[Marxism] Soviet Scholar on Trotsky

Paul Flewers trusscott.foundation at blueyonder.co.uk
Tue Feb 21 09:03:02 MST 2012

Here's a review of Rubenstein's book by a pal of mine, from the
forthcoming Revolutionary History.

Paul F


Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary's Life, Yale
University Press, New Haven and London, 2011, pp 225

Just what the world needs, yet another biography of Leon Trotsky.
True, if you're running a 'Jewish Lives' series 'dedicated to
illuminating the range and depth of the Jewish experience', it's a bit
hard to leave him out. And although Trotsky's biographers have
addressed to varying degrees the Jewish dimension of his life, there
has been only one full-length work on the topic, Joseph Nedava's
Trotsky and the Jews, which appeared way back in 1971 and is almost
unobtainable today.

Rubenstein dissociates himself from what he sees as Isaac Deutscher's
'too forgiving' and at times hagiographic trilogy and Robert Service's
'gratuitous criticism of Trotsky's character and personality' (pp
212-13), but he broadly concurs with the rejection of Trotsky's
philosophy and life-work presented by Service and other liberal and
social-democratic biographers of the man. Hence we get a condemnation
of the Bolsheviks' overturn of the Provisional Government, the closing
of the Constituent Assembly, the establishment of a Communist
political monopoly, and so on, and the usual homily that Trotsky ended
up at the sharp end of the very state that he helped to create.
Readers of Revolutionary History will be familiar with this, as they
will be with the stock accounts of Lenin's What Is To Be Done?, the
prediction of Bolshevik substitutionism in Trotsky's Our Political
Tasks, and, to move on to later days, how Stalin outmanoeuvred
Trotsky, stole much of his programme for the First Five-Year Plan, and
finally had him assassinated. Rubenstein has a fluent writing style,
but as an account of Trotsky's life, it adds little either factually
or conceptually to the many biographies that have been published over
the years.

Rubenstein points out that although Trotsky denied any causal
connection between his Jewish origins and his political views and
actions, the Jewish question impinged heavily upon his political life.
Hence he describes his part in the fight against the Bund in 1903, his
call during the 1905 revolution for the workers to repel pogrom gangs,
his condemnation of official Jew-baiting when on trial in 1907, his
angry commentary during the Beilis trial of 1913, and his poignant
descriptions of beleaguered Romanian Jews in his coverage of the
Balkan wars. Rubenstein then looks at how it impacted upon Trotsky
after 1917, including his reluctance to be head of state lest it
exacerbated anti-Semitism, the fraught days of the Civil War in which
the White forces used the presence of Trotsky at the head of the
Soviet regime as an important mobilising factor in their vicious
pogroms that ravaged many areas of the former Russian Empire, then on
to Trotsky's disgust at the use of anti-Semitism by Stalin in the
fight against the Left Opposition and during the Moscow Trials, his
continued refusal to endorse the Zionist project, and finally his
ominous premonition of the fate of the Jews as the Second World War
drew near.

On the one hand, Rubenstein claims that 'it is hard to sort out the
motivations behind Trotsky's complex reaction to the Beilis trial' and
his descriptions of Romanian Jews (and by implication the other times
when he condemned anti-Semitism), whilst, on the other, he suggests
some sort of subconscious forces were at work: 'Twice he mentioned
feelings of disgust and nausea that overtook him when he contemplated
their misery. Perhaps he did not think of himself as a Jew in the same
way that they were Jews; he was a Marxist, a convinced
internationalist, a man who resisted any narrow, parochial appeal in
the name of a universal, political faith. But he had still been born
and raised as a Jew. Perhaps the starkness of their lives touched
something so deep inside his emotional life that he needed to vomit it
out, to disgorge it before it compelled him to see himself in their
faces. At moments like these, Leon Trotsky was a Jew in spite of
himself.' (p 67)

Elsewhere, Rubenstein seems to be perplexed by Trotsky's standpoint.
After relating Trotsky's sharp critique of the Bund in 1903, he
proceeds: 'But Trotsky was not indifferent to Jewish suffering.' (p
31) With one short word -- the conjunction 'but' -- Rubenstein creates
a contradiction that did not exist: there was nothing contradictory in
opposing the Bund's specific demands vis-à-vis the structure of the
Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and being strongly opposed to
the Tsarist regime's treatment of its Jewish subjects.

It is true that Trotsky's general attitude towards the plight of the
Jews was considerably more vocal than that of many of his
contemporaries. Jews were especially oppressed within the Russian
Empire, liable to be attacked by pogrom gangs, subject to
discriminatory legislation, and treated with suspicion by many of
their fellow-countrymen. This he despised, and the Beilis trial -- a
particularly vile episode even by Tsarist Russian standards -- brought
forth his deep hatred of discrimination and bigotry. His anger here,
and his subsequent feelings of disgust in respect of Stalin's use of
anti-Semitism and his prediction of Hitler's Holocaust, was based not
upon a recognition, conscious or otherwise, of his Jewish origins or a
fear that he too could personally be a target, but upon the intimate
connection between Tsarism and such uncivilised behaviour, and the
continued existence and indeed revival of the latter in a supposedly
socialist land or in a modern country such as Germany. It was not the
result of any self-identification with Jews on his part, or a plea for
any special treatment of Jews, but the recognition that Jews were the
immediate and primary target of systematic state-run bigotry, be it in
Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany, or were being picked out as a
scapegoat in an act of outrageous hypocrisy by an allegedly
progressive regime, as in Stalin's Soviet Union.

That Trotsky drew little attention to his Jewish origins did not
contradict his militant opposition to any acts of discrimination
against Jews. His strong stand against anti-Semitism was not based
upon any subconscious atavistic identification with the ethnic group
into which he had been born. Rather, it was rooted in his socialist
principles, to which he remained fully committed to the end.

Not surprisingly, Rubenstein's verdict upon Trotsky is negative. In
rejecting Judaism for Marxism, he 'spurned one messianic religion' and
'adopted an alternative utopian faith -- one that was secular and far
more dangerous' (p 115). Rubenstein criticises Trotsky not merely for
rejecting the tenets of liberal democracy once the Bolsheviks took
power in 1917, but also for his stubborn adherence to his
revolutionary principles after the rise of Stalinism. Although it is
easy for Marxists to be dismissive of liberal criticisms of the
disdain shown by the Bolsheviks for bourgeois democracy, on the
grounds that the capitalist world has been notoriously inconsistent in
its democratic credentials, Rubenstein cites an pertinent assessment
of Trotsky by Victor Serge. Serge wrote that whilst the majority of
the Left Opposition resisted Stalinist totalitarianism 'in the name of
the democratic ideals expressed at the beginning of the revolution',
some old Bolshevik leaders defended a 'doctrinal orthodoxy which,
while not excluding a certain tendency towards democracy, was
authoritarian through and through' (p 188). This is an important
matter. Any socialist regime will almost certainly come under terrible
pressures from within and abroad, and authoritarian measures might be
necessary at some point or another. But Marxists must never forget
that such a regime requires the maximum of democracy not only to
thrive but indeed to survive in a recognisably socialist form.

Contrary to Rubenstein's assertion -- and he is by no means the only
one to assert this -- Deutscher's trilogy is not hagiographic. It is
sympathetic, but certainly not uncritical. Indeed, one of its strong
points is that it describes how the Soviet regime became
bureaucratised and how the Soviet Communist Party became transformed
into a ruling élite, and how Trotsky both consciously opposed and
inadvertently assisted those processes. Having read a large number of
biographies of Trotsky, I remain firm in my opinion that, despite its
age and its shortcomings, Deutscher's trilogy is still the best
account of Trotsky's eventful life, and is the work that I would
recommend to anyone wishing to learn about one of the last century's
most controversial and, for Marxists, inspiring figures.

Arthur Trusscott

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