Useful Notes / Leon Trotsky

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The eternal revolutionary.

"You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you."
Leon Trotsky.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist. Before the Revolution he mostly hung about in exile in Siberia, part of a political group known as the Mensheviks, who opposed Lenin and his theories that a revolution could be forced (this went against traditional Marxist ideology). After the February Revolution Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and became Lenin's second-in-command. Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian 1917 October Revolution, head of the Military Revolutionary Committee and planned the strategic takeover of Petrograd. During the early days of the Soviet Union, he served first as People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs and later as the founder and commander of the Red Army and People's Commissar of War. He was a major figure in the Bolshevik victory in the 19171922 Russian Civil War and Kronstadt rebellion. He was also among the first members of the Politburo, an internationally respected intellectual and a man of great personal charisma.

By temperament and personality Trotsky was not a shrewd politican, but an outspoken civil bureaucrat. His disdain for political intrigue and refusal to compromise his principles meant that he accrued little support and much opposition. Given this, the Sovietologist Stephen Kotkin opines that after Lenin's death, even if Stalin had died then Trotsky would not have been able to assume effective control of the Soviet Union.

As Lenin's Number Two, the low level bureaucrats resented Trotsky's arrogancenote , were jealous of his closeness to Lenin, resentful of his quick rise from Menshevik to the party elite over more long-serving and committed members, fearful of his skills as a military organizernote ; all of which coupled with the habitual anti-semitism among some of his peers meant that he had a tough time winning popularity contests. note 

Trotsky was never able to build a proper constituency within the Politburo, not even with those who might have been sympathetic. The so-called Left Opposition of Kamenyev and Zinoviev at various times supported and opposed Trotsky and were skeptical of associations with him, since he was personally rather unpopular. Trotsky for his part, maintained the Red Army on a professional rather than clientelist basis, and this prevented him from using the army as a shield to protect himself. Trotsky's criticism of some of Lenin's policies such as the New Economic Policy didn't endear him to Nikolai Bukharin who was rather partial to it, and his hawkish support of world revolution and military expansion at a time of consolidation found little favour among the more moderate members of the Politburo. His perceived inconsistencies and waveringnote  and his failure to build an effective constituency to counter Stalin's skill in building a network of patronage and clients as General Secretary, played no small role in the latter's eventual triumph over Trotsky.

This power struggle and behind the scenes bickering happened while Lenin was still bedridden at his Dacha. Lenin and Trotsky were Vitriolic Best Buds at best, and Lenin admired Trotsky's skills as an administrator and an intellectual, as much as he regretted his political failings. In his final messages, Lenin warned the party against a split and insisted on unity between various wings and argued against polarization. Contrary to the beliefs of various Trotskyists, Lenin never explicitly named Trotsky as a successor, nor for that matter anybody else, although he was very upset at Stalin for being so rude to his wife. What Lenin did argue for was that various revolutionary organizations be made independent to serve as a check-and-balance. When Lenin died, Stalin famously tricked Trotsky into missing his funeral, which even Trotsky later admitted had no real effect in hurting Trotsky's reputation worse than it already was, but was indicative of their relationship. Trotsky was marginalized in various post-Lenin Soviet congresses, even stripped of his positions within the Red Army, and at one point was virtually unemployed. Eventually he and the Left Opposition allied more decisively against Stalin's policies in the 1920s, and the increasing role of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. This time however, Trotsky was decisively exiled. First, he was expelled from the Communist Party, then exiled to Kazakhstan and then deported from the Soviet Union to Turkey. His allies in the Soviet Union washed their hands off him. It was in this period that the public memory of Trotsky's achievements in the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War started being altered in the public record.

In exile, Trotsky resumed his original career as an intellectual and critic. Initially, Trotsky remained loyal to the Bolshevik Code of keeping inter-party disputes from playing out in the public. In response to the rise of Hitler and his perception of the tepid response of Comintern and lack of military intervention to check Nazism, played a part in his decision to form the Fourth International as an alternative to the Comintern, in support of world revolution, and likewise presenting an alternative and critique of the emerging Stalinist state and its growing repression. He wrote several books and articles about the Russian Revolution. In The Thirties, while in exile in Mexico, Trotsky was even willing to testify to the House Commitee of Un-American Activities under Martin Dies about Stalinist infiltration and management in Comintern and other Communist parties, but he also hoped to use his testimony to criticize the Red Scare which led the Dies Commitee to finally decide against Trotsky's invitation, such actions however did not endear him to the global communist movement which largely bought into Stalin's propaganda that Trotsky was a counter-revolutionary. During The Purge, several of Trotsky's former friends and opponents within the Politburo were killed in show trials, and Trotsky was transformed in the Soviet Media as a Big Bad and secret mastermind. Trotsky was an early advocate that the Moscow Show Trials were coerced by the NKVD, he also opposed Stalin's non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s, though he supported the latter's invasion of Poland as a delayed action to bring about world revolution.

In 1940, after twelve years in exile in Turkey, France and Mexico he was finally assassinated at his residence at Coyoacán, by Ramón Mercader, a Soviet agent, who attacked him in his study with a pick-axe which did not instantly kill him, but led him to attack his assassin before his bodyguards arrived. Trotsky insisted on sparing Mercader's life and having arrested and questioned. In the hospital, Trotsky succumbed to his wounds a day later, dying at the age of 60. Trotsky's ideas thus form the basis of Trotskyism, a major school of Marxist thought that is opposed to the theories of Stalinism. He was one of the few Soviet political figures who was never rehabilitated by the government of Mikhail Gorbachev (though the ban on his books was finally lifted in 1989). He wrote many political and theoretical books, including an autobiography (My Life), a history of the Revolution, several anti-fascist pamphlets and a whole bunch of military writings. In his exile, he formed friendships with surrealist poets such as Andre Breton, Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (with whom Trotsky had an affair).

His family life saw much tragedy, including the death of his son, Sergei Sedov, at the hands of one of Stalin's agents, while his daughter Zinaida committed suicide in 1933. The definitive biography of Trotsky, a multi-volume set by Isaac Deutscher, is considered a masterpiece in the genre. Trotsky's own reputation as a historian and martyr was invoked during the Cold War as an authority on Stalinism. Later historians argue that aside from Trotsky's own biases, his understanding of Stalin's activities and personality was considerably limited on account of his exile and he gave far too little credit for Stalin's shrewdness and cunning. Ironically, it was Trotsky who first conceived of mass industrialization, a policy that Stalin co-opted and implemented (quite brutally it must be admitted). Historians wonder if Trotsky would ever have been a realistic alternative to Stalin within the Soviet Union, or if his own ideas could have been implemented in a far less bloody fashion than Stalinnote . As such he is a perennial favorite for counter-factual historians.

Trotsky is a figure of great debate in the annals of history, who did both impressive and abhorrent things. Please practice the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgement.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Bookworm: He was a highly cultured and literary man. In his book Literature and Revolution, Trotsky even argued against art as propaganda, arguing that aesthetic eminence crossed political grounds and there was room for all kinds of writers in a communist society. He even praised the writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky despite the latter's bad reputation among communists as an arch-reactionary (which he was).
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Among anti-Stalinist and conventional leftists, Trotsky is presented as the true heir of Lenin. In fact, Trotsky agreed with the communist cause and all it entails, he supported crushing the Kronstadt uprising (which Emma Goldman castigated him for), and was utterly ruthless when fighting for his cause. He advocated world revolution and military intervention to impose Communism by force, and opposed Stalin for most of The Thirties because the latter was not doing thatnote , criticizing the Popular Front and rejecting any cooperation with wishy-washy liberals and social democrats and so on.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In anti-Communist works and also in Stalinist propaganda and books, where he was depicted as a traitor, Nazi spy etc. Averted in American films on the whole, where he's generally shown as a sympathetic and tragic figure.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Trotsky appears in many paintings, poems, novels and movies.
  • Jews Love to Argue: Trotsky is often presented in this way in stories, despite the fact that the real guy was rather ambiguous about his Jewishness. Richard Burton, who played him in The Assassination of Trotsky, described some of his statements as "Jewish jokes". Likewise, a recent Israeli film, Rabin, the Last Day noted that Trotsky was excommunicated from an Orthodox Jewish group and received a Talmudic curse from a Rabbinate.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The Oscar-winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful borrows its title from Trotsky's final will and testament.
  • Retcon: Soviet movies of the twenties which featured quotes from Trotsky or featured him, such as Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin and October films were re-edited for release after Trotsky's exile. Later historians have restored the original scenes in these movies.
  • Stoic Spectacles: He is almost never shown without his characteristic spectacles. They are part of his image as an intellectual and stoic character (as opposed to Stalin, who is often shown as vulgar and provincial).
  • Tragic Hero: His personal family tragedy gets played up in many movies, most notably the British film Zina by Ken McMullen where the Trotsky family's troubles are compared to Greek tragedy, complete with hamartia and hubris. Joseph Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky also portrays his final days in this fashion.

Appears in the following works:

  • The Assassination of Trotsky, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Richard Burton as Trotsky.
  • Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers has an entire middle section dealing with Trotsky's assassination.
  • Appears in some of the works of Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist
  • The idealistic pig Snowball from Animal Farm is based on Trotsky, as is Emmanuel Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • The Trotsky (of course)
  • He appears briefly in an animated scene in the 2011 documentary film Marx Reloaded
  • The 2002 film Frida about the life of Frida Kahlo features Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky.
  • All in the Timing, a collection of one-act plays by David Ives, includes a play called Variations on the Death of Trotsky showing different ways that Trotsky's last day could have played out. He spends the entire play with an axe sticking out of his head.note 
  • Robert Bolt's play State of Revolution (1977) has Trotsky as the Deuteragonist to Lenin. He's portrayed as a brilliant leader but cripplingly arrogant, causing the other Bolshevik leaders to turn away from him.
  • Played by Ryan Cox in Nicholas And Alexandra.
  • Portrayed by Michael Kitchen in Fall Of Eagles.
  • Appears in Ivan Passer's TV movie Stalin, played by Daniel Massey.
  • Gets mentioned briefly in Damiano Damiani's Lenin: The Train.
  • Catch 22's Permanent Revolution is a Concept Album about his life.
  • He's mentioned in Mission to Moscow. In line with the Soviet propaganda of the time, he's portrayed as the mastermind behind a plot to sell out the Soviet Union to Hitler.
  • Mentioned by an elderly Lenin in Warlord of the Air as having abandoned the revolution and become a businessman.
  • He appears in Assassin's Creed Chronicles.
  • Various decisions in Hearts of Iron 4 can result in Trotsky either surviving his assassination attempt or even becoming the leader of the Soviet Union after a civil war.

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