Leon Trotsky in 1914

Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (he assumed the name Leon Trotsky in 1902) was born in Yanovka, Russia, on 7th November, 1879. His parents were Jewish and owned a farm in the Ukraine. When Trotsky was eight years old his father sent him to Odessa to be educated. Six years later he was transferred to Nikolayev where he was first introduced to the ideas of Karl Marx.

In 1897 he became involved in organizing the underground South Russian Workers' Union. He was sent to Siberia after being arrested for revolutionary activity. After four years in captivity, he escaped and eventually made his way to London. Trotsky joined the Social Democratic Party and while in England he met and worked with a group of Marxists producing the journal Iskra. This included George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich, Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov.

At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Party held in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.

A large number of the Social Democratic Party joined the Bolsheviks. This included Gregory Zinoviev, Joseph Stalin, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Mikhail Frunze, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze, and Alexander Bogdanov.

Trotsky supported Julius Martov. So also did George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Vera Zasulich, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan.

Trotsky returned to Russia during the 1905 Revolution. Trotsky became heavily involved in the creation of the St. Petersburg Soviet and was eventually elected chairman. Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.

With the failings of the Duma, the Soviets were seen as the legitimate workers' government. Trotsky and the Soviets challenged the power of Nicholas II and attempted to enforce promises made in the October Manifesto such as the freedom of the press, assembly and association.

In December, 1905, the St. Petersburg Soviet was crushed and Trotsky was arrested and imprisoned. In October, 1906 Trotsky was sentenced to internal exile and deprived of all civil rights. While in prison Trotsky developed the theory of permanent revolution.

After two years in Siberia Trotsky managed to escape and eventually reached Vienna where he joined forces with Adolf Joffe to publish the journal, Pravda. Trotsky was now seen as one of the most important figures in the Russian revolutionary movement and Vladimir Lenin asked Lev Kamenev to try and persuade him to join the Bolsheviks.

Leon Trotsky

1. Was highly critical of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

2. Wanted Russia to have universal suffrage.

3. Wanted the Russian government to allow freedom of expression and an end to political censorship of newspapers and books.

4. Believed that democracy could only be achieved in Russia by the violent overthrow of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

5. Was strongly opposed to Russia going to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

6. Believed that if Russia did go to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries should try to persuade the Russian soldiers to use their weapons to overthrow Nicholas II.

Primary Sources

(1) Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1971)

My father and mother lived out their hard-working lives with some friction, but very happily on the whole. Of the eight children born of this marriage, four survived. I was the fifth in order of birth. Four died in infancy, of diphtheria and of scarlet fever, deaths almost as unnoticed as was the life of those who survived. The land, the cattle, the poultry, the mill, took all my parents' time; there was none left for us.

We lived in a little mud house. The straw roof harboured countless sparrows' nests under the eaves. The walls on the outside were seamed with deep cracks which were a breeding place for adders. The low ceilings leaked during a heavy rain, especially in the hall, and pots and basins would be placed on the dirt floor to catch the water. The rooms were small, the windows dim; the floors in the two rooms and the nursery were of clay and bred fleas.

On the hill above the pond stood the mill - a wooden shed which sheltered a ten-horse-power steam-engine and two millstones. Here, during the first years of my childhood, my mother spent the greater part of her working hours. The mill worked not only for our own estate but for the whole neighbourhood as well. The peasants brought their grain in from ten and fifteen miles around and paid a tenth measure for the grinding.

(2) Julius Martov, letter to Pavel Axelrod on Leon Trotsky (2nd March, 1903)

Lenin has proposed to us that we admit Trotsky, whom you know, to the board of editors, with full rights. His literary work shows undeniable talent, he is quite "ours" in thought, he has wholly identified himself with the interests of Iskra, and here, abroad, he wields considerable influence, thanks to his exceptional eloquence. He speaks magnificently; he could not do better.

(3) After the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party Leon Trotsky wrote about why the split took place.

One can say of Lenin and Martov that, even before the split, even before the Congress, Lenin was 'hard' and Martov 'soft'. And they both knew it. Lenin would glance at Martov, whom he estimated highly, with a critical and somewhat suspicious look, and Martov, feeling his glance, would look down and move his thin shoulders nervously.

How did I come to be with the 'softs' at the congress? Of the Iskra editors, my closest connections were with Martov, Zasulich and Axelrod. Their influence over me was unquestionable.

The split came unexpectedly for all the members of the congress. Lenin, the most active figure in the struggle, did not foresee it, nor had he ever desired it. Both sides were greatly upset by the course of events. After the Congress Lenin was sick for several weeks with a nervous illness.

(4) Anatole Lunarcharsky wrote about the role of Trotsky in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution his book Silhouettes. Trotsky's popularity among the St. Petersburg proletariat was very great by the time of his arrest, and this was increased still further by his strikingly effective and heroic behaviour at the trial. I must say that Trotsky, of all the Social Democratic leaders of 1905-06, undoubtedly showed himself, in spite of his youth, the best prepared; and he was the least stamped by the narrow émigré outlook which handicapped even Lenin. He realized better than the others what a state struggle is. He came out of the revolution, too, with the greatest gains in popularity; neither Lenin nor Martov gained much. Plekhanov lost a great deal because of the semi-liberal tendencies which he revealed. But from then on Trotsky was in the front rank.