Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service
né Lev Davidovich Bronstein, 1905
In the first round of the French presidential election in 2002, some 10 per cent voted for world revolution, which is to say for soi-disant Trotskyist candidates. In Britain, too, Trotsky remains the darling of leftist actresses, academics and media folk. One reason this is the best biography of Trotsky to date is that it disregards all sentimental nonsense and gives us the facts.
In doing so, Robert Service explains, without an iota of sentiment or indulgence, why a failed Bolshevik leader whose cranium was smashed with an ice-pick by the agent of the pitiless regime he helped establish, became, even more than Lenin himself, the number one celebrity of revolutionary mythology.
Lev Davidovich Bronstein, his name till he was 23, had everything Western romantics could wish for in a revolutionary: a brilliant, cultured mind, a superb writing style, a gift for oratory, a taste for good clothes and a middle-class lifestyle and a set of passionate convictions — so passionate they ruled out alternative modes of thought from an early age. He could also be brave to the point of recklessness. Best of all from the viewpoint of his admirers in the West, he was something of a fantasist, who failed totally in his primary purpose in life: to internationalise Bolshevism and bring its murderous violence to foreign enthusiasts.
His polemical penmanship could be as brutal as it was colourful and he was as adept at fudging an argument as he was at falsifying, in his autobiography, aspects of his background. Hints of penurious origins are bogus. Service shows that his father was the most dynamic, entrepreneurial and well-to-do farmer in Kherson province, where he was born.
Though he showed organisational qualities in the October Revolution, in the building of the Red Army and in the pursuit of the Civil War — in all of which he played, with Lenin, a pre-eminent role — he was less of a leader and more of a permanent oppositionist in the cause of permanent revolution (the Russian, for the record, means literally “uninterrupted”). He never really went for the top job when Lenin died, confining himself to complaining about Stalin. It wasn’t Stalin’s ruthlessness that upset him, though he considered him crude and an intellectual dwarf, but his bureaucratic ways.
Service calls Trotsky a chancer, a felicitous word, but of course he was more than that. He was also a visionary, writing that with the revolution triumphant throughout the world, “the average human type will rise to the level of Aristotle, Goethe, Marx.” If so, like Trotsky himself, the average man would be a mightily conflicted person. Meanwhile, what did it matter if a few million sub-average, non-revolutionary types were eliminated in the pursuit of the vision?
Not that he was afraid to get his hands dirty or reluctant to condone the most bestial aspects of the Soviet regime. A recurring theme of the biography is that this revolutionary genius had personality problems. It wasn’t just his taste for vicious sarcasm and abuse, but something deeper. Max Eastman, an American communist who knew him, was to say that he lacked feeling for others as individuals. This could be a useful quality in Trotsky’s line of work. Even his acolytes in the West were worried by his bloody repression of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921 — by sailors demanding political pluralism — and the ease with which he dispensed summary death sentences in the Civil War.
Fiercely opposed to the bourgeois “fetishism” of legal procedures, he would have been upset to learn of the bourgeois leniency enjoyed by his murderer, Ramon Mercader. In his Mexican prison, the Soviet hireling lived cosily, his cell unlocked, on a mysterious allowance of $100 a month. On release, he was secretly made a general in the KGB. Disappointed by Russia, he spent his last years in the comfort of Cuba.
“Lenin and Trotsky”, Service comments, “had become the Siamese twins of Russian politics, joined at the hip in their determination to use state terror against enemies.” Any notion of Stalin the hangman and Trotsky the humanist- despite-himself is efficiently demolished. Hearing of the early show-trials of Social Revolutionaries and ex-Mensheviks after his exile to Turkey in 1929, he raised no objection, any more than he did to the mass murder of priests or kulaks.
The irony that the crimes of which the Mensheviks were accused were surpassed in outlandishness by the show trials of 1937-8, in which Trotsky himself was condemned to death in absentia, does not appear to have crossed his mind. Only incurable Trotsky junkies would deny that, had he stayed in Russia in a leadership role he would, with or without Stalin, have been more deeply steeped in blood than he was.
Economics was not Trotsky’s strength: fudging economic policy was. At times, he appeared to favour Lenin’s New Economic Policy — a temporary reintroduction of markets in the early 1920s — at others it was a rightist deviation. So wilful was his oppositionism that it is hard to avoid a twinge of sympathy for his arch-enemy, Stalin. Nothing he could do could satisfy the man. In 1928-29, Stalin shifted Comintern policy leftwards towards the preparation of seizures of power in the West, but it wasn’t leftist enough for Trotsky. And when, in the early 1930s, Stalin conducted the break-neck industrialisation of the Soviet Union, he was denounced as an unprincipled
The contrast between the extent of Tsarist and Soviet repression emerges starkly from Trotsky’s career. Revolutionaries under the Tsar had it easy compared to the treatment meted out later by the Bolsheviks. Trotsky’s early exile to Siberia was pleasant compared to what millions endured in the Gulag: he enjoyed freedom to earn money, to publish, to travel locally and eventually to escape. Later, in Mexico, where he fretted about the safety of his family in Russia and abroad, he had the grace to acknowledge that the Bolsheviks had murdered the entire family of the Romanovs, just as the OGPU (a forerunner of the KGB) was trying to eliminate the Bronsteins, children and all — though typically he sought to obscure his own role in that decision.
The charm of being a European or American sympathiser with Trotsky was that you were always pretty safe from the consequences of your own beliefs, and a full list of his intellectual fan-base would be long and distinguished. It included H. L. Mencken, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw (who also admired Stalin), John Dewey, Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos. None of them seems to have appreciated the depth of Trotsky’s contempt for their values, or — something Service is one of the few not to overlook — the virulence of his Russian nationalism, which had led him to play down his Jewish origins from an early age.
The contradiction here was that Trotsky the super-patriot was forever chiding his fellow Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Stalin, for being too preoccupied with the security of the new Soviet state to give world revolution the priority it deserved. Had the red flag flown over Western Europe (as it was to do in the East), with Trotsky we would swiftly have discovered who was top dog among the internationalist brothers.
His death can be seen as a kind of long suicide. It was more than a case of the revolution eating up its votaries: Trotsky was a prime mover in setting up the terror state, the system that killed him, and to that extent he engineered his own death. Though, like a suicide bomber, before he succumbed he took a lot of people with him.