A hatchet-job on Trotsky

Submitted by martin on 8 June, 2010 - 7:47 Author: Paul Hampton

Paul Hampton reviews Robert Service's biography of Trotsky, now released in paperback by Pan.

Click here for a longer review (of the hardback edition).
Robert Service has long advocated the "continuity thesis" - the claim made by cold-war historians and by Stalinist apologists that Lenin (and Trotsky) led to Stalin.

He is explicit about this in the book, but with an added twist. He makes Trotsky an even greater villain than Stalin or Lenin. Trotsky "lived for a dream that many people found a nightmare", claims 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 adds: "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".

"[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".

From 1923, Trotsky fought Stalinism? "His behaviour had been very different in the period of his pomp from 1917 to 1922", responds Service. "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."

For Service, Trotsky’s role in the flowering of working-class democracy in 1917 scarcely figures. He omits important matters such as the democratic votes in Duma elections and in the Petrograd Soviet itself in the autumn, when 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 the right-wing general Kornilov, who attempted a proto-fascist coup in August 1917. He suggests that if only the Bolsheviks had left alone, Russia would have evolved smoothly towards a bourgeois democratic republic.

Rather than explain the terrible circumstances of the civil war, and register that Trotsky’s intervention was critical in winning it against 21 armies from 14 countries, Service focuses on Trotsky's decision to have the Bolshevik Panteleev shot after the battle of Kazan in August-September 1918.

A scandal previously suppressed? Not at all. There was a Politburo enquiry in April 1919. It found that Panteleev was shot as a deserter. The incident was recounted by Trotsky in his autobiography My Life in 1930 and discussed by Isaac 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."

Service expresses contempt for Deutscher, but actually reproduces some of Deutscher's errors. Deutscher, who saw Stalinism as (unfortunately) the only way for progress in Russia at the time, presented Trotsky's call for the "militarisation of labour" in 1920 as a prescient foreshadowing of what Stalin did in the 1930s. Trotsky’s account in Terrorism and Communism was, wrote Deutscher, "perhaps the only frank attempt made in modem times to give a logical justification of forced labour... A decade later Stalin, who in 1920-1 had supported Lenin's 'liberal' policy, was to adopt Trotsky's ideas in all but name."

Lars Lih has offered a far superior interpretation. Trotsky's reasoning was informed by an assessment that "our position is in the highest degree tragic". Russia was "looted, weakened, exhausted, falling apart". "We must tell the masses tell the masses that breakdown and ruin threaten all of Soviet Russia."

Trotsky used the term "militarisation" in the interests of honest dealing within the workers' state, and not because he rejoiced in repression. "Of course, it is only an analogy, but one that is very rich in content." "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 an 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 militarisation of labour."

Trotsky took the responsibility of proposing harsh and unhappy policies - and openly naming them for what they were - in order to win the civil war and defend the workers' government. He understood the alternative of the White armies would have been far, far worse.

Service downplays Trotsky’s opposition to the ruling bureaucracy after 1923.

"Trotsky’s specific alternatives to the policies adopted by Stalin from 1928, indeed, were to share many of Stalin’s assumptions... 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... lay in its foreign policy..."

This summary of Trotsky's views can be sustained only by quoting very selectively from the writings in which Trotsky, in exile, sought to make sense of a USSR changing rapidly and unexpectedly. Much of Stalinist policy was unclear, much was inconsistent. Trotsky had to balance his hostility to the regime with his conviction that political upsets were likely to unleash a counter-revolution, based on a resentful peasantry, which would wipe out all socialist and working-class organisation at the same time as it overthrew the Stalinists. But he gradually pieced together a clear picture.

Although Trotsky denied to the end of his life that the bureaucracy had solidified as a full-scale ruling class, he declared in his biography of Stalin that the bureaucracy was now "sole master of the surplus product". He defined the political regime as having been totalitarian "several years before this word arrived from Germany" and having become 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.

Service makes an astonishing apology for the Moscow trials. The Stalinist secret police agent Zborowski "claimed that Sedov wanted him to travel to Moscow, presumably on a mission to carry out the assassination" [of Stalin]. "If all this were true", writes Service, "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."

Service rounds off his attack on Trotsky by criticising his behaviour towards his family. But, as Gérard Rosenthal wrote, Trotsky'w view was that: "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".

Service's smug condemnation - from the viewpoint of someone who puts an academic career, and publishing success, first, and abhors revolution - fails even to register what Trotsky's life was about.

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