`Second assassination' of Trotsky -- Paul Le Blanc reviews Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky

Review by Paul Le Blanc

Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009
600 pages

December 25, 2009 -- ESSF -- Robert Service has written, to great acclaim, a new biography of Leon Trotsky. “Trotsky moved like a bright comet across the political sky,” Service tells us. Along with Lenin and other leaders of the Russian Revolution associated with the Bolshevik – soon renamed Communist – party, “he first came to global attention in 1917. … He lived a life full of drama played out with the world as his stage. The October Revolution changed the course of history, and Trotsky had a prominent role in the transformation. … There is no denying Trotsky’s exceptional qualities. He was an outstanding speaker, organizer and leader.” (1, 3)

As the workers’ councils (soviets) and earnest revolutionary ideals of the Bolsheviks gave way to the increasingly vicious bureaucratic dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, Trotsky became the most formidable critic of what was happening. He was taken seriously not simply by anti-Stalinists on the Left, “but by a large number of influential commentators who detested the Stalin regime. Trotsky’s explanation of what took place since the fall of the Romanov monarchy in February 1917 took root in Western historical works,” Service notes. At the same time, “Stalin depicted Trotsky as a traitor to the October Revolution, laid charges against him in the show-trials of 1936-8 and ordered Soviet intelligence agencies to assassinate him. In 1940 they succeeded.” (pp. 2, 1)

Yet Stalin’s Communism proved unable to sustain itself for even half a century afterward. With the global triumph of capitalism, however, there is also a multi-faceted global crisis of capitalism – assuming far-reaching dimensions that are ecological, social, cultural, political, military, and economic. Ten years ago the members of the United Nations promised the achievement by 2015 of Millennium Goals that would dramatically push back global poverty and hunger, also advancing the empowerment of women and the education of children, improvements in health care, improvements in environmental sustainability, improvements in “fair trade,” and more. The modest gains toward realizing the UN Millennium Goals are more than balanced by setbacks and disappointments. An old socialist slogan of the 1970s – “Capitalism Fouls Things Up” – seems quite relevant in the early 21st century.

This is certainly an ideal moment for people to engage with one of the greatest revolutionaries of modern times. Service makes exciting claims: that his searches among archival holdings shed new light on the subject, and that he offers, for the first time, an objective account of this symbol of revolutionary Marxism. But in more ways than one, the book he has produced is not what it claims to be. In fact, what many reviewers have enthused over, in their discussions of Service’s book, is the demolition of what they (and Service) consider to be a myth. As novelist and journalist Robert Harris approvingly comments in London’s Sunday Times, “50 years after the last full-scale biography of Trotsky in English, Robert Service has turned his attention to this myth – and has, effectively, assassinated Trotsky all over again.” [1]

A cultural phenomenon

There is at least one problem here – the reviewer’s claim that this is the first full-scale biography in English since the outstanding and sympathetic three-volume work by Isaac Deutscher which appeared in the 1950s and ‘60s (and has been recently republished by Verso). In fairness to Service, he himself actually asserts: “This book is the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist.” (xxi)

However phrased, the claim is simply not true. In 1975, Joel Carmichael produced a work of about 500 pages, Trotsky: An Appreciation of His Life. In 1977 Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Trotsky (close to 500 pages) appeared. In 1979, Ronald Segal’s over 400-page biography, Leon Trotsky, was published. Service’s purported biographical assassination comes in at slightly more than each of these, but not by much. Service’s emphasis on not being a Trotskyist is belied by the fact that these three works are all non-Trotskyist — and two reject fundamentally (as does Service) all that Trotsky stood for.

For that matter, over the past couple of years, preceding the appearance of Service’s book, there have been three additional major studies, all critical-to-hostile – Ian Thatcher’s Trotsky (2002), Geoff Swain’s Trotsky (2006), and Bertrand Patenaude’s Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary (2009). It is remarkable that so many critical books have appeared on Trotsky’s life. If one is willing to add a major Russian work translated into English in 1995, there is Dmitri Volkoganov’s hostile Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, which received a reception quite similar to that accorded to Service’s new volume. One might ask why such obsessive debunking must go on and on … and on.

This is hardly a problem for Simon Sebag Montefiore (whose help Service acknowledges in his preface). An upper-class historian, novelist, and authority on Stalin, Montefiore complains in the Conservative Daily Telegraph that “Trotsky, like Mao and to some extent Lenin, has long been one of those Communist titans who, for some, achieved the status of fashionable radical saints, even in the democracies that they would have destroyed in an orgy of bloodletting.” While “Lenin and Mao have been recast as brutal monsters not unlike Stalin himself,” only now has Trotsky also been able to join the pantheon of Red monsters – presented by Service in all his “ugly egotism and unpleasant, overweening arrogance, the belief in and enthusiastic practice of killing on a colossal scale.” [2]

The more politically neutral Times offers a more delicious characterization by reviewer Richard Harris, hardly a Tory but rather an enthusiastic supporter of the former “New Labor” Prime Minister Tony Blair. Perhaps drawing from his own experience, he writes: “If one can imagine the most obnoxious middle-class student radical one has ever met — bitter, sneering, arrogant, selfish, cocky, callous, callow, blinkered and condescending — and if one freezes that image, applies a pair of pince-nez and transports it back to the beginning of the last century, then one has Trotsky.” [3]

In the Wall Street Journal, scholar and human rights activist Joshua Rubenstein offers a mixed judgment. While praising Service’s “vivid” and “long overdue” biography as “approaching Trotsky without emotional or ideological attachment” (which could be the understatement of the year), he also accurately notes that Service “slips into personal animus that is sometimes out of place,” and that the book “hardly discusses Trotsky’s writings, either as a Marxist theoretician or as an accomplished and independent journalist” – which is a remarkable limitation, given the centrality of such things to all that Trotsky was. [4] What would one make of biographies about Newton or Darwin or Einstein that hardly discussed their scientific theories? This is a fatal limitation: one cannot understand and assess Trotsky without a more serious-minded engagement with his ideas.

At least one reviewer, Tariq Ali, in the left-leaning Guardian simply slams “Service’s plodding account in which some of the allegations are so trivial that they are best ignored.” He adds, as if amplifying Rubenstein’s point about the failure to deal with Trotsky’s actual ideas: “On most of the important issues – the danger of substituting the party for the state in Russia, the necessity of uniting with social-democrats and liberals to defeat Hitler, the futility of forcing the communists into an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek in China, the fate that awaited the Jews if Hitler came to power and constant warnings that the Nazis were preparing to invade the Soviet Union – he was proved right time and time again.” [5]

The actual book

Engaging seriously with the actual book under review, one cannot agree fully with the judgments of the reviewers just cited. It is somewhat better, and much worse, than one might be led to believe. Service’s study is really quite readable. The prose is clear, and the story interesting. It follows the basic outline sketched by Trotsky himself in his literary masterpiece My Life, supplemented by Deutscher’s brilliant trilogy – The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. This provides a coherent structure, which Service seeks in a workman-like manner to compress into a more succinct, relatively fast-paced narrative.

Service certainly dispenses large dollops of the negative judgment regarding Trotsky, the stuff that many reviews on the right and left focus on. Debating about Trotsky with Christopher Hitchens, under the auspices of the Hoover Institution, Service characterized the revolutionary as “the most amazingly brilliant man . . . but such a dreadful mistake of a life and a career.” [6] That matches the thrust of his speaking tours, and of all the publicity around the book.

Nonetheless, there remains the strong influence of Deutscher’s magisterial biography, the considerable researches from post-1960s social historians on the Russian Revolution (essentially corroborating John Reed’s exuberantly sympathetic eyewitness account, Ten Days That Shook the World), and the power of Trotsky’s own writings. All push into the pages of Service’s biography, and they push in a different direction than that in which he himself prefers to travel.

More than this, in some ways — not in all, as we shall see — Service proves himself a capable historian. He spent many years researching Lenin, producing a capable if increasingly hostile three-volume political summary, “capped” by a sadly inferior (though widely lauded) biography. This has given him a fair sense of the shape of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement leading up to the 1917 Revolution. This stands him in good stead as he contextualizes much of Trotsky’s story. In addition to this, and in addition to the use of a considerable amount of secondary literature, he actually spent time mining the archives and has come up with new material.

Service makes much of this archival exploration, promising new revelations supposedly culled from earlier drafts of My Life and other writings. While there are, in fact, no stunningly defamatory “revelations” forthcoming from the archives, there are insights offered from – for example – correspondence between Trotsky and his first wife Alexandra. A youthful Trotsky, imprisoned for revolutionary activities, writes to his lover: “Mikhailovski in an article about Lassalle says that one can be more frank with the woman one loves than with oneself; this is to a certain degree true but such frankness is possible only in a personal conversation but not always, only in special and exceptional circumstances.” Engaging with such correspondence, Service comments aptly: “Then and later he favored extreme images and striking turns of phrase. This was no artificial invention. It flowed from the personality of someone who did not feel alive unless he could communicate with others.” (52, 53)

At the same time, there is a remarkable sloppiness that crops up in this book. For example, Service speculates that Trotsky’s father hired a rabbi to teach his young son the Torah (24) – but his source is the short account by Max Eastman in Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth, which makes it clear that the father hired a private tutor — one who had a beard, to be sure, but who was an agnostic scholar, not a rabbi. This matches the relatively secular inclinations that Service acknowledges were characteristic of Trotsky’s father. It is odd that, with no more evidence to cite than Eastman, Service converts this into Jewish religious instruction. [7]

At times, his “facts” are simply wrong. Service tells us that Trotsky “spoke out against ‘individual terror’ in 1909 when the Socialist-Revolutionaries murdered the police informer Evno Azev, who had penetrated their Central Committee.” (113) But this is impossible. Azev most definitely was a police spy who held a position of immense authority within the Socialist-Revolutionary organization: coordinating the terrorist assassinations carried out by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. This was a tactic which Trotsky and other Marxists of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party absolutely opposed. But Azev himself, after being exposed, escaped to Germany, where he was imprisoned until 1917 and apparently died of kidney disease in 1918. [8] Why would Trotsky denounce a murder that never happened? Of course he didn’t. But it certainly undermines one’s confidence in Service’s ability to get things right.

There are also examples of important facts being left out of the account. One of the most disconcerting comes up in Service’s seemingly detailed account of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. The Bolshevik Revolution had come to power promising “peace, bread, land” and one of the highest priorities for the new soviet government was to extricate Russia from the devastation of the First World War, with Trotsky as the chief peace negotiator with the Germans, “moving like a weaver’s shuttle between Brest-Litovsk and the Russian capital,” as Service nicely phrases it. (208) The German military sought to impose a very nasty settlement, which the revolutionaries were loathe to accept. Some argued for waging “revolutionary war” against German imperialism while Lenin insisted that the regime must sign the German peace terms, however odious. Trotsky took a middle position – “neither peace nor war” – in hopes that through drawing the negotiations out and peppering them with widely-publicized revolutionary speeches, the proletarian ferment visible in Central Europe would be transformed into workers’ uprisings. Service notes that Trotsky first won a majority (even the anxious and skeptical Lenin went along). But then, he tells us, Lenin somehow – presumably through persuasive conversations and lobbying among his comrades – was finally able to secure a majority for making peace. How did this happen? What Service inexplicably fails to mention is that the German military, losing patience, launched a massive and successful offensive which demonstrated the hollowness of the “revolutionary war” notion and the inadequacy of Trotsky’s compromise position. The German High Command then put forward even more odious demands which Lenin now had little difficulty in persuading a majority to accept. [9]

There are a number of surprising examples of more minor sloppiness. For example, André Breton, the poet and theorist of surrealism who sympathized with Trotsky, is consistently but incorrectly identified as a “surrealist painter.” (399, 453, 461) The anti-Trotskyist Bertram Wolfe is mistaken for Trotsky adherent Bernard Wolfe (441). At one point Service tells us: “Instead of calling his first son after his own father, he and Natalya had chosen the name Sergei.” (201) But of course Sergei Sedov was the second son and Lev Sedov the first, as Service himself documents elsewhere in the book.

More than once such sloppiness is exposed by Service himself. Describing the 1916 voyage of Trotsky and his family to New York on a Spanish steamship, Service tells us that “Trotsky claimed they travelled second class.” This is “exposed” as “a silly fib,” since – while paying for second-class tickets – it was found that the second-class berths were overbooked, “and they were given a first-class cabin at no extra charge.” But according to the footnote Service offers, Trotsky was telling this “silly fib” to himself, since it appeared (apparently as a mistaken recollection) in his 1935 diary, not meant for publication and only published after his death. In the same passage, Service asserts that the Trotskys “did not mingle with passengers from the lowest decks,” feeling “no impulse to spend time talking to workers.” Yet a few lines later, Service tells us that, in discussions about World War I, “Trotsky only met one person who appealed to him. This was a housemaid from Luxembourg.” In the next paragraph, Service tells us, an entry in Trotsky’s diary indicates that his sons “made friends with the Spanish sailors, who told them that they would soon get rid of the monarchy in Madrid,” which – one would assume – also appealed to Trotsky. (153)

Personality and politics

As already noted, there is a significant amount of anti-Trotsky editorializing, especially concentrated in the book’s introductory and concluding sections, but interlarded as sniping assertions, speculations, and projections throughout much of the biography. The book’s purpose, Service insists, “is to dig up the buried life” of a man whose “self-serving account of Stalin and Stalinism deeply influenced the discourse of writers both left and right,” but who had himself demonstrated a “lust for dictatorship and terror,” and, in fact, positively “reveled in terror.” (The faint-hearted need not fear – the book never really presents such raw lust and reveling!) Trotsky’s character, according to Service, involved the following traits, to take some of those offered in the book’s index: alienating others, arrogance, aversion to sentimentality, bossiness, careless about people’s attitudes to him, dislike of losing at games, egotism, impatience with stupidity, insensitivity, perfectionism, prickliness, Puritanism, temper, vanity, self-centered, will to dominate. (4, 499, 497, 597) Nor is this all wrong.

Isaac Deutscher also affirmed that Trotsky sometimes displayed a “prickly and overbearing character and a lack of talent for teamwork.” Trotsky’s Bolshevik comrade Anatoly Lunacharsky offered an acidly frank pen-portrait in 1923: “His colossal arrogance and an inability or unwillingness to show any human kindness or to be attentive to people, the absence of that charm which always surrounded Lenin, condemned Trotsky to a certain loneliness.” Others, including Service, indicate that Trotsky could indeed show kindness and great charm, and that over time he mellowed somewhat – and yet these less endearing characteristics never vanished. From the archives he digs out correspondence to Trotsky’s second wife Natalya from Lev Sedov, Trotsky’s capable revolutionary-activist son, complaining in 1936 “that all of Papa’s failings are getting worse with age: his intolerance, hot temper, teasing, even crudity and desire to offend,” and that “Papa never recognizes when he’s in the wrong. That’s why he can’t bear criticism. When something is said or written to him with which he disagrees he either ignores it entirely or gets back with a harsh reply.” (230, 431-432) Yet other qualities that Lunacharsky stressed also persisted – “the remarkable coherence and literary skill of his phrasing, the richness of imagery, scalding irony, his soaring pathos, his rigid logic, clear as polished steel,” and the fact that “there is not a drop of vanity in him, he is totally indifferent to any title or to the trappings of power.” And yet, Lunacharsky concluded, “Trotsky treasures his historical role and would probably make any personal sacrifice . . . in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader.” [10] (Some see this latter quality as a flaw, others as a strength.)

While there is overlap between much of this and aspects of Service’s description, essential elements in his negative characterization (charges of hypocrisy, ingrained authoritarianism, “reveling in terror”) seem to flow from the author’s desire to turn people against a serious consideration of Trotsky’s orientation, not from the research he has done. One suspects it precedes that research and is rooted in his ideological and institutional commitments. While Service is not up-front about his own politics, in the first sentence of the book’s preface he forthrightly describes the Hoover Institution as his “base.” For many years it has been widely known for its conservative orientation, and Service enjoys the status of a highly esteemed Senior Fellow there.

The Hoover Institution’s mission statement affirms “the principles of individual, economic, and political freedom; private enterprise; and representative government were fundamental to the vision of the Institution’s founder,” the conservative U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who believed deeply in laissez-faire capitalism. “By collecting knowledge, generating ideas, and disseminating both, the Institution seeks to secure and safeguard peace, improve the human condition, and limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals.” The influence on Service of this perspective was suggested during his Trotsky debate with Christopher Hitchens at the Hoover Institution itself. “With a centralized state-run economy,” he argued, even with “a somewhat more astute character such as Trotsky, . . . it was an absolute certainty that you couldn’t . . . get the kind of results that you wanted for popular consumption such as you can have under a market economy.” [11]

Whatever the motivation and underlying ideology, all too often we find Service engaged in an odd game of scoring of nasty personal points. It gets in the way of what one might expect from a serious biographer. Here are four examples among many.

  • In reaction to Trotsky’s love letters to Alexandra, in which he expresses doubts and depression, Service informs us that “unconsciously Trotsky was trying to induce Alexandra to do more than love him: he wanted her to understand and look after him and perhaps this could be achieved by admissions of weakness.” How does Service know that Trotsky’s admission was an insincere calculation? An admission of weakness to someone you love is not necessarily a manipulative ploy. Service’s put-down of Trotsky here is out of harmony with his seeming acceptance of Trotsky’s admission to Alexandra that “one can be more frank with the woman one loves than with oneself.” (52)
  • Sometimes, Service’s eagerness to be critical interjects a superficiality cutting across a more substantial and plausible criticism that could be made. As a very young revolutionary, when he and his comrades had been arrested, Trotsky took the lead in a rather pointless challenge to prison authorities that landed him and his comrades all in solitary confinement. “As with several such episodes of daring in his life, Trotsky did not include this information in his published memoirs.” But the initial hot-headed “heroism” had been unnecessary. After the punishment, we are told, Trotsky and his comrades chose the path of peaceful cooperation. Service prefers the following: “It had to be dragged out of him by admiring writers. Although he liked to cut a dash in public, he disliked boasting: he preferred others to do the job for him.” (56) A less convoluted explanation, however, is that Trotsky was by no means proud of such immature and pointless “daring.” Perhaps he was a little ashamed.
  • During his exile in Vienna, Trotsky is hit in rapid succession by a series of troubling events – the death of his mother, a painful accident at the dentist from which he gradually recovers, the sudden appearance of his eleven year old daughter from his first marriage (after five years of not seeing her), who visits from the Ukraine in the company of his father. Trotsky then suffers an illness brought on by stress. His father goes with him to the doctor. “Perhaps Trotsky had taken his father along because he needed him to pay for the consultation,” Service speculates. “His letters [neither quoted not cited] hint at a further motive. Trotsky seems to have appreciated being accompanied by someone devoted to his interests. He was again the center of attention, and the joint visit to the Viennese professor restored his spirits.” (123-124) Why turn this all into an example of Trotsky being egotistical and self-centered? In fact, it might make sense for a father to want to be there for his son under trying circumstances, and it might be natural for even a person in his 30s to value and need the company and reassurance and caring of his father. In the 1920s, Max Eastman noted: “Trotsky is proud of his father…. He loves to talk about him.” [12]
  • There is a parenthetical comment about Trotsky and Karl Radek in 1915: “They were almost friends, insofar as either man had any.” (145) Yet Service himself notes close friendships that Trotsky had with Adolf Joffe and Christian Rakovsky, and – among those who were outside of the Trotskyist movement – one could add Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer as well as Otto Rühle and Alice Rühle-Gerstel. There are other friendships one could mention (in addition to friendships with certain members of his family). [13]

Nonetheless, Service is enough of an historian that often the material takes over the man, drawing the narrative into a clear account of what Trotsky and other revolutionaries actually thought and attempted and accomplished. In describing the months leading up to the October/November Revolution of 1917, describing the process of convergence of the most committed revolutionaries into the Bolshevik party, he gives a true sense of the realities. He quotes the future Bolshevik Moisei Uritsky who was powerfully impressed (as were many) by Trotsky, freshly returned from exile and showing himself to be one of the most eloquent, passionate, brilliant mass orators: “Here’s a great revolutionary who’s arrived and one gets the feeling that Lenin, however clever he may be, is starting to fade next to the genius of Trotsky.” Service writes:

Lenin felt no worry about having personal rivals on the political far left. He needed and wanted active, talented associates such as Trotsky. He and Trotsky agreed on a broad agenda for revolution in Russia. The Provisional Government had to be done away with and a “workers’ government” instituted. The era of European socialist revolution had arrived. The Great War would be terminated only when the far leftists came to power and repudiated capitalism, imperialism, nationalism and militarism. There had to be immediate basic reform in Russia. The peasantry should take over the land of the Imperial family, the state and the Orthodox Church. Workers should control the factories. . . . All spoke approvingly of the power of the masses. There was agreement that workers and peasants should be encouraged to remake life as they wanted. Factories, offices and farms ought to be reorganized. Differences remained among Bolsheviks – and they were about to be brought to the surface the moment the party seized power. But between February and October the disputes were containable. . . . [T]he Provisional Government [of pro-capitalist and moderate socialist politicians] had to be overthrown in favor of a revolutionary administration. Fundamental social and economic reform would then be implemented. The European war would be brought to an end. Revolution in Russia would be followed by the overturning of the ruling classes throughout Europe. Failure to act would be a disaster. The counter-revolutionary elements in the former Russian Empire were waiting for their opportunity to strike.” (167-169)

All of this gives a good sense of how things were – in the thinking of Lenin, Trotsky, and others who rallied to make the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Problems of communism

The problem with this, from Service’s standpoint (and that of the Hoover Institution), is that the revolutionary socialist goals are simply impossible to achieve. Presumably, the only reasonable path involves supporting private enterprise and limiting government intrusion into our social life, as explained in the Hoover mission statement. Violation of such strictures results in chaos, and as a consequence would-be revolutionaries, still determined to force their ideals onto an unwilling society, inevitably construct a totalitarian order. This defines the story that Service feels he must tell.

Service’s view was sharply challenged in his debate with ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens. The most powerful forces initiating a brutal civil war against the Bolshevik Revolution had little desire, as Hitchens put it, to replace the workers’ and peasants’ soviets by “a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary.” He noted that “if Trotsky’s Red Army had not won the Russian Civil War, then the word for fascism . . . was probably going to be the Russian word instead of an Italian word.” Service squirmed a bit: “It’s a little exaggerated, but it’s pretty fair that the Whites had officers who were vicious, carried out a brutal civil war against the Reds.” To which Hitchens snorted: “Brought the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [an anti-Semitic classic concocted by Russian reactionaries] to Europe in their backpacks when they left. Not doing us any favors. Brings the German [version] of Fascism with it!” Throughout much of Europe, varieties of fascism and vicious dictatorships received support from the upper-classes to create a barrier to the spread of revolution. [14]

Contrary to the expectations of Lenin and Trotsky, and despite the upwelling of global insurgencies, socialist revolutions of the workers and peasants were not triumphant outside of Russia. The isolation of this vast but backward country in a hostile capitalist world, the brutalization of World War I and the Russian Civil War, the destructive impact of all these factors on the Russian economy combined with the revolutionaries’ own mistakes and managerial inexperience – the result being a horrendous crisis, dramatically eroding popular confidence in the revolutionary regime. A “temporary” Communist party dictatorship was consequently established to secure stability until the Soviet republic could be rescued by the “imminent” World Revolution that never quite materialized. Many revolutionaries died or de-radicalized in the five years after 1917, although both idealistic and opportunistic elements from the larger population flocked to the new party in power. In many cases, the surviving Communists and newer Communists – if they were not in the “rank-and-file” – became corrupted with their exclusive access to power and privilege. Lenin died in the midst of the crisis, in alliance with Trotsky pushing against the expanding, increasingly privileged party-and-state bureaucracy that ruled in the name of Communism. Lenin’s last struggle was too little, too late.

It fell to Trotsky to become the primary spokesman and symbol of the Left Opposition. There were earlier left-wing oppositional currents which Trotsky and Lenin had short-sightedly helped vanquish. [15] There would also be later ones – the more frightened and ineffectual “Right Opposition” led by Nikolai Bukharin, and the more militant yet hopeless stirrings associated with Mikhail Riutin. But Trotsky’s opposition – whatever its limitations and contradictions – represented the most impressive, consistent, persistent alternative to the bureaucratic tyranny and murderous policies that triumphed under Stalin. After its thoroughgoing defeat in the late 1920s, and particularly after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky sought to build up a principled revolutionary current in the world Communist movement (the parties associated with the Communist International, or Third International). When he concluded that the bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union could be replaced by democratic soviets of the workers and peasants only through a revolutionary overthrow, he drew those from various countries who agreed with him into the small but uncompromising Fourth International, whose small parties and grouplets sought to provide “a stainless banner” to the workers and the oppressed, in hopes that the anticipated new wave of wars and revolutions would draw masses of workers and oppressed peoples to the revolutionary Marxist, Bolshevik-Leninist perspective that he and his comrades sought to preserve.

Service’s attitude toward all of this is marked by utter contempt, asserting again and again that Trotsky “shared many of Stalin’s assumptions,” specifically: “He called for state economic planning and offered nothing that was essentially different from Soviet practices except the assurance that he would do things less violently and more democratically.” (357) It is obvious why a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution might be horrified over Trotsky’s commitment to state economic planning (this Trotsky certainly did share with Stalin), but one wonders at Service’s dismissive attitude toward making economic planning less violent and more democratic.

Unfortunately, one of the many bits of misinformation conveyed in this biography is Service’s assertion that Trotsky, “in his autobiography of 1930 would represent himself as a constant critic of the basic official measures introduced in the 1920s,” particularly the concessions to market economics represented by the New Economic Policy (NEP) which stretched from 1921 to 1928. Service correctly points out: “Trotsky never called for the NEP to be abandoned even while calling for certain features to be modified or removed. He accepted that the Soviet economy would require a private sector for the foreseeable future.” The problem with what Service says is that Trotsky indicates the same in his 1930 autobiography. There he notes that Stalin and other critics in the Communist Party leadership “discovered that my stand at the time was one of ‘under-appreciation of the peasantry,’ and one almost hostile toward the New Economic Policy. This was really the basis of all the subsequent attacks on me. In point of fact, of course, the roots of the discussion were quite the opposite…” When Lenin “shaped the first and very guarded theses on the change to the New Economic Policy,” Trotsky continued (and Service documents), “I subscribed to them at once.” Lenin and Trotsky favored, for this period, a form of mixed economy under workers’ control (until new possibilities of socialist development would be opened by workers’ revolutions in more advanced industrial countries). At the same time, the two agreed to “a bloc against bureaucracy in general,” as Trotsky put it in his autobiography. This was to become a key pillar in the program of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, sustained when he joined with others (including Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, for a time Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaya) in what came to be known as the United Opposition. “The Leningrad workers were aroused by the political trend in favor of the rich peasants – the so-called kulaks – and a policy aimed at one-country socialism.” This attitude was certainly embraced by the Opposition. But never was it advanced in opposition to the basic measures represented by NEP – nor does Trotsky seek to give this impression in his autobiography. [16]

Internationalism and workers’ democracy

Another key pillar of Trotsky’s program, while leading the Left Opposition and afterward, was continuing (in the spirit of Lenin’s Bolsheviks) to tie the fate of the Soviet Union to the spread of socialist revolutions to other countries. Service complains that in his revolutionary internationalism Trotsky “offered no analysis of how far he was willing to risk the existence of the Soviet state.” (357) Here again it is the biographer, not Trotsky, who seems to be at one with Stalin, who insisted that – regardless of what happened with the world revolution, the Communist regime could and should focus on building “socialism in one country.” [17]

Trotsky – like all Marxists up to the 1920s – understood that socialism could not be built in a single economically backward country. The ability of the workers and peasants of Russia to move forward to a better life, and to the thoroughgoing economic democracy that socialism was supposed to be, was dependent on their moving forward on the same path as, and receiving life-giving assistance from, the working classes making socialist revolutions in the more advanced industrial countries. Naturally, the anti-colonial revolutions in Asia and Africa would also be essential to bringing down global capitalism. [18] Insurgencies in the “backward” regions would feed insurgencies in the “advanced” economic centers – which would then further assist the march of progress in the “backward regions. This had been the whole point of devoting so much time and energy and resources to building up the Communist International and its member parties.

The fact that Service (along with many others) doesn’t quite “get it” is suggested in the way he discusses Trotsky’s revolutionary internationalism, especially in the post-1917 period. It is almost as if one were discussing fashion, rather like one’s taste for “political correctness” or one’s taste in ties: “Trotsky remained a vigorous internationalist. He wrote endlessly about the need for revolution in Europe and Asia. This too was hardly an unusual standpoint to take in the first years after the October revolution, but Trotsky held to it with remarkable firmness. . . . He remained averse to either extolling or deprecating the qualities of particular peoples and believed that this was the proper approach of a Marxist.” (207) This last comment is true but beside the point. Quite simply, without the triumph of revolutionary internationalism, the revolution in Russia would be defeated.

In a later attempt to get it right, Service opines that the reason for building “a fresh global organization dedicated to bringing down capitalism and promoting revolution,” the Communist International, was rooted in the concern that “so long as they ruled the sole extreme-left European state they would remain a likely target for attack by a coalition of capitalist powers.” This conception was shared by Stalin and his temporary ally Nikolai Bukharin in the mid-to-late 1920s. But Trotsky responded: “The capitalist world shows us by its export and import figures that it has other instruments of persuasion than those of military intervention.” Against them he quoted Lenin: “So long as our Soviet Republic remains an isolated borderland surrounded by the entire capitalist world, so long will it be an absolutely ridiculous fantasy and utopianism to think of our complete economic independence and of the disappearance of any of our dangers.” Warning against the notion that “the USSR can perish from military intervention but never from its own economic backwardness,” he insisted that so long as the Soviet Union existed within a global capitalist economy, it would not be possible for it to achieve socialism. This had been a perspective shared by Lenin and the early Bolsheviks – but the new bureaucratic power elite crystallizing around Stalin, denying any break with Lenin’s thought, embraced the notion that it was possible to achieve “socialism in one country.”

Service has so little understanding of Trotsky’s Marxism that he attributes to him the notion that “Marxists in Russia would be able to . . . build an entire socialist society.” (109) In fact, while Stalin proceeded to advance toward such “socialism” in economically backward Russia (through his brutal and murderous “revolution from above”), Trotsky insisted prophetically that such efforts could at best result in a “skinflint reactionary utopia of self-sufficient socialism” that had little to do with the actual socialist goal. Genuine socialism could only be created on the basis of relative abundance, and as part of the transition from global capitalism to worldwide socialism. Service does not bother to deal with this 1928 critique of the Stalin-Bukharin Draft Program for the Sixth Congress of the Communist International (which he even mistakenly confuses with the Fifth Congress).

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky deepened his analysis by referring to the perspective advanced by Karl Marx nine decades earlier: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.” The reference to “all the old crap” is to brutal competition, inequality, exploitation, oppression – qualities that characterized Stalin’s version of “socialism” no less than capitalism. Trotsky elaborated:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.” [19]

None of this comes through in the dozen sentences that Service devotes to The Revolution Betrayed, the 1936 culmination of more than a decade of analytical effort and one of the keystones of Trotsky’s theoretical heritage. He remains remarkably dismissive of the passionate critique that the object of his biography advances through the 1930s. “The bureaucracy can no longer uphold its position in any other way than by undermining the foundations of economic and cultural progress,” according to Trotsky. “The struggle for totalitarian power resulted in the annihilation of the best men of the country by its most degraded scoundrels.” His proposal was for a political revolution initiating the following changes: “the establishment of the widest Soviet democracy and the legalization of the struggle of parties; the liquidation of the never-changing bureaucratic caste by electing all functionaries; the mapping out of all economic plans with the direct participation of the population itself and in its interests; the elimination of the crying and insulting gaps of inequality; the liquidation of ranks, orders, and all other distinctions of the new Soviet nobility; a radical change of external politics in the spirit of principled internationalism.” [20]

In the face of all this and more, Service shrugs: “He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism even though he claimed and assumed he would. … His confident assaults on Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s distracted attention from the implausibility of his own alternative strategy.” (497) The reason for this, apparently, was the authoritarian role he had played in the crisis of civil war and economic collapse from 1918 to 1922. “The Bolshevik party had treated even workers and peasants savagely whenever they engaged in active opposition,” Service writes. “Trotsky’s earlier ideas about ‘proletarian’ self-liberation were like old coins that had dropped unnoticed out of his pocket.” (267) For seriously revolutionary-minded people, Trotsky’s trajectory in these years raises important questions – but for Service it slams all doors firmly shut. He seems to use what happened in this intense five-year period to dismiss everything that Trotsky thinks, says and does afterward, and to question all that went before.

This is in stark contrast to the interpretation offered by Deutscher, who comments that “in the first half of 1922 Trotsky still spoke primarily as the Bolshevik disciplinarian; in the second half he was already in conflict with the disciplinarians,” coming “closer to the Workers Opposition and kindred groups” – not accepting what he believed to be utopian, unrealistic aspects of their positions, but “acknowledging the rational side of their revulsion against authority. … He began to protest against the excesses of centralism as these made themselves felt. . . . He clashed with the party ‘apparatus’ as the apparatus grew independent of the party and subjected party and state to itself.” Deutscher emphasizes what he perceives as the growing cleavage between “the power and the dream” – and the deepening contradiction felt by the Bolsheviks who had created a machine of power to make the dream a reality. “They could not dispense with power if they were to strive for the fulfillment of their ideals; but now their power came to oppress and overshadow their ideals.” Deutscher added: “Nobody had in 1920-1 gone farther than Trotsky in demanding that every interest and aspiration should be wholly subordinated to the ‘iron dictatorship.’ Yet he was the first of the Bolshevik chiefs to turn against the machine of that dictatorship when it began to devour the dream.” [21]

Service will have none of this. But he does not succeed in providing a persuasive and coherent alternative perspective. Rejecting both the dream and the power, he can find no redeeming qualities in the subject to which he devotes more than 500 pages.

The actual Trotsky

Regardless of one’s political standpoint, serious engagement with Trotsky’s life and ideas generally results in one being more profoundly and positively impressed than Service and his cheer-leaders would have us be. Christopher Hitchens – breaking from Trotskyist and revolutionary perspectives, and tacking closer to the Hoover Institution’s conservative orientation than he certainly had ever imagined – has not been able to stop himself from insisting that Trotsky was “a person of immense moral and physical courage . . . who . . . wrote pamphlets and made speeches against the menace of Hitlerism, which are much better and were made much earlier than any of Winston Churchill’s.” [22] The splendid literary and social critic Irving Howe, another ex-Trotskyist who avoided tacking quite so far rightward, felt compelled to insist thirty years ago that Trotsky “must be regarded as one of the great writers of his time,” and went on to specify:

Perhaps nowhere else do these talents shine forth so brightly as in Trotsky’s writings in the early 1930s on the rise of Nazism. These consist of articles and pamphlets composed hurriedly in exile: there is no effort to work out a theoretical synthesis, partly because Trotsky’s major objective is to offer tactical guidance for preventing Hitler’s victory and partly because the phenomenon of Nazism is still new. But such brilliant works . . . contain within them many of the elements needed for a theory of Nazism. … Trotsky’s main purpose in these writings was not to provide a full-scale theory of fascism but to stir the German left toward concerted action. With blazing sarcasm and urgency – he never could be patient toward fools – he attacked the preposterous policy of the German Communists [following Stalin], who in their ultra-left “third period” were declaring the Social Democrats to be “social fascists” representing a greater danger than the Nazis. Trotsky kept insisting on what seems utterly clear and simple: that only a united front (“march separately, strike together”) of the Communists and Social Democrats could stop Hitler. … Had Trotsky’s advice been followed … the world might have been spared some of the horrors of our century; at the very least, the German working class would have gone down in battle the than allowing the Nazi thugs to take power without resistance. [23]

How could it be that Service would shrug this off?

With a similar minimal engagement with the documentary sources, Service also shrugs off the efforts to build up the Fourth International – a global network of revolutionary socialist organizations, quite small but to which Trotsky devoted the final years of his life. Howe sees him in these years as a figure of “flawed greatness … an all too human figure,” who “alternates between periods of ferocious work and sluggish withdrawal. He feels guilty with regards to his children, all of whose lives, in one way or another, have been sacrificed in the political struggle. He is afraid that he may die before finishing his revolutionary task. He is overcome by the incongruity between the magnitude of his political perspective and the paltriness of his political means.” Nonetheless, “caustic and proud, shaking off his personal griefs in order to return to the discipline of work,” he tries to do the very best he can – particularly in what Howe sees as the “ill-starred venture” of the Fourth International. [24]

Service cannot allow himself such critical generosity. There are a scattering of little nuggets drawn from the archives – although, in some cases already published and long-available to the rest of us. A genuinely revolutionary approach of socialist organizations toward workers in struggle should be “not to command the workers but only to help them, to give them suggestions, to arm them with facts, ideas, factory papers, special leaflets, and so on.” The need to make revolutionary socialist organizations “habitable for workers” (not just intellectual and white-collar workers) was a primary concern for Trotsky. “Many intellectuals and half-intellectuals terrorize the workers by some abstract generalities and paralyze the will toward activity,” he cautioned. “A functionary of a revolutionary party should have in the first place a good ear, and only in the second place a good tongue.” (443) [25]

For the most part, however, Service is satisfied with superficialities (“global Trotskyism was a lot less substantial than Stalin imagined”) and snide inaccuracies: “He had sealed himself in the cave of his fundamental beliefs. He allowed no questioning of them. He bullied his followers who dared to object; and he preferred them to leave the Fourth International than to cause him bother.” (441, 472) Whatever limitations one sees in Trotsky’s political practice in the Fourth International, serious histories of the Fourth International as well as a number of memoirs and primary sources, do not confirm Service’s glib characterization. [26]

Service focuses on Trotsky’s 1939-1940 polemics with James Burnham to make his point about Trotsky’s sterile bullying. These were part of a fierce factional battle in the U.S. Socialist Workers Party that – when examined in its fullness – actually refutes the point Service is making. This is documented and succinctly presented in Isaac Deutscher’s biography:

The American Trotskyists had split into a “majority” which, led by James P. Cannon, accepted Trotsky’s view, and a “minority” which followed Burnham and [Max] Shachtman. Trotsky urged all of them to exercise tact and tolerance; and while he encouraged the “Cannonites” to conduct the argument against Burnham and Shachtman vigorously, he also warned them that the Stalinist agents in their ranks would seek to exacerbate the quarrel; and he advised them to allow the minority to express itself freely and even to act as an organized faction within the S.W.P. “If someone should propose … to expel comrade Burnham,” he gave notice, “I would oppose it energetically.” Even after the minority had held its own National Convention, Trotsky still counseled the majority not to treat this as an excuse for expulsions.[27]

As it turned out, the political differences were so sharp that Burnham, Shachtman, and their co-thinkers felt a need to establish their own separate organization. The biographers of the two provide essential information. “In April 1940 Shachtman left the Socialist Workers Party and founded his own Workers Party on the basis of his own conceptions,” notes Peter Drucker in his left-wing study of Shachtman. They simply did not want to be constrained by the limitations of Trotsky’s perspectives, unlike him seeing the Soviet Union under Stalin as not simply needing an anti-bureaucratic political revolution but, in fact, representing a new oppressive form of society as bad as capitalism (and some would soon say worse than capitalism). This new group was almost immediately jolted by the discovery that one of its key theorists was as “bad” as Trotsky had said he was. In his conservative study of James Burnham (who soon enlisted in the Central Intelligence Agency and became an editor of the right-wing National Review), Daniel Kelly notes that “on top of his disillusionment with Trotsky, Burnham now seemed uncertain about the value of the movement and even of socialism.” Within weeks, he had abandoned the Workers Party, explaining to his stunned comrades “that he could no longer accept Marxism, whose ideas modern historians, economists, and anthropologists had shown to be false.” [28] It is really not at all surprising that that he and Trotsky had come into such sharp conflict.

Shachtman and his comrades were eventually followed in their exit from Trotsky’s Fourth International by others having the somewhat different perspective that the Soviet Union represented simply a new variant of capitalism (state capitalism). Yet the independent currents – generating an impressive body of political thought and analysis – nonetheless retained a positive attitude to Trotsky, in stark contrast to Burnham (and Service). [29]

Political choices and permanent revolution

Fifteen years after his break, Burnham would denounce the Trotsky biography of Isaac Deutscher. Near the beginning of the review, he offered a list of Trotsky’s sins that would certainly not surprise Service: pride, subjectivism, impatience, and inhumanity. He conceded that Deutscher’s work was well-researched study and filled in “many gaps,” and that it showed Trotsky’s considerable talents but “conscientiously displays, also, Trotsky’s weaknesses, not only those major flaws that I have already named, but the human failings that were sometimes the obverse of his talents.” Nonetheless, the biography was an “intellectual disaster.” The reason was ideological: “Mr. Deutscher writes from a point of view that accepts and legitimizes the Bolshevik revolution.” Burnham lamented that “the minds of many of our university students and opinion-makers are being deeply formed” by Trotsky’s perspectives which Deutscher sought to convey. “Not all the scholarly references from all the libraries,” according to Burnham, “are enough to wash out the Bolshevik stain.” [30]

Service – with the assistance of the Hoover Institution and to the applause of many pro-capitalist intellectuals – seeks once and for all to un-do such damage. A central point of this biography, repeated over and over again, was that Trotsky’s orientation does not represent any meaningful alternative to Stalinism. Service informs us at the beginning of the book that “Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin shared more than they disagreed about.” Near the end of the book he insists that Trotsky “was close to Stalin in intentions and practice.” (3, 497) The same theme is sounded more than once in-between – even as the evidence (sometimes the evidence he himself presents) suggests otherwise.

There were plenty of informed people of the time, both Trotskyist and non-Trotskyist, who saw things quite differently. Among these was the eloquent powerhouse of British empire and conservatism Winston Churchill, who in conversations and writings of the 1930s emphasized the differences between the revolutionary Trotsky and the much more reasonable Stalin. The old counter-revolutionary expressed himself most candidly in a 1938 private conversation with the Soviet Ambassador to Britain. This was when Stalin’s bloody purge against “the anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites” was going full throttle. Service himself offers the story in passing. “I hate Trotsky!” Churchill told Stalin’s man. “I’ve kept an eye on his activities for some time. He’s Russia’s evil genius, and it is a very good thing that Stalin has got even with him.” (465)

Indeed, the cigar-chomping aristocrat had said as much publicly a year earlier, with all the self-satisfied conservative eloquence he could muster:

Once again he has become the exponent of the purest sect of Communism. Around his name gather the new extremists and doctrinaires of world-revolution. Upon him is turned the full blast of Soviet malignity. … The name of Lenin, the doctrine of Marx, are invoked against him at the moment when he frantically endeavors to exploit them. Russia is regaining strength as the virulence of Communism abates in her blood. The process may be cruel, but it is not morbid. It is a need of self-preservation which impels the Soviet Government to extrude Trotsky and his fresh-distilled poisons.[31]

This, shorn of its excess and its tacit embrace of Stalin, is the image that Service also offers us, despite a far more positive sub-text inadvertently pushing up like grass, flowers, and dandelions through the cracks of his somewhat barren account.

In the youth radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s, many young activists read the condensed little collection of writings edited by Isaac Deutscher and George Novack, widely circulated in paperback, entitled The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology. In the introduction to that volume, Deutscher described Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution – to which Service gives remarkably short shrift – as “a profound and comprehensive conception in which all the overturns that the world has been undergoing (in this late capitalist era) are represented as interconnected and interdependent parts of a single revolutionary process.” In the theory of permanent revolution, we see the dynamic interplay of democracy and class struggle, the self-activity of the masses of laboring and oppressed people reaching for their own liberation within, while at the same time straining beyond, the context of global capitalism. Three elements can be found in Trotsky’s theory: (a) the possibility and necessity, under the right circumstances, of democratic and immediate struggles spilling over into the struggle for working-class political power, (b) culminating in a transitional period going in the direction of socialism, (c) which can be realized only through the advance of similar struggles around the world. In fact, these elements permeate Trotsky’s orientation from his youth to his death. “To put it in the broadest terms,” Deutscher emphasized, “the social upheaval of our century is seen by Trotsky as global in scope and character, even though it proceeds on various levels of civilization and in the most diverse social structures, and even though its various phases are separated from one another in time and space.” [32]

Young activists hoping for a better world may be drawn to the vitality of Trotsky, despite Service’s efforts. It is possible that some of them may even get their introduction to Trotsky by reading his book. The assumptions of the Hoover Institution may, after all, turn out to be less relevant than the life and ideas of Trotsky in face of what is actually happening in the world. The young activists may conclude that they are living in the age of permanent revolution, and then commit their lives to making it so.

[This article first appeared at the ESSF website. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]


[1] Robert Harris, “Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service,” Sunday Times, October 18, 2009:

[2] Simon Sebag, Montefiore, “Trotsky by Robert Service: review,” Daily Telegraph, October 11, 2009:

[3] Harris, cited in footnote 1.

[4] Joshua Rubenstein, “Revolutionary’s Road,” Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2009:

[5] Tariq Ali, “The Life and Death of Trotsky,” The Guardian, 31 October 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/200.... Available on ESSF: The life and death of Trotsky. While Ali’s leftist dissent is uncommon in “mainstream” sources, there has been a negative chorus forthcoming among the marginalized left – with critiques available on-line from Peter Taafe, David North, Paul Hampton, Dave Sherry, and others. Each raises points worth considering (although I am not persuaded by North’s argument that Service is cynically “making an appeal to anti-Semites” in the way he writes about Trotsky).

[6] “Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” Hoover Institution, July 28, 2009, http://www.hoover.org/multimedia/uk....

[7] Max Eastman, Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth (New York: Greenberg, 1925), 26-27.

[8] Nurit Schleifman, “Azef, Evno Fishelevich (1869-1918),” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Russian Revolution, ed. by Harold Shukman (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1988), 303-304.

[9] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Trotsky: 1879-1921 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1954), 381-386.

[10] Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, with an introduction by Isaac Deutscher (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 21, 62, 65, 67, 68. Service chooses not to acknowledgeTrotsky’s poignant description of his son, Leon Sedov – Son, Friend, Fighter, written on behalf of himself and Natalya upon a death clouded by mysterious circumstances, in which Trotsky says “he was our son, truthful, devoted, loving, . . . he had, as no one else on earth, become part of our life, entwined in all its roots, our co-thinker, our co-worker, our guard, our counselor, our friend.” (Leon Trotsky, Portraits Political and Personal [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977], 190.)

[11] “Mission Statement,” Hoover Institution, http://www.hoover.org/about/mission; “Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” cited in footnote 6.

[12] Eastman, 7.

[13] Elsewhere in the volume, Service acknowledges Joffe and Rakovsky, among others, as close friends of Trotsky. In addition, see Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, From Syndicalism to Trotskyism: Writings of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer (London: Porcupine Press, 2000), and Alice Rühle-Gerstel, “No Verses for Trotsky: A Diary (1937),” Encounter, April 1982, 27-41. Sara Weber also writes of her friendship (seemingly not an unusual one) with Trotsky and his companion Natalia in “Recollections of Trotsky,” Modern Occasions, Spring 1972.

[14] "Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” cited in footnote 6. Similar points are made, with substantial documentation, by Arno J. Mayer – The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) and Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The ‘Final Solution’ In History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). Also see the second volume – dealing with the civil war – of William Henry Chamberlin’s 1935 classic The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), and David S. Fogelsong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism, 1917-1920 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[15] On this complex question, see Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London: Writers and Readers, 1984), 115-156, Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (London/New York: Routledge, 2008), and Paul Le Blanc, “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Democracy,” New Politics, Winter 2009, 45-52.

[16] Service, 349; Leon Trotsky, My Life, An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 462, 466, 479, 521.

[17] Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 47, 49, 48.

[18] Ibid., 45-46.

[19] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937), 56, 112. The quotation from Marx can be found in The Germany Ideology (1845) – for the full excerpt see Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, eds., Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 427; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 37. One could write a substantial and remarkable doctoral dissertation on the evolution of Trotsky’s analysis that culminated in The Revolution Betrayed – and fortunately, someone recently has done just that. See Thomas Marshall Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (University of Pittsburgh, 2009).

[20] “The Totalitarian Defeatist in the Kremlin,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1937-38 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), 447; “Answers to the New York Herald-Tribune,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 413.

[21] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1959), 51, 53, 54, 78.

[22] "Trotsky Per Hitchens and Service,” cited in footnote 6.

[23] Irving Howe, Leon Trotsky (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 136, 140. The writings referred to here can be found in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971).

[24] Howe, 134, 135, 143.

[25] “The Social Composition of the Party,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 489, 490.

[26] See Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929–1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists (London: Ink Links, 1977); George Breitman, “The Rocky Road to the Fourth International, 1933-38” in Anthony Marcus, ed., Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005), 299-352; James P. Cannon , “Internationalism and the SWP,” in Speeches to the Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 67-91 . Useful material (some of uneven quality) can also be found in the pages of the journal Revolutionary History – see http://www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/.

[27] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1963), 475-476.

[28] Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), 109; Daniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World, A Life (Wilmington DL: ISI Books, 2002), 84-86.

[29] See Sean Matagamna, ed., The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism (London: Phoenix Press, 1998) and Tony Cliff, Trotskyism After Trotsky: The Origins of the International Socialists (London: Bookmarks, 1999) and A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary (London: Bookmarks, 2000).

[30] James Burnham, untitled review, Russian Review, volume 14, No. 2, April 1955, 151-152.

[31] Winston Churchill, Great Companions (1937), reprinted in Irving H. Smith, ed. Trotsky: Great Lives Observed (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 87-88. This dovetails with the anti-democratic, elitist (indeed, racist) upper-class attitudes documented in Clive Ponting, Churchill (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994).

[32] Isaac Deutscher, “Introduction,” The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology (New York: Dell, 1964), 19. Also see: Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects, with introductions by Michael Löwy (London: Socialist Resistance, 2007); Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (Kolkata [Calcutta], India: Progressive Publishers, 2006), 93-195; Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, eds., 100 Years of Permanent Revolution, Results and Prospects (London: Pluto Press, 2006); and Paul Le Blanc, on ESSF website: Uneven and Combined Development and the Sweep of History: Focus on Europe.


As usual, a very good article by Paul. I would describe myself as a socialist (or communist) and I think all the usual suspects like Marx, Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg, Che etc... are worth studying.

So I have a question for Paul -- in the second-last paragraph you spell out the essence of Trotsky's theory. But I would argue that all socialists would agree with these three points. What do you think is the essence of Trotskyism that would define it as being different and unique?

It seems to me the defining feature of Trotsky is his struggle against Stalin. And on this point, it seems to me, most socialists would agree. Nobody really defends Stalin's criminal distortions.


I very much appreciate the reader’s positive comments. I hope I will be forgiven for a response that is somewhat less succinct as I express essential agreement while offering additional thoughts.

I agree that the essence of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (and also of the Transitional Program) is consistent with the thinking of Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Gramsci. In my book “From Marx to Gramsci” I argue (and provide readings to help make the case) that the thinking of these six revolutionaries adds up to a dynamic, internally consistent body of thought that can be called “revolutionary Marxism.” The younger, uncompromised Bukharin (prior to 1925) was also very much in this framework. And much in the thinking/actions of Che Guevara (as well as many, many other revolutionaries) also overlaps and intersects with this revolutionary Marxism.

I am also inclined to agree that Trotsky’s most distinctive contribution involved his struggle to defend revolutionary Marxism and the Russian Revolution of 1917 from what could be called “Stalin’s criminal distortions.”

At the same time, within the evolving body of revolutionary Marxism, different revolutionaries came to certain insights and clarifications before others – this is a tradition that could be characterized as involving “uneven and combined development.”

Also, various comrades gave a distinctive articulation to certain ideas: Gramsci’s discussion of “hegemony” and Luxemburg’s description of the “mass strike,” for example, as well as Lenin’s insights on the “revolutionary party” and on the “worker-peasant alliance” come to mind – and this list is hardly exhaustive. Many more essential contributions could be associated with each of these comrades, although rather than making them up out of whole cloth, they were simply drawing from the common pool of conceptualizations associated with revolutionary Marxism, giving them distinctive expression in the face of new experiences.

The obvious point should be added that Trotsky had the advantage of living longer than Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin, and of having greater freedom and experience than Gramsci – which enabled him to make certain contributions not allowed to the others.

In this spirit, I would suggest that Trotsky’s “defining features” include the following:

(1) his development of the theory of uneven and combined development and the related theory of permanent revolution;

(2) his understanding of the Russian Revolution of 1917, reflected in his actions of that year and in his magnificent three-volume “History of the Russian Revolution”;

(3) his articulation, as a leader of the Communist International, of the united front tactic (along with Lenin and others) to advance the genuine interests of the workers and oppressed;

(4) his increasingly clear and profound critique, from 1923 onward, of the bureaucratic degeneration within the Soviet Republic, of the authoritarianism that accompanied it, and of the vicious “revolution from above” that had such a devastating impact on the peasantry and working class -- and his retrieval of the concept of “workers’ democracy” (including, finally, the principle of political pluralism) that had been central to the revolutionary struggles of 1905 and 1917;

(5) his defense of revolutionary internationalism against the deeply flawed notion of “socialism in one country” – understanding, in the global political economy of his time, the inter-linked fates the working classes and oppressed peoples of the early Soviet Union with those of the “advanced” capitalist countries and with those in the “under-developed” colonial and semi-colonial regions;

(6) his revolutionary Marxist analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union contained in “The Revolution Betrayed,” and his exposure of and opposition to the poisonous and murderous characteristics of Stalinism as reflected in the Moscow trials and massive repression in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s;

(7) his brilliant analysis of fascism and his urgent call for a working-class united front to combat and defeat it;

(8) his clear and incisive critique of the popular front, with its inherent class-collaborationism and its built-in dynamics of defeat;

(9) his analysis of the underlying dynamics of World War II which – in contrast to perspectives prevalent within most of the Left – provided the basis for a relatively clear understanding of post-war realities;

(10) his heroic efforts – against overwhelming odds – to draw an international network of uncorrupted revolutionaries together into a Fourth International, armed with a “transitional program” designed to apply revolutionary Marxist perspectives to the current realities facing them.

Those seeking to convert all of this into a dogmatic “orthodoxy” are doing violence to the critical method that is essential to the revolutionary Marxism of Trotsky himself. He scathingly denounced efforts to devise a set of “Trotskyist” tactics to be applied “from Paris to Honolulu.” Rather than constructing a special “-ism” that sets him apart, one could argue it would be more useful to emphasize how inseparable his ideas are from those of the other revolutionaries we have mentioned. I think it would be no less a mistake, however, to minimize his contributions. There may be differing views on the limitations of one or another of his distinctive perspectives. That is something that historians can explore and debate – and, in a more important sense, it must be sorted out by activists amid the realities and struggles of the here-and-now.

But there is no question that those engaged in both understanding and changing the world will find Trotsky’s writings, as the reader puts it, “worth studying.”

My HONEST Review:

There is of course the biography of Lev Davidovich Bronstein 'Leon Trotsky', psed fromhis Siberian jailor!) by Pierre Broue (1926 - 2005) published by Fayard, 1988, 1105 p. [ISBN 2213022127], only available in French (et al) as yet.

Broue has been published in English by 'Revolutionary History' Vol. 9 (4)/ Socialist Platform Ltd, and Merlin Press, 2007 [www.revolutionary-history.co.uk].

This is a critique of Deutscher's trilogy and an important historical work and should be read alongside the named Deutscher triolgy.

Some valuable internet connections and commentaries:


Wrote Broue of his Trotsky biography:

"This work is based on everything written or kept in the Western world about Trotsky along with depositions of his surviving friends. The goal was to revive Trotsky as he really was, with contradictions and defects, a hero but not a saint.

Further, Trotsky aims to reconstitute the development of his life through real contradictions of world society, parties, Internationals, and so forth.

I hesitate to comment on Deutscher’s work.

After all, he was a brilliant writer and excellent journalist. But in his book, he is, above all, eager to demonstrate that Deutscher was right and Trotsky wrong.

Moreover, he went too fleetingly through the most important documents and when he had no evidence, he speculated on the facts.

Sadly, Deutscher was not a historian and his Trotsky trilogy has become a classic because it was the first attempt to analyse one of the most exceptional figures of this century.

My book has been brilliantly received in the French-speaking world, and even in the former Soviet Union.

The only setback has been the adverse criticism of an American author, with no particular competence in the subject area. Because of this, the book has not yet appeared in the English language although Pluto Press had originally agreed to a translated edition."

See also: Pierre Broué: A rare combination (1926 - 2005)

International Socialism (IS) Issue: 108, by Ian Birchall


""Broué’s biography of Trotsky (1988) was consciously written in order to correct and go beyond the three volumes by Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher gave a magnificent portrait of the individual Trotsky, but gave relatively little importance to his efforts to build a new organisation to oppose Stalinism.

Broué stressed the importance of Trotsky’s long struggle to found a new international."

"Unfortunately, relatively little of Broué’s work is available in English. The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (translated 1972) may still be available in libraries; The German Revolution 1917-1923 had to wait 33 years for an English version.

It is hoped that it may be possible to produce a special issue of Revolutionary History containing material by Broué not previously translated. At all events, Broué has left us a valuable legacy on which a new generation of socialist historians will have to build."

And: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=364&issue=116

'Can we write the history of the Russian Revolution?'

By Kevin Murphy

International Socialism (IS), Issue: 116

Lastly: Ernest Mandel's review of Broue's Trotsky:


""Despite all its weaknesses, Deutscher’s trilogy (which has reached an audience far greater than Broué’s ever will) did have the historical merit of breaking the wall of silence and slanders that Stalinist and bourgeois historians, as well as fellow travellers and opportunists of all sorts, have tried to erect for a quarter of a century around the leader of the October insurrection and the founder of the Red Army.

Outside the small Trotskyist movement and its periphery, where this book was obviously not necessary, it marked out a path to the truth for hundreds of thousands of readers.

Far from being, as Broué at one point suggests, an apology for Stalin, it was an essential stage in the demystification of Stalin for this part of world opinion...

Broué’s book: helps us answer a question that arises from the history of the USSR in the 1923-1940 period, which historians and young people (not to mention the workers’ vanguard) ask (and will increasingly ask in that country) – how do you explain Stalin’s persistent hatred, the implacable persecution against Trotsky, his family and friends? ...

“Isaac Deutscher is a more brilliant writer than Pierre Broué. His language is more striking, he has a more lively style that is easier to read and he has a gift for summarizing ideas and events in an original way.

But Broué is a better historian.

He uses quotes and backs up his sources. He avoids ready-made judgments. And now, unlike the time when Deutscher was writing, he has been able to have access to and use supplementary documentary sources and a secondary literature.

Above all Deutscher’s third volume was marked by the author’s over-polemical approach to his subject on all the questions in dispute between the two men in the 1930s. An objective examination of these questions with the information we have today leads us to the conclusion that it was Trotsky’s analysis and not Deutscher’s that was right on most of them.

Two important examples bear this out. First of all the scope of the social/political crisis in France in 1934, culminating in the June 1936 General Strike and the subsequent defeat of the 1938 General Strike.

Deutscher clearly underestimated this, even if Trotsky’s June 1936 formulation ‘The French revolution has begun’ is debatable. Then there is the question of the foundation of the Fourth International in September 1938, recognizing the necessity to continue the work begun in 1933 of patiently building new revolutionary nuclei both nationally and internationally and of consolidating this work as far as possible against the pounding it would receive from the effects of World War.

On these questions and on many more, Broué, who is obviously politically closer to Trotsky than Deutscher was, is also a more objective historian. He writes as a supporter of Trotsky but not as an a-critical or awestruck admirer. He never hides his immense admiration and love for his subject – sentiments we understand since we share them. But he does not mythologise some guru or infallible politician."

Judge for yourself - but let's get a English translation of Broue's Trotsky also please Verso (or whomever)!

I am from Croatia, and half of my life i was living in communism and other half in capitalism. I can only say here that basic idea of communism was quite good, but did not worked in reallity. Anyway at that time there was not so many rich people in the country, but there was also not so many poor people around. Health system, education...that part was much easier. Today if you don't have money you can not get good medical care or go to good university. There is lots of things which are better now, than before, but anyway I like to read those stories and remember how things use to be. Very good article!


By Joe Auciello

Bertrand M. Patenaude, Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, (HarperCollins: New York, 2009), 370 pp., $27.99.

Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009), 600 pp., $35.

George Breitman, editor of a multivolume series of Leon Trotsky’s uncollected work, once wrote a review with the title, “Two Worthless Biographies About Trotsky.” That judgment, applied to these new biographies, would not be overly harsh; both books are worth less than readers might have hoped.

Robert Service, Professor of Russian History at Oxford, has written the definitive hostile biography of Trotsky; Bertrand M. Patenaude, a lecturer at Stanford University, has composed an apolitical narrative of Trotsky’s last years. Both books lean heavily on the “Trotsky Collection,” housed at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford. These include papers and letters from Trotsky’s political followers as well as other biographers of Trotsky. They add some minor and occasionally interesting detail and color to an already familiar portrait.

Patenaude’s book is something of an oddity. He has written a biography of a major historical figure, a symbol of revolutionary opposition to Stalinism, which exhibits little concern for political struggles or political theory. In fact, it seems almost perverse to criticize the book’s shortcomings in political analysis since analysis of any kind makes up only a small fraction of the biography.

When Patenaude does comment on the central focus of Trotsky’s life – the revolutionary struggle for socialism -- Patenaude presents a jumble of confusion or confines himself to snide remarks. Leaving aside the abundant examples of the latter, it would be useful to review how he treats an important political event.

Here, for instance, Patenaude explains the rapprochement between Lenin and Trotsky between the 1917 revolutions:

“Trotsky remained one of Lenin’s harshest critics until 1917… It was then, during the heady days between the February and October revolutions, that Trotsky embraced Bolshevism, recognizing that the Party machinery created by Lenin was the only vehicle capable of carrying out a socialist revolution in Russia. This was his Faustian pact. Lenin’s part of the bargain was to endorse Trotsky’s concept of the Russian Revolution, which provided the theoretical basis for the Bolshevik seizure of power” (p. 45).

The historical accuracy – and sense – of the analysis collapses under the weight of the ill-chosen literary metaphor. First, despite what Patenaude suggests, there was no “deal” between Lenin and Trotsky, nor could there have been since neither was in contact with the other. By April 1917 Lenin was already in Russia while Trotsky was being held prisoner in a Canadian concentration camp. Trotsky did not arrive until a month later. “And both of us,” Trotsky wrote in his autobiography, “though we were writing in different parts of the world and were separated by an ocean, gave the same analysis and the same forecast” (“My Life,” p. 329).

Second, a “Faustian pact” is a fatal bargain, a deal with the devil in which one gains life-long success only at the price of one’s eternal soul. The metaphor is meant to imply that Trotsky was unknowingly complicit in his own assassination since he had helped to create the revolution which would ultimately lead to his 1940 murder in Mexico.

Such is the depth and quality of Patenaude’s thinking. He is capable of delving no further into any of the issues and conflicts of Trotsky’s life. In fact, the “Faustian” idea, shallow though it may be, is not even original with Patenaude (or Robert Service, whose book ends on a similar note). Another biographer of Trotsky, Dmitri Volkogonov, made the same point more than a decade earlier. Volkogonov quoted from Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism” and claimed, “In these utterances we find an unexpected resonance between the victim and the murderer. The ideas of Bolshevik Jacobinism, so firmly implanted by Trotsky in the Russian revolution, had come back to strike at him with the force of a boomerang” (“Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary,” p. 467).

Patenaude fares no better when he takes up one of Trotsky’s most justifiably famous works, “The History of the Russian Revolution.” Patenaude writes, “The ‘History’ is best appreciated as a work of literature. The narrative pulses with drama and coruscates throughout…” (p. 179). He also informs readers that “Trotsky’s ‘History,’ while free of jargon, is unmistakably the work of a Marxist historian” (p. 180).

Indeed, it is, and even a casual reader skimming the book would realize that, for all its literary qualities, “The History of the Russian Revolution” is most significant for its blend of history and political theory, which includes an explanation of the law of uneven and combined development, permanent revolution, the theory of the vanguard party, the problem of nationalities, the “art of insurrection,” and much more.

Patenaude, in his analysis, essentially ignores the heart of Trotsky’s work. When placing an emphasis on drama and narrative, Patenaude is actually describing the book he himself has written.

Unfortunately, as he continues his comments on Trotsky’s “History,” Patenaude does venture upon a thought, though it is not his own. Why, Patenaude asks, does Trotsky downplay his own role in the Russian Revolution to Lenin’s advantage? Why is it that Trotsky “deliberately places himself in Lenin’s shadow”?

Patenaude’s answer must surely be recognized as a masterful application of what Marxists with their jargon call “dialectical reasoning.” Patenaude writes, “Trotsky idolized Lenin, and yet here his elevation of the Bolshevik leader was in part an act of self-aggrandizement. Trotsky’s name was inseparably linked to Lenin’s in the context of the Revolution… Thus, in exalting Lenin, he was by implication also lifting himself onto the pedestal” (p. 180). Mystery solved. Trotsky praises Lenin in order to praise Trotsky.

Of course, there is a chance – Patenaude does not consider it – but, nonetheless, there is a chance that Trotsky actually meant what he wrote. Trotsky’s reasoning was clear and direct: Lenin was the founder and central leader of the Bolshevik Party. Without such an organization, the revolution could not have been accomplished. The revolutionary will of the Russian masses in 1917 finally found their expression in the Bolshevik Party. For all of Trotsky’s skill as an orator and a mass agitator, he recognized that no such party could have been assembled from scratch during the tumultuous months of 1917. The revolutionary moment would have come and passed; counter-revolution would have triumphed. Lenin’s role was thus essential to the socialist victory. This fact alone – and not the twisted logic of “self-aggrandizement” - explains Trotsky’s “elevation of the Bolshevik leader.”

If Patenaude’s argument is foolish, as indeed it is, an even greater folly is that he lifted it without attribution from Volkogonov’s biography. When Volkogonov wrote about Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution,” he commented: “But, of course, in raising Lenin to the very summit of historical justification, Trotsky was surreptitiously also placing himself on the pedestal of history, since he had so often been named as the second man of the revolution” (“Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary,” p. 433).

Even Robert Service recognizes that Volkogonov is a hack, though in deference to professional courtesy he speaks with academic propriety and merely notes that Volkogonov’s book on Trotsky was published “[w]ithout offering an original interpretation… (“Trotsky: A Biography,” p. xxi).

These few examples sum up the overall standard of Patenaude’s political analysis, which at its best is merely adequate. In fairness, it should be said that he is capable of giving Wikipedia-quality accounts of significant topics, like Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

More often than not, though, Patenaude is simply out of his depth. Unfamiliarity with and incomprehension about Marxism, rounded out with a misplaced condescension, results in a flawed and superficial biography.

Much the same can be said of Robert Service’s “Trotsky: A Biography,” which, along with biographies of Stalin and Lenin, completes his Russian Revolution triptych.

In the book’s “Introduction,” Service states that Trotsky’s “portrait of his life and times involved many distortions – and these have clouded our understanding of Soviet communist history.” Some of these supposed “distortions” occurred because “Trotsky found some of [his works] an embarrassment,” and so he “kept a lot to himself when publishing his autobiography and releasing selections of documents. This book’s purpose is to dig up the buried life” (p. 4).

Actually, the book’s purpose – the metaphor is unavoidable – is to bury Trotsky once again, a task which bourgeois academics find themselves compelled to perform approximately every decade.

Service mocks the “Western political left” in the 1960s, a time when “Trotsky came into vogue, often among people who were untroubled by the desire to read what he had written and done” (p. 497). However, Service is even more forthcoming in an online interview with the Hoover Institution program, “Uncommon Knowledge.” There Service says, “The idea that somehow a humane version of communism could have come out of Trotskyism is pure romanticism, but it appealed to people in the ‘60s and’70s who wanted just such a figure, someone who was standing outside all of the worries about the Vietnam war and who wanted to think there was a possibility that the USSR – if it only, if it had been differently led in the 1920s, a different turn could have taken place.”

Bury Trotsky, then, because he stands for the idea that socialism can create a better society and a world free of war, racism, and exploitation. These were the ideals that motivated militants in the 1960s, ideals that remain alive throughout the world today and continue to inspire a new generation. This is what Service would bury, if he could.

Service’s central point is that Trotsky is Stalin minus the moustache and graced with a better literary style. Even the latter point is intended as a twofold criticism: first, Service complains that in the 1920s Trotsky spent too much time writing, thus allowing Stalin to maneuver successfully against him. So, Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Trotsky scribbled while the Revolution degenerated.

Second, Service claims that generations of readers and historians have been taken in by the grandness of Trotsky’s prose which only obscures the fundamentally totalitarian nature of his political life and his political theories (“He reveled in terror”). What’s more, Service argues, a Trotsky in power would have been even more brutal than Stalin.

Service outlines his analysis in the “Introduction:” “Trotsky’s strategy for communist advance anyway had little to offer for the avoidance of an oppressive regime. His ideas and practices laid several foundation stones for the erection of the Stalinist political, economic, social and even cultural edifice… As for the charge that Stalin was an arch-bureaucrat, this was rich coming from an accuser who had delighted in unchecked administrative authority in the years of his pomp… [In “My Life,” Trotsky wrote, “I felt the mechanics of power as an inescapable burden, rather than as a spiritual satisfaction,” p. 582.] And if ever Trotsky had been the paramount leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased” (p. 3). As Service said of Trotsky in an on-line interview, “He wasn’t a good thing for anybody at any time.”

In 500 pages of biography, Service does everything he possibly can to reinforce that biased judgment. It’s a belief become obsession that turns Service into a shoddy historian. He seizes every possible opportunity to portray Trotsky negatively, even when the effort involves misreading, self-contradictions, unverified assumptions, and more.

Service’s self-proclaimed task “to dig up the buried life” begins in the first chapter. There, Service writes, “As a Marxist he [Trotsky] was embarrassed about the wealth of his parents, and he never properly acknowledged their extraordinary qualities and achievements (p. 12).

Actually, “as a Marxist,” Trotsky knew that Marx’s father was an attorney sufficiently well off to send his son Karl to university where he obtained a Ph.D in philosophy. Engels, as is well known, came from a family of German capitalists and helped oversee the family’s business interests in Manchester, England. Lenin’s father was a government official, a Director of primary schools whose place in the civil service hierarchy ultimately equaled the rank of a general. By comparison, Trotsky had no need to feel any such “embarrassment.”

As for the family’s achievements, Service claims that Trotsky “hugely understated the reality” when the truth is that Trotsky’s father “dragged himself up the ladder of economic success” (p. 12). Yet, 12 pages later, Service quotes Trotsky discussing his father’s business accounts and concluding with the observation that “my father slowly but doggedly kept climbing upwards.”

Thus, a reader sees the first discovery in the digging up of a buried life. No more huge understatements of reality from an author who distorted the truth and kept the facts to himself. Now, thanks to Service, readers know that Trotsky’s father did not advance economically, slowly but doggedly -- no, that would be a huge understatement. Instead, Trotsky’s father “dragged himself up the ladder of economic success.” This example presents a definition of the phrase, “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.” Service’s political agenda simply prevents him from reading accurately.

As the book continues, Service’s political analysis and historical methodology do not improve. In Part Two, Trotsky has finally returned to Russia following the overthrow of Nicholas II and the end of the Romanov monarchy. A Provisional Government is in power along with workers’ councils, or “soviets.” Both Lenin and Trotsky opposed the Provisional Government and called for “All Power to the Soviets.”

Service describes Trotsky’s efforts: “Trotsky went around distilling enthusiasm for direct action. His printed articles did not spell out what he had in mind because he did not want to provide the Provisional Government with an excuse to take him into custody. When he got up on the platform it was a different matter… The regime he sought to establish would be dictatorial and violent: ‘I tell you heads must roll, blood must flow… The strength of the French Revolution was in the machine that made the enemies of the people shorter by a head. This is a fine device. We must have it in every city.’ Trotsky stood forth as a Jacobin of his time” (p. 172).

The import of this paragraph should not be lost on any reader. If the above account is accurate, then Trotsky had announced the beginning of the Red Terror, or, at least, his fervent wish for it, years before the Terror actually commenced. No one, not Lenin, not even Stalin, made such statements. Trotsky would have “stood forth” not only “as a Jacobin of his time” but as the ideological father of the Red Terror.

This assertion, which defies reason and fact, is another example of Service’s poor scholarship. Service would have it that Trotsky wrote one thing but said another. Yet Trotsky’s speeches were written down, published, and later collected in book form as part of the documentary record of the Russian Revolution. The appearance of his speeches in newspapers could hardly have escaped him. Further, had the Provisional Government wished to arrest him (as, ultimately, it did), his speeches, heard by friends and enemies alike, would have been sufficient cause. Public speaking is not a particularly good way of hiding one’s opinions.

A greater problem arises with the source of the quote from Trotsky. Service cites one source – only one – “Stormy Passage” by a W. Woytinsky. No other eye-witness observer (a Nikolai Sukhanov or a John Reed, for instance) confirms this general idea, much less the specific quote itself.

Is the source reliable? Service does not trouble himself to ask the question. Why bother, since it suits his purpose? So, Service tells the reader nothing about W. Woytinsky.

Trotsky, however, had written about him in the first volume of “The History of the Russian Revolution.” There, Trotsky explains that Woytinsky quit the Bolshevik Party in March 1917 and joined the Mensheviks who supported the Provisional Government and opposed the proletarian revolution in principle. As a Menshevik, Trotsky points out, Woytinsky “became, as was to be expected, a professional Bolshevik-eater.” The English translation seems rather loose here, but the image of Woytinsky as a fierce factionalist emerges clearly enough.

A competent historian, one who felt a basic responsibility for honesty, would have made these facts clear. Service does not. Instead, he uses an unlikely quote from a single dubious source and, without investigation or comment, presents a doubtful statement as truth. As a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Russian History at Oxford University, Service would surely know the flaw in such a method.

Service’s errors in logic and analysis extend to his discussion of Trotsky’s writings and political activities. Worse, Service makes statements that are obviously misleading or wrong. Writing of Trotsky’s, “Literature and Revolution,” Service states, “Like fellow communist leaders, Trotsky wanted a high culture subordinate to the party’s purposes (p. 317). Actually, Trotsky says that for those artists who would at least accept the Russian Revolution, the policy of the Bolshevik Party should be “to allow them complete freedom of self-determination in the field of art.” Even Bertrand Patenaude writes that Trotsky was Soviet Russia’s “most effective advocate of freedom in the arts” (“Boston College Magazine,” Fall 2009, p. 45).

Service’s more egregious offense is to cite Trotsky as the precursor to Stalinist policies in art, policies which would include the promotion of “right-thinking” mediocrities and heavy censorship, repression, imprisonment, and worse for authentic artists. Service’s accusation is astonishing: “’Literature and Revolution’ was essentially a work of political reductionism. When all is said and done, though, it was Trotsky who laid down the philosophical foundations for cultural Stalinism” (p. 318).

Apparently, the identity is founded on the argument that Trotsky wrote, however briefly and abstractly, in favor of censorship when the interests of the Revolution were at stake, and Stalin actually practiced censorship. Ergo, Trotsky is the true architect of “cultural Stalinism.”

A pamphlet-length essay would be required to set the record aright, but let one instance suffice. In 1930, Trotsky referred to Isaac Babel, author of “Red Cavalry,” as “the most talented of our younger writers (“My Life,” p. 361). Ten years later Stalin had Babel imprisoned, tortured, and shot. The manuscripts, documents, correspondence, etc. that were seized at the time of Babel’s arrest have never been found. Everything essential is contained in this one example. The fate of Isaac Babel reveals, in the field of art and culture, the unbridgeable gap between Stalin and Trotsky.

At other times Service criticizes Trotsky for writing at all. Service complains that Trotsky “might have found more useful things to do” than write a book of reminiscence, “On Lenin,” since “[t]he work scarcely justified the amount of creative energy he used up…” In the same paragraph Service says the composition of the book took only weeks, and it was “vivid and interesting” (p. 319). That alone would seem sufficient justification for a literary work, at least to a fair-minded critic.

Throughout Service’s biography his hostility to Trotsky causes him to misinterpret facts or to try and cast them in the worst possible light. Consider, for example, how Service analyzes Trotsky’s work with his co-thinkers. Service quotes from a 1929 letter Trotsky wrote to the Leninbund, the German Left Oppositionists: “As the Leninbund looks now, it will never guide the German proletariat, not even the vanguard of the vanguard. The Leninbund must restock its ideological armoury, and must accordingly recognize its rank and file. The first prerequisite of this is an ideological clarity of line.”

Here is how Service interprets these three sentences: “This was Trotsky’s way of attracting a following in Europe and North America. He was to be the sole leader. He laid down the line, and others were mean to follow without demur” (p. 391).

Service’s comment is simply nonsense, if not slanderous. Nothing in the above lines suggests Trotsky as a “sole leader” or indicates a desire to become one. Even had he wanted to, there was no means by which Trotsky could impose his will on others. Further, one need only look at the “Writings” series in this period to see that a good deal of demurring between the Leninbund and Trotsky went on for years.

What’s more, Trotsky wrote explicitly, “Of course, no one can dispute your right to have differences with the Russian Opposition in general or with Trotsky in particular. But this should be done clearly, precisely, and openly…” (from “Where Is the Leninbund Going?” in “Writings of Leon Trotsky [1929],” p. 307).

Service takes as his source a letter from Trotsky held in the Hoover Institute Archives. He complains, rightly, that “The English here is lumpy; I have reproduced the translation sent to the Communist League in the USA” (p. 548). But another and better translation has been available since 1975, when the 1929 “Writings” was published. From this translation a reader would learn that Trotsky wanted the Leninbund to “rearm ideologically, and to rebuild [not “recognize”] its ranks accordingly” (“Writings of Leon Trotsky [1929], p. 249).

This series of mistakes, misinterpretations, and misreading are only based on one paragraph, but this paragraph is no exception to the rule. Service cannot be trusted as a reliable source on matters large or small. Every chapter suffers from similar ignorance and teems with similar problems. A multi-volume “Anti-Service” would have to be written to set matters right.

Such a work would lack for no shortage of topics, including questions of Marxist theory for which Service has no aptitude. For instance, he fails to understand the significance and difference between Lenin’s theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. “The differences, indeed,” Service claims, “were detectable only with an ideological microscope” (p. 91).

To “The Revolution Betrayed,” one of Trotsky’s major works, a systematic critique of the Stalinist Soviet bureaucracy, Service devotes only two paragraphs. Ultimately, he believes the work was written for personal and psychological reasons. “At some unconscious level he [Trotsky] seemingly needed the reassurance that great historical forces and not an individual adversary of comparable talent had brought about his defeat” (p. 457).

In a speech written in the year that “The Revolution Betrayed” was published, Trotsky offered, contrary to the amateur psychoanalysts of the future, a Marxist analysis: “It is absurd to explain such a furious struggle by personal motives. It is a question not only of political programmes, but also of different social interests, which clash in an increasingly hostile fashion” (“I Stake My Life!”).

Only someone without interest in Marxism could make the kind of – Trotsky’s word is just – absurd comments cited in the above paragraphs. It is not a question of disagreement, for then Service would have developed a rebuttal to the opinions of his subject. He does not even try. Marxist ideas, when they are considered at all, are treated superficially or dismissed out of hand.

Of course, someone so ill-equipped in the field of Marxism ought not to be writing major biographies of Marxists. It is equally obvious that someone who says Trotsky would have been better off if he had died in the 1930s before he had written works like “The Revolution Betrayed,” as Service claimed in the on-line “Uncommon Knowledge” interview, perhaps ought not to be writing a biography of Trotsky.

Robert Service not only dismisses Marxism; not only does he continually insult Trotsky; Service continually insults his readers. Every chapter delivers an affront to logic, common sense, historical fact, or scholarly standards. Slanders and smears are his stock-in-trade. A knowledgeable reader is at first startled, then disgusted, and, finally, morbidly curious. Reading the biography becomes a kind of bizarre game in which the reader tries to anticipate just what kind of bias-driven stupidity will appear on the next page or two. But, before long, even this perverse pleasure fades, and every page turned comes to feel like a drop of hot motor oil on an open eye.

Biography goes only so far and is only of so much importance. So, yes, LT was cantankerous, difficult, and overly libidinous. He was easily roused to anger when his fundamental beliefs were challenged. He could be brutally demanding of intimates and family and could speak cruelly to his wife. He found rest and relaxation through vigorous outdoor exercise but seemed always to have a pen in his hand. So on and so forth.

What matters, though, is that the LT of the preceding paragraph – actually, Leo Tolstoy -- is the author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” The episodic details of his life matter little when compared to the permanent achievement of his life’s work. The same is true for Leon Trotsky, author of “The Permanent Revolution,” “The History of the Russian Revolution,” and “The Revolution Betrayed.” His life’s work will outlast this work of his life.

As a complimentary to Joe Auciello's review of the endeavours of Patenaude and Service it would not be of little value to extol the mighty contribution that Trotsky made in his 'In Defence of Marxism', his actual last writings and letters of party political polemics. It was given that title not by Trotsky himself, but pointedly by the promoters of Trotskyism after his murder. Within those critiques of the petty bourgeois opposition I have always found reference to Trotsky's analysis of Soviet Russia under Stalinism during the opening period of the 2nd World War a most clear and brilliant exposition as to his Marxian methodology. This period and his defence of the socialised property relations despite and under Stalin, provoked the the enraged middle-class academics of Anglo-American empiricism and pragmatism to blow their cover and denounce Marxism as manifested in their split within the Socialist Workers Party (USA). The question of seeking quality over quantity was never better displayed as in the fight between Trotsky and the pairing of pragmatist James Burnham and his eclectic cohort Max Shactman. Burnham appealed to so-called enlightened elite American public opinion whilst Trotsky fought to teach as many as he could amongst his relatively small groups of American trotskyists. You learn through and despite the immaturity of the SWP that there were two fundamental tendencies which were essentially irreconcilable. Marxism with proletarian orientation as defended by Trotsky for the SWP majority as against the outraged Burnham and Shactman. Interestingly Robert Service makes another criticism of Trotsky during the 'Uncommon Knowledge' debate by referring to his criticism of the American Burnham as means to curry favour with the US TV audience. Trotsky demonstrated the superiority of the dialectical materialist method of logic against the formalists empirical logic and did so with crushing examples. Trotsky didn't spend as long in the libraries of Europe as did Lenin in studying the writings from Aristotle through Hegel to Marx, but you just know he had grasped all the essentials from the history of philosophy. IN THE FUTILE SERVICE OF A DOOMED SYSTEM Leon Trotsky, writing not thirteen years after the events of October 1917 in the introduction to his monumental `History of the Russian Revolution`, felt it necessary to outline his attitude to self reference as historian in the course of the book. He explains cogently that the historian has a duty to be true to historical facts and it is quite obvious he would be false if he `even modestly' downplayed his own role during real events for the purpose of convincing the publisher or anyone else in the name of `abstract' impartiality. Of course he didn't and the subsequent corroboration attested to by the fact that nobody was able to, or ventured to, contest his version of that `History' and his central part in proceedings. Meanwhile in 1930, the Stalinist epigones were forcing teams of falsifiers to re-write history in an attempt to frame not just Trotsky, but every active Bolshevik participant in those times who did, or just might contradict the regime of lies then residing in Moscow. The capitalist world too, knew that Trotsky was a revolutionist to the core and because of that fact no government (with the exception of Mexico in 1937) was prepared to give him a visa of residence save for `passing through border' procedures. So-called historians like Robert Service, who today attempt to drive a tooth-pick of falsification through the cranium of history, will be even less successful than Stalin in erasing the legendary role of Trotsky - and will go down in the annals of history as no more than a digit in the historical linearity of lies and liars. The question therefore is: Why do they do this? We could I believe venture to suggest that the global collapse of capitalism and imperialism is overloading the economic and political fuse-boxes. The possibility of the switch-on of the revolutionary light for masses of workers, so clearly outlined by Trotsky, is the one thing the very conscious bourgeois academics of reaction see in the man and his method above all else. The bourgeois darkness flicks this Service control panel. This comes therefore some 20 years after the visual implosion of Stalinism's lying shell and soul met objective truth. The Berlin wall and Red Square impregnability were in reality paper thin and the counter-revolutionary role of apologisers for Stalinism had lost their `political lodestone`. Simultaneously the capitalist shell of creditworthiness is also shot through - with capitalist emperors revealing not just their Hans Anderson bare-bottom-ness after the bankers economic bull run showed the Bernard Madoff role model to be an illusionary con-trick, but the Wall Street bears too are threatening to hug the life out of the remaining honey pot banks and their willing agents in parliaments and senates trying to mortgage the worlds future to their past failings on behalf of an elitist minority. Service would seriously render a service to his class masters if he were able to reach and find an echo from amongst the millions of searching workers who could perhaps, they hope, be turned off of Trotskyism with a hasty and cheaply constructed character assassination. If diverting history's life stream was as simple as some purveyors of rancid meat at Oxford and Harvard would have themselves believe - we would be in trouble. Alas for them, we hereby confirm the inter-species crossover of 'mad cow disease` has been found amongst the wobbly-kneed academics who think themselves be slaughterers. Service chose to fill out his latest tome, not with reference to Trotsky's actual historic writings or principled political struggle, but chose instead to produce a series of unsubstantiated judgemental self-opinions thereby attempting to throw a dirty sheet over the real Trotsky. Ironically, as it turns out, we've been presented with a fairly clear picture of Robert Service's own character. You might say that his psychology has unconsciously flipped itself by projecting a beam of light onto a mirror ipso facto turning a biography of an other into an autobiography of self - the purchaser might justly claim a refund for having been miss-sold under false pretences. Such are the ego's of some fellows from Oxford with doctorates - they really have nothing worthwhile to say about anybody else save their own inconsequential existence. This is research in the style of Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria - with a twist of English petty bourgeois self-satisfaction. Trotsky, writing his introduction to parts 2 & 3 of his 'Revolution' remarked thus: ....."Thousands and thousands of books are thrown on the market every year presenting some new variant of the personal romance, some tale of the vacillations of the melancholic or the career of the ambitious. The heroine of Proust requires several finely-wrought pages in order to feel that she does not feel anything. It would seem that one might, at least with equal justice, demand attention to a series of collective historic dramas which lifted hundreds of millions of human beings out of non-existence, transforming the character of nations and intruding forever into the life of all mankind.
The accuracy of our references and quotations in the first volume no one has so far called into question: that would indeed be difficult. Our opponents confine themselves for the most part to reflections upon the topic of how personal prejudice may reveal itself in an artificial and one-sided selection of facts and texts. These observations, although irrefutable in themselves, say nothing about the given work, and still less about its scientific methods.
Moreover we take the liberty to insist firmly that the coefficient of subjectivism is defined, limited, and tested not so much by the temperament of the historian, as by the nature of his method.
The purely psychological school, which looks upon the tissue of events as an interweaving of the free activities of separate individuals or their groupings, offers, even with the best intentions on the part of the investigator, colossal scope for caprice. The materialist method disciplines the historian, compelling him to take his departure from the weighty facts of the social structure. For us the fundamental forces of the historic process are classes; political parties rest upon them; ideas and slogans emerge as the small change of objective interests.
The whole course of the investigation proceeds from the objective to the subjective, from the social to the individual, from the fundamental to the incidental. This sets a rigid limit to the personal whims of the author. .....The proof of scientific objectivism is not to be sought in the eyes of the historian or the tones of his voice, but in the inner logic of the narrative itself. If episodes, testimonies, figures, quotations, fall in with the general pointing of the needle of his social analysis, then the reader has a most weighty guarantee of the scientific solidity of his conclusions. To be more concrete: the present author has been true to objectivism in the degree that his book actually reveals the inevitability of the October revolution and the causes of its victory. ..... We will not conceal the fact that for us the question here is not only about the past.
Just as the enemy in attacking a man's prestige are striking at his program, so his own struggle for a definite program obliges a man to restore his actual position in the events. As for those who are incapable of seeing anything but personal vanity in a man's struggle for great causes and for his place under the banner, we may be sorry for them but we will not undertake to convince them. In any case we have taken measures to see to it that "personal" questions should not occupy a greater place in this book than that to which they can justly lay claim." Trotsky was there fighting not only for the legitimacy of his past role, mighty as that was, but his commitment to continuity of struggle for the program of the future - here the negation of the dead-hand of the 3rd International which Stalin, with all the defeats for workers and nationalities at all points of the compass, had continued to `create'. The growing necessity for an unsullied 4th International was forming out of material and spiritual demand. In conclusion we would not be exaggerating to compare Trotsky's life and scope to that of Titan atop Everest challenging the downtrodden classes to take claim of the world, that they by their labour, in practice had built - whilst down below the flea on the rat, that scurried amongst the sewers of the literary underworld, hitching a ride to nowhere - was also trying to convey something of `service' to mankind! . R E Rising


How do you have time to take apart Service's book like this?

Unfortunately, with the power and finance of the ruling elites and their institutions, there'll be little gain for the left in all their protests at the nature of this biography. it makes you think though, just how inaccurate and biased by his agenda were the biographies of Lenin and, with no sympathy to uncle joe, stalin!

I want to take up the thought offered by the reader who writes: "Unfortunately, with the power and finance of the ruling elites and their institutions, there'll be little gain for the left in all their protests at the nature of this biography." I would urge him or her to reconsider.

It is true that the ruling elites and their institutions are incredibly powerful and enjoy far more wealth than is placed in the hands of people like us. But this does not mean that we cannot do battle with them, including in the realm of ideas.

We can and must confront and engage them. The existence of the internet -- with such sites as this one provided by Links and many others -- means that we can do that more effectively now than at any previous time in history, at least in some ways. It is an essential aspect of rebuilding and renewing the radical labor sub-culture that is an essential component in building an effective revolutionary consciousness and resistance to capitalism.

This does not substitute for the need to build actions and organizations and struggles in the streets, and in our workplaces, communities, etc. Intellectual and cultural engagement is a necessary part of that process. Such intellectual interventions as the review of Service are needed not in order to persuade the ruling elites, but in order to reach out, to the best of our abilities, to those in our class and among those who are OR COULD BE our comrades and our allies in the struggle. Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci and many other comrades have taught us that we need to challenge, undermine, and discredit the ruling elites in the realm of ideas no less than in the streets.

My review was also designed to help teach some of the basics about Trotsky, especially for the growing number of thoughtful young activists and potential activists. One such person who I met about a week ago told me he had just gotten hold of a new biography of Trotsky by someone named Robert Service and was really looking forward to reading it. It was good to be able to refer him to my review on this site. We need to be reaching out to such people more and more, in multiple ways and about about multiple things. With enough of us doing that, all around the world, we will be contributing to the creation of what may become a mighty force capable of effectively confronting the wealth and power of the ruling elites.

The reader asks: "How do you have time to take apart Service's book like this?" I'm not entirely sure how to take this or how to respond. And part of the answer is: "I'm not sure." Political engagement is central to who I am, and writing has been part of that for most of my life -- whether I was a student, a social worker, health care worker, shipyard worker, auto worker, or (as now) a teacher. We all must do what we can in the effort to build the movement and advance the struggle.

Bolshevism and Stalinism

By Rob Sewell

Bolshevism and Stalinism -- An avalanche of books has recently been published to discredit Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian Revolution. First and foremost of these writers is Professor Robert Service. The aim of his latest book on Trotsky is to prove that Bolshevism leads to Stalinism and totalitarianism. Here Rob Sewell sets the record straight and explains the huge gulf that divided genuine Bolshevism from the monster of Stalinism that was built on the physical destruction of the Bolshevik party.

Continued at http://www.marxist.com/bolshevism-and-stalinism-rs.htm


For an informative review of Service's disservice, consider reading David North's "In Defense of Leon Trotsky." To understand Service's motives, it is important to keep in mind a quote from the man at the start of his book tour: There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.”