The Evil of Leon Trotsky Revisited

Two of Leon Trotsky’s best-known quotes are his statement that “Where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation” (made famous, especially among libertarians, in part because it was quoted by Hayek in The Road to Serfdom), and the very next sentence in the same paragraph: “The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” My GMU colleague Bryan Caplan helpfully provides the context of these quotes, from Trotsky’s 1936 book, The Revolution Betrayed:

During these years [since Stalin took power in the USSR] hundreds of Oppositionists, both Russian and foreign, have been shot, or have died of hunger strikes, or have resorted to suicide. Within the last twelve years, the authorities have scores of times announced to the world the final rooting out of the opposition. But during the “purgations” in the last month of 1935 and the first half of 1936, hundreds of thousands of members of the [Communist] party were again expelled, among them several tens of thousands of “Trotskyists.” The most active were immediately arrested and thrown into prisons and concentration camps. As to the rest, Stalin, through Pravda, openly advised the local organs not to give them work. In a country where the sole employer is the state, this means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.

Bryan points out that this context doesn’t reflect well on a man who is still admired by many leftists and even a few ex-leftist conservatives:

Worth noticing: While Trotsky meant what libertarians think he meant, the man’s sheer evil still shines through. He doesn’t mind if the socialist state starves human beings. He was delighted to wield this power when ran the Red Army. No, Trotsky is outraged because the Soviet Union is turning its totalitarian might upon fellow Communists. Was there ever a better time to snark that “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”?

As I explained in this series of posts, Trotsky was a brutal mass murderer who objected to political repression only when it targeted his fellow communists. He also opposed Stalin in part because he thought Stalin wasn’t repressive enough. Any residual admiration for Trotsky is sorely misplaced.

Nonetheless, the translation of The Revolution Betrayed quoted by Bryan seems to be less damning than the wording quoted by Hayek. In Hayek’s version, Trotsky is quoted as writing that “Where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation” (emphasis added). Since Trotsky of course favored an economic system where the state is the sole employer, this version of the quote implies that he also favored the inevitable “slow starvation” of oppositionists. By contrast, the translation linked by Bryan states that “Where the sole employer is the State, this [referring to Stalin’s policy of denying employment to oppositionists] means death by slow starvation.” The translation quoted by Bryan doesn’t seem to say that opposition means death by starvation in any society where the state is the sole employer, but only if that state is governed by Stalin’s policy of denying work to “oppositionists.” And, as we can see later in the same chapter, Trotsky did not propose to abolish the government’s monopoly over employment, but merely to replace the Stalinist “bureaucratic” class with a different set of economic central planners. The latter might potentially have a more liberal policy on employing oppositionists. Which version is correct? The only way to tell is to check the original Russian text of The Revolution Betrayed. If anyone can find it online, please let me know and I would be happy to do the checking myself.

Even the more charitable version of this passage still doesn’t paint Trotsky in a flattering light. After all, as Bryan notes, the only “oppositionists” whose right to dissent Trotsky wanted to protect were communists who disagreed with Stalin’s party line. Towards the end of the same chapter of The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky calls for “a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks.” Non-Soviet (i.e. – non-communist) parties need not apply. He had no objection to the “slow starvation” (or even outright execution) of non-communist oppositionists, including even non-communist socialists. Indeed, when he was still in power, Trotsky often ordered such starvation and execution of political opponents himself.

UPDATE: I have found the Russian text of The Revolution Betrayed online here. In my judgment as a native speaker of the language, the Russian version is closer to the translation cited by Bryan than the one used by Hayek. Here is the original Russian text of the relevant sentence:

В стране, где единственным работодателем является государство, эта мера означает медленную голодную
смерть. Старый принцип: кто не работает, тот не ест, заменен новым: кто не повинуется, тот не ест.

Here’s my own translation:

In a country where the state is the sole employer, this policy [referring to Stalin’s policy] means a slow death by starvation [for oppositionists]. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.

The key Russian phrase “эта мера” literally means “this measure.”

UPDATE #2: Some commenters on this and previous posts about Trotsky ask whether anyone really admires Trotsky anymore. In reality, quite a few modern leftists still do. Christopher Hitchens (see here and here) is one example. As Clive James points out, Trotksy “lived on for decades as the unassailable hero of aesthetically minded progressives who wished to persuade themselves that there could be a vegetarian version of communism.”