Leon Trotsky

The Jewish renegade socialist.

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Come the Revolution!

Leon Trotsky socialist propaganda

Bolshevik propaganda

poster of Trotsky slaying

the counter-revolutionary dragon, 1918.

 In October 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government, and Trotsky's politics became mainstream.

The establishment of the Soviet Union exposed Trotsky's ambivalence about his Jewishness. At first Trotsky refused a high position in the Bolshevik government, because he thought it would not serve the interests of the new communist regime if too many Jews occupied important positions. He ultimately accepted, and during the civil war that broke out after the Bolshevik takeover, he became head of the Red Army and a member of the Politburo, the decision-making body of the fledgling government. 

In the chaos of civil war, new waves of anti-Jewish pogroms broke out throughout Ukraine, and Trotsky considered, but ultimately rejected, the idea of organizing special Jewish sections within the Red Army. When the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Jacob Maze, asked Trotsky personally for extra security to protect Russian Jews from these pogroms, Trotsky answered that he was a Bolshevik and did not consider himself a Jew.

Silencing the Renegade Socialist

After Lenin's death in 1924, a fight for power among leading Bolsheviks ensued, and Joseph Stalin strengthened his own position in the government. Stalin and Trotsky differed on some fundamentals of the communist revolution. While Stalin concentrated on the development of communism in the Soviet Union, Trotsky was dedicated to the belief that Russia should catalyze worldwide communist revolution.

In 1926 Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo because of these differences of opinion. In 1927, he was exiled to Kazakhstan, and then two years later, from the Soviet Union.

Trotsky lived in Turkey (1929-33), France (1933-35), Norway (1935-36), and finally found asylum in Mexico (1936-1940), where many socialist Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany and elsewhere had settled. By then, Trotsky had become one of the world's most outspoken critics of Stalin and his political system. In 1938 Trotsky established the Fourth International, a socialist, anti-Stalinist international movement.

Trotsky's name became the terrifying bogeyman of the Stalinist Soviet Union during the Great Purges of 1936-1938, as one after another Communist Party leader was accused of supporting the exiled renegade. In the United States, on the other hand, Trotskyism enjoyed support of influential critics and intellectuals, some associated with the journal Partisan Review, and many of whom were Jewish.

During his period of exile, with the rise of Nazism and state-sponsored anti-Semitism, Trotsky began responding more openly to Jewish issues. In several interviews, he reaffirmed both his opposition to Zionism and his support for Jewish workers making common cause with workers of the countries in which they live. He also recognized the centrality of Jewish workers to the socialist movement in America, and the potential importance of organizing in Yiddish.

As Trotsky became louder in his criticism of Stalin, Stalin became more committed to silencing him. On August 21, 1940, Ramon Mercador, a Stalinist agent who had infiltrated Trotsky's Mexico City community of socialists, killed him with an ice pick.

Trotsky's most important biographer, Isaac Deutscher, coined the phrase "non-Jewish Jew" to describe Trotsky and his generation of universalist thinkers. Like Rosa Luxemburg ("Red Rosa"), who was murdered in 1919 for being too far left of the emerging socialist order in post-World War I Berlin, Trotsky's life was cut short for being a loud-mouthed socialist. Despite his aversion to any self-identification as a Jew, Trotsky's biography of universal ideas, constant physical movement, and dramatic assassination, reads like a very Jewish 20th-century story.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).