[Marxism] Re-Assassination of Trotsky

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 8 06:37:01 MDT 2011

Intellectual Affairs
Re-Assassination of Trotsky
July 8, 2011
By Scott McLemee

Every so often, one scholar will assess another’s book so harshly 
that it becomes legendary. The most durable example must be A.E. 
Housman, whose anti-blurbs retain their sting after a century and 
more. Housman is best-known for the verse in his collection A 
Shropeshire Lad (1896). But classicists still remember his often 
pointed reviews of other philologists’ editions of ancient poetry, 
and can sometimes quote snippets from memory.

“When I first open an edition of Persius,” he writes in one of 
them, “I turn to VI 51 to see if the editor knows what part of 
speech adeo is. I regret to say that Mr. Summers thinks it is a 
verb.” Or consider the following line, which kills two dons with 
one stone: “I imagine that Mr. Buechler, when he first perused Mr. 
Sidhaus’s edition of the Aetna, must have felt something like Sin 
when she gave birth to Death.”

Reviews in academic journals these days tend to be more gentle, if 
not more genteel – or at any rate, more circumspect. But the new 
issue of The American Historical Review contains a notice that 
will earn a place in the annals of the scholarly take-down. One 
historian says of another that he “commits numerous distortions of 
the historical record and outright errors of fact to the point 
that the intellectual integrity of the whole enterprise is open to 
question." Its publisher (one of the most prominent university 
presses in the United States) “has placed its imprimatur upon a 
book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical 

And plenty more where that came from. Since reading the review 
last week, I have been in touch with both the reviewer and the 
review-ee -- then spent a week trying to elicit a comment from the 
pertinent acquisitions editor at the press, who has gone either on 
vacation or into hiding.

The volume in question is Trotsky: A Life (Harvard University 
Press, 2009) by Robert Service, a professor of Russian history at 
the University of Oxford. He has also written biographies of Lenin 
and Stalin; they, too, were published by Harvard. It bears 
pointing out that Robert Service did not write either The Great 
Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) nor The Harvest of 
Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986), 
which are instead the work of Robert Conquest. Both have been 
fellows at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, 
based at Stanford University, which does not help in keeping them 
straight. (The next British historian of the Soviet Union named 
“Robert” to become prominent might consider using the initial “R” 
instead of his full first name.)

As it happens, the reviewer of Service’s book, Bertrand M. 
Patenaude, is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution. His book 
Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary (HarperCollins, 2009) 
appeared at the same time as Service’s. Both volumes received very 
favorable notices in the British and American press when they 

Trotsky was the object of both adoration and vilification during 
his lifetime, and remains so even now. A figure second only to 
Lenin in the leadership of the Russian Revolution, he was the 
founder of the Red Army, the author of major statements of the 
Communist International, and an interlocutor in numerous cultural 
as well as political arguments throughout the first part of the 
20th century. In polemics, he gave quite as brutally as he got. 
(The American cultural critic Dwight Macdonald said he felt 
honored to have inspired Trotsky’s remark, “Everyone has the right 
to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the 
privilege.”) He was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940, but 
his capacity to inspire argument seems perennial.

To place the dispute in AHR in context, it helps to take a quick 
look at the history of efforts to tell the story of the 
revolutionary's life. Over it looms Isaac Deutscher's monumental 
trilogy, which began with The Prophet Armed in 1954 and concluded 
with The Prophet Outcast in 1963. Deutscher was expelled from the 
Polish Communist Party for Trotskyism in the 1930s. As a 
biographer, he was clearly a partisan, but just as clearly he was 
no parrot. As a delegate to the first conference of the Fourth 
International (the worldwide Trotskyist organization) he voted 
against founding the new group because its forces were too weak. 
He withdrew from political activism and became a prolific 
journalist covering Soviet politics and history, mainly for 
British newspapers.

In writing his biography, Deutscher had full access to the Russian 
exile’s papers at Harvard University. This included the section 
covering his years of exile (1929-40) which remained closed to the 
public until 1980. A deep background in Communist politics and 
considerable skill as a writer in his adopted language of English 
made Deutscher’s trilogy one of the monumental biographies of the 
past half-century. In the meantime, the rest of Trotsky’s papers 
at Harvard were made available to researchers; and then, just a 
few years later, the Soviet archives began opening up during 
glasnost. The old controversies (e.g., did Trotsky offer an 
alternative to Stalin, or was he just a totalitarian with a better 
prose style?) had fresh fuel.

No work of the post-Deutscherian era has quite displaced the 
trilogy as a standard reference, though Pierre Broue’s biography, 
published in France in 1988, is its chief rival. (Broue, a French 
Trotskyist, also wrote substantial histories of the German 
revolution and the Spanish Civil War.) The best-known work drawing 
on the Soviet archives is Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary by 
Dmitri Volkogonov, a general in the Red Army and later an adviser 
to Boris Yeltsin. His book, which appeared in English not long 
after Volkogonov’s death in 1995, was one of a series of 
biographies of the Soviet “founding fathers” he wrote in the 
debunking spirit of the early post-Cold War period. Trotsky was, 
in Volkogonov’s estimate, among “the architects of the Soviet 
totalitarian bureaucratic system.”

Many another publication on Trotsky has also appeared, with some 
being scholarly and some merely lurid. You can now read Trotsky’s 
notebook on Hegel. Or you can read about his affair with Frida 
Kahlo. It is an embarrassment of riches -- except when it is just 
embarrassing, full stop.

To distinguish his book amidst all this wheat and chaff, Service 
writes in his preface that it is "the first full-length biography 
of Trotsky written by someone outside of Russia who is not a 
Trotskyist." The claim seems puzzling, because it is plainly and 
inarguably quite untrue. A competent editor would have saved him 
the embarrassment of making it. But Patenaude’s assessment in the 
American Historical Review suggests that this is the tip of an 
iceberg of factual inaccuracies.

“I have counted more than four dozen [mistakes],” he writes. 
“Service mixes up the names of Trotsky's sons, misidentifies the 
largest political group in the first Duma in 1906, botches the 
name of the Austrian archduke assassinated at Sarajevo, 
misrepresents the circumstances of Nicholas II's abdication, gets 
backward Trotsky's position in 1940 on the United States' entry 
into World War II, and gives the wrong year of death of Trotsky's 
widow. Service's book is completely unreliable as a reference…. At 
times the errors are jaw‐dropping. Service believes that Bertram 
Wolfe was one of Trotsky's ‘acolytes’ living with him in Mexico 
(pp. 441, 473), that André Breton was a ‘surrealist painter’ whose 
‘pictures exhibited sympathy with the plight of the working 
people’ (p. 453), and that Mikhail Gorbachev rehabilitated Trotsky 
in 1988, when in fact Trotsky was never posthumously rehabilitated 
by the Soviet government.”

(Here let me intrude to add a mite to the historical record, since 
not many readers are likely to recognize the name of Bertram 
Wolfe, the prominent Sovietologist, who died in 1977. In the 
1920s, as a leader of the American Communist Party, he wrote a 
pamphlet denouncing Trotsky and was involved with the purge of 
Trotsky’s followers .. only to be purged himself a few months 
later. The characterization of him as an “acolyte” of Trotsky 
would certainly be an interesting discovery, if it were true. 
Service has confused him with Bernard Wolfe, a writer who did live 
with the exile for a time and later published a novel about Trotsky.)

“Service fails to examine in a serious way Trotsky's political 
ideas in his writings and speeches,” writes Patenaude, “nor does 
it appear that he has always bothered to familiarize himself with 
them.” As an example, he quotes the biographer’s précis of 
Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution (1923). In it, Service 
writes: “Like fellow communist leaders, Trotsky wanted a high 
culture subordinate to the party's purposes. It would take many 
years, he assumed, before a ‘proletarian culture’ would be widely 
achieved.” This is exactly wrong. The book was written to denounce 
the “proletarian culture” movement, and is not exactly ambiguous 
on the point.

Service’s portrait of Trotsky insists that he was as cold-blooded 
toward his family as toward his enemies. An example is his account 
of Trotsky’s emigration to England in 1902, when he managed to 
escape Siberian exile. “No sooner had he fathered a couple of 
children,” he writes, “than he decided to run off. Few 
revolutionaries left such a mess behind them. Even so, he was 
acting within the revolutionary code of behavior.” Service later 
refers to Trotsky “ditch[ing] his first wife,” and quotes a 
passage from Trotsky’s autobiography that seems to dismiss the 
whole episode by saying “Life separated us.” The reviewer calls 
this “tamper[ing] with the available evidence” by “excising an 
inconvenient text.” Trotsky’s autobiography says that he and his 
wife agreed that he should flee the country. The full text of the 
sentence actually reads. “Life separated us, but nothing could 
destroy our friendship and our intellectual kinship” (p. 125). 
Patenuade also notes that the revolutionary’s first wife remained 
a political supporter and “went to her death in the Great Terror 
as a Trotskyist.” Service may prefer to characterize Trotsky as 
“ditch[ing] his first wife,” but clearly she didn’t see it that way.

This is but a sampling of the mistakes or instances of manhandled 
evidence that Patenaude charges in his piece. The review is about 
2,000 words long, and also discusses a volume by David North 
called In Defense of Leon Trotsky, published last year by Mehring 
Books, the publisher associated with something called the 
Socialist Equality Party, of which North is the (pseudonymous) leader.

Being, in many respects, a fairly strange person, I have a rather 
extensive familiarity with North’s oeuvre, which includes 
treatises arguing that other Trotskyists were agents of the FBI or 
Soviet intelligence. His books do not often receive attention in 
The American Historical Review. That this one did seemed 
intriguing. I wanted to ask Patenaude about it. Did AHR ask him to 
review both titles? How did the editors respond to the review – 
did they change it at all? I also wanted to convey something that 
a historian told me after reading the review: “This is the most 
damning review I've ever seen in a history journal. There must be 
more to it than meets the eye – an element of personal motivation, 
payback of some kind." Surely other people were thinking the same 
thing. What were the circumstances of the assignment?

“I wrote the review at the request of the editors of the AHR,” he 
told me by e-mail. “They asked me to review both Service's book 
and North's book. I did find this a little curious, because 
Service is a major figure in the field of Soviet history and his 
Trotsky has been hailed by several reviewers as the definitive 
biography -- so why dilute the effect by combining it with a 
slender, essentially self-published volume written by an avowed 
Trotskyist who devotes most of his pages to criticism of Service 
and his book?”

Patenaude says he was “initially inclined to turn down the review 
request” because he had not read either volume and knew that 
writing the piece would take him away from other work. 
“Nonetheless, after checking to make sure that David North's book 
did not mention my own recent book on Trotsky, I accepted the 
invitation, fully expecting that I would add my voice to the 
chorus of praise for Service's biography.”

But while reading the book, he “was surprised by the numerous 
factual errors … and also by the author's relentlessly 
prosecutorial tone. By the time I came to the end of the book, I 
realized that something was seriously amiss: how had such a 
sloppily researched and tendentiously written book received such 
glowing reviews from so many historians and other notable 
reviewers, both in the U.K. and the U.S.?”

Patenaude then turned to North’s volume, not quite half of which 
consists of a critique of Service’s biography. He expected “a 
predictable polemical diatribe from the radical left” but found 
that it “in fact hit the nail on the head in exposing the 
fundamental problems with Service's biography.”

As for being “payback,” it sounds like the review leaves Patenaude 
in a fairly awkward situation: Service wrote a favorable review of 
his book, a blurb from which now appears on the cover of the 
paperback edition.

“Service and I also happen both to be fellows at the Hoover 
Institution -- although he is here at Hoover only in summers, so I 
have met him only once, and very briefly, a few years ago.”

He acknowledges that the review may be unusually stringent for an 
academic journal – but the situation itself was unusual: “Having 
read at least a dozen enthusiastic reviews of Service's book (some 
of them joint reviews of both our books), I started out expecting 
to produce a respectful academic review, but there could be no 
mincing words about the scandalous state of affairs I was 
confronted with upon reading his book.”

While making its points sharply, and without apology or delay, 
Patenaude’s review shows none of the aggressive schadenfreude 
exhibited in Housman’s legendary attacks. “Once I had read both 
books,” he told me, “and understood the circumstances of the 
situation, I felt I had no choice but to proceed the way I did.”

Before interviewing Patenaude, I wrote to Robert Service. Had he 
prepared a response to the AHR piece, or would he otherwise care 
to comment on it?

In no time there came a reply: “Eh, have you [a] copy of the 
review? Can't comment on what I haven't seen!”

I sent it to him. He did not respond. The silence became worrying. 
At the end of the day, I told my wife what had happened, and she 
said, “You’ve killed him.” (The thought had already crossed my mind.)

Three days later, after two more efforts to elicit a reply, 
Service wrote the following:

“"It's best for serious scholars to stay clear of abuse. The 
Trotskyists have used scurrilous and evasive tactics for nearly 
two years in attacking my Trotsky biography. Predictably they 
don't like a book which challenges their idolatry -- and they have 
constantly failed to address the fundamental questions raised by 
the book. But the Western intelligentsia has always also included 
Trotsky romantics who want to think the best of Trotsky and who 
take a more or less uncritical approach to the history of the 
USSR. In a way they become entranced by him. This happened while 
Trotsky was alive; and judging from Patenaude's dyspeptic review, 
it is still alive and flourishing. Patenaude's own account of 
Trotsky's last years in Mexico treats him as a noble martyr. Well, 
to say the least, this is a questionable analysis -- and I simply 
ask people to read my biography and make up their own minds.

“The minor factual blips in the first edition of my biography have 
been corrected; none of them undermines the kind of revision of 
Trotsky's reputation that I attempted after decades of the gentle 
treatment he received. What's required is joined-up thinking in 
our attitude not only to the Soviet past but also to our own 
present. Life's too short for a slanging match."

This is a response, if by no means an answer. Patenaude’s book, 
which focuses on the final three years of Trotsky’s life and his 
assassination in Mexico, is by no means a hagiography. (Any 
suggestion that he indulges in Trotskyist nostalgia will be 
dispersed upon reading it.) Nothing in the AHR piece is scurrilous 
or abusive. For that matter, the assessment of Service’s book by 
left-wing academics such as Paul Le Blanc and Hillel Ticktin have 
been more forensic than polemical. The objections to Service’s 
scholarship do not concern “minor factual blips” but charges that 
he has misrepresented evidence or failed to read the material 
being cited. And in any case, “factual blips” in sufficient 
quantity are indistinguishable from simple incompetence.

Nobody writing on Trotsky can expect to escape controversy, but 
that only heightens the need for scrupulous accuracy. Under the 
circumstances, I can only suggest that any research library that 
has added Service’s book to its collection should consider 
acquiring David North’s as well.

Finally: when one of the leading scholarly journals in the country 
publishes a complaint that a particular academic press “has placed 
its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards 
of historical scholarship," it seems reasonable to expect a reply. 
Over the course of eight days, I contacted five people (most of 
them at least twice) to ask for a comment on the review in AHR, 
and received no response of any kind. At times, silence is golden. 
In this case it's merely brazen.

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