Trotsky: A Biography

Willy Maley enjoys the complexities, but not the cack-handed certainties, of this magisterial tome

January 14, 2010

This book is the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist." This authorial statement, part boast, part disclaimer, has to be read in light of the fact that the first person to declare: "I am not a Marxist" was Karl Marx himself. If reading everything by and on someone makes one more of an "ist" than an "anti", Robert Service is more Trotskyist than many who profess the faith without reading the works, or reading them critically.

As Service says: "In 1968, when students in Europe and North America took to the streets against the Vietnam War, Trotsky came into vogue, often among people who were untroubled by the desire to read what he had written and done ... Trotsky had become a comfort blanket for revolutionaries who did not mind that they were not making a revolution."

This is the first full-length biography of Leon Trotsky only if we discount as half-length recent studies by Ian Thatcher (2002) and Geoff Swain (2006), but Service's 600-page doorstopper is certainly a full-length memoir, fuller still when viewed as the third volume in a revolutionary triptych.

It has been a long road from Moscow to Mexico. Service's Lenin: A Biography (2000), the first in the series, concluded that "Perhaps a few years hence he will be seen to have thrust his country and, under Stalin's leadership, a third of the world down a cul-de-sac. The future does not lie with Leninist communism." A line of argument that starts with "Perhaps a few years hence" and ends with "The future does not lie", blaming a dead man for another's leadership, is more astrology than biography or history.

Service's Stalin: A Biography (2004) ends on a more ambivalent note. Its subject is "much more complex than is widely supposed ... an intellectual ... his level of literary and editorial craft was impressive ... Stalin was not a certifiable psychotic and never behaved in such a way as to be incapable of carrying out his public duties".

"He wrote poems as a young man and went on singing at dinner parties into his old age. He sent money to his boyhood friends in Georgia. There are those who want the 'monsters' in history to be represented as a species unto themselves. This is a delusion."

That kind of talk has demonologists turning in their urns when they'd rather be crowing over the ashes of communism. Here, Service is thorough in his efforts to reconnect Trotsky with comrades he worked hard to leave behind. The figure he unpicks is "selective, evasive and self-aggrandizing". Thirty years ago, researching communism for his PhD, Service concluded: "Trotsky's diagnosis of the causes of his defeat by Stalin was self-serving and misleading." He hasn't changed his mind.

This icy account reads like a hatchet job: "As soon as he had power, he eagerly suppressed popular aspirations by violence. He was a ruthless centralizer and a friend of army and police." But Service, too, is a ruthless centraliser.

Through his central thesis, that the trio brought to book in his trilogy are three of a kind - "Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin shared more than they disagreed about" - he sets out "to dig up the buried life" and prove "Trotsky was no angel". The sanitisation of Trotsky has as its concomitant the satanisation of Stalin, so when Service asserts "He was close to Stalin in intentions and practice", it's a red rag to a Bolshevik.

Likewise, when he remarks that by 1917 "Lenin and Trotsky had become the Siamese twins of Russian politics, being joined at the hip in their determination to use ruthless measures including state terror against enemies", or observes that "It would have been difficult to slip a cigarette paper between Lenin and Trotsky in foreign policy in early 1922", he may be tracing time's arrow back to its quiver, but is also sending a shiver up the spines of those determined to dissociate Trotsky from revolution gone wrong. When Lenin and Trotsky are distinguished, it's to the latter's disadvantage: "whereas Lenin often moved off the path of error, Trotsky usually had to be dragged off kicking and screaming".

Trotsky was, like John Milton, a censor as well as a freedom fighter. In Literature and Revolution (1924), he declared: "The party will repel the clearly poisonous, disintegrating tendencies of art and will guide itself by its political standards," but also insisted "we ought to have a watchful revolutionary censorship, and a broad and flexible policy in the field of art, free from petty partisan maliciousness".

Here censoriousness and sensitivity go hand in hand, as they do in Service's biography, where Trotsky the exile coexists with Trotsky the enforcer, a contradiction illustrating the doubling of identity whereby the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie yielded to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

While it may do a disservice to Trotsky in the eyes of purists who proclaim themselves "Trotskyists", as though it were a unified cause or corpus, this biography would be welcomed cautiously by those who subscribe to an "open Marxism", to borrow a phrase from Jacques Derrida, if it didn't undo its complexities with cack-handed certainties.

Service ends by saying that Trotsky "fought for a cause ... more destructive than he had ever imagined", but forgets to add that he also fought alongside his old comrades against a system more destructive than anyone imagined.

The Revolution announced the end of "nationalism, imperialism, and militarism", but reports of capitalism's death were greatly exaggerated. This magisterial biography may be taken as a tarring of Trotsky with the brush of Bolshevism, or proof that the spectre of communism is still at large.

Trotsky: A Biography

By Robert Service Macmillan, 624pp, £25.00 ISBN 9781405053464 Published 16 October 2009

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