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Who was Leon Trotsky?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a Russian revolutionary, who was one of the founders of the Soviet state. The son of a prosperous Jewish farmer, he was born near Yelizavetgrad (later Kirovograd) in the Ukraine on October 26, 1879. His original name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein. He attended secondary school in Odessa. For being involved in the revolutionary movement, he was arrested in 1898 and later sent to Siberia. There he became a committed Marxist and a member of the Social Democratic party. In 1902, with a forged passport in the name of Trotsky (or Trotski), he escaped to Switzerland, where he joined other Social Democratic exiles. In 1903, when the party split, he opposed Lenin's tenet of a centralized party with its implication of dictatorship and declared himself with the Menshevik faction.

Trotsky returned to Russia during the Revolution of 1905 and was a prominent leader of the insurgents in St. Petersburg (later Petrograd, then Leningrad, and now again St. Petersburg). Again exiled to Siberia, Trotsky again escaped and went abroad. He remained a Menshevik until 1917, although he elaborated an individual interpretation, based on Marx, of the future of revolution in Russia. This postulated the "permanent revolution," during which the revolt of the middle classes would merge with that of the working classes. Meanwhile, the workers' rebellion against capitalism was to spread around the world. Thus it was Trotsky who furnished the Bolsheviks with their essential program in the Revolution of 1917 (even though the Russian Revolution was not carried abroad).

Trotsky in Power

In March 1917 the czar was overthrown, and Trotsky hastened home from New York. With other left-wing Mensheviks, he formally joined the Bolshevik party and soon was Lenin's chief lieutenant. As the elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, he was instrumental in effecting the Bolshevik seizure of governmental power in November 1917.

In the new Soviet government, Trotsky was commissar of foreign affairs. As such, he was a central figure in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russia's involvement in World War I. Protesting the peace terms, however, he resigned and did not sign the treaty.

Trotsky then accepted the post of commissar of war, in which he was charged with the task of building the Red Army into an effective, disciplined fighting force. During the Civil War of 1918-1920, he oversaw all Soviet operations, exercising strong leadership. He demanded centralized authority in military affairs and in economic matters as well. His conduct alienated a number of other Communist leaders- notably Joseph Stalin.

By 1921, Trotsky's star was descending, although at that point many considered him as Lenin's successor. Trotsky's power dwindled, and Lenin fell ill in 1922. Trotsky's colleagues in the ruling Politburo of the Communist party combined to thwart him. His supporters rallied, ineffectively, to his defense. In 1924, Trotsky was publicly charged with "Trotskyism", which his foes defined as a heretical Menshevik deviation from the doctrines of Lenin. In 1925 he was removed from his post as commissar of war.

Continuing his struggle to regain his position in the leadership, Trotsky allied himself with G. Y. Zinoview and L. B. Kamenev. But Stalin by then was master of the party apparatus, and he and his partisans did not welcome complaints from Trotskyites about failures in economic policy, international relations, and internal party democracy. In 1926, Trotsky was removed from the Politburo, and in 1927 he and his chief followers were expelled from the Communist party. In January 1928, Trotsky was exiled to Alma-Ata in Soviet Central Asia, and in February 1929 he was banished from the Soviet Union.

Trotsky in Exile

Trotsky lived in Turkey until 1933, when he moved to France. He continued his denunciations of Stalin, hoping to arouse anti-Stalinist feelings in the Soviet Union as well as in Communist parties abroad. Bowing to Soviet pressure, France expelled Trotsky in 1935, and he went to Norway. Again forced to move, he settled down in 1936 in a suburb of Mexico City.

The Soviet government alleged that Trotsky had fomented a huge anti-Soviet plot, and, in consequence, his former followers were tried and most of them executed during the "Moscow treason trials" in 1936-1938.

On August 20, 1940, Trotsky was stabbed in his home in Coyoacan, and he died the next day. His assassin was Ramon Mercader, a Spanish Communist agent.

Many of Trotsky's writings (works all imbued with acute intelligence and fervent partisanship) have been translated. These include Lenin (1925), My Life (1930), and History of the Russian Revolution (3 vols., 1932).


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Because I grew up during the cold war I was pretty familiar with Stalin but I didn't know much about Trotsky.