Pan Books (2010), 624 pages
Book Depository €16
Soviet & Russian History
Awards: Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize 2009
Trotsky, A Biography offers the complete story of the life of Trotsky from his birth in Ukraine in 1879 to his death, at the hands of an NKVD assassin, in Mexico in 1940. I’ve often heard the adjective Trotskyist used in left-wing politics but with only a hazy idea about the man himself. Trotskyist parties were those on the far-left which opposed the Soviet Union especially when it was ruled by Stalin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square massacre Trotskyists could claim the moral high ground. If Trotskyists had been in charge, they claimed, then the circumstances that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union or the massacre of protesters in Beijing would not have been present. Of course it’s impossible to know the course the Soviet Union would have taken had Trotsky succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin. But Service’s biography presents a convincing picture that Trotsky was no less vicious in killing those who he perceived to be enemies of socialism. Trotsky’s failure to take control after Lenin’s death was partly due to anti-Semitism (Trotsky was Jewish) but also because he underestimated the political skills of the intellectually inferior Stalin.
Trotsky was quite willing to use lethal force to crush not only military opponents in the Civil War but also to kill off political opponents such as the Socialist-Revolutionaries, “He was not bothered about legal procedures: he wanted the Socialist-Revolutionaries punished as an example to all parties hostile to Bolshevism. He delivered a bloodthirsty speech to this effect from the balcony of Trades Union House.” (p. 295) Luckily for the Socialist-Revolutionaries the Politburo decided not to execute them.
In 1922 Trotsky supported the deportation of dozens of philosophers, writers, and scholars from Russia. He, along with the rest of the Party leadership, supported preventative censorship in the form of Glavlit. Of course it can be argued that, from a socialist point of view, that the Communist Party were fighting to insure the survival of a newly formed state. But, unfortunately, history has shown that censorship, a lack of legal due process, the mistreatment of prisoners (including prisoners of war), and the detention of political opponents have rarely been used purely as emergency measures but have ultimately been the signs of a corrupt ideology (or, if you’re being generous, the corrupt implementation of an ideology). Service challenges those who say that Trotsky in some way wanted a more humane version of Soviet socialism, “He accepted and propounded Marxism in its Bolshevik variant as an unchallengeable truth. He thought that his politics were correct. He gave no thought to the possibility that he might be wrong and that other ways of organizing society should be canvassed. Trotsky was straightforwardly a Bolshevik. It is true that he proposed freer modes of discussion in the party. […] But his ideas do not point to anything like a stable ‘communism with a human face’. (p. 352)
Service’s biography is not a diatribe against Trotsky. It does point out, on numerous occasions, Trotsky’s good points; his superb leadership of the Red Army to insure victory in the Civil War, his fierce intelligence and intellectual skills, and it gives the context of his actions (after all the Romanov dynasty was hardly one worth saving). Yet Trotsky is shown, at times, to be completely lacking in any sense of irony. When Trotsky was was in exile in Turke in 1929 he tried to arrange entry to Germany. The Germans refused. Amazingly Trotsky criticised German ministers for, “…refusing to honour ‘the democratic right of shelter’. (p. 381) Trotsky was furious at his treatment but, as Service points out, “He was someone who had supplied a rationale for withholding rights from individuals and groups in Soviet Russia. He had made a career as advocate and practitioner of dictatorship. He had regularly insulted democrats and mocked democracy. […] Trotsky was unwilling to accept that his fanaticism might have consequences: he expected German democracy to him as its exterminator. Trotsky, despite his vast written output, didn’t criticise Stalin’s show trials. Trotsky supported Stalin’s 1939 invasion of Finland and The Winter War that followed. Most controversially, amongst the left at any rate, has been his involvement of the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921. Of course history would have been different had Trotsky led the Soviet Union instead of Stalin but Trotsky doesn’t suggest that it would, necessarily, have been a better place for the average Soviet citizen to live in.
Socialist Workers Party – Irish Trotskyist party
People Before Profit – Irish front group for Socialist Workers Party
Socialist Party – Irish Trotskyist Party
Irish Independent Review – Slightly histrionic review which is highly critical of Irish trotskyist political parties.
Ramón Mercador – Wikipedia page about Trotsky’s assassin.