Leon Trotsky and the power of ideas
Andrea Bauer
volume 32
issue 5
October 2011

Inset: Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011. Trotsky saw women's need for liberation as a great spur to revolution. Photo: AFP

Marxists are often accused of being crass materialists because they emphasize material reality as the foundation for everything else: social relations, culture, individual psychology, and so on. Still, Marxists do believe that ideas can change the world.

It helps if they are the right ideas! The more correctly ideas explain the world, the more power they have to change reality. And when has the world ever needed transformation more than it does today?

It certainly badly needed a makeover at the beginning of last century. Especially in Russia, where modern, grinding capitalist exploitation and archaic, contemptuous czarist repression combined to make life a living hell for workers and peasants. The oppression they endured gave rise to a revolutionary movement whose most notable figures were not only action heroes but profound thinkers as well.

One of these revolutionaries was Leon Trotsky, born in 1879, the same year as Albert Einstein. Over the course of his life, Trotsky, like Einstein, had a lot of Big Ideas. And, like Einstein, he started early.

He began developing his far-reaching theory of permanent revolution when he was just 25, in 1904. This was one year before Einstein took the world stage with the theory of special relativity and Trotsky did the same as a key leader of the 1905 Russian revolution. This “dress rehearsal” revolution was crushed by the czar, but proved a major turning point for Russia’s suffering majority.

Over time, the importance of Trotsky’s ideas for understanding the world has not faded, but gained force. The problems first addressed by Trotsky as a young man are still the problems of today: war, hunger, poverty, the lack of democratic rights in supposedly democratic societies — in short, the theft of the human potential for productivity and happiness. And Trotsky’s analysis of how to solve these problems is still powerful, even indispensable, as events from Egypt to Wisconsin are showing.

Permanent revolution in Trotsky’s time and ours. Many people who cheered on Arab young people, workers, and women as they rose up against dictators only a few months ago are now wondering why the people who made the revolutions are not in power: how did it get away from them? What is necessary to make radical change stick?

Trotsky faced questions just like these in Russia in 1917 after the February overthrow of the czar. Trotsky’s genius was to have foreseen and thought through the dynamics of revolution ahead of time. His analysis of Russia’s conditions brought him to conclude that, if Russia’s workers and peasants were to achieve any sort of liberation, deposing the czarist regime would not be enough. The only road forward was the road toward socialism.

Despite the peasants’ overwhelming numerical majority, Trotsky discerned, it would be the workers who led the way, because the conditions of their life and work advanced their consciousness and fostered discipline and class unity.

Their strength would be organized into and best expressed through a revolutionary party. As Trotsky put it in his famous analogy in The History of the Russian Revolution: “Without a guiding organization the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.”

These insights were part of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. They prepared him to join forces with V.I. Lenin to overcome the caution and conservatism of other socialist leaders in the Bolshevik Party and lead the world’s first socialist revolution. This took place on Trotsky’s birthday in 1917 — on Oct. 25, according to the old Russian calendar.

Despite the later terrible deformations of the Soviet state that followed Stalin’s rise to power, the revolution opened the door to major advances for workers and oppressed people across the globe. And Trotsky’s ability to analyze the causes of Stalinism, as well as organize a counter-movement based on that analysis, saved revolutionary socialists around the world from disorientation and despair.

Trotskyists today study what Trotsky had to say about the dynamics of revolution in order to make sense of events like those in Egypt and Tunisia. A clear vision of socialism, a vanguard party, a developed working class: these are ingredients for the full flowering of revolution — the turning of Spring into Summer.

Where leadership comes from. Trotsky’s life was so expansive and his ideological legacy is so rich that no short newspaper article could do them justice.

After helping to lead the revolution, Trotsky defended the USSR militarily as head of the Red Army. He explained the phenomenon of the “middle caste,” those movement bureaucrats who urge caution and respectability. He probed the nature of fascism and prescribed the united front to fight it. He launched the Fourth International, a world socialist party, and wrote its founding document, the transitional program. He recognized the decisive global importance of the U.S. revolution. From his final exile in Mexico, he took a sharp interest in U.S. affairs, including the Black struggle. In a relationship of mutual respect, he provided guidance to the Socialist Workers Party of James P. Cannon, who first organized support for Trotsky’s ideas in the U.S.

Books have been written about these topics, often by Trotsky himself. Many are available at www.marxists.org, the Freedom Socialist Party’s online bookstore Red Letter Press, or at the bookstore at a local FSP branch. But, for a socialist feminist writer, an article about Trotsky isn’t complete without discussion of his special attention to the most abused members of society and his promotion of their leadership.

In his History, Trotsky gives credit to women textile workers for kicking off the Russian Revolution — against the advice of male labor leaders. This turn of events was no accident.

Trotsky, like Lenin and other male and female Bolsheviks, did not look to mainstream politicians or the best-paid, most secure workers for leadership. They looked to those who had the most to gain from society’s total transformation.

As Trotsky put it in his History, those who are “most oppressed ... therefore are most ready to give expression to the new tasks” of a society in flux. Trotsky included in this group young people, whose rights are few but whose stake in the future is greatest of all.

A grand fight to realize grand ideas. Trotsky, who was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940, lived to see the Great Depression, New Deal, and start of World War II. His enormous intellectual output was geared to a purpose: to strengthen the cause of humanity’s liberation.

The Freedom Socialist Party strives to use Trotsky’s ideas in organizing for immediate reforms and the goal of socialism to which he dedicated his life. The FSP hopes to join with everyone who believes in that goal in order to learn and move forward together.

Contact Andrea Bauer at FSnews@mindspring.com.

This article in Spanish / Este artículo en español