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Blood Brother

New biography demythologizes Russian Revolution's romantic hero.

By 11.17.09

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Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service
(Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 648 pages, $35)

For decades, Western intellectuals have judged him the Good Marxist. His assassination by Joseph Stalin's agents was further proof -- if further proofs were needed -- of his honorable intentions. If only Leon Trotsky, rather than Stalin, had emerged as Vladimir Lenin's successor, how differently the history of the Soviet Union, indeed, the whole history of communism, might have read.

Trotsky's estrangement and exile from Stalin's Soviet Union has been the stuff of romantic legend, a myth largely fashioned by Trotsky himself. In his many volumes of autobiography, and in works like The Stalin School of Falsification, Trotsky used his considerable rhetorical skills to disguise his political closeness to Stalin and thereby retain the admiration of thinkers in the West, including some on the right. When H.L. Mencken heard Trotsky's library had burned, he wrote offering to send the exile some books. (Trotsky rudely declined.) Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson and Saul Bellow admired Trotsky both as a man of ideas and a man of action, one who, with the great surrealist AndréBreton, could write A Manifesto for a Free Revolutionary Art, when not leading the Red Army into battle against the White Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Poles.

Trotsky's latest biographer, Robert Service (author of acclaimed biographies of Lenin and Stalin), suggests it is foolish to take Trotsky at his word. If there is one overarching theme in Service's study, it is that there was very little difference in philosophy between Trotsky and his nemesis Stalin. "The basic agenda of the two men was much more similar than it was dissimilar," he says.

Lebya Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky) was born in 1879, to a well-to-do Jewish farm family in the Pale of Settlement in what is now central Ukraine. Trotsky's father, like many Jewish parents, sent his children off to Lutheran schools to be educated. Unable to break into the professions because of his race, Trotsky takes up one of the few vocations open to young Jewish intellectuals: he becomes a revolutionary. Due largely to his extraordinary literary talents, he quickly moves up the ranks of the budding revolutionary movement, eventually becoming a leader of the October Revolution, and subsequently, commander of the Red Army.

Then, in 1924, Lenin died, and there erupted a battle of succession over who was to succeed as head of state. Lenin at first chose Stalin, a man he considered a safe, steady, plodding bureaucrat, the opposite of a flamboyant, charismatic Napoleonic character like Trotsky. Too late, however, Lenin realized his mistake. Trotsky, however, was not one to admit defeat or go quietly. He charged Stalin with (among other things) making too many compromises with the revolutionary spirit. Trotsky likewise argued that Stalin was uninterested in spreading communism to Germany and China, which was necessary for communism's survival. Service calls Trotsky out on this, saying none of the revolution's leaders believed communism could survive in an isolated state, but that Stalin, following his so-called "Socialism in One Country" thesis, first wanted to consolidate the gains within Russia before trying to export the Revolution. In The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Trotsky blamed his loss in the succession battle on Stalin's greater ruthlessness, and, by 1929, Trotsky found himself expelled from the Soviet Union. "He lost to a man with a superior understanding of Soviet public life," says Service.

Today, Trotsky's defenders whitewash his own ruthless character, preferring to dwell on his extraordinary literary talents, and his prescience with regard to the growing menace of Nazism. Irving Howe describes his writings against Hitlerism as the greatest political polemic written in the 20th century. What's more, they maintain that Trotsky would have murdered far fewer political opponents than Stalin, remembering that Stalin murdered more communists than Hitler.

HOW MIGHT HISTORY have looked had Trotsky succeeded Lenin? "If ever Trotsky had been the paramount leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased," writes Service, for the simple reason that Trotsky, a believer in permanent revolution, would have taken more risks than Stalin in encouraging revolution in Germany and elsewhere. (While we are playing What If, former Trotskyite Christopher Hitchens has pointed out that Trotsky's German revolution would have preempted the Nazis coming to power, and thus not only World War II, but the Holocaust as well.)

Judging from his past deeds, Trotsky would have continued to act with savage ruthlessness, that meant forcing peasants onto collectivized farms -- as he vowed to do -- or ordering the execution of dissidents, crushing the Kronstadt worker and sailor rebellion in 1921 (they demanded, among other rights, freedom of speech and the press), or creating a system of hostage taking during the civil war -- all of which he did do.

The reason so many Western intellectuals, right and left, fell -- and continue to fall -- for Trotsky is they were charmed by his charisma, his intellect, and his literary skills ("His autobiography is magical to read," Service admits), as well as fooled by his obscurantism. What's more, they were desperate for any Soviet alternative to Stalin.

The idea that a humane communism could have come out of Trotskyism is pure romanticism, Service says. Yet, Trotskyites maintain even today that the tragedy of Soviet history lay in Trotsky's failure to win the battle of succession for leadership of the Soviet Union. Service's biography will not convince them otherwise. But for those with an open mind, Trotsky: A Biography shows that in the end, Stalin and Trotsky were blood brothers. Blood being the operative word.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.