Kshama Sawant, an avowed socialist, was recently elected to the Seattle City Council. I think this is a healthy event; I applaud Ms. Sawant's peaceful route to the extremely limited power one has as a city council person. But Ms. Sawant is a member of a Trotskyist Party. Most American's don't know much about Trotsky or the parties that carry his flag, mainly because they are small and usually quite obscure.
Americans are not likely to take to any party that idolizes a foreign political leader. Ms. Sawant and Socialist Alternative have not chosen one of the many American socialist leaders or parties to idolize. So why Leon Trotsky?
Leon Trotsky is a lot like Thomas Jefferson. I don't mean that in a positive way. I mean that his rhetoric is attractive to idealists, but his life betrays his rhetoric. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, it which he talks of freedom and the equality of man (mostly plagiarizing British writers). He owned slaves. When the British freed his slaves during the American Revolution, he demanded their return (he got a number back when the British surrendered at Yorktown). He supported his spendthrift habits (fine wines, fancy horses and the endless expansion of Monticello) partly by forcing child-slaves to spend their days in his nail factory.
Leon Trotsky was a Russian Marxist revolutionary running his own political party until the Russian Revolution. Then he joined up with the Bolshevik Party to stage a coup that both killed the Czar (who by then was only a figurehead) and overthrew the government established by the workers and peasants and their political parties. He was then assigned the task of organizing the murder of anyone Left, Right, or Center, who disagreed with the new dictatorship of middle-class intellectuals led by Lenin. He headed the Red Army that murdered hundreds of thousands of opponents during the Civil War. He did not object to the killing of socialist opponents by the brutal Leninist political police.
So why would a nice, thoughtful person like Kshama subscribe to the ideology of such a madman? After Lenin died a new leader, really dictator, was needed. Naturally Trotsky thought that with so much blood on his hands, he was the natural choice. But Joseph Stalin outmaneuvered him, eventually forcing Leon into exile.
By then Trotsky had a large following both in the Soviet Union (Russia plus places Trotsky had conquered, notably the Ukraine, where anarchists had tried to set up a non-dictatorial socialist system) and within the many communist parties around the world. He changed his tune. He began to use the rhetoric of democracy to improve his chances of eventually becoming a dictator. He criticized Joe Stalin, saying he (not the entire bunch of Leninists) had perverted the Russian Revolution, transforming it into a bureaucratic dictatorship.
For radicals of a certain mindset Trotskyism has a deep appeal. You can be a revolutionary and imagine that you are in a vanguard party in the line of Marx and Lenin, while talking about freedom and democracy. In the United States since around 1970s the numerous (but each small) Trotskyist parties have been particularly adept at recruiting LGBT radicals.
Their inability to see the contradiction between Trotsky's rhetoric and the factual historic record, or worse still their acceptance of it, is a key to understanding activists like Kshama. The world is a bright and shiny place just needing some nice rhetoric to wake up "the masses" to complete the glorious worldwide Leninist revolution that went astray when Stalin got his grubby hands on it.
If a socialist party wants to succeed in the United States, it should reject Trotsky.
If socialism is the best system for running society, it should be so on its own merit. It should not need the "blessing" of some Marxist saint like Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Trotsky.
If an American socialist party wants some saints, it could at least use American socialists. There have been plenty of them, and their example is much better than that of any of the Russian leaders, even if they did not bring a socialist revolution to the U.S.A. [note no Trotskyist political party has ever come to power anywhere in the world]. Look to Mother Jones, the Industrial Workers of the World, Daniel De Leon, or Emma Goldman for inspiration.
Over the decades I interviewed many leaders of American Trotskyist parties. They all lacked the confidence to speak out about the historical reality of Trotsky's life. Their tiny cults trapped them in error: to renounce Trotsky, after building their parties around worshipping him, would have meant being ostracized.
If Kshama Sawant wants to graduate to being a socialist leader herself, she needs to denounce the legacy of mass murder that is the life of Leon Trotsky. If she can't do that, she is a moral cripple who cannot be trusted to build a genuine popular socialist movement.
See also: A Rare Elected Voice for Socialism Pledges to Be Heard in Seattle [New York Times, December 29, 2013]