By Paul Hampton
Oscar Wilde remarked in The Critic as Artist (1891) that while “formerly we used to canonise our heroes, the modern method is to vulgarise them”. He went on to lament that, “cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable”.
For £25 Robert Service’s new biography of Trotsky is not cheap, but it certainly is vulgar. Service feigns a “treacherous impartiality”, as Trotsky put it in his History of the Russian Revolution, but in reality the biography contains “a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom”. It is not “an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, [or] an exposure of the causal laws of their movement”, but a litany of abuse and malevolence liberally sprinkled across 500 pages. Better to buy editions of Trotsky’s own rich works than waste one’s wages on this hatchet-job.
Service makes a number of sloppy factual errors for a professional historian. He writes that Trotsky’s grandson Seva was born in 1925 when other sources such as the Trotskyana have it as 7 March 1926. (2009 p.345) He says that in 1928 Trotsky was “working on his critique of the programme of the Comintern’s fifth congress at the time”, when it was actually the sixth congress. (2009 p.371) And he calls Harold Robins “an American Trotskyist staying with the Trotskys for a while” in Mexico, when in fact he was one of Trotsky’s bodyguards against Stalinist attack. (2009 p.430)
Nor is he too careful with his sources and referencing. He quotes a letter from Rosa Luxemburg to Luise Kautsky in July 1911, where she claims that Trotsky is “more and more exposed as a rotten fellow”. (2009 p.115) He thanks fellow Trotsky-baiter Ian Thatcher for drawing attention to it in Revolutionary History 6, 2 (1996). But this is sloppy scholarship. The letter was first available in English in a slightly different translation over 30 years ago in Rosa Luxemburg, Letters to Karl and Luise Kautsky, New York: Gordon Press: “Our friend Trotzki is revealing himself more and more as a bad actor”. (1975 p.160)
Another example is a quote from a letter from Trotsky’s son Lëva [Leon] Sedov to his mother Natalia on 16 April 1936, in which he wrote: “it seems to me that all Papa’s failings are getting worse with age: his intolerance, hot temper, teasing, even crudity and his desire to offend, do down and annihilate”. (2009 p.431) The same letter is quoted in Bertrand Patenaude’s recent book on Trotsky’s assassination. However Patenaude was honest enough to point out the letter was never sent, something Service appears to overlook in his desire to tarnish the Old Man. (2009 p.96-97)
Service arrogantly writes off most previous accounts of Trotsky. He claims the book “is the first full length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist”. He dismisses the best previous biographers: Pierre Broué was “an idolater” while Isaac Deutscher “worshipped at Trotsky’s shrine”. (2009 p.xxi) What is remarkable, despite the opening of the Russian archives, and the time and resources at his disposal, Service does not improve upon Deutscher, but merely repeats and exacerbates his mistakes.
The continuity thesis
Service has long advocated the “continuity thesis” - the claim made by cold-war state department historians and by Stalinist apologists that Lenin (and Trotsky) led to Stalin. He is explicit about this in the book – with an added twist – he makes Trotsky an even greater villain than Stalin or Lenin.
Service reveals his perspective at the end of the book – the secular doctrine of the original sin: “The October Revolution anyway did not start to degenerate only from the mid-1920s. It was flawed from its inception when the Bolsheviks used force against protesting labourers and closed down any soviets without Bolshevik majorities.” (2009 p.499) Trotsky “lived for a dream that many people found a nightmare”. No, Trotsky lived for a dream which Robert Service finds a nightmare. Trotsky took seriously the goal of working class self-liberation and had the foresight and courage to see it through in practice. In short, Trotsky’s “mistake” for Service was to lead the working class to power. Gosh, how rude. Service laments that Trotsky did not put his talents to a more respectable use: as a journalist or even as a university professor, rather than for the cause of millions of exploited and oppressed people.
Service offers a tardy account of Trotsky’s role in the flowering of working class democracy in 1917. He hardly brings to life Trotsky’s indispensible role. He also omits important matters such as the democratic votes in Duma elections and indeed in the Petrograd Soviet itself in the autumn, where the most democratic bodies in Russian history voted overwhelmingly for Bolshevik representatives and for Bolshevik resolutions calling on the Soviets to take power from the highly undemocratic, warmongering, pro-landlord and anti-working class Provisional Government. Service can barely bring himself to recount the threat present by Kornilov, giving the impression that if only the Bolsheviks would have left alone, Russia would have evolved smoothly towards a bourgeois democratic republic. In short his account lacks the context necessary to explain the actions of individuals like Trotsky or indeed the behaviour of political forces.
The continuity thesis informs his assessment of Trotsky. For Service, “[Trotsky’s] ideas and practices laid several foundation stones for the erection of the Stalinist political, economic, social and even cultural edifice. Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin shared more than they disagreed about”. He added, “If ever Trotsky had been the paramount leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased... The point is that whoever governed the USSR effectively stood in need of deeply authoritarian methods to conserve communist power”. (2009 p.3)
Apparently, “[Trotsky’s] lust for dictatorship and terror was barely disguised in the civil war. He trampled on the civil rights of millions of people including the industrial workers. His self-absorption was extreme. As a husband he treated his first wife shabbily.” According to Service, Trotsky was a hypocrite when he called for proletarian self-liberation: “His behaviour had been very different in the period of his pomp from 1917 to 1922. He had crushed opposition in the party and trade unions. He had trampled on institutional resistance whenever he wanted rapid action and obedience. He had a greater propensity for commands than for discussion; he was arrogant and imperious. Trotskyists invented a man and a leader who bore only an erratic kinship to Lev Davidovich Trotsky.” (2009 p.4, p.498)
Service explains very little of Trotsky’s early political life, preferring to get onto his role in power. Rather than explain the terrible circumstances of the civil war, draw out how Trotsky’s intervention was critical in winning it against 21 armies from 14 countries, he focuses on the decision to execute the Bolshevik member Panteleev after the battle of Kazan in August-September 1918. This is hardly a revelation – it was investigated by a Politburo enquiry in April 1919, which found that Panteleev was shot not as a communist but as a cowardly deserter. The incident was recounted by Trotsky in his autobiography My Life in 1930 and is discussed by Deutscher in his biography published in 1954. As Trotsky put it: “I appointed a field-tribunal which passed death-sentences on the commander, the commissary, and several privates – to a gangrenous wound a red-hot iron was applied. I explained the situation to the regiment without hiding or softening anything.” (1970 p.418)
For all his contempt for previous biographers like Deutscher, Service appears to reproduce many of their errors. Deutscher contribution to the continuity thesis was his association of Trotsky’s call for the militarization of labour with Stalin’s forced labour camps in the 1930s. Deutscher wrote that Trotsky’s account in Terrorism and Communism was “perhaps the only frank attempt made in modem times to give a logical justification of forced labour” and that “A decade later Stalin, who in 1920-1 had supported Lenin's 'liberal' policy, was to adopt Trotsky's ideas in all but name.” (The Prophet Armed, 1970 p.500, p.515)
Lars Lih has offered a far superior interpretation of the period when Trotsky was in power and why he formulated policy in this way. Far from a euphoric celebration of war communism as some sort of short cut to socialism, Trotsky reasoning was informed by the dire state of the USSR in 1920. He wrote that, “Our position is in the highest degree tragic” and that Russia was “looted, weakened, exhausted, falling apart”. “We must tell the masses tell the masses that breakdown and ruin threaten all of Soviet Russia.” (Lars Lih, ‘Our position is in the highest degree tragic’: Bolshevik ‘euphoria’ in 1920. In Haynes and Wolfeys 2007. History and Revolution. London: Verso.)
In a speech given on the third anniversary of the October revolution in 1920, Trotsky wrote:
“We went into this struggle with magnificent ideals, with magnificent enthusiasm, and it seemed to many people that the promised land of communist fraternity, the flowering not only of material but spiritual life, was much closer than it has actually turned out to be . . . The promised land - the new kingdom of justice, freedom, contentment and cultural uplift - was so near it could be touched. . . . If back then, three years ago, we were given the opportunity of looking ahead, we would not have believed our eyes. We would not have believed that three years after the proletarian revolution it would be so hard for us, so harsh to be living on this earth...
“Three years have gone by - three years, during which the whole world of our enemies tried to hurl us back across that fateful historical threshold we had crossed. We defended ourselves, we did not retreat. We were not far from surrendering Petrograd, we retreated in the east and south with our back to Moscow, but we stood firm, we defended the first worker and peasant state vlast' [power] in the world. Our task has not been accomplished - each one of us knows this. The new society and new order for which we fought and are fighting still does not yet exist: the narod [people] still does not live as one happy fraternal family, without inequality, without humiliation, without need and mutual offense. Every male worker feels this, every woman worker. Nevertheless - and this is our chief conquest - each male worker, each woman worker, understands that there is no turning back.”
Lih 1999 p.41-42
What did Trotsky mean by militarization? He wrote: “Of course, it is only an analogy, but one that is very rich in content.” (Terrorism and Communism, 1961 p.141) He wrote: “An habitual, normal regime – an habitual, normal method of work – will not save us now. We need an exceptional wave of labour enthusiasm, an unprecedented readiness of each one of us to sacrifice himself for the revolution, and we need and exceptionally authoritative economic apparatus that says to each particular person: it’s tough for you, you’re sick, I know it, but despite the fact that I know it’s tough for you, I give you orders, I put you to work in the name of the interests as a whole. This is militarization of labour.” (9 April 1920 [omitted from Terrorism and Communism in English, Lih 2007 p.121)
Lih summarised Trotsky’s labour militarization policies as follows: First, locate and mobilise scattered skilled workers. Second, organise in the most coordinated and expedient way possible the onerous ‘labour duties’ already widely imposed on the peasantry. Third, put vitally important ‘shock’ enterprises on a ‘war footing’ in which food rations were more solidly guaranteed but also in which workers were officially tied down to the enterprise. Fourth, create ‘labour armies’ out of military units caught between full combat readiness and full demobilisation. Fifth, ‘shake up’ the trade union leadership in the crucial transport sector. Sixth, and more generally, install a regime of the strictest possible labour discipline. (2007 p.122)
In other words emergency measures required by dire necessities, not prefigurative socialist or Stalinist measures. Service only provides a glimpse of all this in his book. He quotes a letter from Trotsky to Lëva Sedov, 7 March 1931, in which he remarked: “In 1919 Lukacs had produced a pamphlet extolling Soviet reality and claiming that Russia had made a ‘leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom’ and that the laws of historical materialism were no longer applicable to the country in revolution. ‘I remember’, Trotsky wrote some years later, ‘how Lenin and I laughed on this account and laughed with some bitterness since the realm of freedom was ruled by famine and typhus’.” (Service 2009 p.268)
The quote only reinforces the point about Trotsky’s short time in power. He did what had to be done for the regime to survive. It wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary - because he understood the alternative of the White armies would have been far, far worse.
Opposition to Stalinism
Service also tries to “prove” the continuities between Trotsky and Stalinism by downplaying Trotsky’s opposition to the ruling bureaucracy after 1923. He makes scant use of new archive material, some of it in English, on Lenin and Trotsky’s fight against Stalin in the early 1920s. Instead Service effectively freezes Trotsky’s fast-evolving assessment of Stalinism to the period before 1933, i.e. when Trotsky believed the system could be reformed. This sleight of hand, downplaying the much sharper assessments at the end of the 1930s, is deliberately designed to make Trotsky into a willing substitute rather than a real antithesis to Stalin.
Service says that “Trotsky’s specific alternatives to the policies adopted by Stalin from 1928, indeed, were to share many of Stalin’s assumptions”. He states: “Trotsky found much to commend in current soviet policies. He endorsed the rapid industrial expansion – it was only the crudity of Stalin’s specific measures he disliked. Similarly he disapproved of the campaign of agricultural collectivisation less in principle than on the grounds that it was being waged with gross incompetence and violence. His chief objection to the Politburo, though, lay in its foreign policy...”
He quotes a letter to Lëva Sedov, 9 October 1932 to sum up “Trotsky’s curious strategy”. Trotsky wrote: “We’ve got to show that we agree to work with the Stalinists for the preservation of the USSR”. (2009 p.357, p.411, p.410)
But this was not Trotsky’s final verdict on Stalinism. Instead Service takes a snapshot circa 1933 and generalises it. Up until that mid-1930s Trotsky believed that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers’ state led by a bureaucracy which could be reformed. But the experience of forced industrialisation and collectivisation, coupled with Stalin’s terror and his nationalistic foreign policy, epitomised by the failure of the German communists to unite with other workers’ organisations against Hitler, forced Trotsky to re-evaluate. The process did not stop with Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), when Trotsky articulated the demand for political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy. Although he broadly maintained this assessment until the end of his life, he was forced to modify it under pressure from events in the world and from criticisms of his own supporters. Although Trotsky denied the bureaucracy exploited the working class, he decided in his biography of Stalin that the bureaucracy was now “sole master of the surplus product” i.e. effectively an exploiter. He defined the bureaucracy as totalitarian and different from Nazism only by its “unbridled savagery”. In the last year of his life he predicted that if the regime survived the war it would have proven itself to be a new exploiting class.
The principal error of Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky is his account of Stalinism. Deutscher remained convinced of the assessment made in the early 1930s and in the perspective of reform. This shaped his portrayal of Trotsky’s final analysis of Stalinism. Yet Service is content to leave this interpretation largely unaltered.
The theory that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state was coherent at the time Lenin coined the expression in the early 1920s. Although the civil war had put paid to most of Soviet, trade union and even Bolshevik Party democracy, workers still held some elements of control. Detailed academic studies by Steve Smith, and more recently by Diane Koenker and Kevin Murphy have reinforced the view that that the USSR was socially, economically and politically progressive in the 1920s and that workers’ power was only snuffed out at the end of that decade. Therefore Trotsky’s assessment and strategy was coherent up until 1928: if workers still ruled politically to some degree then there was still the possibility of removing the bureaucratic layer that was growing into a class and reinstituting the kind of democratic self-rule that existed at the end of 1917.
However with the expulsion of the Left Opposition and Stalin’s counter-revolution in the late 1920s, Trotsky’s theory of the Russia as a degenerated workers’ state became increasingly incoherent. As Joseph Carter put it in 1941: “Without political power the working class cannot be the ruling class in any sense.” Trotsky recognised this in his Letter to Borodai in 1928, but did not reassess sufficiently thoroughly. Had he lived a few years longer there is little doubt that he would have brought his theory into line with the monstrous reality of the USSR. These matters have long been the subject of detailed discussion by Trotskyists – but Service, disparaging such efforts, simply fails to engage with them.
The verdict on Trotsky
Service’s biography represents no advance in one further sense: it is the “bad person” theory of history, the flip-side of the traditional “great man” approach, but hardly an advance.
For Deutscher and for many others, the final years of Trotsky’s life were a prolonged tragedy. However in Service’s account, Trotsky appears to have brought his suffering on himself. Service writes that “Death came early to him because he fought for a cause that was more destructive than he had ever imagined”. (2009 p.501)
The book also makes an astonishing apology for Moscow trials and for the Soviet assassins that finally murdered Trotsky. Service wrote that Zborowski [the GPU agent] “claimed that Sedov wanted him to travel to Moscow, presumably on a mission to carry out the assassination” [of Stalin]. Service writes: “If all this were true it is hardly surprising that Soviet security forces intensified their effort to eliminate him. Even if Zborowski made it up, feeling that he needed to corroborate the official image of Trotskyists as terrorists, it would still have had the same impact on minds in the Kremlin.” (2009 p.433)
This is utter gibberish. Trotsky and his supporters did not seek to kill Stalin. They opposed individual terrorism. Service offers a pitiful explanation for Stalin’s murderous assault on Trotsky’s family, his co-thinkers and on thousands of oppositionists. His verdict draws into question whether Service is qualified to judge such serious matters.
The book is not a political assessment of a political figure. Rather it as an account where personal trivia is elevated to the same level as life-changing political decisions, or where the political is dissolved into the personal. Service fills the book with insinuations about Trotsky’s personal life. He apparently treated his first wife Alexandra Sokolovskaya badly by abandoning her in 1902. Service overstates his case. Sokolovskaya approved of his escape from Siberia alone. She was a revolutionist who opposed Stalin and was killed for her politics, not merely for her relationship with Trotsky. Service prefers to recount Trotsky’s unproven affair with Clare Sheridan and that Larissa Reissner wants his child, as well as the usual tired stuff about Frida Kahlo.
Nor is Trotsky spared for the treatment of his children. For Service, “there was anyway no question of the Trotskys returning for Nina’s funeral” in June 1928. (2009 p.371-72) Of course not – she died in Moscow, they were exiled to Kazakhstan. Similarly,” Zina had gone to her death when a little dose of paternal consideration might have made all the difference. Busy he certainly was. Yet he had known Zina was in deep distress and had failed to discharge a rudimentary human obligation”. (2009 p.387) Zina killed herself in Germany in 1932; Trotsky was stranded in Turkey, having been refused entry to Germany. Service is sometimes so bad it appears that the ghost of Vyshinsky, the prosecutor in the Moscow trials has found his worthy successor.
A more rounded verdict on Trotsky’s revolutionary life remains to be written. One of his supporters, Gérard Rosenthal subsequently wrote that Trotsky propounded a demanding credo: ‘It’s useless thinking of making revolution with men for whom their professional life comes first, then their family life and finally the revolution if there’s any time left over’. And Trotsky himself provided a criterion by which to pass judgement in his Diary in Exile, 5 April 1935: “Human character, its depths and its force, is defined by its moral reserves. People completely reveal themselves when they are tossed out of their customary conditions since it is exactly then that they have to resort to their reserves.” (Service 2009 p.382, p.447)
Trotsky towered over the early years of the 20th century. He faced terrible adversity and fought with tremendous power. Service’s book, despite his pretentions, has little to offer anyone who wants to understand the real Trotsky. No doubt it will put off a few gullible souls. But there is far too much of interest in Trotsky’s marvellous life to be soiled by this tired and pathetic slander.