Your government is corrupt, oppressive, and possibly, evil. But despite all of it, you should still obey your government because you need it. The only reason the government exists in the first place is because you’re too stupid to exist without one. And that’s universal. Humans need government to function. There’s never been a successful civilization without a government. Not one. Sorry libertarians. It just hasn’t happened. And if you believe Thomas Hobbes, we should obey our government because without it, we’d exist in the absolute state of nature.
A darwinian nightmare where survival of the fittest is the only law of the land. Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. Dominate or be dominated. We would have nothing, “no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Our government, as corrupt as it may be, is stopping that from becoming a reality. Maybe we should be thankful. Maybe government really is bringing good. But how many atrocities have to happen before you can’t look the other way anymore. How many famines have to decimate your people before you wonder, “maybe the state of nature won’t be so bad?”
The answer differs from person to person. But the most notable example of a people reaching their breaking point, is the Russian Revolution of 1917. It changed everything. And at the center of it all was Leon Trotsky. Someone you could spend a lifetime studying, and still find it difficult to understand him.
He was the kinda guy who had the pragmatism of an veteran politician, but the idealism of a college student hoping to change the world. Someone who wouldn’t hesitate to throw himself into the center of the bureaucracy to make things happen but someone who also didn’t mind to take a few years off to write a book idealizing the revolution. Hunter and hunted. Farmboy and cosmopolitan. Comrade and enemy. Victor and victim. This is the life of Leon Trotsky.
Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews have been in a difficult position. They’ve basically been in this constant state of migration. They move somewhere new, integrate into the local culture, get just a little bit too much influence in this new society, and get forced out, where they have to repeat the whole process over again. It was rough. And so what would happen is they eventually stopped trying to integrate into these cultures.
They only did so hesitantly. But all in all, they retained their Jewish identity which eventually became a defining feature in comparison to just about every other people group. Why bother to learn the language and the customs of the locals if, by the time your son is an adult, they tell your entire community to get out? But different Jewish communities tackled this dilemma in their own ways.
Some of them took any opportunity they could get. One of those opportunities happened when Czar Alexander the first decided to create a settlement of agriculture for the Jewish population near the Black Sea. A Jewish Family by the name of Bronstein was one of the first takers to settle in this region. And their grandson would become the notorious Leon Trotsky.
Yanovka would be the birthplace and hometown of Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Trotsky’s real name, a name that he eventually abandoned in favor of his communist pseudonym. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to him as Trotsky for the rest of the episode. If you read his autobiography you’ll see that he tries to portray his childhood as working class, even a bit impoverished.
But, many historical sources note his family for being one of the wealthiest in the village. And considering that he would become a communist revolutionary, he wanted to hide anything that could be used against him, like coming from a wealthy farming family. Regardless of how much money they had, these early years in this small rural Village would prove very significant in shaping Trotsky’s ideals.
One of the workers on his father’s Farm helped shape his ideal of what a hard worker should look like. “He would smoke and look into the distance, perhaps pondering about something or remembering something or simply relaxing without a thought in his head. At such times I used to Sidle up to him and affectionately twirl his bushy, Auburn mustache around my fingers, or examine his hands – Those remarkable, absolutely special hands of a master Craftsman. All the skin of his hands was covered with little black spots: These were the tiny splinters that had ear immovably penetrated his body when he was cutting millstones. His fingers were as tenacious as roots but not completely hard semicolon they brought in towards the tips and were very Supple, and he could turn his thumb right back so as to form an arch. Each of his fingers was conscious, living and acting by itself semicolon together they formed and unusual working collective. However young I was, I could already see and feel that this hand was not like other hand when holding a hammer or a pair of pliers. There was a deep scar around his left thumb. Ivan Vasilevich had caught his hand with an axe the day I was born and the thumb was hanging almost by the skin alone. My father had happened to see the young mechanic laying his hand on a board and getting ready to chop off his thumb altogether. “Stop!” He had shouted. “Your finger will grow back again!” “It will grow back, you think?” Asked the mechanic and put the axe side. The thumb really did grow back and worked well except only that it did not turn back as far as the one on his right hand.” (Service pg 28).
Ivan vasilevich didn’t complain or shirk his responsibilities. He did what needed to be done. If only every worker could behave this way, Trotsky thought.
And there’s another really telling young experience that you need a little bit of context for. These small rural villages were severely lacking in law enforcement. Russia was particularly lawless in comparison to its western neighbors. These small villages relied on integrity. But when integrity didn’t work, vigilante justice took its place. There were countless experiences of people being severely punished or beaten or tortured for crimes that they probably didn’t commit.
It was a particularly brutal way of justice, but, I suppose, it was better than nothing. On this one occasion, a peasant’s cow wandered onto the family farm and had eaten a few dollars worth of grain. David bronstein, Trotsky’s dad, was livid. David was screaming at this guy.
Seeing his father in such a state of rage at a peasant sent Trotsky into tears. “The croquet playing mood I had brought from the pitch amid the pear trees, where I had trounced my sisters, immediately gave way to acute despair. I slipped past my father, rushed into my bedroom, fell flat on the bed and cried myself into oblivion despite the fact that I was a pupil in the second grade at school.” (Service pg 26). The Bronsteins tried comforting their son, but he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t even answer them, he just sat there and cried into his pillow. This was something he felt on a personal level.
Another thing that’s really important to note about Trotsky’s upbringing is that he was raised in a secular Jewish Home. They were technically Jewish but it’s not like they went out of their way to practice Jewish traditions or anything. It’s not like it had a lasting impression on Trotsky growing up. His household was secular and it produced very secular person.
But the Bronstein’s noticed something early on about their son. It wasn’t like the other boys. He thought differently. His brain was wired unlike most people around him. He was extremely smart. And David did not want his son growing up with the educational disadvantage he had. David literally had to rely on Trotsky to keep his business records for him because he wasn’t educated enough to do it himself. The guy was a hop and a skip away from illiteracy. But he saw a lot of potential in his son. So when Trotsky was eight years old, he was sent off to be educated in one of the most booming, Metropolitan cities in Europe. Odessa. And in this city, the young Trotsky would be exposed to cultures from across the continent.
People spoke French there for heaven’s sake. They discussed the biggest ideas of the time. Lenin published a newspaper there nearly 20 years before the Revolution. So you can understand the influence city like that would have on a young Trotsky. Something that was noted in one of Trotsky’s earliest biographies.
And before we get too into the nitty-gritty of his political career I feel it’s really important to get a good understanding of the political situation in Russia during this time. Russia was the name instability was the game.
And one of the major contributing factors to all of this instability was that the vast majority of people were absolute peasants with no power. There were two ruling classes. The unelected autocrats running the government, and the land-owners. All of the wealth that Russia produced went to those two classes of people. Once in awhile you could find an emancipated peasant who somehow found success on a farm for starting a business but they were extremely rare.
In America in 2019 about 95% of all new businesses fail. with all of our wealth and opportunity and consumerism and everything else 95% still fail. Think about how much more difficult it is to start a successful business in Russia in 1898 with this regressive ruling government, a population who can’t afford much of anything anyway, and dozens of other factors working against you. Damn near impossible. Starting your own business is off the table for all practical purposes. So where does that leave you, as a peasant? Tied to land you don’t own. Feudalism.
The rest of Europe was moving into the 20th century but Russia lagged behind. Bad. From about 1870 until the Russian Revolution, none of the czar’s or the ruling class really worried too much about liberating The Peasants. It wasn’t their problem. They just didn’t care. And the Russian peasants really felt this. This is going to be one of a number of things that are really going to set the groundwork for the revolution.
By actively working against the interests of your own people you are making them your enemy. Another thing working against Russia is this other political trend sweeping across Europe, nationalism. People didn’t want to live in some random country with arbitrary borders and a lack of coherence. Cause in most of these countries that exactly what you have. Look at Austria-Hungary.
Two completely different people groups with a different language, culture and everything else. When things get bad they start turning on each other. It’s just natural. That’s what happens when you have different people living under one government. When things are good, everyone gets along just fine but all of a sudden there is a war and one side doesn’t contribute as much as the other, you can often find yourself on the brink of a civil war. And Russia is in a particularly difficult situation because most of the people in Russia are and even Russian. Estimates vary what about 44% of the Russian Empire is composed of ethnic and cultural Russians. Do you see the problem there? That’s not even half. Not even half of the country is Russian.
So who are these other people living in the Russian empire? Well, not that hard to figure out, basically all the countries bordering Russia today. This includes Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, there was a sizable Jewish minority as well as Muslims in southern regions. And it gets really tricky for the Tsar and some of these nationalities start fighting to become an independent nation state. Poland posed a great threat, especially because just earlier that century, Napoleon gave them their own country, only lasted a little while, but having a taste of independence can be very motivating.
The next big Independence Movement they had worried about was Ukraine. Not only did Ukraine speak a different language and have a different culture, but they were also the Hub of economic activity in the Russian Empire.
Ukrainians were tired of having all their wealth taxed and sent over to Moscow first some autocrat to reap the benefits. And the situation with ukrainians was tough because Russia could repress do ukrainians and sensor any nationalist newspapers within their own borders but they only had about a third of all the ukrainians within Russian borders. There was a sizable minority in Austria, about one-third of all ukrainians, who had the benefit of Western liberalism and not absolute, but reasonable freedom of speech.
So the ukrainians in Austria could drum up support for Ukrainian Independence and then some of that is going to spill over to the ukrainians living in Russia. This is going to be one of those things driving a wedge between Russia and Austria going forward and it creates a lot of tension. Enough to contribute WWI. Because in response to Austria not censoring these Ukrainian nationalists, Russia is going to support Serbian nationalism that’s happening in Austrian territory. So Russia basically says if you support nationalists trying to gain independence in our nation we’re going to support nationalists trying to gain independence in your nation and see how you like it. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Gavrilo Princip assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand. The event that started WWI.
Yeah, Gavrilo was a Serbian nationalist who had the support of Russia behind him. Russia tried framing it like “well they’re our fellow Slavic Orthodox Christians so of course they have our support. Why should they have to be subjugated by Catholic Germans?” Pretty hypocritical when you realize they were only being spiteful because Austria wasn’t censoring the Ukrainian nationalists. I think you can see why the czarist regime was as unpopular as it was. Regressive. Backward. Hypocrites.
Another problem that Russia is facing right now is this vast amount of territory that it controls. More land generally means more money and more power. But it also means more upkeep. And Russia’s backward and regressive government was far from efficient. For example, law enforcement was stretched extremely thin.
The Russian provinces had about 9,000 state police officers to govern a population of 100 million people. This doesn’t count the cities but remember not a lot of people even lived in the cities. About a hundred million people lived in this Countryside. And to keep the order among them were 9000 police officers. That puts the police officer to Citizen ratio at about 1 to 11000.
I had to fact-check this from a couple of different sources because I didn’t even believe it when I read it. But it’s true. As unbelievable as it is. Damn Russia you crazy. To put that into perspective, around the same time, the British had more police officers in rural Ireland.
Given the circumstances, I’m sure you can see why the Russian government was so paranoid about revolutionaries. So whenever these communist or socialist agitators started popping up, the Tsar sent in his secret police to take care of things. The Okhrana. They were notorious especially amongst Western Europeans. The Okhrana had unlimited power and could arrest you for your political affiliations.
And unlike every other sector of the Russian government, they were extremely good at their jobs. When it came to building infrastructure and providing opportunities for the locals, the Russian government really dropped the ball. But when it came to identifying and targeting and arresting thought criminals well all of a sudden they knew how to get their act together. Funny how that works. But again, you look at how many police officers they had on the ground, and it’s kinda hard to blame them.
Now the one thing working in favor of the Russian government was that the economy stayed agrarian for a very long time. That means all of the problems that you have in early capitalism, the problems Western Europe was facing, wouldn’t come to Russia for a couple of decades.
Britain and France and Germany are all suffering with child labor and low wages and everyone being forced to leave their family farm to move to a city and what do you know you can’t even afford to live in the city because there are no jobs anymore. It was a lot of uncertainty and chaos and all of that gave way communist thinkers. The rough transition into a capitalist economy made a lot of people think communism was the only viable option. And some of these were smart people. We have the benefit of knowing how communism ends up but the people living during the Industrial Revolution didn’t. They saw capitalism come in ruin families, leave people homeless, exploit workers, create monopolies.
All kinds of horrible stuff. We should all be very fortunate because we live on the cushy side of capitalism. Communist thinking would take a little bit more time to make its way to Russia because you don’t need communism if you are feudal serf. You just don’t. It’s not necessary. But when Russia started industrializing in the 1880s, those communist agitators all of a sudden had an audience. Because you had the misery and the chaos that comes with the early adoption of capitalism but you also have an authoritarian state with no liberal principles to protect you and your freedom. It was the worst of both worlds.
And in the 1890s particularly, Russia would suffer a number of famines that wiped out thousands of people. And it got so bad that someone who didn’t even believe in financially helping people devoted time and effort to distributing food during these famines. This was of course none other than Leo Tolstoy, who was by this time already a successful and Wealthy writer.
He had a very unique religious perspective and thought simply giving people money was immoral. I’m not going to give you his whole train of thought but that’s what he believed and even with that belief he went out to give people food, which many people noted as a contradiction, but I digress. His son wrote about Tolstoy not being able to live luxuriously in Moscow anymore knowing that there were people starving and suffering. Tolstoy’s supposed to have written, “There is sin without end, but I cannot stay at home and write. I feel the necessity of taking part in it, of doing something.” (Reminiscences of Tolstoy) He spent the next few years of his life away from writing and helping with famine relief because he recognized that if he didn’t go out there and do it, nobody else was coming.
Just think for a moment how bad a famine has to be that an immensely popular best-selling author feels morally obligated to put down the pen, stop working, and personally help people who are starving to death. Industrialization was not kind to the Russian peasant.
Now this may have been an absolute disaster for many people. But there was a group of people who benefited. The Communists. Exploiting tragedies for a political cause is nothing new today and it was nothing new then. And boy did it give them a lot of ammunition.
Because communism went from some obscure idea that only radicals believed in to something that the average person could really get behind. Trotsky makes note of this event in his autobiography, “The year 1891, memorable for the crop failure and the famine, marks the official date of the political breaking-point in the country. The new decade centred around the labor question… The political shift in the direction of action cropped up first of all in the midst of the intelligentsia. More and more frequently and decisively did the young Marxists resort to action. At the same time the dormant populist movement began to show signs of awakening. In 1893 the first legally printed Marxist work, written by Struve (stroo-veh), made its appearance. I was then in my fourteenth year, and still very remote from these matters.” But the young Trotsky would not be remote for very long.
The next few years of Trotsky’s life forged him. He became increasingly distant from his family. After living in Odessa for so many years, his family seemed like an afterthought. They constantly pressed him to pursue mathematics but he wasn’t having it. There was one thing on Trotsky’s mind. Revolution.
And by the time he makes it to his early adulthood, he decides to make this the one thing that he does with all of his time and energy. He moved to another city became involved with a socialist organization. And part of becoming a socialist meant that he had to take up a certain lifestyle. You see, he had been accustomed to upper-middle-class living. That’s how he was raised.
It’s kind of tough to run in the Socialists crowd when you got a silver spoon in your mouth. So he has a falling out with his parents, stop speaking to them all together for a little while, and starts living in one of these group homes with a bunch of other socialist activists. But little did they know, the Ohkrana were onto them. And just as they were starting to find some success in this city, things took a turn for the worse.
It was January. Trotsky was enjoying a nice time visiting a comrade who worked for a wealthy landowner. This particular comrade was tasked with holding trotsky’s extra illegal paperwork. And you did so pretty well.
He hid this paperwork in a briefcase in a hole in the garden of this wealthy landowner. Surely, no one would look there. It was a brilliant plan that no-one was ever going to find out about. Until they did. And right as this comrade went to retrieve the briefcase, which was hidden in a hole next to a tree, the police stormed the property. They came from every which direction. But all was not lost. They managed to hand the briefcase off to a sympathetic housekeeper who tried to hide the briefcase under the snow. They lucked out.
The cops didn’t find it. At least, until the snow melted in the summertime. A different worker came across the briefcase and handed it to the landowner. He turned it into the police. And the handwriting in those documents were damning evidence against Trotsky and his comrades.
The year was 1898. Being sent to prison anywhere is going to entail a lot of suffering. Horrible working conditions, small living spaces, food that somehow makes grass more appetizing.
These are all things that plagued the prisons of the day. One of the worst parts to prison though, is the isolation. The inability to spend time with people you care about. If you get any free time at all, it’s spent with people you probably don’t like. A bunch of prisoners.
The Trotsky lucked out because he married one of his fellow comrades, a lovely young lady by the name of Alexandra. They got along. Laughed. Discussed Marxism. She also just so happened to be Jewish too. So they had a Jewish wedding, in prison.
The rules just so happened to allow married couples to stay together if they were in prison. So it’s kind of like one of those scenarios where you can be stuck and miserable isolation but you can only bring one person, Trotsky picked Alexandra. And it turned out pretty good for him because Prison was actually a fairly productive period of Trotsky’s life.
He did have a falling out with his parents though. They just didn’t understand the whole communist revolutionary thing. They probably just thought it was a phase and Trotsky was going to figure things out and become a normal and productive member of society once he served his term. Wrong.
Instead of paying his dues in prison, Trotsky paid his attention to books. He became a genius. Every night, every day, he was reading and researching and thinking and arguing and hashing out his ideas. And a lot of the information he had access to wasn’t even pro-communist stuff.
The first couple months he only had legitimate state-enforced propaganda to pick from. But he made the most of it because he identified the best arguments the monarchists and conservatives could make, and he figured out ways he could outsmart them in debate. Now that’s where things matter. Even practiced his skills a little bit by heckling guards. There was this one police sergeant, Miklin, who was a devout Christian. And whenever Trotsky was in the same room with this guy, he would debate theology. Trotsky, a devout atheist.
He would say that heaven doesn’t exist because as many descriptions as there are of it, no one could give a physical location. He berated Christians for being so stupid as to investigate the devil who, he believed, didn’t exist. I’m sure he made much more arguments than just these two. He went so far as to get four different language copies of the Bible and read them intricately just to be able to make good arguments against Christians. He cited their own book against them.
Serving a prison term was the best thing that ever happened to Leon Trotsky. He got to refine his arguments, explore new ideas, got to practice with debating someone. For some of the prisoners, this was unadulterated suffering. But for Trotsky, this was higher education. He got to marry some girl he barely knew and live with her. Got to spend all this time reading books and making arguments. Sounded like a pretty good time actually.
And just like many college students find out the hard way, Trotsky was about to learn that there are consequences to your actions. His wife was pregnant. And on some level you just gotta be like “well what do you expect?” You put a man and a woman together in a cage who are legally married and sooner or later there’s going to be a third person in there with them. In fact, they’ll have 2 kids while in Siberian prison. But this is going to be the point in the story where it’s very understandable to feel a little bit of hatred toward Trotsky. Because he leaves his family behind.
He did his best to justify his actions. In his mind, he was going to be the Revolutionary Messiah that the world needed. He wasn’t about to let some children or a family get in the way of his destiny. And then he has the nerve to claim that his wife wanted him to go.
It wasn’t that Trotsky believed in himself being this revolutionary Messiah, but it was his wife, Alexandra. I can’t even imagine there being a woman that says, “yeah I know we just had two kids in prison, but like, really, I can do this on my own. Go start the revolution. Me and the kiddies will read about it in the paper. It’s gunna be fine.” But no, it gets worse.
Over the course of the next couple years he at least had the decency to write back to this long-forgotten wife with two children. When you start spending time reading those letters back to his family, you notice a particular pattern. He doesn’t really ask about them. Doesn’t even seem to care. His letters are closer to news pieces and political propaganda then they are the writings of a concerned father.
You see, there had been an alternative Marxist Jewish group operating out of Western Russia. Trotsky had the nerve to ask his estranged wife to disrupt and interfere with the Jewish bund. Make things easier for the other Marxists, because these guys were a bunch of nationalists, in Trotsky’s mind. But through and through, the only priority in Trotsky’s alive was the revolution. Nothing else mattered. Not his wife. Not his parents. Not his children.
After he left Siberia, he managed to land a job at the Marxist newspaper in London. Iskra, a Russian word meaning The Spark. The motto? “From a spark a fire will flare up.” I don’t think you could have picked a more poetic or fitting motto if you tried, considering where things go. But it’s at this newspaper that he starts getting involved with the big names in Russian communism.
Martov, Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin. These guys are the real who’s who of communism. I mean, one of them, Georgi (Ghee-ohr-ghee) Plekhanov, had been involved with anti-Tsarist political movements going back to the 1870s. And interestingly enough, he was one of the few that really disliked Trotsky. There was a story that went around and it’s not verified or anything, but it’s one that so easily could have happened that it may as well have. So, there was another columnist that said about Trotsky, “that young man’s a genius”, and then Plekhanov had replied, “that is something I can’t forgive Trotsky.”
You can really get a sense of jealousy especially because Trotsky was becoming the new superstar of this Marxist circle. As Robert service notes in his biography, the old prima donna never wants to make room for the new prima donna.
In 1903, something horrible happen for communism. There was an internal ideological split between two sides. It was between Lenin who led the Bolsheviks and Martov who led the mensheviks. And it’s interesting the way this happened and how this would impact politics in the future.
So the word Bolshevik means majority in the word menshevik means minority. But it wasn’t a solid majority. There were times when there were more mensheviks than Bolsheviks and vice-versa. The Bolsheviks would eventually become the dominant faction but that would not come for a very long time. And early on, the Bolsheviks had one strategy that they wanted to pursue. A highly organized, disciplined, revolutionary movement. Almost a militia. Lennon, who was the figurehead of this faction, argued there would never be a revolution with unorganized support. He thought they had to get organized and powerful enough, take out the government, and then they could worry about bring me more people anti-communism. The mensheviks took the completely opposite stance.
They wanted every single person on Earth who is willing to listen to become a communist. To support the cause. And this early ideological split would be important for another decision they had to make. Whether or not they wanted to start a violent revolution to overthrow the government. The mensheviks would be happy with some peaceful reform gradual progress within a legal framework. Not the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his people wanted to kill the czar and establish a new government from scratch. We could go more into the differences on the two sides but that could be an entire podcast unto itself so we’ll leave it there for now.
Trotsky was an early menshevik. But it was only Loosely that he supported the mensheviks and it wouldn’t be very long either. He eventually broke away and by the time 1904 rolls around he’s created distance between him and any faction. He wrote articles denouncing and criticizing things on both sides. Trotsky was just too idealistic. Just being a Marxist wasn’t enough anymore. There were too many. And by not taking a stand early on, he doomed himself in the future. Because, when the Bolsheviks win out, they’re suspicious of all the would-be-mensheviks. People who didn’t really agree with the Bolshevik cause but joined because, well, the Bolsheviks won. And after Trotsky split with Lenin, oh boy, Lenin had a lot of bad things to say about Trotsky. Swine. Scoundrel. Judas. You know, the disciple that betrayed Jesus and basically got him killed. But Trotsky didn’t see it as a betrayal. He called for Unity.
He wanted all marxists to unite, Bolshevik and menshevik alike, in Revolution against their common enemy, the bourgeois. The Tsar. The Capitalists. But his idealism would get the best of him. Because they would never unite. In fact, it took the Soviet Union genocides to attain ideological unity. And even then, there were quiet dissidents.
And of course, another thing to note, is many of these revolutionaries looked to the only other semi-successful example that had happened in Europe before, The French Revolution. After all, it resulted in the rise of Napoleon, and the last thing the Russians wanted was Russian Bonaparte. And which French revolutionary took the most blame for the catastrophe? Maxamillion Robespierre.
It was an insult to be compared to him. Which is why it was such a big deal when Lenin was compared to Robespierre by Trotsky. You see, Maximilien Robespierre had been a particularly polarizing individual. I mean, listen to the following statement, “I know only two parties, the party of good and the party of bad citizens.” Trotsky identifies this as senseless intolerance. Condemning, and eventually killing comrades. People that would have otherwise been on your side had you not taken things to the extreme. It’s interesting that Trotsky made this observation about Lenin because not even he realized how right he actually was.
But either way, his idealism put them in a bind. Trotsky would be spending quite a long time in ideological exile. In his mind, he was standing with the revolutionary spirit, really living life the way a true Marxist should. But the problem was that he was standing on his own. And he was too self-confident to ever question his own moral and ideological superiority.
Just think about how sure of yourself you have to be, to get a job at the number one Marxist newspaper in the world, and you immediately start butting heads with guys who have dedicated their entire lives to this cause. I mean, Plekhanov, has been doing this since before Trotsky was born. Pavel Axelrod had been a Marxist Revolutionary for 2 decades. Not to mention, Lenin himself. And countless others that played major roles in making this revolution possible.
Alexander Bogdanov the co-leader of the emigre Bolshevik faction wrote to Lenin’s wife, “Trotsky came round to see me. I very much dislike him – he’s totally uncongenial.” It’s always fascinating to see how much the revolutionaries dislike each other.
There are two important dates for the Russian Revolution. One of them is 1917. The year most people associate with the true start to the Soviet Socialist Republic. But the other year is 1905, the year that made 1917 possible. Marxists and agitators had been pushing for a revolution for decades now. But Revolution takes time. There were very big changes in 1905 that changed the political landscape of the Russian Empire.
Let’s start with how Trotsky changed everything. He had become really good at spreading Marxist propaganda. He had been doing this thing for a long time now, and it really showed. His ideas were refined.
His speeches were incredible. His words moved the audience and won over countless supporters. “In the Soviet I operated under the name of Yanovski, After the village in which I was born. In the Press I wrote as Trotsky. I had to work for three newspapers. Together with Parvus headed the tiny Russian Gazette, turning it into a fighting organ for the masses. Within a few days the circulation rose from 30,000 to 100,000. A month later it had reached half a million. But our technical resources could not keep up with the growth of the newspaper. We were finally delivered from this contradiction only by a government raid. On 13th November, in a block with the mensheviks, we established a big political organ, The Beginning. The paper’s circulation grew not day by day but hour by hour. The Bolshevik New Life without Lenin was rather drab. The Beginning, on the contrary, achieved gigantic success.”
And then came the moment that changed Russian history forever. January 9th 1905. An Orthodox priest organizes a small, peaceful demonstration outside of the Tsar’s Winter Palace. Their only goal was to deliver a petition to the Tsar. To let him know that life for the average person was becoming increasingly unbearable. And they weren’t asking for much either.
They wanted slightly better working conditions such as an 8-hour workday, an introduction of a national Parliament, and limitations on the power of State officials. In comparison to Western European nations of the day, this was not asking for very much at all. But the Tsar did not hear their demands. He wasn’t even home. He didn’t care. Then the czar’s men opened fire killing hundreds of people. Estimates vary on casualty figures.
According to the Tsar’s, there were 96 deaths and 333 injuries. That doesn’t sound too horrible. But if you look at the anti-government sources, they were saying there were 4000 deaths. That’s a big difference there isn’t it. Most credible historians would say they were probably about a thousand killed or wounded. It’s really difficult to say with any certainty because both sides had such obvious motives and were both shameless enough to inflate numbers to their own advantage. The government wanted to downplay its own crimes and the protesters wanted the public to unanimously support their cause for freedom. This did not end well for the government.
Once word got out, the entire nation of Russia halted productivity. At one point there are 750,000 Railway workers, alone on strike, completely shutting down the railways in most parts of the country. And thousands of other workers join in too. There are a hundred and twenty two additional revolutions going on in smaller towns and cities. The Russian people were mad. This was a disaster. And oddly enough, it’s a disaster that could have been avoided.
In Trotsky’s book, 1905, He talks about the government’s complete ineptitude in dealing with the situation. They knew days in advance what was gunna happen. Reporters had written stories about it across Europe. “Every Paris concierge knew three days in advance that there was going to be a revolution in Petersburg on Sunday, January 9. And the Russian government did not move a finger to avoid the massacre.” Yikes, that sounds absolutely horrible.
They knew it was coming, and still fired into a crowd of unarmed protestors. Can’t get any worse than that, can it? Oh dear listener, but it can. Because two days later there was a meeting of the committee of ministers to make sense of what happened there. What was their excuse for not dealing with the revolution? It wasn’t on the agenda. You heard that right. It wasn’t on the agenda.
The revolution may not have been on the Russian government’s agenda, but it was on the Russian people’s agenda. If salvation wasn’t going to come from above, Revolution was going to come from below.
The demonstrators got what they wanted. The Tsar caved. This led to the creation of the state Duma where anyone could have the ability to vote for representatives in the government. I know that doesn’t sound too enticing to us in the 21st century, but this was an enormous leap for the Russian people.
They had the right to vote. They didn’t get all of their demands met, but this was a big step in the right direction. It both excited and horrified the Communist revolutionaries. On the one hand, they had made a lot of progress, but on the other, this might have satisfied enough people that their movement lost momentum. This wasn’t enough for Trotsky.
“On October 18th, the day after the manifestos publication, many tens of thousands of people were standing in front of St. Petersburg University aroused by the struggle and intoxicated with the joy of their first victory. I shouted to them from the balcony that a half victory was unreliable, that the enemy was irreconcilable, that there were traps ahead; I tore up the imperial manifesto and threw the pieces to the winds.” (Service, pg 91)
Trotsky in the marxists managed to create the first Soviet or Council of workers toward the end of 1905. And the czarist government, understanding their difficult predicament double down on arresting revolutionaries, and it wasn’t long before Trotsky was imprisoned again. And while he was in prison, they allowed his new significant other, Natalya, to visit him.
As one might suspect, it wasn’t long before she became pregnant. And he was going to be a father, again oh, what the different woman. And oddly enough, this is now the second time the Trotsky is creating children while in prison. Maybe there’s something about being in cell that does it for him, who knows. The important fact is that at least this second wife wasn’t imprisoned as well, although they were not legally married.
In his book, 1905, he really doubled down on his philosophical idea of permanent revolution. That there should be nonstop Revolution everywhere on Earth until the Marxist Utopia truly came about for every single human that’s alive. This idea is one of his most significant contributions to Marxist philosophy. It’s something that he’s associated with even after his own death.
Now, we’re going to have to fast forward a few years here. Things are fairly uneventful. As is all-too-common with the Communist revolutionary type, he escapes prison and continues spreading propaganda while living in exile. He spent a few years in a couple different places. London, Luxembourg, Paris. Spends a few years as a war journalist in the Balkans. At one point, he found himself living in New York City.
And it’s almost ironic, someone that’s this idealistic Marxist living in the mecca of capitalism. You can just imagine how he responded to the lifestyle there. Trotsky was up to his neck in work, but his children really liked New York, more so than the other European cities. He called New York the fullest expression of the modern age. He was definitely writing that with a negative connotation. I don’t think he realized the irony.
Before he left, he held a meeting at a casino and asked of the Socialist New Yorkers, “I want you people to organize and keep on organizing until you’re able to overthrow this damned, rotten, capitalistic government of this country.” It’s funny too, it almost sounds like something one of his political enemies would paraphrase. No, those were his actual words. You don’t even have to exaggerate.
The next major phase of his life would take place in one of Europe’s oldest, most powerful cities. Vienna. The year is 1914. The Great War was about to envelop the continent. Cohesion was absolutely lost amongst the revolutionaries. Completely gone. Trotsky argued for pacifism. Plekhanov advocated for Russia’s victory. Lenin wanted Russia to lose. It was chaos. Trotsky spent his time as a reporter in Paris. There were some internationalist meetings in Switzerland, but nothing major happened for quite some time. Ask you went all over the place during World War I.
It isn’t very long that France had him deported to Spain, and from Spain he went to New York City. He tried going back to Europe what is ship got intercepted by the British navy, and he was imprisoned in Nova Scotia Canada. And interestingly enough, the guy who bails him out isn’t even a Marxist. The Russian foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, who was a moderate liberal, demanded Trotsky’s freedom and return to Russia as a Russian citizen. After all, Russia was technically on the side of Britain and the entirety of the Anglosphere. Declining this request could have meant worse off relations with Russia, and no one wanted to fight Germany alone. Especially not the second Reich.
Now, Trotsky was slowly building a stellar reputation as a Marxist thinker. A fellow communist said, “Here’s a great revolutionary who’s arrived and one gets the feeling that Lenin, however clever he may be, is starting to fade a next to the genius of Trotsky.” And that’s really saying something. Lenin is basically the father of the revolutionaries at this point. And here he is getting shown up by Trotsky. There wasn’t as much friction between the two of them as you might think though. They were gradually beginning to have similar opinions on what had to be done. Trotsky had some menshevik leanings in the early 1900s, but by this point, he’s really starting to side with the Bolsheviks more and more. Even sounds like one at certain points. And of course, the big difference between Bolsheviks and mensheviks is that the Bolsheviks were not afraid to embrace violence, an idea that Trotsky became much more receptive to by this point, “I tell you heads must roll, blood must flow… The strength of the French Revolution was in the machine that made the enemies of the people shorter by a head. This is a fine device. We must have it in every city.” (Service) Trotsky may not have started out as a Bolshevik, but words like this are the essence of bolshevism. He was officially on board with the majority.
The British Diplomat to Russia, George Buchanan, witnessed so much of what happened during this horrible period, that its widely believed he wrote his memoir, and left out a whole bunch. And you couldn’t have picked a more interesting time to be an ambassador to Russia, he started in 1910 and continued into 1917 when it was just too dangerous to stay. He had a very good relationship with the Tsar and Tsarina.
But as the situation in Russia came to a head, he broke diplomatic protocol and basically told the Tsar, “listen buddy, if you don’t fix things, they’re gunna overthrow you, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.” Buchanan may have been out of line in his last meeting with the Tsar when he said, “I can but plead as my excuse the fact that I have throughout been inspired by my feelings of devotion for Your Majesty and the Empress. If I were to see a friend walking through a wood on a dark night along a path which I knew ended in a precipice, would it not be my duty, sir, to warn him of his danger? And is it not equally my duty to warn Your Majesty of the abyss that lies ahead of you? You have, sir, come to the parting of the ways, and you have now to choose between two paths. The one will lead you to victory and a glorious peace – the other to revolution and disaster. Let me implore Your Majesty to choose the former.” Buchanan’s words fell on deaf ears.
The Tsar couldn’t listen to his own advisors, let alone a foreign diplomat. And in early 1917, St. Petersburg erupted into an absolutely catastrophic conflict. This event went down in history as the February Revolution. Over a thousand people died. The Tsar was forced to abdicate the throne. The empire was brought to an end. And the provisional government was installed.
I do feel the need to point out really quickly that this event took place in March for us, Russia was still using a weird month system. I’m just going to call these events what they were called by the Soviet historians. Cuz it’s like that for all of them.
Unfortunately for Trotsky, he was not in Russia during the February Revolution. And out of all of these little revolutionary events that took place in Russia, this was probably as organic as you get. There was not some kind of demonstrated effort by a bunch of leading Bolsheviks or anyone else. The years of WWI were miserable for the Russian people. The war took the lives of millions of Russian soldiers. The already backward economy plummeted. Food was scarce. Everyone suffered. When these Russian people finally overthrew the Tsar, they did so without any organizational leadership. They didn’t need it. The hatred they felt for the Tsarist regime was enough. There are even accounts a Russian citizens not minding a possible German invasion because, well, at least they might restore some order. Order didn’t come though. Not from the Germans. Not from a provisional government. Not from any of the elected party members. You see, transitioning from an absolute monarchy to a democratic government is always rough. Especially when one of the most powerful factions of society are the Bolsheviks. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this provisional government thing only lasted a few months. And that’s when we get into the real game-changer. The October Revolution.
The Communists declared power over all of Russia. And this is the point in the story that the Russian people who have already been suffering Long Cold Hard miserable years during World War 1, facing a disastrous defeat, starvation, economic ruin, multiple revolutions and changes of government, now they have to face the Bloodshed of Bolshevism. One of Lenin’s favorite Marxist principles was property is theft. Previous sympathizers grew cautious as the country fell apart around them. Theft, robbery and murder became commonplace. And wreaked havoc on the Russian people.
Buchanan saw firsthand what was going on, “the government is now in the hands of a small clique of extremists who are bent on imposing their will on the country by terroristic methods.” (Buchanan) An American observer who worked in the embassy described it as a bunch of crazy people killing each other like we swat flies back home.
And Trotsky was responsible for this. He played an important role in developing a government that did just these things. That genocided people and imprisoned innocent civilians because they might pose a threat to their power. And Trotsky gets to be made out like he’s some kind of victim in this whole story, which he’s not. Just because you get an ice axe to your head does not take away all of the thousands of people you ordered to be slaughtered like animals. In fact, he not only exterminated his enemies, but he wanted to do away with all mercy toward his enemies at all, “We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.” Because to him, human life was no longer sacred.
And it wasn’t just genocide for being perceived as a potential traitor of the Soviet Union, but minor offenses could mean extremely harsh punishments. Trotsky called for “grain-hoarders” to serve 10 years of hard labor. And all it took to be considered a grain-hoarder was saving a little bit, even if you had a family to take care of, they came second to the revolution. And on top of that, if you had served in the military during the Tsarist regime, even if you were drafted against your will, you had questionable loyalties to the working class. This meant that you were still required to fight in the military, but now the USSR just took your family members hostage in case you did something you weren’t supposed to. How’s that for liberation? And that’s how he treated his own people. Just imagine how much more brutal he was against foreigners. As the Red Army was ravaging most of Eastern Europe, he even encouraged war crimes. He wrote to a commanding officer in the Red Army that he should, “Take military measures, i. e. try to punish Latvia and Estonia in a military fashion, for example by crossing over the frontier somewhere by 1/2 Mile and hanging between 100 and 1,000 of their bureaucrats and wealthy people.” No due process or justice for those 100 to 1,000 people.
Now, one of Trotsky’s first big jobs in the Soviet Union was acting as commissar for foreign affairs. And he played a key role in a really important negotiation between Russia and the Central Powers. You may have heard of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Named after the city in Belarus where the negotiations took place. It was a humiliating defeat for the Russians and the newly established Soviet Union.
After spending months and months negotiating, he resigned to not have to sign it. That’s how bad the conditions were. Lenin called it an obscene peace. And it really was. Because the newly established Soviet Union had worried about the Civil War with the white Army and other anti-communist groups, so they were completely at the mercy of the German Empire. The Civil War was a more pressing matter, so that’s where the communists focused their effort, even if they had to concede a lot of territory to a capitalist, imperial enemy.
And during the civil war of 1918, Trotsky sent a telegram to Lenin insisting that Stalin should be removed from Power. And it’s so fascinating how so early on, Stalin was identified as bad guy. Despite both Trotsky and Lenin and a few other leading Bolsheviks not really caring for Stalin and the kind of things that Stalin does, he stays in power.
No one ever gets rid of him because he was the ultimate bureaucrat. He wasn’t good at military strategy, or persuasive speaking, or writing, or anything else. He was just the ultimate winner at office politics. And in most scenarios, that doesn’t really matter, does it? But it does when that office has absolute authority over a hundred million people. Stalin was a secondary issue though.
Because Lenin was shot in 1918, which triggered a reaction that could not be stopped. The Red Terror. The next year or so is defined by brutal tactics by the communists. They did finally get rid of that papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life, and oh how the Russian people wept.
And you know, the reason Trotsky has such a good reputation in the western world is because he went out of his way to give favorable treatment to Western journalists. This is why, even today, so many western leftists praise Leon Trotsky. At the time, even well respected writers and intellectuals became sympathizers and enthusiastic about the Soviet union. They thought, maybe this could be the start of something new, a true utopian society. If it lived up to the ideals, maybe it really could have been. But the problem is that it fell short on every single ideal. So when thinkers like HG Wells and Bertrand Russell visited the Soviet Union to see what was going on, they were mortified. So it didn’t really matter how nice Trotsky was to any of these guys, pleasantry cannot hide oppression.
And it’s funny too, because Russell once said of Trotsky that he had the vanity of an actor. And I think that’s one of those observations that really hits the nail on the head. Trotsky was dramatic. That might even be an understatement. It’s people like Trotsky that made the Russian revolution possible to begin with. Because what he and people like him did was present such a hyper sensationalized view of the world that if you believed what you were reading or hearing, you were either a sympathizer or an enemy. And this is something that the characteristic of many extremists, but I think Trotsky does it better than most.
But as dramatic and as galvanizing as he was to the masses, he never deluded himself behind closed doors. He knew what was going on. There was a Hungarian communist Györgi Lukács who wrote a pamphlet that basically said that the Soviet Union went from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. You would think most communists would accept this idea, hopefully even agree considering they had just declared a Soviet state and secured power. But Trotsky, embittered by the reality of the situation wrote some years later, “I remember how Lenin and I laughed on this account and left with some bitterness since the realm of freedom was ruled by famine and typhus.” Not even the communist leadership believed they’d brought the socialist utopia to fruition.
Nikolai Krylenko was a soviet politician. The commissar for justice. And he was a strong supporter of giving leniency in criminal decisions based on politics. Basically, our buddies can commit crime and get off easier. But our political enemies, yeah, they’re gunna get the book thrown at them. And it’s horrible because that’s already how the system operated in practice. But he helped make that the book. He’s even supposed to have said, “We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.” How’s that for a commissar for justice. People like this, now ruled the Russian government.
You know, the Poles have had a rough break throughout history. Their country always seems to be occupied by Russia or Germany or both. For years and years, generations of brave Polish people fought for their independence. And in 1919, they saw a potential opportunity arise. Europe had not recovered from the catastrophe of WWI. Russia was a communist state. And nobody really knew what was going to happen. We have the benefit of studying it with all the facts and we know exactly how everything happened, and even then, it’s a bit difficult to really get a good picture of the entire situation. And even focusing on tiny little Poland and its independence is a complex story with different movements, and political figures, and agreements. The Polish rose up against Russian expansionism, and, in a surprise to many, managed to hold their own against the Soviet forces.
And it’s really important because it underscores a couple really interesting facts about this time period. Number 1, the Red Army was a joke. They couldn’t even beat Poland. They may have been fighting another front in the Russian civil war, but it still goes to show that Poland could really hold its own against the USSR. Important point number 2, Russia faces yet another humiliation on the world stage. Russia was just losing ever since the Russo-Japanese war. WWI wasn’t too terrible considering the allies eventually pulled through, but it’s not like Russia really got to reap the rewards of a conflict other nations won. Russia wanted Poland. And that’s all gunna come to a head in the next world war.
After the Polish Soviet war, and the end of the Russian Civil war, Russia was looking rough. All the things that made Russia a tough place to live before are now even worse. There’s even less food, the economy is completely destroyed and can’t rebuild because of communism, and the population suffered a tremendous loss during all these conflicts. Thousands of Russians had died and are dying now. It wasn’t long into communist leadership that one problem occured. There wasn’t enough food. People were starving. And this was something that was already a problem the Russian empire regularly faced but now with all these other problems, it’s infinitely worse. Thankfully, at least a few
Bolsheviks were honest enough to notice, “oh hey, there’s no food.” This reaction spawned the NEP or the New Economic Policy. And the irony of the whole thing the NEP embraced free market capitalism. Of course, it was subject to state control and interference from time to time, but at a fundamental level, it was a step toward capitalism. And this is one of the situations that you can’t help but to sit back and look at communists and say, “see, communism doesn’t work. Even when the USSR began to starve it desperately attempted to bring about the free market!”
The free market will create abundance if you give it enough time. But that’s just the problem. The famine is now. It’s going to take some time before the peasantry can grow enough food to create a surplus. And that’s when the Soviet government makes one of many decisions that are truly despicable.
Possibly, one of the most unethical things that ever happened during the Soviet regime, at least in my humble opinion. They redistributed food from rural peasants, you know, the people who grew the food, they took that food from those people and gave it all to the working class in the cities. The soviets weren’t stupid. They knew where the real political power was, and where it wasn’t. It was in the cities. The capital, the major population centers. It wasn’t on rural farms in the middle of nowhere. So, they took the food from these impoverished peasants, and gave it to their loyal communist supporters in the city. And on the surface, it looked like everything was okay, if you were in a city that is. This is why you even have some American and British journalists go over there and write wonderful things. If you’re in the city where everyone is well-fed and has more than enough, yeah maybe it seemed like a decent country.
But the soviet leadership picked specific cities and locations for the journalists to go, and you see, that’s the problem. These writers didn’t see the mass starvation on the farms and rural areas or even other parts of the city. And sometimes, you even have cases where a journalist, for whatever ideological reasons, decides to ignore the crimes and atrocities going on in Russia. You certainly have some of that going on, which is so horribly dishonest that you can’t help but to condemn these people.
The famine was getting really bad. Someone needed to help. Despite the Bolsheviks attempt at suppressing knowledge of the famine, word got out. So much so that American relief missions were going over to feed the starving people. One of the guys who played a big role was Herbert Hoover, who would later become the president of the United States. Say what you will about Hoover, but he wanted to alleviate the suffering of these innocent people. And Trotsky denounced him, called him an accursed enemy.
He really didn’t like accepting help from anyone that wasn’t a fellow Bolshevik. Trotsky wrote, “Here we need to remember that we are not Hungry. We are not a young Soviet Republic. We have been tempered in the struggle against counter-revolution. We have our own special organs, we have the cheka. The cheka isn’t loved, but then again we don’t love the counter-revolution.” That gives you a really good sense of what was in this man’s heart. And that’s why it’s always important to remember what separates people like us from people like Leon Trotsky.
Our willingness to question our own ideas, and hold on to our ethical principles. When you’re willing to prevent food from helping starving people, just to spite your ideological enemies, you have lost what makes you humane. I don’t care if you’re left, right, or something else. This kind of behavior is not acceptable for anyone under any circumstances. And it’s really sad that someone this kind of behavior became all too common
March 6th, 1923 was a very important day for Russia. Their communist founding father, Vladimir Lenin, became deathly ill. And on this day, he had a stroke. He lost his ability to speak. And he never really recovered, and was never politically active again. There were only so many people who could fill his shoes. And the trickiest part about replacing him was that he held no official title. You would think that he would have been like the Communist president or something, but no he was literally just one of many organizational leaders. The reason he was considered the de-facto leader at all was because so many party members trusted and followed him. Lenin’s replacement could have been anyone. But there were a couple figures who really stood out. Stalin, Trotsky, and the old Bolsheviks. Stalin outmaneuvered all of them. He was ruthless in his bid for power and one by one, isolated, exiled, and executed anyone that stood in his way.
And it was really interesting the way it happened. So, right after Lenin’s death in 1922, three leading Bolshevik members form a small leadership organization. They call it a troika. And if you’re familiar with the Roman triumvirate, that’s kind of what it was based on.
Three leaders who had control of everything. And it’s really interesting to, because they had the foresight of knowing what happened during the Roman triumvirate. Where Caesar basically took complete control and killed the other two members. This Troika was made up of three leading Bolsheviks. Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Joseph Stalin. This was kind of a play on the whole, “well I’m just a humble Soviet politician and I know I can’t replace Vladimir Lenin, so maybe the three of us can at least try to fill his shoes.” Of course I was just party politicking. At least one of them was planning to take all the power in the world, and that’s just the one that we know about. The other two may very well have been plotting the same thing that just weren’t as smart.
And after Lenin put capitalism back into place under the New Economic Policy, there was a serious disagreement over how long should be allowed to continue. Trotsky was a leading member of what became known as the left opposition. They basically believed that the capitalist elements of the Soviet economy should be destroyed and they needed to just focus on faster industrialization. And then there was the Wright group within the party, and it was the majority of the party including the Troika.
So, the New Economic Policy had the backing of Lenin, the current leadership in the Troika, most of the other party leadership, and a lot of ordinary people too. And this wasn’t the only major disagreement. during this time, Trotsky argued that you can’t have a socialist Utopia without World Revolution. According to him, there was never going to be a peaceful and prosperous Soviet Union and less the entire world joined the cause of socialism. and Stalin vehemently disagreed. Stalin formed the idea of socialism in one country. It boils down to, let’s just consolidate power here before we worry about anywhere else. And this brings us to the big ideological difference between Stalin and Trotsky. And this is where Trotsky really gets to be made out like some kind of idealist. Because he wanted to stand true to the principles of Marxism. It wasn’t about securing power for himself or even the Soviet government. She wanted to liberate the working class of the entire Earth, not just in Russia.
Stalin was very different though. It’s hard to believe that he even cared about ideologies at all. He wanted to secure power for himself. If some day labor on the other side of the planet continues to be exploited by capitalist overlords, well it didn’t really matter to him. That wasn’t going to diminish his power in any significant way.
And the interesting thing is that the other two members of the Troika disagreed with Stalin. They thought International Marxism was the only way to go. And as early as 1924 style and starts hurling accusations about these other two. As shaky as the Troika was, it could unite against one common enemy. Trotsky.
Because in 1924, he published lessons of October, which was basically a summary of the events of the 1917 Revolution. Other Bolsheviks had a lot of criticisms but here are the three big ones.
Trotsky didn’t really talk about his disagreements with Lenin and Bolsheviks prior to 1917, remember it was only that year he became a Bolshevik.
Party members alleged that he distorted the events of 1917 in order to emphasize his role and downplay everyone else.
Trotsky left out is Harsh treatment of subordinates and any mistakes he made during the Russian Civil War.
And the worst part was that he got sick not too long after publishing lessons of October, so when everyone starts coming out and attacking him, he can’t really defend himself. And the media Frenzy almost completely destroys his reputation. This was the first domino in trotsky’s political undoing. His military reputation was completely destroyed. The Troika viewed this as an attack. Very soon, copies of lessons of October began disappearing from the public and anyone reading it or discussing it was treated with suspicion. They dragged out everything they could to smear trotsky’s name, including using letters from the Tsarist police. Anything they could to show the people that Trotsky had a lot of disagreements with Lenin.
He was forced to resign as People’s Commissar of Army and Fleet Affairs and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. And he almost got expelled from the Communist Party overall. Oddly enough, it was Stalin who refused to go along with kicking Trotsky out. You see, Stalin was against Trotsky, but whenever someone is in a weakened political position, it’s better to just keep them around. And that’s exactly what Stalin did. He could pretend like he was a moderate and giving Trotsky the benefit of the doubt, but really, he was just keeping Trotsky around so he could get rid of him once and for all when it was convenient. And it’s so ironic because Trotsky misjudged Stalin so hard. There was one point when someone asked Trotsky what he thought of Stalin, and he replied, “the greatest mediocrity in our party.” It’s funny when you realize the greatest mediocrity in the party became the supreme leader in a few short years.
And the Really Sinister Park of the Bolshevik leadership is how they created a fake ideology. They created trotskyism. Trotsky was not trying to start some kind of movement of his own, he simply had his own perspective on things and voiced his opinion. But the Bolsheviks, especially the troika, turned trotskyism into a subversive menace within the party. And Trotsky was behind it all. Now, Trotsky came to his senses and accepted the situation for what it was. After losing his job, he was unemployed in 1925 and without any income, he realized he needed to bite the bullet here. He accepted a few lesser positions in the government and realigned himself with the Troika. After kowtowing, Zinoviev straight up said to him, “If you had not written The Lessons of October, we should have found some other pretext,’ ‘We had to tie in the old disagreements with current ones.’ ‘After all,’ ‘it was we who created Trotskyism.” (Serge 138).
Trotsky may have been outplayed in the short-term, but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. He managed to win over a bunch of supporters to his opposition group which didn’t have an official name, but became known as do United opposition. Not only did he win over everyone who had a bone to pick with Stalin and his horrible policies, but he even won over the other two members of the Troika. And things only escalated from there. Stalin went from secretly dealing with the opposition behind closed doors, too overtly harassing them, expelling them from the party, and even arresting some of them. And one of the big points of contention was the Chinese question. Because China, very similarly to Russia, had recently overthrown their Imperial government. China had a little bit of a head start though. They overthrew their government, oddly enough, in October 1911. I guess October is Revolution month.
There were a bunch of different factions in China and the Soviet Union needed an ally, because every single revolution in Western Europe failed. And failed bad. So creating an ally to the east, especially with a powerful nation state like China was really going to be a strategic move. No one needed allies more than the Soviet Union. The Chinese situation is a really complex political topic. But long story short, Stalin wanted to support anyone that was against the Chinese Empire. That included Republicans and nationalists. But Trotsky only wanted to support communists. And this becomes all too common a theme between pragmatic Stalin and ideological Trotsky.
Trotsky ended up being right though, because China’s right wing organization had a lot of anti-communist types among their ranks. And in 1927, they committed a massacre in Shanghai leaving hundreds of Chinese communists dead. This was a giant setback for internationalism and left many Soviets in Russia feeling demoralized. And of course, after Stalin had been so wrong he had to overcompensate and his attacks against the United opposition got even worse.
Stalin never let up on the attacks. He finally succeeded in October of 1927 when Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the Central Committee. Anyone who had voiced sympathy for these men were targeted themselves with time. The 15th party Congress officially declared that anyone who held United opposition views could not be part of the Communist Party. Quite a few people capitulated and simply renounced any sympathy they previously had. But Trotsky and a few others stayed the course. Exile was the only thing to come of this, but only in due time.
You see, 1927 was a particularly bad year for the newly-formed Soviet state. Because Stalin used the excuse of an alleged coup to pass a new set of laws that really cemented his position of power. Keep in mind these laws were Secret. Only Stalin and the politburo knew of their existence. Which is particularly scary because one of these laws reads in part, “Persons propagating opposition views be regarded as dangerous accomplices of the external and internal enemies of the Soviet Union and that such persons be sentenced as spies by administrative decree.” (Fitzpatrick 122) Basically, anyone who disagreed with Stalin Was An Enemy of the State.
Trotsky was too sure of himself to give up on his views. And if you look at it, he was more aligned with Marx’s ideal than Stalin ever was. But being more ideologically pure is not going to stop the Wrath of Joseph Stalin. Trotsky was exiled to Turkey in 1929 and the few remaining trotskyists admitted their mistakes and capitulated to Stalin within the coming years. It didn’t help them much though because ol’ uncle Joe remembered and had them all killed during the great purge just a few years later. Even some of the most dedicated and loyal trotskyists abandoned the cause, one of them publishing a letter in a popular communist newspaper, Pravda, alleging that Trotsky and his supporters were agents of the German Gestapo. And this became increasingly common in Stalin’s Soviet Union. People admitting to the most insane crimes you can think of.
The only thing that saved Trotsky was Stalin’s fear of ruining the good name of the Soviet Union. Stalin wanted Trotsky out. But if the outright killed him or exiled him, there was going to be shockwaves throughout the world. Social sympathizers we’re going to become anti-communists, and people who are already inside Communists we’re going to use this as another piece of evidence against the Soviet Union. Instead of outright killing him, Stalin organized a position that Trotsky was going to be forced to take. This new position was in Kazakhstan. Far away from any political power. Of course, he tried to refuse but Stalin had the power of the bureaucracy behind his will. Trotsky had to go. And the funny thing about it too is that the ordinary Russian people supported Trotsky. they saw what was going on. They didn’t want him heading off to some random City or he wasn’t going to be able to do anything. So, on the day he was set to leave, Russian workers from all over the country swarmed the railway station and block the line. The Soviet military didn’t even intervene because they were scared of repeating bazaars mistakes. So they just let it happen. It didn’t really turn into anything, they only delayed trotsky’s departure by two days. But it’s the thought that counts. This Begins the next phase of trotsky’s wife. And there were two big things that change. The first is that he is significantly less productive I never really does anything for the rest of his life. At least any action of significance. He writes a lot in exile. But he’s never in a position of power to do anything ever again. The next big change is that he’s always on the run. When the Soviet Union is after you, it does not matter how far you run or how well you hide. They will find you, eventually.
The next couple years we’re miserable. There wasn’t a whole lot that he could do. He spent some time in Turkey, which was especially dangerous because a lot of Russians who fought for the white army during the Russian Civil War fled to Turkey. I’m sure there were plenty of monarchist and even fascist Russians who’d fought in the white army who’d just love to get their hands on the dreaded Leon Trotsky, who led the Red Army. He understood Turkey just wasn’t a safe country to stay in. Trotsky received Asylum from France, he was lucky enough that their prime minister at the time happened to be a radical socialist. but France didn’t work out very long because, well, France got a little too close to the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union didn’t want Trotsky to try to get anywhere near any position of power. He applied for Asylum in Norway and lived there for about a year.
The next major event it happened for Trotsky was the 1936 Soviet show trials. This was a really big deal. Because the term Soviet state used was a Trotskyist–Zinovievist plot. Remember the other two members of the Troika? Zinoviev and Kamenev? They were both killed during this show trial. And it’s really interesting to because just a few months after this show trial, Trotsky and his family were ordered to live on a farm in Norway. It was an even smaller area with Amore world population and they were basically under house arrest. 422 hours a day, they weren’t allowed to leave the house. And during those two hours that they were allowed out, all they could do was go for a walk on the farm they lived on. That was it. It was some pretty rough treatment especially because he didn’t get to communicate with the outside world. This Moscow show trial changed everything for socialist politics and history. And Trotsky wasn’t able to voice his criticism of it. The government that you spent your entire life to create was now killing some of its founding members based on a lie and ruining the good name of communism. Not to mention the fact that he wasn’t just in exile now, the Soviet government was after him. Every single person was found guilty and sentenced to death at that show trial.
This was horrible for Trotsky. And it was made all the more painful by the fact he couldn’t respond to any of it! He wasn’t even present at his own trial where he was sentenced to death. He reflected on his time in Norway writing, “When I look back today on this period of internment, I must say that never, anywhere, in the course of my entire life — and I have lived through many things — was I persecuted with as much miserable cynicism as I was by the Norwegian “Socialist” government. For four months, these ministers, dripping with democratic hypocrisy, gripped me in a stranglehold to prevent me from protesting the greatest crime history may ever know.” He got deported from Norway a few months later anyway. He made his way to Mexico. He was welcomed by the Mexican president, and stayed in Mexico City.
While he was in Exile, there was only one thing he could do. That was write. And oh boy, did he write. He wrote some of his most famous works including the revolution betrayed, and history of the Russian Revolution. Both of which will be covered in detail on YouTube or biocast addendum. There’s a lot of good information to be covered, and if you have to listen to it in the car or while you go for a walk, you can listen to the biocast addendum podcast, but I actually think it’s better to watch the video on YouTube because there is a presentation that goes along with it which makes it a little easier to understand. So make sure to check that out if you want more information on Trotsky and his writings.
Outside of his writing though, not very much was accomplished. He did the best he could to spread the word about Stalin and the corrupt Soviet regime, but it didn’t change anything. Socialist sympathizers continued to defend the USSR. Now, this is not to say that Trotsky had no supporters. He had a lot. He was, at one time, the most popular Marxist in the world other than Lenin and Stalin. But at this point, he was just some old guy with an accent who got kicked out of the socialist utopia. And he was trying to compete with an entire nation state with thousands of bureaucrats, and propagandists I mean, every single thing Trotsky did from here on out was challenged by the Soviet Union. There was one point he had traveled to the United States to appear as a witness in a committee for the House of Representatives. And there was all of this propaganda that got pushed out by the Soviet Union accusing him of being on the payroll of oil magnets and the FBI. There was no winning for him at this point. Even when he started the 4th international, it just couldn’t compete with the power and prestige of Stalin’s comintern. There seemed to be no hope. Not just for Trotsky, but for true communism in general.
But as tragic as it may have been, he still had hope. He still believed that the Socialist Utopia could come about one day.
“In addition to the happiness of being a fighter for the cause of socialism, fate gave me the happiness of being her husband. During the almost forty years of our life together she remained an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity, and tenderness. She underwent great sufferings, especially in the last period of our lives. But I find some comfort in the fact that she also knew days of happiness.
For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, 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 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.”
On August 20th 1940, Trotsky was attacked by Ramon mercader. A Mexican nkvd agent. The attack was brutal. Trotsky was hit in the head with an ice axe. It didn’t kill him instantly, he even survived for an entire day. But he lost too much blood. He was in shock. And on August 21st, he became one of the millions of Stalin’s victims.
Someone who had spent his entire life fighting for communism. Only to have the first communist government in existence assassinate him. The ultimate irony. Trotsky was a dreamer. But he was dreaming the wrong dream. His dream was a nightmare not just for himself but for the millions who perished under the horrors of communism. Let his life stand as a reminder. And not as a reminder of the evils of communism. Because we know those all too well. No. Let Trotsky stand as a reminder that no matter how certain you may be, you still might be wrong.
And that was the life of Leon Trotsky.