History History & Theory

Leon Trotsky: A Legacy Vindicated

By Lal Khan

In 1940, 76 years ago, on August 20, Leon Trotsky was assassinated. Leader of the Russian revolution Trotsky was living as an exile in Mexico at the time of his assassination. The declassified documents prove that his assassin, Ramon Mercader, was a Stalin agent. He was awarded the Order of Lenin by Joseph Stalin in absentia while he was serving a prison sentence in a Mexican jail for assassinating Trotsky.

Born as Lev Davidovich Bronstein in Kirovograd, Ukraine, in 1879, Trotsky was a name circumstances imposed on him; he escaped from exile in Siberia on a fake passport bearing this name.

Trotsky was radicalised at an early age when he joined a clandestine Marxist study circle. During the first Russian revolution (1905), he was elected as the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Petrograd was the bastion of the proletarian revolution in Russia.

Initially, on joining the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), he mostly sided with Lenin on many issues. However, they split during the second congress of the RSDLP in 1903 when the party underwent a split mainly on organisational issues, which in fact were a reflection of ideological differences. But Trotsky and Lenin reunited after their return from exile in the immediate aftermath of the February revolution in 1917.

The 1903 split were engendered by a debate over the character of the Russian revolution. In this debate, Trotsky advocated the ‘theory of the Permanent Revolution’. Lenin, however, disagreed with Trotsky’s preposition that the proletariat, at the head of the peasantry, would lead the revolution and the character of the revolution would be socialist. The former thought a united front of peasants and workers would lead the revolution initially. After a long polemic that went on for 14 years, Lenin came to the conclusions Trotsky had theorised in his conceptualisation of ‘permanent revolution’. On his way back from exile following the February revolution, Lenin wrote his famous ‘April Thesis’ whereby he validated, in agreement with Trotsky, the socialist character of the revolution in Russia. This laid the profound unity between Lenin and Trotsky on a firm ideological and scientific basis that lasted till Lenin’s death in 1924. In his last testament Lenin characterised Trotsky as, “the most capable man in the present CC.”

The theory of Permanent Revolution states that the bourgeois democratic tasks in countries with delayed bourgeois democratic development can only be accomplished through the establishment of a workers state and would inevitably lead to the expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy. Thus, the accomplishment of bourgeois democratic tasks passes over into socialist tasks. Although most closely associated with Trotsky, the call for Permanent Revolution is first found in the writings of Karl Marx. In March 1850, speaking to the Central Committee of the Communist League he explained: “It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far — not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world — that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers…Their battle cry must be: ‘The Permanent Revolution’.”

The 1917 Russian revolution was the first example validating the relevance of ‘permanent revolution’. In countries like Pakistan, where the national bourgeoisie has accomplished none of the democratic tasks in 69 years, this theory becomes even more relevant today.

Trotsky’s role in the victorious Russian revolution is best documented in the writings of his archrival and executioner Joseph Stalin. On November 10, 1918, Stalin wrote in the official party paper, Pravda: “All practical work in connection with the organisation of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of Comrade Trotsky, the President of the Petrograd Soviet. It can be stated with certainty that the Party is indebted primarily and principally to Comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the revolutionary military committee was organised.”

After the revolution Trotsky took the most crucial responsibilities and played a decisive role in successfully defending the revolution against a counter-revolutionary aggression launched by 21 armies including those of the major imperialist powers. From a demoralised and rag tag army of 300,000 under the Czar, Trotsky supervised the building of the 1.8 million-strong formidable Red Army.

Trotsky also served in the capacity of the commissar of foreign affairs and education, besides performing a host of other responsibilities. However, his most important struggle was his fight against the degeneration of the revolution. The degeneration was triggered by the revolution’s international isolation and the bureaucratisation that resulted from scarcity and pilferage.

For his opposition, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927, and deported from the Soviet Union in 1929. He never returned to the USSR where he once commanded great respect, love and popularity. He would spend the next 11 years as an exile.

However, it was in this period that Trotsky penned some of his masterworks that remain valuable contributions to Marxist theory. In 1936, he wrote his epic work The Revolution Betrayed. In this book Trotsky explained the causes of the degeneration of the Soviet revolution. He explained why capitalism would be restored in the USSR if the USSR did not undergo a second revolution overthrowing the bureaucracy.

More than fifty years after Trotsky wrote this book, his predictions came true. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the capitalist counterrevolution in China can be understood through Trotsky’s theoretical works. The endurance of his theoretical framework makes him one of the most important 20th century Marxist theoreticians.

In his last days, Trotsky wrote the following, “As long as I breathe I shall fight for the future, that radiant future, in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizons of beauty, joy and happiness…Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into the room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”

How true!