Second assassination of Trotsky

February 19, 2010

Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service,
Pan Macmillan, 2009
624 pages, $59.95 hb

Robert Service has written, to great acclaim, a new biography of Leon Trotsky.

Service makes exciting claims: that his searches among archival holdings shed new light on the subject, and that he offers, for the first time, an objective account of this symbol of revolutionary Marxism. But in more ways than one, the book he has produced is not what it claims to be.

Service's study is really quite readable. The prose is clear, and the story interesting. It follows the basic outline sketched by Trotsky himself in his literary masterpiece My Life, supplemented by Isaac Deutscher's brilliant trilogy — The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast. This provides a coherent structure, which Service seeks in a workman-like manner to compress into a more succinct, relatively fast-paced narrative.

Nonetheless, there remains the strong influence of Deutscher's magisterial biography, the considerable researches from post-1960s social historians on the Russian Revolution (essentially corroborating John Reed's exuberantly sympathetic eyewitness account, Ten Days That Shook the World), and the power of Trotsky's own writings.

All push into the pages of Service's biography, and they push in a different direction than that in which he himself prefers to travel.

More than this, in some ways — not in all, as we shall see — Service proves himself a capable historian.

He spent many years researching Lenin, producing a capable if increasingly hostile three-volume political summary, "capped" by a sadly inferior (though widely lauded) biography.

This has given him a fair sense of the shape of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement leading up to the 1917 Revolution. It stands him in good stead to contextualise much of Trotsky's story. In addition to this, and in addition to the use of a considerable amount of secondary literature, he actually spent time mining the archives and has come up with new material.

Service makes much of this archival exploration, promising new revelations supposedly culled from earlier drafts of My Life and other writings. While there are no stunningly defamatory "revelations" forthcoming from the archives, there are insights offered from — for example — correspondence between Trotsky and his first wife Alexandra.

At times, his "facts" are simply wrong. Service tells us that Trotsky "spoke out against 'individual terror' in 1909 when the Socialist-Revolutionaries murdered the police informer Evno Azev, who had penetrated their Central Committee." But this is impossible.

Azev most definitely was a police spy who held a position of immense authority within the Socialist-Revolutionary organisation: coordinating the terrorist assassinations carried out by the Socialist-Revolutionaries.

This was a tactic which Trotsky and other Marxists of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party absolutely opposed.

But Azev himself, after being exposed, escaped to Germany, where he was imprisoned until 1917 and apparently died of kidney disease in 1918. Why would Trotsky denounce a murder that never happened? Of course, he didn't. But it certainly undermines one's confidence in Service's ability to get things right.

There are also examples of important facts being left out of the account. One of the most disconcerting comes up in Service's seemingly detailed account of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.

The Bolshevik Revolution had come to power promising "peace, bread, land" and one of the highest priorities for the new soviet government was to extricate Russia from the devastation of the First World War, with Trotsky as the chief peace negotiator with the Germans, "moving like a weaver's shuttle between Brest-Litovsk and the Russian capital," as Service nicely phrases it.

The German military sought to impose a very nasty settlement, which the revolutionaries were loathe to accept.

Some argued for waging "revolutionary war" against German imperialism while Lenin insisted that the regime must sign the German peace terms, however odious.

Trotsky took a middle position — "neither peace nor war" — in hopes that through drawing the negotiations out and peppering them with widely publicised revolutionary speeches, the proletarian ferment in Central Europe would be transformed into workers' uprisings.

Service notes that Trotsky at first won a majority (even the anxious and sceptical Lenin went along). But then, he tells us, Lenin somehow — presumably through persuasive conversations and lobbying among his comrades — was finally able to secure a majority for making peace.

How did this happen? What Service inexplicably fails to mention is that the German military, losing patience, launched a massive and successful offensive that demonstrated the hollowness of the "revolutionary war" notion and the inadequacy of Trotsky's compromise position.

The German high command then put forward even more odious demands, which Lenin now had little difficulty in persuading a majority to accept.

As already noted, there is a significant amount of anti-Trotsky editorialising, especially concentrated in the book's introductory and concluding sections, but interspersed as sniping assertions, speculations, and projections throughout much of the biography.

The book's purpose, Service insists, "is to dig up the buried life" of a man whose "self-serving account of Stalin and Stalinism deeply influenced the discourse of writers both left and right", but who had himself demonstrated a "lust for dictatorship and terror", and, in fact, positively "revelled in terror". (The faint-hearted need not fear — the book never really presents such raw lust and revelling!)

Trotsky's character, according to Service, involved the following traits, to take some of those offered in the book's index: alienating others, arrogance, aversion to sentimentality, bossiness, careless about people's attitudes to him, dislike of losing at games, egotism, impatience with stupidity, insensitivity, perfectionism, prickliness, puritanism, temper, vanity, self-centered, will to dominate. Nor is this all wrong.

Isaac Deutscher also affirmed that Trotsky sometimes displayed a "prickly and overbearing character and a lack of talent for teamwork."

Trotsky's Bolshevik comrade Anatoly Lunacharsky offered an acidly frank pen-portrait in 1923: "His colossal arrogance and an inability or unwillingness to show any human kindness or to be attentive to people, the absence of that charm which always surrounded Lenin, condemned Trotsky to a certain loneliness."

And yet, Lunacharsky concluded, "Trotsky treasures his historical role and would probably make any personal sacrifice … in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader." Some see this latter quality as a flaw, others as a strength.

Whatever the motivation and underlying ideology, all too often we find Service engaged in an odd game of scoring of nasty personal points. It gets in the way of what one might expect from a serious biographer.

Nonetheless, Service is enough of a historian that often the material takes over the man, drawing the narrative into a clear account of what Trotsky and other revolutionaries actually thought and attempted and accomplished.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal]

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