Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4
Ian D. Thatcher
THIS is the first full-length life of Trotsky attempted since Pierre Broué’s comprehensive study of 1988, which still awaits an English publisher. It forms part of a series aimed at providing ‘readable and academically credible biographies’. Unfortunately, given the state of academe today, it is not always possible to reconcile these two aims in one book.
Strictly speaking, it is not a biography in the sense of telling a life story, as for example Deutscher’s classic is: rather it is an exercise in academic reappraisal. This does not mean that it does not contain real strengths. Attempting to provide a counterblast to Trotskyist hagiography on the one side and Stalinist demonology on the other can only be regarded as a commendable aim. There is an excellent summary of modern Russian historiography about Trotsky (pp. 18–22), and a very interesting analysis of two early biographies of him by G. Ziv and M. Smolensky (pp. 4–5). The writer’s discussion of Trotsky’s views of the events of 1905 and following (pp. 40–4) is the best at present in print. Well worth careful study is the section about Trotsky as an ‘historian of the Revolution’ (pp. 182–7). There is an honest description of Trotsky’s attempts to militarise labour and organise the railways in 1920 (pp. 104–8), episodes that are all too often passed over in embarrassed silence by Trotskyist commentators. The resulting debate over the trade unions is competently dealt with (pp. 108–9), even if space prevents the author from providing the background for us to judge just how artificial it really was on all sides (by then Russia barely possessed a working class, as the production figures show). And it is fascinating to learn how recent archival research has confirmed the ‘widespread social interest’ Souvarine reported in 1924 among the Russian working class for Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin (p. 127).
Since the overwhelming majority of the lives of Trotsky view him in a positive light, an attempt to redress the balance can only be welcomed. There are many aspects of Trotsky’s thinking that should come under question today. Was he correct to share Lenin’s view that we are living in the highest stage of capitalism? What is left of the theory of Permanent Revolution, now that the Soviet Union itself has evolved into a capitalist state? Was he justified in defining a society as a ‘workers’ state’, purely on the basis of public ownership? Unfortunately, the writer, who thinks that ‘it is doubtful whether Trotsky made any lasting contribution to Marxist thought’ (p. 215), has not taken him to task over these major questions, but prefers to subject him to a thousand pinpricks instead.
I leave it to others to judge as to whether they affect the book’s ‘readability’. But remarks such as that in 1905 Trotsky made ‘a limited impression at the time on the popular consciousness’ (p. 35) are flatly contradicted by Lenin’s own estimate, however opposed they then were to each other. There would seem to be little point in quoting Martov to the effect that he ‘made no special contribution at Zimmerwald’ (p. 76) if you have already admitted that he helped draw up its manifesto (p. 74), or in saying that it was Trotsky who claimed that ‘there was “no better Bolshevik” than he’ (p. 128) when you let the cat out of the bag 85 pages later by admitting that it was really Lenin who said it first (p. 213). A silly attempt is made to excuse Stalin’s support for the Provisional Government in February/March 1917 (p. 184) while asserting that ‘from Trotsky’s account of 1917 only he emerges with honour’ (p. 6). The thick file of pages in The First Five Years of the Communist International dealing with the French Communist Party, for which Trotsky assumed special responsibility, hardly bears out the contention that he ‘performed largely decorative functions only during the first years of the Third International’ (p. 110). Trotsky’s article On the National Question (In Defence of the Russian Revolution, pp. 175–82) shows that he was not ‘modest in his efforts’ on behalf of the Georgian Bolsheviks (p. 122). And since Lenin’s Testament proposed to solve the problem of a split between Stalin and Trotsky by removing Stalin from his post, it can scarcely be claimed that in it ‘Trotsky was put on a par with Stalin’ (p. 131).
And is there any need to be quite so subjective when trying to readjust the focus of Trotsky’s importance? His writings from the 1930s can only be described as ‘dull’ if, for example, you have not read the last paragraph of For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism, and as ‘inaccurate’ (p. 214) if you fail to remember that he expressed amazement that the Western powers should have allowed the Russians to penetrate their intelligence systems so deeply during the period of the Popular Front, while prophesying the exact how, when and why of the outbreak of the Second World War to within a month well over a year before. Of course, you have every right to regard Literature and Revolution as ‘a highly unsatisfactory work’ (p. 139) if you do not share its particular theory of Marxist aesthetics (which was also that of Serge, Voronsky and an impressive range of Russian and American writers), but only if you advance one of your own. Nor is there any justification for resorting to feminist demagogy. Trotsky’s Problems of Everyday Life shows just how false it is to charge him with being ‘dismissive of his female compatriots’ (pp. 137–8), and whether you regard ‘Alexander Kollantai’ as ‘much admired’ (p. 114) is very much a questionable judgement, both then and now. Was it really necessary to criticise the Old Man in such a nit-picking way?
As for ‘academic credibility’, it has to be admitted that one of the main faults of those who write history from inside university departments is their touching faith in the intellectual rigour of their colleagues elsewhere. For example, during the Russian Civil War, in spite of the fact that SRs and Mensheviks were still staffing several Whiteguard administrations, one G. Swain is cited to prove that ‘from the autumn of 1918 onwards, the non-Bolshevik Socialists (or “Greens” in its terminology) largely threw their weight behind the Reds’ (p. 100), and E. Mawdsley to the effect that ‘Bonch (Bruyevich) was even more important than Trotsky in laying the foundations of the Red Army’ (p. 101).
Even more extraordinary is the material Dr Thatcher draws upon to assert that during the Spanish Civil War ‘Trotsky also tended to overestimate the efficacy of a line of command running from the Kremlin to operatives on the ground’. Commenting upon the ugly operations of the Stalinists behind the scenes, he asserts that ‘there is no evidence to confirm Trotsky’s contention that Comintern tactics were dependent on Soviet diplomacy’, leaning on the neo-Stalinist apologetics of Tim Rees to claim that ‘the ferocity of the Spanish Communists’ move against native Trotskyists had as much to do with local rivalries … as with orders from Moscow’, since there was ‘little chance’ of a workers’ uprising in Spain (p. 204). Now the facts about this have been established for some time. Trotsky’s followers in Spain barely numbered 30 people; the scale of GPU operations shows that they were aimed at the whole of Spain’s mass left; the PCE’s General Secretary himself opposed the Russian provocation against the POUM, probably paying for it with his life in 1942; Moscow’s direct responsibility has now been confirmed by the release of some of its reports (Radosh, Habeck and Sevostianov, Spain Betrayed, p. xix, etc.).
Two pages later Geoff Roberts (who seems to spend most of his out-of-seminar hours writing books trying to rehabilitate one or another aspect of Stalin’s foreign policy) is called upon to support the view that ‘the Nazi-Soviet Pact was the outcome of a last-minute decision’, and that Trotsky was ‘in gross error to claim that the USSR always preferred an alliance with Germany’ (p. 206). When we recall that by signing the Treaty of Berlin, Stalin’s Russia was the first state to recognise the legality of the Nazi regime, that pourparlers had been going on between the two as early as the time of the Reichstag Fire Trial, that dissident Communists had been ending up in the hands of the Gestapo for some time, and that Stalin had dissolved and massacred the Polish Communist Party over a year before, mental gymnastics of this sort can only strike us as frivolous. Two pages further on we encounter another argument drawn from Rees’ symposium that during the Second World War, Soviet operatives in Britain were ‘worried about the threat posed to Moscow’s domination of rank-and-file hearts by Left Opposition activists’ (p. 208). Now it has long been known that the reports in question were the method by which the Stalinists supplied British intelligence with precise names and details of those who opposed the war by instructing Communist Party activists to send them in to King Street in the full knowledge that their mail would be opened before it got there. How can anyone place any weight at all on such academic jerry building?
With this in mind, there would seem to be little point in complaining about sundry other remarks of the same kidney, such as that Trotsky ‘lost his nerve’ at Brest-Litovsk (p. 98: compare Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pp. 375–6), that the majority of the Communist Youth opposed Trotsky, and that their leaders ‘remained in post partly because they supported Stalin’ (p. 129: Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, pp. 117, 254), or that Trotsky’s failure to be present at Lenin’s funeral was due to ‘his preference for continuing his journey south for rest and recuperation’ (p. 131: Broué, Trotsky, pp. 399–400).
Considering the mad scramble of the younger generation of historians to leap onto the bandwagon of ‘revisionism’, especially as in this case it has suspicious links with a long-discredited orthodoxy, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Trotsky came in for this sort of treatment. But I still feel disappointment that so poor a product should have come from the pen of so promising a scholar. It might be added that the author has some important things to say during the earlier phases of Trotsky’s career, when he relies squarely upon his own research, but that the majority of the questionable remarks to which I have drawn attention relate to the period after the mid-1920s, when he relies more heavily upon that of others.
However, in both cases the tone is uniformly negative. If all were to be brought to the bar of History in this way, ‘Who would ’scape a whipping?’ Perhaps it is not the wisest course to write biographies of people you don’t like.
Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011