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ISR Issue 53, May–June 2007

CRITICAL THINKING: In defense of Leon Trotsky

A defamatory attack provides a chance to look at the Russian Revolution's real achievements


IN A NASTY little hit piece published by the online magazine Slate in early April, the British-based Australian critic Clive James decided to recycle a series of ludicrous lies about the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, in the process revealing his own ignorance and dishonesty. Among other things, James accuses Trotsky of being a mass murderer and compares him to, believe it or not, Osama bin-Laden. Before examining these charges, let’s first review a little background.

Trotsky was, along with Lenin, one of the two main leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Trotsky was elected chair of the Petrograd workers’ council (or soviet) before the revolution, organized the insurrection against the discredited Kerensky administration (the latest in a series of provisional governments formed after the tsar’s February abdication), which brought the Bolshevik Party to power in October, and then created the Red Army, which he led to victory in a ferocious civil war against reactionary forces backed by hostile foreign powers.

Critics of the Bolsheviks have long attempted to portray the October Revolution as an undemocratic coup, but in fact the revolution had enormous popular support, and only took place after the Bolsheviks had won a majority in the highly democratic soviets. I. N. Steinberg, a leader of the left faction of the Social-Revolutionaries, describes how the Kerensky government had become a “quasi dictatorship,” continuing Russia’s participation in the First World War and actively attempting to suppress a growing movement from below that had begun to appropriate and redistribute land. Every such attempt, he reports, was “like a match thrown into the powder keg of the revolution.” According to Steinberg, “the deepest sensation which October aroused in the people was joy. In city, village and army, people rejoiced in the fullness of their liberation, in the limitless freedom that now summoned their creative efforts.”

THE INITIAL achievements of the revolution were impressive. The Bolsheviks legalized the peasants’ seizure of farmland and announced workers’ control of the factories. Lenin told the Congress of Soviets in January 1918: “In introducing workers’ control we knew it would take some time before it spread to the whole of Russia, but we wanted to show that we recognized only one road—changes from below; we wanted the workers themselves to draw up, from below, the new principle of economic conditions.” Government officials were only to be paid the average wage of a skilled industrial worker.

The new government, with Trotsky as people’s commissar for foreign affairs began negotiations to end Russia’s involvement in the war. It announced the separation of state and education from the powerful Orthodox Church, and instituted full freedom of religion, ending the oppression of Jews that had existed in Russia for centuries. Education was made free for all and a massive literacy campaign was initiated. Welfare services were provided for the first time. Homosexuality ceased to be a crime. All the countries of the old Russian Empire were granted the right to self-determination.

All legislation that had served to oppress women was swept away. Equal pay was established by law. Marriages could be dissolved at the request of either partner. Children born out of wedlock were given equal rights with the children of married parents. Legal restrictions on abortion were removed. The state provided welfare services for mothers and their children, setting up maternity homes and free nurseries, and women’s departments were established around the country with the aim of bringing women together to play an active role in changing society.
The vibrancy of the new society was reflected in a huge surge of activity in the cultural field. There was a flowering of artistic endeavor in the visual arts, drama, filmmaking, and literature.
Victor Serge, an anarchist who joined the Bolshevik Party shortly after the revolution, described the atmosphere:

Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities, and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere. Innumerable fresh initiatives laid open the teaching of unheard-of, totally unexplored domains of learning….

Every evening the theatres, now nationalized, presented their customary repertoire, but to a new sort of audience.... [T]he gold vaulted theatres were thronged with working men and women, with young Communists, their skulls shaved as a precaution against typhus-carrying fleas, and with Red soldiers on leave from the front.

Yet despite these achievements, the revolution was faced with serious problems from its inception. Russia was a country that had barely begun to drag itself out of the Middle Ages, and by 1917 the war had shattered much of the country’s economy, leaving railways, communications, and industry in a shambles. To make matters worse, the Bolsheviks were forced to sign a highly unfavorable peace treaty that ceded an enormous amount of territory to Germany, which included half of Russia’s industry and most of its coal mines.

From the very beginning, both Lenin and Trotsky had been clear that without international support, a workers’ state could not survive in an economically backward country like Russia, and that it was vital for the revolution to spread. Belief in the possibility of international revolution was no mere pipe dream. Millions of workers around the world were inspired by the courage and vision of the Bolsheviks. As the war ended, the monarchy collapsed in Germany and workers,’ soldiers,’ and sailors’ councils were set up. In Hungary, Bavaria, Finland, and Latvia, soviet governments briefly came to power. The Turkish Sultan was overthrown. There was a wave of factory occupations in Italy. Even in North America there were general strikes in Seattle and Winnipeg. But none of these movements was well enough organized to win power for the working class—outside Russia, no disciplined, revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks, had been built in advance.

As early as the summer of 1918 the situation in Russia was becoming desperate. There was a cholera epidemic in Petrograd and famine was widespread. At the same time, counterrevolutionary elements began resorting to violence and an assassination attempt on Lenin left him seriously injured. Over 50,000 foreign soldiers from countries such as the U.S., Britain, and France invaded Russia and equipped the White Armies of the old ruling class. The Soviet government was forced to throw every effort into the defense of the infant workers’ republic.

The civil war that followed was a brutal affair in which hundreds of thousands died. But as one recent historian notes, “Terror was largely the creation of the anti-Bolshevik Whites. In Finland alone, the Whites killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people. In the Ukraine whole towns of Jews followed the Red frontline, advancing and retreating with it and fleeing their opponents, because those who remained at home risked death from White pogroms.” The Bolsheviks often responded with harsh measures of their own, but the accusation of mass murder against Trotsky only reveals James’ lack of sympathy with the revolution that Trotsky was defending. (The comparison with bin-Laden is even sillier, since Trotsky wrote a famous critique of individual terrorism as a political tactic.)
Trotsky compelled former officers to act as military experts for the Red Army by holding their families hostage. He also imposed stern military discipline and deserters could face execution, but he mainly ensured loyalty by criss-crossing the country by train and making inspirational appearances at the front. As he later noted, “armies are not built on fear. The Tsar’s army fell to pieces not because of any lack of reprisals…. The strongest cement in the new army was the ideas of the October Revolution, and the train supplied the front with this cement.”

James attempts to bolster his charge of mass murder against Trotsky by invoking the Bolsheviks’ suppression of a mutiny by sailors at the military fortress of Kronstadt in 1921. Hundreds were killed at Kronstadt, but even more members of the Red Army lost their lives, and the motivation for the Bolsheviks’ attack was decidedly not, as James claims, that the mutineers simply wanted “a right to opinions of their own about the Revolution.” In reality, the sailors were threatening an armed rebellion and demanding that Bolsheviks be purged from the soviets. Although the civil war had been won, the revolution remained highly vulnerable, and if their demands had been met it would have been, in Lenin’s words, “a step, a ladder, a bridge” to counterrevolution.

WHAT KRONSTADT highlighted was the enormously precarious position of the Bolshevik government following the civil war. The economy was falling apart, thousands of the most dedicated working-class militants had died in the fighting, and food shortages led to a mass exodus of industrial workers from the towns. Every gain of the revolution was threatened by the scarcity of resources. Workers’ power came to be an abstract slogan, while the soviets became little more than talking shops. The disintegration of the working class left the Bolsheviks suspended in air, controlling the state machine but lacking a social base. The main justification for holding on to power was to block a period of brutal reaction.

As the possibilities for international revolution seemed to recede, the regime itself began to change in character. By the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, the Bolshevik Party had fallen under the control of a bureaucracy of full-time officials, led by Joseph Stalin, who were no longer interested in world revolution. Instead, their chief concern was with the interests of the Soviet state, and of themselves as its rulers. In line with this, Stalin and his supporters put forward the doctrine of “socialism in one country,” arguing that it was possible to build a socialist society within the confines of the Soviet Union alone.
Trotsky led the opposition to the rising bureaucracy politically and intellectually. He argued for the need to rebuild industry quickly to strengthen the working class while attempting to end the country’s isolation by continuing the attempt to spread the revolution internationally. But during the course of the 1920s, Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky, who was expelled from the party, forced into exile, and eventually murdered by a Stalinist agent in 1940. The bureaucracy entrenched itself as a new dictatorial ruling class, industrializing the Soviet Union and turning it into a world power at enormous human cost.
Trotsky’s importance was to show that Stalinism was not an inevitable outcome of the October Revolution and that it represented the revolution’s betrayal rather than its culmination. Trotsky never fully acknowledged the extent to which the bureaucracy had constituted itself as a new ruling class, but his penetrating analyses of developments in the Soviet Union and around the world nevertheless showed that a Marxist alternative to Stalinism was possible.

Because of this, those who dismiss both Marxism and the Russian Revolution are eager to demonstrate that the only real difference between Trotsky and Stalin was that one lost and the other won the struggle for power in the 1920s. Thus James claims: “When it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was…that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.”

I wonder if James really believes this nonsense. If so, he has never bothered to read Trotsky’s own writings, which explicitly and repeatedly condemn the “ruinous consequences” of Stalin’s forced collectivization. In The Revolution Betrayed, for instance, Trotsky denounces “the blind, violent, gambling methods” that had led to a devastating decline in agricultural production and the deaths of millions, at a time when most people outside Russia refused to see what was going on, and he argues that “collectivization could and should have assumed a more reasonable tempo…better corresponding to the material and moral resources of the country.”

In the 1930s, Stalin accused Trotsky of being a fascist agent. Today the technique of the big lie is apparently alive and well, although James’s attack has the character of farce rather than tragedy. But the fact that he was moved to level his absurd accusations is an indication that Trotsky’s life and ideas continue to resonate with a layer of political activists. And that, at least, is cause for a little optimism on the October Revolution’s ninetieth anniversary.

Phil Gasper teaches at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. He is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Roadmap to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005), a contributor to The Struggle for Palestine (Haymarket Books, 2002), and The Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Lynne Reinner, forthcoming).
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