Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was something of a hero for a part of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s through at least the 1970s. Sidney Hook and John Dewey offered substantive support to Trotsky and his reputation during and after the end of his life through Dewey’s role in the “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials”. Trotsky was a theoretician of communism, a strategist, a man of letters, and the merciless chief of the Red Army immediately following the success of the Boshevik Revolution (represented by the character of Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago!). Expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, he spent the rest of his life in exile in a series of countries and was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940 in Mexico City. The Trotskyist left opposed Stalin’s policies long before other segments of the European left did so.

There is a narrative that places a lot of the history of the USSR into the framework of personality and character of its early leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The legend is that Trotsky was a principled revolutionary but a poor street fighter, and that Stalin was a power-hungry and ruthless opportunist who out-maneuvered his primary opponent after the death of Lenin. And Trotsky was too full of amour-propre to fully engage in the battle with Stalin. But it wasn’t all about personality; Trotsky and Stalin differed substantially about the future course of Communism, and Trotsky’s was the more radical view (permanent revolution versus socialism in one country). So who was Trotsky, and how would we know?

Trotsky himself addresses these topics in his autobiography, and indicates that he thinks they are unimportant: personality and character have less to do with his life than theory and the inevitable currents of history, in his own telling of his story. Here are a few lines from My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography:

My intellectual and active life, which began when I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, has been one of constant struggle for definite ideas. In my personal life there were no events deserving public attention in themselves. All the more or less unusual episodes in my life are bound up with the revolutionary struggle, and derive their significance from it. This alone justifies the appearance of my autobiography. But from this same source flow many difficulties for the author. The facts of my personal life have proved to be so closely interwoven with the texture of historical events that it has been difficult to separate them. This book, moreover, is not altogether an historical work. Events are treated here not according to their objective significance, but according to the way in which they are connected with the facts of my personal life. It is quite natural, then, that the accounts of specific events and of entire periods lack the proportion that would be demanded of them if this book were an historical work. I had to grope for the dividing line between autobiography and the history of the revolution. Without allowing the story of my life to become lost in an historical treatise, it was necessary at the same time to give the reader a base of the facts of the social development. In doing this, I assumed that the main outlines of the great events were known to him, and that all his memory needed was a brief reminder of historical facts and their sequence.

I am obliged to write these lines as an émigré— for the third time— while my closest friends are filling the places of exile and the prisons of that Soviet republic in whose creating they took so decisive a part. Some of them are vacillating, withdrawing, bowing before the enemy. Some are doing it because they are morally exhausted; others because they can find no other way out of the maze of circumstances; and still others because of the pressure of material reprisals. I had already lived through two instances of such mass desertion of the banner: after the collapse of the revolution of 1905, and at the beginning of the World War. Thus I know well enough, from my own experience, the historical ebb and flow. They are governed by their own laws. Mere impatience will not expedite their change. I have grown accustomed to viewing the historical perspective not from the standpoint of my personal fate. To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place —that is the first duty of a revolutionary. And at the same time, it is the greatest personal satisfaction possible for a man who does not limit his tasks to the present day. (preface)

So it is all about ideas, political commitments, and the march of history (as well sometimes as the personal weaknesses of others). But biographers need more than this.

A key source for the past fifty years has been the magnificent biography of Trotsky in three volumes by Isaac Deutscher, beginning publication in 1954 (The Prophet: Trotsky: 1879-1940 (Vol. 1-3)). Deutscher was a Polish writer and historian who was more or less miraculously posted to England at the time of the Nazi conquest of Poland; so he spent the rest of his life in England, while almost all of his family perished in the Holocaust. Deutscher’s work is an admirable piece of historical writing, with appropriate attention to historical detail and available historical sources, including a major archive at Harvard University. The book is favorable to Trotsky as a tragic and outcast leader, but is not sycophantic. It weaves together the biographical narrative with the great struggles in the USSR and Europe that took place during Trotsky’s life and to which he was an important contributor. (Here is the Google Books link to the first volume, The Prophet Armed.)

Deutscher puts the arc of Trotsky’s revolutionary leadership at the end of the Civil War in 1919 in these theatrical terms:

At the very pinnacle of power Trotsky, like the protagonist of a classical tragedy, stumbled. He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment. Circumstances, the preservation of the revolution, and his own pride drove him into this predicament. Placed as he was he could hardly have avoided it. His steps followed almost inevitably from all that he had done before; and only one step now separated the sublime from the sinister — even his denial of principle was still dictated by principle. Yet in acting as he did he shattered the ground on which he stood. (486)

This step was the decision to establish a system of dictatorship by the Communist Party. And this step led to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including Stalin’s war on the Kulaks.

When Trotsky now urged the Bolshevik party to ‘substitute’ itself for the working classes, he did not, in the rush of work and controversy, think of the next phases of the process, although he himself had long since predicted them with uncanny clear-sightedness. ‘The party organization would then substitute itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organization; and finally a single dictator would substitute himself for the Central Committee.’ The dictator was already waiting in the wings. (522)

In these three volumes Deutscher provided a detailed account of Trotsky’s actions and theorizing as well as their impact on history. But what were Trotsky’s motivations? Not much of the character, personality, or singularity of Trotsky emerges from Deutscher’s treatment.

In 2011 Robert Service published a new biography of Trotsky (Trotsky: A Biography), making use of sources that were not available to Deutscher in the 1950s. This book of more than 600 pages presents itself as the most historically authoritative treatment of its subject yet.  But the book has created great controversy about some of its most basic claims. Service has previously published biographies of Lenin and Stalin.  But the Trotsky book has generated huge criticism. A well documented but scathing review of the book was published by Bertrand Patenaude in the American Historical Review (AHR (2011) 116 (3): 900-902), and the review is summarized in Inside Higher Education (link).  Patenaude asserts that Service makes dozens of important errors of fact in the course of the book, and that it sets out to “thoroughly discredit Trotsky as a historical figure;” and Patenaude concludes that the book falls woefully short of the standards of historical rigor that it should have met. “[The publisher] has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship.” (902)  Patenaude also reviews David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky. North is himself an American Trotskyist and Patenaude was prepared to find a hatchet job in North’s treatment of Service. Instead he finds a powerful and well founded critique of the many errors, distortions, and bias in Service’s treatment of Trotsky. So the partisan gives a more faithful account of the facts than the professional historian!

Patenaude’s own treatment of Trotsky’s life in Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is restricted to the Mexico years, and is very detailed and interesting.  His narrative moves back and forth between Mexico and earlier periods as needed, but is focused on the final years of Trotsky’s life. Trotsky’s personality and behavior are made very clear in the narrative: socially difficult, harsh to those closest to him, dogmatic, committed, egoistic, and courageous. (Patenaude provides details of Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo that were unknown to Deutscher at the time of writing The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940. Deutscher doubts the existence of the affair, whereas Patenaude provides the evidence.)

So thousands of pages have been written, but we still don’t really have a clear answer to the question, “Who was Leon Trotsky?”. The Service biography appears to be thoroughly discredited for the most basic faults a historian can possess: lack of attention to the historical facts, and bringing an axe to grind to the subject matter. The Deutscher biography is less about the person than the actions he took. And the controversies about Trotsky persist.

Here is a fascinating discussion with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service about Trotsky’s life and impact.

(There are many other reviews of Service’s book, and some are more favorable and some even more negative. Here is a detailed discussion by Paul Le Blanc in the International Journal of Socialist Renewal (link), and here is a review by philosopher John Gray in Literary Review (link). Baruch Knei-Paz’s The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky is a generally respected treatment of Trotsky’s thought as an organized system.)


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