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