Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s Marxism


Leon Trotsky was born in 1879 and grew to manhood and to consciousness in a world that has passed away, the world of the social-democratic marxism of the Second International.

In any generation there are many possible mental worlds, rooted in the widely differing circumstances, social organisation and ideologies that co-exist at any one time. That of social democracy was the most advanced, the closest approximation to a scientific, materialist world outlook that then existed.

For Lev Davidovitch Bronstein (the name of Trotsky was borrowed from a jailer), son of a Ukrainian Jewish peasant family, to attain that outlook was remarkable enough. The older Bronstein was a well-to-do peasant, a kulak – otherwise Trotsky would have received very little formal education – and he was a Jew in a country where anti-Semitism was officially encouraged and actual pogroms not rare. At any rate, the young Trotsky became, after an initial period of romantic revolutionism, a marxist. And very soon, under the condition of Tsarist autocracy, a professional revolutionary and a political prisoner. First arrested at the age of 19, he was sentenced to four years’ deportation to Siberia after spending 18 months in jail. He escaped in 1902 and, from then until his death, revolution was his profession.

This small book is concerned with ideas rather than events. Least of all is it an attempt at a biography. Isaac Deutscher’s three volumes, whatever view is taken of the author’s political conclusions, will remain the authoritative biographical study for a very long time.

Yet any attempt to present a summary of Trotsky’s ideas runs into an immediate difficulty. Much more than most of the great marxist thinkers (Lenin is an outstanding exception), Trotsky was concerned throughout his life with the immediate problems facing revolutionaries in the workers’ movement. Nearly everything he said or wrote relates to some immediate issue, to some current struggle. The contrast with what has come to be called “Western marxism” could hardly be more marked. A sympathetic chronicler of this latter trend has written: “The first and most fundamental of its characteristics has been the structural divorce of this marxism from political practice.” [1] That is the last thing that could ever be said of Trotsky’s marxism.

Therefore it is necessary to present, in however sketchy and inadequate a fashion, some elements of the background against which Trotsky formed his ideas.

Russia was backward, Europe advanced. That was the basic idea of all Russian marxists (and not of marxists alone, of course). Europe was advanced because its industrialisation was well developed and because social democracy, in the form of sizeable workers’ parties professing allegiance to the marxist programme, was growing fast. For Russians (and to some extent generally) the parties of the German speaking countries were the most important. The social-democratic parties of the German and Austrian Empires were expanding workers’ parties which had adopted fully marxist programmes (the German Erfurt programme of 1891, the Austrian Heinfeld programme of 1888). Their influence on Russian marxists was immense. The fact that Poland, whose working class was already stirring, was partitioned between the empires of the Tsar and the two Kaisers strengthened the connection. Rosa Luxemburg, it will be recalled, was born in Russian-occupied Poland, but became prominent in the German movement. There was nothing out of the way in this. Social democrats then regarded “national” boundaries as secondary.

In terms of ideas, this growing movement (illegal in Germany between 1878 and 1890, but polling one and a half million votes on a restricted suffrage in the latter year) was sustained by the synthesis of early marxism and late nineteenth century developments that had been achieved by Friedrich Engels. His Anti-Duhring (1878), an attempt at an overall, scientifically grounded world view, was the basis for the popularisations (or vulgarisations) of Karl Kautsky, the “pope of marxism”, and of the more profound expositions of the Russian G.V. Plekhanov.

In this exciting intellectual/practical world – for Engels and his disciples and imitators had established a link between theory and practice in the workers’ party – the young Trotsky grew intellectually and soon became something more than a disciple of his elders. His respect for Engels was immense.

Yet he was, within a few years of his first assimilation of the marxist world outlook, to challenge the then marxist orthodoxy on the question of the backward countries. But first he was to meet the emigre leaders of Russian marxism and to play a prominent role in the 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party – the real founding conference.

Trotsky escaped from Verkholensk in Siberia, hidden under a load of hay, in the summer of 1902. By October he had arrived at the directing centre of Russian social democracy, then situated near Kings Cross station in London. Lenin, Krupskaya, Martov and Vera Zasulich all lived in the area and from here Iskra, the organ of the advocates of a centralised, disciplined party, was produced and dispatched to the underground in Russia. Trotsky was soon involved in the disputes within the Iskra team – Lenin wished to add him to the editorial board, Plekhanov resolutely opposed the idea – and so came to know at close quarters the future leaders of Menshevism, Plekhanov and Martov, as well as Lenin. For the split in the Iskra group was already gestating.

It came into the open at the congress in the summer of 1903. The Iskra-ists stood together in resisting the demands of the Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund, for autonomy so far as work amongst Jewish people was concerned, and in resisting the reformist tendency of the Economists. Then came the split in the Iskra group itself into the Bolshevik majority and the Menshevik minority.

It was not clear cut at first – the issues themselves were not yet clear. Plekhanov sided with Lenin initially, Trotsky supported the Menshevik leader Martov.

Two years later Trotsky was back in Russia. The revolution of 1905 was under way. In the course of it Trotsky rose to his full height. Still only 26 years old, he became the most prominent single revolutionary leader and an internationally known figure. He emerged from the background of small group and emigré politics transformed into a magnificent orator and mass leader. As President of the Petrograd Soviet he was able to exert a considerable degree of tactical leadership and demonstrated that sure touch and iron nerve which was to characterise him in the greater upheavals of 1917.

The revolution was crushed. The Tsarist army was shaken but not broken. Out of the experience – the “dress rehearsal” Lenin called it – the divergent tendencies in social democracy moved further apart. Trotsky, still nominally a Menshevik, developed his own unique synthesis, the theory of Permanent Revolution.

The next decade was spent in the small emigre circles again and in futile attempts to unite what were by now incompatible tendencies. Then caine the war, anti-war activity and, in February 1917, the overthrow of the Tsar. Trotsky joined the Bolshevik party, by now a real mass workers’ party, in July and such was his force of personality, talent and reputation that within a few weeks he stood second only to Lenin in the eyes of the mass of its supporters. He was entrusted with the actual organisation of the October rising and, at the age of 38, became one of the two or three most important figures in party and state, and, a little later, also one of the most significant leaders of the world communist movement, the Communist International. He was the main creator and director of the Red Army and influential in every field of policy.

From these heights Trotsky was destined to be cast down. The fall was not simply a personal tragedy. Trotsky rose as the revolution rose and fell as the revolution declined. His personal history is fused with the history of the Russian revolution and international socialism. From 1923 he led the opposition to the growing reaction in Russia – to Stalinism. Expelled from the party in 1927 and from the USSR in 1929 his last eleven years were spent in an heroic struggle against impossible odds to keep alive the authentic communist tradition and embody it in a revolutionary organisation. Vilified and isolated, he was finally murdered on Stalin’s orders in 1940. He left behind a fragile international organisation and a body of writings that is one of the richest sources of applied marxism in existence.

This book concentrates on four themes. They do not exhaust Trotsky’s contribution to marxist thought, not by any means, for he was an exceptionally prolific writer with unusually wide interests.

Nevertheless, his life’s work was centrally concerned with these four questions and the bulk of his voluminous writings relate to them in one way or another.

They are, first, the theory of “Permanent Revolution”, its relevance to the Russian revolutions of the twentieth century and to subsequent developments in the colonial and semi-colonial countries – what is today called the “Third World”.

Second, the outcome of the Russian October revolution and the whole question of Stalinism. Trotsky made the first sustained attempt at an historical materialist analysis of Stalinism and his analysis, whatever criticism may have to be made of it, has been the starting point for all subsequent serious analysis from a marxist point of view.

Third, the strategy and tactics of mass revolutionary parties in a wide variety of situations, a field in which Trotsky’s contribution was not inferior to that of Marx and Lenin.

Fourth, the problem of the relationship between party and class and the historical development which reduced the revolutionary movement to a fringe status with respect to the mass workers’ organisations.

Isaac Deutscher described Trotsky, in his last years, as “the residuary legatee of classical marxism”. He was that, and more besides. It is this which gives his thought its enormous contemporary relevance.



1. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, London: New Left Books 1976, p.29.


Last updated on 1.10.2002