Century of Revolution and Counterrevolution in Retrospect:
Trotsky’s Role and Contribution to Stalin’s Rise to Power in the Soviet Union
Eddie J. Girdner
On a global scale, a century of revolution and counterrevolution has failed to establish a viable socialist society in the global political economy of the Twenty-first Century. The bourgeois revolution which began with the French Revolution has yet to be consolidated universally as the periphery is still being consolidated into the global economy. The contemporary form of deeply exploitative capitalism, neoliberalism, has been clamped upon most countries of the world. Today, reactionary religious revivalism, one of the strongest and most lethal toxic opiates of the masses, threatens even the emergence of bourgeois freedom across a wide swath of the earth and strengthens, asserting violent dogma, precipitating destruction, and crushing the vital urge toward freedom and human liberation. The vision of human liberation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is in retreat; human freedom is threatened. The uprisings in North Africa have toppled autocrats, but strengthened fundamentalist Islam. Human liberation is in retreat. Even the most liberal states now roll back human freedoms under the rubric of containing the terrorism which they themselves have brought about through successive phases of imperialism and neo-imperialism. How can one keep faith in the promise of the future rational society? The wily beast of capitalism has proved vastly more capable of overcoming contradictions than social thinkers and revolutionaries previously thought. The hold of religion upon the global masses has only strengthened in recent decades as transnational capital mops up from a century of crushing the progressive forces of the left around the world. The current rulers of the capitalist-corporatist state, in the face of such movements as Occupy Wall Street, respond with organized and brutal repression.
This article looks back some one hundred years to one of the greatest of revolutionaries in the paradigm revolution that shook the capitalist world to its foundations. Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein) was one of the most brilliant and colorful of all revolutionaries. As prolific writer, theorist, and journalist, he won many over to the revolutionary cause. As a dynamic and inspiring orator, he aroused multitudes to take a leap into the future in the October l917 Petrograd uprising. Yet, paradoxically, in a few short years, the brilliant theoretician of the revolution found himself in exile, sidelined and barred from playing an official role in the Bolshevik Revolution. Those whom he condemned to the “dust heap of history” had seemingly triumphed.
I. Synopsis of the article: The Twentieth Century saw the unfolding of the historical possibility for human liberation. Efforts were made to go beyond the liberal era of the capitalist development of the means of production which provided a basis for such historical progress. Thermidorean reaction from conservative forces have halted and reversed that process in the present period of economic globalization, continued western neo-imperialism, and resurgence of human degradation under the rubric of the global “free market.” The Soviet experiment ended feudalism in Russia and modernized a wide realm of the globe. Leon Trotsky was a giant figure, along with Joseph Stalin, in that historical drama. Their bitter conflict was itself a sort of dialectical unity of opposites as a fascinating, but in many ways tragic moment of that transformation. It was a bitter struggle between a brilliant revolutionary and a bureaucrat as the Revolution came up against war and the practical difficulties of modernization. The historical dialectic continues but the nature of the next phase of history remains unclear, whether reaction will continue to reign or if a new progressive phase will emerge and when. It is not the “end of history” but one cannot be sure of the teleological direction of history and if that direction is toward human liberation and socialism. The current economic system is unsustainable, politically and ecologically, but that does not mean that the system is about to collapse any time soon. How deeply the world proletariat can continue to be marginalized and exploited is a historical question and what kind of “brave new world” will be created is a historical question. Whether it will be state corporatist capitalist fascism or human liberation under some form of socialism is a historical question.
The central purpose of this article is to explore the reasons why Trotsky, the most brilliant and fiery activist of the October l917 uprising, lost the reigns of power to Stalin and his political faction and ultimately found himself exiled from the Soviet Union.
A question which arises is that of the fundamental nature of power and leadership, and to what extent it is controlled or determined by the material forces of history.Consequently, two broad camps emerge, depending upon whether the “great man” theory of history is adopted, or whether one considers the material forces of history predominant in the final analysis.
It has been suggested that Leon Trotsky’s struggle with Joseph Stalin is “the greatest feud in the whole history of Russia.”For Stalin, Trotsky was a “common noisy champion with faked muscles.”Stalin arranged to have him sentenced to death in the Moscow Tribunal and sent an agent of the Russian Secret Police to smash Trotsky’s head with an axe in Mexico on August 2, 1940.It is impossible to deny that Stalin’s victory over his great political rival had great social, economic, and political consequences. Social revolution in Russia was crushed beneath the terrible weight of Stalinist dogma and bureaucratic autocracy. On the other hand, Stalin’s prodigious efforts contributed greatly to the defeat of Hitler in World War II. Whether Trotsky’s brilliance and leadership would have been more successful is a matter of speculation, but it seems certain that it would have changed history significantly and that the Thermidorian period of the revolution might have been less bloody.
III. The Praxis of History
This article argues to some extent in favor of the Great Man Theory of History, but only within the boundaries or the historical window of opportunity which exists for an individual to change history. There is a dialectical relationship between freedom and necessity in revolution, both present in a unity of opposites. Therefore taking a one-sided view is over-simplistic. “Men make their own history, but not spontaneously, under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them.”In 1892, Karl Kautsky wrote, “Marx and Engels showed… that, in the last analysis, the history of mankind is determined, not by ideas, but by an economic development which progresses irresistibly, obedient to certain underlying laws and not to anyone’s wishes or whims.”Men and women make history, but not just in any way they like. There is a window of opportunity in which they may operate within the dialectic of opposing historical forces.This is due to the historical constraints which bind the possibilities of action and success or failure. These include both actually existing material conditions and the existing consciousness of the mass of society. Historical change cannot go beyond that historical possibility. One need not rely completely upon historical determinism in their interpretation of history. The historical window of opportunity is, however, not unlimited.
Under certain historical conditions, when the time is ripe for revolution, the old society is pregnant with the new. For Hegel, “such a system is really possible if the conditions for it are present in the old, that is, if the prior social form actually possesses a content that tends toward the new system as its realization.” Social change is a “leading beyond.”“The circumstances that exist in the old form are thus conceived not as true and independent in themselves, but as a mere condition for another state of affairs that implies the negation of the former.”
Revolution is a leap of faith toward a vision of the future society but to what extent this is achieved depends, in the last analysis, upon possibility. “The process of destroying existing forms and replacing them by new ones liberates their content and permits them to win their actual state.” This is the ‘self becoming of the old reality.”Historical events are “moments” of one comprehensive dialectical process.
No revolution can achieve its full goals because the material possibilities for the ultimate vision of revolutionaries do not exist. At the same time, the revolutionary, perhaps, must believe that such goals are possible to risk all for the revolution. Nevertheless, when the edge of the historical window of opportunity has been reached, the revolution flows back upon itself. This is the Thermidor. The negation of the negation has set in and heads roll. Reaction asserts itself. Society has changed to something new, but not in just the way the revolutionaries envisioned. Theorists of the Bolshevik Revolution believed that conditions for a new society existed. Some even believed that this new society would be “socialist.” In retrospect, this vision must be questioned. It may just be a figment of the imagination that produced the theory that the next stage of history will be “socialist.”Indeed, no actually existing society on earth can legitimately claim that it has reached the lofty goal of establishing a socialist society.Indeed, the transformation to capitalism has not yet been consolidated universally around the globe.
IV. Background to the Revolution
Herbert Marcuse has pointed out that what appears to be facts are not facts. “Facts are facts only if related to that which is not yet fact and yet manifests itself in the given facts as real possibility.”Only after the historical period can we know decisively the actually existing facts. The empirical analysis is deceptive. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the fall of dusk, as Hegel said.