Leon Trotsky remains a compelling and controversial figure for historians, with two major biographies since 2009. Bertrand Patenaude's Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky is a marvellous, critically empathetic evocation of a life through the lens of its last years. Robert Service's Trotsky: A Biography tells an exciting tale marred by intrusive authorial animus. Joshua Rubenstein, in contrast, has synthesised recent research in a measured essay modelled on Irving Howe's 1978 synoptic text and published as part of a series called Jewish Lives. Trotsky was a "non-Jewish Jew" who identified himself existentially as a revolutionary Marxist. Unlike Joseph Nedava, who assumed from Trotsky's interest in "the Jewish question" from 1934 that, had he lived, he would have endorsed Zionism, Rubenstein does not force matters. He integrates Trotsky's hostility to anti-Semitism and Zionism into an account of a career in which they were usually peripheral, highlighting them where necessary.
The influences that created a revolutionary internationalist, Trotsky's conflicts with the Bolsheviks, his leading role in the Russian revolution of 1905 and his partnership with Lenin in 1917 are recounted with insight. This Trotsky is neither saint nor Satan. Rubenstein does him justice as an intellectual and a man of action: he captures the brilliance, courage and grandeur of a meteoric rise. He documents Trotsky's contribution to the theory of permanent revolution that informed the 1917 revolution and his key role as military organiser and strategist in the civil war that preserved it. He underlines his advocacy of revolutionary violence and opposition to individual terrorism. For Rubenstein, like earlier historians, rejection of democratic values was Trotsky's tragic flaw. War, encirclement and faith in international revolution meant repression could be considered temporary. Trotsky was not Stalin. But institutionalised denial of democracy after 1920 facilitated Stalinism. Ultimately, progress towards socialism requires freedoms that can thwart it.
The outcome of the ensuing Stalin-Trotsky struggle was not predetermined: the cards fell in Stalin's favour. As revolutions misfired elsewhere, his move towards "socialism in one country" and its social base trumped Trotsky's internationalism. A Bolshevik neophyte, Lenin's former adversary, temperamentally disdainful of manoeuvring, he underestimated Stalin, who increasingly controlled a party that Trotsky pronounced always right. Trotsky squandered Lenin's dying support. He was alert to the anti-Semitism his paramountcy would reinforce. Rubenstein ponders whether he was psychologically conditioned to battle to replace Lenin. Yet Trotsky understood the fate of the revolution was at stake.
Would history have been different had he succeeded? Collectivisation may have been more gradual and less brutal, and "Third Period" ultra-leftism avoided. Trotsky understood Hitler better than Stalin did. He advocated plausible means to halt him through collaboration with the Social Democrats that Stalin shunned as "social fascists". In The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (1936), Trotsky called, vaguely, for greater democracy and freedom for "soviet" parties. He was not facing the pressures of governing Russia. The question is intriguing but academic: we don't know what Trotsky would have done in Stalin's place.
Destiny held exile not triumph. Wandering persecuted from Turkey to France, Norway and finally Mexico, Trotsky struggled to analyse the degeneration of 1917 and weld squabbling sects, infiltrated by the NKVD, into a Fourth International. His sons were murdered. There were occasional consolations, notably John Dewey's exposure of Stalin's frame-ups. But for his indomitable spirit, unquenchable optimism and political determinism, life would have descended into nightmare. The odyssey ended in his assassination in Coyoacan in 1940.
In the trilogy that remains the keystone of Trotsky biography, Isaac Deutscher compared his hero to Hamlet, Lear and Sisyphus. Rubenstein questions Deutscher's political evaluations, but his text is informed by a similar sensibility. Some may frown at the lack of references, although there is a bibliographic essay. Overall, Rubenstein handles complex issues sensitively in this accessible introduction to a flawed but fascinating 20th-century giant.
Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary's Life
By Joshua Rubenstein. Yale University Press, 240pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780300137248. Published 26 January 2012