Lev Trotsky and the utopian imagination in the Russian revolution

M. D. Steinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article — the second part of a three-part series that reinterprets the “utopianism” of Russian revolutionaries, especially the Bolsheviks—focuses on the evolving views of Lev Trotsky. Part 1 described the basic theoretical approach: an alternative definition of the utopian imagination developed after 1917 in the work of Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and others. In brief, this sees utopia as a critical analysis of conventional constructions of reality, time, and the possible: as a critical negation of that which merely is in the name of what should be, as a radical challenge to assumptions about what is possible and impossible in the present, as a vision of time and history as containing the possibility of an explosive “leap in the open air of history” (Benjamin). Utopian consciousness breaks into the normativized world of knowledge and expectations about reality and possibility in history to reveal the new and unexpected. This is utopia as radical epistemology, hermeneutics, and praxis. In this article, the focus is on Lev Trotsky (the previous article considered Alexandra Kollontai and the following concludes with Vladimir Mayakovsky), who, like all Marxists, denied he was a “utopian.” Although Trotsky’s ideological positions and political power evolved and shifted, we see a variety of expressions of a fundamental utopian imagination during the years from 1901 through 1921: his critique of pessimism, his optimism about the power of unleashed popular passions, his insistence that what was truly impossible was to imagine that the revolution could be “interrupted” (what he called “??????????? ?????????” and later “???????????? ?????????”), his faith in the coming of world revolution, his conception of the historical place of violence for unleashing the possibilities of the new—for allowing an explosive “leap in the open air of history.” Refs 40.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)664-673
Number of pages10
JournalVestnik Sankt-Peterburgskogo Universiteta, Istoriya
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2017


  • Lev Trotsky
  • Russian revolutionaries
  • The Russian revolution
  • Utopianism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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