Scott McLemee: Re-assassination of Trotsky

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[For more articles on Trotsky at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, click HERE.]

By Scott McLemee

July 8, 2011 -- Inside Higher Ed, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Every so often, one scholar will assess another’s book so harshly that it becomes legendary. The most durable example must be A.E. Housman, whose anti-blurbs retain their sting after a century and more. Housman is best-known for the verse in his collection A Shropeshire Lad (1896). But classicists still remember his often pointed reviews of other philologists’ editions of ancient poetry, and can sometimes quote snippets from memory.

“When I first open an edition of Persius,” he writes in one of them, “I turn to VI 51 to see if the editor knows what part of speech adeo is. I regret to say that Mr. Summers thinks it is a verb.” Or consider the following line, which kills two dons with one stone: “I imagine that Mr. Buechler, when he first perused Mr. Sidhaus’s edition of the Aetna, must have felt something like Sin when she gave birth to Death.”

Reviews in academic journals these days tend to be more gentle, if not more genteel – or at any rate, more circumspect. But the new issue of The American Historical Review contains a notice that will earn a place in the annals of the scholarly take-down. One historian says of another that he “commits numerous distortions of the historical record and outright errors of fact to the point that the intellectual integrity of the whole enterprise is open to question." Its publisher (one of the most prominent university presses in the United States) “has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship."

And plenty more where that came from. Since reading the review last week, I have been in touch with both the reviewer and the review-ee -- then spent a week trying to elicit a comment from the pertinent acquisitions editor at the press, who has gone either on vacation or into hiding.

The volume in question is Trotsky: A Life (Harvard University Press, 2009) by Robert Service, a professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford. He has also written biographies of Lenin and Stalin; they, too, were published by Harvard. It bears pointing out that Robert Service did not write either The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) nor The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986), which are instead the work of Robert Conquest. Both have been fellows at the Hoover Institution on war, revolution and peace, based at Stanford University, which does not help in keeping them straight. (The next British historian of the Soviet Union named “Robert” to become prominent might consider using the initial “R” instead of their full first name.)

As it happens, the reviewer of Service’s book, Bertrand M. Patenaude, is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution. His book Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary (HarperCollins, 2009) appeared at the same time as Service’s. Both volumes received very favourable notices in the British and US press when they appeared.

Trotsky was the object of both adoration and vilification during his lifetime, and remains so even now. A figure second only to Lenin in the leadership of the Russian Revolution, he was the founder of the Red Army, the author of major statements of the Communist International, and an interlocutor in numerous cultural as well as political arguments throughout the first part of the 20th century. In polemics, he gave quite as brutally as he got. (The US cultural critic Dwight Macdonald said he felt honoured to have inspired Trotsky’s remark, “Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.”) He was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940, but his capacity to inspire argument seems perennial.

Isaac Deutscher

To place the dispute in AHR in context, it helps to take a quick look at the history of efforts to tell the story of the revolutionary's life. Over it looms Isaac Deutscher's monumental trilogy, which began with The Prophet Armed in 1954 and concluded with The Prophet Outcast in 1963. Deutscher was expelled from the Polish Communist Party for Trotskyism in the 1930s. As a biographer, he was clearly a partisan, but just as clearly he was no parrot. As a delegate to the first conference of the Fourth International (the worldwide Trotskyist organisation) he voted against founding the new group because its forces were too weak. He withdrew from political activism and became a prolific journalist covering Soviet politics and history, mainly for British newspapers.

In writing his biography, Deutscher had full access to the Russian exile’s papers at Harvard University. This included the section covering his years of exile (1929-40) which remained closed to the public until 1980. A deep background in Communist politics and considerable skill as a writer in his adopted language of English made Deutscher’s trilogy one of the monumental biographies of the past half-century. In the meantime, the rest of Trotsky’s papers at Harvard were made available to researchers; and then, just a few years later, the Soviet archives began opening up during glasnost. The old controversies (e.g., did Trotsky offer an alternative to Stalin, or was he just a totalitarian with a better prose style?) had fresh fuel.

No work of the post-Deutscherian era has quite displaced the trilogy as a standard reference, though Pierre Broue’s biography, published in France in 1988, is its chief rival. (Broue, a French Trotskyist, also wrote substantial histories of the German revolution and the Spanish Civil War.) The best-known work drawing on the Soviet archives is Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary by Dmitri Volkogonov, a general in the Red Army and later an adviser to Boris Yeltsin. His book, which appeared in English not long after Volkogonov’s death in 1995, was one of a series of biographies of the Soviet “founding fathers” he wrote in the debunking spirit of the early post-Cold War period. Trotsky was, in Volkogonov’s estimate, among “the architects of the Soviet totalitarian bureaucratic system.”

Many another publication on Trotsky has also appeared, with some being scholarly and some merely lurid. You can now read Trotsky’s notebook on Hegel. Or you can read about his affair with Frida Kahlo. It is an embarrassment of riches -- except when it is just embarrassing, full stop.

Serrvice's mistakes, 'manhandled evidence'

To distinguish his book amidst all this wheat and chaff, Service writes in his preface that it is "the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside of Russia who is not a Trotskyist." The claim seems puzzling, because it is plainly and inarguably quite untrue. A competent editor would have saved him the embarrassment of making it. But Patenaude’s assessment in the American Historical Review suggests that this is the tip of an iceberg of factual inaccuracies.

“I have counted more than four dozen [mistakes],” he writes. “Service mixes up the names of Trotsky's sons, misidentifies the largest political group in the first Duma in 1906, botches the name of the Austrian archduke assassinated at Sarajevo, misrepresents the circumstances of Nicholas II's abdication, gets backward Trotsky's position in 1940 on the United States' entry into World War II, and gives the wrong year of death of Trotsky's widow. Service's book is completely unreliable as a reference…. At times the errors are jaw-dropping. Service believes that Bertram Wolfe was one of Trotsky's ‘acolytes’ living with him in Mexico (pp. 441, 473), that André Breton was a ‘surrealist painter’ whose ‘pictures exhibited sympathy with the plight of the working people’ (p. 453), and that Mikhail Gorbachev rehabilitated Trotsky in 1988, when in fact Trotsky was never posthumously rehabilitated by the Soviet government.”

(Here let me intrude to add a mite to the historical record, since not many readers are likely to recognise the name of Bertram Wolfe, the prominent Sovietologist, who died in 1977. In the 1920s, as a leader of the American Communist Party, he wrote a pamphlet denouncing Trotsky and was involved with the purge of Trotsky’s followers ... only to be purged himself a few months later. The characterisation of him as an “acolyte” of Trotsky would certainly be an interesting discovery, if it were true. Service has confused him with Bernard Wolfe, a writer who did live with the exile for a time and later published a novel about Trotsky.)

“Service fails to examine in a serious way Trotsky's political ideas in his writings and speeches,” writes Patenaude, “nor does it appear that he has always bothered to familiarize himself with them.” As an example, he quotes the biographer’s précis of Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution (1923). In it, Service writes: “Like fellow communist leaders, Trotsky wanted a high culture subordinate to the party's purposes. It would take many years, he assumed, before a ‘proletarian culture’ would be widely achieved.” This is exactly wrong. The book was written to denounce the “proletarian culture” movement, and is not exactly ambiguous on the point.

Service’s portrait of Trotsky insists that he was as cold-blooded toward his family as toward his enemies. An example is his account of Trotsky’s emigration to England in 1902, when he managed to escape Siberian exile. “No sooner had he fathered a couple of children,” he writes, “than he decided to run off. Few revolutionaries left such a mess behind them. Even so, he was acting within the revolutionary code of behavior.” Service later refers to Trotsky “ditch[ing] his first wife,” and quotes a passage from Trotsky’s autobiography that seems to dismiss the whole episode by saying “Life separated us.” The reviewer calls this “tamper[ing] with the available evidence” by “excising an inconvenient text.” Trotsky’s autobiography says that he and his wife agreed that he should flee the country. The full text of the sentence actually reads. “Life separated us, but nothing could destroy our friendship and our intellectual kinship” (p. 125). Patenuade also notes that the revolutionary’s first wife remained a political supporter and “went to her death in the Great Terror as a Trotskyist.” Service may prefer to characterise Trotsky as “ditch[ing] his first wife,” but clearly she didn’t see it that way.

This is but a sampling of the mistakes or instances of manhandled evidence that Patenaude charges in his piece. The review is about 2000 words long, and also discusses a volume by David North called In Defense of Leon Trotsky, published last year by Mehring Books, the publisher associated with something called the Socialist Equality Party, of which North is the (pseudonymous) leader.

Being, in many respects, a fairly strange person, I have a rather extensive familiarity with North’s oeuvre, which includes treatises arguing that other Trotskyists were agents of the FBI or Soviet intelligence. His books do not often receive attention in The American Historical Review. That this one did seemed intriguing. I wanted to ask Patenaude about it. Did AHR ask him to review both titles? How did the editors respond to the review – did they change it at all? I also wanted to convey something that a historian told me after reading the review: “This is the most damning review I've ever seen in a history journal. There must be more to it than meets the eye – an element of personal motivation, payback of some kind." Surely other people were thinking the same thing. What were the circumstances of the assignment?

“I wrote the review at the request of the editors of the AHR,” he told me by email. “They asked me to review both Service's book and North's book. I did find this a little curious, because Service is a major figure in the field of Soviet history and his Trotsky has been hailed by several reviewers as the definitive biography -- so why dilute the effect by combining it with a slender, essentially self-published volume written by an avowed Trotskyist who devotes most of his pages to criticism of Service and his book?”

Patenaude says he was “initially inclined to turn down the review request” because he had not read either volume and knew that writing the piece would take him away from other work. “Nonetheless, after checking to make sure that David North's book did not mention my own recent book on Trotsky, I accepted the invitation, fully expecting that I would add my voice to the chorus of praise for Service's biography.”

But while reading the book, he “was surprised by the numerous factual errors … and also by the author's relentlessly prosecutorial tone. By the time I came to the end of the book, I realized that something was seriously amiss: how had such a sloppily researched and tendentiously written book received such glowing reviews from so many historians and other notable reviewers, both in the U.K. and the U.S.?”

Patenaude then turned to North’s volume, not quite half of which consists of a critique of Service’s biography. He expected “a predictable polemical diatribe from the radical left” but found that it “in fact hit the nail on the head in exposing the fundamental problems with Service's biography.”

As for being “payback,” it sounds like the review leaves Patenaude in a fairly awkward situation: Service wrote a favourable review of his book, a blurb from which now appears on the cover of the paperback edition.

“Service and I also happen both to be fellows at the Hoover Institution -- although he is here at Hoover only in summers, so I have met him only once, and very briefly, a few years ago.”

He acknowledges that the review may be unusually stringent for an academic journal – but the situation itself was unusual: “Having read at least a dozen enthusiastic reviews of Service's book (some of them joint reviews of both our books), I started out expecting to produce a respectful academic review, but there could be no mincing words about the scandalous state of affairs I was confronted with upon reading his book.”

While making its points sharply, and without apology or delay, Patenaude’s review shows none of the aggressive schadenfreude exhibited in Housman’s legendary attacks. “Once I had read both books,” he told me, “and understood the circumstances of the situation, I felt I had no choice but to proceed the way I did.”

Before interviewing Patenaude, I wrote to Robert Service. Had he prepared a response to the AHR piece, or would he otherwise care to comment on it?

In no time there came a reply: “Eh, have you [a] copy of the review? Can't comment on what I haven't seen!”

I sent it to him. He did not respond. The silence became worrying. At the end of the day, I told my wife what had happened, and she said, “You’ve killed him.” (The thought had already crossed my mind.)

Three days later, after two more efforts to elicit a reply, Service wrote the following:

“"It's best for serious scholars to stay clear of abuse. The Trotskyists have used scurrilous and evasive tactics for nearly two years in attacking my Trotsky biography. Predictably they don't like a book which challenges their idolatry -- and they have constantly failed to address the fundamental questions raised by the book. But the Western intelligentsia has always also included Trotsky romantics who want to think the best of Trotsky and who take a more or less uncritical approach to the history of the USSR. In a way they become entranced by him. This happened while Trotsky was alive; and judging from Patenaude's dyspeptic review, it is still alive and flourishing. Patenaude's own account of Trotsky's last years in Mexico treats him as a noble martyr. Well, to say the least, this is a questionable analysis -- and I simply ask people to read my biography and make up their own minds.

“The minor factual blips in the first edition of my biography have been corrected; none of them undermines the kind of revision of Trotsky's reputation that I attempted after decades of the gentle treatment he received. What's required is joined-up thinking in our attitude not only to the Soviet past but also to our own present. Life's too short for a slanging match."

This is a response, if by no means an answer. Patenaude’s book, which focuses on the final three years of Trotsky’s life and his assassination in Mexico, is by no means a hagiography. (Any suggestion that he indulges in Trotskyist nostalgia will be dispersed upon reading it.) Nothing in the AHR piece is scurrilous or abusive. For that matter, the assessment of Service’s book by left-wing academics such as Paul Le Blanc and Hillel Ticktin have been more forensic than polemical. The objections to Service’s scholarship do not concern “minor factual blips” but charges that he has misrepresented evidence or failed to read the material being cited. And in any case, “factual blips” in sufficient quantity are indistinguishable from simple incompetence.

Nobody writing on Trotsky can expect to escape controversy, but that only heightens the need for scrupulous accuracy. Under the circumstances, I can only suggest that any research library that has added Service’s book to its collection should consider acquiring David North’s as well.

Finally: when one of the leading scholarly journals in the country publishes a complaint that a particular academic press “has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship," it seems reasonable to expect a reply. Over the course of eight days, I contacted five people (most of them at least twice) to ask for a comment on the review in AHR, and received no response of any kind. At times, silence is golden. In this case it's merely brazen.

An exchange with an unhappy reader

I have just heard from a reader who was unhappy with a certain aspect of my recent column regarding Robert Service's book on Trotsky. Wasting no time, I sought to respond to her concerns as seriously as they seemed to deserve. Here is our exchange.

* * *

Dear Mr. McLemee,

While I appreciate that you found the time to write an article about Bertrand Patenaude's condemnation of Robert Service's contemptible biography of Leon Trotsky  ("Re-Assassination of Trotsky", Inside Higher Ed, July 8, 2011), I was offended by your slighting of David North's In Defense of Leon Trotsky, which I have read more than once and by your referring to "something called the Socialist Equality Party" as though the SEP were some sort of subversive reading room in someone's basement.

This is an insulting way of referring to a Marxist party with an international membership that has, in addition to publishing the World Socialist Website since 1998 with a readership in every country in the world, run candidates for public office in the United States, the UK, Germany, Australia and Sri Lanka, and has run in-depth stories on news that the mainstream media chooses to ignore (or completely falsifies when it deigns to report it). The SEP, formerly known as the Workers League, has been around for a long time.

Mehring Books has an extensive booklist of otherwise hard-to-come-by texts about everything from the history of socialism to the present day wars and outrages against working people. I recommend it to you.

In addition, I am particularly repulsed by your snide personal remarks about David North, a man whose knowledge of the life of Leon Trotsky is extensive and whose critique of Service's abortion of a tome was, I thought, a model of restraint in light of the filth it had to wade through.

In times of world crisis such as the present, there can be nothing more important than the exposure of historical falsification and biographical charlatanry, and in this regard we owe Mr. North not only praise, but gratitude.  I also congratulate M. Patenaude for his honesty in exposing Service's shoddy scholarship and outright lies, thus proving himself to be an historian of honor, whatever his personal politics may be.


C------ Z------

San Francisco, CA

* * *

Dear Ms. Z-----,

Thank you for your note. I have a substantial knowledge of the history of the WL and SEP, as the article suggested, and have purchased quite a few books from Mehring over the years.

For example, I have had the opportunity to examine the transcript of the ridiculous and insane Gelfand case, in which the WL took a left-wing group to trial in order to try to have its leadership changed by court order; and have studied the quite repulsive slanders of Joseph Hansen and George Novack known as "Security and the Fourth International."

I have seen numerous dishonest characterizations of the political positions of other organizations in the pages of various WL/SEP publications. I have looked with rapt fascination, and no little amusement, upon the efforts to whitewash WL's role in Gerry Healy manifestly insane cult. I have pondered deep and long the question of how a so-called socialist organization could join the bosses in attacking labor unions -- then considered whether this might not correspond to the class interests of the business owner who runs that so-called socialist organization.

My article made clear that North's critique of Service is worth reading. Hence, it was extremely generous towards a book by someone who has otherwise produced a great deal of garbage, or perhaps more accurately, toxic waste. You say you were "repulsed" by my lack of deference to North/Green, but that is too pale a word for what informed non-members of the cult feel for its history.

Scott McLemee

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 07/15/2011 - 21:41


February 25, 2010

In defence of Leon Trotsky.

Hillel Ticktin demolishes Robert Service’s much hyped Trotsky: a biography.

Bob Service’s book on Leon Trotsky has been very widely reviewed by left and right.

Perhaps one of the best reviews is by Paul Le Blanc (‘Second assassination of Trotsky’ Links – International Journal of Socialist Renewal: He makes most of the points necessary in any competent overview: that the book has a scholarly apparatus, with many points that are useful and some that are new; that there is an element of sloppiness in a number of the assertions; and that Service appears to be driven by a political agenda, which is not dissimilar to that of the research institution where he did much of his work for this volume – the Hoover Institution, known for the rightwing views of its scholars.

Le Blanc deals with some of the assertions made over the radio and television: that this is the first full-scale biography of Trotsky, not written by a Trotskyist. That the Russian, Volkoganov, had written a critical biography some 10 years ago is well known, but Service excludes Russians in his written claim to authorship, though not when interviewed on Radio 4 in the UK. It is obvious nonsense and Le Blanc quotes the examples of Payne, Segal and Carmichael.

The book flows easily and keeps the attention of the reader. The reasons, however, are only partly to his credit. Trotsky: a biography is superficial. It has a scholarly form, but is not scholarly, whatever else it might be. Service makes assertion after assertion as to Trotsky’s motivations, Trotsky’s character, Trotsky’s originality, his intellectual competence (not to speak of his ability as a lover) – all without sufficient reference or argumentation.

His fundamental thesis is stated at the beginning – that Trotsky belongs, along with Hitler and Stalin, among the great killers of all time. Trotsky, Service asserts, was a violent man. Secondly, he asserts that Trotsky made a career out of politics, but was a poseur, and an arrogant, cold, would-be leader.

His own description of Trotsky’s history fails to support these theses. He shows how Trotsky turned down Lenin’s offer to be prime minister, and various other prominent roles, and only reluctantly became the commissar for war. However, the one section of the book which is without the constant snide remark and which breaks with the popular Stalinist portrayal of Trotsky, as playing no role, is the section on the civil war, where Service makes clear in some detail that Trotsky built up the Red Army and was pivotal in its eventual victory. He makes even clearer Trotsky’s bravery and his military prowess, citing his importance to the defence of Petrograd.


However, he argues that Trotsky was part of Bolshevik brutality and terrorism. He points to the fact that Trotsky did not countermand Stalin’s arbitrary executions in Petrograd. Given the bad blood between them, there is every reason to believe that Stalin might have disobeyed, as he had before, and so caused a crucial breach at a time when the Bolshevik situation was desperate. While this is only supposition, we cannot lay Stalin’s actions at Trotsky’s feet quite so simply. More serious is Service’s use of Trotsky’s defence of terrorism in Terrorism or communism.

Any scholar reading Trotsky’s chapter on terror in that book can recognise that the use of the word ‘terror’ is not the same as its use today, referring to such terrorist groups as the IRA or al Qa’eda. In the introduction to that book, Trotsky explicitly condemns terror of the latter kind. He had done so much earlier, referring to anarchist groups. Trotsky is using ‘terror’, in the relevant chapter, in the sense of the Russian word ushas, which refers to fear and horror in the first instance. He is arguing that during a period of war, particularly a brutal civil war, fear is a necessary component. He is also saying that since war is war, people are killed and executed, particularly when the regime itself is at stake, and that the whites were particularly brutal themselves.

This cannot be gainsaid. Seventy thousand Jews, alone, were killed in pogroms instigated by the whites. White terror after the Paris Commune, and after 1905 showed what the alternative was. Since then we have witnessed the extreme brutality of the right and the extreme right in many instances – of which, in the post-war period, Greece, Argentina, Chile and, in the case of the British empire, Kenya are good instances. The brutality of the right does not justify the left doing the same and one may hope that it will never happen again. That does not deal with the question, however.

The question that Trotsky posed was whether a war can be conducted as a socialist war, in which enthusiasm replaces hierarchy, and fear and persuasion takes the place of imprisonment and execution. To ask the question is to get the answer. Within capitalism, war is war and socialists can only modify its nature to a very limited degree. At that time, World War I was conducted under the tried and tested rules, which involved shooting deserters, instilling fear into subordinates and into the enemy. Trotsky accepted these rules as the only ones likely to be successful. No-one calls this terrorism, though later generations might well do so.

In short, Bob Service has regurgitated the standard critique of Trotsky, which he has every right to do, but without the necessary scholarly discussion of the issue. Whatever one thinks of the issue itself, Service has totally failed to substantiate his argument that Trotsky was in the same league as Stalin and Hitler. Trotsky did not directly or indirectly order the killing of masses of people, although he did sanction executions and imprisonment. Had he or the Bolsheviks been of that mind, they would have lost the civil war itself.

Historical periods when millions were killed, as under Stalin, were not induced just by one mad man, however brutal and powerful, but by the instability and irrationality of the system itself. Seven million died in the civil war, but one cannot attribute any substantial number to Trotsky himself, though one can point out that without external intervention a fraction of that number would have died.

The Bolsheviks won the civil war, to a considerable extent due to Trotsky’s conduct of it, but the destruction, the massive loss of revolutionary personnel, combined with the exhaustion and inevitable disillusionment, effectively provided the basis of the subsequent Stalinist counterrevolution. The first stages of moving to socialism will always be difficult, but the conduct of a war using capitalist forms of hierarchy both for the army and for the population, in war communism, could only demoralise the population. This is why the left oppositions of the time – the military and workers’ oppositions – were so militant in demanding change.

Ever since the issue has remained open. It is hard to see that Lenin and Trotsky were wrong in that the alternative would have been a repetition of the Paris Commune with its attendant horrific destruction by the right. They took a chance and changed the world. The success of the Russian Revolution, with all its defects, altered the world forever, and it entered a long-drawn-out and bloody transition process. Service, of course, cannot see this, as his book is a pedestrian plod, bereft of ideas, but replete with snide remarks.


At one level, this book is Hamlet without the prince. It tries to go through Trotsky’s life on a number of planes, most particularly his personal life. There is even a chapter on his sexual affairs, including a intimate quote from a letter from Trotsky to his wife on that subject. As with every other aspect of Trotsky, Service discovers him to be self-centred in love too. While this might be salacious and draw people to read the book, it is irrelevant to understanding the man.

This is partly because Trotsky was above all an intellectual, who made crucial contributions to Marxism and to thought in general; partly also because Trotsky became the living embodiment of the Russian Revolution itself. Yet if Trotsky argued this or that or undertook a particular action, Service always manages to find an obnoxious interpretation. If he had done the reverse and always cast Trotsky’s actions in a positive light, he could be accused of being an acolyte or a hagiographer. The point is that any scholar worth his salt would look at all sides and interpretations in order to consider reality. Clearly, however, that is not the purpose of the book.

In this connection, Service discovers that Trotsky was not an intellectual – or at least he was not in the least original and so there is no need to discuss his ideas, as there are none to discuss. If Service were himself a better educated intellectual, there could be debate, but he quite evidently understands as much about Marxism as Winston Churchill or Count Bismarck. Marxism is not easy to grasp, particularly at the present time, and for someone who rejects the whole theory it is probably impossible to understand its analytical power. It follows that such a person could not appreciate the development of Marxist thought. Unfortunately Service tries to tackle the issue by talking of Trotsky, philosophy and Sidney Hook, and of James Burnham and Max Shachtman, without giving the substance of the debate, or apparently being aware that Trotsky had written on Marxist philosophy a number of times in his life prior to this affair.

However, Marxism is above all a mode of political-economic analysis, used as a means of understanding the world, the better to change it. In this light, Trotsky’s contributions were seminal. Amazingly, Service reduces the concept and theory of permanent revolution to the simplistic idea that the workers would take power in Russia. In fact, Marx had argued, after 1848, that the revolution became permanent only when the working class took power. The working class, as Marx put it, were in capitalism but not of capitalism. (One should note that Marx and Trotsky are talking about the collectivity, the class, and not the individual workers.) As a result, there is a permanent and persistent force destabilising the society, the result of which might lead to different kinds of upheavals and to different classes trying to take power, but only when the working class takes power does the society stabilise itself. This is arguing both that the political economic structure of the society is leading to revolution and that the working class is demanding revolution.

Trotsky took this concept and applied it to a part of the world subject to capitalism but without the political forms of capitalism and argued that there was no longer a possibility that there be any other successful upheavals, or attempts at revolution, other than those of the working class. The bourgeoisie were no longer prepared to fight for their own demands. Marx and Engels had got halfway there when they spoke of the German bourgeoisie no longer having a stomach for a fight. The bourgeoisie were afraid that they would let loose the tiger of socialist revolution and consequently they preferred to keep what privileges they had.

At one level, the background of the personnel who took power in the name of the working class was irrelevant (ie, they could be soldiers, or of peasant extraction), as long as they acted in the interests of the class. Similarly, in the English Revolution the class origin of the individuals in the Long Parliament was irrelevant to the class forces that they represented. Trotsky was right against Lenin’s conception before 1917, because Lenin underestimated the necessary cowardice of the bourgeoisie and the short-termism of the peasantry. Trotsky’s understanding undercut the issues, because permanent revolution was not an empiricist notion, but an inherent drive built into the structure of capitalism, which Trotsky had harnessed to the concept of a declining capitalism. The latter was something Lenin made his own, though only by 1917. It was, therefore, not surprising that Lenin agreed with Trotsky against his earlier self.

Permanent revolution applies to the period after 1917-22, in that Trotsky makes two important theoretical innovations. He argues that the social democratic betrayal of 1918-19 opened up a new period of transition between capitalism and socialism. He compares the present to the times of Machiavelli. Secondly, he argues that there had been a counterrevolution in the Soviet Union under Stalin, with a new social group taking power. Underlying it all, the dynamic of a new society pushing its way forward through the medium of the working class remains. The rejection of the exploited goes underground when it cannot express itself openly, and finds new ways of undermining the system. We are therefore living in a period of ever-present revolution, the world over. For Trotsky the revolution had to be systemic and therefore global – he was arguing that the revolution in permanence was itself global.

Others have pointed to Trotsky’s conception of fascism as an important contribution to the understanding of the phenomenon. It is obvious that he was right to demand a united front – unlike the Stalinists, who actually united with Nazis in governing more than one German local state. His theory of fascism was directly contrary to that of Stalinism, which saw fascism/Nazism as the rule of the bourgeoisie by force. Instead he pointed out that it was the rule of the petty bourgeoisie – which the ruling class accepted for a time, though they did not like it. (The lives of two prominent German capitalists, Thyssen and Krupp, supports this thesis. Thyssen supported Hitler, but opposed his policies and escaped from Nazi Germany, only to end up in a concentration camp. Krupp opposed Hitler until he came to power.)

Trotsky’s discussion of fascism is immediately relevant today, in that it makes clear that without Stalinism and a classic petty bourgeoisie it cannot repeat itself. Authoritarianism is another matter. The theory also points to the irrationalism of a capitalism in transition and in decline. This is fundamental to any understanding of the epoch as a whole. Trotsky developed a particular understanding of capitalism and connected it with a theory of long waves. I have discussed this in my book on Trotsky’s ideas, but Service has no inkling of any of it.


It is curious that Bob Service should stoop to character assassination of the most trivial kind. He raises questions of morality in relation to Trotsky’s relationship to his own family members. Thus he asks what kind of man would desert his wife and children in Siberia in order to escape, and then find another partner. He brings in the question of his Jewishness, his relationship to his father, etc – all of which are merely raised, leaving the reader wondering.

The problem here is that neither he nor we actually know much about these issues. If Trotsky’s father was a revolutionary and taught his son how to organise, theorise or live underground, it would be important, but there is no evidence of anything of that kind. We are told that Trotsky played down his father’s social position. The introduction of simplistic psychology into historical narrative is always unfortunate, but Service insists on discovering Trotsky personal faults, arrogance, stubborn belief in his own opinion, etc, as if they are undoubted, continuous and necessary traits of the character.

If Trotsky really was that arrogant it would have quickly ensured the defeat of the Red Army. What is arrogance? He was genuinely the most intellectually and organisationally capable of the Bolshevik leaders – Service makes this clear. Trotsky might well have been contemptuous of those with inflated opinions of themselves. Without a thorough study of his personality by sociologists and psychologists, it is pointless making such a remark, unless the author is intent on a process of systematic denigration.

It is a characteristic of bourgeois scholars that they see the left-right struggle in the 20s in terms of a direct fight, no holds barred, between Stalin and Trotsky. Service tries to argue that Trotsky was no politician and so was an inevitable loser. In fact, Trotsky yielded without any real fight. He was head of the army, he had the backing of Lenin and the Komsomol supported him. The genuine old Bolsheviks supported him. He could have taken power without much trouble. However, he argued that it had to be done democratically through the party and he lost in that arena. Since we know that the voting was falsified, and in any case Stalin had specially opened the party to a wide range of people, with little understanding of the issues, this made no sense.

Trotsky did not lose in any kind of battle: he never fought. He consciously decided that he should not take power in the circumstances. He justified it with the argument that Stalin was made, in what he became, by those who selected him, and he, Trotsky, would have been the same. So, when offered power by Antonov Ovseenko, chief commissar of the army, he rejected it. This issue is very poorly discussed by all scholars, to be fair to Service. However, he takes it up as proof that Trotsky was not a politician.

In American business parlance, part of present-day slang used by historians, Trotsky was a loser. But that is not how Trotsky or any Marxist would look at it. Trotsky did not want power for its own sake: he was a soldier of the revolution and, if it meant that he had to fight as part of an opposition to maintain the revolution, that is what had to be done. He accepted his fate. So much for arrogance.

In my view, with the hindsight of history, Trotsky was wrong. He ought to have taken power. Service, like Trotsky himself, thinks he would have been another Stalin, but that is impossible, if one understands the dynamic of the Soviet Union of the time. With the support that he had, Trotsky would have been able to maintain power for a sufficient time to alter the nature of the regime away from what it was becoming. If Trotsky had taken power, Nazism would not have succeeded, there would have been no world war, the purges would not have taken place, and it is possible that there would have been a revolution or a series of revolutions in Europe and Asia.

Even if no other revolution would have succeeded, and Trotsky would have died as Soviet ruler in 1953, world history would have been very different and almost certainly more advanced than at present. However, no-one could have imagined the utter barbarism to which the world was subjected from then onwards. It was the direct consequence of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent counterrevolution under Stalin. Trotsky clearly hoped that the Soviet left and the Soviet working class would take power and dismiss Stalin.

Unfortunately, Trotsky was not sufficiently arrogant in understanding that he had become the personification of the Russian Revolution itself and his dismissal symbolised the end of the revolution, but in the most objectively and subjectively debased and confusing way possible. The Soviet Union under Stalin was neither socialist nor capitalist, nor yet a transition to socialism. As a result, it was unviable, but like Frankenstein’s monster it had no parent and no future. Its rulers behaved like mad people, caught in a mass of twisted tape in which they became ever more enmeshed. Cutting through the tape – short cuts, in other words – were constantly being tried and invariably made things worse.


Trotsky did not expect the USSR to last so long nor that it would come to an end so easily, so messily and so unsuccessfully. He did say that it could not last in its Stalinist form. He did not understand the nature of the Soviet Union that came into being in the 30s, but then nobody did or probably could have done so. He was always behind the curve of its degeneration. That, again, is understandable, in that he was an optimist, like all revolutionaries. Service tries to make these points but he gets lost in his own need to run Trotsky down.

It is unfortunate that some in the Trotskyist movement have taken his words as dogma. Trotsky was not himself dogmatic, for he is not clear whether the USSR was planned, says that the nature of the USSR is undetermined, and concedes that a social as well as a political revolution is required. Trotsky himself should not be lumbered with the simple formula that planning plus nationalisation makes for a workers’ state, which has then to be critically defended. Service, however, appears as an upside-down dogmatic Trotskyist, as he tries to portray Trotsky as simply insisting on the concept of a workers’ state, and always wanting to defend the USSR.

Trotsky’s initial analysis of Stalinism has stood the test of time – as the seizure of power by the social layer controlling the bureaucracy. That gave them control of the surplus product. Marx, of course, talked of the form of the extraction of the surplus product being crucial. Trotsky was pointing to it, but he did not go any further. Once he lost his historic role, he was no longer in touch with history itself, and his pronouncements reflected that fact. Service, however, misunderstands Trotsky’s analysis and tries to argue that he adopted a Menshevik analysis of the USSR, in order to claim that he was unoriginal. This is simply not true. The standard Menshevik interpretation of the USSR was that it was state capitalist. The Mensheviks could not adopt Trotsky’s position, as that would have meant they were wrong not to have supported the October revolution.

Robert Service, James D White, Ian Thatcher, Geoffrey Swain and various others over time have accused Trotsky of condemning socialism in one country, while practising it. The superficiality of such statements makes one wonder whether it is worth arguing the contrary case. Stalinists, of which Service is not one, have always argued that Lenin wanted to build socialism in the Soviet Union. However, there is no evidence of this, except such as Stalin forged or misinterpreted. The very act of taking power in one part of the world (the Soviet Union was not one country) did imply that the Bolsheviks were establishing a base, and like all bases it had to be built up, fortified, made liveable, etc. Treaties had to be entered into. That has nothing to do with socialism. In so far as such a base was helping the establishment of socialism over the world, even if it got wiped out and was rebuilt, one could talk in loose terms of building socialism. That is not the same thing as saying that socialism was being established in the USSR.

It is ridiculous to argue that the act of rebuilding the ruined Soviet Union in itself constituted a process of building socialism. Obviously the Bolsheviks could not rebuild it as a simple capitalist country either, and that was the tragedy, which facilitated Stalin’s rise to power and Stalinism. It is worth noting that Trotsky explicitly criticised Preobrazhensky, the economic theorist of the left opposition and his close ally until he capitulated, for wobbling somewhat towards the concept of socialism in one country. Preobrazhensky repudiated this, showing the technical impossibility of economic reconstruction without aid. Trotsky, however, was criticising the new economics, but he could just as well have made the remarks of Preobrazhensky’s fantasy of a Soviet Union which is successful alone but then reaches the limits of socialism in one country and takes on the world.

It is not surprising that those who do not understand Marxism also do not understand the meaning of socialism itself. Since both capitalism and socialism are global systems, only a global change is possible. It can begin anywhere, but it cannot sustain itself in any part of the world until socialism has established itself as an historically superior social system.

A superficial historian or writer will take words used at face value, without comparing them to conflicting statements, often made at the same time. This, indeed, is a major fault of this book, in that Service does not look for more than one source when using controversial quotes, and he does not try to dig deeper than that quote. As we know, individuals can say any number of things, or act in a series of ways, but it is the job of the historian to determine what idea or form of action lies at the core of their operation or their being, or if there is none.


Trotsky saved Victor Chernov from the crowd in July 1917, but Service tells us that he only did it to avoid the left being victimised, and implicitly not because he was a decent human being. How does he know that? Could Trotsky really have been so calculating; and for that matter so convincing at the time, without including some common humanity in his speech?

There is almost no paragraph devoid of an undocumented snide remark, reflecting the author’s sustained anti-Trotsky animus. This book probably is unique in producing more personal criticisms of Trotsky than any other. Few of them make much sense, however. As indicated above, we are told that Trotsky decided on the career of a politician. Today when the word ‘politician’ conjures up images of corruption, betrayal of principles, men and women with views for all seasons, etc, it is an insult. However, no Marxist would ever see their devotion to the cause as a career. Politicians do have careers, but it is not a career to be a professional revolutionary, which condemns you to a life of perpetual begging, uncertainty and permanent insecurity. Clearly from the Service perspective Trotsky was an unsuccessful politician in that he lost to Stalin. He was a loser.

Service goes through the years of opposition to Stalin, but he does not seem to understand the nature of that opposition. He sees it as some form of semi-democratic debate. He does not ask why Trotsky bothered with it, since it was so much of a charade. If Trotsky took to reading books during meetings, why did he attend the meetings? Clearly Trotsky hoped that if he hung on, things would change for the better. He may have hoped against hope. The discussions among the left opposition of the time, in the secrecy of private walks or perhaps at home do not exist, but we do know that some at least were less optimistic and saw that the October revolution had suffered a defeat which, together with the betrayal of the social democrats, had opened up decades before socialism could advance again. Trotsky could not have been unaware of this viewpoint.

With hindsight we know that the situation was more critical for civilisation than anybody could have imagined, but no-one could have foreseen the future terrors of Stalinism and Nazism. The only criticism one could make of Trotsky is that he was not sufficiently ‘arrogant’. He was the embodiment of the October revolution – not just as an historical figure, but as a living human being who had internalised its experience and acquired the necessary understanding – some might say wisdom – that went with it. He was honest and sincere through and through, and could never have been bought off, as Stalin was.

He ought to have trusted himself to have taken on the responsibilities thrown at him, first by Lenin as prime minister and then again by Lenin in his ‘testament’, or shortly before he died. The problem of the revolution was that there was no-one to compare with Lenin and Trotsky intellectually, organisationally and in all-round capability, so that Trotsky had no-one else to force his hand, once Lenin was dead. He underestimated Stalin and Stalinism, thinking that Bukharin and the bourgeoisie were the main enemy. While the ultimate opponent was the bourgeoisie, he turned out to be wrong about Bukharin as the primary opponent, partly because of Stalin himself, whose social base formed very quickly.

Trotsky sacrificed his life, all his manifold talents and abilities, to the cause of humanity. He made mistakes and misjudgements, as everyone must do, but humanity had made a giant leap forward at the time of the revolution. Even though we have been partially thrown back, the potential remains and capitalism continues to be fatally injured.

Revolutionaries are made; they are not born. Trotsky and Lenin acquired their understanding and their ability to help the revolutionary tide through involvement in the working class movement. Equally, when the tide moves out, the old leaders are left adrift, and they must necessarily lose some of their old surefootedness. But only a misanthrope will charge them with this or that misstep.

Submitted by Ashleigh Marsh (not verified) on Sat, 11/19/2011 - 06:14