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The Firebrand

A new biography tries to extinguish the myth of the kinder, gentler Trotsky

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Leon Trotsky (Wikimedia Commons)

When Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by an agent of Stalin, in 1940, the American novelist James T. Farrell took to the pages of Partisan Review to memorialize him. “The life of Leon Trotsky is one of the great tragic dramas of modern history,” Farrell’s obituary began, and it only gets more idolatrous from there. “Pitting his brain and will against the despotic rulers of a great empire, fully conscious of the power, the resources, the cunning and cruelty of his enemy, Trotsky had one weapon at his command—his ideas. His courage never faltered; his will never broke.”

To the small but influential group of his American admirers, Trotsky appeared as a kind of Soviet Garibaldi or George Washington, fighting for freedom against an evil empire. The problem, as Robert Service shows in his new biography Trotsky, is that Trotsky himself was one of the men chiefly responsible for that evil. In the October Revolution of 1917, he was second only to Lenin in leading the Bolshevik coup to success. In the years of civil war that followed, Trotsky, as commissar for the Red Army, designed the campaigns that inflicted horrific suffering on the civilian population of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. None of the Soviet leaders outdid him in zeal for collectivization and terror, or in his commitment to spreading the Communist revolution across Europe and the world. Service, one of the leading historians of the Soviet Union and the author of biographies of Lenin and Stalin, sums up his verdict on Trotsky this way: “He was close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism.… He reveled in terror.”

How, then, did Trotsky become a symbol, to some of the most intelligent American leftists, of a more humane and democratic Communism? In part, as Service writes (and the Farrell essay demonstrates), it was because of “their naivety. They were blind to Trotsky’s contempt for their values…. Like spectators at a zoo, they felt sorry for a wounded beast.” But for the Jewish intellectuals who clustered around Partisan Review, he was an especially irresistible figure, since Trotsky himself was the most powerful Jewish intellectual who ever lived. While this part of Trotsky’s legacy is incidental to Service’s book, it is a significant chapter in the political history of American Jews, and Trotsky helps explain both the allure and the danger of the mass murderer who was affectionately known to his followers as “the Old Man.”

He was born in 1879 as Leiba Bronstein—the name Trotsky was a nom de guerre, like Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov) and Stalin (Iosif Dzugashvili). Bronstein’s parents, unusually for Jews in the Russian Empire, were farmers; they belonged to a colony of Polish Jews who had settled in the Ukraine, as part of a czarist project for dispersing and assimilating the Jewish population. As Service shows at the beginning of his book, this meant that Bronstein “did not have a life associated mainly with fellow Jews.” His parents were not devout, and Leiba was sent to a Lutheran German school in Odessa.

Very quickly, like many young, secular Jews of his generation, Bronstein was drawn to the Communist revolutionary movement—partly out of Marxist idealism, partly out of disgust at the reactionary and anti-Semitic czarist government. He was only eighteen when he was arrested, with other members of his small, amateurish revolutionary cell, and exiled to Siberia. As with so many Russian radicals, however, Siberia was less a prison for Bronstein than a kind of finishing school. Bronstein married a fellow prisoner, Alexandra Sokolovskaya—also Jewish, like several other members of his cell—and had two children. He made contact with other Communists, and began to read the clandestine newspaper Iskra (“The Spark”), which he received hidden in the binding of an innocuous book.

Iskra was edited from London and Geneva by a group of Communists including Vladimir Lenin, and Bronstein decided he had to join them. With surprising ease, Trotsky—as he was now known on his forged or stolen passport—escaped from Siberia and crossed Europe, presenting himself in London as a new recruit to the cause. (It is ironic that, compared to the later brutality of the KGB and the Gulag, the czarist police system looks like benign neglect.)

It soon became clear that Trotsky was a brilliant writer: at their first meeting, Lenin greeted him with the words: “Ah, the Pen has arrived!” And it was by his pen that he became to known to revolutionaries inside and outside Russia, writing for Iskra and other illegal, but widely read, publications. In 1905, when the first Russian Revolution broke out, Trotsky smuggled himself back into St. Petersburg, where he discovered that he was equally magnetic as a platform orator. Still just 25, he became head of the Petersburg council, or Soviet; when the revolution was crushed, he was arrested again and escaped again.

By 1917, Trotsky’s peregrinations and expulsions had led him to New York, where he arrived “to a hero’s welcome among emigrant socialist sympathizers from the Russian Empire,” especially Jews—he wrote a series of articles for the Forverts, the socialist Yiddish daily. Indeed, one of the ironic themes of Service’s Trotsky is the way the revolutionary kept finding himself in Jewish milieux, despite his adamant refusal to claim a Jewish identity. As Service explains, in his chapter “Trotsky and the Jews,” he followed an orthodox Marxist line on matters of nationality and religion: “In his own eyes, he had ceased to be a Jew in any important sense because Marxism had burned out the fortuitous residues of his origins.” He detested Zionism and the Jewish socialist Bund. Yet it is striking how many of Trotsky’s closest comrades were non-Jewish Jews, just like himself. One might even say, though Service does not pursue the subject this far, that the aggressive rejection of Jewish particularity was the form in which Trotsky, and many Jews like him, lived their Jewishness.

When the czar was overthrown, in February 1917, Trotsky immediately began planning to get back to Russia, and he arrived at Petersburg’s Finland Station on May 4, a month after Lenin. Service traces the complex, ever-shifting circumstances of that revolutionary year, the advances and feints and retreats of the Bolsheviks, until they finally seized the capital, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, in October. Then came the years of triumph and power and cruelty; and then came the great fall, which turned Trotsky the commissar into the socialist martyr described by Farrell.

Starting in 1923, as Lenin was crippled by strokes, Trotsky and Stalin waged a bureaucratic and propaganda war over who was entitled to succeed him. Trotsky entered the battle with many advantages. His highly visible role in the Civil War had made him iconic; he was still a brilliant and popular writer. Most important of all, he was Lenin’s own choice. The ailing leader dictated a “testament” in which he warned that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky had the potential to split the Communist Party, and he came down firmly on Trotsky’s side: “Stalin is too crude and this inadequacy…becomes intolerable in the position of General Secretary.”

The real question, as Service convincingly frames it, is why Trotsky, given all these advantages, allowed Stalin to outmaneuver him so decisively—to the point that, by 1928, Trotsky had been stripped of office, expelled from the Party, and finally exiled from the USSR. Service concludes that Trotsky, perhaps unconsciously, did not really want to replace Lenin as sole leader of the country; that is why he “lacked the decisiveness for a concerted advance on power.” While Stalin expertly manipulated the Communist Party apparatus, packing the Politburo with his supporters, Trotsky remained aloof, arrogant, inflexible. When it came to making speeches to big crowds or writing scorching pamphlets, no one could beat Trotsky. When it came to making friends and allies, he could not be bothered.

And there was one other factor in Trotsky’s failure of will. In 1917, just after the revolution, Lenin had wanted to appoint him as Commissar for Internal Affairs, which would have made him head of the secret police. Trotsky refused, on the grounds that “it would be inappropriate for a Jew to take charge of the police in a society pervaded by anti-Semitism. If Jews were seen to be repressing Russians, a pogrom atmosphere might be provoked.” For the same reason, he initially resisted taking charge of the Red Army, and rejected the invitation to become Lenin’s second-in-command in 1922. “The party’s leadership was widely identified as a Jewish gang,” Service writes, and “Trotsky continued to believe that his own prominence in government, party and army did practical damage to the revolutionary cause.”

If Trotsky allowed Stalin to get the better of him at the crucial moment, it may have been because he still feared the consequences of a Jew heading the Soviet government. Of course, such scruples made no difference to the enemies of the Jews. By the time Hitler took to power, thanks in part to the Germans’ fear and hatred of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” Trotsky had long since been made a non-person in Stalin’s USSR. The rabbi who made the famous quip was right: “It’s the Trotskys who make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins who pay the price.”

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.

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Stan Nadel says:

I don’t know about the book but this review misses Trotsky’s long history as a Menshevik opponent of Lenin and his authoritarianism. It is true that once he joined Lenin and the Bolsheviks Trotsky became a hard liner, leading the troops against the protesters at Kronstadt and even advocating drafting all workers into the army to subject them to military discipline. But the Trotsky of 1918-24 was not the Trotsky of earlier or later years and if Service thinks that Trotsky was no different from Stalin then he has made a serious error of judgment.

Jacob Arnon says:

Stan Nadel says:

“I don’t know about the book but this review misses Trotsky’s long history as a Menshevik opponent of Lenin and his authoritarianism. It is true that once he joined Lenin and the Bolsheviks Trotsky became a hard liner, leading the troops against the protesters at Kronstadt and even advocating drafting all workers into the army to subject them to military discipline. But the Trotsky of 1918-24 was not the Trotsky of earlier or later years and if Service thinks that Trotsky was no different from Stalin then he has made a serious error of judgment.”

I believe it is you who are missing the point. Trotsky even as an opponent of Lenin was pretty militant and ruthless towards the “his class enemies.”

What disillusioned him about the Social Democrats was their willingness to compromise with the bourgeois State.

The difference between Trotsky and Stalin was that the later was willing to use the same ruthless methods on his comrades while Trotsky reserved his brutality mostly towards his class enemies.

To my mind his untrustworthiness as a human being was evident in his unpitying attitude towards his people during pogroms committed by the whites and the reds as well as his similar uncaring attitude towards his immediate family as they were being murdered by Stalin’s agents.

Why do some Jews still defend Trotsky?

Dear Adam: As always, an insightful and fascinating book review. I went to my bookcase to find “Trotsky and The Jews” by Joseph Nedava, born in Russia in 1915 and living in Israel since 1925. Dr. Nedava winds up his chapter on Trotsky & Zionism with this comment: “Failing to foresee the onrush of events in the Middle East generally, and Palestine in particular, and never being able to guage correctly the dynamic forces underlying the Zionist movement,Trotsky regarded Zionism to the last as–to use his own term–‘a tragic mirage,’ leading nowhere.”

Indeed in 1928 his sympathies seemed too be more with the Arabs as “workers” v. the Jews.

Another interesting quote among many: “By converting his sons to the Lutheran faith, Trotsky might have been trying unconsciously and vicariously to identify himself with his forerunner [Karl Marx] in the socialist conception.’ (44)
Thank you for your article.

Shalom, Cantor Bob Cohen

I am not surprised that Adam Kirsch would be incapable of understanding how Stalin triumphed, agreeing basically that Stalin outmaneuvered him by taking advantage of Trotsky’s “aloofness”. Blah-blah.

The real explanation is the destruction of many of the most politically advanced Soviet workers in a horrible civil war that involved 21 invading countries, including the U.S. This, plus the hollowing out of the Soviet economy, left the country in a demoralized state ripe for the growth of a bureaucratic layer. This was Trotsky’s analysis in countless articles and in a number of books.

For people with an interest in an analysis that transcends the banal personality-driven interpretation of Mr. Kirsch, I recommend “The Revolution Betrayed” at http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/index.htm.

Jacob Arnon says:

To Robert Cohen, I read in an essay by the former Trotkyite Irving Howe that a grandson of Leon became a Talmudic student. Do you have any information about that?

Trotsky not only failed to forsee events in the Middle East, he failed to forsee events in Europe in general and in his own country in particular.

Why anyone holds him in high esteem is beyond me.

shriber says:

There is a lot of information about leftist antizionism here:

“The Road to Utopia: The Origins of Anti-Zionism on the British Left”
Professor Colin Shindler

http://www.soas.ac.uk/events/event54010.html

shriber says:

“The real explanation is the destruction of many of the most politically advanced Soviet workers in a horrible civil war that involved 21 invading countries, including the U.S. This, plus the hollowing out of the Soviet economy, left the country in a demoralized state ripe for the growth of a bureaucratic layer. This was Trotsky’s analysis in countless articles and in a number of books.”

This is Trotskyite nonsense.

Andrew Mays says:

At Louis’s weblog the “Jewish Question” is alive and well just like it were 1933.

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/category/jewish-question/

Charles Salmon says:

Interesting write up by Adam Kirsch. No mention of Trotsky’s Canadian visit and arrest in Nova Scotia in 1917. A quick and interesting read at: http://silverdonaldcameron.ca/trotsky.html

I like this website very much, Its a really nice situation to read and find info. “An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous.” by Henry Ford.

Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to far added agreeable from you! By the way, how can we communicate?

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The Firebrand

A new biography tries to extinguish the myth of the kinder, gentler Trotsky

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