Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917


IN WRITING a political biography of Leon Trotsky one has first of all to evaluate two previous biographies: Trotsky’s autobiography My Life, and Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy. [1] Both appear to the present writer to be unsatisfactory.

First, Trotsky’s autobiography. Written as a document in the faction fight with Stalin, when the latter tried to describe Trotsky as an inveterate enemy of Lenin, My Life plays down the differences between Trotsky and Lenin. It undervalues Trotsky’s tremendous contributions where he differed from Lenin, notably downgrading Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This theory was a unique contribution to Marxist thinking, no one at the time, not even Lenin, going as far as to maintain that Russia would be the first country in the world to have a socialist revolution and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. All other Marxists believed that only industrially advanced Western Europe was ripe for the socialist revolution; Russia was heading towards a bourgeois revolution that would free the country from Tsarism and the legacy of feudalism and transform it into a modern capitalist country.

Trotsky’s contributions as organiser of the October insurrection and the Red Army are also played down. It is very unusual for an autobiography to underestimate the contribution of the author. The other side of this coin is the belittling of Trotsky’s mistakes in his opposition to Lenin’s ideas on the nature of the revolutionary party during the long period from 1903 to 1917. (In other writings Trotsky was emphatic in criticising his own position on the question of the party).

Furthermore, the autobiography ends with Trotsky’s exile from Russia in February 1929. A very significant chapter, possibly the most significant, of Trotsky’s political activity is completely missing. On 25 March 1935 Trotsky wrote in his diary:

Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders ... But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway ....

Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my own work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. [2]

In the years 1923-1940, when Trotsky was out of power, his contributions to the development of proletarian revolutionary strategy and tactics were stupendous, particularly after he was exiled. From a remote Turkish island, from a hiding place in the French Alps, from a Norwegian village, and finally from a suburb of Mexico City, Trotsky’s mind never ceased to embrace the international working-class struggle. Reading his writings on China, one has the impression that the author lived and struggled in Shanghai. His writings on Germany, France, Spain, Britain leave similar impressions. And throughout he had to contend with the fact that the Trotskyist groups in all these countries were tiny, made up of young, inexperienced people, and very isolated. Trotsky’s great genius, his vivid, realistic imagination, the grand sweep of his vision, make this chapter of his life one of the richest.

One of the most difficult problems was the question of the economic, political and cultural changes and struggles that faced a workers’ state in a backward country surrounded by much more advanced capitalist enemies. The experience of the Paris Commune was fleeting; now for the first time in world history a workers’ state was established over a whole country. Marxist theory arises out of practice; it generalises the past experience of humanity. While Trotsky fought consistently, relentlessly, against the degeneration of the revolution, against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy, the experience he had to rely on was very small, and it is not to be wondered at that his predictions about the future development of the Stalinist regime were not confirmed by events. No prognosis is ever confirmed in totality, especially when a very new phenomenon is dealt with.

Trotsky’s devotion to the revolutionary cause stood the test of the most tragic events: Stalin’s persecution and slander surpassed anything that had ever happened in history. His first wife was sent to a Stalinist labour camp, two of his four children were murdered by Stalinist agents, one died from consumption while her husband languished in Stalin’s prison and the fourth committed suicide; of his seven grandchildren only one, as far as we know, survived in freedom.

In terms of the immediate impact of his work, Trotsky’s years out of power were quite arid. But in the long-term historical development of the revolutionary socialist movement, in terms of keeping the Marxist tradition alive, this chapter was of crucial importance.

What about Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, the trilogy The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast?

These books are of a high standard. Deutscher’s careful and exhaustive collation of sources and documents, together with his majestic style, lend great significance to his writings. Unfortunately, however, the spirit that dominates the trilogy is in complete opposition to that of its subject. For Trotsky the heart of Marxism is the self-activity of the working class; his relentless opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy derived from that cardinal principle. He accused Stalin of betraying the Russian revolution and being the gravedigger of the international revolution. Hence the Russian proletariat has to make a new revolution to get rid of the stranglehold of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky’s concept of socialism is that of socialism from below; Deutscher’s of socialism from above.

Deutscher has a fatalistic concept of Stalin’s rise, seeing him as the necessary offspring of the revolution.

In his book Stalin [3], Deutscher explains that ‘the broad scheme’, which brought about the metamorphosis of triumphant Bolshevism into Stalinism, has ‘been common to all great revolutions so far’ (and from his arguments would seem to be common to all popular revolutions in the future.) In the first phase of these revolutions:

The revolutionary party is still marching in step with the majority of the nation. It is acutely conscious of its unity with the people and of a profound harmony between its own objectives and the people’s wishes and desires. [4]

This phase lasts little longer than the Civil War. By its end the revolutionary party faces an exhausted people; a reaction sets in.

The anti-climax of the revolution is there. The leaders are unable to keep their early promises. They have destroyed the old order ... [5]

In order to safeguard the achievements of the revolution, the party now has to muzzle the people.

The party of the revolution knows no retreat; it has been driven to its present pass largely through obeying the will of that same people by which it is now deserted. It will go on doing what it considers to be its duty, without paying much heed to the voice of the people. In the end it will muzzle and stifle that voice. [6]

The rulers find justification for themselves in the conviction that whatever they do will ultimately serve the interests of the broad mass of the nation; and indeed they do, on the whole, use their power to consolidate most of the economic and social conquests of the revolution. [7]

Lenin and Trotsky, says Deutscher, led inevitably to Stalin. Deutscher claims to have

... traced the thread of unconscious historic continuity which led from Stalin’s hesitant and shamefaced essays in revolution by conquest to the revolutions contrived by Stalin the conqueror. A similar subtle thread connects Trotsky’s domestic policy of these years with the later practices of his antagonist. Both Trotsky and Lenin appear, each in a different field, as Stalin’s unwitting inspirers and prompters. Both were driven by circumstances beyond their control and by their own illusions ... [8]

One of the ‘illusions’ Lenin and Trotsky suffered from, according to Deutscher, was belief in the possibility of spreading the revolution westwards. If Lenin and Trotsky ‘had taken a sober view of the international revolution’ they might have foreseen that in the course of decades their example would not be imitated [in any other country] ... [9]

Stalin’s scepticism regarding the revolutionary temper of the European working classes has so far seemed better justified than Trotsky’s confidence. [10]

It is implicit in Deutscher’s work that the Trotskyists in the Russian revolution, like the Levellers in the English and the Hébertists in the French, are the ‘utopians’ who imperil the revolution, its conquests and its future. Deutscher argues that it was futile for the Trotskyists in Russia to oppose Stalin. He puts it very neatly: ‘It was true that the capitulators to Stalin committed political suicide; but so also did those who refused to capitulate.’ [11] So Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin was futile! In fact, fighting instead of capitulating to Stalin prepared the ground for the victorious struggles of future generations.

In Deutscher’s view, Stalinism was the legitimate child of the revolution. All revolutions have their utopian extremists who do not understand that the revolution cannot satisfy the demands of the masses it has inspired. The significance of the quotation from Machiavelli which stands at the head of The Prophet Armed is now clear. The prophet must be armed, so that when the people no longer believe in the revolution, he can ‘make them believe by force.’ According to Deutscher, Stalinism not only protects the achievements of the revolution, but also deepens and enlarges them:

In 1929, five years after Lenin’s death, Soviet Russia embarked upon her second revolution, which was directed solely and exclusively by Stalin. In its scope and immediate impact upon the life of some 160 million people the second revolution was even more sweeping and radical than the first. [12]

Stalin ... remained the guardian and the trustee of the revolution. [13]

These words about ‘the revolution’ referred to the forced collectivisation that cost the lives of millions of peasants, and the labour camps with their millions of inmates.

Deutscher argues against Trotsky’s characterisation of Stalin as counter-revolutionary. [14] In fact, he argues that at the end of the Second World War the revolution spread to many countries, taking in hundreds of millions of people.

To Eastern Europe revolution was to be brought, in the main, ‘from above and not from outside’ – by conquest and occupation; while in China it was to rise not as a proletarian democracy, spreading from the cities to the country, but as a gigantic jacquerie conquering the cities from the country and only subsequently passing from the ‘bourgeois democratic’ to the socialist phase. [15]

In fact, says Deutscher, Mao’s rise was the final victory of Trotskyism:

This, the ‘Chinese October’ was, in a sense, yet another of Trotsky’s posthumous triumphs. [16]

The fact that Stalin and Mao slandered, persecuted and murdered the Trotskyists is of minor significance: both Stalin and Mao are the heirs of Trotsky. Accepting the international revolutionary role of the Russian state leads Deutscher to the conclusion that the Cold War power struggle is the main, or perhaps only, arena of struggle between socialism and capitalism. For the foreseeable future ‘the class struggle, suppressed at the level on which it had been traditionally waged, would be fought at a different level and in different forms, as rivalry between power blocs and as cold war. [17]

As the rulers of both the United States and Russia possess nuclear weapons while the workers have none, then if one followed through Deutscher’s logic, one would conclude that the workers are irrelevant to the class struggle. And indeed, whenever workers come into conflict with the Stalinist bureaucracy, Deutscher supported the latter against the former. He opposed all the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe: 16-17 June 1953 in East Germany, October 1956 in Poland and Hungary. Disapproving of the 1953 demonstration of building workers in East Berlin against a decree to increase their production norms, and the workers’ stone-throwing at the Russian tanks which bloodily suppressed the rising, Deutscher said:

Their action had unfortunate consequences in Moscow. It compromised the man who stood for reforms and conciliation. It gave fresh vigour to the diehards of Stalinism and other irreconcilables. [18]

The workers should wait patiently and passively for reform from above!

The workers’ risings in Poland and Hungary in 1956 were declared to be counter-revolutionary acts trying ‘unwittingly to put the clock back’. [19] He cheered the Russian tanks which smashed the workers’ uprising:

Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland, and East Germany) ... found itself almost on the brink of bourgeois restoration at the end of the Stalin era; and only Soviet armed power (or its threat) stopped it there. [20]

Trotsky was engaged in a life and death struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The essence of Deutscher’s writing is conciliation between Trotskyism and Stalinism. There is no common spirit between the biographer and his subject. Trotsky is active, dynamic, revolutionary; for him the principle of workers’ democracy, of the struggle against all bureaucracy, of rank-and- file mass action against privilege, is crucial. It is the reaffirmation of the essentials of Marxism (magnificently adapted to our time in Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution). The central theme of his life and struggle to the bitter end was that socialism can be achieved only by the workers, not for them.

For Deutscher the masses play a passive, secondary, if not a nuisance role, threatening the achievement of the revolution. He has thrown out the kernel of Trotskyism and kept merely the husk. Any affinity to Trotskyism is only extrinsic and verbal – the spirit of the revolutionary fighter is completely missing. Trotsky could well have said of him: ‘I have sown dragon’s teeth, and harvested fleas’.

The present biography is written by a disciple of Trotsky of over half a century’s duration. I am more convinced today of the correctness of his ideas than ever before. Their general thrust, above all the theory of the permanent revolution, has stood the test of time. His revolutionary struggle for the international communist revolution, his opposition to Social Democracy and Stalinism, have been completely justified by historical events. If with hindsight one can find instances of Trotsky faltering, this is a privilege that can be gained only by standing on the shoulders of this giant revolutionary. Where Trotsky’s strength was accompanied by weaknesses, such as his serious error in rejecting Lenin’s concept of the party over a long period, this biography will not try to cover up the mistakes; it will do its best to avoid hagiography.

Trotsky himself was very honest about his mistakes. The sharpest criticism of his attitude to the question of the party before 1917 was his own. To quote just one of his statements:

Without the Bolshevik Party the October revolution could not have been carried through or consolidated. Thus, the only truly revolutionary work was the work that helped this party take shape and grow stronger. In relation to this main road all other revolutionary work remained off to the side, lacking any inner guarantee of success or dependability, and in many cases was directly detrimental to the main revolutionary work of that time. In this sense Lenin was right when he said that the conciliationist position [which was Trotsky’s own position], by giving protection and cover to Menshevism, often transformed revolutionary slogans, perspectives, etc., into mere phrases…

[Once I understood this] Lenin’s position come through to me with full force. What had seemed to me to be ‘splitterism’, ‘disruption’, etc, now appeared as a salutary and incomparably farsighted struggle for the revolutionary independence of the proletarian party. [21]

In the present biography there will be much praise and quite a lot of criticism of Trotsky’s views during the four decades of his political activity. Trotsky was far too great a revolutionary to need protection from any criticism. I hope both that the criticism is not blunted, and that the presentation of Trotsky’s thought and actions have not been distorted by the criticism.

Because of the brilliance of Trotsky’s writing, its richness, depth, sharpness, colour, poetry, I will use his own words as much as possible to describe both his actions and ideas. This is especially fitting when we come to deal with the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. No other revolution was fortunate enough to have as its brilliant historian a person who was also one of its supreme leaders. In 1905 Trotsky was the leader and inspirer of the first workers’ council (soviet) in world history. In 1917 he was the organiser of the insurrection. The present book may ‘suffer from a plethora of quotations, but in truth I found great difficulty in having to omit many others that cried out for inclusion.

Trotsky’s whole being, his mind, his will, his energy, were directed towards the future. As a young man of twenty-one he wrote:

Dum spiro, spero! As long as I breathe I hope – as long as I breathe I shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the spontaneous stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy and happiness ... Dum spiro, spero! [22]

A short time before his assassination, in his testament, Trotsky repeated his optimism for the future:

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 ... 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. [23]


1. Leon Trotsky, My Life (New York 1960); Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (London 1955), The Prophet Unarmed (London 1959), The Prophet Outcast (London 1963).

2. Trotsky, Diary in Exile (London 1958), pages 53-54.

3. Deutscher, Stalin (London 1949).

4. Deutscher, Stalin, page 174.

5. Deutscher, Stalin, page 174.

6. Deutscher, Stalin, page 175.

7. Deutscher, Stalin, page 176.

8. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, page 515.

9. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, page 293.

10. Deutscher, Heretics and Renegades (London 1955), page 89.

11. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, page 45.

12. Deutscher, Stalin, page 294.

13. Deutscher, Stalin, pages 360-1.

14. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, page 461.

15. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, pages 257-8.

16. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, page 520.

17. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, page 32.

18. News Chronicle (London), 13 July 1953.

19. Deutscher, in Universities and Left Review, volume 1, number 1, page 10.

20. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, page 462.

21. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 (New York 1980), pages 265-6.

22. Trotsky, Sochineniia (Moscow), volume 20, page 78.

23. S. Lovell (editor), Leon Trotsky speaks (New York 1972), page 312.

Last updated on 19 July 2009