By Sean Matgamna
It is 70 years since one of the greatest figures in the history of the socialist movement was assassinated.
On August 20, 1940, Leon Trotsky, who, together with Lenin, had led the Russian workers’ revolution of October 1917, was struck down with a blow to the head from an ice pick wielded by an assassin sent by the Russian dictator Stalin. He soon lost consciousness, and died the next day, August 21. Trotsky who had been an active revolutionary socialist for 43 years was a couple of months short of his 61st birthday.
No other socialist militant has ever had so broad and deep an experience of all the phases of working class struggle as Leon Trotsky had. In his teens in Tsarist Russia he was jailed for helping workers set up illegal trade unions. During the 1905 Revolution he was — still in his 20s — the leader of the Workers’ Parliament (Soviet) in St Petersburg. After this he stood trial for his life before a Tsarist court, which sentenced him to jail and exile.
He was a revolutionary socialist agitator, journalist, organiser, military leader and theoretician of the workers’ movement. He was active in France, Austria and the USA as well as in Russia. He helped organise the first stirrings of resistance in France to the great slaughter that was World War One.
Back in Russia after the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917, Trotsky was again elected leader of the St Petersburg (Petrograd) Soviet.
Trotsky joined Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and in October 1917, he was the central organiser of the working class insurrection organised through the Soviets.
When full-scale civil war broke out, which soon coalesced with the invasion of armies from no less than 14 capitalist states, including Britain, Trotsky, as Commissar for War, was first the organiser and then the leader of the newly created Red Army.
With peace, Trotsky, like everyone else, turned to reconstruction work. Following the defeat of workers’ revolution in the rest of Europe, a new ruling elite based on the state bureaucracy took control in the USSR. Trotsky separated himself from the bureaucracy and together with the incorruptible Bolsheviks, went into opposition. Defeated, he was expelled from the USSR. Many of his comrades were jailed or sent to Siberia, where eventually they would be slaughtered by the Stalinist counter-revolution.
In exile again, Trotsky continued to be a far-sighted critic of Stalin’s Communist Parties. In the period before Hitler came to power in Germany, crushing and destroying the German labour movement, Trotsky wrote prophetic pamphlets and articles to warn the German workers against the policies of the mass German Communist Party which were to lead to their destruction. A too-small group of those trotsky managed to educate attempted to avert this catastrophe. In vain.
But Trotsky was now isolated. He would die isolated, with only a tiny handful of supporters.
Throughout the 30s he watched helplessly as one after another, the Stalinists and reformists led the European labour movements to destruction at the hands of fascism and reaction in Germany, Austria, Spain and France. His voluminous writings on these life and death questions armed only small minorities and had no effect on the Stalinist and reformist led mass workers movement. It would be decades before they became widely known to new generations of socialists.
In a private diary from 1935, he wrote that he felt, watching the European labour movement go to its destruction, like a wise old physician forced to watch the destruction of someone he loved whom he knew how to save but was prevented from saving.
The Stalinist domination of the would-be revolutionary sections of the European labour movement isolated and paralysed him.
He would never escape from the nightmare. He witnessed the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidating its power in the mid-1930s by waging a murderous, one-sided civil war on the Russian workers and peasants. He saw Stalin and Hitler make a pact to partition Poland, and the Nazis, with Stalin’s backing, overrun Western Europe.
Trotsky’s life and work were entwined with both the greatest achievements of the labour movement and with its descent into the abyss in the 1930s. Together with Lenin he led the October 1917 Revolution — he organised the insurrection which raised the workers to power; and he led the stubborn Bolshevik rearguard in fighting the Stalinist counter-revolution. The very manner of his death symbolised perfectly the fate of the mass revolutionary movement he, together with Lenin, had organised and led.
Yet Trotsky never gave up. He reasoned, analysed and wrote: he worked to prepare the future of the revolutionary socialist and labour movements. He told the bitter truth come what may. His writings are of immense value to the labour movement today — though he would surely have great contempt for those degenerate “Trotskyists” who treat them as holy writ.
The following passage, sometimes called Trotsky’s Testament, sums up Trotsky’s personal philosophy. When the future generations he talks of here have finished off class society they will remember Trotsky with love and gratitude.
“For forty-three years of my conscious life I have been a revolutionary; and for forty-two I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I were to begin all over again, I would... try to avoid making this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionary, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and consequently an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.
Natasha [Natalia Sedova, his companion of 37 years] has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass; beneath the wall, and the clear, blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”
After the young Irish republican Robert Emmett was hanged, drawn and quartered in Dublin in 1803, the poet Shelley commemorated him in these words, dismissing those who had killed him:
“When Erin has ceased with their memory to groan, she will smile through the tears of revival on thine”. So it will be with Trotsky.
The best way to commemorate this great revolutionary is to look critically at his attempts, from 1923 to his death, to understand the nature of Stalinism, with which he was still grappling, intellectually, morally, politically and physically up to the moment that Stalin’s assassin, Mercader, struck him down on 20 August 1940.