This is the grave of Leon Trotsky.
Lev Bronstein was born in 1879 in modern Ukraine. His family was made up of wealthy Jewish farmers. At the age of 8, he was sent to Odessa to be educated in a German-language school. He grew up as a good student in a burgeoning intellectual scene under a terrible government. Despite a few fits and starts of reform, Tsarist Russia was a largely a terrible place to be. It was a prime target of those new ideologies meant to create equality among all people. Alexander II had been killed in 1881 and with him the last serious hope for reform by the state. Continued reaction by the corrupt and repressive royal family led to sustained revolutionary activity, regardless of whatever repression it could use to stamp it out.
This is the world into which Leon Trotsky became one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries. He first got involved in revolutionary activities in 1896. He was arrested in 1898 and while in prison became exposed to the writings of Lenin. He became a communist that year. Marrying a fellow Marxist named Aleksandra Sokolovskaya from prison in 1899, both were allowed to be exiled to the same region of Siberia in 1900, where they were sentenced for four years. Aleksandra was probably the braver of the two people. It was her who first moved Trotsky to Marxism and it was her who convinced him to escape in a hay cart in 1902, even as she their two young children stayed behind. However, they divorced soon after and Trotsky married Natalia Sedova in 1903.
Bronstein changed his name to Trotsky in 1902 and threw himself into the maelstrom of revolutionary activity that was the communist world. He split with Lenin for awhile, leading the leader to hate the upstart. During the mid-1900s, Trotsky began developing his doctrine of permanent revolution, probably his most important intellectual contribution to leftism, for better and for worse. After some time in exile, Trotsky returned to Russia during the 1905 revolution and gave a huge speech to workers in St. Petersburg that had 200,000 people in the audience. He worked to radicalize moderates and move the Communist Party in a direction to take power. He was somewhat successful, drastically increased his newspaper readership for instance. But of course the Russian government crushed the movement. In the aftermath, Trotsky was given a sentence of prison for life. But the Russian government had terrible internal security. Trotsky escaped from the train taking him into Siberia and made his way to London in 1907.
Trotsky didn’t stay long in London. Instead, he moved to Vienna, where he continued his revolutionary activities for the next seven years. He joined the editorial staff of Pravda in 1908, helping to make it into most important news organ the radical left would ever see. Trotsky and Lenin were still largely opposed, with Trotsky closer to the Mensheviks and Lenin of course the lead Bolshevik. There was so much infighting in these years that it would be both exhausting and boring to detail it all. But overall, Trotsky was highly committed to bringing the various factions together, which did not help his standing with the disputatious Lenin. When World War I broke out, both Trotsky and Lenin openly cheered for Russia’s defeat. Trotsky was a war correspondent, frequently deported from countries where he worked.
By February 1917, Trotsky was living in New York City. Then, the February revolution happened in Russia. He immediately left for home, but he was intercepted and captured by the British. He was imprisoned for a month in a camp in Nova Scotia, but when holding him became an international issue, the British released him. Trotsky reached Russia in May. Now working closely with the Bolsheviks, he rose to great power very early in the revolutionary movement. He became a leader to overthrow the Kerensky government and he and Lenin grew closer. He was the architect of the October Revolution and replaced Grigory Zinoviev as Lenin’s top lieutenant, which created tremendous animosity between them that never ended until they were dead, which would come sooner than either thought.
Trotsky didn’t completely agree with Lenin over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that pulled Russia out of World War I with huge losses to the Germans. He agreed that the Russian Army was a hopeless Tsarist structure but was concerned that such big concessions would undermine the new Soviet government. He then became the head of the Red Army after the brief attempts to resist the Germans failed miserably. This was a sign of the utopian ideas of the soviets being undermined quickly; many communists wanted democratically elected militias and officers, which was of course totally unworkable. But Trotsky also wanted power and this gave it to him. And through his rough and tough methods, he did create an effective military before he was purged. Of course, he was immediately tasked with fighting the Russian civil war. To do this, he used a lot of Tsarist military officers, which many communists were uncomfortable with, but Lenin agreed. After all, what other experts did they have?
All of this challenged another rising leader of the Soviets–Joseph Stalin. The future dictator was a brilliant political insider, slowly doing the hard work to build loyalists that would later pay off big time. Trotsky wasn’t doing that kind of work. So Stalin began attacking Trotsky in the newspapers he controlled as early as 1918. The two men soon hated each other. In fact, basically all the Soviet leaders except Lenin hated Trotsky, seeing him as power-hungry, militaristic, and vainglorious. All this was true, though often described his rivals too. Trotsky faced serious challenges to his military leadership, but the Red Army finally pushing back the Whites led to his coming out victorious against his rivals, this time at least.
As the Soviet Union moved into building its nation from the ashes of war, Trotsky was an early believer in making trade unions irrelevant, forcing them to become adjuncts of the state in order to rebuild the economy without strikes. This was at the time rejected by the other communists, including Lenin, but also demonstrated how the Soviet leadership was deeply riven with ideological factionalism that constantly risked open conflict. Trotsky also led the repression of the Kronstadt Rebellion, the last moment where resistance to the Soviet dictatorship was possible. His behavior was despicable. Trotsky basically did much of the set-up to create that dictatorship. Ideological to the end, he saw no room for anything that resembled “bourgeois democracy” as he put it. So he was willing to gas the workers if other forms of repression didn’t work.
With Lenin’s health in decline by 1922, all the other major players at the top of the USSR worked together to make sure that Trotsky would not replace him upon the leader’s death. Lenin spent most of his remaining energy trying to patch up the relationship between Trotsky and everyone else. Lenin couldn’t imagine a USSR without Trotsky, but Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and lots of others sure could. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky’s fate was not foretold per se, but he became increasingly isolated. Zinoviev demanded Trotsky’s expulsion from the Politburo in 1925 for his poor treatment of so many people during the civil war, which also played up his many disagreements with Lenin before 1917. Stalin thought it was too soon for that, but Trotsky was definitely on the outs. But in that year, Zinoviev and Kamenev split with Stalin and Trotsky became the natural ally. Trotsky himself played it real cool for once, letting his supporters do the work. When Stalin came out in support of Chiang Kai-Shek, Trotsky openly opposed it. Then Chiang massacred Chinese communists. But despite the fact that Stalin’s position was obviously wrong, it actually strengthened him by making the Soviet state more nationalistic to protect the revolution at home, as opposed to Trotsky’s ideas of worldwide revolution.
Finally, in 1927, Stalin was powerful enough to expel Trotsky from the Central Committee. Zinoviev was tossed too. Trotsky gave a last speech in the Soviet Union later that year at the funeral of a Soviet diplomat. Early in 1928, he was expelled to Kazakhstan and then the next year, to Turkey. This became the era of Trotsky trying to find somewhere to live. Nobody wanted him. He was unwelcome in the Soviet Union. But since he not only preached the doctrine of international revolution but had actually succeeded in bringing one about, he was the least wanted exile in the world. He was isolated on a Turkish island between 1929 and 1933. He was then given permission to go to France, but banned from living in Paris, where he obviously wanted to be, he ended up dealing with heavy police surveillance in Royan. France then tried to get rid of him as early as 1934, but since no one would take him, he was placed in extreme isolation. Finally, in 1935, he was kicked out again. He then went to Norway, but the rise of the fascists there combined with the start of the purges at the Soviet Union made his life pretty hellish. By October 1936, he was not allowed to walk outside.
Finally, Mexico came to the rescue. The government of Lázaro Cárdenas, easily the best president in post-Mexican Revolution history, opened his nation to refugees from fascism, with lots of people fleeing the Spanish Civil War arriving. Being quite open to leftists, Cardenas invited Trotsky too. He arrived in 1937. There, he was quite the local celebrity, hanging with out Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, having an affair with the latter. He lived with them for awhile and then later acquired his own house nearby.
But things weren’t all of a sudden hunky dory for Trotsky. For communists around the world, especially before the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, Stalin was the future of the world revolution. What he said went. And he wanted Trotsky dead. A lot of the Mexican artistic community were hard core communists. They made some great art out of this, but they were as intolerant as Uncle Joe himself. Trotsky wrote to defend himself and even appeared before Martin Dies and the House Committee on Un-American Activities to expose what the NKVD were doing to himself, his family, and all his supporters back in the Soviet Union, who were being systematically executed. The idea of Trotsky appearing before HUAC is still mind-blowing.
By 1940, Trotsky was not a healthy man. He faced extreme high blood pressure and other health problems. He also feared for his life. A Soviet agent, along with the legendary Mexican painter David Alfaro Siquerios, attempted to kill him at his house in May 1940. One of his bodyguards was killed and his grandson shot in the foot. Trotsky reinforced the house. But finally, the NKVD agent Ramon Mercader, a Spanish communist, stuck the legendary ice pick in Trotsky’s head on August 21. Trotsky was 60 years old.
Look, Leon Trotsky was not a great guy. But we don’t have to excuse his actions or downplay the bad things he did to note that a lot of people were inspired by him–including many of the people who made the American workers movement a success in the 1930s and 1940s. It was actually a pretty brave position to reject mainline Communism at this time, as they could always have you killed, not to mention politically isolated. It’s also incredibly easy today for liberals to talk about how stupid or evil all those communists were for following someone like Stalin or Trotsky. This is a ridiculous version of being a Monday Morning Quarterback. The early 20th century was a system where capitalism was failing many millions of people, where imperialism was at its peak, and where there seemed little hope for a better future outside of communism, unless you were a fascist. At least the former called for a better life for almost all people. There were lots of reasons to be a communist in this era. The American communists had their own problems, but they also did more than any other white people to fight for racial justice, led many union movements that changed the lives of workers, and demanded large-scale political change that at least forced capitalists to respond.
Leon Trotsky is buried at his house in Mexico City. Natalia Sedova is also buried there. She spent much of the rest of her life in Mexico, breaking with the communists entirely in 1951, and dying in France in 1962.
If you would like this series to visit other global communists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Do I think LGM readers should send me to Moscow to see Lenin? Yes. Yes I do. Previous posts in this series are archived here.