The Trotsky Legend Debunked

The romantic image of Trotsky as the doomed prophet and quixotic revolutionary may still be with us, but a new biography aims to shatter it for good. Historian Michael Kazin on the real Trotsky.

Two decades after the demolition of the Berlin Wall, nearly every icon of communism has been relegated to the garbage pit of history. Outside their own homelands, who would now deny that Stalin was one of the greatest murderers in history, that Lenin established a tyrannical state, that Cuba under Castro was and is an economic disaster, and that Che, the failed guerrilla, is now merely a fashion statement? A giant image of Mao still peers out on Tiananmen Square. But “the great helmsman” jailed or executed any party member he suspected of favoring the unabashed market society China has become.

Only Leon Trotsky retains a certain allure. The bushy-haired Russian Jew in the pince-nez was an ardent revolutionary but also a genuine democrat, or so the legend goes. He believed artists and writers could not produce their best work if they had to toe a party line. He devoured French novels, accepted Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and wrote a multivolume history of the Russian Revolution that remains a pleasure to read. Of course, after being exiled from the USSR, Trotsky became Stalin’s greatest enemy. In 1940, he was martyred at the tip of an ice pick wielded by a Soviet agent posing as an acolyte. Before and after his death, “The Old Man,” as Trotsky liked to call himself, attracted a brigade of brilliant admirers—Max Eastman, Irving Howe, George Orwell, John Dewey, and Diego Rivera among them. In his late 50s, he even had a brief affair with Frida Kahlo.

The only major difference between Trotsky and his fellow Bolshevik leaders was that he never got the chance to wield total power.

None of this impresses Robert Service. For him, Trotsky—aside from that literary talent—was no more virtuous a figure than Lenin or Stalin, whose reputation the Oxford professor sought to bury in previous biographies. In a sober narrative thick with political details, both fresh and familiar, Service deflates the notion that the Old Man offered either a humane or plausible alternative to his unlamented comrades. The only major difference between Trotsky and his fellow Bolshevik leaders was that he never got the chance to wield total power.

In the early 1920s, Trotsky defended “Red Terror” as essential to victory for his side in the Russian Civil War. For a time, he enjoyed exercising “unchecked administrative authority” as much as Stalin, whom he later condemned for erecting a personal bureaucracy to rule over the USSR. Trotsky was also the first prominent Bolshevik to advocate the forced collectivization of agriculture, a plan Stalin carried out after banishing his rival to a Turkish isle. When Trotsky belonged to the Soviet leadership, he made chillingly clear what he thought about an electoral path to radical change: “What pitiful nonsense are speeches about the peaceful conquest of power by the proletariat by means of democratic parliamentarism!” he snarled at the German socialist Karl Kautsky. Service argues that, had Trotsky become the top Soviet leader, his unceasing advocacy of “permanent revolution” could have led to a European “bloodbath.” In contrast, Stalin, for all his butchery, at least understood that Hitler’s taking of power in Germany meant postponing the struggle for a communist world for years to come.

Unfortunately, Service sets forth this utterly rational case with all the elegance of a police report. In a typical passage about the Russian civil war, he writes, “The communist party was in poor shape. The soviets and the trade unions were ineffectual; transport and communications were in chaos…Trotsky applied his fecund mind to all such problems.” Most American readers will also be puzzled by such phrases as “argue the toss” and “took it all in good part.”

Service is the first major biographer of Trotsky to portray him as myopic villain instead of defeated prophet. But in his zeal to debunk, he too often scants historical interpretation. Service never explains why the son of a prosperous if illiterate landowner became a revolutionary in the first place or retained that faith until his death. He does recognize that Trotsky was unable to escape a Jewish identity he had no wish to preserve. He is “a four kind son of a bitch, but the greatest Jew since Christ,” commented the American head of the Red Cross in Russia. But Service neglects to probe how Trotsky’s Jewishness made it virtually impossible for him to loosen Stalin’s grip over communists from rural provinces where anti-Semitism was taken for granted.

Unlike Isaac Deutscher, whose admiring but not uncritical three-volume life of Trotsky has been the standard work until now, Service fails to capture why many intelligent radicals and liberals could have believed the Old Man had vital things to say as well the talent to say them well. An indictment, however erudite and thorough, is not a biography.

The era when serious people sympathized with Trotsky’s politics is long over, and with good reason. Contrary to his Bolshevik scorn for “bourgeois democracy,” free elections are not a clever device to preserve an oppressive society; along with grassroots movements, they are the only way to prevent a tyranny from taking hold and the only benevolent method for overthrowing one that has.

But as an exile during the 1930s, Trotsky did speak up for the utopian impulse, which helped him appeal to many intellectuals during a worldwide depression and the alarming rise of fascism. In his last testament, which Service does not see fit to quote, the unbending revolutionary wrote that his “faith in man and in his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion…I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.” Such hope is vital if we are ever to transcend the perpetual tit-for-tat, zero-sum game of everyday politics. It should not remain the exclusive property of fundamentalists and totalitarians.

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Michael Kazin’s most recent book is A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is the co-editor of Dissent.