Guard a sense of inferiority…he did not suffer fools gladly (580)…”

With these portraits in mind, let us begin with the first act of our drama: Lenin’s incapacitating strokes, the writing of his “testament” and his death. In April 1922, after Stalin’s appointment as the party’s General Secretary, Lenin made a proposal to Trotsky that he act as his deputy at the head of the government. Having misgivings about Stalin’s appointment, Lenin sought to counterbalance it with Trotsky’s. Then, in May, Lenin suffered his first stroke. He was warned by his doctors that he required absolute rest; but he had defied them. In September he called Stalin, insisting Trotsky’s appointment be placed urgently before the Politibureau. Lenin met with Trotsky in private; but he had refused the appointment.

Trotsky believed he was being offered an office without influence: “…All levers of the government were in the hands of the party’s Secretariat, i.e. in Stalin’s hands…Trotsky had no doubt that even as Lenin’s deputy he would depend at every step on decisions taken by the General Secretariat which selected the Bolshevik personnel for the various government departments and by this alone effectively controlled them (583)…”

Then, in the summer of 1922, a disagreement over the government’s handling of the non-Russian nationalities arose. The Bolsheviks had guaranteed them the right of national self-determination (i.e.  democratic control and the right of secession). Over this the conflict between Trotsky and Stalin now came to a head:

“Stalin for the first time now applied repression to members of the Bolshevik party…He also gravely compromised the Bolshevik policy toward the non-Russian nationalities…

When…protests came before the Politbureau Trotsky upheld them…He saw in Stalin’s behavior a scandalous and flagrant abuse of power…Lenin upheld Stalin’s authority (596, 97)…”

Other issues (e.g. the monopoly of foreign trade) had brought the now ailing Lenin closer to Trotsky. At the beginning of December, he once again urged him to accept the post of vice-Premier. Lenin spoke about his grave anxiety concerning the abuse of power; told Trotsky that he was ready for a ’bloc’ with him against Stalin. A few days later Lenin suffered another stroke. Then, late in December, he had dictated his “testament”:

“He intended to offer the party guidance about those who would presently be called upon to lead it…

The party…should beware of the danger of a split in which Stalin and Trotsky…would confront each other as the chief antagonists…Trotsky was ‘the most able’ of all the party leaders; but he was possessed of ‘excessive self-confidence’…About Stalin he had only this to say: ‘Having become General Secretary, Stalin has concentrated immeasurable power in his hands; and I am not sure that he will always know how to use that power with sufficient caution.’…

…on 4 January 1923 he wrote that brief and

Show more