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Leon Trotsky - Revolutionary fighter

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August 20th 1940 is the day that Ramón Mercader, a Stalinist agent, struck the death blow that killed Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary and founder of the Fourth International. This article, originally to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death, is written by Dave Stockton

Fifty years ago Stalin's assassin brought an end to the life of a man who was, at one and the same time, the only survivor of the era of classical Marxism and one of the two greatest revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century (the other being Lenin). Leon Davidovich Trotsky united in his life's work, to the highest degree, the unbreakable unity of theory and practice.

In January 1905 the first Russian Revolution erupted in St Petersburg and rapidly engulfed the whole Russian empire. The Russian proletariat formed workers' councils (Soviets in Russian) across the whole country. By February Trotsky had rushed back from exile.

In Petersburg his magnificent oratory powers, allied to his clear revolutionary vision, meant that he rapidly became a prominent figure in the newly founded city Soviet. This was despite, or perhaps partly because of, the fact that he was not a member of either the Menshevik or the Bolshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Rapidly he became the chairman of the Soviet, the inspirer and drafter of its manifestos, taking the lead in organising the mighty general strike that paralysed Russia and forced concessions from the tottering Tsarist government.

Trotsky understood the nature and potential of the Soviet, a spontaneous creation of the revolutionary proletariat that no "thinker", aloof from the class struggle; could have invented. His receptivity to its potential as the basis of a workers' government was greater than that of the Bolsheviks. But characteristically in this period of his life he underestimated the role of the party within the Soviet, fighting for leadership of it. It was the Bolshevik-led Moscow Soviet that took the struggle to its highest point, that of insurrection.

The Petersburg Soviet on the other hand was arrested en mass after the peak of the strike movement was over. Trotsky was left to deliver a fine speech of defence of the Petersburg Soviet-through the windows of the courtroom-to the entire Russian proletariat. Here he defended the right to insurrection that the Soviet was able to carry out eleven years later.

The revolution of 1905 brought the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks together again into the re-united RSDLP. Consequently it enhanced the role of Trotsky the prophet of unity, of conciliation. But the defeat of the revolution and the dark years of reaction split the party once again and drove Trotsky into isolation.

In exile again, in Vienna he produced a "non-factional" newspaper, Pravda. When Lenin organised the Bolsheviks into an independent party, rather than a faction, in 1912 Trotsky was his most bitter opponent. They exchanged not a few sharp and scornful polemics, which Trotsky's enemies were able to quote out of context in later years to great effect. When Lenin had been deified these polemics by Trotsky appeared the most shocking sacrilege. Lenin's characterisations of Trotsky seemed a damnation against which there was no appeal.

During the war Trotsky was a pillar of the Internationalist Movement, drafter of the Zimmerwald Manifesto, editor of anti-war papers in Paris (Nashe Slovo - Our Word) and in New York (Novy Mir - New World). But these years did not heal his breach with Lenin. Lenin saw revolutionary defeatism, defeat of one's own country, as the lesser evil, as the litmus test for a consistent anti-war position.

Trotsky refused to adopt this position. Whilst he split decisively with the social chauvinists he maintained a bloc with Martov's "Menshevik Internationalist". These in contrast refused to break absolutely with the patriotic Mensheviks. Thus Lenin, with some justice if with occasional polemical exaggeration, stigmatised Trotsky as refusing break with the centre, internationally associated with Karl Kautsky.

It was only the Russian. Revolution itself that broke Trotsky definitively from this position which in later terminology we would call left-centrist. Lenin was then willing to wholeheartedly welcome Trotsky into the Bolshevik Party and to defend him against the petty jealousies of some of the Old Bolsheviks. Trotsky rallied to Bolshevism in its darkest hours, during the repression that followed the July Days. His declaration of membership landed him in jail.

As in 1905, Trotsky played a leading role in mobilising the working class and poor peasantry. In an age before the invention of microphones, he would often speak for two or three hours to a crowd several thousands strong.

Lunacharsky, himself recognized as the Bolsheviks' greatest public speaker in 1917, was an expert witness:

"I regard Trotsky as probably the greatest orator of our age His impressive appearance, his handsome sweeping gestures, the powerful rhythm of his speech, his loud but never fatiguing voice, the remarkable coherence and literary skill and his phrasing, the richness of imagery, scalding irony, his soaring pathos, his rigid logic, clear as polished steel-those are Trotsky's virtues as a speaker... I have seen Trotsky speaking for two and a half to three hours in front of a totally silent; standing audience listening as though spellbound to his monumental political treatise."

So many years later - in the era of the sound bite, when the atomising electronic media have reduced our attention span, such a scene seems frankly incredible. That uneducated, indeed illiterate, masses should listen, understand and act on the basis of such agitation and propaganda is a reminder of what a revolution does to the oppressed masses.

But Trotsky's most important role in the Revolution was as the leader of the insurrection.

One year later, a witness to his work generously wrote,

"All the work of practical organisation of the insurrection was conducted under the immediate leadership of the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky. It is possible to declare with certainty that the swift passing of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the bold execution of the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee the party owes principally and above all to comrade Trotsky."

The witness was Joseph Stalin. From the summer of 1918 the imperialist nations sent their armies against the revolution, plunging the country into a three year civil war. But to repel the attack a powerful army was needed. The old Tsarist army had been destroyed: a new army was needed to defend the workers' state.

Trotsky, a man with no military experience, was chosen to create it.

The Red Army which was established astounded the world not only by the rapidity with which it was formed, but also by the courage and audacity with which it fought. Trotsky proved himself a brilliant strategist. He led from the front, criss-crossing the country in an armoured train which served as a artillery headquarters and as a propaganda base, with its own printing press. The defeat of the imperialist invaders owed much to Trotsky, "the organiser of victory" as one of his contemporaries called him.

Trotsky showed his mettle in the darkest and most dangerous situations. Victor Serge recalls his arrival in Petrograd when all seemed lost, when even Lenin . thought it was necessary to evacuate the city. General Yudenich and the White Guards were at the very gates of the proletarian capital. Then Trotsky and his staff took control of affairs. Serge writes:

"They took everything in hand, meticulously and passionately. It was magical. Trotsky kept saying, 'It is impossible for a little army of 15,000 ex-officers to master a working class capital of 700,000 inhabitants'".

With the death of Lenin the years of victory came to an end. Yet, as Trotsky later realised, the next seventeen years witnessed the most indispensable struggle of his life. In the remaining years of the 1920s Trotsky rallied two oppositional factions to fight the bureaucratic degeneration. The United Opposition grouped thousands of old Bolsheviks and Young Communists around a revolutionary programme. They fought for restoration of the democracy of the soviets, the unions and the party, and an end to the concessions to the Kulaks associated with Bukharin's "socialism at a snail's pace”. Above all they waged a merciless campaign against the growing Menshevik policies of the Communist International.

The Opposition was defeated, expelled and exiled just in time for Stalin. The crisis the Opposition predicted forced an adventurist "left turn". Stalin took certain features of the Left Opposition's programme but robbed them of all anti-bureaucratic content. A sharp turn to industrialisation created a bureaucratically centralised command plan, at enormous cost in terms of human suffering. The "left" Third Period,with its wild adventurist refusal of the workers' united front, allowed Hitler to come to power in Germany.

Expelled from the USSR Trotsky could only ring the tocsin of warning to the world's largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union. Form a united front with the Social Democrats, unite the mass armed workers' militias - the Reichsbanner and the Red Front Fighters - and Hitler's SA could be halted in its tracks. Trotsky's warnings fell on the deaf ears of a brutal and self satisfied bureaucracy.

Trotsky set about the most important task of his life, the one that centrists from Isaac Deutscher to Tony Cliff have always deprecated, always seen as "tragic" or even unworthy of his greatness;nNot so. This struggle, the struggle for the Fourth International, showed Trotsky's full political and moral greatness.

The last five years of Trotsky's life were ones of an unbelievable series of defeats for the proletarian vanguard, in Austria, Spain and in France. They were, in the Soviet Union, the years that Victor Serge dubbed "The midnight of the century". At least 10,000 Left Oppositionists were assassinated, lost amongst the hundreds of thousands, even millions of Stalin's victims. They went to their deaths singing the Internationale, defiantly defending and believing in the cause of Lenin and Trotsky.

Trotsky himself lost both of his sons, Sergei in Russia and Leon Sedov in Paris to GPU assassins. His closest collaborators and allies in building the Fourth International were also among the victims, Rudolf Klement, the secretary of the Fourth International was assassinated shortly before the founding Congress. Many other Trotskyists would perish in the coming Second World War, at the hands of both the Fascists and the Stalinists.

Any lesser figure than Trotsky would have collapsed under the pitiless pressure of these years, above all under the unbearable degree of isolation from the world's labour movement that Stalinist persecution imposed. This was symbolised in bricks and mortar in the little fortress at Coyoacan in Mexico which was Trotsky's last refuge and prison.

Trotsky himself summed up the roots of his steadfastness and optimism in the darkest hours. It was in his experience of struggle both in the years of revolutionary flood tide and the years of ebb, when the masses "tired of the tension, became disillusioned, lost faith in themselves".

Trotsky speaking for all the Bolshevik-Leninists said:

"They learned not to fall into despair over the fact that the laws of history do not depend upon their individual testes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria. They learned to subordinate their individual testes to the laws of history. They learned not to become frightened by the most powerful enemies if their power is in contradiction to the needs of historical development. They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the next historic flood will carry them to the other shore.

Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being."

With these words we remember Trotsky and the fight for the world revolution.