A biography for the dustbin
By Ian D. Thatcher
Ian D. Thatcher's biography of Trotsky appears in the Routledge "Historical Biographies" series that aims to provide "engaging, readable and academically credible biographies written from an explicitly historical perspective".
In his introduction, Thatcher bemoans the fact that previous biographies of Trotsky have been distorted by the political passions of the biographer and announces that his chief aim in the present biography is "a more dispassionate study" of the controversial Russian revolutionary.
In particular, Thatcher attacks Tony Cliff for engaging in "simple flattery" and "avoiding serious discussion" in his four volume biography of Trotsky, and Thatcher also attacks Isaac Deutscher for being "uncritical and one-sided" in his famous trilogy on Trotsky's life and politics. Deutscher is also accused of a tendency towards "invention", that is, of "putting thoughts into his subject's heads for which there is no evidence".
After reading Thatcher's introduction, the reader is left with high expectations. However, these are never satisfied.
Thatcher's biography is certainly engaging and readable, but for reasons set out below it struck me as far from academically credible.
Consider Thatcher's account of the main forces warring in the Civil War that gripped Russia in the three years following the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917. According to Thatcher, there were three main forces pitted against each other: the Reds, who "sought to maintain Lenin's government in power and promised to defend the revolution's radical social programme"; the Whites, consisting largely of officers of the former Tsarist army, who aimed to establish a military dictatorship that would "uphold the rights formerly enjoyed by the land- and factory-owners"; and finally, the so-called Greens, "several brands of non-Bolshevik socialist participants", including Mensheviks, Anarchists, and Socialist Revolutionaries.
Incredibly, nowhere in the book is it acknowledged that Bolshevik Russia was invaded by an international coalition of imperialist military forces fighting on the side of the Whites, and including armies from Great Britain, France, Japan and the United States. Indeed, we now know that in addition to the overt armed intervention, the British secret services were mounting covert operations within Russia aimed at destabilising and toppling the Bolshevik government (see e.g. Michael Occleshaw's Dancing with Deep Shadows: Britain's Clandestine War in Russia 1917-20).
Thatcher's account of the Civil War is a bit like writing about World War II but failing to mention the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union: hardly "academically credible". It is a sign of the low standards of bourgeois historical writing on the Soviet Union that a book making an omission of this magnitude could make it into a serious historical series marketed by a leading academic publishing house.
There's worse to come: having omitted any mention of the international military intervention against the Bolshevik regime, Thatcher goes on to suggest that Trotsky's role as founder and leader of the Red Army in the Civil War has been grossly overestimated. Far from the Bolshevik victory owing anything to Trotsky's qualities of leadership, "the fundamental causes of the Red victory lay elsewhere", in the weaknesses of the Whites: including "political divisions, uncoordinated offensives, irregular external backing and social policies that did not attract popular support".
Indeed, Thatcher writes that when one takes everything into consideration, "it would perhaps have been a miracle had the Reds lost"!
Thatcher's treatment of other issues and events is little better, and he frequently makes many of the errors he imputes to other biographers of Trotsky. For example, in discussing Trotsky's political defeats in 1923-24, Thatcher admits that Trotsky's calls of alarm did meet with widespread social interest, including "sympathy and support" among old Bolsheviks, workers' cells in the Bolshevik party and the military, and, most of all, among the student youth.
Thatcher, however, pours cold water on this: "workers angry with pay and employment prospects" may have been using it as "a convenient opportunity to express discontent over other issues". Likewise, similar reasons may have motivated "a party youth alienated from their organization because of its failure to address issues such as youth unemployment during the NEP". However, having put these thoughts into his subjects' heads, Thatcher provides no evidence whatsoever that they actually belong there.
Thatcher has some interesting criticisms concerning other aspects of Trotsky's life and political career, including his views on the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe. But in the light of his deeply flawed account of the Civil War, it is hard to take any of them seriously. All things considered, this is not so much a "historical biography", but rather a biography fit for the dustbin of