Being a child of the '80s and having never studied political science (at least in school), my first encounter of Leon Trotsky was a Monty Python's Flying Circus episode called The Cycling Tour. One of the characters, played by Terry Jones, gets brain damage in a car accident and starts to think he's Trotsky. Now with a lot of political humor in Monty Python's Flying Circus, I don't necessarily know who the people they are making fun of are because they happen to be some member of British Parliament in 1970 or something, so it's not that funny. But I was interested to find out who this Trotsky was.
A character played by John Cleese made some statements that Trotsky was a great leader of the revolution and had founded the Red Army, and I had never heard of him. Later, when reading George Orwell's Animal Farm, I learned that the character Snowball was modeled after Trotsky. I had read about Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, but who was this Trotsky guy?
Leon Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein to Russian-Jewish parents in Yanovka, Ukraine on November 7, 1879. He became a revolutionary in 1896 while still in college. He was exiled to Siberia in 1897 after organizing the Southern Russian Worker's Union. After four years, he escaped from Siberia and fled to England, where he took on the name Trotsky.
In London he met Lenin and other Russian Revolutionaries. These others noticed that Trotsky had a particular knack at bringing the spirit across in his writings and speeches. He quickly became a notable member of the revolution.
Although Trotsky and Lenin would develop a friendship that would last until the day Lenin died, Trotsky was opposed to some Bolshevik thinking because he believed it would inevitably lead to a dictatorship instead of a government ran by the people. Trotsky was for Social Democracy and other Marxist ideas. Although Trotskyism is a word used by some supporters of Leninism or Stalinism, Trotsky thought of himself as a true Marxist. He put his energy into developing stronger interpretations of Marxist principles instead of trying to add on to what Marx had done, as Lenin and Stalin did. Trotsky's adherence to Marxism and his failure to fall in line with the new emerging standards of socialism kept him from solidifying party political ties.
In 1905 Trotsky returned to Russia to participate in the rebellion that had reached a head. However, this first attempt was unsuccessful and he was sent back to Siberia. Again, in two years, he escaped, this time to Vienna. He spent the next decade globe trotting. He was well known and most countries didn't feel comfortable with him inside their borders for too long.
In 1917 he returned to Russia and after being persuaded by Lenin he joined the Bolshevik party. Soon after he was elected to its central committee. He organized the Red Army, which was crucial to over throwing the provincial government in the October Revolution. The next year he became commissar of war.
When Lenin died in 1924 Stalin and Trotsky were the favorites for his successor, even though Lenin had already stated he didn't want Stalin for this job. The two had a five-year power struggle, which ended when Stalin had Trotsky exiled, leaving Stalin as the sole dictator of the Soviet Union. In 1932 Stalin unnationalized Trotsky making it impossible for him to return. And on August 20, 1940 one of Stalin's agents assassinated Trotsky in the sort of "check mate" ritual Stalin liked to carry out.
Stalin carried this rivalry with Trotsky to the extreme, even after Trotsky's death. His name was all but removed from Russian history. Trotskyites were sent to work camps or were executed. You will still find people today that regurgitate Stalinist propaganda about Trotsky (you will find these people also use the word Trotskyism).
Trotsky's story is riddled with irony. Though he was a great nationalist, he lived a large portion of his adult life abroad in exile. He spent his life over throwing a tyrannical system only to be crushed by another tyrant that would emerge. His ideals were closer to Marx's than the Bolsheviks yet he was considered a threat to socialism. It is a lesson in how ideals can be great, yet when implemented by corruptible or evil men, they can be just as bad as their contrary ideals.