(Left to right) Bolshevik leaders Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Lev (Iurii) Kamenev, USSR, n.d. Trotsky and Kamenev, the first deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, were both of Jewish origin. (Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Trotsky, Leon

(1879–1940), revolutionary and central figure in Soviet and world communism. Leon Trotsky, originally Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, was born in Kherson province, and was the son of a well-to-do tenant farmer who later became a major landowner. Trotsky received his earliest education in a heder, though he spent just several months there. After attending elementary school in Odessa, he graduated from secondary school in Nikolaev in 1896.

“Peace and Freedom in Sovedepiia.” Russian poster. This propaganda poster published by White Russian forces depicts Leon Trotsky as a bloodthirsty satanic figure and Chinese Red Army soldiers executing people against the wall of the Kremlin under a “decree” signed by Trotsky. Sovdepiia was a derogatory name used by anti-Bolsheviks for the Soviet Union. (Manuscript and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Trotsky gave up his mathematical studies at Novorossiisk University to immerse himself in revolutionary activity. A member of the Social Democratic movement from 1897, he was among the organizers of the South Russian Workers Union. Arrested in 1898, he spent two years in an Odessa prison before being sent for four years to Siberia, where he became a journalist. He escaped abroad in 1902 under the name Trotsky. In London, he wrote for Iskra. Inclined to Menshevism, he became an opponent of Lenin, whom he accused of entertaining “dictatorial” views at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party.

After arriving illegally in Russia during the 1905 Revolution, Trotsky was elected chairman of the Saint Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies and proved to be a charismatic leader. Arrested in December 1905, he was sentenced to lifelong exile in Siberia, but managed to escape during his transport. From 1907 to 1917 he lived mostly in Vienna, where he attended university, established contacts with the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, and contributed to émigré publications.

Returning to Russia in 1917, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and was elected to the Central Committee. As chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee, he directed armed actions in Petrograd during the October Revolution. He was also chairman of the Petrograd Soviets. In the first Soviet government (the Council of People’s Commissars), Trotsky served as commissar for foreign affairs. He headed the Russian delegation at the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations (December 1917–February 1918) but opposed signing a peace treaty with Germany because the proposed Russian concessions seemed excessive to him.

As a founder of the Red Army, Trotsky served as people’s commissar of war and naval affairs between 1918 and 1925, and as chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee. In 1920 and 1921, he was also people’s commissar of transportation and chairman of the Central Committee of the Transportation Workers Union. From 1925 to 1927, he was a member of the presidium of the Supreme Council of the National Economy, and from 1919 to 1926, a member of the Central Committee’s Organization Bureau.

From Leon Trotsky in Istanbul to Lazar Kling in the Bronx, 23 May 1932. Trotsky mentions having sent a friendly note to the journal Unzer kampf, and that he has also sent a sample issue to Po‘ale Tsiyon, in Palestine, because he thinks it leans toward the left. He discusses the rights and persecution of leftist opposition in the Soviet Union, mentioning corruption and demoralization among party members. He warns against making it easy for Stalinist beaureaucrats to instigate "pogroms." Russian. Typed. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Trotsky was a major theoretician of the revolutionary movement. In the dispute over the role of workers’ unions in 1920 and 1921, he opposed Lenin, maintaining that the sole way of governing workers was through military means. A hardliner, Trotsky believed in applying Red Terror techniques against the enemies of the revolution. He also rejected the possibility of allying peasants with the urban proletariat, and insisted on coercing peasants into providing supplies needed by the urban population. He propounded the idea of permanent revolution, and regarded the Russian Revolution as merely a stage in a worldwide upheaval. Furthermore, he maintained that the success of the revolution in Russia was dependent upon its victory in other countries. Accordingly, he proposed the theory of exporting revolution.

After Lenin’s death, a power struggle broke out, with Trotsky and his adherents opposing Stalin, Zinov’ev, and Kamenev. However, in 1926 he joined forces with Zinov’ev and Kamenev in an attempt to check Stalin’s influence within the party. Trotsky finally lost in this power struggle when the Fifteenth Party Conference in December 1927 identified Trotskyism as a political trend, condemned it as heresy, and expelled Trotsky from the party. He had been excluded from the Central Committee two months earlier. Accused of antirevolutionary activity in January 1928, Trotsky was sentenced to exile in Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan) and banished from the USSR with his wife and son to Turkey in 1929.

In exile, Trotsky maintained contact with groups that were dissatisfied with Stalin’s policies and attempted to establish a new Communist International, independent of Moscow. Trotsky’s Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1932. After the 1936 show trials in Moscow, during which Trotsky was accused of plotting Stalin’s assassination, he settled in Mexico, where he lived until he was assassinated by an NKVD agent. Trotsky wrote many books, brochures, and articles, of which the best known are Moia zhizn’ (My Life; 1930), Permanentnaia revoliutsiia (The Permanent Revolution; 1931), and Istoriia russkoi revoliutsii (History of the Russian Revolution; 1932–1933).

Trotsky was convinced that Jews had no future as a nation and advocated universalism. In 1903, he publicly condemned the Bund, accusing its members of national isolationism. Over the years he maintained that the “Jewish question” could only be resolved within the context of complete and ultimate victory of the international proletariat. Trotsky refused to accept the post of commissar of internal affairs in Lenin’s government out of concern that with a Jew in that position, the counterrevolution would whip up antisemitic feeling and turn it against the Bolsheviks. Beginning in 1925, Stalin’s campaign against Trotsky and Zinov’ev was indeed accompanied by blatantly antisemitic agitation. In spite of his consistent opposition to Zionism, in an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward in 1937, Trotsky admitted that the rise of antisemitism in Germany and the USSR had caused him to give up his old hope of “assimilation.” He had arrived at the view that even under socialism, the Jewish question required a “territorial solution”—but not in Palestine.

Suggested Reading

Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879–1921 (New York, 1954); Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921–1929 (London and New York, 1959); Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929–1940 (London and New York, 1963); Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford, 1978); Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova Trotsky, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (New York, 1975); Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography, intro. Joseph Hansen (New York, 1970); Dmitrii Volkogonov, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, trans. and ed. Harold Shukman (New York, 1996).



Translated from Russian by Chaim Chernikov