David North
In Defense of Leon Trotsky

Toward a Reconsideration of Trotsky’s Place in the History of the 20th Century

This lecture was delivered on January 21, 2001 at an international school held in Sydney by the Socialist Equality Party of Australia.

Sixty years ago, on August 21, 1940, Leon Trotsky died from wounds that had been inflicted by an agent of the Soviet secret police one day earlier. The Stalinist regime hoped that this murder would not only end the political activities of its greatest opponent, but also eradicate his place in history. Totalitarian pragmatism proved to be shortsighted in its calculations. The killer ended Trotsky’s life. But the ideas and the writings of the great revolutionary lived on. Murdering Trotsky did not bring to an end the political work of the world movement that he had founded. The Fourth International, as it turned out, lived to see the collapse of the Stalinist regime. It follows, of course, that the assassination failed to remove Trotsky from history. As historians study and interpret the twentieth century, the figure of Leon Trotsky looms ever larger. In few other lives were the struggles, aspirations and tragedies of the last century reflected so profoundly and nobly as in that of Trotsky. If we accept as true the observation of Thomas Mann that, “In our time the destiny of man presents itself in political terms,” then it can be said that in the sixty years of Trotsky’s life, destiny found its most conscious realization. The biography of Leon Trotsky is the concentrated expression of the vicissitudes of the world socialist revolution during the first half of the twentieth century.

Three years before his death, in a discussion with a skeptical American journalist, Trotsky explained that he saw his life not as a series of bewildering and ultimately tragic episodes, but as different stages in the historical trajectory of the revolutionary movement. His rise to power in 1917 was the product of a revolutionary upsurge of the working class. For six years his power depended on the social and political relations created by that offensive. The decline in Trotsky’s personal political fortunes flowed from the ebbing of the revolutionary wave. Trotsky lost power not because he was less skilled a politician than Stalin, but because the social force upon which his power was based—the Russian and international working class—was in political retreat. Indeed, Trotsky’s historically conscious approach to politics—so effective during the revolutionary years—placed him at a disadvantage vis-à-vis his unscrupulous adversaries during a period of growing political conservatism. The exhaustion of the Russian working class in the aftermath of the Civil War, the growing political power of the Soviet bureaucracy and the defeats suffered by the European working class—particularly in Germany—were, in the final analysis, the decisive factors in Trotsky’s fall from power.

The defeats suffered by the international working class were recorded in Trotsky’s personal fate: the political demoralization provoked by the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927 provided Stalin with the opportunity to expel the Left Opposition from the Communist International and to exile Trotsky, first to Alma-Ata and, not long after, outside the borders of the USSR. The victory of Hitler in 1933—made possible by the policies of the Stalinist-led German Communist Party—set into motion a chain of events that led to the Moscow Trials, the political catastrophes of Stalinist Popular Frontism and the final expulsion of Trotsky from Europe to distant Mexico.

It was there in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, that Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist agent, Ramon Mercader. Trotsky’s death came at the highpoint of the fascist and Stalinist counterrevolution. By 1940 virtually all of Trotsky’s old comrades had been liquidated in the Soviet Union. All four children of Trotsky were dead. The two older daughters had died prematurely as a result of the hardships caused by the persecution of their father. The two sons, Sergei and Lev, were murdered by the Stalinist regime. At the time of his death in Paris in February 1938, Lev Sedov was, next to his father, the most important political figure in the Fourth International. Other exceptional figures in the secretariat of the Fourth International—Erwin Wolf and Rudolf Klement—were assassinated in 1937 and 1938.

By 1940 Trotsky believed his own assassination to be all but inevitable. This does not mean that he was resigned to his fate. He did all that he could to delay the blow being prepared by Stalin and his agents in the apparatus of the GPU/NKVD. But he understood that Stalin’s actions were determined by the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy. “I live on this earth,” he wrote, “not in accordance with the rule, but as an exception to the rule.”[1] He predicted that Stalin would take advantage of the eruption of a shooting war in Western Europe during the spring and summer of 1940 to strike a blow. Trotsky was proved correct.

The first major assassination attempt, on the evening of May 24, 1940, took place as the world’s attention was focused on Hitler’s rout of the French army. The second and successful attempt occurred during the Battle of Britain in the late summer of the same year.

Why was Trotsky, in exile and apparently isolated, so feared? Why did Stalin consider his death necessary? Trotsky himself offered a political explanation. In the autumn of 1939, several weeks after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact (which he had predicted) and the outbreak of World War II, Trotsky called attention to a conversation, reported in a Parisian newspaper, between Hitler and the French ambassador Robert Coulondre. As Hitler boasted that his treaty with Stalin would give him a free hand to defeat Germany’s enemies in the west, Coulondre cut the Führer short with a warning: “The real victor (in case of war) will be Trotsky. Have you thought this over?” Hitler voiced agreement with the assessment of the French ambassador, but blamed his adversaries for forcing his hand. Citing this amazing report, Trotsky wrote: “These gentlemen like to give a personal name to the specter of revolution … Both of them, Coulondre and Hitler, represent the barbarism which advances over Europe. At the same time neither of them doubts that their barbarism will be conquered by socialist revolution.”[2]

Nor had Stalin forgotten that the defeats suffered by the Russian armies during the First World War had discredited the tsarist regime and set the masses into motion. Did there not exist a similar danger should war break out again, notwithstanding the agreement with Hitler? As long as Trotsky lived he would remain the great revolutionary alternative to the bureaucratic dictatorship, the embodiment of the program, ideals and spirit of October 1917. That is why Trotsky was assassinated.

But even in death, the fear of Trotsky did not abate. It is hard to think of another figure who, not only in his lifetime but even decades after his death, retains his power to frighten the powers that be. The historical legacy of Trotsky resists any form of assimilation and cooptation. Within 10 years of Marx’s death, the theoreticians of the German Social Democracy had found ways to adapt his writings to the perspective of social reform. The fate of Lenin was even more terrible—his remains were embalmed and his theoretical legacy was falsified and remade into a bureaucratically sanctioned state religion. This has not proved to be possible with Trotsky. His writings and actions were too precise in their revolutionary implications. Moreover, the political problems that Trotsky analyzed, the socio-political relations that he defined, and even the parties that he so aptly and scathingly characterized, persisted for most of the remainder of the century.

In 1991, Duke University published a 1,000-page study of the International Trotskyist movement by Robert J. Alexander. In his introduction, Alexander observes:

As of the end of the 1980s the Trotskyists have never come to power in any country. Although International Trotskyism does not enjoy the support of a well-established regime, as did the heirs of Stalinism, the persistence of the movement in a wide variety of countries together with the instability of the political life of most of the world’s nations means that the possibility that a Trotskyist party might come to power in the foreseeable future cannot be totally ruled out.[3]

That “well-established regime” disappeared not long after the publication of Alexander’s book. The Soviet bureaucracy never rehabilitated Leon Trotsky. History, as has often been noted, is the greatest of all ironists. For decades the Stalinists claimed that Trotsky had sought the destruction of the Soviet Union, that he had entered into conspiracies with the imperialists to dismember the USSR. For these alleged crimes Trotsky had been sentenced to death in absentia by the Soviet regime. But in the end, it was the Soviet bureaucracy itself, as Trotsky had warned so presciently, that liquidated the USSR. And it did so without ever repudiating, openly and forthrightly, the charges leveled against Trotsky and his son, Lev Sedov. Instead, it was easier for Gorbachev and Yeltsin to sign the death warrant of the USSR than to acknowledge the utter falsity of all the charges against Trotsky.

Despite the vast economic and social changes in the last 60 years, we are not so far removed from the problems, issues and themes with which Trotsky dealt. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Trotsky’s writings retain, to an extraordinary degree, a contemporary character. A study of Trotsky’s writings is essential not only for an understanding of the politics of the twentieth century, but also for the purpose of orienting oneself politically in the very complex world of the twenty-first century.

If the greatness of a political figure is measured by the extent and enduring relevance of his legacy, then Trotsky must be placed in the very first rank of twentieth century leaders. Let us for a moment consider the political figures that dominated the world stage in 1940. It is difficult even to mention the names of the totalitarian leaders of that era—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco—without uttering an obscenity. They left nothing behind but the memory of their unspeakable crimes. As for the “great” leaders of the imperialist democracies, Roosevelt and Churchill, no one would deny that they were striking personalities and displayed skill within the framework of conventional parliamentary politics. Churchill, more brilliant than the American president, was a talented orator and displayed some skill as a writer. But can one really speak of either man’s legacy? Churchill’s hymns to the fading British Empire were regarded as anachronistic even by many of his admirers. His writings are of interest as historical documents, but have very limited contemporary relevance. As for Roosevelt, he was the consummate political pragmatist, who reacted with a combination of guile and intuition to the problems of the day. Would anyone suggest seriously that one would find in the speeches and/or books of Churchill and Roosevelt (the latter, by the way, did not write any) analyses and insights that would contribute to an understanding of the political problems that we confront at the outset of the twenty-first century?

Even in their own day, Trotsky towered over his political contemporaries. The influence of all his adversaries was directly bound up with, and dependent upon, their control over the instruments of state power. Separated from that power, they could hardly have commanded world attention. Stalin, separated from the Kremlin and its apparatus of terror, would have been no more than he was before October 1917: “a grey blur.”

Trotsky was deprived of all the official instruments of power in 1927. He was, however, never powerless. Trotsky was fond of quoting the famous sentence, spoken by Dr. Stockman, with which Ibsen closes his Enemy of the People: “The most powerful man is he who stands alone.” The insight of the great Norwegian dramatist was realized in the life of the greatest of all the Russian revolutionists. Trotsky provided a timeless demonstration of the power of ideas and ideals that correspond to and articulate the progressive strivings of humanity.

Trotsky as a Writer

When speaking of Trotsky’s ideas, it is difficult to resist the temptation to quote at length from his writings. At the very least, one would certainly succeed in providing one’s audience with an exceptional aesthetic experience. Putting aside for a moment one’s political sympathies, any reader capable of rendering objective judgment would be hard pressed to deny that Trotsky ranks among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Some 30 years have passed since I first read a book by Trotsky—his monumental History of the Russian Revolution. I am sure that I am not the only person who still recalls the emotional and intellectual impact of his first encounter with Trotsky’s prose. Reading Trotsky in translation, I wondered what estimate of his stature as a writer would be made by those able to read his work in the original Russian. Unexpectedly, an opportunity arose for me to satisfy my curiosity. I attended a lecture on Russian literature by an aged specialist who had fled his homeland in the aftermath of the October Revolution. This was not a man from whom one would expect the slightest sympathy for Trotsky. At the conclusion of his lecture, a survey of Russian literature in the twentieth century, I asked him to give his opinion of Trotsky as a writer. I recall vividly both his answer and the thick accent with which it was delivered: “Trotsky,” he replied, “was the greatest master of Russian prose after Tolstoy.” Many years later, this assessment was echoed in a remark made by a student I met during my first visit to the Soviet Union in 1989. He confessed that reading Trotsky was for him a very difficult experience. Why was this so? “When I read Trotsky,” he explained, “I am forced to agree with him—but I don’t want to!”

The range of Trotsky’s writings—on art, literature and culture, scientific developments, problems of life, and, of course, politics—almost defies comprehension. We lesser mortals, forced to make do with far more modest talents, can only be amazed by Trotsky’s literary output. How, one asks oneself, did he do it—before the age of word-processors and spell check? Perhaps part of the answer lies in Trotsky’s remarkable ability to speak ex tempore almost as beautifully and cogently as he wrote. His dictation, by all accounts, reads better than the polished drafts of even very skilled writers.

A major figure in the literature of the twentieth century, Trotsky owed a great deal to the great Russian masters of the nineteenth century, particularly Turgenev, Tolstoy, Herzen and Belinsky. The same man who wrote proclamations and battle orders in unyielding martial prose that stirred millions could also produce passages of haunting beauty, as, for example, when he recalled one moment during his 1907 escape from Siberian exile:

The sleigh skidded along smoothly and noiselessly, like a boat on the glassy surface of a pond. In the gathering darkness the forest looked even more gigantic than before. I could not see the road and hardly felt the motion of my sleigh. It was as though the trees were under a spell and came running towards us, bushes slipped away, old tree stumps covered with snow flew past—everything seemed filled with mystery. The only sound was the fast, regular chu-chu-chu-chu of the reindeer’s breathing. Thousands of long-forgotten sounds filled my head in the midst of the silence. Suddenly I heard a sharp whistle in the depth of the dark forest. It seemed mysterious and infinitely remote. Yet it was only our Ostyak signaling to his reindeer. Then silence once more, more whistling far away, more trees rushing noiselessly out of darkness into darkness.[4]

Trotsky possessed an exceptional sensitivity to the paradoxes and contradictions of politics. Writing of his own trial after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, Trotsky describes the contrast between the harsh and threatening official environment of the court building—crowded with “gendarmes with drawn sabers”—and the “infinite quantities of flowers” that had been delivered to the courtroom by admirers and supporters of the revolutionary defendants:

There were flowers in buttonholes, flowers held in hands and on laps, finally flowers simply lying on the benches. The president of the court did not dare to remove these fragrant intruders. In the end, even gendarmerie officers and officers of the court, totally “demoralized” by the prevailing atmosphere, were handing flowers to the defendants.[5]

It was, I believe, no less a writer than George Bernard Shaw who once observed that when Trotsky used his pen to cut off the head of an opponent, he could not resist the opportunity to pick it up and show, to one and all, that it had no brains. Yet, the power of Trotsky’s polemics lay in the brilliance with which he exposed the incongruity between the subjective aims of this or that politician and the objective development of social contradictions in a revolutionary epoch. Using the necessary unfolding of the historic process as his measuring rod, Trotsky’s withering criticisms were not cruel. They were simply on the mark. Thus, of the principal leader of the bourgeois Provisional Government in 1917:

Kerensky was not a revolutionist; he merely hung around the revolution … He had no theoretical preparation, no political schooling, no ability to think, no political will. The place of these qualities was occupied by a nimble susceptibility, an inflammable temperament, and that kind of eloquence which operates neither upon mind or will, but upon the nerves.[6]

And of the leader of the Socialist Revolutionaries, Viktor Chernov:

A well-read rather than educated man, with a considerable but un-integrated learning, Chernov always had at his disposal a boundless assortment of appropriate quotations, which for a long time caught the imagination of the Russian youth without teaching them much. There was only one single question which this many-worded leader could not answer: Whom was he leading and whither? The eclectic formulas of Chernov, ornamented with moralisms and verses, united for a time a most variegated public who at all critical moments pulled in different directions. No wonder Chernov complacently contrasted his methods of forming a party with Lenin’s “sectarianism.”[7]

And finally, of the once-formidable theoretician of German Social-Democracy:

Kautsky has a clear and solitary path to salvation: democracy. All that is necessary is that every one should acknowledge it and bind himself to it. The Right Socialists must renounce the sanguinary slaughter with which they have been carrying out the will of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie itself must abandon the idea of using its Noskes and Lieutenant Vogels to defend its privileges to the last breath. Finally, the proletariat must once and for all reject the idea of overthrowing the bourgeoisie by means other than those laid down in the Constitution. If the conditions enumerated are observed, the social revolution will painlessly melt into democracy. In order to succeed it is sufficient, as we see, for our stormy history to draw a nightcap over its head, and take a pinch of wisdom out of Kautsky’s snuffbox.[8]

One could without difficulty spend an entire day quoting passages in which Trotsky’s literary genius finds brilliant expression. But this genius was not simply, nor primarily, a matter of style. There is a deeper and more profound element in Trotsky’s literary work that raises him above any other political thinker of his time. To the extent that history can find conscious articulation in the course of its own immediate unfolding, that process is manifested in the writings of Leon Trotsky. In general, there is nothing more ephemeral than political commentary. The half-life of even a well-written newspaper column is generally no longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee—it passes straight from the breakfast table to the wastepaper basket.

That is not the case with the writings of Trotsky—and I am speaking not of his major works, but even commentary he produced for newspapers. The writings and, I must add, speeches of Leon Trotsky, appear at times to represent history’s first attempt to explain as best as it can what it is doing and attempting. The purpose of Trotsky’s greatest political writings—to locate the latest events in the world historical trajectory of socialist revolution—was reflected in the titles he chose: “Through What Stage are We Passing?,” “Where is Britain Going?,” “Whither France?,” “Towards Capitalism or Socialism?” Lunacharsky once said of Trotsky: He is always aware of his position in history. This was Trotsky’s strength—the source of his political resistance against opportunism and all manner of pressures. Trotsky conceived of Marxism as the “science of perspective.”

A consequence of the destruction of revolutionary cadre by Stalinism and the consequent erosion of Marxism as a theoretical weapon of the emancipatory struggle of the working class has been the celebration of all sorts of people unconnected with this struggle as great Marxists: Marxist economists, Marxist philosophers, Marxist aestheticists, etc. Yet, when they have attempted to apply their supposed mastery of the dialectic to political analysis of the events of their times, they have proven to be incompetent. Trotsky was the last great representative of a school of Marxist thought—let us call it the classical school—whose mastery of the dialectic revealed itself above all in a capacity to assess a political situation, to advance a political prognosis and to elaborate a strategic orientation.

Reassessing Trotsky

Among the most important tasks of the Fourth International throughout its history has been the defense of Trotsky’s historical role against the calumny of the Stalinists. This task involved the defense not only of an individual, but also of the entire programmatic heritage of international Marxism and the October Revolution. In defending Trotsky, the Fourth International has upheld historical truth against the falsification and betrayal of the principles upon which the Bolshevik Revolution was based.

And yet, notwithstanding its intransigent defense of Leon Trotsky, did the Fourth International do full justice to the political and historical legacy of the “Old Man”? There is good reason to believe, now that the century in which Trotsky lived is behind us, that a richer appreciation of his political legacy and historical stature is possible. Let us begin this task by subjecting to critical re-examination a well-known passage in which Trotsky assessed his own contribution to the success of the October Revolution of 1917.

In an entry into his diary dated March 25, 1935, Trotsky wrote:

Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place—on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring—of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to overcome the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with “Trotskyism” (i.e., with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May, 1917, and the outcome of the revolution would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me… Thus I cannot speak of the “indispensability” of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921.[9]

Is this assessment accurate? In this passage, Trotsky is referring principally to the political struggle within the Bolshevik Party. Quite correctly, he takes as his point of departure the crucial significance of the reorientation of the Bolshevik Party in April 1917. Lenin’s greatest achievement in 1917, upon which the success of the Revolution depended, was overcoming the resistance of Old Bolshevik leaders—particularly Kamenev and Stalin—to a strategic change in Bolshevik policy.

And yet, the importance of this struggle within the Bolshevik Party serves to underscore the far-reaching implications of the earlier disputes within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party over questions of political perspective. Even if one accepts that Lenin played the critical role in overcoming resistance within the Bolshevik Party to adopting an orientation toward the seizure of power and the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship, the fact is that Lenin was waging a struggle against those who adhered to the political line that he himself had upheld for many years in opposition to the perspective of Leon Trotsky.

When Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 and repudiated the perspective of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” it was widely understood that he was adopting—even if he failed to acknowledge this openly—the political line with which Trotsky had been associated for more than a decade—that of Permanent Revolution.

The Theory of Permanent Revolution

I will review briefly the basic issues that confronted the Russian revolutionary movement in the final decades of the tsarist regime. In its efforts to plot the trajectory of Russian socio-political development, Russian socialist thought advanced three possible and conflicting variants. Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, conceived of Russian social development in terms of a formal logical progression, in which historical stages of development were determined by a given level of economic development. As feudalism was replaced by capitalism, the latter in turn, when all the required conditions of economic development had been attained, would give way to socialism. The theoretical model with which Plekhanov worked assumed that Russian development would follow the historical pattern of Western Europe’s bourgeois-democratic evolution. There existed no possibility that Russia might move in a socialist direction before the more advanced countries to its west. At the turn of the twentieth century, Plekhanov maintained, Russia still had before it the task of achieving its bourgeois democratic revolution—by which he meant the overthrow of the tsarist regime and the creation of the political and economic preconditions for a future, distant, social revolution. In all probability, Russia had before it many decades of bourgeois democratic parliamentary development before its economic and social structure could sustain a socialist transformation. This formal conception of Russia’s development constituted the accepted wisdom that prevailed among broad layers of the Russian social democratic movement during the first years of the twentieth century. However, there was an unresolved contradiction in Plekhanov’s position, which reflected the peculiar character of Russia’s social development. As early as 1889, Plekhanov had foreseen that the Russian working class would play the leading role in the impending revolution. He declared at the founding congress of the Second International that the Russian revolution could succeed only as a workers’ revolution. But how was this insight to be reconciled with a perspective that insisted that political power, in the aftermath of the revolution, would be wielded by the Russian bourgeoisie? Plekhanov was never able to provide a convincing answer to this question.

The events of 1905—that is, the eruption of the first Russian Revolution—generated serious questions about the viability of Plekhanov’s theoretical model. The most significant aspect of the Russian Revolution was the dominant political role played by the proletariat in the struggle against tsarism. Against the background of general strikes and insurrection, the maneuverings of the political leaders of the Russian bourgeoisie appeared petty and treacherous. No Robespierre or Danton was to be found among the bourgeoisie. The Cadet Party (Constitutional Democrats) bore no resemblance to the Jacobins.

Lenin’s analysis went further and deeper than Plekhanov’s. The former accepted that the Russian Revolution was of a bourgeois-democratic character. But this definition did not adequately exhaust the problem of the relation of class forces and balance of power in the revolution. Lenin insisted that the task of the working class was to strive, through its independent organization and efforts, for the most expansive and radical development of the bourgeois democratic revolution—that is, for an utterly uncompromising struggle to demolish all economic, political and social vestiges of tsarist feudalism; and thereby to create the most favorable conditions for the establishment of a genuinely progressive constitutional-democratic framework for the flowering of the Russian workers’ movement. For Lenin, at the very heart of this democratic revolution was the resolution of the “agrarian question”—by which he meant the destruction of all the economic and juridical remnants of feudalism. The vast landholdings of the nobility constituted an immense barrier to the democratization of Russian life, as well as to the development of a modern capitalist economy.

Lenin’s conception of the bourgeois revolution—in contrast to that of Plekhanov—was not limited by formalistic political prejudices. He approached the bourgeois-democratic revolution from within, so to speak. Rather than beginning with a formal political schema—that a parliamentary democracy would be the unavoidable outcome of the bourgeois revolution—Lenin sought to deduce the political form from the essential and internal social content of the revolution.

Recognizing the immense social tasks implicit in Russia’s impending democratic revolution, Lenin—in contrast to Plekhanov—insisted that their achievement was not possible under the political leadership of the Russian bourgeoisie. The triumph of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia was possible only if the working class waged the struggle for democracy independently of and, in fact, in opposition to the bourgeoisie. But due to its numerical weakness, the mass basis of the democratic revolution could not be provided by the working class alone. The Russian proletariat, by advancing an uncompromisingly radical democratic resolution of the agrarian issues, had to mobilize behind it the multi-millioned Russian peasantry.

What then, would be the state form of the regime arising from this revolutionary alliance of the two great popular classes? Lenin proposed that the new regime would be a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” In effect, the two classes would share state power and jointly preside over the fullest possible realization of the democratic revolution. Lenin offered no specifics as to the precise nature of the power-sharing arrangements that would prevail in such a regime, nor did he define or describe the state forms through which this two-class dictatorship would be exercised.

Notwithstanding the political radicalism of the democratic dictatorship, Lenin insisted that its aim was not the economic reorganization of society along socialist lines. Rather, the revolution would of necessity remain, in terms of its economic program, capitalist. Indeed, even in his advocacy of a radical settlement of the land question, Lenin stressed that the nationalization of land—directed against the Russian latifundia—was a bourgeois-democratic, rather than socialist measure.

In his polemics, Lenin was unwavering on this critical point. He wrote in 1905:

Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? This means that those democratic transformations … which have become indispensable for Russia do not, in and of themselves, signify the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule, but on the contrary they clear the soil, for the first time and in a real way, for a broad and swift, for a European and not an Asiatic, development of capitalism. They make possible for the first time the rule of the bourgeoisie as a class.[10]

The position of Trotsky differed radically from that of the Mensheviks and Lenin. Notwithstanding their different conclusions, both Plekhanov and Lenin based their perspectives on an estimate of the given level of Russian economic development and the existing relations of social forces within the country. But Trotsky’s real point of departure was not the existing economic level of Russia or its internal relation of class forces, but rather the world-historical context within which Russia’s belated democratic revolution was destined to unfold.

Trotsky traced the historical trajectory of the bourgeois revolution, from its classical manifestation in the eighteenth century, through the vicissitudes of the nineteenth century and finally, in the modern context of 1905. He explained how the change in historical conditions—especially the development of world economy and the emergence of the international working class—had altered the social and political dynamics of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Traditional political equations based on the conditions that prevailed in the middle of the nineteenth century were of little value in the new situation.

Trotsky detected the political limitation of Lenin’s formula. It was politically unrealistic: it evaded the problem of state power. Trotsky did not accept that the Russian proletariat would limit itself to measures of a formally democratic character. The reality of class relations would compel the working class to exercise its political dictatorship against the economic interests of the bourgeoisie. In other words, the struggle of the working class would of necessity assume a socialist character. But how was this possible, given the backwardness of Russia, which, considering the limitations of its own economic development, was clearly not ready for socialism?

Looking at the Russian Revolution from within, there did not seem to be any solution to this problem. But examining the Russian Revolution from the vantage point of both world history and the international development of the capitalist economy, an unexpected solution presented itself. As early as June 1905, Trotsky noted that “capitalism has converted the whole world into a single economic and political organism.” Trotsky grasped the implications of this change in the structure of world economy:

This immediately gives the events now unfolding an international character, and opens up a wide horizon. The political emancipation of Russia led by the working class will raise that class to a height as yet unknown in history, will transfer to it colossal power and resources, and will make it the initiator of the liquidation of world capitalism, for which history has created all the objective conditions.[11]

Trotsky’s approach was a critical theoretical breakthrough. It shifted the analytical perspective from which revolutionary processes were viewed. Prior to 1905, the development of revolutions was seen as a progression of national events, whose outcome was determined by the logic of its internal socio-economic structure and relations. Trotsky proposed another approach: to understand revolution in the modern epoch as essentially a world-historic process of social transition from class society, which is rooted politically in nation-states, to a classless society developing on the basis of a globally-integrated economy and internationally-unified mankind.

Trotsky developed this conception of the revolutionary process at the point at which the socialist movement was being confronted with a flood of socio-economic and political data that could not be adequately processed within the existing theoretical framework. The sheer complexity of the modern world economy defied the old formal definitions. The impact of world economic development influenced, to a heretofore unprecedented extent, the contours of each national economy. Within even backward economies there could be found—as a result of international foreign investment—certain highly advanced features. There existed feudalist or semi-feudalist regimes, whose political structures were encrusted with the remnants of the Middle Ages, that presided over a capitalist economy in which heavy industry played a major role. Nor was it unusual to find in countries with a belated capitalist development a bourgeoisie that showed less interest in the success of “its” democratic revolution than did the indigenous working class. Such anomalies could not be reconciled with formal strategical precepts whose calculations assumed the existence of social phenomena less riven by internal contradictions.

Trotsky’s great achievement consisted in elaborating a theoretical structure that was equal to modern social, economic and political complexities. There was nothing utopian in Trotsky’s approach. It represented, rather, a profound insight into the impact of world economy on social and political life. A realistic approach to politics and the elaboration of effective revolutionary strategy was possible only to the extent that socialist parties took as their objective starting point the primacy of the international over the national. This did not simply mean the promotion of international proletarian solidarity. Without understanding its essential objective foundation in world economy, and without making the reality of world economy the basis of strategical thought, proletarian internationalism would remain a utopian ideal, essentially unrelated to the program and practice of nationally-based socialist parties.

Proceeding from the analysis of the historical development of world capitalism and the objective dependence of Russia on the international economic and political environment, Trotsky foresaw the socialist development of Russia’s revolution. The Russian working class would be compelled to take power and adopt measures of a socialist character. Yet in proceeding along socialist lines, the working class in Russia would inevitably come up against the limitations of the national environment. How would it find a way out of its dilemma? By linking its fate to the European and world revolution of which its own struggle was, in the final analysis, a manifestation.

Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution made possible a realistic conception of world revolution. The age of national revolutions had come to an end—or, to put it more precisely, national revolutions could only be understood within the framework of the international socialist revolution.

Trotsky and the Bolsheviks

When one considers the implications of Trotsky’s analysis, one can better appreciate his differences with both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. It is not my intention here to minimize in any way the significance of Lenin’s great achievement, which was to understand more profoundly than anyone else the political significance of the struggle against political opportunism in the revolutionary movement and to extend that struggle to every level of party work and organization. And yet, as crucial and critical as questions of revolutionary organization are, the experience of the twentieth century has taught the working class, or should teach the working class, that even the firmest organization, unless directed by a correct revolutionary perspective, can and will become, in the final analysis, an obstacle to revolution.

For Trotsky, what determined his attitude to all tendencies within the Russian social democratic labor movement was their perspective and program. To what extent, Trotsky asked, was their political program based on a correct assessment of the world forces that would determine the evolution and fate of the Russian Revolution? Trotsky, from this standpoint, was justifiably critical of the program and orientation of the Bolshevik Party. Let me read from an article written in 1909 in which he surveyed the different positions held by the varying factions in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Trotsky wrote:

Lenin believes that the contradictions between the proletariat’s class interests and objective conditions will be resolved by the proletariat imposing a political limitation upon itself, and that this self-limitation will be the result of the proletariat’s theoretical awareness that the revolution in which it is playing a leading role is a bourgeois revolution. Lenin transfers the objective contradiction into the proletariat’s consciousness and resolves it by means of a class asceticism which is rooted, not in religious faith, but in a “scientific” schema. It is enough to see this intellectual construct clearly, to realize how hopelessly idealistic it is.

… The snag is that the Bolsheviks visualize the class struggle of the proletariat only until the moment of the revolution’s triumph, after which they see it as temporarily dissolved in the “democratic” coalition, reappearing in its pure form—this time as a direct struggle for socialism—only after the definitive establishment of a republican system. Whereas the Mensheviks, proceeding from the abstract notion that “our revolution is a bourgeois revolution,” arrive at the idea that the proletariat must adapt all its tactics to the behavior of the liberal bourgeoisie in order to ensure the transfer of state power to that bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks proceed from an equally abstract notion—‘democratic dictatorship, not socialist dictatorship’—and arrive at the idea of a proletariat in possession of state power imposing a bourgeois-democratic limitation upon itself. It is true that the difference between them in this matter is very considerable: while the anti-revolutionary aspects of Menshevism have already become fully apparent, those of Bolshevism are likely to become a serious threat only in the event of victory.[12]

This was a prescient insight into what was actually to occur in the Russian Revolution. Once the tsarist regime was overthrown, the limitations of Lenin’s perspective of the democratic dictatorship became immediately clear. Trotsky went on to say that the Russian working class would be forced to take power and “will be confronted with the objective problems of socialism, but the solution of these problems will, at a certain stage, be prevented by the country’s economic backwardness. There is no way out from this contradiction from the framework of a national revolution.” So Trotsky recognized that the limitations of Lenin’s perspective were not merely in its political calculations, but that those political calculations proceeded from a national, rather than an international, appreciation of the framework in which the Russian Revolution would unfold.

Trotsky continued:

The workers’ government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolutionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship. Thus permanent revolution will become, for the Russian proletariat, a matter of class self-preservation. If the workers’ party cannot show sufficient initiative for aggressive revolutionary tactics, if it limits itself to the frugal diet of a dictatorship that is merely national and merely democratic, the united reactionary forces of Europe will waste no time in making it clear that a working class, if it happens to be in power, must throw the whole of its strength into the struggle for a socialist revolution.[13]

This was the central question. The political evaluation of the form of state power flowed from the differing appraisals of the significance of the international as the determining factor in the political outcome of the revolutionary movement. The following point must be made in assessing the development of the Bolshevik Party. Every program reflects the influence and interests of social forces. In countries with a belated bourgeois development, in which the bourgeoisie is incapable of defending consistently the national and democratic tasks of the revolution, elements of those tasks become part of the program of the working class. The working class must take up those democratic and national demands that retain a progressive significance. There have been many occasions in the course of the twentieth century when the socialist movement has been compelled to advance democratic and national responsibilities, and draw into its own ranks elements for whom those tasks are of primary significance—and for whom the socialistic and internationalist aspirations of the working class are less important. The intermingling of national-democratic and socialist tendencies significantly influenced the development of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin certainly represented, within the framework of the Bolshevik Party, the most consistent opposition to such nationalist and petty bourgeois democratic prejudices. He was aware of their presence and could not ignore them.

Lenin wrote in December 1914 after the outbreak of the First World War:

Is a sense of national pride alien to us, Great-Russian class conscious proletarians? Certainly not! We love our language and our country, and we are doing our very utmost to raise her toiling masses (i.e., nine-tenths of her population) to the level of a democratic and socialist consciousness. To us it is most painful to see and feel the outrages, the oppression and the humiliation our fair country suffers at the hands of the tsar’s butchers, the nobles and the capitalists. We take pride in the resistance to these outrages put up from our midst, from the Great Russians; in that midst having produced Radishchev, the Decembrists and the revolutionary commoners of the seventies; in the Great-Russian working class having created, in 1905, a mighty revolutionary party of the masses; and the Great-Russian peasantry having begun to turn towards democracy and set about overthrowing the clergy and the landed proprietors …

… We are full of national pride because the Great-Russian nation, too, has created a revolutionary class, because it, too, has proved capable of providing mankind with great models of the struggle for freedom and socialism, and not only with great pogroms, rows of gallows, dungeons, great famines and great servility to priests, tsars, landowners and capitalists.[14]

Lenin was the author of these lines. It would be unjust to read this article as a political concession by Lenin to Great Russian chauvinism. His entire biography testifies to his unyielding opposition to Great Russian nationalism. Yet the article, an attempt by Lenin to exert a revolutionary influence on these deep-rooted nationalist sentiments among the working masses and to utilize these sentiments for revolutionary ends, reflected the sensitivity he felt towards the strong nationalist sentiments not only in the working class as a whole, but also within his own party. There is a fine line between utilizing nationalist sentiments for revolutionary purposes and adapting revolutionary aims to nationalism. There is not an exact correspondence between the message that an author intends to convey and how the message is interpreted. There is, all but inevitably, a degradation in the political quality of the message as it makes its way across an ever broader audience. What Lenin had probably intended to be a tribute to the revolutionary traditions of the Great Russian working class might well have been interpreted by the more backward sections of party workers as an elevation of the revolutionary capacities of Great Russians. Trotsky was justifiably critical of Lenin’s formulation. As he wrote in 1915:

To approach the prospects of a social revolution within national boundaries is to fall victim to the same national narrowness which constitutes the substance of social-patriotism. … In general, it should not be forgotten that in social-patriotism there is, alongside of the most vulgar reformism, a national revolutionary Messianism which deems that its own national state, whether because of its industrial level or because of its “democratic” form and revolutionary conquests, is called upon to lead humanity towards socialism or towards “democracy”. If the victorious revolution were really conceivable within the boundaries of a single more developed nation, this Messianism, together with the programme of national defence would have some relative historical justification. But as a matter of fact this is inconceivable. To fight for the preservation of a national basis of revolution by such methods as undermine the international ties of the proletariat, actually means to undermine the revolution itself, which can begin on a national basis but which cannot be completed on that basis under the present economic, military, and political interdependence of the European states, which was never before revealed so forcefully as during the present war.[15]

It would be worthwhile to study the conditions under which Lenin reevaluated his political perspective. His study of world economy under the impact of the First World War gave him a deeper insight into the dynamics of the Russian Revolution and led him to adopt, in essence, the perspective that had been associated with Trotsky for so many years.

When Lenin read his April Theses in 1917, it was understood by those in the hall that he was arguing along the lines of Trotsky. The charge of “Trotskyism” was immediately raised and, in this very fact, we can understand the extent of Trotsky’s intellectual contribution to the success of the revolution that year. Trotsky had already provided an intellectual and political framework within which the debate inside the Bolshevik Party could go forward. It did not come as a bolt from the blue. If Lenin’s personality and his unchallenged stature within the Bolshevik Party made possible a relatively rapid victory of the new perspective, Trotsky’s championing of the perspective of the theory of Permanent Revolution facilitated Lenin’s fight within the Bolshevik Party, particularly under conditions where the masses in Russia in 1917 were moving to the left.

In a certain sense, what occurred in the spring, summer and autumn of 1917 was a form of what had occurred 12 years before. I would like to read an interesting passage from the book called The Origins of Bolshevism by the Menshevik Theodore Dan. He makes the following observation about 1905:

This background of the “days of liberty” [the climax of the 1905 revolution] was such, as we have seen, that practically speaking both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were pushed towards “Trotskyism”. For a short time “Trotskyism” (which at that time, to be sure, still lacked a name), for the first and last time in the history of the Russian Social-Democracy, became its unifying platform.[16]

That is to say that in 1905, under conditions of the most explosive movement of the Russian working class to the left, the perspective of Trotsky acquired immense prestige and stature. This process was repeated in 1917. The triumph of 1917 was a vindication of Trotsky’s perspective of Permanent Revolution. But the beginning of the political reaction in 1922–1923 against the October Revolution and the resurgence of Russian nationalism was also expressed politically in the resurfacing of the old anti-Trotskyist tendencies within the Bolshevik Party. It is not possible to treat the tendencies of that time as if they were unrelated to the political divisions that had existed in 1917 within the Bolshevik Party. This does not mean that they were precisely the same.

The growth of Bolshevism in 1917 was based on an explosive radicalization of the working class in the major urban centers. The social forces which underlay the growth of the party in 1922 and 1923, and which were the source of great concern to Lenin, were to a great extent non-proletarian elements, specifically from the lower middle classes in the urban areas for whom the revolution had opened up innumerable career opportunities, not to mention from remnants of the old tsarist bureaucracy. For such elements, the Russian Revolution was seen, more or less, as a national rather than international event. As early as 1922, Lenin began to warn of the growth of a type of national Bolshevism, and he became increasingly strident in his denunciation of chauvinistic tendencies. In late 1922 and early 1923 those warnings were directed specifically against Stalin, who had come to personify in Lenin’s mind an odious social type, the “Great Russian chauvinist bully.”

The struggle against Trotskyism was, in essence, a reemergence of the political opposition to the theory of Permanent Revolution within the party. What prevented Trotsky from stating this explicitly? I think the answer is to be found in the extraordinarily difficult circumstances created by Lenin’s final illness and his death. Trotsky found it virtually impossible to speak as frankly as I suspect he would have liked about the differences that had previously separated him from Lenin. It was left to Adolf Joffe to write, in the famous letter composed hours before committing suicide in November 1927 to protest Trotsky’s expulsion from the Communist Party, that he had often heard Lenin state that on basic questions of perspective it had been Trotsky, rather than himself, who had been correct, including on the question of Permanent Revolution.

Trotsky was hardly unaware of the nationalist subtext of the political tensions developing within the party leadership. Near the end of his life, Trotsky stated explicitly that the struggle against Trotskyism in the Soviet Union was rooted in the pre-1917 differences within the Bolshevik Party. He wrote in 1939: “It may be said that the whole of Stalinism, taken on the theoretical plane, grew out of the criticism of the theory of permanent revolution as it was formulated in 1905.”[17]

Trotsky will be remembered and will continue to occupy a vast place in the consciousness of the revolutionary movement as the theoretician of world revolution. Of course, he lived longer than Lenin and was faced with new problems. But there is a basic continuity in all of Trotsky’s works from 1905 until his death in 1940. The struggle for the perspective of world revolution is the decisive and essential theme of all his work. All of Lenin is contained in the Russian Revolution. But for Trotsky, it was an episode in his life—a very great episode to be sure, but only an episode in the greater drama of world socialist revolution.

A review of Trotsky’s work in the aftermath of his fall from political power is beyond the scope of a single lecture. But in bringing this lecture to a conclusion, I wish to place emphasis on one critical element of Trotsky’s theoretical legacy—that is, his role as the last great representative of classical Marxism.

In speaking of classical Marxism, we have two fundamental conceptions in mind: first, that the basic revolutionary force in society is the working class; and second, that the fundamental task of Marxists is to work indefatigably, theoretically and practically, to establish its political independence. The socialist revolution is the end product of this sustained and uncompromising work. The political independence of the working class is not achieved through clever tactics, but in the most fundamental sense, through education—first and foremost, of its political vanguard. There exist no shortcuts. As Trotsky frequently warned, the greatest enemy of revolutionary strategy is impatience.

The twentieth century witnessed the greatest victories and the most tragic defeats of the working class. The lessons of the past 100 years must be assimilated, and it is only our movement that has begun that task. In history, nothing is wasted and forgotten. The next great upsurge of the international working class—and the international scope of that upsurge is guaranteed by the global integration of capitalist production—will witness the intellectual resurgence of Trotskyism, i.e., classical Marxism.


Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939–40] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2001), p. 298.


Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (London: New Park Publications, 1971), p. 39.


Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929–1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 32.


Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York: Vintage, 1971), pp. 459–460.


Ibid., p. 356.


Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1977), p. 201.


Ibid., p. 247.


Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 28.


Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935 (New York: Atheneum, 1963), pp. 46–47.


Cited in: Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939–40], p. 65.


Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (London: New Park, 1971), p. 240.


Leon Trotsky, “Our Differences,” in: 1905 (New York: Random House, 1971), pp. 314–317.


Ibid., pp. 317–318.


V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), pp. 103–104.


Cited in: Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (London: New Park Publications, 1974), p. 53.


Theodore Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), p. 345.


Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939–1940], p. 64.