The Prophet Reassessed

Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky

Reaktion, 224pp, £10.95, ISBN 9781780234304

reviewed by Ian Birchall

One of the most remarkable figures of the Russian Revolution was Leon Trotsky, a brilliant writer – as a young man his nickname was ‘The Pen’ – a great orator, addressing crowds of thousands, and a formidable organiser, building the Red Army during a ruthless civil war. But by 1928 Trotsky was forced into travelling from one place of exile to the next and was eventually murdered on Stalin’s orders, being denounced as a ‘faithful servant’ of fascism. Paul Le Blanc’s short biography focuses on those last 12 years, occasionally looking back at his earlier achievements.

During his exile Trotsky wrote two major books – The History of the Russian Revolution (1932) and the autobiography My Life (1930). They had great literary value and were vital documents of 20th-century history. But alongside them he wrote many hundreds of letters and articles, aimed at what he saw as his central task, building a revolutionary alternative to both Stalinism and parliamentary socialism. If he had concentrated his fire on Stalin’s Russia and refrained from political organising, he might have enjoyed a comfortable old age. That option never seems to occurred to him.

Trotsky was above all an internationalist. Long before ‘globalisation’ Trotsky recognised that the different parts of the world were inseparably interconnected and must develop in a combined but uneven fashion. So his quarrel with Stalin centred on the question of ‘socialism in one country’. For Trotsky Russia could not opt out of the world economy; it could survive only by industrialising, and by doing so faster, and hence even more brutally, than the West had done.

As Trotsky argued, Russia's isolated, underdeveloped economy meant shortages. Shortages meant queues, and queues needed police to keep order. Hence the increasingly bureaucratic and authoritarian nature of society in Soviet Russia. Trotsky had some acute thoughts on the psychology of the bureaucrat:

He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself, and sees in all this the gist of the general line.

As a great administrator himself, he distinguished bureaucracy from administration and insisted that ‘bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy,’ with free speech, free elections, rights for other parties and the revival of trade unions. As Stalin consolidated his power in Russia, fascism was rising in Europe. Trotsky, earlier than many, recognised the dangers and urged the unity of workers’ organisations, unlike Stalin’s followers, who argued that social democrats were as bad as fascists.

As Le Blanc points out, there have been many books on Trotsky. But because Trotsky, from the Moscow Trials of the 1930s to Neil Kinnock’s tirades against Labour Party ‘Trotskyists’ in the 1980s, has been a focus of controversy, too many accounts have been either hatchet jobs or hero-worship. Le Blanc has produced an account which is undoubtedly partisan but without being defensive. He examines Trotsky’s many critics; his extensive footnotes offer years of reading to anyone whose interest in the subject has been fired.

Trotsky’s personal life was intertwined with his political fortunes. He outlived all of his four children. Le Blanc looks at the tragic circumstances of their deaths and shows that, because of his intense political focus, Trotsky was scarcely the ideal family man.

Many critics claim, rightly, that Trotsky was arrogant. In a sense he certainly was. One can hardly imagine a more modest man surviving years of persecution and isolation with his revolutionary faith uncrushed. Yet Trotsky’s personality impressed itself on the organisation he set out to build, the Fourth International. Le Blanc produces some fascinating testimonies as to Trotsky’s political relationships in his later years. He recognised the importance of forming a new generation of ‘cadres’ who would have to think for themselves, and encouraged his followers to express disagreements. In fact, among those cadres several – CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Max Shachtman – went on to make sharp criticisms of Trotsky.

But when it came to the Fourth International, Trotsky rejected the possibility of a loose and broad organisation of anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in favour of insistence on a tightly defined programme. It seems possible that this led to the sad history of repeated splits that marked the organisation after his death. Le Blanc notes Victor Serge’s acute observation about the Bolshevik tradition:

The Party is the repository of the truth, and any form of thinking that differs from it is a dangerous or reactionary error. …. The absolute conviction of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity – and at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial.

Le Blanc’s book is only an introduction, around 60,000 words, though it contains many insights and references that will be illuminating to those already familiar with the subject, as well as some fascinating illustrations. But there are regrettable gaps. There is nothing on Trotsky’s cultural writings, which recognised that a revolution was not just about economic and political institutions but about transforming a whole way of life. The International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art influenced the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. And his 1911 article on Individual Terrorism – ‘individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness’ – retains all its relevance today.

Le Blanc concludes by asking whether Trotsky’s ‘passion and ideas’ will again ‘animate multitudes’. The revival of ‘Trotskyism’ as a political doctrine seems hardly likely. That Trotsky will continue to inspire and educate is rather more so.
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.