Leon Trotsky was born in 1879 in what was then the Russian Empire. The country was ruled over by the Tsar, a King who had complete political control. Russia was a backward country. Most of the people still worked as peasants on the land. The majority of them had no land of their own – they had to work long hours and pay off huge debts to rich landlords.
Towards the end of the last century modern industry began to develop quickly in Russia. Huge factories sprang up paid for mainly by foreign businessmen. Some Russian factory owners also emerged – but even they had few if any political rights: the Tsar made all the decisions.Meanwhile millions of peasants flocked to the cities to get steady work – a modern working class emerged. They soon grew angry as the employers forced them to work long hours in terrible conditions for pathetically low wages. They were bound to rebel . . . and in the years to come they did.
Trotsky’s first taste of political action came when he was at school. One of the teachers kept making racist remarks and constantly picked on Jews and Catholics. Trotsky, who was born a Jew but did not believe in religion, organised a protest. He got the class to stand and boo the teacher. He was soon to learn that direct action carries risks – he was expelled.
But he didn’t give up. As a student he got involved in a movement that tried to organise the new class of industrial workers. The South Russian Workers’ Union was a great success at first – hundreds of workers joined in the first few months and began to hold strikes against the factory owners. But soon the police arrested the organisers. Trotsky was jailed.
This proved to Trotsky the need to overthrow the whole system of rich owners with their police protectors. In prison Trotsky studied the communist ideas of Karl Marx, which he used to guide his ideas and actions for the rest of his life.
From lonely exile in Siberia, Trotsky escaped to the West. He linked up with exiled Russian Marxists who were busy organising a new political party of the working class: the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In London he joined the editorial board of Lenin’s newspaper Iskra (‘The Spark’), which argued for the Russian workers to raise the struggles beyond the fight for better conditions at work towards the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsar himself.
Trotsky attended the party’s second Congress in 1903. He supported the argument that the party should fight for revolution and not just improvements in pay and conditions. As a Jew he also opposed the campaign of the Bundists who wanted the party’s special group that agitated amongst Jewish workers to be a completely independent body, and argued instead for unity in a single party.
When the party split between a Majority (Bolsheviks) who wanted a tight-knit disciplined group and a Minority (Mensheviks) who wanted a softer, looser sort of party, Trotsky sided with the Mensheviks, something that he later came to think was a great mistake.
Soon he parted company with the Mensheviks too. They believed that in the coming revolution against the Tsar the working class should let the capitalist class take the lead and create a modern capitalist country. Lenin – the leader of the Bolsheviks – believed that the capitalists were untrustworthy, and that the working class should look to its own strength, build a fighting alliance with the millions of poor peasants, and take the lead in the revolution.
Trotsky went a step further. He developed his theory of Permanent Revolution. Like Lenin he believed that the capitalist class in Russia was too weak to overthrow the Tsar. The industrial workers would have to lead the peasants and do the job themselves. But Trotsky’s idea was that by making the revolution the workers would become the leading force in the whole of Russia, and would have to form a government for themselves. Then there would be no question of stopping at the stage of capitalism. A working class government should go on to take over the property of the capitalists and start building a socialist society.
At that time, no other leading socialists in Russia thought this would be possible. But events were to prove that Trotsky and his theory of Permanent Revolution were correct.
In 1905 Russia was suddenly engulfed in revolution. A mass march to hand in a petition to the Tsar was fired on by troops and hundreds were killed. This massacre – Bloody Sunday – sparked off a general strike as workers downed tools across Russia.
The workers set up new organisations to run the struggle. These councils of elected delegates – the Soviets – were a new and more democratic type of organisation than had ever been seen before. Workers from every factory, office and area elected their representatives, who could be recalled and replaced at any time.
Trotsky was elected as a leading representative of the Soviet in St Petersburg, the capital of Russia. Trotsky called for a shorter working day, elections to a parliament and free speech. And he knew that it would take a hard fight to win these demands. He called for the Soviet to organise an armed uprising to overthrow the Tsar.
Although the 1905 revolution failed, it was not the end of the story. It had been a great dress rehearsal for even greater events to come.
World War I
In August 1914, the capitalist rulers of Europe sent millions of young people off to die in the First World War. Some ‘socialists’, like the British labour party and the Russian Mensheviks, decided to support “their own” country. Others, like the Bolsheviks, saw that the war was really about which set of millionaires would control the lion’s share of the world’s wealth, natural resources and markets. They opposed the war, and refused to take sides with any of the Kings, Presidents and generals.
Trotsky opposed the war and attacked those who backed it as traitors to the working class. Even when the numbers of people opposing the war seemed to be no more than a handful he stood firm. This courage paid off – for as the war dragged on millions of workers and peasants grew poorer and poorer, more bitter and exhausted. Eventually they brought the war to an end themselves, by rising up against the warmongers.
The Russian workers were the first to rise. In February 1917 demonstrations and riots in St Petersburg (then re-named Petrograd) turned quickly into an uprising that forced the Tsar to resign. Soviets sprang up all across Russia. A new government came to power, made up of a coalition of capitalist ministers and representatives of other parties, including the Mensheviks. They used very revolutionary phrases, but they refused to pull Russia out of the bosses’ war, refused to give land to the starving peasants, and refused to let the workers run the factories themselves.
Trotsky was now able to put his theory of permanent revolution into practice. He opposed the new government and said that the workers’ Soviets should seize power themselves and set up a workers’ government. Lenin argued the same line and convinced the Bolsheviks to raise the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!”. Trotsky now realised that the Bolsheviks were the only revolutionary party in Russia and joined them. By October 1917 he had once again risen to a position of great influence in the Soviet, and together with the Bolsheviks convinced them to take power.
On the night of the 24th October, armed workers and soldiers loyal to the Soviet moved to take control of all the key points in cities across Russia. In Petrograd the mass of the working class were so ready for revolution that there was scarcely any resistance. A new Soviet government was installed. The world’s first successful workers’ revolution had taken place.
Soviet Russia was about to make the first ever attempt to introduce the socialist system. But Trotsky and Lenin realised that their success depended on one thing above all else: socialist revolutions in other countries. We live in an international economy. As Trotsky warned with increasing urgency, without the revolution spreading, the workers’ republic in Russia would be isolated and would eventually go down to defeat.