You probably won’t have spotted the bad pun in the title but it’s relevant – there’s theory and there’s practice (or praxis, if you’re a pedant). Leon Trotsky was outstanding at the first and, many would claim, just as great at the second but I’d object that there was a grave mismatch. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to involve a lot of marxist theory or terminology. I will explain one though, which might come up, and that’s ‘dialectics’. Initially it meant a logical discussion between people with opposing points of view. A German philosopher called Georg Hegel proposed a three-stage process – argument, counter-argument, resolution (thesis, antithesis, synthesis in his terminology). Marx and Engels borrowed this and twisted it to their own uses in order to explain changes in human history. I’d describe it as an attempt to base their theories in science – in this case Newton’s Third Law of Motion: action and reaction are equal and opposite. It’s a useful approach but shouldn’t be used obsessively ’cos we’re talking about human beings not billiard balls. That’s where bolsheviks like Trotsky went horribly wrong.
According to Marx and Engels, the dialectics of history meant that the oppressed and exploited working class (proletariat) would inevitably rise up and replace the ruling class (bourgeoisie) through ‘self-activity’. Class distinctions would then disappear and communism would bring prosperity and peace to the world. It’s a nice theory and still might happen but has nothing to do with what is perceived to be communism by its enemies, nor with what’s been done in its name. Trotsky played a major part in that degeneration.
I don’t disrespect him, Leon (Lev) Bronstein, who changed his name to Trotsky, was a real revolutionary, at least to begin with, and did time twice (1899 and 1906) for his activities even before the Revolution. He was also a great speaker and writer. I’ve read the first part of his ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ in translation and it’s an excellent, if obviously very partisan, account. Like many, his positions changed several times, starting with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898 (note the name, friends in Labour and those supposed Social Democrats now with the Lib-Dems; it didn’t become the Communist Party until 1918). When the RSDLP split at the London Congress in 1903, he sided with the moderate minority (Menshevik) faction but tried to get the two parts to work together. He didn’t join the Bolsheviks until after the Revolution kicked off in March 1917 (note also that this was the real revolution; what happened in November – October in the old calendar – wasn’t a revolution but a coup d’état). He rose rapidly to the top. This is when theory and practice began to diverge.
Of course Marx and Engels hadn’t been too shy to contradict their own theories. Not content to let the inevitable march of history take its own course, they set up the International Workingmen’s Association (the 1st International) with the aim of steering it in the right direction. Soon enough they managed to throw out the anarchists by the simple expedient of moving the 1876 congress to New York, knowing the anarchists couldn’t afford the fare. So much for self-activity.
The bolsheviks weren’t slow to follow, beginning with the suppression of all the other revolutionary groups in Russia, not forgetting the anarchists, which Trotsky did not oppose. Trotsky began his revisions soon enough, firstly by putting trade unions under military control, so that strikes couldn’t happen, then by putting all the soviets (assemblies), that had formed amongst soldiers, sailors, workers and peasants in the early days of the revolution, under direct Bolshevik control. This was followed by the suppression of the soviets in the armed forces and the reinstatement of tsarist officers. The rationale (ie pitiful excuse) for this was the failure of German communists to effect a revolution after the fall of the Kaiser, thus contradicting Marx’s prediction that the working classes of the advanced economies in the West would rise first. Russia was the wrong place to start the revolution, so they’d have to busk it. This was how Marxist-Leninism was born. Consequently the civil war continued for 4-5 years more against the tsarist White Army and its allies, England and France, sending reluctant soldiers who’d just defeated the Germans to overthrow the revolution … and, of course, the anarchists in the Ukraine.
Then there was Kronstadt. If any Trot gives you the old line “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, resist the urge to break theirs and say “You can’t make an omelette unless the hens lay eggs.” That’s another thing the bolsheviks got wrong. It’s 1921 and the régime of ‘war communism’ drags on – the Red Army is winning and has just crushed the anarchist Black Army that helped them beat the tsarists, but workers’ rations and wages are still low and peasants are tired of having their produce ‘requisitioned’ without payment (ie stolen) to feed the Party and the army. Strikes break out in Petrograd (St Petersburg’s better name), birthplace of the revolution. The sailors and soldiers at the naval base of Kronstadt at the mouth of the Neva River come out in support. They produce a list of demands which includes, amongst other things, an end to one-party rule by the bolsheviks. As Commissar for War, Trotsky negotiates by sending in the army. In twelve days the revolutionaries are crushed, those who don’t die or escape to Finland are sent to the gulag. The leaders are executed or gaoled (much the same thing in those prisons). Lenin then recognised the justification of the rebels cause by ending war communism and allowing some liberalisation of the economy (the New Economic Policy). Trots will still defend this with old bolshevik conspiracy theories (lies) and omelette obscenities but those are the bare historical facts.
What’s my conclusion to all this? That Lev Trotsky began as a brave and genuine revolutionary but, when the bolsheviks took over the Russian people’s revolution in November 1917, he joined what he saw as the winning side and he then crushed the revolution … yes, he gets most of the credit. To my mind it was effectively over by 1919 when the unions and soviets were taken over completely by the bolsheviks and Trotsky was the person who headed that process. Kronstadt was the last gasp of independence. He remains a hero to many on the Left now because he tried to resist Stalin but he’d laid the table for Josip and the rest was inevitable. Did he deserve that icepick in the head in 1940? It was just cause and effect … or dialectics, if you like.