This is a guest post by Michael Ezra
I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky, published today. In a pre-publication review for Standpoint, George Walden argues that it is “ the best biography of Trotsky to date.” Walden’s reasoning is that Service “disregards all sentimental nonsense and gives us the facts.” One of the biographies Walden possibly had in mind when he wrote that phrase was Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy, The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast .
As a student, I once made the mistake of asking a committed Trotskyist what I should read in order to gain a greater understanding of the man himself. A further mistake was following the suggestion that I read Deutscher’s “definitive” trilogy. Well written thought it is, Deutscher views Trotsky through rose-tinted glasses. To provide examples of his method, when Trotsky was effectively lying, Deutscher referred to it as “a masterpiece of diplomatic camouflage.” Trotsky defended the idea that “man must work in order not to die,” declared that “The militarisation of labour… is the indispensible method for the organisation of our labour forces” and stated that compulsory serf labour had been “a progressive phenomenon.” Deutscher praised that particular argument as “the only frank attempt made in modern times to give a logical justification of forced labour.”
There are some blatant absurdities. For example, when it comes to “the dilemma between authority and freedom,” Deutscher argues that “Trotsky was almost equally sensitive to the claims of both.” This is about a man whose whole nature was authoritarian. There are sins of omission. In his account of the Kronstadt rebellion, there is no mention of Trotsky’s famous order, “shoot them like partridges.” He was also not immune from errors of fact. For example, Deutscher claimed that the Kronstadt rebellion was “led by Anarchists.” In truth, as Robert Daniels had previously shown (American Slavic and East European Review, December 1951), it was “a strong opposition movement … in Communist Party organisations” that had been at the forefront of the rebellion. Despite the fact that thousands were killed by the Bolsheviks for this rebellion, Deutscher does not draw the logical conclusion that P.G. Maximoff had earlier drawn:
As in many other instances we have here a clear case of mass murder subject to criminal prosecution.
If anyone is any doubt as to the way Deutscher viewed Trotsky, his following sentence should give some clarification:
The passions of [Trotsky’s] intellect and heart, always uncommonly large and intense… swelled into a tragic energy as mighty and high as that which animates the prophets and the law-givers of Michelangelo’s vision.
So great do some Trotskytists view Deutscher’s sympathetic biography of Trotsky, they may view it as worthwhile plagiarising. Ian Thatcher has demonstrably shown (Revolutionary Russia, June 1999) that this is exactly what Tony Cliff did in numerous places in his introduction to Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press, 1997). To provide but one example: Deutscher wrote:
He [Trotsky] draws a memorable analogy between three doomed monarchs: Nicholas II, Louis XVI, and Charles I, and also between their Queens … As for the Tsarina and Marie Antoinette, both were ‘enterprising but chickenheaded’
In Cliff’s introduction, the following can be found (pp.x-xi):
He [Trotsky] drew a memorable analogy between Nicholas II and Louis XVI, and also between their Queens … As for the Tsarina and Marie Antoinette, both were ‘enterprising but chicken-headed’
The moral of this story may well be that one should not ask a Trotskyist as to what books one should read on Trotsky. For a shorter view, one could do worse than read Alfred G.Meyer’s essay, “Lev Davidovich Trotsky,” (Problems of Communism, November-December 1967):
When [Trotsky] was in command … he had no use for democracy….Trotsky did more than most to destroy democracy in Soviet Russia. A staunch proponent of the one party state, he vigorously helped to suppress the rival parties. …. [A]lthough it is usually asserted that Stalin was the first to kill his own party comrades, that honor, too, goes to Trotsky …. Indeed, terror as a method to ensure efficiency – the most Stalinist trait one could mention – was pioneered by Trotsky as much as by anyone….. [I]f Stalinism is to be labelled a totalitarian form of rule, no one favoured totalitarianism more than L.D. Trotsky.
In an interview he gave promoting his book to National Review Online, Robert Service draws a sensible conclusion (0:29-0:49):
Trotsky was in favour of a one party state, of mass terror, of an end to political and cultural pluralism …. The idea that somehow a humane version of Communism could have come out of Trotskyism is pure romanticism.