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Who was Leon Trotsky? - Biography, Facts & Books

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about Leon Trotsky, a devout socialist who was one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the man who started the theory of permanent revolution. Then test your new knowledge with a quiz.

A Sheltered Youth

Nowadays when we hear about a revolutionary, it's usually some person who wants to overthrow the government so he can be in charge. There might be some real reason, but more often than not, he has a personal agenda. Not Leon Trotsky. Trotsky never minded suffering, being put in prison, or even dying for his beliefs. He always argued for what was best for the revolution, regardless of how that helped or hurt him.

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein in 1879 in Yanovka, Russia, in what is now Ukraine. The village was fifteen miles from the nearest town. At the age of nine, his father sent him to Odessa to be educated. He excelled in his studies there, with a particular ability in math.

At 17, he moved to the port city of Mykolaiv where he was introduced to socialist ideas and became a narodnik, or revolutionary populist, and helped organize a local worker's union. For this he was put in prison in 1898 and eventually sent to Siberia, where he became a member of the Social Democratic Party. He escaped in 1902 and went to London.

Leon Trotsky in Siberia
Leon Trotsky

Trotsky the Marxist

Trotsky had become a Marxist before going to Siberia, and he connected with other Russian Marxists when he got to Britain. He joined Vladimir Lenin, another Communist revolutionary, and began writing for the political newspaper Iskra. That got him involved with other Marxist revolutionaries, and he was invited to the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, where he was introduced to many different Marxist groups.

Trotsky had read as much as he could about Marxism and how it applied to Russia, but he hadn't known about the many socialist factions within it until the Second Congress. At Iskra alone, two revolutionary parties were developing. There were the Mensheviks, who believed that a popular uprising was the best way to overthrow the government. Lenin and his people were Bolsheviks, who believed that a small group of devoted and focused people would work better.

His new awareness led him to try resolving differences, between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in particular. But the Mensheviks did not want resolution, and Trotsky could not accept the Bolshevik policy of expropriations, which was what they called the bank robberies they did to fund their movement. Trotsky's efforts failed, and he ended up making more people angry with him than making friends.

Permanent Revolution

It was during this period that Trotsky developed the idea of permanent revolution. For Trotsky, that meant that the people had to be given control of the land and that developing nations could not benefit from capitalism. Permanent revolution was an idea he would adhere to for the rest of his life.

Trotsky was in London during the 1905 Revolution, in which workers from Moscow and neighboring cities went on strike. He used the event to get back into the country and work on another newspaper as a revolutionary. He was again arrested and sent to Siberia. This time Trotsky escaped immediately and went to Austria where he started another paper, Pravda. He wrote for it until it folded in 1912.

The start of World War I in 1914 united all socialists in a call for peace. Trotsky was writing for several revolutionary newspapers by this time, which put him at the forefront of the movement. Eventually, his writings and views forced him to the U.S., which was still neutral at the time.

The Bolshevik Revolution and Beyond

Trotsky returning to Russia in 1917
Leon Trotsky

Trotsky went home to Russia after the Mensheviks led the March Revolution and ousted the royal family. He began working closely with Lenin. It was Trotsky's military abilities that made Lenin's November Revolution such a complete success. This left the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, in charge of Russia, and Trotsky as Lenin's most trusted aid. Trotsky was made Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Committee, or Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and worked on organizing and training his men through the Russian Civil War (1918-1920).

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