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Leon Trotsky in Bolshevik success in the period 1917-1924

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Leon Trotsky played a very significant role in the Bolshevik success in the period 1917-1924. According to A.J Koutsoukis , ‘his contributions in the years 1917 to 1924 had been second, if not equal to that of Lenin himself. Trotsky played a significant role in establishing Bolshevik control in Russia. He was also very instrumental and one of the reasons for the Red Army winning the civil war. Trotsky was regarded by his supporters as the saviour for his country for his efforts in organising the Red Army during the Civil War. According to historian E.H Carr , ‘Trotsky was a great administrator, great intellectual, and a great orator…’ but at times was overbearing and lead to his eventual downfall.

Leon Trotsky had a leading role in the Bolshevik seizure of power in the October Revolution of 1917. Leon Trotsky was a brilliant orator, thinker and organising genius. His actions before and during the revolution were vital to the success of the Bolshevik Revolution. Trotsky organised many of the instructions that Lenin sent him from his exile in Finland (what to take over, and the subdivision of the party) and according to L. Hartley ‘this was a vital job as the slightest mistake could mean failure’.

The success of the revolution was based on the fact that the vast majority of troops in the capital sided with the soviets. This assemblance of support can be largely attributed to Trotsky. Trotsky association with the Petrograd Soviet [as chairman] brought the support of the hesitant people, willing only to support the Soviet, to the Bolsheviks when he joined them in July. Since he had regained his position as chairperson of the Soviet, Trotsky was, according to B. Williams , ‘in a position to organise the revolution itself’. In addition to Trotsky’s role in winning support was his training of Bolshevik agents who were placed in factories throughout Petrograd to ‘spread hatred against the Provisional Government and to instruct men in how to prepare themselves for a revolution when the time came’.

One of the strong points of Trotsky’s personality was his ability in persuasive oratory, which could win over crowds. In regards to building support he, as stated by L. Hartley , ‘inspired many people…especially after 23rd October when he knew the revolution would take place’. His oratorical skills were very apparent on the night of the revolution, where he and other Bolshevik leaders hurried from Garrison to garrison whipping up support for the crisis to come. Most importantly, Trotsky convinced the Petrograd Garrison of the Peter and Paul fortress to support the socialist revolution. This support and the vast numbers weapons proved to be vital to Bolshevik success on the evening of the revolution. Trotsky was essential in planning and carrying out the revolution. On the 12th October a Military Revolutionary Committee was established by the Petrograd soviet, which was lead by Trotsky.

This Committee was, according to Graeme Gill , in charge of organising the ‘actual mechanics of seizing power’. The Military revolutionary Committee appointed commissars, or representatives, to all troops in the capital. They persuaded the vast majority of units to obey their command not the Provisional Government. The military revolutionary committee directed units loyal of the Red Guard whose establishment can large be attributed to Trotsky, to seize key points in the city, the bridges, the railway stations, the central post office and the central telephone exchange. Therefore, Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution was very important, and if he was not there the revolution would not take place.

Trotsky role in the consolidation of power is largely concerned with his role in creating the Red Army, and its role in defending the new communist party against any threat. In March 1918 Trotsky was appointed Commissar of War and President of the Supreme War Council, and according to I. Deutscher ‘he did not even put down his pen to take up his sword-he used both’.

It is Trotsky’s exploits as Commissar of the War in the Russian Civil War that defines his image as a hero of the revolution. An army had to be organised supplied and led effectively. As leader of the Supreme Military Council, Trotsky was able to repair the Red army from an undisciplined volunteer force without officers, into a regular army with conscription and severe discipline imposed by former imperial officers, and even those soldiers within the army. Trotsky undertook to conjure an army of noticeable void. The armed forces of the old regime had vanished, and the number of men was extremely low, and unimpressive. From slender beginnings grew the Red Army which, after two and a half years, had five million men under arms. He introduced a regime of Terror, and he created policies for within the army that included ‘Anyone who incites anybody to retreat, to desert, or to not fulfil orders will be shot’.

Former officers or ‘military specialists’ of the Czar regime were invited by Trotsky to act as instructors. Political commissars were appointed to these ‘military specialists’ to ensure loyalty. As a result of this strict regime, Trotsky was able to create a united force, capable of defeating the disorganised ‘white forces’, and thus subduing a possible threat to the new communist government. Due to the leadership of Trotsky, the Red Armies were victorious over the Whites. The White Army could never gain the support of the peasantry, but they could have done this by reallocating the land, something which the Bolsheviks had always talked about, “Peace, Bread, and Land.”

Instead, the Whites restored the property of landlords in areas they temporarily controlled. Furthermore, the White Army lacked a skilled and highly organized command. The intervention of allied troops was ineffectual and actually substandard, and when the allies threw their support behind the Whites, more harm was done than good. The Red Army could speak of themselves as the protectors of the nation while portraying the Whites as the dupes of foreign governments. This charge had already been leveled against the Bolsheviks after Brest-Litovsk.

In addition to his role as War Commissar, Trotsky lifted the morale of his weapon of consolidation (the Red Army) by appearing in his famous armoured train at critical points. He spent much of his time on this train, and as the train rushed from front to front it severed several different functions, another genius idea by Trotsky. It printed and distributed propaganda and educational literature. It carried supplies, including a selection of items to be used as awards for outstanding behaviour at the front.

Overall, Trotsky was the public face of the Red Army, and he provided it with an inspiring figurehead. As a leader Trotsky displayed a willingness to appear personally on the front line, exposing himself to several risks, which is rare for a man of his stature.

Trotsky’s role in the Kronstadt uprising is strongly debated over, but it does show his strong commitment to the party. The horrors of war communism, combined with a devastating drought, forced living standards to decline dramatically. In February 1921, a wave of rallies swept through Petrograd, most notably the uprising at Kronstadt uprising. The Kronstadt sailors had become disillusioned with the Bolshevik government. They were angry about the lack of democracy and the policy of War Communism. On 28th February, 1921, the crew of the battleship, Petropavlovsk, passed a resolution calling for a return of full political freedoms.

Lenin denounced the Kronstadt Uprising as a plot instigated by the White Army and their European supporters. On 6th March, Leon Trotsky announced that he was going to order the Red Army to attack the Kronstadt sailors. However, it was not until the 17th March that government forces were able to take control of Kronstadt. An estimated 8,000 people (sailors and civilians) left Kronstadt and went to live in Finland. Official figures suggest that 527 people were killed and 4,127 were wounded. Historians who have studied the uprising believe that the total number of casualties was much higher than this. According to V.Serge over 500 sailors at Kronstadt were executed for their part in the rebellion. His role was to suppress the mutiny which he did successful, but many historians argue whether or not this is necessary.

Trotsky also played an important role in policy design, and he was one of the several commentators to note the negative impact of Bolshevik food policy. The peasants had adopted several strategies to circumvent the state requisition of surplus stocks. Trotsky tried to deal with the situation; he began to address jobs, the black market and loss of industry. Trotsky arrived at the idea of the militarisation of labour. The revolution had loudly proclaimed the duty of every citizen to work and it declared that ‘he who does not work shall not eat’. The time had now come, Trotsky argued, to enforce that duty. Unfortunately this was not accepted by the party, and Trotsky again searched for remedies, however he was looking beyond war communism. Trotsky returned to Moscow with the conclusion that a measure of economic freedom should be restored to the peasantry.

In clear and precise terms Trotsky outlined the reform which alone could lead the nation out of the impasse. There must be an end to the requisitioning of crop, and the peasants must be encouraged to grow and sell surpluses and to make a profit on them. However, at the Central Committee his arguments carried no conviction. Lenin was not prepared to stop the requisitions. The reform Trotsky preposed to him looked unreal and was too much a leap in the dark. However, only one year later, after the failure of war communism, Lenin took up the same proposal and put them into effect as the New Economic Policy (N.E.P). This clearly shows that Trotsky was responsible for more than the Russian people had thought of, but he was not always recognised for his work.

Trotsky played an important role in helping Lenin hold onto his power. He often gave Lenin advice, and as early as 1920 Trotsky had urged Lenin to conciliate Great Britain; but it was only some time later that this advice was acted upon. Trotsky’s most important initiative in the diplomatic field came early in 1921, when he set afoot a number of bold and highly delicate moves which eventually led to the conclusion of the Rapallo Treaty with Germany. As Commissar of War Trotsky was anxious to equip the Red Army with modern weapons, and the primitive, run-down Soviet armament industry could not supply them.

Through his agents abroad he purchased munitions wherever he could, even as far as the United States. The Red Army was dangerously dependant on foreign sources. Trotsky began to look for other options and Germany presented itself as a great one. Through his contacts, Trotsky began cooperating with Germany in April 1921. The idle armament industry in Germany was used, and also the officers’ corps was employed. Thus the groundwork was laid for the long co-operation between the Reichswehr and the Red Army which was to outlast Trotsky’s tenure of office by a full decade and which contributed greatly to the modernisation of the Soviet armed forces before the Second World War.

Towards the beginning of 1923 Trotsky’s role began to change. As Lenin’s health began to gradually get worse, Trotsky was being attacked by his fellow party members. Trotsky stood almost alone in the Politbureau. He was being attacked by Stalin with ‘unwonted ferocity and venom’ . Stalin attacked Trotsky because he felt that he had a craving for power. He then mounted Trotsky with many accusations of pessimism, bad faith, and even of defeatism, all on unconvincing grounds. One a man in a position similar to Trotsky’s is charged with him wanting power, no denial on his part can dispel the suspicion aroused, unless he resigns all office on the spot and stops voicing his views. Of course Trotsky was not going to do this, and he denied everything said by Stalin. Trotsky believed this was going to change, when later that year Lenin sent Stalin a letter to break off all personal relations because Stalin behaved in an offensive manner towards Lenin’s wife. However, after Lenin’s death Stalin began to manipulate Trotsky and the party, in his favour. It would not be long before Trotsky begins his great downfall in the party by being removed and expelled.

In conclusion, Leon Trotsky was a very important in the Bolshevik success. His belief in world revolution resulted in a commitment to radical domestic policies and to the use of severe measures wherever necessary. For Trotsky, the success of the Bolshevik revolution was a necessary part of the process of world revolution, and thus he did not shy away from the use of violence against the Bolsheviks’ opponents. Trotsky played an important role in the October Revolution, and was regarded as important as Lenin by many historians. Trotsky also led the Red Army to victory, and it was because of his great organisational, oratorical skills that they had won.

He was also essential in the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in February 1921 that was a potential threat to their power. He was a very intelligent man, and after the Civil War, influenced policy. He also played an important role in arming the Red Army, with his brilliant ideas of using Germany. However, Trotsky’s role began to change after 1923 and especially after Lenin’s death because he was disliked by many party members because he is smart, Jewish, and at times overbearing. Overall, Trotsky did a good job in helping Bolshevism succeed from the October Revolution.


*Irving H. Smith, Trotsky, 1973

*A.J Koutsoukis, Transfer of Tyranny: Russia 1800-1945, 2000

*E.H Carr, Socialism in One Country, 2000

*J.N. Westwood¸ Endurance and Endeavour Russian History, 1981

*L Hartley, The Russian Revolution, 1980

*B Williams, Lenin, 2000

*Michael Lynch, Reactions & Revolutions: Russia 1881-1924, 2000

*Graeme Gill, The Origins of the Stalinist Political System, 2002

*Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, 2003

*Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed,1959

*Victor Serge, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, 2001

*Joel Carmichael, Trotsky, 1975

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