Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Who Dreamt of the Full Human Life Even at His Nadir

Seventy-eight years ago on August 21, an assassin’s hatchet snuffed out the life of Leon Trotsky in his last refuge on the planet.

While convalescing in an Oslo hospital in September-October, 1935 after a bout of illness, Leon Trotsky wrote the preface to the Norwegian edition of his autobiography, My Life, which he closed with the following paragraph:

On the table where I am writing these lines lies one of the hospital’s bibles in Norwegian. Thirty-seven years ago, I had on my table in the solitary cell of Odessa prison – I had not yet reached my twentieth birthday – the same book written in different European languages. By comparing the parallel texts I practised linguistics – the style of the gospel and the conciseness of the translations make the learning of foreign languages easier. Unfortunately, I cannot promise anybody that my new encounter with the old and well-known book will contribute to the salvation of my soul. But reading the Norwegian bible text can nonetheless help me learn the language of the country which has offered me its hospitality, and whose literature I already in younger years learnt to treasure and love.

This was a man who, six years previously, had been banished by a state he himself had helped create. The borders of the Soviet Union had closed to Trotsky for good in January 1929. He sought refuge in Turkey, which was welcoming, but for only a few years. France offered him asylum in 1933, but soon found him too hot to hold, with Stalin seeking his deportation from France relentlessly, remorselessly. The Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance of May 1935 rang the curtain on Trotsky’s sojourn in the land of the French Revolution. Norway agreed to have him and the Trotskys moved to a friend’s home in Honefoss, not far from Oslo.

Soon enough, a clamour for throwing Trotsky out of Norway also started building up, with both the political right and left baying for his blood. Trotsky, ever the clear-eyed realist, had no illusions about his acceptability to any European regime and wryly observed in My Life that, for him, the earth was ‘a planet without a visa’. December, 1936 would see his deportation from Norway: he and his wife were to be put on an oil tanker bound for far-away Mexico, the country where he would eventually die at the hands of Stalin’s agents.

As the people’s commissar at the Red Square. Credit: Public domain image

Trotsky’s own future could only have looked bleak to him at the time. Weighed down by ill-health and anxiety about his younger son Sergei (who was in a Russian prison, tortured and awaiting death), he perhaps found his energy at its lowest ebb. Even more troubling for him were the shadows that were lengthening across the Revolution that was his very life. And yet incredibly, Leon Trotsky utilised the hospital interregnum learning a new language! Second only to Lenin among the leaders of the great October Revolution; chair of the Petrograd Soviet (which was the engine of the Revolution) both in 1905 and 1917; the first commissar of foreign affairs of the Soviet state; a peerless orator and a brilliant writer; the undisputed leader – indeed the builder – of the formidable Red Army and, above everything else, an outstanding leader of men, he yet could say, in all sincerity, that “…with a book in hand, I felt just as confident as … in the Smolny or the Kremlin”, or that “(i)n prison, with a book or a pen in my hand, I experienced the same sense of deep satisfaction that I did at mass-meetings of the revolution”.

E.M. Forster liked to think of himself as always standing ‘at a slight angle to the universe’. The same thing is true of Trotsky in large measure. He had been born to a Jewish Ukrainian family but, as a militant socialist, his parents’ religious faith or nationality meant nothing to him. Indeed, in the official paper-work he was required to fill out in the many countries he visited, he often described his own nationality as ‘Socialist’. And yet, when Lenin proposed his name as the commissar of foreign affairs in the first Bolshevik government, Trotsky remonstrated, arguing that as a Jew, he should be left out of such an important position. Trotsky’s concern was that, in the hostile capitalist world outside Russia, a Jewish foreign minister would excite far greater misgiving and antipathy than a non-Jewish one.

Lenin of course dismissed this suggestion and Trotsky duly became the first foreign affairs minister in the first socialist state in the world. A certain degree of ambivalence can be read into his political alignments also for a significant period of his life prior to October. When, in 1902, he escaped from his first exile in Siberia and came to London, he found himself in the company of émigré Russian revolutionaries and was soon writing extensively for Iskra, the revolutionaries’ mouthpiece. Only 23 then, he was already an accomplished columnist and political analyst whom the 32-year-old Lenin, by then one of the leading lights of Russian Social Democracy, took under his wing.

To the consternation of the old guard at Iskra led by the formidable Georgi Plekhanov, Lenin soon proposed that the editorial-board co-opt Trotsky as its seventh member, because he was “unquestionably a man of rare abilities, has conviction and energy, and will go much farther”. In turn, Trotsky greatly admired Lenin for the exceptional clarity of his thinking and the single-minded energy he brought to his work. He was miffed by the somewhat patronising manner in which many of the other veterans – whose lack of purposefulness in any case baffled Trotsky often – treated him. And yet, when Russian Social Democrats split into the Bolshevik and the Menshevik factions during 1903-04, Trotsky sided with the latter even though his intellectual/theoretical inclinations made him a natural ally of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Joseph Stalin, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Alienation from the Bolsheviks

His alienation from the Bolshevik group was to last for well over a decade, and he began to come closer to Lenin’s position only around May/June, 1917. In between, he had emerged as the hero of the Petrograd Soviet after the Revolution of 1905 and was acknowledged as the Soviet’s most eloquent, most steadfast champion. His position had moved away from the Mensheviks’ as early as 1905, and in vain did he try to bring the two warring factions together. In the process, he found himself an outsider everywhere, both sides looking at him with suspicion, considering him untrustworthy.

The bitter polemical battles between the various groups left many scars – some of them permanent – on the protagonists and on their relations with another. Relations between Lenin and Trotsky were also frosty or worse. Trotsky later came to be among the October Revolution’s most recognised faces, one of its two tallest leaders, and yet he had little real access to the inner-party power groups all of which remained – with the sole exception of Lenin – deeply sceptical about Trotsky’s Bolshevik credentials as also jealous of his monumental achievements. On the Revolution’s first anniversary, Stalin wrote in the Pravda:

All political work in connection with the organisation of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of comrade Trotsky, the president of the Petrograd Soviet. It can be said with certainty that the party is indebted primarily and principally to comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the military revolutionary committee was organised.

Stalin rapidly outgrew his admiration for Trotsky, however, and identified him as his own arch-enemy. No trick in the book was anathema for Stalin, no stratagem too ugly or too cynical, when it came to cutting Trotsky off the mainstream and barring all doors to him. A sick Lenin observed Stalin’s manoeuvres with rising dismay and unease and, concerned about a possible split in the party, proposed to the politburo on September 11, 1922 that Trotsky be formally made Lenin’s deputy in the council of ministers – apparently to clearly delineate the chain of command and succession. While the politburo approved the proposal, Leon Trotsky – the man who always ‘stood at an angle to the world around him’ – categorically refused the appointment. His reason, which he declined to share with others at the time, was that he hated to be seen as a pretender to the party’s top-most position.

Unlike Stalin’s other potential rivals like Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev or Nikolai Bukharin who were liquidated systematically and ruthlessly through show ‘trials’ based on truly bizarre ‘confessions’, Trotsky was a giant demanding a more nuanced approach. Hence Stalin’s decision to exile him, a decision he may have bitterly regretted later, as Trotsky, undaunted by the terrible odds he faced, waged an unyielding polemical war against Stalin’s domestic and international policies. Orders were passed on for destroying Trotsky. It was to be a cloak-and-dagger operation, so that it would be difficult to trace it back to the Kremlin.

Exile in Mexico

The Trotsky family had been welcomed into Mexico and put up with the well-known left-leaning painter Diego Rivera at his Coyoacan house. Trotsky felt at home and happy, and resumed work on the project then closest to his heart – the Fourth International that Trotsky fondly, if unrealistically, hoped would help resurrect the true spirit of October by freeing it from Stalinist shibboleths. He continued to write prolifically, commentating on international issues, fascism, socialist re-construction and the great Moscow purges that Stalin had set in motion where Trotsky was now the main accused in absentia. His spirited reply to Stalin’s macabre allegations against him was presented to the Dewey Commission by way of an address titled I Stake My Life.

In April 1939, Trotsky moved out of the Diego Rivera home to a nearby house on Avenida Viena. War clouds loomed ominously over Europe and Trotsky’s own health was worsening steadily as his blood pressure kept rising. By then, he had lost all his four children and his first wife had also been murdered in Stalin’s prison. He contemplated suicide but hated to think that it might be construed as moral capitulation. He had premonitions of his violent death at Stalinist hands. “Stalin would now give a great deal to be able to retract his decision to deport me,” Trotsky noted in his diary.

The first major attack on his life came on May 24, 1940, when assassins machine-gunned his home, wounding Trotsky’s 14-year-old grandson and abducting a young bodyguard who was later murdered. Trotsky himself escaped with his life and, on June 8, wrote an article titled ‘Stalin Seeks My Death’. The next attack was not long in coming. On the afternoon of August 20, Ramon Mercader, a young Spanish communist who had wormed his way into the Trotsky household by striking up a friendship with a house-maid, dropped in on Trotsky ostensibly to show him an article Mercader had written. As the old man bent over his table preparing to read, the assassin rammed an ice pick-axe repeatedly into his head. Bleeding profusely, Trotsky was rushed to a hospital where he died the next day. Mercader served a 20-year sentence in a Mexican prison. Joseph Stalin presented the assassin with an ‘Order of Lenin’ in absentia. And, upon his release from jail in 1961, he was awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. Unbelievable, but true.

The house where Trotsky was murdered. Credit: Special arrangement

Six months before his death, on February 27, 1940, Trotsky wrote what later came to be known as his testament, a note of some 500 words which contained his parting message to the world. He left instructions that the note be not made public before his death. In his testament, Trotsky speaks with great tenderness of Natalia (Natasha) Sedova, his long-suffering wife of thirty-five years, who had gone through so much pain and loss but had remained “an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity and tenderness”. He goes on thus :

For 43 years of my conscious life, I have remained a revolutionist; for 42 of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again, I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent; indeed it is firmer today than it was in my youth.

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

Even at his nadir, Leon Trotsky dreamt of the full human life.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com