Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star


Living hell

THE PRESENT volume, the last in this political biography of Trotsky, covers the period between his banishment to Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan on 17 January 1928, and his assassination in Mexico on 20 August 1940. This period was the most tragic of his eventful, stormy life. It was a period of some thirteen years of deep darkness unbroken by a single shaft of light.

When Trotsky stated in 1927 that ‘the vengeance of history is more powerful than the vengeance of the most powerful General Secretary’, he could not have had an inkling of the horrors this General Secretary would inflict on himself and his family.

First Zina, his eldest daughter: she had tuberculosis, and had been given permission by the Soviet government to go to Germany for treatment. One of her two sons, Seva, was allowed to go with her, while another, a daughter of six or seven years, was kept as a hostage by Stalin. Her husband, Platon Volkov, was deported to a labour camp in Siberia. The death of her sister Nina, the persecution of her father, the deportation of her husband, and the difficulty of keeping herself and her two children alive, strained her mental balance. After undergoing several operations on her lungs, she had to be treated by psychologists. Her doctor reached the conclusion that to recover she should rejoin her family in Russia. But Stalin’s spite knew no bounds: she and Seva were deprived of Soviet citizenship. In desperation Zina committed suicide on 5 January 1933. She was 30 years old. Six days after Zina’s death Trotsky wrote an Open Letter to the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party and government: Zina was too sick to be able to be active politically, and it was simply venomous cruelty that deprived her of Soviet citizenship and finally broke her spirit. She ‘did not choose that of her own will. She was driven to it by Stalin’. [1]

Zina’s sister, Nina, had died live years earlier, on 9 January 1928. Nina’s husband, Man-Nevelson, was arrested and sent to a labour camp in Siberia. Nina, who was very active in the Opposition, was expelled from the party and kept from all work. Laid low by illness, she died of tuberculosis a few weeks later. She was 26 years old. The letter she wrote to her father from the hospital took 73 days to reach him, arriving after she died. She left two children who were cared for, together with Zina’s daughter, by her mother, Alexandra Sokolovskaia, Trotsky’s first wife.

The third of Trotsky’s children was Leon Sedov, Lyova. He accompanied his father to banishment in Alma Ata, and then to exile in Turkey. He was forced to leave his wife and child behind. Leon Sedov was Trotsky’s right-hand man in the leadership of the Opposition. At the beginning of February 1938 he fell sick and went into a small private clinic run by some Russian émigré doctors in Paris. There the hand of the GPU caught up with him. He was poisoned and died on 16 February 1938, at the age of 32.

Trotsky’s youngest child was Sergei. He was a scientist, a professor in the Institute of Technology, who shunned politics. Hence he did not wish to join his father in banishment or exile and he avoided all contact with his father. But ‘Genghiz Khan with a telephone’ did not spare him. In December 1934 he was imprisoned and then exiled to Vorkuta labour camp. The last news of him came in 1936 when he joined a hunger strike of Trotskyists in all the Pechora camps, which lasted 132 days.

Finally, Alexandra Sokolovskaia: she was an active Oppositionist who had to take care of three of Trotsky’s grandchildren. In 1936 she was expelled from Leningrad, first to Tobolsk, and then to a remote settlement in Omsk Province. The grandchildren were given to an old aunt to look after, and were at fate’s mercy. She was shot in 1938, like all Trotsky’s four children the victims of Stalin.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered, and the working class movement has many, many other martyrs. But Trotsky’s position is unique. He was murdered not once, but again and again. His suffering and courage were unequalled. Prometheus was chained to a rock and the eagle picked into his liver but he never yielded or had any doubt about his stand. On 4 April 1935 Trotsky wrote in his diary: ‘[Stalin] is clever enough to realise that even today I would not change places with him.’ [2]

Nothing relieved the agony, but still there was no self-pity, no pettiness; only a combination of clarity of thinking, passion and indomitable will.

Stalin’s revenge on Trotsky’s supporters was also terrible. In 1927-8, the mass of workers in Russia were depressed by the isolation of the Soviet Union as a result of the defeat of international revolutions, from Germany to China. Still the Trotskyists had an impressive influence among hundreds of thousands of Russian workers. Heightened Opposition activity was reported from all over the USSR. In widespread industrial disputes it played a very significant role. The number of Trotskyists in prison and places of exile was very large indeed, estimated at 8-10,000.

But the years 1928-9 saw the collapse of the Left Opposition in the USSR. Two forces squeezed it. First, there was a decline in the struggle and consciousness of the working class. As a result of the massive industrialisation under the Five-Year Plan the composition of the proletariat changed radically. The old, experienced proletariat formed under Tsarism, found itself swamped by millions of new workers, largely ex-peasants, who had no tradition of industrial life, no tradition of solidarity, no class consciousness. The proletariat was now completely atomised.

The same process that led to the atomisation of the industrial proletariat, led also to a devastating ideological crisis in the Left Opposition. Trotsky and the Left Opposition had for years called Stalin a Centrist – arguing, quite rightly at the time – that he and his bureaucracy vacillated between the proletariat on the one hand and the kulaks and NEPmen on the other. Trotsky assumed that Stalin could never take an independent position, that he was bound to fall as a result of the victory of one of the two basic forces. He thought that, in the final analysis, the fate of Soviet society would be decided by the struggle of the working class against the kulaks and NEPmen, while the bureaucracy would play only a secondary, mediating role. In fact the mutual paralysis of all social forces enabled Stalin’s bureaucracy to pragmatically muddle through the economic and social crisis. Using brute force Stalin imposed a series of ad hoc measures which, in their totality, constituted a state capitalist way out of the impasse. The bureaucracy was thus able to raise itself even further above the rest of society, establishing the most vicious mechanism of exploitation in order to accumulate capital at the expense of both the working class and the peasantry. The bureaucracy did not rout the proletarian vanguard – the Left Opposition – only to capitulate before the kulaks and NEPmen; once it defeated the former, it turned its fire on the latter. When it care to a struggle between the centralised state bureaucracy and the fragmented, dispersed peasantry, though numerous, there was no contest.

With hindsight this development is far clearer to us than to those who participated in the events. In analysing the very complex situation in Russia at the time Trotsky had no historical precedent to fall back on. The only previous workers’ state, the Paris Commune, existed in just one city and for only 74 days. The degeneration of a workers’ state was an unprecedented phenomenon. For Trotsky it was like walking in the dark in a snowstorm, with no light, no roads, on ground riddled with pitfalls.

The Five-Year Plan, the turn towards collectivisation and speedy industrialisation, left the Left Opposition politically disarmed. In the years 1928-9, thousands of Oppositionists – many of them veterans who had served years in Tsarist prisons and Siberia – capitulated. At the end of 1929 it was estimated that only 800 of the 8-10,000 did not capitulate to Stalin. It was the ideological crisis, far more than police pressure, that broke the spirit of the Trotskyists in the prisons and tamps of exile. As the veteran Old Bolsheviks, leaders of the Opposition, Kh. Rakovsky, M. Okudjava and V. Kossior explained: ‘Without the new course [the turn to collectivisation and industrialisation] repression would not have had the effect it had achieved.’ [3] The police persecutions could not in themselves explain the capitulation of thousands of Oppositionists over a very short period of time: after all, many of the Old Bolsheviks had stood the test of years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia under the Tsar. Capitulation tame with the belief that Stalin’s policy of collectivisation and industrialisation was a socialist policy and that there was no alternative to it. Although Stalin was carrying out the swiftest industrialisation at the cost of the workers – real wages were cut by half, he identified industrialisation with a proletarian socialist policy. This robbed the Opposition of any historical justification.

If massive primitive accumulation of capital is socialism, then the proletariat is, and must be, not the subject of historical advance, but the object, its raw material. If the brutal forcing of millions of peasants into collective farms is equal to socialism, then the whole justification of working class democracy is eliminated.

Very few of the veteran, Old Bolsheviks, especially the leading personnel of the Left Opposition, remained steadfast. The great honourable exception was old Khristian Rakovsky, comrade-in-arms of Trotsky for some three decades. But even he finally collapsed. On 23 February 1934, Izvestia published a telegram from Rakovsky addressed to the Central Committee of the Party, which said: ‘Confronted with the rise of international reaction, directed in the last analysis against the revolution of October, my old disagreements with the party have lost their significance. I consider it the duty of a Bolshevik-Communist to submit completely and without hesitation to the general line of the party.’

Trotsky, dismayed by the news, explained: ‘Without exaggerating by a hair’s breadth, we can say that Stalin got Rakovsky with the aid of Hitler.’ [4]

After Trotsky was exiled to Turkey (January 1929), he made a strenuous effort to build the Opposition outside the USSR.

This was the time of the worst economic slump in the history of capitalism, when Nazism was on the march. Trotsky wrote the most brilliant articles, essays and books on the developments in Germany. What is particularly impressive is that the author was far distant from the scene of the events. Still he managed to follow the day-to-day twists and turns. Reading Trotsky’s writings of the years 1930-1933, their concreteness gives the impression that the author must have been living in Germany rather than very far away on the island of Prinkipo in Turkey. These writings are unsurpassed in their use of the historical materialist method, in their descriptions of the complicated relationships between economic, social, political and ideological changes, the relations between the mass psychology of different sections of German society, from the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and lumpen proletariat, to the role of the psychology of the individual, such as Hitler. These writings rank with the best historical writings of Karl Marx – Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggle in France. Trotsky not only analysed the situation, but also put forward a clear line of action for the proletariat. In terms of strategy and tactics they are extremely valuable revolutionary manuals, comparable to the best produced by Lenin and Trotsky during the first four years of the Comintern.

Unfortunately, ideas become a material force only when they are taken up by millions. Trotsky’s writings failed to do that. His call was like a cry in the desert. Very few in Germany listened to him, or even heard him. The Trotskyist organisation in Germany was puny, isolated and with a very poor social composition – it contained hardly any workers. It was unable to translate Trotsky’s ideas into action. The tragedy of the wide cleavage between end and means hit Trotsky full in the face.

The weakness of the Trotskyists in Germany was partially due to the fact that the German proletariat was not politically virgin soil. It was overwhelmingly under the influence of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD). Besides these mass working class parties, there also existed three relatively large opposition parties: the right-wing Communists (KPO) under Brandler, the Leninbund of Ruth Fischer, Arkady Maslow and Hugo Urbahns, and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP). The historical past smothered the new young shoots of Trotskyism – there was very little space for them to grow. Trotsky witnessed the most catastrophic defeat of the international working class by the Nazis without being able to affect the march of events.

Following the German catastrophe he saw the great revolutionary events of May-June 1936 in France. Here the tragedy of Trotsky was perhaps even more profound. His writings on France, as on Germany, were brilliant and inspiring, but again his voice was practically unheard.

One defeat led to another. After the collapse of the revolutionary wave in France came the victory of Franco in Spain. Once again Trotsky’s writing was brilliant. Yet still in May 1937 the total number of members of the Trotskyist organisation in Spain was only 30! How could they influence events?

In the same period the horrors of Stalinism in the USSR proceeded apace. Forced collectivisation led to the deaths of millions; to show trials in which all the surviving leaders of Bolshevism were executed or incarcerated for years, accused of being ‘agents of Hitler and the Mikado’.

It was during the bacchanalia of Stalinist terror that Trotsky produced his great work, The Revolution Betrayed. This was an analysis of Stalin’s regime that was thoroughly Marxist, thoroughly materialist. It took as its point of departure the objective conditions, national and international, in which the Russian revolution found itself. It was not the whim of Stalin, nor the superstructure of ideas that were the keys to understanding the developments in the USSR. The book sees the battle between the two main contending classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie on a national and international scale – as the key to the history of the country. Trotsky restates and brilliantly develops the real concept of socialism, and gives no concession to the Stalinist forgery of the same. The Revolution Betrayed opposes Stalinism very sharply, while avoiding the anti-Stalinist hysteria that led many others to make concessions to capitalism. Thus Revolution Betrayed played a crucial role in restating the main features of Trotskyism – international revolutionary opposition to both Stalinism and capitalism.

So unrelieved tragedy did not mean that the last decade of Trotsky’s life was futile. On the contrary, the darker the night the brighter shines the star. Trotsky’s writings, written with passion and genius, are an inestimable inheritance. Above all, Trotsky kept the torch, the tradition of revolutionary socialism, alight. He was correct to write on 25 March 1935: ‘... I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other’. [5]

Trotsky’s whole being, his mind, his will, his energy, were directed towards the future. As a young man of 21 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! [6]

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

My faith in the Communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is farmer 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 in beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full. [7]


1. Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.33, March 1933, pp.29-30.

2. L. Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, London 1958, p.66.

3. Kh. Rakovsky, M. Okudjava, V. Kossior, On Capitulation and Capitulators, Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.7, November-December 1929, p.4.

4. Writings of Leon Trotsky, hereafter WLT, (1933-34), p.277.

5. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, p.53.

6. Trotsky, Sochineniia, Moscow, Vol.20, p.78.

7. S. Lovell, ed., Leon Trotsky Speaks, New York 1972, p.312.

Last updated on 4 August 2009