Aug 24, 2020
Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.
Eighty years ago, on August 20, 1940, Ramon Mercader, a killer sent by Stalin, murdered Leon Trotsky, exiled in Mexico, with an ice ax.
Thus disappeared the last great figure of a revolutionary generation, that of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the Bolsheviks who had ensured the success of the proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917.
Trotsky was a distilled essence of revolutionary experience. Already in 1905, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, he had inspired the action of the first workers’ council in the capital. After the revolution of February 1917, says a witness, he “ran from the Oboukhovsky factory to the Troubotcheny factory, from the Putilov factory to the Baltic factory, from the Manege to the barracks, it looked like he spoke everywhere at the same time. Every soldier and worker in Petrograd knew him and listened to him. His influence on the masses and even on the leaders was irresistible.” This activity, in complete agreement with Lenin, Stalin had written in 1918: “All the practical organization of work of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of Comrade Trotsky.” This did not prevent Stalin from asserting six years later that “Trotsky had played no role in the October Revolution”!
In the summer of 1918, the imperialist powers led by France governed by Georges Clemenceau, and England governed by Lloyd George, invaded Russia to try to isolate the country and condemn it to perish from starvation, supporting the White Armies who wanted to re-establish the tsar. The civil war lasted until 1921. The workers’ state lacked everything, but Trotsky succeeded in building up a revolutionary army of workers and peasants, which would prevail. He gave the key to this success: “For our army, the strongest glue were the ideas of October.” As one enthusiastic farmer said: “The Reds were ready to give their lives for the world of the Soviets, a world without beggars or infirm.”
For Lenin and Trotsky, the revolution could only survive by spreading to developed countries, like Germany. In 1919, the Bolsheviks laid the foundations of the Communist International, to bring together the militants who in different countries rejected the socialist or trade union leaders who had supported their bourgeoisie during the First World War. During the period of the first four congresses of the International, Trotsky played a major role.
However, the revolutionary wave of the aftermath of the First World War did not lead to a victory for the proletariat elsewhere than in Russia. In a country drained of its lifeblood, only the party apparatus continued to function, never ceasing to grow and attract those who, tired of the struggle, saw it as a means of making a career. Stalin, the boss of this apparatus, maneuvered to dismiss the militants who remained faithful to the objective of the world revolution. Lenin and Trotsky saw this danger and decided in 1922 to oppose it. But illness and then death would take Lenin in 1924.
In 1923 Trotsky published The New Course, which criticized the growing weight of bureaucracy within the workers’ state, called for the return of democracy in the party and the implementation of industrialization and a plan. A statement signed by 46 other leaders went in the same direction. The struggle of the Russian Left Opposition began. Trotsky and his comrades, in the general retreat of the workers’ movement, despite the weariness and discouragement of workers in Russia and elsewhere, stood up step by step for the workers’ state, its future and that of the world revolution. The Left Opposition criticized, in particular, the economic policy of the Stalinist leadership and the orientation of the International which, in 1927, had led to the defeat of the workers’ revolution in China. Many members of the Left Opposition were then removed from all responsibility and deported by Stalin.
Expelled, Trotsky began a vast correspondence intended to bring together all the Communists who were aware that Stalin was betraying the revolution and launched a Bulletin of the Opposition intended for the USSR. The Permanent Revolution, History of the Russian Revolution, My Life, The Revolution Betrayed and many other texts remain as the distilled capital of the revolutionary experience.
Until 1933, the Trotskyists struggled to try to straighten out the Communist Party and the International. But in 1933, the German labor movement surrendered without struggle to the Nazis. The International failed to react to Stalin’s political orientation which prevented any real workers’ response to Hitler’s rise. These failures meant that the International was dead and a new one had to be built.
For Trotsky, the victory of Nazism also heralded a world war. Time was running out. The workers’ surge of the 1930s in the United States, France, and Spain was short-lived. The Fourth International was proclaimed in September 1938, in a period of decline. Its program, the Transitional Program, was to arm militant workers in anticipation of a new revolutionary period. At the end of World War II, the front of imperialism and the Stalinist bureaucracy succeeded in preventing a new wave of revolutionary workers. The program nevertheless remains current.
With the Moscow trials, staged from 1936 to 1938, Stalin liquidated the October generation and poured lies and slander against Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov, denounced as responsible for everything wrong in the USSR and as so-called allies of Hitler and Mussolini! A commission, chaired by American liberal academic John Dewey, allowed Trotsky to refute these slanders, but the message was clear: the Stalinist apparatus wanted the head of Trotsky and his relatives. Before him, Sedov and several of Trotsky’s collaborators were assassinated.
By raising the flag of internationalism, that is to say the need for the proletariat to extend the revolution to the whole world, the only way to overcome the dictatorship of capital over humanity, Trotsky ensured the continuity of the Marxist tradition. Now, in order for the bureaucracy leading the USSR to be able to claim to speak and act in the name of the proletariat, while actually turning its back on it, it had to suppress those who denounced this usurpation. Stalin and the Soviet ruling caste feared that, despite their efforts to erase the memory of October, there would remain a voice to continue and organize the struggle against capitalism and against the bureaucracy.
By having Trotsky assassinated, Stalin dealt a severe blow to the revolutionary workers’ movement, depriving it of its most experienced leader. But, eighty years after his death, the Trotskyist current still exists. It is certainly weak, divided, and lacks links with the working class. But Trotskyist ideas still represent the hope of the proletarian revolution—the only way to send capitalism to join Stalinism in the dustbin of history.
Extract from the Journal in Exile:
“For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionary; for forty-two of those years I fought under the banner of Marxism. […] I will die a proletarian revolutionary, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and therefore an intractable atheist. My faith in the communist future of humanity is no less ardent, on the contrary it is firmer today than it was in my youth.”
Léon Trotsky, 1935