TROTSKY: Angel of Enlightenment or Frustrated Dictator?

By Lynch, Michael | History Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

TROTSKY: Angel of Enlightenment or Frustrated Dictator?


Lynch, Michael, History Review


In reviewing the career of one of the key figures in modern Russian history, Michael Lynch rejects the notion that Trotsky would have been a more humane leader than Stalin.

In recent years, following the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the USSR, the whole period of the Russian Revolution has come in for reappraisal. One key feature of this has been the renewed interest in the role of Leon Trotsky. There are Marxists still to be found who regard Trotsky as the true heir to Lenin and the Russian revolution of 1917. In their interpretation, Trotsky was outmanoeuvred by Stalin, who then imposed a tyrannical regime on the USSR at total variance with what Lenin had intended. If only Trotsky had won the power struggle, runs their argument, the true spirit of 1917 would have survived and Russia would not have descended into the Stalinist darkness with its brutality, its purges, and its gulag.

Even non-Marxists ask whether, had Trotsky triumphed over Stalin, the USSR would have been saved from the horrors it subsequently experienced. Would revolution have developed a human face? Would the Soviet Union have developed into the first truly successful Marxist state? Indeed, would Trotsky, as his supporters continue to claim, have led the way to world revolution? These question cannot be satisfactorily answered since they belong to the `what ifs' of history. But that they continue to be asked illustrates Trotsky's abiding significance.

An outline of Trotsky's career up to 1917

Trotsky's real name was Lev Bronstein. He was born into a Jewish land-owning family in the Ukraine in 1879. A gifted child, he was quick to learn foreign languages and showed great interest in Russian and European culture. From his youngest days his short-sightedness obliged him to wear spectacles, something which he took pride in since he felt it made him look intellectual. Throughout his life he also suffered from colic, which at times was so intense that it incapacitated him.

According to his autobiography, young Bronstein was rebellious from an early age. He had a natural sympathy for the peasants who worked on the family estate and who always seemed hungry and miserable. On one occasion a group of them showed their plight by lying in front of Trotsky's father and waving their cracked and bleeding feet in the air. David Bronstein was sufficiently moved to give the peasants wine and to promise to help them.

However, what is instructive about the story is that Lev was not moved in the same way as his father. The young revolutionary viewed the peasants' hardship as something to be exploited for political ends. The truth was that Trotsky approached the question of economic deprivation very much as an intellectual. He was not concerned with the relief of suffering for humanitarian reasons. Indeed, he regarded suffering as highly valuable, since it intensified the bitterness of the downtrodden and sharpened their taste for revolution. Trotsky came to share with Lenin a distaste for what they called `economism', that is the attempt to raise the standards of peasants and workers by improving their living and working conditions. Such efforts only delayed the revolution. It was the task of true revolutionaries to intensify class warfare by exploiting grievances, not to lessen it by introducing reforms. For Trotsky the slogan was `the worse it is, the better it is'.

In 1898 Lev Bronstein, by now an active Marxist, was exiled to Siberia for his involvement in protests against the tsarist regime. Four years later he escaped and fled abroad, adopting the revolutionary title of Trotsky, the name of one of his former goalers. In London, he met Lenin for the first time and collaborated in the publication of a revolutionary journal, The Spark. As the delegate from Siberia, he attended the Second Congress of the Marxist Social Democratic Party (the SDs) in 1903. It was at this Congress that the SDs split into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. …

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