[Marxism] Tariq Ali on Trotsky by Robert Service and Stalin's Nemesis by Bertrand M Patenaude

Sebastian Budgen sebastian at amadeobordiga.u-net.com
Sat Oct 31 03:04:27 MDT 2009


The life and death of Trotsky
Tariq Ali on Trotsky by Robert Service and Stalin's Nemesis by  
Bertrand M Patenaude
		• Tariq Ali
		• The Guardian,	
Saturday 31 October 2009
Trotsky: A Biography

by Robert Service 600pp, Macmillan, £25

Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky

by Bertrand M Patenaude 352pp, Faber, £20

For over half a century, Isaac Deutscher's three-volume biography of  
Trotsky, a literary-historical masterpiece in its own right, was  
regarded as the last word on the subject. Many who were deeply hostile  
to the Russian revolution and all its leading actors nonetheless  
acclaimed these books: in 1997, asked to nominate his favourite book  
for National Book Day, the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair,  
nominated the trilogy. Twelve years later the culture in this country  
has become so overwhelmingly conformist that any alternative to  
capitalism is considered outlandish.

The Service industry has now produced a stodgy volume on Trotsky to  
add to a collection that includes Lenin and Stalin. Unlike Deutscher,  
as he tells us, Service is hostile to the revolution and its leaders,  
but he is irritated by the fact that Trotsky has had such a good press  
in the west (news to me). He was just the same as the others except  
that he wrote very well and this appealed to New York intellectuals.  
The Service view can be summarised in a sentence: Trotsky was a  
ruthless and cold-blooded murderer and deserves to be exposed as such.

This counter-factual approach is nothing new and was the stock-in- 
trade of most anti-communist and pro-Stalin ideologues for much of the  
last century. Service informs us that Winston Churchill backed Stalin  
against Trotsky during the show trials. The old warhorse certainly  
knew how to distinguish between conservatives and radicals. He had  
little time for Gramsci either, and almost drowned Mussolini in praise  
as a bulwark against the evil tide of Bolshevism.

Churchill's essay denouncing Trotsky as the "ogre of Europe" is  
written with a brio and passion that almost matches that of his  
target. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Service's plodding  
account in which some of the allegations are so trivial that they are  
best ignored. On most of the important issues – the danger of  
substituting the party for the state in Russia, the necessity of  
uniting with social-democrats and liberals to defeat Hitler, the  
futility of forcing the communists into an alliance with Chiang Kai- 
shek in China, the fate that awaited the Jews if Hitler came to power  
and constant warnings that the Nazis were preparing to invade the  
Soviet Union – he was proved right time and time again.

Unsurprisingly, the counter-factual school of historians rarely  
discusses what might have happened had Generals Kornilov, Denikin and  
Yudenich triumphed instead of Lenin and Trotsky. One thing is  
virtually certain: since the revolution was portrayed as the work of  
Jewish-Bolsheviks, a wave of pogroms would have decimated the Jews.

Patenaude's shorter and much better written book is far more objective  
and, in fact, more scholarly. Though it concentrates on the period of  
Trotsky's Mexican exile and provides fascinating pen-portraits of  
lovers, acolytes and killers alike (including details of Trotsky's  
affair with Frida Kahlo that Isaac Deutscher so sweetly veiled), it  
also encapsulates his earlier life.

The socialist revolution, unlike the bourgeois revolutions that  
transformed Europe in the 16-18th centuries, was a premeditated  
project intended for a more advanced country than Russia. Even for its  
leaders, the Bolshevik triumph of 1917 was a leap in the dark.  
Bolshevik orthodoxy did not believe that the infant republic could  
last on its own. The party leadership was waiting for the German  
revolution to break its isolation and transform Europe. Instead the  
main imperialist states decided to back the White counter-revolution,  
leading to a civil war that was won by the newly created Red Army, but  
at a terrible cost: the peasants had been alienated by forced  
requisitions and conscription. The civil war of 1918-21 exhausted the  
tiny working class. Many died and a layer that survived was rapidly  
absorbed into the machinery of the new state.

Trotsky, as the founder and organiser of the Red Army, was undoubtedly  
ruthless in ensuring the victory of his side – as was Lincoln during  
the American civil war. Exhausted at home and isolated abroad, the  
Bolshevik leaders, obsessed by the fate of Robespierre and Saint-Just,  
decided that they must hold on to power whatever the cost. An early  
outcome was the brutal repression of the Kronstadt sailors' mutiny. A  
later result was Stalinism, which destroyed not simply the aspirations  
of the revolution but most of its leading cadres.

Ninety per cent of Lenin's central committee were denounced as  
traitors and executed. Stalin killed more Bolsheviks than the Tsar.  
The murder of Trotsky, as Patenaude points out, was inevitable.  
Earlier antisemitic caricatures portraying him as an agent of Hitler  
had to be withdrawn lest they annoy the Führer after the Stalin-Hitler  
pact. Trotsky now became an agent of the US. Further change was  
unnecessary, since he had been bumped off before the US became a  
wartime ally.

Attempts to reform the system from within failed largely because the  
bureaucracy refused to surrender its power. Ultimately it exhausted  
itself and capitulated quietly and shamefully to the forces of global  
capitalism. The realm of necessity was never to be replaced by the  
realm of freedom, self-emancipation and human sovereignty as Marx had  
written. It came to an end – as Trotsky had calmly predicted – with  
the restoration of capitalism. Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin had all  
created a system of rule that made restoration of the old order almost  

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