Leon Trotsky

Reviewed by Bryan D.

Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2015), 220 pp., $16.95.

Few historical figures are as complex, perhaps even as seemingly contradictory, as Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky. The man with two names was born Jewish but, according to his most accomplished biographer, Isaac Deutscher, epitomized the non-Jewish Jew. Of a decidedly cosmopolitan character, an accomplished writer – his nickname was Pero, the pen -- whose cultured appreciation of philosophy and the arts arguably suited the salon or the classroom rather than the trenches, Trotsky nonetheless led the Soviet Red Army during the bloody tests of the Civil War (1917-22). A revolutionary Marxist with a resolute strategic will to sustain the workers’ republic that was the promise of 1917, Trotsky was bested by Stalin in the political intrigues that saw socialist possibility betrayed over the course of the 1920s.

As Lenin’s heir apparent to lead the consolidating workers’ state, Trotsky was banished from the potentially socialist homeland he had done so much to bring into being, first to the Soviet hinterlands, and then to all corners of an earth that, for him, had become a “planet without a visa.” Stalin’s followers exercised sufficient influence in Turkey, France, Norway, and elsewhere to have Trotsky refused the status of residency. Even in Mexico, where Trotsky eventually settled, he was hounded by Stalin’s agents, one of whom eventually wormed his way into the exiled dissident’s compound, brutally murdering Trotsky, now the leader of a small, oppositional Fourth Communist International, which sought to succeed a Stalinist Comintern that had abandoned the internationalist road to world revolution. Feared and denounced by both right-wing advocates of capitalism and an array of leftists, including anarchists, Stalinists, and social democrats, Trotsky unsettles much facile commentary about the politics of socialist transformation.

Not surprisingly, Trotsky is much written about. Scholarly books and articles, as well as political commentary, abound. Fictional accounts proliferate, the most accomplished being the recently published/translated The Man Who Loved Dogs, an evocative epic by the Cuban detective thriller writer, Leonardo Padura.

Is there anything left to be said about Trotsky? Paul Le Blanc’s Trotsky, a succinct 220-page political portrait, published in the Reaktion Books ‘Critical Lives’ series, suggests that the well of insightful engagement with Lev Bronstein is anything but dry.

Le Blanc addresses Trotsky’s role as an architect of the Russian Revolution, but he does so with a unique restraint. Understanding, perhaps, that Deutscher’s first volume of his still unrivalled trilogy, The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast, provides an essential overview, he introduces his book with a balanced and useful discussion that takes to task some modern conservative scholarship for dismissing Trotsky’s central role in the making of the 1917 Revolution and in creating and leading the Red Army that defended it for the next four years. Le Blanc confronts directly the allegations of Trotsky’s ostensible imperiousness, his capacity, in the face of threats to the Revolution, to embrace the discipline of socialist responsibility to the point of sacrificing democratic practices. As much as this may have been necessary, it was something Trotsky would later reconsider as he was forced throughout the 1920s to wend his way, often wounded, through the thickets of a power that proclaimed itself revolutionary at the same time as it perverted the fundamental principles of Bolshevism. By 1926-27, with Trotsky aligned with Kamenev, Zinoviev, and other old Bolsheviks in a United Opposition that comprised barely 8,000 of the 750,000 Communist Party members, Trotsky, once the powerful leader of significant components of the Revolution’s state apparatus, now stood outside of power’s circles, fortunate indeed that he was driven into exile rather than brutally dispensed with.

For a decade later the carnage of Stalinist repression was horrible to behold. The GPU – the secret police that originated within the Lenin- and Trotsky-supported Cheka and that evolved, under Stalin’s rule, into a ruthless machinery of autocracy -- arrested hundreds of thousands, and estimates are that between 1934 and 1938 two million Soviet citizens were condemned to the Gulag or the gallows, 700,000 executions thought to have taken place in 1937-38. The collective old guard of Bolshevik revolutionary personnel was rudely and ruthlessly dispensed with, humiliated in a series of show trials and public confessions that left Stalin unopposed at the pinnacle of a regime that routinely repudiated its original principles. Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, a dedicated communist, shot herself in 1932 (“She left me like an enemy!” declared her husband bitterly), while months later Trotsky’s daughter, Zina, ended her unhappy life of exile in Berlin. The betrayal of Soviet revolutionary promise left in its wake unfathomable human misery. “They murder fathers and mothers, and turn their unfortunate children into waifs, strays, and thieves,” wrote Maria Joffe, whose husband, a beloved comrade of Trotsky, committed suicide during an early crackdown on Left Oppositionists, his self-inflicted death a futile attempt to expose the treacherous nature of the consolidating Stalinist regime.

Trotsky’s analysis of the revolution betrayed and his struggle to build a Fourth International that would resurrect the original promise and potential of the politics of 1917 is thus what animates Le Blanc’s portrait of Trotsky. As such, Le Blanc is not fixated, as many might be, on what is innovative and distinctively creative in Trotsky’s contribution and legacy. Rather, he stresses that he is inclined to emphasize “the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought.” (12) This approach can be challenged, even if the difference is one of nuance. To claim that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, his united front understanding of how best to defeat Hitler and fascism, and his strategic and tactical contributions to revolutionary communist struggle and the implementation of ideas associated with this project of emancipation, all draw on Marxism’s past is true enough – as far as it goes. But Le Blanc may be understating what was innovative in Trotsky’s capacity to take old insights, sensibilities, and orientations, and meld them, in changed contexts, into powerful new understandings. That said, what is useful in Le Blanc’s approach is how it accents continuity, situating Trotsky’s importance and legacy, quite rightly, in his distinctive ability to “remain true to old revolutionary perspectives.” There is considerable importance in Le Blanc’s insistence that Trotsky became, over time, more and more original simply by defying the tendency of so many of his contemporaries to abandon stands that had once been judged foundational for all revolutionaries.

In our times, with the demise of the revolutionary left and the subsequent pressure to jettison basic revolutionary principle and compromise much to gain a bare minimum, this representation of Trotsky’s willingness to hold firm in the face of a relentless erosion of revolutionary ardour is critically important. As Trotsky said, mere months before his assassination, and in the context of his unambiguous insistence that there was a great deal worth defending in the regime headed by the very same Stalin who would orchestrate his political execution, “Those who cannot defend old positions, will never conquer new ones.”

It is the Trotsky of the 1930s, Deutscher’s outcast, then, who figures centrally in Le Blanc’s account. This is the Trotsky whose autobiographical memoirs, My Life (1930) and whose three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1931-33) constitute literary masterpieces, the latter arguably one of the most stirring narrative accounts of revolutionary upheaval produced in the 20th century. This Trotsky drew on Marxist theory to provide analytic underpinnings of what made revolution in Russia possible – uneven and combined development – as well as to develop an appreciation of the economic, social, political, and cultural forces that paved the road to Stalin’s Thermidor.

As Trotsky authored a growing library of revolutionary analysis, he confronted personal tragedy, his son and political co-worker, Sedov, dying under mysterious circumstances in a Parisian clinic whose medical personnel included pro-Soviet émigrés. Devastated by the loss of a son whom he knew he had perhaps pushed too hard, Trotsky wrote that with Sedov’s death all that had been young within him also perished. Yet Trotsky continued to struggle, against great odds and with frustrations galore, to build an alternative revolutionary International. This Fourth International convened in Paris in September 1938, with Trotsky unable to attend. But he had, with significant input from American and European comrades, penned a guiding document, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” later to be known as the Transitional Program. “No conference of revolutionists ever met under circumstances more tense and ominous, or faced tasks of such extreme historical gravity than did this one,” declared Trotsky’s followers. The fractious forces of the Fourth International held together here and there, but also divided under pressures large and small. The American section, led by James Cannon and Max Shachtman, was an unlikely bulwark of resolute Bolshevism, but even this bright light in the Trotskyist firmament was darkened by factional wavering and a split over fundamental principles as the coming of World War II complicated the revolutionary project.

Le Blanc details all of this and more, providing a clear and concise account that highlights Trotsky’s contribution to Marxist revolutionary thought and practice. He also humanizes Trotsky, presenting reasoned commentary on his foibles amidst conveying well his unrivalled importance as an upholder of Marxism’s revolutionary internationalism in the epoch of capitalist decay and Stalinist degeneration. If there are issues and areas that LeBlanc slides over rather too quickly and easily – the Kronstadt rebellion and Trotsky’s role in its suppression, for instance – this is perhaps understandable given his focus on Trotsky’s years in exile, and their meaning for our times. Accessible, but never cavalier and uncomplicated, Le Blanc’s Trotsky is an exemplary introduction to what remains alive and most prescient in the Trotskyist tradition, the struggle to make revolutionaries in times that seem hostile to revolutionary possibility.

Reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer Trent University Peterborough, Ontario bpalmer@trentu.ca