Aug 31, 2015
August 20th was the 75th anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky. He was attacked by an assassin sent expressly for that purpose by Josef Stalin and died one day later.
Leon Trotsky was practically the last of the militants who had prepared for and led the 1917 Russian Revolution, and also of the Bolshevik-Leninists who organized in Russia in the years from 1923 to 1938, in opposition to the bureaucracy that strangled the revolution.
Trotsky was a revolutionary known around the world. Among other things, he was chairman of the St. Petersburg soviet during the 1905 Revolution, afterwards put on trial, condemned to Siberia, but escaped. Like many others, he spent years in exile, returning to Russia with the breaking out of the 1917 Revolution. He organized the insurrection that took power, putting it in the hands of the working class soviets. Alongside Lenin he fought against all those who wanted the revolution to wait. He organized and headed the Red Army, which beat back not only the White Army organized by the old Czarist generals, trying to take power back, but also beat back the armies sent into Russia by all the imperialist powers in the failed attempt to conquer the revolution. Eight countries sent sizeable military forces into Russia, and many more countries sent aid to the White Army of the Czarist regime.
Trotsky also played, along with Lenin, a leading role in the first five years of the Communist (Third) International. Trotsky, like Lenin and so many other of the Old Bolsheviks, understood that if the revolution did not spread from Russia into other countries, the revolution itself would be strangled. And they worked through the new International to reinforce the parties built up in other countries. But after a number of attempts, the revolution did not succeed anywhere else, although workers held power for several days or weeks in some cities or countries.
Even though the forces of the Russian Revolution defeated their enemies in the civil war, the working class, which had done the fighting, had paid a terrible price. The most conscious workers were the ones who volunteered to fight. Many of them were killed in the civil war – close to half a million. Many millions more died as the result of starvation caused by the war and the blockade of the Soviet Union, and by disease, especially typhus, which was widespread. The economy was in ruins.
When the revolution was defeated in other countries, the Soviet Union found itself blockaded, alone and still the focus of capitalist forces around the world, which aimed to strangle it.
In this situation the bureaucracy rapidly grew. It had been there since the period immediately after the Revolution – so many of the “experts” needed to resume the functioning of the country had all the habits of the old regime, and of class societies around the world. But with the devastation wrought on the country by all the ills attendant on the civil war, the bureaucracy really expanded.
An opposition to that bureaucracy grew up, calling themselves the Bolshevik-Leninists. Lenin had begun to make a fight against the growing bureaucratism and some of its policies, but Lenin was pushed to the side of political life in Soviet Russia by a series of strokes that hit him starting in May 1922, ending with his death in January 1924. With the exception of a very few weeks, he was nearly paralyzed, and finally unable even to speak. It was obvious from the last things he dictated and his proposal to Trotsky to take up the fight jointly with him that he was preparing to make a fight against the growing bureaucracy, and against Stalin, who increasingly sat as its master.
With Lenin sidelined, the Opposition grew up around Trotsky, who had been the other acknowledged leader of the October revolution and was even more known as the result of his role in the Civil War.
This movement – the Bolshevik-Leninists – had tens of thousands of militants; it was tied politically to many thousands more sympathizers inside the working class; it came to lead struggles of the Soviet working class. And it did all this even though its militants, for most of its 15-year history, were forced to function clandestinely, even “illegally,” just as the Bolshevik party had once functioned clandestinely during most of the 15 years of its existence before it led the struggle for power in 1917.
What came finally to be called Trotskyism developed out of a struggle carried out inside the Communist party of the Soviet Union, that is, the Bolshevik party, and inside the Communist International, which the Bolsheviks had worked to create after taking power inside Russia. It was a fight to push back the growing bureaucratization inside Russia, to control the bureaucracy that had grown up inside and imposed itself on top of the new workers state and was suffocating political life inside the party and the International. But the fight that developed into Trotskyism was also the fight to offer a different policy both for the economic problems facing the Soviet Union and for the political problems raised by the social upheavals shaking the rest of the world during this period.
In other words, it was a fight by militants to present themselves as an alternative leadership for the party and the International.
This struggle was carried out, in part, by those who were called “old Bolsheviks,” that is, the ones who had taken part in the fights against the regime of the czars before the revolution, many of them going back to the period before the revolution of 1905. The other part to make up this movement were the so-called “youth of October,” the ones pulled into the revolutionary fight of 1917 who then took part in the Civil War of 1918 to 1921, against the armies of the imperialist powers and the White armies. But old or young, all of them were militants. They had all been tested by events, and made proofs of their devotion to the working class. They all had a revolutionary history.
Their fight at the beginning did not aim at building a new party or international, at least not until the events of 1933 in Germany, when the lack of any response by any communist party or by the Communist International proved that those old organizations were irretrievably politically dead. It was a fight to take back the party, and to change its course, to pull it back from a course that was rapidly destroying the workers state.
The fight reached a crescendo coming into the 15th Congress, the meeting of the Communist party in 1927. Immediately before the Congress, Trotsky was expelled from the party. And many others were excluded immediately afterwards. Some parts of the Opposition petitioned immediately to be reinstated into the party, offering to give up all opposition, effectively confessing their “mistakes.”
But the vast number of those who had a revolutionary history continued the fight – they understood if they could hang on long enough, a revolution might well break out in another country, giving the Soviet Union a chance to breathe again.
Repression was increased against those who remained in opposition. By June of 1928, Stalin declared publicly that 10,000 oppositionists had been excluded from the party. But he also admitted that 20,000 more remained in the party. Both of these figures are credible. The cadres who were banished were sent into colonies of exiles in the far reaches of the Soviet Union; or they were put in “isolators,” that is, places of solitary confinement – or into other prisons, or into the camps that finally ended up being death camps.
Inside this system of repression, the Oppositionists developed their ties with each other, and remade them over and over – shipped from camp to camp. They found means of communicating, of keeping track of each other, of working out their ideas. They developed a common program and attracted others to their flag, and kept alive the tradition of struggle in the working class. And for most of that time, they maintained ties with Trotsky, despite the fact he had been deported outside the Soviet Union in 1929. But even when their ties were finally cut off after 1933, they worked out analyses and policies that were essentially the same, using the same basic approach to confront new problems as they came up. It was the mark of how much they had formed a homogenous set of politics, derived from common struggles, common discussion under all these difficulties.
Trotsky, forced outside the Soviet Union, eventually cut off from all contact with the inside, began to work to build up opposition forces, at first inside the Communist International, then with the goal of building forces around the world, continuing to stand for communism and the fight of the working class to take power.
Ultimately, that is, by the end of 1937-38, the Opposition was mostly destroyed inside the Soviet Union. By 1938, most had either died from the conditions existing in the prison camps where the Stalinist bureaucracy had condemned them, or were killed in the purges starting in the mid-1930s. Those whom Stalin killed in one way or another were the whole leading generation of the Old Bolsheviks who had led the party before, during and after the taking of power. After the purge trials, there was no one but Stalin left alive from the Central Committee that had led the Bolshevik Party when it took power in 1917.
Trotsky, who had been expelled early, was able to continue speaking for the Opposition, making its voice heard. That is exactly what he did during the few short years of life left to him before he was assassinated in August 1940.
In those few years, with the world facing the obvious catastrophe that would become World War II, he worked with very few forces to establish a new International, the Fourth International. He knew their limits, he knew how little influence they had, but with whatever forces he had, at least he could throw out a lifeline for the future, a program, which was a continuation and development of the program communists had fought under since the days of Marx and Engels.
The struggle of those oppositionists inside the Soviet Union from 1923 to 1938 showed, for those able to see it, that communism does not just mean Stalin. Communism is still the future of humanity, because the struggle of this opposition preserved it for generations to come.
What Trotsky did in the years of life left to him was the culmination of what all of them collectively had done in the whole 15 year period when they built the Opposition. And the gift that he transmitted from them, that is, an analysis of the Russian revolution and of the workers state, an analysis of the reasons why so many of the other revolutionary opportunities were lost, but did not have to be, still makes it obvious that communism is worth fighting for and can be fought for.
And this is our conviction, those of us who have worked to build the SPARK.