On 21 August 1940, Leon Trotsky succumbed to a massive head injury inflicted by a Stalinist assassin in Coyoacán, Mexico. One of the greatest revolutionary leaders in the modern era, Trotsky had risen from obscurity and persecution as a member of the underground socialist movement in the Tsarist Empire (imprisoned, banished to Siberia and forced into exile) to the height of power in the fledgling Soviet republic (organizer of the October Revolution and architect of the Red Army), only to be marginalized and once again exiled as the Russian Revolution degenerated under the weight of social, economic and political forces he himself brilliantly analyzed and combated.
Trotsky resembles a figure from Greek tragedy – save for the magnitude and historical significance of the tragedy, whose consequences extended well beyond the personal life of a single man. World history does not turn on the actions of individuals, however great they may be – but the life of Leon Trotsky was a rare example of the personal intertwining with the world-historic. The stage on which this historical actor played his part was grand, and the strengths and weaknesses, the triumphs and the defeats, the achievements and the mistakes of the man were themselves of historic consequence precisely because they were bound up with the practical organizing – at the highest echelons – of humanity’s torturous transition from capitalism to socialism.
The historical importance of Trotsky lies not only in his critical association with the world’s first successful proletarian socialist revolution, but in the political and theoretical contributions he made both before and after the Bolsheviks took state power. With the exception of V.I. Lenin, his co-leader of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky was unparalleled as an expositor and innovator of Marxism following the death of Marx and Engels. The brilliance and power of those contributions are such that, today, many leftists whose reformist political practice is sharply at odds with the revolutionary perspective of Trotsky nevertheless pay tribute to the “Old Man” of the Fourth International by falsely claiming his mantle as their own.
Given the pivotal importance of his contributions and the misappropriation of his name and political heritage, it is instructive to revisit Trotsky’s legacy on the 75th anniversary of his death.