J.R. Johnson

Trotsky – A Revolutionary Internationalist
Who Never Compromised with Social Oppression

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For nearly half a century Trotsky was a revolutionist. Such was his consistency, and his achievement, that we are apt to forget the tremendous power of will and devotion to an ideal that his life signifies.

He begins as a youth organizing workers in a Russian town. At that time, Tsarism enveloped Russian life like a cloud of evil. The young revolutionaries in Russia had nothing firm, nothing established to which to attach themselves. Nourished only by traditional sentiment of opposition to Tsarism, they reacted to the stifling society around them by plunging into underground activity. They read some pamphlets and looking around for some workers, began to organize them.

Far different it is today and particularly since 1917. Whatever the ups and downs of the labor and revolutionary movements in the very worst circumstances in which they find themselves, there is still the memory of the heights they once reached.

Trotsky and his contemporaries began practically from zero.

The result of that first burst of activity as a youth was years of prison and deportation followed by escape and voluntary exile. He grew to maturity in prison, in Siberia, in London, Paris and Vienna. Life among prisoners, deportees, and exiles is not calculated to strengthen and develop the human spirit. It breaks more men than it makes. Yet Trotsky emerges from it at the age of 25 and almost overnight becomes President of the Petrograd Soviet, one of the acknowledged leaders of the 1905 revolution.

It is proper to pay tribute to his ability. But ability does not explain everything and at a certain stage the ability itself has to be explained. This rapid growth and capacity to fill whatever position the revolution demanded sprang from a complete denial, rejection and repudiation of bourgeois society. In his My Life he relates a revealing episode. While in exile in Siberia, he and his comrades read of Trotsky’s excommunication by the Tsarist church. Trotsky relates that as they read the nonsensical rigmarole they said to themselves: No, the future is ours; it cannot be with these people. That explains him. He was confident that the future was ours.

To have lived in Russia was to have gained a foundation of opposition and belief in the proletariat which was crucial to Trotsky’s development.

Experience in Europe

But he did not confine these ideas to Russia. Between 1902 and 1905 this youth, with only sixteen years of normal life behind him, traveled in Europe. By the time he had returned to Russia for the 1905 revolution, his European experiences had laid the foundation for his theory of the Permanent Revolution. With the same practical boldness which enabled him to direct the affairs of the first Soviet in history his theoretical ideas embraced the whole of Western Europe. There, too the future was ours.

Once more his stay in Russia was short and he took the road to exile again by way, of escape from Siberia. For nearly a dozen years Trotsky continues to prepare for the next Russian revolution. The story goes that he was given to playing chess in the Café Centrale in Vienna. When the news came of a revolution in Russia the Vienna chief of police said with great scorn “Who will make a revolution in Russia? Mr. Trotsky of the Café Centrale?”

But Marxists do not need to judge their historical conceptions by the reactions of police chiefs. Trotsky himself relates the cold disdain, the deadly civility, with which leaders of the Austrian Social-Democracy treated his expectations of a revolutionary upheaval in Europe. There is no need to go into how triumphantly Trotsky’s view was justified. Between 1917 and 1923 the revolution could give him no task which he was not able to fulfill.

Decline of the Revolution

But after 1923 there begins a new phase in his career. It is a phase of continuous decline of the revolution, at home and, abroad, and personal defeat in Russia ending in exile once more.

He remains in revolutionary temper, devotion and will, the same man that he was before.

We who have been closely associated with his ideas and organization tend to take this for granted. We seem to think that it could not have been otherwise. That is a mistake. Marxists can weaken, capitulate, become demoralized. Trotsky remained as unshaken as some force of nature.

Hounded from country to country, his children murdered, in perpetual danger of assassination, in the last years guarded day and night, slandered as never man was slandered before, he remains the man he was when he followed the star of the ascending revolution in the first quarter of the century. It is possible to say with absolute confidence: History knows nothing like it.

An Astounding Personality

As a person, as an individual, as one who has chosen a path for himself and devotes to it all his powers, inexhaustible courage, selflessness, an indestructible, historical perspective to which everything personal is subordinated, in all this Trotsky remains the most astounding personality of the modern world. Just look for a moment at the spectacle presented by Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Hess and the rest. These gentlemen, it must never be forgotten, built themselves and grew to power on one fundamental principle, the destruction of Marxism.

Yet today Marxism lives. It commands no great political organizations. But its doctrines have been preserved and extended, it has adherents in both the advanced and backward countries of the world. The Stalinists, its most tenacious enemies, periodically denounce and slander it with a vigor which is out of all correspondence to its present political effectiveness. Why? They know the importance of ideas, at least of these ideas. That these ideas live and are active in political life is due more than anything else to the revolutionary courage and will of Trotsky.

The Nazis cut a great figure in the world at one time. Today where are their theories of blood and race and soil, their swastika and all the other rubbish they had swept up into such an imposing pile. They are destroyed. Marxism is not.

No. Trotsky was a man greatly gifted but it is impossible not to see in his strength and endurance the influence of ideas upon a personality. Without these ideas he could not have stood up under the accumulated blows and pursued his work unshaken to the end. For those who are pondering over the fate of society and their relation to it, a study of his life and the spirit that moved him should mean much.

Absolute rejection of bourgeois society, acceptance of the proletariat as the revolutionary force destined to overthrow it. Within that framework he was able to meet all the demands and trials that were thrown upon him in a crumbling society. It was a steel framework against which all the monstrous power of bourgeois society could not prevail. It was a perpetually welling spring of energy and resource for the education and organization of the proletariat, to help prepare it for the overthrow of bourgeois society.

So, that even as we stand astonished at this towering incredible personal achievement, we realize that a complete and adequate explanation of it, can be only in the ideas which strengthened and sustained him.

Last updated on 8 July 2019