On Nov. 12, 1927, Josef Stalin ousted Leon Trotsky from the Communist Party, effectively ending the career of his greatest political rival. Stalin would later force Trotsky into exile and order his assassination.
A “Political Execution”
Leon Trotsky was one of the heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 that brought Russia under communist rule. He served as commissar of foreign affairs and commissar of war under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the head of the new communist state, and was one of the five members of the first Politburo (an executive committee).
It appeared that he would be Lenin’s successor, but as Lenin’s health began to deteriorate rapidly in 1921, Trotsky would be out-maneuvered by his political rivals. General Secretary Josef Stalin formed an alliance, called the “troika” with Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. The Troika gained control of the Politburo and Central Committee, marginalized Trotsky and his Left Opposition faction, and spread derogatory rumors about Trotsky.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin emerged as the leader of the Soviet government. As he began to strengthen his power, Trotsky criticized him for stifling democracy. Stalin and Trotsky also had fundamental disagreements over the communist movement. Trotsky believed that communism required a global revolution to ultimately triumph, whereas Stalin asserted that a single nation could establish a successful socialist society.
Stalin removed Trotsky from his role as war commissar in 1925 and from the Politburo the following year. Trotsky aligned himself with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had split from Stalin in 1926. The Left Opposition held demonstrations in October and November 1927 for the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, calling for a new direction for the government.
“They were accused of fomenting and organizing a counter-revolution,” writes Phil Mitchinson of the International Marxist Tendency. “This was one of the most perverse accusations in history that the leader of the October insurrection, the organizer of the Red Army, should be accused of counter-revolution. Yet such perversions were to become the norm during Stalin's reign.”
Stalin expelled Trotsky and Zinoviev from the Communist Party on Nov. 12. A month later; he expelled 98 of their supporters. “In Russia, expulsion from the one and only party permitted to exist is a sentence of political death,” remarked Time.
Trotsky’s Exile and Execution
- February Revolution
- Lenin’s Return and the Bolshevik Revolution
- Execution of Czar Nicholas II
- USSR Formed
On Jan. 11, 1928, a month after being expelled from the party, Trotsky was exiled to Alma Ata, a small town in Kazakhstan. The following year, he left the Soviet Union, never to return. He spent the next few years in various countries: first Turkey, then France, Norway and, finally, Mexico. At every turn, he faced threats on his life, but he continued to urge revolution in his writing.
In 1936, the Soviet government put Trotsky on trial in absentia, accusing him and 16 of his supporters, called the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center,” of conspiring against Stalin. All 17 were found guilty and sentenced to death in the show trial, the first of the Moscow Trials. Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, published a book in 1936 that detailed the injustices of the Moscow Trials.
The following year, the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky decided to stage hearings to clear Trotsky’s name. Trotsky testified to the so-called Dewey Commission, which found that Trotsky was innocent of the charges made against him in Moscow.
Stalinist assassins raided Trotsky’s Mexico City home on Aug. 20, 1940, and drove a pickaxe into his skull. He survived for 30 hours, dying on Aug. 22, 1940 at the age of 60.
Biography: Leon Trotsky
Sources in this Story
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Leon Troysky
- International Marxist Tendency: 1927: The expulsion of Leon Trotsky
- Time: Political Execution
- History.com: Stalin banishes Trotsky
- The Guardian: Guardian Century: Death of Trotsky
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Iskra Publishing House): Autobiography 1879–1917
Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein to Jewish farmers on Nov. 7, 1879, in present-day Ukraine. As a teenager, he became involved in a revolutionary workers’ movement, and began printing literature under the pseudonym “Lvov.” He spent several year in prison and in exile in Siberia, during which time he adopted the philosophies of Marxism.
He escaped from a Siberian prison in 1902 and forged a passport with the name “Trotsky,” the name of a jailer. He spent time in London writing for the Marxist Iskra newspaper alongside revolutionaries including Lenin. Trotsky aligned himself with the old guard Menshevik faction against Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Trotsky returned to Russia in 1905 during a failed revolution. He was again exiled to Siberia, but he was again able to escape. Following the overthrow of the Czar Nicholas II in March 1917, Trotsky returned and took control of Menshevik revolutionary activities against the provisional government of Aleksandr Kerensky.
He was later admitted to the Bolshevik Party, and served as the head of military operations during the Bolshevik Revolution in November. His actions enabled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to seize control of the government.
As commissar of foreign affairs, Trotsky negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russia’s involvement in World War I. He then became commissar of war, and oversaw the Red Army’s defeat of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in the Russian Civil War.
The Marxists Internet Archives features a large collection of works written by and about Trotsky. It includes his autobiography, “My Life,” his 1931 book “The Permanent Revolution” and his 1936 book “The Revolution Betrayed.”