Don’t Idealize Trotsky

Sound advice from Clive James, who reveals a new reason to like Pablo Neruda:

Pablo Neruda was instrumental in smoothing the assassin’s path [to planting an ice ax in Trotsky’s melon] but never wrote a poem on the subject: something to remember when reading the thousands of ecstatic love poems he did write. They are full of wine and roses, but no ice ax is ever mentioned. Admirers of Neruda don’t seem to mind. The same capacity for tacit endorsement is shown by Trotsky’s admirers, who even today persist in seeing him as some sort of liberal democrat; or, if not as that, then as a true champion of the working class; or anyway, and at the very worst, as one of those large-hearted Old Bolsheviks who might have made the Soviet Union some kind of successfully egalitarian society had they prevailed. But when it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was not sufficiently “militarized.” He meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.

Still doesn’t make me want to pick up the new Clive James book, Cultural Amnesia, though. (Say, looking at Wikipedia just now, I see that James used to feature on Tony Wilson’s “So It Goes.” I had no idea.)

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Don’t Idealize Trotsky

  1. Tim April 4, 2007 / 8:04 am

    Clive James, although not normally thought of as a conservative, is quite capable of puncturing the fantasies of the left liberal commentariat in a way that would please any “Tory Anarchist”.

    He has to his credit fired a few salvos at the push to turn Australia into a republic (an idea that is the darling of the Australian intelligentsia). See here. And he has been happy to tilt at the Australian intelligentsia’s elitist dismay that the general public just don’t agree with them. Discussed here.

  2. David July 3, 2007 / 1:36 pm
    Leon Trotsky and the post-Soviet school of historical falsification World Socialist Web Site http://www.wsws.org A review of two Trotsky biographies by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher Part 1: Seventy years since Stalin’s year of terror By David North 9 May 2007 Trotsky, by Geoffrey Swain. 237 pages, Longman, 2006. Trotsky, by Ian D. Thatcher. 240 pages, Routledge, 2003. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the most terrible year in the history of the Soviet Union. Having staged in August 1936 a political show trial in Moscow that provided a pseudo-judicial cover for the murder of Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and other leaders of the October Revolution, Stalin launched in 1937 a campaign of terror whose goal was the destruction of all remnants of Marxist political thought and culture in the Soviet Union. The terror targeted for extermination virtually everyone who had played a significant role in the October Revolution of 1917, or who had at any point in their careers been identified with any form of Marxian and socialist opposition to the Stalinist regime, or were associated — either personally or through their comrades, friends and family — with a Marxian political, intellectual and cultural milieu. Even after the passage of 70 years, the number of those murdered by the Stalinist regime in 1937-38 has not been conclusively established. According to a recent analysis by Professor Michael Ellman of the University of Amsterdam, the “best estimate that can currently be made of the number of repression deaths in 1937-38 is the range of 950,000-1.2 million, i.e. about a million. This is the estimate which should be used by historians, teachers and journalists concerned with twentieth century Russian — and world — history.”[1] Ellman notes that the discovery of new evidence may at some point require a revision of this figure. There now exists substantial archival evidence that provides a detailed picture of how Stalin and his henchmen in the Politburo and NKVD organized and carried out their campaign of mass murder. The Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court played a central role in the process of judicially-sanctioned mass murder. A total of 54 defendants were sentenced at the three public show trials in Moscow. But there were tens of thousands of people who were tried behind closed doors by the Military Collegium and sentenced to death after “trials” that usually were completed within ten to fifteen minutes.[2] The victims were drawn from lists of individuals that had been prepared by the NKVD, along with a proposed sentence. These were submitted for review by Stalin and the Politburo. The names were those of “leading Party, Soviet, Komsomol, Trade Union, Red Army and NKVD officials, as well as writers, artists and prominent representatives of economic institutions, who had been arrested by the same NKVD.”[3] Stalin and his Politburo reviewed these lists and, in almost all cases, approved the recommended sentences — mostly death by shooting. There are 383 lists in the Presidential Archive in Moscow, submitted to Stalin between 27 February 1937 and 29 September 1938, which contain the typed names of 44,500 people. The signatures of Stalin and his colleagues, along with their penciled-in comments, are on these lists.[4] The Military Collegium handed down 14,732 sentences in 1937 and another 24,435 in 1938. Stalin was the principal director of the terror and was deeply involved in its daily operations. On just one day, 12 September 1938, Stalin approved 3,167 death sentences for action by the Military Collegium.[5] There exists a substantial amount of information on how the Military Collegium conducted its work. Its secret trials were usually conducted at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. The official mainly in charge of the process was the Collegium’s President, Vasili Ul’rikh. On a busy day, the Collegium could handle 30 or more cases. It was often necessary to set up additional Collegium courts to deal with the crush of prisoners. The usual procedure was to bring prisoners before the Collegium. The charge was read to the accused, who was generally asked only to acknowledge the testimony that he had given during his earlier “investigation.” Whether the defendant answered in the affirmative or negative, the trial was then declared to be over. After hearing five such cases, the Collegium retired to consider its verdicts, which had already been decided and written down. The defendants were then recalled to hear their fate — almost always death. The sentences were generally carried out the same day.[6] This was hard work for the Collegium members, and they required substantial nourishment to keep them going. They retired to the deliberation room for their meals, which, according to the account of a Lefortovo prison official, consisted of “various cold snacks, including different kinds of sausages, cheese, butter, black caviar, pastries, chocolate, fruits and fruit juice.” Ul’rikh washed the food down with brandy.[7] The Collegium members did not only hand down verdicts. Frequently they attended and even carried out the executions that they had ordered. Ul’rikh occasionally returned home from his work with the blood of his victims on his greatcoat. Moscow was not the only city in which the secret trials were held. Parallel processes were conducted in cities throughout the USSR. The terror did not subside until the Stalinist regime had murdered virtually all the representatives of the Marxist and socialist culture that had laid the intellectual foundations for the October Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. Soviet society was traumatized by the massive killing. As the Russian Marxist historian Vadim Z. Rogovin wrote: “A wasteland of scorched earth was formed around the murdered leaders of Bolshevism, insofar as their wives, children and closest comrades were eliminated after them. The fear evoked by the Stalinist terror left its mark on the consciousness and behavior of several generations of Soviet people; for many it eradicated the readiness, desire and ability to engage in honest ideological thought. At the same time, the executioners and informers from Stalin’s time continued to thrive; they had secured their own well-being and the prosperity of their children through active participation in frame-ups, expulsion, torture, and so forth.”[8] Stalin’s crimes were justified on the basis of grotesque lies, which portrayed the Marxist opponents and victims of the bureaucratic-totalitarian regime — above all, Leon Trotsky — as saboteurs, terrorists and agents of various imperialist and fascist powers. But the lies that formed the basis of the show trial indictments of Trotsky and other Old Bolsheviks had been prepared over the previous 15 years, that is, dating back to the anti-Trotsky campaign initiated in 1922 by Stalin and his self-destructive allies, Kamenev and Zinoviev. As Trotsky explained in the aftermath of the first two Moscow Trials — the proceeding of August 1936 was followed by the second show trial in January 1937 — the origins of the judicial frame-up were to be found in the falsification of the historical record that had been required by the political struggle against “Trotskyism” — that is, against the political opposition to the bureaucratic regime headed by Stalin. “It remains an incontestable historical fact,” Trotsky wrote in March 1937, “that the preparation of the bloody judicial frame-ups had its inception in the ‘minor’ historical distortions and ‘innocent’ falsification of citations.”[9] No one who has studied the origins of the Stalinist terror and grappled seriously with its consequences is inclined to underestimate the politically reactionary and socially destructive implications of historical falsification. We know from the example of the Soviet Union that the political process that first manifested itself as the falsification of the history of the Russian revolution eventually metastasized into the mass extermination of Russian revolutionaries. Before Stalin entered into history as one of its worst murderers, he had already burnished his reputation as its greatest liar. Trotsky not only exposed the lies of Stalin; he also explained the objective roots and function of the regime’s vast system of political and social duplicity: “Thousands of writers, historians and economists in the USSR write by command what they do not believe. Professors in universities and school teachers are compelled to change written textbooks in a hurry in order to accommodate themselves to the successive stage of the official lie. The spirit of the Inquisition thoroughly impregnating the atmosphere of the country feeds … from profound social sources. To justify their privileges the ruling caste perverts the theory which has as its aim the elimination of all privileges. The lie serves, therefore, as the fundamental ideological cement of the bureaucracy. The more irreconcilable becomes the contradiction between the bureaucracy and the people, all the ruder becomes the lie, all the more brazenly is it converted into criminal falsification and judicial frame-up. Whoever has not understood this inner dialectic of the Stalinist régime will likewise fail to understand the Moscow trials.”[10] It may appear, in retrospect, astonishing that so many people who considered themselves on the left were prepared to justify, and even actually believe, the accusations hurled by Vyshinsky, the Stalinist prosecutor, against the Old Bolshevik defendants at the Moscow Trials. A substantial section of liberal and leftist public opinion accepted the legitimacy of the Moscow Trials and, in this way, lent its support to the terror that was raging in the USSR. The Stalinist regime — whatever its crimes within the USSR — was seen, at least until the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in August 1939, as a political ally against Nazi Germany. Pragmatic considerations, rooted in the social outlook of the petty-bourgeois “friends of the USSR,” underlay the pro-Stalin apologetics of large sections of “left” public opinion. Even the refutation of key elements of the indictments was ignored by Stalin’s apologists.[11] The work of the Dewey Commission, which took its name from the American liberal philosopher who served as chairman of the 1937 Inquiry into the Soviet charges against Leon Trotsky, stood in noble opposition to the cynical, dishonest and reactionary attitudes that prevailed in the circles of left public opinion, especially in Britain, France and the United States. The exposure of Stalinism Nearly two decades were to pass before the edifice of Stalinist lies erected at the Moscow trials began to crumble. The decisive event in this process was the “secret” speech given by Khrushchev in February 1956, before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which the criminal character of Stalin’s terror was acknowledged for the first time. But this exposure was preceded by significant developments in the field of historical research that contributed immeasurably to a factually accurate and more profound understanding of the history of the Soviet Union and to the role of Leon Trotsky. The first major event in the historical rehabilitation of Trotsky was the publication of E. H. Carr’s monumental history of Soviet Russia, and especially its fourth volume, entitled The Interregnum. This volume, making extensive use of official Soviet documents available in the West, provided a detailed account of the political struggles that erupted inside the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1923-24. Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky. But he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a difficult and critical period of Soviet history. Carr’s account made clear that Trotsky became the target of an unprincipled attack that was, in its initial stages, motivated by his rivals’ subjective considerations of personal power. While Carr found much to criticize in Trotsky’s response to the provocations of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, the historian left no doubt that he viewed Trotsky as, alongside of Lenin, the towering figure of the Bolshevik Revolution. In “many spheres” of revolutionary political activity, Carr maintained in a later volume, Trotsky “outshone” even Lenin. As for Stalin, Carr wrote that Trotsky “eclipsed” him “in almost all.” But the decline in revolutionary fervor inside the USSR, ever more noticeable after 1922, affected Trotsky’s political fortunes. “Trotsky was a hero of the revolution,” wrote Carr. “He fell when the heroic age was over.”[12] The second major event in the study of Soviet history was the publication of Isaac Deutscher’s magisterial biographical trilogy: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. April 2007 marked the centenary of Deutscher’s birth; and it is appropriate to pay tribute to his achievement as a historian and biographer. Even though I speak as one who disagrees profoundly with many of Deutscher’s political judgments — particularly as they relate to Trotsky’s decision to found the Fourth International (which Deutscher opposed) — it is difficult to overestimate the impact of Deutscher’s Prophet. He was not being immodest when he compared his own work to that of Thomas Carlyle who, as the biographer of another revolutionary, Oliver Cromwell, “had to drag out the Lord Protector from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion.”[13] Deutscher proudly cited a British critic, who wrote that the first volume of the trilogy, The Prophet Armed, “undoes three decades of Stalinist denigration.”[14] In addition to the work of Carr and Deutscher, a new generation of historians made, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, significant contributions to our understanding of the Russian revolution, the origins and development of the Soviet Union, and its leading personalities. Leopold Haimson, Samuel Baron, Robert Daniels, Alexander Rabinowitch, Robert Tucker, Moshe Lewin, Marcel Liebman, Richard Day and Baruch Knei-Paz come immediately to mind. To recognize the value of their work and to appreciate their scholarship does not, and need not, imply agreement with their judgments and conclusions. The enduring significance of their collective efforts, and those of others whom I have not named, is that they contributed to the refutation of the lies, distortions and half-truths in which the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union had been enshrouded for so many decades. And not only falsifications of the Soviet government, but also the stultifying anti-Marxist propaganda of the US government in the era of the Cold War. To have some sense of the impact of these historians’ work on the intellectual climate of their times, permit me to cite several passages from the text of a study of Trotsky’s life that was published in 1973 as part of the well-known “Great Lives Observed” series. This series — published by Prentice-Hall, the long-established distributor of academic textbooks — was a mainstay of university history courses in the 1960s and 1970s. Thousands of students taking courses in Russian or modern European history would have been introduced to the figure of Leon Trotsky through this volume, and this is what they would have read in its very first paragraph: “With the passage of time historical figures either shrink or grow in stature. In the case of Leon Trotsky time, after a brief eclipse, has increased his image so that he appears today, for good or evil, as one of the giants of the first half of the twentieth century. The renewed interest in Trotsky’s life is reflected by the numerous studies which are beginning to appear, and by the sudden availability of almost all his writings. For many of the New Left generation he has reclaimed both the prestige and the mantle of the revolutionary leader.”[15] The introduction provided, on the basis of the findings of contemporary scholars, a concise assessment of Trotsky’s revolutionary career. “The argument supporting Trotsky’s claim to importance,” it stated, “rests on his contribution to political theory, his literary legacy, and above all his role as a man of action.” As a theorist, Trotsky’s analysis of Russian social forces and his elaboration of the theory of permanent revolution “suggests that as a Marxist thinker he could, on the power of his creativity, go beyond the formulations of Marx and Engels.” Trotsky, therefore, deserved to be placed within the “brilliant coterie of Marxist theorists such as Plekhanov, Kautsky, Luxemburg, and, for that matter, Lenin himself.” As a literary figure, Trotsky stood above even these great Marxists. “Magnificent word play, scathing sarcasm, and brilliant character sketches are the hallmarks of his writing. To read Trotsky is to observe the literary artist at work.” And then there were Trotsky’s achievements as a man of action. The introduction noted “Trotsky’s role in Russian revolutionary history is second only to Lenin’s,” and his “decisive leadership in the Military Revolutionary Committee that paved the way for the October insurrection…” It also called attention to Trotsky’s “determined efforts to build the Red Army in the face of enormous obstacles…”[16] None of these achievements was known to the mass of Soviet citizens. There existed no honest account of Trotsky’s life and work within the USSR because “Soviet historians have long since abandoned the responsibility of historical writing and have busied themselves with the grotesque efforts to create a new demonology.” Within the Soviet Union, Trotsky remained “an abstraction of evil — a militating force against the future of the Soviet people.”[17] But outside the USSR, the situation was different: “Soviet demonology, absurd from its inception, has been largely vanquished, at least in the Western world. Part Three of this book contains selections of relatively recent writers on the problem of Trotsky. The best examples of this more objective scholarship are Edward Hallett Carr’s multi-volume study, The Bolshevik Revolution, and Isaac Deutscher’s painstaking three-volume study of Trotsky. The historical debate may be never ending, but in the light of these more recent studies Trotsky’s role in the Russian experience can be seen in a new and positive perspective. In the West, the miasmic cloud has disappeared; the demonic hierarchy has been exorcized. We can now come to grips with the material forces and issues which motivated and inspired the action and deeds of Leon Trotsky.”[18] I have quoted extensively from this text because it provides a clear summary of what the general student studying history at the college level would have been told about Leon Trotsky some 35 years ago.[19] When one turns to the texts that are now being presented to students, it becomes immediately apparent that we are living in a very different — and far less healthy — intellectual environment. But before I may do so, it is necessary to examine, if only briefly, the treatment of Trotsky in Soviet historical literature in the aftermath of the 20th Congress and Khrushchev’s “secret speech.” Soviet history after the 20th Congress The official exposure of Stalin’s crimes in 1956 placed the Kremlin bureaucracy and its many apologists on the defensive. The party-line version of history had been for nearly two decades Stalin’s own Short Course of the History of the CPSU. From the moment Khrushchev ascended the podium of the Twentieth Party Congress, this compendium of incredible lies, soaked in human blood, lost all credibility. But with what could it be replaced? To this question the Stalinist bureaucracy never found a viable answer. Every important question relating to the history of the Russian revolutionary movement — the events of 1917, the Civil War, the early years of the Soviet state, the inner-party conflicts of the 1920s, the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy, the relation of the Soviet Union to international revolutionary movements and struggles, industrialization, collectivization, Soviet cultural policy, and the Stalinist terror — posed unavoidably the issue of Lev Davidovitch Trotsky. Every criticism of Stalin raised the question, “Was Trotsky right?” The historical, political, theoretical and moral issues that flowed from the exposure of Stalin’s crimes and the catastrophic impact of his policies and personality on every aspect of Soviet society could not be dealt with by simply removing Stalin from his glass-encased mausoleum alongside Lenin and reburying his corpse under the wall of the Kremlin. Isaac Deutscher had nourished the hope — a hope that reflected the limitations of his political outlook — that the Stalinist bureaucracy would finally, at long last, find some way to come to terms with history and make its peace with Leon Trotsky. It proved a vain hope. To deal honestly with Trotsky would have required, at some point, that his writings be made available. But notwithstanding the passage of decades, Trotsky’s exposure and denunciations of the Stalinist regime remained as explosive in their revolutionary potential as they had been during his own lifetime. After Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and unveiled his policy of glasnost, there was a great deal of public discussion about the official rehabilitation of Trotsky. As the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution approached, it was widely anticipated that Gorbachev would take this opportunity to acknowledge Trotsky’s role in the leadership of the October Revolution and his struggle against Stalin. But the very opposite occurred. On November 2, 1987, speaking in a televised address to a national audience, Gorbachev again denounced Trotsky in traditional Stalinist terms. Trotsky, he said, was “an excessively self-assured politician who always vacillated and cheated.”[20] By the time Gorbachev delivered his shameful speech, interest in Trotsky and the struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalinism was developing rapidly in the Soviet Union. Soviet journals that published, for the first time since the 1920s, documents relating to Trotsky, such as Argumenti i Fakti, enjoyed a massive increase in their circulation. Trotskyists from Europe, Australia and the United States traveled to the Soviet Union and delivered lectures that were widely attended. Gorbachev’s speech was clearly an attempt to respond to this changed situation, but it proved utterly unsuccessful. The old Stalinist lies — denying Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution, portraying him as an enemy of the Soviet Union — had lost all credibility. Within little more than four years after Gorbachev’s speech, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Trotsky’s warning that the Stalinist bureaucracy, unless overthrown by the working class, would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union and clear the way for the restoration of capitalism was vindicated. Endnotes: [1] “Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54, No. 7 (Nov. 2002), p. 1162. [return] [2] Material relating to the work of the Collegium is based on “Mass Terror and the Court: The Military Collegium of the USSR,” by Marc Jansen and Nikita Petrov, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 58, No. 4, June 2006, pp. 589-602. [return] [3] Ibid, p. 591. [return] [4] Ibid. [return] [5] Ibid, 593. [return] [6] Ibid, p. 595. [return] [7] Ibid, p. 596. [return] [8] 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror (Oak Park, 1998), pp. xii-xiii. [return] [9] The Stalin School of Falsification (London, 1974), p. ix. [return] [10] Ibid, p. xiii. [return] [11] For example, at the first Moscow Trial, the defendant Holtzman testified that he had been sent as a courier to Copenhagen in 1932, where he supposedly met Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov at the Hotel Bristol and received from him seditious anti-Soviet instructions. It soon emerged that Copenhagen’s Hotel Bristol had burned down in a fire fifteen years earlier, in 1917. The crucial conspiratorial meeting could not have taken place. At the second trial, the Old Bolshevik and former Left Oppositionist Yuri Pyatakov testified that while in Berlin in December 1935 on Soviet business, he had secretly flown to Oslo. Pyatakov claimed to have been driven to Trotsky’s home. Once there, Pyatakov — reciting a script that had been written by the NKVD interrogators — testified that Trotsky informed him of his [Trotsky’s] links to the intelligence agencies of Nazi Germany. Pyatakov then confessed that he agreed to join Trotsky’s anti-Soviet and pro-Nazi conspiracy. But even before the trial was over, Pyatakov’s testimony was blown to pieces. The Norwegian press reported that no foreign plane had landed in Oslo’s airport between September 1935 and May 1936! Pyatakov’s story, which was absolutely central to the entire Stalinist frame-up, was exposed as a brazen concoction. [return] [12] Socialism in One Country, Volume One (New York, 1958), p. 152 [return] [13] The Prophet Unarmed (London, 1959), p. v. [return] [14] Ibid. [return] [15] Trotsky (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1973), p. 1. [return] [16] Ibid. [return] [17] Ibid, pp. 1- 2. [return] [18] Ibid. [return] [19] A review of this volume by an academic journal, The History Teacher, substantiates this appraisal of its target audience: “In regard to teaching and classroom use, this edition should find considerable acceptance. Unlike others in the series, this work does not promise to lose its readers in a host of overquotations from its figure’s philosophical or political expositions. It succinctly describes Trotsky’s achievements and provides the reader with the varying historical interpretations of his career. “A worthy instructor of any modern Russian course should be able to make effective use of the text by utilizing the relatively short selections as jumping off points for further examination of their author’s full theses. The casual student will undoubtedly enjoy it for its brevity — only 170 pages. More importantly, however, will be the use that the real student of Russian history can obtain from it. Stimulated by its content but disappointed by its brevity, he will hopefully delve more deeply into the actual diaries, autobiographies, and biographies that exist concerning Leon Trotsky. The success of any edited text in this series ought to be measured by the number of students who do just that.” Volume 7, No. 2 (February 1974), pp. 291-92. [return] [20] That was not all. Gorbachev continued: “Trotsky and the Trotskyites negated the possibility of building socialism in conditions of capitalist encirclement. In foreign policy they gave priority to export of revolution, and in home policy to tightening the screws on the peasants, to the city exploiting the countryside, and to administrative and military fiat in running society. “Trotskyism was a political current whose ideologists took cover behind leftist pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, and who in effect assumed a defeatist posture. This was essentially an attack on Leninism all down the line. The matter practically concerned the future of socialism in our country, the fate of the revolution. “In the circumstances, it was essential to disprove Trotskyism before the whole people, and denude its antisocialist essence. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Trotskyites were acting in common with the new opposition headed by Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Being aware that they constituted a minority, the opposition leaders had again and again saddled the party with discussions, counting on a split in its ranks. “But in the final analysis, the party spoke out for the line of the Central Committee and against the opposition, which was soon ideologically and organizationally crushed. “In short, the party’s leading nucleus, headed by Josef Stalin, had safeguarded Leninism in an ideological struggle. It defined the strategy and tactics in the initial stage of socialist construction, with its political course being approved by most members of the party and most working people. An important part in defeating Trotskyism ideologically was played by Nikolai Bukharin, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Sergei Kirov, Grigory Ordzhonikidze, Jan Rudzutak and others.” (New York Times, November 3, 1987) [return] Part 2: The study of Trotsky after the fall of the USSR The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 raised with new urgency the issue of the historical role of Leon Trotsky. After all, the Soviet implosion demanded an explanation. Amidst the bourgeois triumphalism that attended the dissolution of the USSR — which, by the way, not a single major bourgeois political leader had foreseen — the answer seemed obvious. The Soviet collapse of December 1991 flowed organically from the October 1917 Revolution. This theory, based on the assumption that a non-capitalist form of human society was simply impossible, found its way into several books published in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, of which the late Professor Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy was the most significant example. However, books of this sort evaded the problem of historical alternatives; that is, were the policies pursued by Stalin and his successors the only options available to the USSR? Had the Soviet Union pursued different policies at various points in its 74-year history, might that have produced a significantly different historical outcome? To put the matter as succinctly as possible: Was there an alternative to Stalinism? I am not posing this as an abstract hypothetical counterfactual. Did there exist a socialist opposition to Stalinism? Did this opposition propose serious and substantial alternatives in terms of policy and program? The answers to such crucial questions demand a serious reengagement with the ideas of Leon Trotsky and the oppositional movement that he led within the USSR and internationally. This, however, has not happened. Rather than building upon the achievements of earlier generations of scholars and drawing upon the vast new archival resources that have become available over the past 15 years, the dominant tendency in the historiography of the Soviet Union has been in a very different direction. The years since the fall of the USSR have seen the emergence of what can best be described as The Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. The principal objective of this school is to discredit Leon Trotsky as a significant historical figure, to deny that he represented an alternative to Stalinism, or that his political legacy contains anything relevant in the present and valuable for the future. Every historian is entitled to his or her viewpoint. But these viewpoints must be grounded in a serious, honest and principled attitude toward the assembling of facts and the presentation of historical evidence. It is this essential quality, however, that is deplorably absent in two new biographies of Leon Trotsky, one by Professor Geoffrey Swain of the University of Glasgow and the other by Professor Ian D. Thatcher of Brunel University in West London. These works have been brought out by large and influential publishing houses. Swain’s biography has been published by Longman; Thatcher’s by Routledge. Their treatment of the life of Leon Trotsky is without the slightest scholarly merit. Both works make limited use of Trotsky’s own writings, offering few substantial citations and even ignoring major books, essays and political statements. Despite their publishers’ claims that the biographies are based on significant original research, there is no indication that either Swain or Thatcher made use of the major archival collections of Trotsky’s papers held at Harvard and Stanford Universities. Well-established facts relating to Trotsky’s life are, without credible evidentiary foundation, “called into question” or dismissed as “myths,” to use the authors’ favorite phrases. While belittling and even mocking Trotsky, Swain and Thatcher repeatedly attempt to lend credibility and legitimacy to Stalin, frequently defending the latter against Trotsky’s criticism and finding grounds to justify the attacks on Trotsky and the Left Opposition. In many cases, their own criticisms of Trotsky are recycled versions of old Stalinist falsifications. The formats of the Swain and Thatcher biographies are similar in design and page length, and are clearly directed toward a student audience. The authors know, of course, that the books will be the first acquaintance with Trotsky for most of their readers; and they have crafted these two books in a manner calculated to disabuse readers of any further interest in their subject. As Professor Swain proclaims with evident satisfaction in the first paragraph of his volume, “Readers of this biography will not find their way to Trotskyism.”[21] Nor, he might have added, will they derive any understanding of Trotsky’s ideas, the principles for which he fought, and his place in the history of the twentieth century. The “myth” of Trotsky Both biographies proclaim that they challenge, undermine and even disprove “myths” about Trotsky’s life and work. In a brief foreword to the Thatcher biography, the publisher asserts that “Key myths about Trotsky’s heroic work as a revolutionary, especially in Russia’s first revolution in 1905 and the Russian Civil War, are thrown into question.”[22] Swain asserts that in his book “a rather different picture of Trotsky emerges to that traditionally drawn, more of the man and less of the myth.”[23] What “myths ” are they setting out to dispel? Significantly, both authors denounce the work of Isaac Deutscher, whom they hold responsible for creating the heroic historical persona that prevails to this day. Thatcher asserts condescendingly that Deutscher’s trilogy reads like “a boy’s own adventure story,” a characteristic which “gives an indication of the attractions, as well as the weaknesses, of Deutscher’s tomes.” Thatcher implies that Deutscher’s biography is a dubious exercise in hero-worship, which “abounds with instances in which Trotsky saw further and deeper than those around him.” With evident sarcasm, Thatcher suggests that Deutscher credited Trotsky with an improbably long list of political, practical and intellectual achievements. He accuses Deutscher of indulging in improper “invention” and of “diversions into fiction.” These flaws, writes Thatcher, “do detract from the work’s status as a history, and as historians we must approach Deutscher both critically and with caution.”[24] In fact, all historical works — even masterpieces of the genre — must be read critically. But Thatcher denigrates Deutscher’s work not for its weaknesses, but for its greatest strength — its masterly restoration of Trotsky’s revolutionary persona. As for the specific example used by Thatcher to support his claim of invention and diversions into fiction, he provides what turns out to be an incomplete citation from The Prophet Armed. When read in its entirety, Deutscher’s use of analogy to recreate the mood that prevailed within the Bolshevik leadership at a time of intense crisis — the conflict over the Brest Litovsk treaty in February 1918 — may be appreciated as an example of the author’s extraordinary literary skills and psychological insight.[25] The significance of the two authors’ antipathy toward Deutscher’s trilogy emerges quite clearly in Swain’s biography. He writes accusingly that “Deutscher went along with, and indeed helped to foster the Trotsky myth, the idea that he was ‘the best Bolshevik’: together Lenin and Trotsky carried out the October Revolution and, with Lenin’s support, Trotsky consistently challenged Stalin from the end of 1922 onwards to save the revolution from its bureaucratic degeneration; in this version of events Trotsky was Lenin’s heir.”[26] A “myth,” as defined by Webster, is “an unfounded or false notion.” But all the items listed by Swain as elements of the Deutscher-propagated “Trotsky myth” are grounded in facts supported by documentary evidence that has been cited by numerous historians over the past half-century. While Swain implies that Deutscher was involved in a conspiracy against historical truth (he “went along with, and indeed helped foster the Trotsky myth”), his real aim is to discredit historical work — that of Deutscher and many others — that shattered decades of Stalinist falsification. Well-established historical facts relating to Trotsky’s life are subjected to the literary equivalent of a drumhead court-martial and declared to be mere “myths.” No evidence of a factual character that is capable of withstanding serious scrutiny is produced to support the summary verdict pronounced by Swain and Thatcher. The aim of their exercise in pseudo-biography is to restore the historical position of Trotsky to where it stood before the works of Deutscher and, for that matter, E.H. Carr were published — that is, to the darkest period of the Stalin School of Falsification. The appeal to authority Let us now examine the method the two professors employ to discredit well-established historical facts. One of Swain’s and Thatcher’s favorite techniques is to make an outrageous and provocative statement about Trotsky, which flies in the face of what is known to be factually true, and then support it by citing the work of another author. Their readers are not provided with new facts that support Swain’s and Thatcher’s assertion. Rather, they are simply told that the statement is based on the work of some other historian. Thus, Swain announces that he has “drawn heavily on the work of other scholars. Ian Thatcher has rediscovered the pre-1917 Trotsky as well as showing clearly how unreliable Trotsky’s own writings can be. James White has completely reassessed the Lenin and Trotsky relationship in 1917, showing that the two men’s visions of insurrection were entirely different. Eric van Ree demolished the notion that Trotsky was Lenin’s heir. Richard Day, writing more than 30 years ago, argued convincingly that Trotsky, far from being an internationalist, believed firmly in the possibility of building socialism in one country. More controversially, Nikolai Valentinov suggested nearly 50 years ago that in 1925, far from opposing Stalin, Trotsky was in alliance with him; although Valentinov’s suggestion of a pact sealed at a secret meeting has not stood the test of time, other evidence confirms a period of testy collaboration.”[27] Presented here is what is known in logic as an appeal to authority. However, such an appeal is valid only to the extent of the authority’s credibility. In this particular instance, the argument is not settled simply by citing Thatcher, White, van Ree, Day and Valentinov. We must know more about them, their work, and the evidence upon which they based their conclusions. And we must also know whether they actually held the position being attributed to them. As we shall see, the last question is particularly important, for when dealing with the work of Professors Swain and Thatcher, absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. In regard to Swain’s reference to Professor James White of the University of Glasgow, the latter hardly qualifies — for anyone familiar with his work — as a historian whose judgments on the subject of Trotsky can be accepted as authoritative, or, for that matter, even credible.[28] As for van Ree, who is also one of Thatcher’s favorite sources, his work as a historian must certainly be approached with caution, if not a face mask. As an ex-Maoist who is now a passionate anti-Communist, he recently offered, in a book entitled World Revolution: The Communist Movement from Marx to Kim il-Jong, the following assessment of Lenin and Trotsky: “Yet all things considered they too were rogues, leaders of gangs of political thugs. They enjoyed prosecuting civil war. They proclaimed the Red Terror because they imagined themselves to be actors in a fantastic historical drama. They had the privilege of being allowed to repeat the performance at which Maximilien de Robespierre failed, and they were determined that this time round no one would be left alive who could possibly turn their fortunes against them. Lenin and Trotsky took pride in the fact that they did not care a jot about democracy or human rights. They enjoyed the exercise of their own brutality.”[29] Aside from their overheated character, none of these statements could be cited as an example of sober historical judgment. Professor van Ree is evidently a very angry man with quite a few political chips on his shoulder. He is not qualified to render decisive judgment on the nature of the Lenin-Trotsky relationship. However, I should note that according to the account given by van Ree in the above cited work, Lenin and Trotsky were partners in crime who shared the same criminal world view. Holding that view, how could van Ree “demolish the notion that Trotsky was Lenin’s heir”? Moreover, in a discussion of the relationship between Lenin and Trotsky, the word “heir” has a political rather than legal connotation. Whether or not Trotsky should be considered Lenin’s “heir” is precisely the sort of question over which historians will probably argue for decades to come. It is not likely to be settled in one essay, even one written by a scholar of substantially greater skill, knowledge, insight and judgment than Mr. van Ree. For Swain to assert that van Ree “demolished the notion that Trotsky was Lenin’s heir” proves only that Swain has not thought through with sufficient care the complex historical, political, social and theoretical issues that arise in any serious study of the Lenin-Trotsky relationship. Let us now consider Swain’s invocation of Professor Richard Day to substantiate his own provocative thesis that Trotsky, “far from being an internationalist, firmly believed in the possibility of building socialism in one country.” I must confess that I rubbed my eyes in amazement upon seeing Professor Day cited as an authority for such an outlandish statement. In contrast to the gentlemen to whom I have already referred, Professor Day is an outstanding and respected historian who for many decades has carried out serious work on the struggles within the Soviet government during the 1920s over economic policy. In particular, he has subjected the work of E. A. Preobrazhensky to serious analysis and shed light on significant differences that existed within the Left Opposition on important problems of economic theory and policy. Swain’s reference to Day contains both distortion and falsification. In the work cited by Swain, Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation, Day employs certain formulations suggesting that Trotsky did not reject the possibility of socialism in one country, but opposed the conception that this could be achieved, as Stalin proposed, on an autarchic basis. Moreover, Day’s discussion of Trotsky’s position on “socialism in one country” must be read in the context of the book’s presentation of the debate over Soviet economic policy. Swain, however, seizes on several ambiguous phrases employed by Day in the opening pages of his book, and proceeds to misrepresent the central analytical line of Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation. Whatever the limitations of Day’s argument, there is absolutely nothing in his book that supports Swain’s claim that Trotsky was not an internationalist.[30] This is a blatant falsification of the argument presented in Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation.[31] I will not waste my time refuting the reference to Valentinov, an old Menshevik and bitter opponent of Trotsky. Swain does not even bother to provide us with an actual quote from Valentinov. No evidence whatever is offered to substantiate this claim. As for Valentinov’s tale of “a pact sealed at a secret meeting,” Swain himself acknowledges that it “has not stood the test of time.” In other words, it was a fabrication. But why, then, does Swain even bring it up? Rhetorical internationalism Swain’s use of sources whom he acknowledges to be unreliable is characteristic of his cynical attitude to the historical record. He has no compunction about making statements that contradict everything that is known and documented about Trotsky life. He tells us that “Trotsky believed in world revolution, but no more and no less than every other Bolshevik, and like all other Bolsheviks this belief was largely rhetorical.”[32] In other words, there was, according to Swain, no difference in the place that the perspective of world revolution played in the lifework of Leon Trotsky from that which it played in the thoughts and activities of Molotov, Voroshilov, and Stalin! How does one even begin to answer an absurdity of this magnitude? Readers are to believe that the political conceptions that governed Trotsky’s political activity over a period of nearly 40 years, and which found expression in countless speeches and thousands of pages of written documents, represented nothing more than external posturing, devoid of serious intellectual, emotional and moral substance. Everything was merely a political subterfuge, a cover for what were essentially nationalist preoccupations related to the factional power struggle that Trotsky was conducting in the Soviet Union. As Swain writes: “His critique of the failed German Revolution in 1923 was simply camouflage for an attack on his then domestic opponents Zinoviev and Kamenev. It was the same with his writings on the British General Strike, although here his opponents were Bukharin and Stalin. As for his enthusiasm for China in 1927, that too was essentially domestic in focus… It was only in emigration, in 1933, when he had buried the concept of Thermidor, that Trotsky explored the idea of how the revival of the working class movement in Europe might have a beneficial impact on the Soviet Union and halt the degeneration of the workers’ state. Then internationalism became central to his cause.”[33] Swain evidently assumes that his student readership will be totally ignorant of the events and issues under discussion. He produces no evidence of a factual character to back his conclusion. Nor does he attempt to support his argument on the basis of an analysis of Trotsky’s writings. This glaring omission reflects his general disinterest in Trotsky as a writer. Swain makes a point of telling his readers that his biography makes no reference to the “great” work by Professor Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. Swain acknowledges that this may come as a surprise to Trotsky scholars. But he defends his omission by arguing that Knei-Paz attributed greater importance to Trotsky’s writings than they merit: “Knei-Paz collects together Trotsky’s writings under certain themes, bringing together earlier and later essays into a coherent exposition; this exposition makes Trotsky a far greater thinker than he was in reality. Trotsky wrote an enormous amount and as a journalist, he was happy to write on subjects about which he knew very little.”[34] When a historian delivers such an unqualified judgment, it is to be expected that he will proceed to substantiate his claim. Swain should have supported it by pointing to specific essays or articles in which Trotsky showed himself to be ignorant of the subject matter with which he was dealing. Swain fails to present a single citation to support his argument. Instead, he continues in the same vein: “Trotsky could write beautifully, but he was no philosopher.”[35] In fact, Trotsky never claimed to be one. But this did not prevent him from grasping more profoundly and precisely the social, political and economic realities of the age in which he lived than the philosophers of his generation. Who better understood the nature of twentieth century imperialism and fascism: Martin Heidegger, who ostentatiously proclaimed his allegiance to Hitler, or Trotsky? Who had deeper and clearer insights into the bankruptcy of Fabian reformism in Britain: Bertrand Russell or Trotsky?[36] A more honest and capable historian might have included in an analysis of Trotsky’s stature as a writer the following extract from the diaries of the great German literary critic, Walter Benjamin: “June 3, 1931 … The previous evening, a discussion with Brecht, Brentano, and Hesse in the Café du Centre. The conversation turned to Trotsky; Brecht maintained there were good reasons for thinking that Trotsky was the greatest living European writer.”[37] One can only imagine what Swain might have contributed to this conversation had he been present at the Café du Centre. “Well perhaps, Bertolt. But Trotsky is no philosopher!” As one works through the entire biography, one cannot help but be amazed by the indifference that Swain displays toward Trotsky’s writings. Many of his most important works are barely mentioned, or even totally ignored. Though he acknowledges Trotsky’s decisive role in the victory of the Red Army in the Civil War, Swain ignores his important writings on military theory. This is a significant omission, because many of the political and theoretical differences that arose between Trotsky and the Stalinist faction in later years were anticipated in the earlier conflicts over military policy.[38] There is no reference to Trotsky’s extraordinary manifestos and speeches prepared for the first four Congresses of the Communist International (1919-1922). He makes no mention of Trotsky’s far-sighted analysis of the emergence of American imperialism to a position of world domination and its evolving relationship with a declining and dependent Europe. This does not prevent Swain from proclaiming pompously that Trotsky “had absolutely no understanding of European politics.”[39] One might just as well write that Einstein had no understanding of physics! Such ludicrous statements are written for only one purpose: to fill the minds of students who are unfamiliar with Trotsky’s life and the historical period in which he lived with intellectually disorienting absurdities. Swain’s effort to convert Trotsky into an enthusiastic partisan of the Stalinist program of “socialism in one country” amounts to a grotesque distortion and outright falsification of his actual views. Swain attributes to Lenin the authorship of this conception, noting that Stalin’s lecture in which the new program was introduced invoked a quotation from an article Lenin had written in 1915. He fails to explain that Stalin ripped this quote out of context, and conveniently ignored the innumerable statements by Lenin emphatically linking the fate of socialism in Russia to the world revolution. More seriously, whether from ignorance, sheer incomprehension or design, Swain falsifies the views of Leon Trotsky. Referring to the 1925 series of articles by Trotsky published under the title, Towards Socialism or Capitalism?, Swain asserts that its logic “was clear. Socialism in one country could work if the correct economic policy was followed and state industrial investment gradually accelerated.”[40] If one identifies the possibility of initiating socialist construction within the USSR (which Trotsky advocated and encouraged) with the long-term viability of a Soviet form of nationalism (which Trotsky emphatically rejected), the theoretical content and political implications of the debate over economic policy are rendered incomprehensible. Even in Towards Socialism or Capitalism?, written in 1925 when he was still working through the implications of the nationalist shift in the theoretical basis of Soviet economic policy, Trotsky explicitly warned that the long-term survival of world capitalism meant that “socialism in a backward country would be confronted with great dangers.”[41] In September 1926 he declared that “The Opposition is profoundly convinced in the victory of socialism in our country not because our country can be torn free of the world economy but because the victory of the proletarian revolution is guaranteed the world over.”[42] In other words, socialism could be built in Russia if the working class conquered power in revolutionary struggles beyond its borders. Trotsky’s speech to the Fifteenth Conference on November 1, 1926 was a comprehensive attack on the perspective of national socialism.[43] Swain, of course, ignores this and other crucial texts that must be examined in order to deal correctly with the issue of “socialism in one country.” Swain on 1923 Swain’s treatment of the crucial opening round of Trotsky’s struggle against the degeneration of the Soviet Communist Party is little more than a defense of the emerging Stalinist faction against Trotsky’s criticisms. Especially significant is Swain’s condemnation of a letter and series of articles written by Trotsky in early December 1923 under the title, The New Course. Swain writes: “In the programmatic essay The New Course, written on 8 December and published after some haggling in Pravda on 11 December 1923, Trotsky denounced the increasingly bureaucratic leadership of the Party, asserting that the old, established leadership was in conflict with a younger generation. In one of those exaggerated parallels he loved, he compared the situation among the Bolshevik leaders with the time in the history of the German Social Democratic Party when the once radical allies of Marx and Engels slipped almost imperceptibly into a new role as the fathers of reformism. It was a nice image, but Kamenev, Stalin and Zinoviev were hardly going to relish the implication that only Trotsky was the true revolutionary and that they were mere reformists. “In writing The New Course, Trotsky not only insulted his Politburo colleagues but, in Bolshevik terms, he gave them the moral high ground. He had reached an agreement and then broken it. He had done the same with Lenin at the height of the Brest Litovsk crisis. During the Trade Union Debate he had joined the Zinoviev Commission only to declare he would take no part in its work. The resolution against factionalism adopted at the Tenth Party Congress had been aimed specifically at preventing this sort of behavior. Whether or not Trotsky’s behavior had verged on factionalism in autumn 1923 could be open to interpretation, but The New Course was factionalist beyond doubt. He had signed up to a compromise, and then broken with it, challenging the revolutionary credentials of his Politburo comrades in the process.”[44] What Swain offers here is not an objective account of the political origins, issues and events related to the conflict that erupted inside the Soviet Communist Party, but rather his own highly partisan defense of those who were the objects of Trotsky’s criticisms. Swain’s angry references to Trotsky’s behavior during the Brest Litovsk crisis in 1918 and the trade union conflict in 1920 read as if they were copied from the texts of Stalin’s own speeches. Swain tells us that Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin “were hardly going to relish” Trotsky’s criticisms, as if that somehow invalidates what Trotsky wrote in The New Course. It is peculiar, to say the least, for a historian writing in 2006 to upbraid Trotsky for having engaged in “factionalist” behavior in launching what was to become one of the epochal political conflicts of the twentieth century. Swain, enjoying the benefit of hindsight, knows how all of this was to eventually turn out. The suppression of inner-party democracy, against which Trotsky raised his protest, was ultimately to grow into a murderous totalitarian dictatorship that carried out mass murder. And while Trotsky’s criticisms may have bruised the egos of Kamenev and Zinoviev, the two Old Bolsheviks suffered a far more terrible fate at the hands of Stalin 13 years later. Moreover, for Swain to chastise Trotsky’s warning of the danger of political degeneration of the older generation of Bolshevik leaders as “exaggerated” is nothing less than incredible. As history was to demonstrate all too tragically, Trotsky’s invocation of the example of the German Social Democratic leaders was, if anything, an underestimation of the dimensions of the tragedy that awaited the Bolshevik Party. As for the specific charge that the writing of The New Course was inappropriate and factional behavior, it is not based on an honest reading of the historical record. Swain conveniently fails to note that the Politburo was dominated by a secret faction formed by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, which was grounded not on programmatic agreement, but rather on a shared determination to undermine Trotsky’s political influence. Thus, Trotsky was working inside a Politburo whose deliberations were tainted by ex parte agreements worked out behind the scenes by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Moreover, as E. H. Carr explained quite cogently in 1954, Trotsky’s letter of December 8 — part of the set of documents known as The New Course — was of an entirely principled character. “The letter took the form of a commentary on the resolution of 5 December: it was an exposition of what Trotsky assumed the resolution to mean and a rebuttal of any other potential interpretations. It was not, as was afterwards pretended, a deliberate attack on the agreed text or on other members of the Politburo and of the central committee. The views were those which Trotsky, as he naively believed, had persuaded or compelled his colleagues to share. All that the letter did was, in Trotsky’s intention, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the resolution and to register his victory.”[45] Carr also explains that the triumvirate and Trotsky had approached the drafting of the December 5, 1923 resolution on party reform with very different aims and criteria. For Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, the actual content of the resolution was of secondary or even tertiary significance. Their interest in arriving at an agreement with Trotsky was based on purely tactical considerations, related to the struggle for power. With opposition spreading to the increasingly bureaucratic and high-handed methods of the leadership, the triumvirs were seeking to prevent, or at least delay, Trotsky’s open break with the central committee leadership. For Trotsky, in contrast, the resolution raised matters of high principle. Carr noted the difference between Trotsky and his opponents. “Trotsky, accustomed to see differences within the party fought out and settled through the drafting of party resolutions, attached to a victory on paper a practical value which, in the new conditions of party leadership, it no longer possessed.”[46] Carr’s assessment is endorsed by historian Robert V. Daniels in his influential The Conscience of the Revolution. Explaining the sequence of events that led to the writing of The New Course, Daniels writes: “Trotsky, aware of the hostility toward him that was barely concealed behind the resolution, undertook to stress the reform implications in an open letter to a party meeting on December 8. The New Course letter was an enthusiastic endorsement and explanation of the resolution of December 5, with emphasis on the role of the party rank-and-file in its execution…”[47] Entirely absent from Swain’s account is an analysis of the objective processes that underlay the deepening political conflict. Swain offers virtually no assessment of the changes that were taking place under the impact of the New Economic Policy (NEP) within the Soviet Union and their reflection within the Party. He provides no political or intellectual portraits of Trotsky’s opponents. He does not examine the changing composition of the Bolshevik Party, or examine the phenomenon of bureaucratism that was to have such catastrophic consequences for the fate of the Bolshevik Party and Soviet society. Swain’s treatment of Trotsky’s final exile Swain devotes just 25 pages to the last 12 years of Trotsky’s life. To describe his treatment of those years as superficial would be a compliment. The most catastrophic event in post-World War I European history, the accession of Hitler and his Nazi party to power in Germany, barely receives a mention. Swain takes no note of the relationship between this event and the most important political decisions made by Trotsky during his final exile — his call for a political revolution in the USSR and for the founding of the Fourth International. After briefly noting that Trotsky, upon arriving in Prinkipo in 1929 following his expulsion from the USSR, called on his supporters to remain inside the Communist International, Swain writes: “By 1933 he had changed his mind…”[48] No reference is made to the cataclysmic event that produced this change in policy — the accession of Hitler to power as a result of the betrayal of the Communist International and its German party. Swain makes no assessment of Trotsky’s writings on the German crisis. One has only to compare Swain’s near silence on the subject to E.H. Carr’s treatment of Trotsky’s efforts to rouse the German working class against the fascist threat. In his last work, The Twilight of the Comintern, Carr considered Trotsky’s writings on the German crisis of 1931-33 to be of such importance that he included an appendix devoted to this subject. “Trotsky,” he wrote, “maintained during the period of Hitler’s rise to power so persistent and, for the most part, so prescient a commentary on the course of events in Germany as to deserve record.”[49] Similarly the Moscow Trials and the ensuing purges are assigned a few sentences, substantially less than Swain devotes to Trotsky’s brief personal relationship with Frida Kahlo in Mexico. The writing of Trotsky’s most important political treatise, The Revolution Betrayed, is noted in one sentence. Trotsky’s passionate essays on the Spanish Revolution, warning that the popular front policies of the Stalinists were clearing the path for a Franco victory, go unmentioned. The Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International, is not referred to. Swain also ignores the last great polemical documents written by Trotsky on the nature of the USSR. Finally, Swain concludes his biography with the observation that Trotsky might have done better had he quit politics after the 1917 October Revolution and devoted himself entirely to journalism, in which, presumably, Trotsky would have been able — as Swain has already told us — “to write on subjects about which he knew very little.” Endnotes: [21] Trotsky, by Geoffrey Swain (UK, 2006), p. 1. Hereafter referred to as Swain. [return] [22] Trotsky, by Ian D. Thatcher (London and New York, 2003), p. i. Hereafter referred to as Thatcher. [return] [23] Swain, p. 1. [return] [24] Thatcher, pp. 15-16. [return] [25] Thatcher claims that “Deutscher simply puts thoughts into his subjects’ heads for which there is no evidence,” and he cites a passage “which [writes Thatcher] compares the disputes among the Bolsheviks over the peace with Germany with a dilemma faced by the Paris Commune over whether to wage a revolutionary war, and if so against whom…” Thatcher then presents the passage to which he objects: “Trotsky, who so often looked at the Russian Revolution through the prism of the French, must have been aware of this analogy. … He must have seen himself as acting a role potentially reminiscent of Danton’s, while Lenin’s part was similar to Robespierre’s. It was as if the shadow of the guillotine had for a moment interposed itself between him and Lenin. … This consideration was decisive in Trotsky’s eyes. In order to banish the shadow of the guillotine he made an extraordinary sacrifice of principle and personal ambition.” When one contrasts Thatcher’s citation to the original passage as it appears in Deutscher’s biography, it is immediately clear that the accusation of fictionalizing is entirely inappropriate. As Deutscher made very clear, he was using an analogy to clarify a complex political dispute. His recreation of what Trotsky might have been thinking in that situation — his conflict with Lenin over whether Soviet Russia should accept German terms at Brest Litovsk — is well within the bounds of historical writing, particularly as Deutscher has made clear that there is an element of speculation on his part. Those passages left out by Thatcher are presented in italics: “Some analogy to the situation which was likely to occur if Trotsky had acted otherwise may be found in the three-cornered struggle that developed between the Commune of Paris, Danton and Robespierre during the F

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s