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Trotsky: A Biography
Book Review by Dave Sherry, December 2009
Robert Service, Pan Macmillan, £25
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of Leon Trotsky's death. Expelled from Russia in 1929 and eventually exiled in Mexico, he was brutally murdered by an assassin from Stalin, who smashed his skull with an ice axe. This new biography is another hatchet job on Trotsky.
Service is a Russian History professor at Oxford University and a visiting fellow at Stanford University. He has made a career out of his hostility to the Russian Revolution. His latest book is the last in a trilogy that deals with Lenin and Stalin. It draws on "hitherto unexamined archives from Moscow and the Hoover Institution".
Service's book boils down to this: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were three of a kind; the "new evidence" proves that Trotsky has been miscast as a tragic hero when really he was just as ruthless and murderous as the other two; Stalin outsmarted Trotsky and defeated him because he was the sharper of the two. We are to believe that Trotsky was the victim of his own arrogance and incompetence: "He was close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism... He revelled in terror...his policies lay within the framework of authoritarian communism and had a genuine chance of victory... Unfortunately his tactical instincts were weakly developed. He was an inept assembler of supporters... He was a chancer... He needlessly alienated too many people at all levels of the party. He was easily his own worst enemy."
The accusation that Trotsky was ruthless in winning the Civil War is true. But the Red Army was fighting gangs of ruthless reactionaries and the armies of 14 capitalist countries. Most of the attacks on Trotsky are personal jibes and many are trivial. The book is very big but very little is new. It rehashes the old slanders heaped on Trotsky by generations of anti-communists and pro-Stalinists alike.
In his review in the Guardian, Tariq Ali punctures the book's claim to objectivity: "He informs us that Winston Churchill backed Stalin against Trotsky during the show trials. The old warhorse certainly knew how to distinguish between conservatives and radicals...he almost drowned Mussolini in praise as a bulwark against the evil tide of Bolshevism."
Trotsky was never popular with the Anglo-American establishment. Seventy years after his death its historians are still trying to bury him. Service would have us believe Trotsky was some kind of early spin doctor who could manipulate liberal opinion in the West.
He credits Trotsky with great talent, for he remains too important a figure to dismiss out of hand. After all he chaired the Petrograd Soviet in 1905 and 1917, he organised the insurrection and he founded and led the Red Army, which won the Civil War. Trotsky was a decisive leader in the party, the government and the International until 1924.
His personal fate fused with the revolution. He stood with Lenin against Stalin on the October insurrection. Alongside Lenin he insisted the revolution was part of an international movement to establish working class rule in a number of advanced countries and without that it was doomed. Stalin's project of "building socialism in one country" was anathema to both men.
Lenin wanted Stalin removed from power and sought Trotsky's support. After Lenin's death Trotsky led the opposition to the rising bureaucracy and its baleful influence abroad.
A measure of Trotsky's standing was that no individual could act as his counterweight - certainly not Stalin. The triumvirate of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin had to fight the lone Trotsky - an alliance that rested more on fear than common cause. Stalin murdered his two allies along with the rest of the Bolshevik leaders.
After 1929 Trotsky spent 11 years in exile, keeping the revolutionary Marxist tradition alive and dodging assassins. Hereabouts he penned some of the finest political writing of all time, including his History of the Russian Revolution, his analysis of its degeneration and his prophetic warnings about the rise of fascism. Service maintains this was self-indulgent and sidetracked Trotsky from "real" politics.
In his masterpiece on Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher explained, "Carlyle once wrote that as Cromwell's biographer 'he had to drag Cromwell out from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion'. My job as Trotsky's biographer has been somewhat similar."
Trotsky's ideas are the future. To find out why, read Deutscher's Prophet trilogy or, better still, Tony Cliff's four-volume biography. Both authors are sympathetic but not uncritical of their hero.
Robert Service, on the other hand, wants to push Trotsky back under Stalin's "mountain of dead dogs". It's worth reading his new book to appreciate what Trotsky's followers are up against. But in this review Trotsky gets the last word: "The vengeance of history is more powerful than the vengeance of the most powerful general secretary."
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