Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 6 March 2019

90 years since Trotsky's expulsion from Soviet Union

Leon Trotsky's struggle against Stalinism

Left Oppositionists protesting in a Siberian labour camp, 1928 - their banners make demands against the bureaucracy and wealthy peasant employers, and for revolutionary workers' democracy

Left Oppositionists protesting in a Siberian labour camp, 1928 - their banners make demands against the bureaucracy and wealthy peasant employers, and for revolutionary workers' democracy   (Click to enlarge)

Lenny Shail, Socialist Party national committee

Ninety years ago this January, Leon Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin and his increasingly powerful bureaucracy gave the command.

The motivation was not personal rivalry, but their need to wipe out the original ideas and methods of Bolshevism, the legacy of the 1917 October revolution, and any element of workers' democracy within the Soviet Union.

Often it is asked: how could Trotsky, a key leader of the Bolshevik Party alongside Vladimir Lenin and the head of the Red Army, allow Stalin to rise and cement power around himself? Why did Trotsky not take power himself with the Red Army? How could he be 'outmanoeuvred' by Stalin?

Trotsky answered many of these questions himself, on the basis of his analysis of the political degeneration of the young workers' state.

From a Marxist standpoint, it is completely superficial to present the conflict as a personal struggle between rival leaders. Stalin and Trotsky, in their different ways, personified conflicting social and political forces. Trotsky in a conscious way, Stalin unconsciously.

Trotsky opposed and organised against Stalin through political means. Stalin fought Trotsky and the 'Left Opposition' through state-sponsored terrorism.

"Stalin conducts a struggle on a totally different plane," Trotsky wrote. "He seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent, but at his skull."

Revolution isolated

Lenin and Trotsky had made clear from the start that the October 1917 Russian revolution could not survive indefinitely in isolation, especially in such an economically backward country. It had to be the spark for further revolutions across Europe and the world.

Even at the height of civil war and invasion by 21 imperialist armies, the Bolsheviks organised the first conference of the Communist (Third) International in 1919 to help organise Marxist revolutionary forces on an international basis.

Subsequent revolutions in Germany and Hungary failed, primarily because of the mistakes of inexperienced leaderships - and the lack of a party with the clear methods and ideas of the Bolsheviks.

Defeat in the German revolution in 1923 - which the blunders of Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin in the Third International's leadership contributed to - reinforced the isolation of the young Soviet state.

Years of imperialist wars, followed by civil war to crush the revolution, had taken the lives of millions and caused severe privations. The civil war in particular cost the lives of many of those most courageous in defending the ideas of the revolution.

The mass of workers became exhausted. Seeing the failure of revolutions in larger, industrialised economies demoralised the masses still further.

In this crushing context of setback, isolation and low political activity, the crystallisation of a bureaucratic caste became possible. The bureaucracy formally defended the revolution, but increasingly it put its own comforts and privileges before the interests of the international revolution.

Like in any period of setback for the working class, even some revolutionaries turned away in despair from the genuine democratic and working-class methods of Marxism. They were joined by ambitious middle-class careerists, and malcontent, incompetent officials looking for promotion. This was Stalin's base of power in the party.

In 1923, Lenin called for the removal of Stalin from the post of general secretary. He was aware of the dangers to the revolution and Stalin's increasing work to bureaucratise the new state and the Bolshevik Party - by then called the Communist Party.

The Soviet Union was becoming "a workers' state with bureaucratic deformations." Lenin began preparing a struggle against the bureaucratisation of party and state. But his death in 1924 prevented him leading that struggle.

Some leading Left Oppositionists at a meeting in Moscow, 1927 - Trotsky seated centre

Some leading Left Oppositionists at a meeting in Moscow, 1927 - Trotsky seated centre   (Click to enlarge)

Left Opposition

With Lenin dead, Stalin began a systematic elimination of those fighting to defend workers' democracy. In sync, the Third International increasingly became a tool of Russian foreign policy for the Stalinist bureaucracy.

There was an organised terror campaign against any remnant of the October revolution, over the course of two decades, until Trotsky was finally murdered by a Stalinist agent in Mexico in 1940.

But none of this happened without a struggle.

In 1923, Trotsky's Left Opposition was established as a faction of the Communist Party. He proposed the 'New Course' in October: to campaign against bureaucratisation; for proven working-class elements to take leading positions in the party; for elections to all party positions; a plan for industrialisation; and policies to improve the lot of poorer peasants.

The bureaucracy feared the programme of the Left Opposition - for the restoration of workers' democracy - would find the ear of new sections of workers. And it did. Thousands of workers supported it.

A struggle also erupted over Stalin's so-called theory of 'socialism in one country'. The Left Opposition continued to argue for genuine internationalism, and warned this policy would change the Third International into a counter-revolutionary tool of Stalin's foreign policy.

The tragedy of the Spanish revolution, 1931-37, proved the warning correct. Eventually, in 1943, at the request of Tory prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin dissolved the Communist International.

Stalin's direction and policies in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in disasters for the Soviet and international working class. The failed revolution in Germany in 1923, and subsequent mistakes, paving the way to fascism in 1933. The betrayal of the British general strike, when workers could have taken power, in 1926.

The bloody massacre of the Chinese revolution, 1925-27, at the hands of the capitalist and landlord Kuomintang party. Stalin had instructed Communists to join it, and allow Kuomintang forces to enter Shanghai in April 1927 - setting them up to be massacred at the hands of pro-capitalist military leader Chiang Kai-shek.

The list goes on. Many other struggles broke out with the Communist Party and Soviet state as Stalin manoeuvred against any possible opposition to his strengthened totalitarian regime.

Stalin (left) with fellow Bolshevik leaders Rykov, Zinoviev and Bukharin - all of whom he later had executed

Stalin (left) with fellow Bolshevik leaders Rykov, Zinoviev and Bukharin - all of whom he later had executed   (Click to enlarge)

Stalin's purges

But by the end of 1927, the dominant Stalinist faction had decisively defeated the Left Opposition, imprisoning or exiling its leaders.

Members of the Left Opposition, followers of Lenin and Trotsky's ideas, were arrested in their thousands and sent to labour camps in Siberia. Not only did they refuse to collaborate in any way, they continued their protests in the camps!

In October that year, on the tenth anniversary of the October revolution, Trotsky was forced out of the Kremlin and had to take refuge with oppositionist friends. Days later, he was expelled from the party.

Later, fellow oppositionist Adolph Joffe killed himself. It would be the first of many of Lenin and Trotsky's allies and Left Oppositionists who were driven to death, or directly murdered, by Stalin's regime.

A "river of blood" opened up between the genuine ideas, methods and workers' democracy of the Bolsheviks and the October revolution, and the totalitarian methods, and systematic and ruthless repression of Stalinism.

In January 1928, Trotsky was forced into his last foreign exile - his first two had been under the Tsarist regime! First he was deported to Kazakhstan. Then in February 1929 he was deported to Turkey, on Prinkipo island, near Istanbul.

By then the struggle against Stalin had opened up internationally. Left Oppositionists in Europe and the Americas had been expelled from the Communist Parties and the Third International.

Some created small groups that proclaimed sympathy or solidarity with the Left Opposition. During this period, Trotsky worked on formulating the major programmatic statements of the International Left Opposition.

Trotsky (front centre) with his first daughter Zinaida (right) and supporters, in exile on Pinkipo island, 1929

Trotsky (front centre) with his first daughter Zinaida (right) and supporters, in exile on Pinkipo island, 1929   (Click to enlarge)

Fourth International

Rather than respond emotionally to his exile, and the continued degeneration of the Soviet Union, Trotsky set about the difficult task of assembling the forces of a new international revolutionary organisation. The Fourth International was founded in 1938, adopting as its core policy document Trotsky's 'Transitional Programme'.

Trotsky understood that the material gains of the 1917 revolution, and the nationalised planned economy that the bureaucracy rested on, still remained. In fact, they would allow the Soviet Union to continue to make some progress, and should be defended as part of a struggle to remove the Stalinist caste that had consolidated power at its top, in a political revolution for genuine workers' democracy.

Trotsky warned that without democracy, the Soviet state would suffocate and continue its slow degeneration until it collapsed. A prognosis that proved true, decades later, when Stalinism fell in Russia and Eastern Europe and ruinous gangster capitalism took its place.

For Trotsky, the Third International presiding over the failure and destruction of the organisations of the German working class and allowing Adolf Hitler to take power signalled the Communist International and its leaders were no longer of any use to the working class around the world.

"An organisation which has not been wakened up by the thunderbolt of fascism... is dead and cannot be revived."

The forces of the Left Opposition around the world set about building a new international based on the original and genuine methods of Marxism, Lenin and the October revolution.

Despite his central role in helping to lead the Russian working class to power, Trotsky was in no doubt of the historical issues at stake and his role while in exile. "I think the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life...

"Now my work is the most 'indispensable' in the full sense of the word... To carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method."

Debates around socialism, Trotskyism and Stalinism are once again opening up due to the inability of capitalism to provide a future for workers and young people. There are many essential lessons in the struggle of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. The Socialist Party and Committee for a Workers' International are proud to stand in that tradition today.

Further reading from

Short pamphlets

More detailed books

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 6 March 2019:

What we think

No retreats: Corbyn must stand firm against Blairites

Workplace news

Stop post-16 education cuts

Interview with a shop worker

MPs boost their own pay

Workplace news in brief


Boot out failing Grayling and the other Tory wreckers

Solidarity with Chris Williamson

Trade union action to end low pay now!

A&E 4-hour waiting targets scrapped - Save our NHS!

Them & Us

International Women's Day 2019

A socialist programme to end women's oppression

International Women's Day 2019: End oppression with fight for socialism

Socialist history

Leon Trotsky's struggle against Stalinism

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Southampton: Fight council cuts

Cuts must stop - boot the Tories out

Wildfires hit Europe - build for 15 March student climate strikes

Swansea: Labour council tries to dodge no-cuts protest

Hull: support for anti-cuts policies at Corbyn solidarity rally

Hundreds of Tamils protest against death-threat brigadier


Women workers' militancy during the 'great unrest'

The Socialist Inbox


Home   |   The Socialist 6 March 2019   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: 10 years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka

triangleThe striking relevance of Leon Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution

triangleLiverpool Socialist Party: Leon Trotsky's Transitional Programme

triangleManchester Socialist Party: Trotsky's 'transitional programme'

triangleDerby Socialist Party: Trotsky's Transitional Programme


triangleOpinion: capitalism's Fukushima showed same recklessness as Stalinism's Chernobyl

triangleTV Review: Chernobyl - Workers' heroism vs sclerotic Stalinism

triangleCaerphilly Socialist Party: Russia - The rise of Stalinism

triangle200 years of Karl Marx: Marxist ideas more relevant than ever


triangleBirmingham Socialist Party: The struggle against Stalin

triangleSouthampton Socialist Party: The local elections to be held in May

triangleWell-deserved ridicule of Stalinism is impressive, funny but flawed


triangleBirmingham South West Socialist Party: Sudan - Revolution or Counter Revolution?

triangleSudan: The revolution under threat


triangleStand firm against the pro-capitalist politicians


triangleHeroic martyrs of German Revolution

Soviet Union:

triangleThe Tiananmen Square massacre - 30 years on


triangleVenezuela: resist the pro-imperialist coup!


triangleLiverpool Socialist Party: How the Bolsheviks organised among women

Transitional Programme:

triangleBirmingham South East Socialist Party: Our Transitional Programme


triangleWest London Socialist Party: Marxism & Identity Politics

Russian revolution:

triangleJohn Maclean - revolutionary fighter of the working class

Historic events

Historic events


Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, August '69: 'Battle of the Bogside' and British troops on the streets



The Peterloo Massacre 1819: When a fearful ruling class tried to crush working-class political aspirations



The 45th anniversary of the strike



50 years since Apollo 11 - 'One giant leap': how political conflict launched the moon landing



Stonewall riots' legacy shows need for socialist struggle to win LGBT+ liberation



35th anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave


Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square massacre - 30 years on


Nuclear power

40 years after Three Mile Island disaster



Visteon: when factory occupations stayed the hands of the bosses



Lessons of the heroic 1984-85 Miners' strike



Leon Trotsky's struggle against Stalinism



40 years since the Iranian revolution: Learning the lessons for today's new working-class struggles



Cuban revolution at 60: defend the gains and fight for workers' democracy


Winter of Discontent

The 1979 'Winter of Discontent'


Rosa Luxemburg

Heroic martyrs of German Revolution

triangleMore Historic events articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 0798 202 1969

East Mids: 0773 797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 0784 114 4890

North West 07954 376 096

South East: 020 8988 8777

South West: 07759 796 478

Southern: 07833 681910

Wales: 07935 391 947

West Mids: 02476 555 620

Yorkshire: 0114 264 6551



Alphabetical listing

September 2019

August 2019

July 2019

June 2019

May 2019

April 2019

March 2019

February 2019

January 2019