The falsifications of “Trotsky”, the Netflix series

We publish here an article produced by Esquerda Marxista, the Brazilian section of the IMT, in reply to some of the outrageous slanders presented as historical drama in the Russian series, Trotsky, which was recently released on Netflix (read the original in Portuguese here).

Originally produced for the Russian public TV station PevryKanal (which is controlled by Vladimir Putin), the series Trotsky recently debuted on Netflix. It is a pretentious production, which offers neither artistic quality nor historical fidelity. Producer Aleksandr Tsekalo, half-guiltily, admits that: "It's hard to be objective a hundred years later, but we tried to reproduce a series based on real events." We could perhaps believe him were there not several sources about the events in question, which concern some of the most important figures of the twentieth century, and if he did not openly admit (perhaps at Putin’s behest), that the central message of the series is: “you should not force people to go to the streets.”

The series alternates between different periods in the life of Leon Trotsky, cutting from his exile in Mexico to the frozen fields of Russia amid the catastrophe of the Civil War. At the beginning, there is no shortage of scenes and dialogue that, honestly, would prevent the better-informed viewer from proceeding any further. Still, Netflix is ​​the largest video streaming platform in the world, meaning this show could reach a very large audience. In most of the world, there is little said in schools or in the media about the Russian Revolution, and less still that is accurate. Therefore, it is necessary to address briefly some of the main lies of the series.

The ‘German Plot’

As the author of the theory of permanent revolution, a leading figure in the October Insurrection and commander of the Red Army, Trotsky is a revolutionary titan. The great events that took place in Russia during Trotsky’s life elevated certain people (with special qualities of courage, leadership and foresight) to stand tall on the stage of history. However, Trotsky did not take advantage of the revolutionary conditions of his time for his own sake, but to fight for the working class, whose cause he had joined and served all his life.

The series, however, treats Trotsky’s trajectory as a "career", in the worst sense of the word: akin to the career of bourgeois politicians, behind whom lie dirty money and profiteers. The profiteer, in this case, is Alexander Parvus: a member of the German Social-Democracy, but of Russian origins. He chooses Trotsky, based mainly on his ability as a speaker, as the man to fulfil a devious plan by the German Empire to "destroy Russia with a revolution" – for 10 million marks, no less!

The “German plot” is an old lie. The first to spread this idea was Tsar Nicholas II, and it was picked up by the liberal opposition, Social-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks... Each in their own way, whenever it was convenient, accused the Bolsheviks of being foreign agents. The Provisional Government that assumed power after the February Revolution in 1917 did not act any differently when cornered, as Trotsky himself reported:

"The struggle of the other parties among themselves was almost like a family spat in comparison with their common baiting of the Bolsheviks. In conflict with one another they were, so to speak, only getting in training for a further conflict, a decisive one. Even in employing against each other the sharpened accusation of German connections, they never carried the thing through to the limit. July presents a different picture. In the assault upon the Bolsheviks all the ruling forces, the government, the courts, the Intelligence Service, the staffs, the officialdom, the municipalities, the parties of the soviet majority, their press, their orators, constituted one colossal unit" (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume I).

In 1917, the workers and soldiers could no longer bear the burdens of the imperialist war. The workers remaining in Russia had to endure exploitation and growing pauperisation, while those who were sent to the frontlines lost their lives in a war waged in the interests of capital and the aristocracy. The imperialist war was "free competition" in its most barbarous expression.

Trotsky series 3 Image fair useThe series treats Trotsky’s political activity as a "career", in the worst sense of the word: akin to the career of bourgeois politicians / Image: fair use

Lenin was clear that the war was alien to the interests of the working masses and that, as in the "dress rehearsal" of 1905, it would lead the masses to insurrection. Thus, the fight against war took on a fundamental importance in the programme of the Bolsheviks, and Lenin predicted that the world war could turn into an international class war. German imperialism, eager to get rid of the Eastern front, allowed Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries to pass through Germany on their return from exile, but as Trotsky put it: “Lenin took advantage of [German General] Ludendorff’s plans to further his own” (Trotsky, My Life).

It has never been proven that Trotsky or the Bolsheviks received German money. Anyone who wants to believe in this accusation of "collaboration" simply ignores history. In the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, Trotsky fought bravely against the German Empire. He came face to face with some of the enemy's most capable agents. It is said that members of the Soviet delegation agitated in the German trenches, inciting insurrection against the capitalists, for peace and solidarity among workers around the world.

After the Germans resumed the offensive, peace had to be signed. The survival of the revolution was more important. Lenin and Trotsky were clear about this, and were confident that an uprising of the German proletariat would take place, as it finally did in 1918. The opportunity was lost through the betrayals of German Social Democracy.

Sex, lies and violence

The Leon Trotsky of the series is actually more interested in sex (and violence) than money. In a fictional encounter with Sigmund Freud (indeed, the whole series is a fiction), both talk about how everything is actually about sex, including the revolution. The dialogue written for Freud is contemptible, but for Trotsky, it is astonishing, including this particular gem: “the masses have a feminine psychology... the revolution needs to be inseminated.” As should be obvious, there is no source, written, recorded or reported – not the remotest sliver of evidence – for these ridiculous sentiments having ever come out of Trotsky’s mouth. This is an invention of the series. Meanwhile, the scenes of Trotsky with his lifelong companion Natalia Sedova, which insinuate that Trotsky sacrificed his children (as if Stalin was blameless for their deaths), deserve only repudiation.

Trotsky series 4 Image fair useThe Leon Trotsky of the series is actually more interested in sex (and violence) than anything else / Image: fair use

Bolshevism is the practical expression of Marxism. It provides the working class with revolutionary leadership and direction: a party of cadres capable of assimilating the theory and historical experience of class struggle, and guiding the fight within the particular conditions that the workers face. To deny the need for leaders is also to deny history. But this element, the leadership, which is the subjective factor, cannot by itself create a revolutionary process involving the participation of millions. Objective or material conditions are needed, which push the masses into action. These conditions were ripe in Russia in 1917, as they are today. The crisis of capitalism, and the ensuing wars, famine, inequality and exploitation, were decisive for the Russian workers to take to the streets. They were not forced by Trotsky or Lenin. The role of the masses is as an active agent in history. And not infrequently, the masses have surpassed their most conscious elements in theory and practice.

The Russian Revolution gave us an example of the spectacular role that can be played by the masses. It also revealed what Marxists identify as a tendency of the workers’ movement during a revolutionary situation: the creation of Soviets (councils) of workers and soldiers, the most advanced organs of workers’ democracy. The election of deputies to the Soviets took place proportionally, by region or factory. Nobody received years-long mandates: positions were recallable at any time. The Soviets legislated and executed the power of the working class. The participation of the bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy was forbidden. As John Reed reported:

"No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution the popular will changes with great rapidity” (Reed, The Soviets in Action).

This is in stark contrast to what the sophists of the bourgeoisie define as the "passive" mentality of the masses. Not surprisingly, the creators of Trotsky resort to the same historical fallacies raised against the October Revolution by bourgeois historians. The series portrays the overthrow of the Provisional Government as a "coup", devised by Trotsky. All that remains is to explain what "coup" in the history of mankind has ever given power to such a revolutionary body as the Congress of Soviets!

The series even depicts Lenin, on 25 October 1917, professing this fallacy, when he objects, in dialogue with Trotsky that: "this is not a revolution, it is a coup" – although he sets these concerns aside after Trotsky offers him the government. To defame Trotsky is not enough for the series, it is necessary to defame all the great revolutionaries and to pit them against each other.

Falsifications on Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin

For the purposes of bourgeois ideology, Trotsky has always been portrayed either as a bloodthirsty mirror image of his executioner Stalin, or a naive idealist: a victim of the very system he engendered. In the series, Jacson (the false identity of the assassin Ramón Mercader) repeatedly comments on his resemblance with Stalin. The historical divergence between Trotsky and Stalin is reduced to the rancour of defeat. Stalin, incidentally, appears in the days of the revolution alongside Lenin as his right-hand man. The relationship between Lenin and Trotsky is totally depoliticised. Trotsky goes so far as to say that he is not yet a Bolshevik because "there is no room for two… first I will discredit Lenin… then I will take his place as leader of the party.” These lies could have come straight out of the Stalinist history books.

Lenin and Trotsky had important differences, but they were not divided on fundamental political principles during the revolution. After Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks, Lenin commented that "there has been no better Bolshevik". He stated in his last testament, despite offering some criticisms, that Trotsky was the "most capable man in the party." The attempt to separate Lenin from Trotsky is clearly intended to cause confusion among the young, for whom the restoration of capitalism is only feeding a growing lack of perspective, while deepening crisis and exploitation.

Trotsky series 2 Image fair useThese falsifications only emphasise the importance of defending our legacy as Marxists and Bolsheviks / Image: fair use

Stalin was little known until Lenin went into inactivity, and had played no particular role in the direction of revolution. Already, the differences between Trotsky and Stalin (which were also Stalin's disagreements with Lenin, though he never had the courage to clash with Lenin in his lifetime) went much deeper than the series depicts.

Faced with the defeat of the international revolution, Russia was isolated, and destroyed by a terrible civil war. Many Bolshevik cadres fell in battle. After years of struggle, and international defeats, the working class was overwhelmed by fatigue. Added to Lenin's retreat from active political life after an assassination attempt, historical conditions enabled a bureaucracy – a privileged caste within the working class – to be installed, whose interests were increasingly contrary to the masses of workers.

Koba, otherwise known as Stalin – the so-called ‘man of steel’, who was really a complete mediocrity – was the perfect character to meet the need for political representation of this caste. He proposed the theory of socialism in one country, in which he argued that it was possible to reach a socialist society in isolated Russia, abandoning the struggle for the international proletarian revolution and, specifically, preventing the revolution in different countries.

Stalin decreed that Russia had already attained socialism. But despite the extraordinary economic and social advances achieved on the basis of a planned economy, this development reached its limit and then faced setbacks, eventually resulting in the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. The sabotage of the international revolution by the Soviet bureaucracy and the absence of a true workers' democracy in the USSR were decisive in this.

The series includes a scene where Trotsky, in a state of delirium, recognises himself as a "demon". This runs contrary to the real eyewitness accounts of his final hours. Even after the cruel blow dealt by the assassin Ramon Mercader to his skull, he maintained a touching clarity about the meaning of his life and what was happening around him.

Trotsky, far from being "repentant" in the face of the bureaucratisation in the Soviet Union and the Communist International, devoted the last years of his life to the foundation of the Fourth International, with the aim of defending genuine Marxism and continuing the struggle for world revolution, in the face of the attacks of fascism and Stalinism.

Trotsky was shown on Russian TV on the occasion of the centenary of the revolution. It was presented to the public just as class struggle worldwide is reaching a boiling point. In France, the protests of the yellow vests show the direction of events. A revolutionary situation is on the order of the day. This is why the ruling class, through the cultural industry, must defame the greatest revolutionaries in history. This only increases the importance of defending our legacy.