Having recently slated Ian Thatcher's woeful 2003 biography of Trotsky (GLW #696), I approached David Renton's contribution to the Haus Publishing "Life and Times" series with some trepidation: would this be another piece of incompetent anti-Trotsky hackwork?
My worries were unfounded: Renton has produced a clear and informative biography of "the man who refused to compromise, who followed the revolution to its end, who wrote and argued and never gave up", which constitutes a sympathetic but far from uncritical portrait of perhaps the most controversial left-wing figure in the history of the 20th century.
In addition, the book is beautifully produced, containing dozens of photographs, and the main text is interspersed with brief "encyclopedia" style entries on famous events, historical figures, and concepts and theories. For the most part, brevity does not lead to a loss of clarity or theoretical focus, but there are a few occasions where Renton slips up.
In the entry on dialectical materialism Renton says "The doctrine of dialectical materialism was first associated with the German philosopher G W F Hegel, but it was later developed by Engels to become part of the wider notion of historical materialism". This is misleading in two respects. First, while the notion of dialectic is indisputably Hegelian, it is of course inaccurate to associate Hegel with dialectical materialism. Leaving out the distinctively idealist aspect of Hegel's dialectic blurs the respect in which Marx, having found Hegel standing on his head, famously stood him right-way up again. And on the standard presentations of Engels' philosophy, historical materialism is narrower than dialectical materialism rather than vice-versa, the former being an application of the dialectical materialist philosophy to human history and society in particular. But such slips are rare, and on the whole Renton does a good job of filling out the theoretical background to Trotsky's life.
Renton also does a good job of charting the factors that led to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, giving a sense of how civil war and the resulting near-extinction of the Russian working class set the scene for the ascendency of Stalin and the bureaucratic strata that coalesced around him, and of how the fate of the revolution was eventually sealed by the fact that revolution failed to materialise in the more advanced economies of Western Europe.
Renton's presentation allows us to formulate some difficult questions about how things would have been different if Trotsky's Oppositional faction in the Communist Party had triumphed in the 1920s over the Stalinist bureaucracy. If Stalinism was the product of isolation and the failure of revolutionary socialism in Western Europe, factors outside the control of the Russians, wouldn't trying to save the revolution by overthrowing Stalin be like trying to put out a fire by blowing away the smoke? Would the victory of the Opposition have resulted in just another form of bureaucratic degeneration? Moreover, Renton writes "Stalin's success compelled the people of the Soviet Union to live in conditions of isolation and blockade, under a leadership committed to the most extraordinary policies of shock industrialisation". How does the claim that Stalin's success led to isolation and blockade square with the claim that it was isolation and blockade that led to Stalin's success?
Renton is perhaps too hard on the old Bolsheviks slaughtered in Stalin's purges of the 1930s: "Almost none of Lenin's former colleagues had the courage to deny the charges. Instead they showed a mistaken loyalty to the Party of 1917 <193> Had they won, it would have meant the defeat of the Party, which was unthinkable". This is unconvincing: the confessions were tortured out of the old Bolsheviks, many of whose families were also under threat of torture and death from Stalin's thugs. How many of us would refuse to "confess" in the face of such threats?
That Renton's book throws these difficult questions into relief is in the end no criticism: the questions are real, and need to be faced square on by socialists following the revolutionary road in the 21st century. Anyone looking for a quick and inexpensive introduction to Trotsky's contribution to the socialist journey could do far worse than start with Renton's engaging and well-produced biography.