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Alternative History

Trotsky Succeeds Lenin

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1917: The October Revolution is a success. The two paramount leaders are Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Lenin is the head of the Bolshevik Party and Trotsky is a former Menshevik who comes over to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. While Lenin is undisputed political leader, Trotsky is a close partner, leading the Petrograd Soviet and its Military-Revolutionary Committee. It is the MRC which storms the Winter Palace and ejects the liberal Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky.

1918-1922: Revolutionary and Reactionary armies fight across Russia in the Russian Civil War. Trotsky leads the Red Army (which he is credited with creating) as War Commissar. His armored train flies from front to front, battling the Whites and foreign armies. Stalin and Trotsky clash in the Ukraine and Stalin is sent packing. The Reds win the Civil War and Trotsky is hailed as a hero.

1922-23: Lenin’s health declines, partially as a result of an assassination attempt in 1918 that left bullets in his system. Two strokes cripple Lenin in 1923 but he still writes as brilliantly as ever. One of his last efforts is his testament which criticizes Stalin and asks the Communist Party Central Committee to remove him from his office as General Secretary. Lenin wants the testament read at the XII Party Congress in 1923, but he is paralyzed and his wife, Krupskaya, wants to keep the testament secret in hopes he will recover.

Point of Departure

Trotsky is seen by many as the likely successor to Lenin, but he is disliked as arrogant. His sharp wit and criticism took aim at Lev Kamenev and Gregori Zinoviev. Lenin called them the “Strikebreakers of the Revolution” for their open opposition to the October Revolution but they were rehabilitated and played important roles in the new Soviet state. Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the rise of Trotsky and considered an alliance with Stalin, the centrist on the Central Committee and no match for the more skilled and educated duo.

But at the XII Party Congress, Krupskaya decides to publish Lenin’s testament. As a revolutionary, she decides the party needs to hear the words of Lenin and take appropriate action. Stalin is humiliated, but the Congress does not immediately remove him from his position. He is, however, on the defensive.

Trotsky is proud and considers it beneath him to fight for top position after Lenin, but reconsiders after the Party Congress. The party is in turmoil as members rally for or against Stalin. Trotsky decides to stake his claim and asks Zinoviev to support him. Trotsky appeals to their ideological closeness (the three are the “left wing” of the Central Committee) and Trotsky gives his personal pledge of support. Zinoviev and Kamenev, afraid to lose their chance to back a winning candidate, back Trotsky.

1924: Lenin dies in January and the Central Committee meets to nominate a successor for the Communist Party (and effectively for the government, which is dominated by the party). Trotsky is made Chairman and also becomes Premier of the Soviet government. Stalin loses his position on the Central Committee but remains a party member.

1924-29: Trotsky and the government embark on an industrialization program and collectivization of agriculture. Conflict breaks out with the peasants and the government is once again forced to compromise and allow some private enterprise (a return to the New Economic Program). Industry continues to be the economic priority. Soviet government continues to be dominated by the Communist Party but power is exercised through the government organs. Lively debates continue within the party and on the Central Committee between the “Left Communists” led by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev and the “Right Communists” led by Bukharin and Tomsky. The rhetoric is fierce but the Leninist principle of democratic centralism (decisions of the Central Committee are supported by everyone) maintains a fragile unity. Party democracy substitutes for the absence of competing parties, and former Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries enter the Communist Party (and competing factions). Stalin makes several attempts to build his own faction, but no one is willing to be tainted by “Lenin’s Testament.” Internationally, the Soviet Government supports the Comintern – the international party organization. The rise of Fascism in Italy is seen as a challenge to the revolutionary socialist movement. The Soviet government flirts with formation of popular fronts with liberal and socialist parties to oppose Fascist parties in Italy, Germany, France, Britain and Spain, but the Communists are unwilling to compromise with “bourgeois democrats.”

1929-32: The Depression hits the Capitalist states in Europe and North America. Soviet Russia, with its centrally managed economy (and dependent on its own economy because of isolation from the West) is able to weather the Depression better than most countries. Communist parties surge in strength, as do the Fascists, as citizens look for a radical solution to the economic crisis. In Germany, the Nazis come to power, and the Soviet Union and the Communist Party face a deadly new ideological and national enemy.

1932-39: Germany rearms and it is obvious to everyone that the Western democracies are unwilling or unable to stand up to the madman. The Rhineland is remilitarized and Austria is annexed. Italy aligns with Germany in a Fascist “Axis.” Spain erupts in a civil war in which the Soviets and the Fascists support competing sides. The civil war continues in a seesaw between Socialists and Anarchists on one side and Phalangists on the other. In 1938, Europe is on the brink of war over German demands in the Sudetenland that would dismember the democratic state of Czechoslovakia. The worst capitulation comes in Munich, when France and Britain give in to Hitler and force the Czechs to give up their borderlands. Shortly afterwards, Hitler tears up the agreement and marches into Bohemia-Moravia, making a new German protectorate. The Western democracies finally begin to arm for war with Germany. Soviet Russia commits the western Communist parties to the Popular Front against the Fascists. In Spain, Communists make common cause with the other parties of the left, helping maintain a unified front against Franco’s armies. The Spanish civil war continues as all of Europe is set aflame. Hitler is determined to have war, and secretly seeks the support of Soviet Russia. Trotsky’s government flatly turns down the German overtures but remains neutral because of Western fears of the “Bolshevik menace.”

1939-40: The Second World War starts with German attacks into Poland. The Poles are quickly overwhelmed but refuse to allow Soviet aid because of memories of the Russo-Polish War and Trotsky’s leadership of the Red Army attack. The Soviet Union partially mobilizes its defenses, but the Germans swiftly switch most of their armed forces to the Western Front. After months of “phony war,” Germany attacks the Allied forces in France. Surprisingly, the mighty French army is overwhelmed by an attack through the Ardennes. France falls and the British Expeditionary Force barely escapes at Dunkirk. Things look grim for the Allies.

1941: Britain is given a reprieve by the German attack on Russia. German forces tear into Russian defenses, but suffer their own terrific losses against a Red Army that is ready for the attack from the “Fascist aggressor.” Britain and the Soviet Union sign an immediate pact, with Churchill praising the valor of the Red Army and their generalissimo, Trotsky. Communist parties across the world rally to the “socialist and democratic war against Fascism.” When Germany’s ally, Japan, attacks the United States, America joins Britain and the Soviets. A small German force under Erwin Rommel is dispatched to Spain to fight the anti-Fascists forces there, but victory in Spain eludes Hitler as it did Napoleon. The Western allies are buoyed by the fight in Russia. The Red Army is one of the largest armies in Europe, with a fighting tradition and top leadership experienced from the days of the Russian Civil War. Tukachevsky, commander of the Red Army, has applied many of the lessons of armored warfare based on the experience of the Spanish “volunteers” and supported by Premier Trotsky, a practitioner of his own form of armored strikes during the Civil War. In a terrific battle outside of Leningrad, the panzer corps of Germany are broken by the Red Guards. Germany is still a potent foe, but time is working against Hitler and Mussolini.

1942-43: Germany and Italy are ground down from the punishing attacks of Britain, Russia, and America. In ’42, the strategic air war cripples German industry as bombers crisscross Germany from air fields in England and Russia. A joint British-Soviet offensive in the Balkans forces Germany’s Eastern European allies to bow out of the war, while American forces gather for an assault across the English Channel. In spring ’43, the cross-channel attack is launched. German forces collapse in France and reel back into the Reich. In Italy, Mussolini is overthrown by monarchists and disaffected members of his own Fascist party. Finally, in July 1943, Hitler is assassinated by a coalition of German Generals and other anti-Nazi groups. The Second World War was over in Europe, and soon the allies broke the back of the Japanese Empire as well.

The Post-War World: Tensions threatened to break out between the victorious powers, but somehow peace prevailed. The support of the Communists in the Popular Fronts before the war made them more acceptable as political parties in the post-war period. The Comintern encouraged “democratic engagement” in the Western democracies. Communist guerrilla movements in Yugoslavia and Greece dominated their political scenes, but democracy remained the norm throughout Europe (encouraged by the “big brother” in the Soviet Union). American financial aid through the Marshall Plan was welcomed in Europe and the Soviet Union, helping to foster good feelings by Soviet citizens toward their “rich cousins” in the United States. The opening of the United Nations was the opening of a new age for the nations of the world. Leon Trotsky, now white haired but still the commanding figure of Communism, attended the opening ceremonies, side by side with the wary American president, Harry Truman. Truman liked to make his judgments on the basis of personal contact, and said of Trotsky, “He’s one frosty Russkie, but when the chips are down, he’s on our side.” America and Soviet Russia found common ground in pushing for the “decolonization” of European imperial possessions. Joint Soviet-American efforts led to the independence of India and French Indochina. Both powers were wary of the new Communist government that came to power in China under Mao Zedong.

The End of the Soviet One-Party State: In post-war Russia, victory in the war and a rising standard of living led to demands for change within the Communist state. Factional leaders and their supporters began demanding openly competitive elections for all offices in the Soviet state. Democratic leaders pointed to the support for debate under Lenin and the rough and tumble politics of the Trotskyist party. At the XXXIII Party Congress, democrats finally forced through their own slate for the Central Committee. Trotsky remained on the CC but was now surrounded by “New Democrats.” Bowing to the inevitable, Comrade Trotsky announced the legalization of political parties and new elections. The resurgent Social Revolutionary Party, the old party of the peasants, is the winner of the first democratic elections in the Soviet Union.


The Point of Departure in this history is the decision of Lenin’s wife to publicize his political testament at the XXII Party Congress. In our history, Krupskaya did not release the testament until after Lenin’s death. By that time, the alliance among Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev was in place and the testament was suppressed. If the testament had been read to the Congress while Lenin still lived, Stalin’s hopes would have been crushed and another power would have emerged in the party. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev were ideological allies – even if they were rivals for power – and they did form an alliance after Stalin won the first round with Trotsky. By that time it was too late and Stalin was on his way to total control. Trotsky was more likely to maintain Lenin’s “democratic centralism” and “party democracy” than Stalin. The massive purges of the party and ruthless dictatorship would not have been necessary for one of the founding fathers of the Soviet state. Trotsky would have had more use for the mechanisms of Soviet government, since his revolutionary activity was based on leadership of the Petrograd Soviet and his service as Foreign Commissar and War Commissar. Stalin’s devious and brutal twists and turns within Russia were also reflected in the international Communist parties. Stalin’s party line equated the democratic parties of the West with the Fascists, and in Spain the parochialism of the Communists split the anti-Fascist movement. An earlier and more consistent Popular Front is one of the reasons the Spanish Civil War continued past its historical end. In domestic policy, Stalin in fact adopted the “pro-industrialization” line of Trotsky and the Left Communists after he disposed of them. Stalin was willing to force collectivization regardless of the consequences (death and repression). Trotsky might have taken Lenin’s approach of “two steps forward, one step back” and alternated between collectivization and moderate private enterprise (NEP). Russia is still supposed to be relatively isolated from the Western democracies and autarchic because of continuing anti-Bolshevik sentiment.

The Russian war effort goes much better under Trotsky for several reasons. Russia was not on a peace-time deployment as it was under Stalin. The purge of the Red Army did not take place and competent generals remained in place. German gains had a lot to do with the disorganization of the Soviet Army, which had more and better equipment than the Germans. With a capable and prepared Red Army, the Germans were turned back much earlier and more certainly. Russia did not have to fight the Finns, who were antagonized by Stalinist aggression into fighting on the side of the Germans.

Post-war relations got better than historical. Popular support for Russia was high during the war under Stalin, and the same would have happened under Trotsky. But there is no “Hitler-Stalin Pact” and early war support for Germany in the background and early Popular Front participation would have provided a sounder footing for post-war democratic participation. America was anti-imperialist and a less aggressive Soviet Union makes a good ally in “teaching” the former imperial powers. Intraparty democracy was part of the Leninist heritage, although the seed of authoritarianism was also present. Trotsky could have led the Communist Party and still allowed debate – he was enough of an egotist to believe he could always prevail. As a former Menshevik, he would not have been in a position to suppress other points of view, nor to stem the entry of former Mensheviks and SR’s into the party. Without Stalinist paranoia and the isolation of the Iron Curtain, Soviet Russia could have evolved into a more democratic state instead of collapsing.

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