Marxist Theory

The Assassination of Trotsky – 70 Years On

Published on Saturday, 28 August 2010 07:57
Written by Radical Socialist

On August 20, 1940, Jackson, alias Ramon Mercador, Stalinist murderer, posing as would be Trotskyist, hit Lev Trotsky with an ice axe. By August 21, after a failed operation, Trotsky died. Joseph Stalin, who had ordered the murder, and whose secret police had literally one house full of material on Trotsky and the small Trotskyist international current, thought they had succeeded in eliminating the most important proletarian revolutionary leader who was capable of challenging the bureaucratic despotism that was posing as socialist.

Today, when Stalinism has been consigned, almost globally, to the famous dust bin of History to which Trotsky had invited the Mensheviks to go in October 1917, the bourgeois world, as well as sectarians (Stalinist or otherwise), find Trotsky a major problem still. It is his internationalism, his stress on working class democracy, his struggle for a cultural revolution as a component of socialist transformation, and his resolute opposition to any submission by the working class to the bourgeoisie under any guise that provide inspiration to new generations of radicals searching for any relevance of Marxism. So it is not surprising that bourgeois scholarship has turned in a big way against Trotsky. Robert Service is the latest of such scholars. At the same time, those who were till a short while back embracing Stalinism and have now revolted against it, still accept its vilification of Trotsky. For them, he is at most a “failed messiah”. The leaders of minor sects and cults who believe that after Marx they are the next heroes of the proletariat can have no respect for revolutionary continuity. In particular, Lenin and Trotsky are the main targets of such sectarians.

In the pages below, we present four essays. The first three appeared in the Kolkata based daily, The Bengal Post, on 27 August. As it does not, as yet, have a web version, we cannot provide links. We have therefore reproduced the articles. The fourth is a review of Robert Service’s book by Paul Le Balnc, the noted Marxist activist and scholar.

 

Administrator, Radical Socialist

 

Illusions of impermanence

Suhit Sen[1]

 

We commemorate the 70th death anniversary of Lev Davidovitch Bronstein on August 21 this year with a question: Does his revolutionary formulations have any relevance for the world, especially the developing part of it, any more? On the face of it, with socialism and its once luminous promise allegedly buried once and for all, the answer would seem to be, hmm, well, not exactly. On the face of it, let us iterate.

But if the news of this burial is more in the nature of rumour, prematurely doing the rounds, there could be some profit for the human race – especially the submerged nine-tenth, in a manner of speaking, condemned tom dehumanized despair in the ‘developing’ world – in revisiting the thoughts of one of the greatest Marxist revolutionaries who ever walked this earth. And scarcely of greater moment could any aspect of Trotsky’s theoretical and practical interventions be than that relating to his formulations on the ‘permanent revolution’. Fundamentally, Trotsky’s idea was pitted on the one hand against a Eurocentric idea about the conditions in which a proletarian revolution could come about and, on the other, against those of Stalin and his savage bureaucratic establishment about how it could be maintained.

One of the received wisdoms, much prevalent in broadly left circles in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, arose out of a mechanical reading of Marx. A socialist revolution, the argument ran, could only come about after a bourgeois revolution had been consummated. This would, of course, then set the stage for the capitalist transformation of society both through the refashioning of the relations of production – that is the institution of wage labour – and the unleashing of the forces of production. Once this had been done, and the principal contradiction of the capitalist economy and society established between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat could the working class lead a revolution for the socialist refashioning of the world. This was patently a theoretical position that consigned perhaps nine-tenth of the globe to an indefinite future of subjugation under either some form of feudal regime or the regime of depredatory capital.

That the Russian revolution was brought about in a backward society in which organized, modern industry hardly amounted to anything more than a sliver of an economic and social enclave completely undermined this kind of Eurocentric theoretical claim. Trotsky, writing presciently before the 1917 revolution and polishing his thesis in its aftermath, tried to elaborate the lessons of the Russian revolution in direct contradistinction to this stage-ist, Eurocentric and narrowly economistic view of revolutionary practice and theory. Trotsky’s point was first that the trajectory of a revolution could not be read off so simplistically from ‘objective conditions’. Bur more fundamentally he was trying to argue that in any revolutionary situation, whatever the bloc of classes that were trying to abolish the old order, it was incumbent for the working class in alliance with fractions of the peasantry and other class fractions, especially the urban petit bourgeoisie, to take control of the revolution and push it beyond the limits of a bourgeois revolution.

Whether in a backward country like Russia and, importantly for the non-European world, in colonial or semi-colonial countries – China and India was mainly on Trotsky’s mind as a template – the bourgeoisie was so compromised in its entanglements with either the feudal aristocracy or imperial interests that it would never even be able to push the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion, far less guarantee the working class or the peasants their legitimate demands. For either to happen, especially the latter, the hegemony of the working class would have to be established over the revolutionary movement.

So, in this first sense of permanence, the revolution could not be bound by the limits of bourgeois objectives under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, whatever the ‘objective conditions’. It would, on the other hand, have to be articulated in a continuously escalating upward spiral towards the socialist revolution under the stewardship of the working class, with its organ – the revolutionary party – at the vanguard.

There was another equally important sense in which Trotsky proposed the permanence of the revolution, for our purposes here perhaps more vital. Trotsky did not see the revolution as limited by national-territorial boundaries. Indeed, given the existence of a world integrated into one system by the regime of capital and its necessary concomitant, imperialism, revolution within the bounds of one national/territorial unit was bound to fail – was, in fact, a non-sequitur. Any authentic revolution would have to reproduce itself beyond this limit, spreading globally through the international solidarity of the working class and allied classes across the world. It is in this formulation that Trotsky clashed with Stalin most fundamentally. And even though he underplayed it, its theoretical cogency blew away the latter’s slogan and strategy of ‘socialism in one country’. As Trotsky’s earlier insistence on the necessity of continuous escalation towards the proletarian revolution proved ineluctably incontestable both in Russia and China by demonstration of success, the permanent revolution thesis triumphed over the Stalinist dogma by the demonstration of failure – as the Russian revolution degenerated into non-socialistic bureaucratic terror, even over the class that had been its principal author.

Even if we were to concede that at this particular historical conjuncture the possibility of a socialist revolution seems to have receded too far into the future for any proximate prognoses to be made, Trotsky’s insights about the necessity the solidarity of the working class (classes?) are hardly irrelevant. In an age when the global regime of capital forges greater solidarities and synergies between a jetsetting international bourgeoisie and seeks to divide working people all across the globe – immigrant labour, outsourcing – it becomes all the more urgent for the latter to convene their own solidarities in the face both of the divisive strategies of global capital and the sectarianism of national identity.

This is a pressing necessity if the preconditions of the class war, now held merely in abeyance but despite all appearances growing increasingly more bitter and intense, are to be forged in however fragile a manner.

‘Not by Politics Alone’: Trotsky and Culture

Steve Edwards[2]

In the 1950s the painter Annenkov, who had once been a Left Social Revolutionary, claimed that Trotsky alone among the Bolshevik leadership was a cultured man. This is a caricature: there were many cultivated men and women in the Bolshevik party. Nevertheless, Annenkov captures something important about Trotsky who, in 1935, said ‘politics and literature constitute the essence of my private life.’ Trotsky was himself a great literary stylist and a voracious reader, particularly of French novels: Alfred Rosmer reports that Trotsky would often read French fiction during political meetings before interjecting with a penetrating question or observation. Trotsky dedicated his life to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, but he always found time to read and write about literature; as a critic he attracted the attention of such figures as TS Eliot and FR Leavis.

 

As military commissar during the civil war Trotsky spent part of his time onboard his armoured train writing Literature and Revolution – a series of eight studies of the literary and critical trends that emerged in conjuncture with 1917. In this significant work he engaged three distinct problems: the attitude communists should take to literary fellow travellers; the challenge of the Formalist rejection of any link between art and social life; and the campaign by those in the Futurist and the Proletkult movements who whished to replace bourgeois culture with a new communist or ‘proletarian’ culture. Critic Terry Eagleton said that while there may be superior Marxist accounts of literature, Trotsky is unsurpassed as a guide to practical intervention into cultural politics. This is, not least, because while he advanced strong views he always insisted - unlike Stalinists in Russia and elsewhere - that the party should not legislate on matters of art. It was only after his ‘fall’ that the dismal doctrine of Socialist Realism received official backing. The writing of his comrade Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky confirms how important questions of culture were for the Left Opposition to Stalinism.

 

Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution: ‘the Literature which was formed around a bourgeois centre is no more.’ However, like Lenin, he criticised those associated with Proletkult who sought to erect a working-class culture in its place. For Trotsky and Lenin the period of proletarian dictatorship was a transitional phase en route to a classless society and there would be no opportunity to create ‘proletarian culture’ in ‘laboratory conditions’. What is more, the backward economic and social character of Soviet Russia meant that the bourgeois heritage remained vital in raising the cultural level of the people. Trotsky once mused on the paradox that they had been able to create the world’s biggest public library in a society that had the largest illiterate population in Europe. This immediate situation was one reason why he opposed the destruction of bourgeois culture, but he also had a theoretical reason for so doing. Unlike many Marxists at the time he argued against crude views of art as expression of a class purview: ‘A work of art should, in the first place,’ he wrote, ‘be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art.’ This perspective puts him alongside those theorists in Russia who broke with the determinist Marxism of the Second International and developed subtle understandings of culture and ideology: Lenin’s abandonment of the ‘iron laws’ of social transition, EB Pashukanis on law and subjectivity, Lev Vygotsky on psychology, VN Vološinov on language, II Rubin on value and fetishism, Trotsky himself on military strategy are all comparable. In each instance, these thinkers rejected a simple class view of culture, for a more nuanced understanding of capitalism and ideological forms. Though there is no scope to develop the point, it is important to note that Trotsky’s views on culture are congruent with his writings on permanent revolution, Fascism and his criticisms of the Popular Front. This is not extraneous or decorative work.

 

 

Contemporaneous with Literature and Revolution, Trotsky wrote the series of innovative essays for Pravda, subsequently collected under the title Problems of Everyday Life. Here he addressed a different sense of culture, not high literature, but the culture of ordinary life. After the civil war, he argued, ‘our chief needs have shifted to the needs of culture and economic reconstruction.’ These essays tackle seemingly small problems and issues deemed ‘non-political’: the sewing of buttons; the campaign for cultured speech; the need for adequate instruction manuals; the family; alcohol and religion; culture in the countryside; celebrations and festivals. In this work he attempted to apply a lever to the inertia of everyday life: ‘Life is conservative’ he wrote, and ‘Domestic Life is more conservative than economic.’ Crucially he observed, ‘In order to change the conditions of life we must learn to see them through the eyes of women.’ Problems of Everyday Life is a pioneering study of culture whose legacy began to be picked up in the post-war period by Western philosophers such as Henri Lefebvre.

 

There is nothing exceptional about Trotsky’s occasional criticism, which reads now as the views of an educated Social Democrat of his generation, if stylishly composed. The language is dated; while his faith in progress, the belief in the permanent crisis of capitalism and his unbounded confidence in the working class no longer feels secure. Perhaps, the biggest problem lies with the classical aesthetic views that underpin his judgements. Sometimes he overcomes this inheritance, as with the fine essay on the nihilist writer Celine, but even here he feels aesthetic and social dissonance must give way to harmony. Despite his relative openness to some new trends, Trotsky believed that art was certain to decay under capitalism and could only be regenerated with socialism: ‘Art needs comfort, even abundance’. He navigated the contradiction between this view and his sense of the independent laws of art by suggesting that true art was always engaged with life and hence with social contradiction. None of this is especially compelling today; nevertheless, with the exception of Gramsci (with whom he corresponded over Futurism), no other twentieth-century classical Marxist leader was to have such an impact on subsequent culture. His intransigent anti-Stalinism and revolutionary internationalism combined with his principled defence of artistic independence proved attractive to avant-garde artists and critics, particularly in the visual arts. In exile, Trotsky wrote ‘Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’ with the Surrealist André Breton and the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. This extraordinary document, which claimed that ‘true art is unable not to be revolutionary’, condemned the pseudo-culture of Socialist Realism and called for an ‘anarchist regime of individual liberty’ to foster culture alongside centralized control of the economy. For him, art could only thrive when it was independent and free of political interference. These views had a profound impact on the Surrealists; the influential generation of American critics - Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Meyer Schapiro - as well as the Brazilian activist and critic Mario Pedrosa. In the 1970s neo-avant-garde artists again discovered Trotsky’s cultural works. It is often tempting to end with a rhetorical flourish, but it is fair to say that whenever the struggle against capitalism reaches sufficient pitch Left cultural workers find a resource in Trotsky’s earlier considerations of comparable problems.

 

The Relevance of Trotsky in the Twenty-First Century

 

Kunal Chattopadhyay[3]

 

In recent years, a number of biographies and studies of Trotsky, often very hostiel to him, have emerged from the right of centre spectrum of academia. This is not an accident. After the twentieth CPSU Congress, there were still some possibilities of hiding the crimes of Stalinism by labeling them merely the “cult of the personality”. After Gorbachev, though, and after the opening of the archives, only the fanatic few, dwindling in numbers, can refuse to see that Stalinism was a tyranny over the toilers pretending to be Marxism. For capitalism, therefore, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and other classical Marxists pose a bigger threat, as they stand for a revolutionary democratic alternative.

Class Struggle and Working Class Democracy:

But is Trotsky not simply one more “communist” despot who simply failed while his rival succeeded? In 1923, when still a member of the Political Bureau of the Soviet Communist Party, Trotsky objected to Feliks Dzherzhinskii’s demand that party members in factories should report the names of strike leaders to the OGPU, and called for a restoration of working class democracy, now that the civil war situation was over. He was, thus, the only communist leader who, in power, fought for the retention of the principles for which communists from Marx onwards had fought – workers’ democracy as the only road to the self emancipation of the working class. This led to years of struggle ending with expulsion from party, exile from his country, and eventual murder by a Stalinist assassin.

In exile, Trotsky fought for a reorganization of the German working class. During Hitler’s rise to power, he explained that only a working class united front could stop fascism. While the Socialists called for “tolerating” the Monarchist Hindenburg as a “lesser evil” to Hitler, and while the Stalin-controlled communists called the socialists “social-fascists” (much as Indian Maoists call the CPI(M)), Trotsky warned the German workers that if Hitler came to power, it would be by riding over their spines. But he was also aware, that alliances with so-called bourgeois progressives (the “popular front”) would not benefit the workers and peasants. In Spain and France, such fronts ended up by disarming workers. In Spain, it actually took away the factories seized by workers and handed them to bosses, who then proceeded to welcome General Franco. Ever since then, the Stalinist “communist” parties have flip-flopped between rejecting working class united fronts and calling for all embracing fronts inclkuding the “democratic” bourgeois parties and asking workers and peasants to tone down their demands.

Trotsky, by contrast, and like Marx and Lenin, he began with the principle that the emancipation of the working classes is a task of the working classes themselves. Only fully developed democracy could ensure that. This led him, in his youth, to a partly erroneous attack on Lenin’s effort at party building in underground conditions. But this also led him, with unerring instinct, to become the leader of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies during the revolution of 1905. Again, in 1917, it would be Trotsky as the President of the Petrograd Soviet who would lead the October insurrection.

Internationalism and Socialist Consturction:

But it was his strategy of socialist construction that set him apart. For Trotsky was the one Soviet leader who recognized that pluralism was essential for the construction of a better and more just world. As early as 1904, Trotsky wrote that “The problems of the new regime are so intricate that they can be solved only through the rivalry of the various methods of economic and political reconstruction, by long “debates”, by systematic struggle – not only between the socialist and the capitalist worlds, but also between the various tendencies within socialism, tendencies that must inevitably develop as soon as the dictatorship of the proletariat creates tens and hundreds of new unsolved problems …. And no ‘strong authoritative organisation’ will be able to put down these tendencies and disagreement for the purpose of accelerating and simplifying the process, for it is only too clear that the proletariat capable of a dictatorship over society will not tolerable a dictatorship over itself.” This is not to try and replace the myth of the infallible Lenin followed by the infallible Stalin, by another myth of the prophetic Trotsky. He made his share of mistakes, sometimes important ones. But his commitment to democracy would remain. During the civil war, when oppositions turned into armed confrontations, it would be stretched. But alone among the top level Bolsheviks, he would subsequently acknowledge that “Democratization of the Soviets is impossible without legalization of soviet parties,” and further that “the workers and peasants themselves, by their own free votes will indicate what parties they recognize as Soviet parties.” This was absolutely a negation of any conception of the “general line of The Party”.

This meant further, that socialist planning could not be a bureaucratic dictation from above. Moreover, in his thought, building socialism was not equated with statistics on production growth, though obviously that was necessary to improve the conditions of working people. It also included reducing bureaucracy, and carrying out a massive cultural revolution. Because the class was differentiated, and because knowledge is nobody’s monopoly, the cultural revolution presupposed pluralism. Fiercely condemning any conception of state-enforced cultural revolution, he said on one occasion: “The state is an organ of coercion and for Marxists in positions of power these may be a temptation to simplify cultural and educational work among the masses by using the approach of ‘Here is the truth - down  on your knees  to it !” . Just as Trotsky denied the possibility of ‘socialist’ construction without a cultural transformation, so he denied the possibility of a self-sufficient cultural revolution without a material basis.

Finally, the relevance of Trotsky’s Marxism for today lies in his resolute internationalism. The author of the initial call for the Communist International and the author of several of its stirring manifestoes, he was quite clear in his conviction that without internationalism there could be no communism. Capitalism as a system could not be confined to one country. So how could a social order supposed to be superior to capitalism be built within one country? At the same time, he condemned the theory of Socialism in One Country in no uncertain terms, saying that it would turn the real internationalism of the toilers into subordination to the dictates of Soviet foreign policy. As globalization pushes workers, peasants and other toilers all over the world into renewed crises, and at the same time, through the mechanisms of capitalist internationalism, renders ever more difficult struggles within one country, revolutionary democratic struggles from below and a renewed internationalism are becoming key elements in any fight back. To survive, outside museums and lecture rooms of Political Science departments, socialism has to reinvent itself in the classical Marxist colours of working class democracy and internationalism. In doing so, it will have to remember the contributions of Lev Trotsky.

 

 

`Second assassination' of Trotsky

Paul Le Blanc[4]

Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009
600 pages

December 25, 2009 -- ESSF -- Robert Service has written, to great acclaim, a new biography of Leon Trotsky. “Trotsky moved like a bright comet across the political sky,” Service tells us. Along with Lenin and other leaders of the Russian Revolution associated with the Bolshevik – soon renamed Communist – party, “he first came to global attention in 1917. … He lived a life full of drama played out with the world as his stage. The October Revolution changed the course of history, and Trotsky had a prominent role in the transformation. … There is no denying Trotsky’s exceptional qualities. He was an outstanding speaker, organizer and leader.” (1, 3)

As the workers’ councils (soviets) and earnest revolutionary ideals of the Bolsheviks gave way to the increasingly vicious bureaucratic dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, Trotsky became the most formidable critic of what was happening. He was taken seriously not simply by anti-Stalinists on the Left, “but by a large number of influential commentators who detested the Stalin regime. Trotsky’s explanation of what took place since the fall of the Romanov monarchy in February 1917 took root in Western historical works,” Service notes. At the same time, “Stalin depicted Trotsky as a traitor to the October Revolution, laid charges against him in the show-trials of 1936-8 and ordered Soviet intelligence agencies to assassinate him. In 1940 they succeeded.” (pp. 2, 1)

Yet Stalin’s Communism proved unable to sustain itself for even half a century afterward. With the global triumph of capitalism, however, there is also a multi-faceted global crisis of capitalism – assuming far-reaching dimensions that are ecological, social, cultural, political, military, and economic. Ten years ago the members of the United Nations promised the achievement by 2015 of Millennium Goals that would dramatically push back global poverty and hunger, also advancing the empowerment of women and the education of children, improvements in health care, improvements in environmental sustainability, improvements in “fair trade,” and more. The modest gains toward realizing the UN Millennium Goals are more than balanced by setbacks and disappointments. An old socialist slogan of the 1970s – “Capitalism Fouls Things Up” – seems quite relevant in the early 21st century.

This is certainly an ideal moment for people to engage with one of the greatest revolutionaries of modern times. Service makes exciting claims: that his searches among archival holdings shed new light on the subject, and that he offers, for the first time, an objective account of this symbol of revolutionary Marxism. But in more ways than one, the book he has produced is not what it claims to be. In fact, what many reviewers have enthused over, in their discussions of Service’s book, is the demolition of what they (and Service) consider to be a myth. As novelist and journalist Robert Harris approvingly comments in London’s Sunday Times, “50 years after the last full-scale biography of Trotsky in English, Robert Service has turned his attention to this myth – and has, effectively, assassinated Trotsky all over again.” [1]

A cultural phenomenon

There is at least one problem here – the reviewer’s claim that this is the first full-scale biography in English since the outstanding and sympathetic three-volume work by Isaac Deutscher which appeared in the 1950s and ‘60s (and has been recently republished by Verso). In fairness to Service, he himself actually asserts: “This book is the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist.” (xxi)

However phrased, the claim is simply not true. In 1975, Joel Carmichael produced a work of about 500 pages, Trotsky: An Appreciation of His Life. In 1977 Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Trotsky (close to 500 pages) appeared. In 1979, Ronald Segal’s over 400-page biography, Leon Trotsky, was published. Service’s purported biographical assassination comes in at slightly more than each of these, but not by much. Service’s emphasis on not being a Trotskyist is belied by the fact that these three works are all non-Trotskyist — and two reject fundamentally (as does Service) all that Trotsky stood for.

For that matter, over the past couple of years, preceding the appearance of Service’s book, there have been three additional major studies, all critical-to-hostile – Ian Thatcher’s Trotsky (2002), Geoff Swain’s Trotsky (2006), and Bertrand Patenaude’s Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary (2009). It is remarkable that so many critical books have appeared on Trotsky’s life. If one is willing to add a major Russian work translated into English in 1995, there is Dmitri Volkoganov’s hostile Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, which received a reception quite similar to that accorded to Service’s new volume. One might ask why such obsessive debunking must go on and on … and on.

This is hardly a problem for Simon Sebag Montefiore (whose help Service acknowledges in his preface). An upper-class historian, novelist, and authority on Stalin, Montefiore complains in the Conservative Daily Telegraph that “Trotsky, like Mao and to some extent Lenin, has long been one of those Communist titans who, for some, achieved the status of fashionable radical saints, even in the democracies that they would have destroyed in an orgy of bloodletting.” While “Lenin and Mao have been recast as brutal monsters not unlike Stalin himself,” only now has Trotsky also been able to join the pantheon of Red monsters – presented by Service in all his “ugly egotism and unpleasant, overweening arrogance, the belief in and enthusiastic practice of killing on a colossal scale.” [2]

The more politically neutral Times offers a more delicious characterization by reviewer Richard Harris, hardly a Tory but rather an enthusiastic supporter of the former “New Labor” Prime Minister Tony Blair. Perhaps drawing from his own experience, he writes: “If one can imagine the most obnoxious middle-class student radical one has ever met — bitter, sneering, arrogant, selfish, cocky, callous, callow, blinkered and condescending — and if one freezes that image, applies a pair of pince-nez and transports it back to the beginning of the last century, then one has Trotsky.” [3]

In the Wall Street Journal, scholar and human rights activist Joshua Rubenstein offers a mixed judgment. While praising Service’s “vivid” and “long overdue” biography as “approaching Trotsky without emotional or ideological attachment” (which could be the understatement of the year), he also accurately notes that Service “slips into personal animus that is sometimes out of place,” and that the book “hardly discusses Trotsky’s writings, either as a Marxist theoretician or as an accomplished and independent journalist” – which is a remarkable limitation, given the centrality of such things to all that Trotsky was. [4] What would one make of biographies about Newton or Darwin or Einstein that hardly discussed their scientific theories? This is a fatal limitation: one cannot understand and assess Trotsky without a more serious-minded engagement with his ideas.

At least one reviewer, Tariq Ali, in the left-leaning Guardian simply slams “Service’s plodding account in which some of the allegations are so trivial that they are best ignored.” He adds, as if amplifying Rubenstein’s point about the failure to deal with Trotsky’s actual ideas: “On most of the important issues – the danger of substituting the party for the state in Russia, the necessity of uniting with social-democrats and liberals to defeat Hitler, the futility of forcing the communists into an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek in China, the fate that awaited the Jews if Hitler came to power and constant warnings that the Nazis were preparing to invade the Soviet Union – he was proved right time and time again.” [5]

The actual book

Engaging seriously with the actual book under review, one cannot agree fully with the judgments of the reviewers just cited. It is somewhat better, and much worse, than one might be led to believe. Service’s study is really quite readable. The prose is clear, and the story interesting. It follows the basic outline sketched by Trotsky himself in his literary masterpiece My Life, supplemented by Deutscher’s brilliant trilogy – The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. This provides a coherent structure, which Service seeks in a workman-like manner to compress into a more succinct, relatively fast-paced narrative.

Service certainly dispenses large dollops of the negative judgment regarding Trotsky, the stuff that many reviews on the right and left focus on. Debating about Trotsky with Christopher Hitchens, under the auspices of the Hoover Institution, Service characterized the revolutionary as “the most amazingly brilliant man . . . but such a dreadful mistake of a life and a career.” [6] That matches the thrust of his speaking tours, and of all the publicity around the book.

Nonetheless, there remains the strong influence of Deutscher’s magisterial biography, the considerable researches from post-1960s social historians on the Russian Revolution (essentially corroborating John Reed’s exuberantly sympathetic eyewitness account, Ten Days That Shook the World), and the power of Trotsky’s own writings. All push into the pages of Service’s biography, and they push in a different direction than that in which he himself prefers to travel.

More than this, in some ways — not in all, as we shall see — Service proves himself a capable historian. He spent many years researching Lenin, producing a capable if increasingly hostile three-volume political summary, “capped” by a sadly inferior (though widely lauded) biography. This has given him a fair sense of the shape of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement leading up to the 1917 Revolution. This stands him in good stead as he contextualizes much of Trotsky’s story. In addition to this, and in addition to the use of a considerable amount of secondary literature, he actually spent time mining the archives and has come up with new material.

Service makes much of this archival exploration, promising new revelations supposedly culled from earlier drafts of My Life and other writings. While there are, in fact, no stunningly defamatory “revelations” forthcoming from the archives, there are insights offered from – for example – correspondence between Trotsky and his first wife Alexandra. A youthful Trotsky, imprisoned for revolutionary activities, writes to his lover: “Mikhailovski in an article about Lassalle says that one can be more frank with the woman one loves than with oneself; this is to a certain degree true but such frankness is possible only in a personal conversation but not always, only in special and exceptional circumstances.” Engaging with such correspondence, Service comments aptly: “Then and later he favored extreme images and striking turns of phrase. This was no artificial invention. It flowed from the personality of someone who did not feel alive unless he could communicate with others.” (52, 53)

At the same time, there is a remarkable sloppiness that crops up in this book. For example, Service speculates that Trotsky’s father hired a rabbi to teach his young son the Torah (24) – but his source is the short account by Max Eastman in Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth, which makes it clear that the father hired a private tutor — one who had a beard, to be sure, but who was an agnostic scholar, not a rabbi. This matches the relatively secular inclinations that Service acknowledges were characteristic of Trotsky’s father. It is odd that, with no more evidence to cite than Eastman, Service converts this into Jewish religious instruction. [7]

At times, his “facts” are simply wrong. Service tells us that Trotsky “spoke out against ‘individual terror’ in 1909 when the Socialist-Revolutionaries murdered the police informer Evno Azev, who had penetrated their Central Committee.” (113) But this is impossible. Azev most definitely was a police spy who held a position of immense authority within the Socialist-Revolutionary organization: coordinating the terrorist assassinations carried out by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. This was a tactic which Trotsky and other Marxists of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party absolutely opposed. But Azev himself, after being exposed, escaped to Germany, where he was imprisoned until 1917 and apparently died of kidney disease in 1918. [8] Why would Trotsky denounce a murder that never happened? Of course he didn’t. But it certainly undermines one’s confidence in Service’s ability to get things right.

There are also examples of important facts being left out of the account. One of the most disconcerting comes up in Service’s seemingly detailed account of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. The Bolshevik Revolution had come to power promising “peace, bread, land” and one of the highest priorities for the new soviet government was to extricate Russia from the devastation of the First World War, with Trotsky as the chief peace negotiator with the Germans, “moving like a weaver’s shuttle between Brest-Litovsk and the Russian capital,” as Service nicely phrases it. (208) The German military sought to impose a very nasty settlement, which the revolutionaries were loathe to accept. Some argued for waging “revolutionary war” against German imperialism while Lenin insisted that the regime must sign the German peace terms, however odious. Trotsky took a middle position – “neither peace nor war” – in hopes that through drawing the negotiations out and peppering them with widely-publicized revolutionary speeches, the proletarian ferment visible in Central Europe would be transformed into workers’ uprisings. Service notes that Trotsky first won a majority (even the anxious and skeptical Lenin went along). But then, he tells us, Lenin somehow – presumably through persuasive conversations and lobbying among his comrades – was finally able to secure a majority for making peace. How did this happen? What Service inexplicably fails to mention is that the German military, losing patience, launched a massive and successful offensive which demonstrated the hollowness of the “revolutionary war” notion and the inadequacy of Trotsky’s compromise position. The German High Command then put forward even more odious demands which Lenin now had little difficulty in persuading a majority to accept. [9]

There are a number of surprising examples of more minor sloppiness. For example, André Breton, the poet and theorist of surrealism who sympathized with Trotsky, is consistently but incorrectly identified as a “surrealist painter.” (399, 453, 461) The anti-Trotskyist Bertram Wolfe is mistaken for Trotsky adherent Bernard Wolfe (441). At one point Service tells us: “Instead of calling his first son after his own father, he and Natalya had chosen the name Sergei.” (201) But of course Sergei Sedov was the second son and Lev Sedov the first, as Service himself documents elsewhere in the book.

More than once such sloppiness is exposed by Service himself. Describing the 1916 voyage of Trotsky and his family to New York on a Spanish steamship, Service tells us that “Trotsky claimed they travelled second class.” This is “exposed” as “a silly fib,” since – while paying for second-class tickets – it was found that the second-class berths were overbooked, “and they were given a first-class cabin at no extra charge.” But according to the footnote Service offers, Trotsky was telling this “silly fib” to himself, since it appeared (apparently as a mistaken recollection) in his 1935 diary, not meant for publication and only published after his death. In the same passage, Service asserts that the Trotskys “did not mingle with passengers from the lowest decks,” feeling “no impulse to spend time talking to workers.” Yet a few lines later, Service tells us that, in discussions about World War I, “Trotsky only met one person who appealed to him. This was a housemaid from Luxembourg.” In the next paragraph, Service tells us, an entry in Trotsky’s diary indicates that his sons “made friends with the Spanish sailors, who told them that they would soon get rid of the monarchy in Madrid,” which – one would assume – also appealed to Trotsky. (153)

Personality and politics

As already noted, there is a significant amount of anti-Trotsky editorializing, especially concentrated in the book’s introductory and concluding sections, but interlarded as sniping assertions, speculations, and projections throughout much of the biography. The book’s purpose, Service insists, “is to dig up the buried life” of a man whose “self-serving account of Stalin and Stalinism deeply influenced the discourse of writers both left and right,” but who had himself demonstrated a “lust for dictatorship and terror,” and, in fact, positively “reveled in terror.” (The faint-hearted need not fear – the book never really presents such raw lust and reveling!) Trotsky’s character, according to Service, involved the following traits, to take some of those offered in the book’s index: alienating others, arrogance, aversion to sentimentality, bossiness, careless about people’s attitudes to him, dislike of losing at games, egotism, impatience with stupidity, insensitivity, perfectionism, prickliness, Puritanism, temper, vanity, self-centered, will to dominate. (4, 499, 497, 597) Nor is this all wrong.

Isaac Deutscher also affirmed that Trotsky sometimes displayed a “prickly and overbearing character and a lack of talent for teamwork.” Trotsky’s Bolshevik comrade Anatoly Lunacharsky offered an acidly frank pen-portrait in 1923: “His colossal arrogance and an inability or unwillingness to show any human kindness or to be attentive to people, the absence of that charm which always surrounded Lenin, condemned Trotsky to a certain loneliness.” Others, including Service, indicate that Trotsky could indeed show kindness and great charm, and that over time he mellowed somewhat – and yet these less endearing characteristics never vanished. From the archives he digs out correspondence to Trotsky’s second wife Natalya from Lev Sedov, Trotsky’s capable revolutionary-activist son, complaining in 1936 “that all of Papa’s failings are getting worse with age: his intolerance, hot temper, teasing, even crudity and desire to offend,” and that “Papa never recognizes when he’s in the wrong. That’s why he can’t bear criticism. When something is said or written to him with which he disagrees he either ignores it entirely or gets back with a harsh reply.” (230, 431-432) Yet other qualities that Lunacharsky stressed also persisted – “the remarkable coherence and literary skill of his phrasing, the richness of imagery, scalding irony, his soaring pathos, his rigid logic, clear as polished steel,” and the fact that “there is not a drop of vanity in him, he is totally indifferent to any title or to the trappings of power.” And yet, Lunacharsky concluded, “Trotsky treasures his historical role and would probably make any personal sacrifice . . . in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader.” [10] (Some see this latter quality as a flaw, others as a strength.)

While there is overlap between much of this and aspects of Service’s description, essential elements in his negative characterization (charges of hypocrisy, ingrained authoritarianism, “reveling in terror”) seem to flow from the author’s desire to turn people against a serious consideration of Trotsky’s orientation, not from the research he has done. One suspects it precedes that research and is rooted in his ideological and institutional commitments. While Service is not up-front about his own politics, in the first sentence of the book’s preface he forthrightly describes the Hoover Institution as his “base.” For many years it has been widely known for its conservative orientation, and Service enjoys the status of a highly esteemed Senior Fellow there.

The Hoover Institution’s mission statement affirms “the principles of individual, economic, and political freedom; private enterprise; and representative government were fundamental to the vision of the Institution’s founder,” the conservative U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who believed deeply in laissez-faire capitalism. “By collecting knowledge, generating ideas, and disseminating both, the Institution seeks to secure and safeguard peace, improve the human condition, and limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals.” The influence on Service of this perspective was suggested during his Trotsky debate with Christopher Hitchens at the Hoover Institution itself. “With a centralized state-run economy,” he argued, even with “a somewhat more astute character such as Trotsky, . . . it was an absolute certainty that you couldn’t . . . get the kind of results that you wanted for popular consumption such as you can have under a market economy.” [11]

Whatever the motivation and underlying ideology, all too often we find Service engaged in an odd game of scoring of nasty personal points. It gets in the way of what one might expect from a serious biographer. Here are four examples among many.

Nonetheless, Service is enough of an historian that often the material takes over the man, drawing the narrative into a clear account of what Trotsky and other revolutionaries actually thought and attempted and accomplished. In describing the months leading up to the October/November Revolution of 1917, describing the process of convergence of the most committed revolutionaries into the Bolshevik party, he gives a true sense of the realities. He quotes the future Bolshevik Moisei Uritsky who was powerfully impressed (as were many) by Trotsky, freshly returned from exile and showing himself to be one of the most eloquent, passionate, brilliant mass orators: “Here’s a great revolutionary who’s arrived and one gets the feeling that Lenin, however clever he may be, is starting to fade next to the genius of Trotsky.” Service writes:

Lenin felt no worry about having personal rivals on the political far left. He needed and wanted active, talented associates such as Trotsky. He and Trotsky agreed on a broad agenda for revolution in Russia. The Provisional Government had to be done away with and a “workers’ government” instituted. The era of European socialist revolution had arrived. The Great War would be terminated only when the far leftists came to power and repudiated capitalism, imperialism, nationalism and militarism. There had to be immediate basic reform in Russia. The peasantry should take over the land of the Imperial family, the state and the Orthodox Church. Workers should control the factories. . . . All spoke approvingly of the power of the masses. There was agreement that workers and peasants should be encouraged to remake life as they wanted. Factories, offices and farms ought to be reorganized. Differences remained among Bolsheviks – and they were about to be brought to the surface the moment the party seized power. But between February and October the disputes were containable. . . . [T]he Provisional Government [of pro-capitalist and moderate socialist politicians] had to be overthrown in favor of a revolutionary administration. Fundamental social and economic reform would then be implemented. The European war would be brought to an end. Revolution in Russia would be followed by the overturning of the ruling classes throughout Europe. Failure to act would be a disaster. The counter-revolutionary elements in the former Russian Empire were waiting for their opportunity to strike.” (167-169)

All of this gives a good sense of how things were – in the thinking of Lenin, Trotsky, and others who rallied to make the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Problems of communism

The problem with this, from Service’s standpoint (and that of the Hoover Institution), is that the revolutionary socialist goals are simply impossible to achieve. Presumably, the only reasonable path involves supporting private enterprise and limiting government intrusion into our social life, as explained in the Hoover mission statement. Violation of such strictures results in chaos, and as a consequence would-be revolutionaries, still determined to force their ideals onto an unwilling society, inevitably construct a totalitarian order. This defines the story that Service feels he must tell.

Service’s view was sharply challenged in his debate with ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens. The most powerful forces initiating a brutal civil war against the Bolshevik Revolution had little desire, as Hitchens put it, to replace the workers’ and peasants’ soviets by “a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary.” He noted that “if Trotsky’s Red Army had not won the Russian Civil War, then the word for fascism . . . was probably going to be the Russian word instead of an Italian word.” Service squirmed a bit: “It’s a little exaggerated, but it’s pretty fair that the Whites had officers who were vicious, carried out a brutal civil war against the Reds.” To which Hitchens snorted: “Brought the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [an anti-Semitic classic concocted by Russian reactionaries] to Europe in their backpacks when they left. Not doing us any favors. Brings the German [version] of Fascism with it!” Throughout much of Europe, varieties of fascism and vicious dictatorships received support from the upper-classes to create a barrier to the spread of revolution. [14]

Contrary to the expectations of Lenin and Trotsky, and despite the upwelling of global insurgencies, socialist revolutions of the workers and peasants were not triumphant outside of Russia. The isolation of this vast but backward country in a hostile capitalist world, the brutalization of World War I and the Russian Civil War, the destructive impact of all these factors on the Russian economy combined with the revolutionaries’ own mistakes and managerial inexperience – the result being a horrendous crisis, dramatically eroding popular confidence in the revolutionary regime. A “temporary” Communist party dictatorship was consequently established to secure stability until the Soviet republic could be rescued by the “imminent” World Revolution that never quite materialized. Many revolutionaries died or de-radicalized in the five years after 1917, although both idealistic and opportunistic elements from the larger population flocked to the new party in power. In many cases, the surviving Communists and newer Communists – if they were not in the “rank-and-file” – became corrupted with their exclusive access to power and privilege. Lenin died in the midst of the crisis, in alliance with Trotsky pushing against the expanding, increasingly privileged party-and-state bureaucracy that ruled in the name of Communism. Lenin’s last struggle was too little, too late.

It fell to Trotsky to become the primary spokesman and symbol of the Left Opposition. There were earlier left-wing oppositional currents which Trotsky and Lenin had short-sightedly helped vanquish. [15] There would also be later ones – the more frightened and ineffectual “Right Opposition” led by Nikolai Bukharin, and the more militant yet hopeless stirrings associated with Mikhail Riutin. But Trotsky’s opposition – whatever its limitations and contradictions – represented the most impressive, consistent, persistent alternative to the bureaucratic tyranny and murderous policies that triumphed under Stalin. After its thoroughgoing defeat in the late 1920s, and particularly after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky sought to build up a principled revolutionary current in the world Communist movement (the parties associated with the Communist International, or Third International). When he concluded that the bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union could be replaced by democratic soviets of the workers and peasants only through a revolutionary overthrow, he drew those from various countries who agreed with him into the small but uncompromising Fourth International, whose small parties and grouplets sought to provide “a stainless banner” to the workers and the oppressed, in hopes that the anticipated new wave of wars and revolutions would draw masses of workers and oppressed peoples to the revolutionary Marxist, Bolshevik-Leninist perspective that he and his comrades sought to preserve.

Service’s attitude toward all of this is marked by utter contempt, asserting again and again that Trotsky “shared many of Stalin’s assumptions,” specifically: “He called for state economic planning and offered nothing that was essentially different from Soviet practices except the assurance that he would do things less violently and more democratically.” (357) It is obvious why a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution might be horrified over Trotsky’s commitment to state economic planning (this Trotsky certainly did share with Stalin), but one wonders at Service’s dismissive attitude toward making economic planning less violent and more democratic.

Unfortunately, one of the many bits of misinformation conveyed in this biography is Service’s assertion that Trotsky, “in his autobiography of 1930 would represent himself as a constant critic of the basic official measures introduced in the 1920s,” particularly the concessions to market economics represented by the New Economic Policy (NEP) which stretched from 1921 to 1928. Service correctly points out: “Trotsky never called for the NEP to be abandoned even while calling for certain features to be modified or removed. He accepted that the Soviet economy would require a private sector for the foreseeable future.” The problem with what Service says is that Trotsky indicates the same in his 1930 autobiography. There he notes that Stalin and other critics in the Communist Party leadership “discovered that my stand at the time was one of ‘under-appreciation of the peasantry,’ and one almost hostile toward the New Economic Policy. This was really the basis of all the subsequent attacks on me. In point of fact, of course, the roots of the discussion were quite the opposite…” When Lenin “shaped the first and very guarded theses on the change to the New Economic Policy,” Trotsky continued (and Service documents), “I subscribed to them at once.” Lenin and Trotsky favored, for this period, a form of mixed economy under workers’ control (until new possibilities of socialist development would be opened by workers’ revolutions in more advanced industrial countries). At the same time, the two agreed to “a bloc against bureaucracy in general,” as Trotsky put it in his autobiography. This was to become a key pillar in the program of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, sustained when he joined with others (including Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, for a time Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaya) in what came to be known as the United Opposition. “The Leningrad workers were aroused by the political trend in favor of the rich peasants – the so-called kulaks – and a policy aimed at one-country socialism.” This attitude was certainly embraced by the Opposition. But never was it advanced in opposition to the basic measures represented by NEP – nor does Trotsky seek to give this impression in his autobiography. [16]

Internationalism and workers’ democracy

Another key pillar of Trotsky’s program, while leading the Left Opposition and afterward, was continuing (in the spirit of Lenin’s Bolsheviks) to tie the fate of the Soviet Union to the spread of socialist revolutions to other countries. Service complains that in his revolutionary internationalism Trotsky “offered no analysis of how far he was willing to risk the existence of the Soviet state.” (357) Here again it is the biographer, not Trotsky, who seems to be at one with Stalin, who insisted that – regardless of what happened with the world revolution, the Communist regime could and should focus on building “socialism in one country.” [17]

Trotsky – like all Marxists up to the 1920s – understood that socialism could not be built in a single economically backward country. The ability of the workers and peasants of Russia to move forward to a better life, and to the thoroughgoing economic democracy that socialism was supposed to be, was dependent on their moving forward on the same path as, and receiving life-giving assistance from, the working classes making socialist revolutions in the more advanced industrial countries. Naturally, the anti-colonial revolutions in Asia and Africa would also be essential to bringing down global capitalism. [18] Insurgencies in the “backward” regions would feed insurgencies in the “advanced” economic centers – which would then further assist the march of progress in the “backward regions. This had been the whole point of devoting so much time and energy and resources to building up the Communist International and its member parties.

The fact that Service (along with many others) doesn’t quite “get it” is suggested in the way he discusses Trotsky’s revolutionary internationalism, especially in the post-1917 period. It is almost as if one were discussing fashion, rather like one’s taste for “political correctness” or one’s taste in ties: “Trotsky remained a vigorous internationalist. He wrote endlessly about the need for revolution in Europe and Asia. This too was hardly an unusual standpoint to take in the first years after the October revolution, but Trotsky held to it with remarkable firmness. . . . He remained averse to either extolling or deprecating the qualities of particular peoples and believed that this was the proper approach of a Marxist.” (207) This last comment is true but beside the point. Quite simply, without the triumph of revolutionary internationalism, the revolution in Russia would be defeated.

In a later attempt to get it right, Service opines that the reason for building “a fresh global organization dedicated to bringing down capitalism and promoting revolution,” the Communist International, was rooted in the concern that “so long as they ruled the sole extreme-left European state they would remain a likely target for attack by a coalition of capitalist powers.” This conception was shared by Stalin and his temporary ally Nikolai Bukharin in the mid-to-late 1920s. But Trotsky responded: “The capitalist world shows us by its export and import figures that it has other instruments of persuasion than those of military intervention.” Against them he quoted Lenin: “So long as our Soviet Republic remains an isolated borderland surrounded by the entire capitalist world, so long will it be an absolutely ridiculous fantasy and utopianism to think of our complete economic independence and of the disappearance of any of our dangers.” Warning against the notion that “the USSR can perish from military intervention but never from its own economic backwardness,” he insisted that so long as the Soviet Union existed within a global capitalist economy, it would not be possible for it to achieve socialism. This had been a perspective shared by Lenin and the early Bolsheviks – but the new bureaucratic power elite crystallizing around Stalin, denying any break with Lenin’s thought, embraced the notion that it was possible to achieve “socialism in one country.”

Service has so little understanding of Trotsky’s Marxism that he attributes to him the notion that “Marxists in Russia would be able to . . . build an entire socialist society.” (109) In fact, while Stalin proceeded to advance toward such “socialism” in economically backward Russia (through his brutal and murderous “revolution from above”), Trotsky insisted prophetically that such efforts could at best result in a “skinflint reactionary utopia of self-sufficient socialism” that had little to do with the actual socialist goal. Genuine socialism could only be created on the basis of relative abundance, and as part of the transition from global capitalism to worldwide socialism. Service does not bother to deal with this 1928 critique of the Stalin-Bukharin Draft Program for the Sixth Congress of the Communist International (which he even mistakenly confuses with the Fifth Congress).

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky deepened his analysis by referring to the perspective advanced by Karl Marx nine decades earlier: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.” The reference to “all the old crap” is to brutal competition, inequality, exploitation, oppression – qualities that characterized Stalin’s version of “socialism” no less than capitalism. Trotsky elaborated:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.” [19]

None of this comes through in the dozen sentences that Service devotes to The Revolution Betrayed, the 1936 culmination of more than a decade of analytical effort and one of the keystones of Trotsky’s theoretical heritage. He remains remarkably dismissive of the passionate critique that the object of his biography advances through the 1930s. “The bureaucracy can no longer uphold its position in any other way than by undermining the foundations of economic and cultural progress,” according to Trotsky. “The struggle for totalitarian power resulted in the annihilation of the best men of the country by its most degraded scoundrels.” His proposal was for a political revolution initiating the following changes: “the establishment of the widest Soviet democracy and the legalization of the struggle of parties; the liquidation of the never-changing bureaucratic caste by electing all functionaries; the mapping out of all economic plans with the direct participation of the population itself and in its interests; the elimination of the crying and insulting gaps of inequality; the liquidation of ranks, orders, and all other distinctions of the new Soviet nobility; a radical change of external politics in the spirit of principled internationalism.” [20]

In the face of all this and more, Service shrugs: “He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism even though he claimed and assumed he would. … His confident assaults on Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s distracted attention from the implausibility of his own alternative strategy.” (497) The reason for this, apparently, was the authoritarian role he had played in the crisis of civil war and economic collapse from 1918 to 1922. “The Bolshevik party had treated even workers and peasants savagely whenever they engaged in active opposition,” Service writes. “Trotsky’s earlier ideas about ‘proletarian’ self-liberation were like old coins that had dropped unnoticed out of his pocket.” (267) For seriously revolutionary-minded people, Trotsky’s trajectory in these years raises important questions – but for Service it slams all doors firmly shut. He seems to use what happened in this intense five-year period to dismiss everything that Trotsky thinks, says and does afterward, and to question all that went before.

This is in stark contrast to the interpretation offered by Deutscher, who comments that “in the first half of 1922 Trotsky still spoke primarily as the Bolshevik disciplinarian; in the second half he was already in conflict with the disciplinarians,” coming “closer to the Workers Opposition and kindred groups” – not accepting what he believed to be utopian, unrealistic aspects of their positions, but “acknowledging the rational side of their revulsion against authority. … He began to protest against the excesses of centralism as these made themselves felt. . . . He clashed with the party ‘apparatus’ as the apparatus grew independent of the party and subjected party and state to itself.” Deutscher emphasizes what he perceives as the growing cleavage between “the power and the dream” – and the deepening contradiction felt by the Bolsheviks who had created a machine of power to make the dream a reality. “They could not dispense with power if they were to strive for the fulfillment of their ideals; but now their power came to oppress and overshadow their ideals.” Deutscher added: “Nobody had in 1920-1 gone farther than Trotsky in demanding that every interest and aspiration should be wholly subordinated to the ‘iron dictatorship.’ Yet he was the first of the Bolshevik chiefs to turn against the machine of that dictatorship when it began to devour the dream.” [21]

Service will have none of this. But he does not succeed in providing a persuasive and coherent alternative perspective. Rejecting both the dream and the power, he can find no redeeming qualities in the subject to which he devotes more than 500 pages.

The actual Trotsky

Regardless of one’s political standpoint, serious engagement with Trotsky’s life and ideas generally results in one being more profoundly and positively impressed than Service and his cheer-leaders would have us be. Christopher Hitchens – breaking from Trotskyist and revolutionary perspectives, and tacking closer to the Hoover Institution’s conservative orientation than he certainly had ever imagined – has not been able to stop himself from insisting that Trotsky was “a person of immense moral and physical courage . . . who . . . wrote pamphlets and made speeches against the menace of Hitlerism, which are much better and were made much earlier than any of Winston Churchill’s.” [22] The splendid literary and social critic Irving Howe, another ex-Trotskyist who avoided tacking quite so far rightward, felt compelled to insist thirty years ago that Trotsky “must be regarded as one of the great writers of his time,” and went on to specify:

Perhaps nowhere else do these talents shine forth so brightly as in Trotsky’s writings in the early 1930s on the rise of Nazism. These consist of articles and pamphlets composed hurriedly in exile: there is no effort to work out a theoretical synthesis, partly because Trotsky’s major objective is to offer tactical guidance for preventing Hitler’s victory and partly because the phenomenon of Nazism is still new. But such brilliant works . . . contain within them many of the elements needed for a theory of Nazism. … Trotsky’s main purpose in these writings was not to provide a full-scale theory of fascism but to stir the German left toward concerted action. With blazing sarcasm and urgency – he never could be patient toward fools – he attacked the preposterous policy of the German Communists [following Stalin], who in their ultra-left “third period” were declaring the Social Democrats to be “social fascists” representing a greater danger than the Nazis. Trotsky kept insisting on what seems utterly clear and simple: that only a united front (“march separately, strike together”) of the Communists and Social Democrats could stop Hitler. … Had Trotsky’s advice been followed … the world might have been spared some of the horrors of our century; at the very least, the German working class would have gone down in battle the than allowing the Nazi thugs to take power without resistance. [23]

How could it be that Service would shrug this off?

With a similar minimal engagement with the documentary sources, Service also shrugs off the efforts to build up the Fourth International – a global network of revolutionary socialist organizations, quite small but to which Trotsky devoted the final years of his life. Howe sees him in these years as a figure of “flawed greatness … an all too human figure,” who “alternates between periods of ferocious work and sluggish withdrawal. He feels guilty with regards to his children, all of whose lives, in one way or another, have been sacrificed in the political struggle. He is afraid that he may die before finishing his revolutionary task. He is overcome by the incongruity between the magnitude of his political perspective and the paltriness of his political means.” Nonetheless, “caustic and proud, shaking off his personal griefs in order to return to the discipline of work,” he tries to do the very best he can – particularly in what Howe sees as the “ill-starred venture” of the Fourth International. [24]

Service cannot allow himself such critical generosity. There are a scattering of little nuggets drawn from the archives – although, in some cases already published and long-available to the rest of us. A genuinely revolutionary approach of socialist organizations toward workers in struggle should be “not to command the workers but only to help them, to give them suggestions, to arm them with facts, ideas, factory papers, special leaflets, and so on.” The need to make revolutionary socialist organizations “habitable for workers” (not just intellectual and white-collar workers) was a primary concern for Trotsky. “Many intellectuals and half-intellectuals terrorize the workers by some abstract generalities and paralyze the will toward activity,” he cautioned. “A functionary of a revolutionary party should have in the first place a good ear, and only in the second place a good tongue.” (443) [25]

For the most part, however, Service is satisfied with superficialities (“global Trotskyism was a lot less substantial than Stalin imagined”) and snide inaccuracies: “He had sealed himself in the cave of his fundamental beliefs. He allowed no questioning of them. He bullied his followers who dared to object; and he preferred them to leave the Fourth International than to cause him bother.” (441, 472) Whatever limitations one sees in Trotsky’s political practice in the Fourth International, serious histories of the Fourth International as well as a number of memoirs and primary sources, do not confirm Service’s glib characterization. [26]

Service focuses on Trotsky’s 1939-1940 polemics with James Burnham to make his point about Trotsky’s sterile bullying. These were part of a fierce factional battle in the U.S. Socialist Workers Party that – when examined in its fullness – actually refutes the point Service is making. This is documented and succinctly presented in Isaac Deutscher’s biography:

The American Trotskyists had split into a “majority” which, led by James P. Cannon, accepted Trotsky’s view, and a “minority” which followed Burnham and [Max] Shachtman. Trotsky urged all of them to exercise tact and tolerance; and while he encouraged the “Cannonites” to conduct the argument against Burnham and Shachtman vigorously, he also warned them that the Stalinist agents in their ranks would seek to exacerbate the quarrel; and he advised them to allow the minority to express itself freely and even to act as an organized faction within the S.W.P. “If someone should propose … to expel comrade Burnham,” he gave notice, “I would oppose it energetically.” Even after the minority had held its own National Convention, Trotsky still counseled the majority not to treat this as an excuse for expulsions.[27]

As it turned out, the political differences were so sharp that Burnham, Shachtman, and their co-thinkers felt a need to establish their own separate organization. The biographers of the two provide essential information. “In April 1940 Shachtman left the Socialist Workers Party and founded his own Workers Party on the basis of his own conceptions,” notes Peter Drucker in his left-wing study of Shachtman. They simply did not want to be constrained by the limitations of Trotsky’s perspectives, unlike him seeing the Soviet Union under Stalin as not simply needing an anti-bureaucratic political revolution but, in fact, representing a new oppressive form of society as bad as capitalism (and some would soon say worse than capitalism). This new group was almost immediately jolted by the discovery that one of its key theorists was as “bad” as Trotsky had said he was. In his conservative study of James Burnham (who soon enlisted in the Central Intelligence Agency and became an editor of the right-wing National Review), Daniel Kelly notes that “on top of his disillusionment with Trotsky, Burnham now seemed uncertain about the value of the movement and even of socialism.” Within weeks, he had abandoned the Workers Party, explaining to his stunned comrades “that he could no longer accept Marxism, whose ideas modern historians, economists, and anthropologists had shown to be false.” [28] It is really not at all surprising that that he and Trotsky had come into such sharp conflict.

Shachtman and his comrades were eventually followed in their exit from Trotsky’s Fourth International by others having the somewhat different perspective that the Soviet Union represented simply a new variant of capitalism (state capitalism). Yet the independent currents – generating an impressive body of political thought and analysis – nonetheless retained a positive attitude to Trotsky, in stark contrast to Burnham (and Service). [29]

Political choices and permanent revolution

Fifteen years after his break, Burnham would denounce the Trotsky biography of Isaac Deutscher. Near the beginning of the review, he offered a list of Trotsky’s sins that would certainly not surprise Service: pride, subjectivism, impatience, and inhumanity. He conceded that Deutscher’s work was well-researched study and filled in “many gaps,” and that it showed Trotsky’s considerable talents but “conscientiously displays, also, Trotsky’s weaknesses, not only those major flaws that I have already named, but the human failings that were sometimes the obverse of his talents.” Nonetheless, the biography was an “intellectual disaster.” The reason was ideological: “Mr. Deutscher writes from a point of view that accepts and legitimizes the Bolshevik revolution.” Burnham lamented that “the minds of many of our university students and opinion-makers are being deeply formed” by Trotsky’s perspectives which Deutscher sought to convey. “Not all the scholarly references from all the libraries,” according to Burnham, “are enough to wash out the Bolshevik stain.” [30]

Service – with the assistance of the Hoover Institution and to the applause of many pro-capitalist intellectuals – seeks once and for all to un-do such damage. A central point of this biography, repeated over and over again, was that Trotsky’s orientation does not represent any meaningful alternative to Stalinism. Service informs us at the beginning of the book that “Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin shared more than they disagreed about.” Near the end of the book he insists that Trotsky “was close to Stalin in intentions and practice.” (3, 497) The same theme is sounded more than once in-between – even as the evidence (sometimes the evidence he himself presents) suggests otherwise.

There were plenty of informed people of the time, both Trotskyist and non-Trotskyist, who saw things quite differently. Among these was the eloquent powerhouse of British empire and conservatism Winston Churchill, who in conversations and writings of the 1930s emphasized the differences between the revolutionary Trotsky and the much more reasonable Stalin. The old counter-revolutionary expressed himself most candidly in a 1938 private conversation with the Soviet Ambassador to Britain. This was when Stalin’s bloody purge against “the anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites” was going full throttle. Service himself offers the story in passing. “I hate Trotsky!” Churchill told Stalin’s man. “I’ve kept an eye on his activities for some time. He’s Russia’s evil genius, and it is a very good thing that Stalin has got even with him.” (465)

Indeed, the cigar-chomping aristocrat had said as much publicly a year earlier, with all the self-satisfied conservative eloquence he could muster:

Once again he has become the exponent of the purest sect of Communism. Around his name gather the new extremists and doctrinaires of world-revolution. Upon him is turned the full blast of Soviet malignity. … The name of Lenin, the doctrine of Marx, are invoked against him at the moment when he frantically endeavors to exploit them. Russia is regaining strength as the virulence of Communism abates in her blood. The process may be cruel, but it is not morbid. It is a need of self-preservation which impels the Soviet Government to extrude Trotsky and his fresh-distilled poisons.[31]

This, shorn of its excess and its tacit embrace of Stalin, is the image that Service also offers us, despite a far more positive sub-text inadvertently pushing up like grass, flowers, and dandelions through the cracks of his somewhat barren account.

In the youth radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s, many young activists read the condensed little collection of writings edited by Isaac Deutscher and George Novack, widely circulated in paperback, entitled The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology. In the introduction to that volume, Deutscher described Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution – to which Service gives remarkably short shrift – as “a profound and comprehensive conception in which all the overturns that the world has been undergoing (in this late capitalist era) are represented as interconnected and interdependent parts of a single revolutionary process.” In the theory of permanent revolution, we see the dynamic interplay of democracy and class struggle, the self-activity of the masses of laboring and oppressed people reaching for their own liberation within, while at the same time straining beyond, the context of global capitalism. Three elements can be found in Trotsky’s theory: (a) the possibility and necessity, under the right circumstances, of democratic and immediate struggles spilling over into the struggle for working-class political power, (b) culminating in a transitional period going in the direction of socialism, (c) which can be realized only through the advance of similar struggles around the world. In fact, these elements permeate Trotsky’s orientation from his youth to his death. “To put it in the broadest terms,” Deutscher emphasized, “the social upheaval of our century is seen by Trotsky as global in scope and character, even though it proceeds on various levels of civilization and in the most diverse social structures, and even though its various phases are separated from one another in time and space.” [32]

Young activists hoping for a better world may be drawn to the vitality of Trotsky, despite Service’s efforts. It is possible that some of them may even get their introduction to Trotsky by reading his book. The assumptions of the Hoover Institution may, after all, turn out to be less relevant than the life and ideas of Trotsky in face of what is actually happening in the world. The young activists may conclude that they are living in the age of permanent revolution, and then commit their lives to making it so.

[This article first appeared at the ESSF website. It is reproduced here with due acknowledgement.]

Notes

[1] Robert Harris, “Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service,” Sunday Times, October 18, 2009:
http://entertainment.timesonline.co....

[2] Simon Sebag, Montefiore, “Trotsky by Robert Service: review,” Daily Telegraph, October 11, 2009:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/....

[3] Harris, cited in footnote 1.

[4] Joshua Rubenstein, “Revolutionary’s Road,” Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2009:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100...

[5] Tariq Ali, “The Life and Death of Trotsky,” The Guardian, 31 October 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/200.... Available on ESSF: The life and death of Trotsky. While Ali’s leftist dissent is uncommon in “mainstream” sources, there has been a negative chorus forthcoming among the marginalized left – with critiques available on-line from Peter Taafe, David North, Paul Hampton, Dave Sherry, and others. Each raises points worth considering (although I am not persuaded by North’s argument that Service is cynically “making an appeal to anti-Semites” in the way he writes about Trotsky).

[6] “Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” Hoover Institution, July 28, 2009, http://www.hoover.org/multimedia/uk....

[7] Max Eastman, Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth (New York: Greenberg, 1925), 26-27.

[8] Nurit Schleifman, “Azef, Evno Fishelevich (1869-1918),” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Russian Revolution, ed. by Harold Shukman (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1988), 303-304.

[9] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Trotsky: 1879-1921 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1954), 381-386.

[10] Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, with an introduction by Isaac Deutscher (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 21, 62, 65, 67, 68. Service chooses not to acknowledgeTrotsky’s poignant description of his son, Leon Sedov – Son, Friend, Fighter, written on behalf of himself and Natalya upon a death clouded by mysterious circumstances, in which Trotsky says “he was our son, truthful, devoted, loving, . . . he had, as no one else on earth, become part of our life, entwined in all its roots, our co-thinker, our co-worker, our guard, our counselor, our friend.” (Leon Trotsky, Portraits Political and Personal [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977], 190.)

[11] “Mission Statement,” Hoover Institution, http://www.hoover.org/about/mission; “Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” cited in footnote 6.

[12] Eastman, 7.

[13] Elsewhere in the volume, Service acknowledges Joffe and Rakovsky, among others, as close friends of Trotsky. In addition, see Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, From Syndicalism to Trotskyism: Writings of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer (London: Porcupine Press, 2000), and Alice Rühle-Gerstel, “No Verses for Trotsky: A Diary (1937),” Encounter, April 1982, 27-41. Sara Weber also writes of her friendship (seemingly not an unusual one) with Trotsky and his companion Natalia in “Recollections of Trotsky,” Modern Occasions, Spring 1972.

[14] "Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” cited in footnote 6. Similar points are made, with substantial documentation, by Arno J. Mayer – The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) and Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The ‘Final Solution’ In History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). Also see the second volume – dealing with the civil war – of William Henry Chamberlin’s 1935 classic The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), and David S. Fogelsong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism, 1917-1920 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[15] On this complex question, see Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London: Writers and Readers, 1984), 115-156, Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (London/New York: Routledge, 2008), and Paul Le Blanc, “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Democracy,” New Politics, Winter 2009, 45-52.

[16] Service, 349; Leon Trotsky, My Life, An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 462, 466, 479, 521.

[17] Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 47, 49, 48.

[18] Ibid., 45-46.

[19] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937), 56, 112. The quotation from Marx can be found in The Germany Ideology (1845) – for the full excerpt see Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, eds., Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 427; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 37. One could write a substantial and remarkable doctoral dissertation on the evolution of Trotsky’s analysis that culminated in The Revolution Betrayed – and fortunately, someone recently has done just that. See Thomas Marshall Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (University of Pittsburgh, 2009).

[20] “The Totalitarian Defeatist in the Kremlin,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1937-38 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), 447; “Answers to the New York Herald-Tribune,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 413.

[21] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1959), 51, 53, 54, 78.

[22] "Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” cited in footnote 6.

[23] Irving Howe, Leon Trotsky (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 136, 140. The writings referred to here can be found in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971).

[24] Howe, 134, 135, 143.

[25] “The Social Composition of the Party,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 489, 490.

[26] See Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929–1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists (London: Ink Links, 1977); George Breitman, “The Rocky Road to the Fourth International, 1933-38” in Anthony Marcus, ed., Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005), 299-352; James P. Cannon , “Internationalism and the SWP,” in Speeches to the Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 67-91 . Useful material (some of uneven quality) can also be found in the pages of the journal Revolutionary History – see http://www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/.

[27] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1963), 475-476.

[28] Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), 109; Daniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World, A Life (Wilmington DL: ISI Books, 2002), 84-86.

[29] See Sean Matagamna, ed., The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism (London: Phoenix Press, 1998) and Tony Cliff, Trotskyism After Trotsky: The Origins of the International Socialists (London: Bookmarks, 1999) and A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary (London: Bookmarks, 2000).

[30] James Burnham, untitled review, Russian Review, volume 14, No. 2, April 1955, 151-152.

[31] Winston Churchill, Great Companions (1937), reprinted in Irving H. Smith, ed. Trotsky: Great Lives Observed (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 87-88. This dovetails with the anti-democratic, elitist (indeed, racist) upper-class attitudes documented in Clive Ponting, Churchill (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994).

[32] Isaac Deutscher, “Introduction,” The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology (New York: Dell, 1964), 19. Also see: Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects, with introductions by Michael Löwy (London: Socialist Resistance, 2007); Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (Kolkata [Calcutta], India: Progressive Publishers, 2006), 93-195; Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, eds., 100 Years of Permanent Revolution, Results and Prospects (London: Pluto Press, 2006); and Paul Le Blanc, on ESSF website: Uneven and Combined Development and the Sweep of History: Focus on Europe.

 



[1] Consulting Editor, Bengal Post

[2] Member of the Editorial Board, Historical Materialism

[3]Author, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky

[4] Author, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party