[Marxism] Two new Trotsky biographies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 22 07:23:15 MDT 2009

The Times Literary Supplement, October 21, 2009
Trotsky at last
Finally, there is a biography of this dangerous genius written by 
a non-Trotskyist
Donald Rayfield

Bertrand M. Patenaude
The exile and murder of Leon Trotsky
352pp. Faber. £20.
978 0 571 22875 1

Robert Service
A biography
600pp. Macmillan. £25.
978 1 405 05346 4

In an idyllic one-acre olive grove that slopes down to the sunset 
and the sea, on Büyük Ada, the largest of the beautiful and 
well-policed Prinkipo islands just a ferry ride from the centre of 
Istanbul, stands a villa that once belonged to Sultan Abdul Hamid 
II’s head of security. This was the sanctuary that Atatürk 
assigned in 1929 to Leon Trotsky, his second wife Natalya and his 
elder son Lyova. The pyromania of Trotsky’s daughter Zina and the 
ravages of time since he left Turkey in 1933 have left the villa a 
wreck with neither floors nor roof. (Long the subject of a 
disputed inheritance, it has now come on to the market at an 
asking price of one million dollars: it would make an ideal rest 
home for retired or reformed Trotskyists.) It is regrettable that 
Trotsky left Büyük Ada for France, for the NKVD never succeeded in 
assassinating anyone in Atatürk’s Turkey, and Trotsky could have 
lived there, writing his best books and catching fish, until he 
died of natural causes. But then, Bertrand M. Patenaude’s 
wonderful book would never have been written, had not Trotsky 
sought the limelight in France and then been corralled by Soviet 
pressure into his Mexican bolthole, where he was almost as easy to 
kill as the partridges he himself had once hunted in the Caucasus.

Patenaude focuses on the Mexican period of Trotsky’s exile, from 
January 1937 to August 1940, although the previous stages of his 
exile – Kazakhstan in 1928, then Turkey for four years, France for 
another three, followed by internment in Norway – are dealt with 
in a series of flashbacks. In fact, the whole book is written as 
if Trotsky in Coyoacán were recalling his past, from his 
prosperous farmer’s boyhood to his underground militancy, his 
Civil War military brilliance and his blundering incompetence as a 
Bolshevik power-broker. The danger that Patenaude flirts with, 
like all Trotsky biographers, is to let Trotsky’s charisma and 
undoubted genius charm him into overlooking his subject’s 
indifference to the suffering and deaths of others, sometimes even 
of those close to him, as well as his overweening conceit. By 
dealing with the last phase of the tragedy, nemesis, Trotsky is 
seen to pay in fear, resignation and personal loss a price that 
may not have been commensurate with the destruction of life that 
he himself caused between 1918 and 1922, but that certainly 
contrasted with the relative impunity of Lenin and Stalin.

Only Vladimir Nabokov might have written a more compelling account 
of Trotsky’s end (and its relationship to his beginnings). A 
dethroned Russian in exile, waiting for his killer to come from 
the homeland even while he is desperately trying to complete his 
biography of the killer (Stalin), is life imitating Pale Fire, 
Invitation to a Beheading or Bend Sinister. Only Humbert Humbert's 
murder of Quilty can match the sheer incompetence of the first 
attempt to murder the Trotskys. A group of Stalinists led by 
Siqueiros, the rival mural painter to Diego Rivera, Trotsky’s 
protector, is let in by a young American traitor, rakes all the 
bedrooms with machine-gun fire but fails to see that the Trotskys, 
hiding under their bed, have survived unscathed. This is followed 
by clumsy success (almost requiring Trotsky’s collusion) in which 
the NKVD agent Ramón Mercader, posing as a French Canadian 
sympathizer, despite a dubious French accent, enters the study 
unchallenged, wearing a hat and a raincoat on a Mexican summer’s 
day, and hits Trotsky on the head with the wrong side of an 
icepick. Patenaude’s narrative skill keeps a wry smile, rather 
than a wicked grin, on the reader’s face.

Trotsky had qualities, however, which emerge in both these books. 
First, his passions were sexual as well as political. A man who 
can, when sick, tired and sixty, write a love letter to his wife 
in terms as obscenely primitive as Trotsky’s cannot fail to arouse 
admiration. Secondly, Trotsky was a genuine writer: when he set 
aside party doctrine or factionalism and wrote about his and 
others’ lives, he wrote as vividly as the classics of Russian 
literature (whether or not he was lying). In both respects, he 
differs sharply from both Lenin and Stalin. Thirdly, Trotsky was a 
tragic hero who even Christopher Marlowe would surely have felt 
had fully atoned. His siblings and his four children all died 
before him, some from Stalin’s bullets, most hurried to their 
death by oppression and despair; eight of his secretaries were 
murdered. Perhaps worse for him, he was expunged from Soviet 
history and, as the Second World War loomed and Trotskyism seemed 
an irrelevance everywhere, he became not just the “prophet 
outcast” (as Isaac Deutscher entitled the third volume of his 
biography), but a gramophone weakly echoing agreement with 
Stalin’s most monstrous actions: dividing Poland, invading Finland.

Patenaude’s book is an ideal place to start on Trotsky, whose 
sixty years were packed with so many ideas and peripeteias that 
they are, like a labyrinth, best approached from the end, rather 
than the beginning. It has only two faults: the title implies that 
Trotsky could have been “Stalin’s Nemesis”, whereas we soon 
realize, even more quickly perhaps from Robert Service’s book, 
that Trotsky was never a threat to Stalin. His fatal flaw was to 
assume that the taciturn, half-educated Stalin was a less 
accomplished pupil of Machiavelli than the eloquent polyglot 
Trotsky. The second fault is a lack of illustrations: we have the 
familiar pictures of Trotsky petting his rabbits (which seems 
touching, until we are told that the rabbits were the basis of 
Natalya’s cuisine – at least Stalin never ate the squirrels he so 
assiduously cared for at his dacha), but we have no picture of the 
killers, not even of Ramón Mercader (whom Service includes in his 
illustrations). The organizers of the assassination, Iosif 
Grigulevich and Leonid (Naum) Eitingon, as well as Mercader’s 
mother Caridad, who offered up her son for the job, all have 
striking, even frightening faces, but the reader will have to seek 
them on Google. Patenaude’s research is thorough, but he has 
failed, like other researchers, to get Eitingon’s descendants (of 
whom a number, by various wives, are still alive) to talk of their 
notorious father’s exploits, and the Trotsky files in the NKVD and 
GRU (military intelligence) archives remain out of reach.

Robert Service’s Trotsky is, as the author points out, the first 
full biography to be written by a non-Trotskyist. Trotsky’s My 
Life is by far the most readable, but it is self-serving, to say 
the least. Deutscher’s three volumes, The Prophet Armed (1954), 
The Prophet Unarmed (1959) and The Prophet Outcast (1963), are 
such a sympathetic, well-written and politically literate monument 
that they have hitherto inhibited other Western historians from 
superseding them. But despite the 1,600 pages of his magnum opus 
and his encyclopedic knowledge, Deutscher himself was infected 
with Trotskyism and underplayed the sheer murderousness of the 
man. There is no reason to suppose that, had Trotsky outwitted 
Stalin and managed to seize power, he would have murdered fewer 
peasants or bourgeois. Given his belief in exporting revolution, 
Trotsky might well have plunged Eastern Europe and China into war 
a decade before Hitler. Service never lets his reader forget 
Trotsky’s callousness, and rightly so: on the few occasions that 
Trotsky worked in conjunction with Stalin – suppressing the 
Orthodox Church, deporting dissident intellectuals – he equalled 
or even exceeded the Georgian in ruthlessness. Some of the worst 
aspects of the Soviet system, such as the use of military force to 
exterminate rebellious starving peasants, or the exploitation of 
concentration camp inmates for hard labour, were devised by 
Trotsky. Like Lenin, but unlike Stalin, Trotsky did refrain from 
killing people he was on intimate terms with, but since he used 
the intimate form of the verb with very few persons indeed, this 
barely mitigates his crimes.

Trotsky is surprisingly easy to read, given the twists and turns 
of revolutionary socialism in the twenty years it took Trotsky and 
his comrades to move from theory to practice. Service’s secret is 
to use more full stops than any other leading historian, and the 
book has clearly been written with attention-deficient 
undergraduates in mind. While Patenaude can be read in a sitting, 
Service can be read in sizeable but digestible chunks. If 
Service’s prose lacks Deutscher’s brilliance, it has a no-nonsense 
clarity, even jocularity about it. For Service, as for Dmitri 
Volkogonov before him, Trotsky is the final part of a triptych, 
and you can sense the author’s enjoyment as he completes his 
heroic task.

Service and Patenaude have availed themselves of the records of 
hundreds of encounters in many languages with Trotsky. Some 
Westerners, such as the philosopher John Dewey, who oversaw 
Trotsky’s public response to Stalin’s charges, saw deeply into 
Trotsky’s mind: “He was tragic . . . . To see such brilliant 
native intelligence locked up in absolutes”. Service, in 
particular, has had access to rather more material than was 
available to Deutscher. Some sources, like letters from Stalin’s 
minions to friends in the Caucasus, show that Trotsky, without 
knowing it, lost the battle to Stalin even before Lenin died. His 
hypochondria (nobody has given a convincing diagnosis of his 
fainting fits) and his love of hunting made it only too easy for 
Stalin to inveigle him into a holiday in the Caucasus just when 
the comrades in Moscow were dividing up the spoils of power. His 
lack of interest in reading others’ minds led him to make the 
fatal mistake (one not weighed by either biographer) of being 
offhand to both Dzerzhinsky and Menzhinsky, the heads of the 
secret police, who then swung their men (fighters and killers 
naturally sympathetic to Trotsky) behind Stalin, as the leader who 
would guarantee the secret police years of work exterminating 
enemies. It was unbelievable to the Trotskyists of the 1920s that 
their man should not triumph as Lenin’s successor. Six foot tall 
and with a superb sense of style, Trotsky had gifts as a public 
speaker and political writer that put every other Bolshevik in the 
shade. His eloquence and bravery under fire, it seemed, had turned 
the Tsar’s mob of deserters into a Red Army that eventually swept 
away all the forces that rose up against it. If Stalin was the 
chief whip of the revolution, Trotsky was its voice. Even in 
languages he knew imperfectly, such as English, his intonations 
and phrasing grip the listener. (A few recordings of Trotsky’s 
speeches, some with film, can be found on YouTube.) Stalinism 
survives in Zimbabwe or North Korea – wherever a ruler follows its 
basic premisses – but Stalin splintered Trotskyism even more 
effectively than he did Trotsky’s skull. Despite Trotsky’s appeal 
as a proto-Che Guevara, and the influence of Trotskyists in 
trade-union branches from the London Ambulance Service to the 
British Library, faction has generated faction over questions of 
the socialist nature of the USSR, Cuba and so on. The nadir was 
probably signalled in 1985 by the great schism in the British 
Workers’ Revolutionary Party, when the scandal over the late Gerry 
Healy’s antics with new female members caused a split into two 
factions known to party members themselves as the “fuckers” and 
the “wankers”.

Donald Rayfield is Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary 
College, University of London. His books include Anton Chekhov: A 
Life, 1997, and Stalin and His Hangmen: The tyrant and those who 
killed for him, 2005. He is the editor of A Comprehensive 
Georgian–English Dictionary, 2006.

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