Leon Trotsky and the Russian Revolution

Failure to learn from history is an invitation to repeat it.

Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash

Having just finished August 1914 of Solzhenitsyn’s massive account of the Russian Revolution (The Red Wheel) I turned my attention to Leon Trotsky’s history of these events.

Here are some interesting passages from Trotsky’s The Russian Revolution. (Originally published in 1939 by Simon & Schuster.)

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. But at those crucial moments when the old order, because it’s no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime.

The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by the author.

These words are found in the introduction to Trotsky’s book.

The first sentence is what this 450 page account is about. The second explains the motivation for revolution. The “situation” is no longer endurable. Hence, the powerless masses erupt, and take control by force.

Most Americans have little understanding of the situation in Russia at the time of the revolution. Nor do they know what really happened. I’d be curious how many people know there were actually two revolutions in 1917. The first took place in February/March. The Tsar was brought down and the whole structure of government around the Monarchy system of rulership. Then in late fall Lenin and the Bolsheviks pushed out the first wave of revolutionaries and crafted a Totalitarian-ruled Soviet Union.

These things didn’t happen overnight. Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 shows the history that preceded these revolutions and the events that set them up.

Trotsky adds:

The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which are already formed themselves before the revolution. (Emphasis mine)

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime.

Under Lenin’s administration, Russia and then the wider Soviet Union became a one-party Marxist-Leninist state governed by the Russian Communist Party. Ideologically a communist, he developed a variant of Marxism known as Leninism.

Regarding Trotsky’s role in all these things Vladimir Cherniaev, a leading Russian historian, summarized it in this manner:

Trotsky bears a great deal of responsibility both for the victory of the Red Army in the civil war, and for the establishment of a one-party authoritarian state with its apparatus for ruthlessly suppressing dissent… He was an ideologist and practitioner of the Red Terror. He despised ‘bourgeois democracy’; he believed that spinelessness and soft-heartedness would destroy the revolution, and that the suppression of the propertied classes and political opponents would clear the historical arena for socialism. He was the initiator of concentration camps, compulsory ‘labour camps,’ and the militarization of labour, and the state takeover of trade unions. Trotsky was implicated in many practices which would become standard in the Stalin era, including summary executions.

Despite all this, Trotsky overstepped and made enemies. As a result, by 1929 he found himself exiled from the State he helped create. He first went to Turkey, then Italy, then France. When France signed an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1935, Trotsky was no longer welcome there either, in part because of his rabble-rousing writings and the encouragement of mass strikes.

Image for post
Image for post
Classic symbols of the working man.

From there he went to a farm in Norway, then left for Mexico where he worked for a while with painter and muralist Diego Rivera. Together with Andre Breton he helped write the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.

Trotsky continued to write and agitate, and became such a burr in Stalin’s butt that Stalin sent an NKVD hit squad to eliminate him. The first attempt in May 24, 1940 failed. The second attempt was more successful, by means of a mountaineer’s ice axe in August. Even so, he survived the initial blow for a day before succumbing under surgery.


I probably first noticed and took interest in Leon Trotsky in sixth grade because his name was Leon. (My birth name is Leon Edward. I later took interest in Leon Russell for the same reason.) I believe it was while reading about Rasputin’s assassination, which Trotsky covers somewhat in The Russian Revolution.

When my wife and I prepared to go to Mexico in 1980 to work at an orphanage we studied some of the history of that nation South of the Border. I learned that after the Communists failed in the Spanish Civil War more than 40,000 found refuge in Mexico. Hence, we occasionally saw graffiti featuring the hammer and sickle, international symbol of the Party.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store