The Life And Death Of Leon Trotsky.
by Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova.
Basic Books. 296 pp. $10.95.

by Joel Carmichael.
St. Martin’s. 512 pp. $15.00.

It is now thirty-six years since Leon Trotsky was assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents. At the time of his death he was an exiled, isolated, and hunted figure, a victim of Stalin’s desire to destroy him and everyone associated with him. Trotsky had a small following in Europe and America, but most Western intellectuals—the people who George Orwell said “take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow”—accepted the Stalinist propaganda line that he was a depraved political conspirator.

All this has now changed. The British historian Robert Conquest has noted “a great residuum of vague admiration for Trotsky” among the various groups of Western revolutionaries and “progressives.” He is now accepted as a man of the Left, an incorruptible and martyred revolutionary. But the new view of Trotsky, like the old one, is not the product of an honest assessment of the man and his work. It has much more to do with the relationship of these “progressives” to Soviet Communism and its various offshoots in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The reason for the rehabilitation of Trotsky is the need to salvage the Russian revolution and that which has issued from it by divorcing Communication from stalinism This has been made necessary by the thorough discrediting of Stalin since Khrushchev’s famous “secret” speech at the 20th Soviet Party Congress officially acknowledging Stalinist terror. The revival of interest in Trotsky, the foremost anti-Stalinist Communist, is thus intended to lend credibility to the continuing pro-Soviet bias of leftist opinion.

But it will take more than the rehabilitation of Trotsky to clean up the image of pre-Stalin Soviet Communism. The forced-labor camps were not created, by Stalin but by Lenin almost immediately after the Bolshevik putsch in November 1917. It was not Stalin who eliminated all opposition political parties and outlawed factions within the ruling Communist party but Lenin. True, Stalin constructed a vast edifice of totalitarianism, but he built it upon the solid foundations established by Lenin with the indispensable help of his comrade-in-arms, Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky was far from a moderating influence during the formative years of Soviet totalitarianism On the contrary, on the crucial issue of workers’ rights he advocated measures so harsh that even Lenin opposed him. In Terrorism and Communism, written in 1920 in reply to Kart Kautsky’s anti-Bolshevik polemic of the same title. Trotsky’ advocated “the militarization of labor.” “The labor state,” he wrote, “considers itself empowered to send every worker to the place where his work-is necessary. And not one serious socialist will begin to deny to the labor state the right to lay its hand upon the worker who refuses to execute his labor duty.”

In The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, Victor Serge writes that Trotsky’s “solutions were always drastic and uncompromising.” Serge, a Trotskyist who left Russia in 1936 just prior to the Great Purge Trials, feels that no other policy was possible given the economic backwardness of the country and the failure of supportive revolutions in the West to materialize. This is the standard argument of anti-Stalinist apologists for the Bolshevik coup, but it does not answer the criticism that the coup itself—made in a country that Lenin himself admitted was “semi-Asiatic”—was an error of historic proportions.

Serge’s biography, written in collaboration with Trotsky’s widow soon after the assassination, is really a hagiography, and as such it was appropriately published for the first time in English last November 7, the anniversary of both the revolution and Trotsky’s birth. It makes excuses for all the dictatorial acts of Lenin and Trotsky, reserving criticism only for Stalin’s subsequent bloody deeds. Serge justifies the suppression of the “bourgeois press” immediately after the coup, and he condones the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on the grounds that the peasants had voted for the Bolsheviks’ opponents “without really understanding what was happening in Petrograd and Moscow. . . .” On the trade-union question he says only that Trotsky felt “the unions should be integrated into the state and that they should play an active part in the administration of production and transport.” Trotsky’s massacre of the kronstadt saliors the revolutionary heroes who re-belled in 1921 against the Bolshevik tyranny, is defended off the grounds that “a handful of anarchists” could not be permitted to threaten the revolution (Serge’s rationalization on this point is surprising since in 1938 he had taken the view that the massacre was the turning point in the “degeneration” of Bolshevism.) He has no explanation for Trotsky’s remarkable passivity during the succession straggle, except to say, tronically that Trutsky refused to seize power when it was within his reach “because he felt that a socialist regime could not be run by decree.”

Serge’s indulgent attitude can be partly explained by the fact that he wrote at a time when the memory of Trotsky as a victim of Stalin was close and painful. Still, he is not nearly as effective in capturing the tragedy of Trotsky’s later years as Natalia Sedova, whose reminiscences of her husband are interspersed throughout the narrative. Steadily the casualties mount—old comrades arrested and executed, Trotsky’s children murdered or driven to suicide. “When Leon Davidovich was alone in his study,” she writes, “I sometimes heard him heave a deep sigh and say to himself, ‘I am tired, so tired. I can’t take any more.’ He would never have admitted it openly. The senseless humiliation, the moral collapse of old revolutionaries who had loved him and yet died covering him and themselves with obloquy, filled him with inconsolable anguish. . . .” Even sadder, his suffering was not redeemed by an understanding of how he shared in the responsibility for what had happened.



Joel Carmichael’s study of Trotsky is much more satisfying in this respect, for he tries to explain how a man so immensely talented and committed to the noblest objectives could also be ruthless, profoundly mistaken, and politically inept. Carmichael recognizes Trotsky’s talents: he was a brilliant journalist, a magnificent orator, a most effective administrator. Still, he was never able successfully to organize even a small political grouping. The reason for this goes much deeper than his preference for intellectual work as against the necessarily tedious day-to-day politics of intra-party struggles. He was, after all, obsessively pedantic and orderly in carrying out his official duties, so much so that Lenin cautioned against his “excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side” of things. Trotsky’s flaw was his inability to assume the responsibilities of leadership.

This was reflected in his personal temperament—“haughty, aloof, reserved, noble,” in Carmichael’s words. He was more a public performer than a political leader. As such, he performed best when the stage was already set, as ft was in 1917 or in the year immediately thereafter when he took on. with unrivaled zeal and ability, specific administrative tasks. But he could not, to follow the analogy further create his own stage. with Lenin gone, the political initiative passed to Stalin, while Trotsky, unable to act, merely complained.

Trotsky’s belief in historical determinism contributed to his-political passivity, though Carmichael finds a deeper cause in his Jewish ness, or rather in his disavowal of it. He sees in Trotsky’s rejection of his origins the source of many of his worst shortcomings: his shyness and extreme self-consciousness, his inability to Inspire trust or to command authority, his consequent over-reliance on the “authority” of office or status, his inability to perform the basic act of maturity—taking responsibility—and, related to this, his worshipful attitude to what he called “the revolutionary historical birthright of the party”

The psychoanalysis of historical figures is always a risky business, for even where it is enlightening, as it is in this case, it obscures sociological patterns. For Trotsky was every inch the Jewish revolutionary, gifted in the art of analysis and agitation, but lacking the shrewdness and sound judgment more characteristic of a political culture that has known the responsibilities of sovereignty. Politics for Trotsky, as for other Jewish revolutionaries, was a secular faith, a form of displaced religiosity. This had terrible consequences, for the intensity of his belief in the party compelled him to justify the most ruthless acts in its name.

What is most remarkable about Trotsky is that he continued to believe in the party and the revolution and the workers’ state long after it had become clear that these objects of faith had produced a monster. Though acutely aware of Stalin’s crimes, he was committed to the end to the fantastic notion that the “collectivist and planned” society of the USSR was a great step forward in the history of mankind. Even Lenin had glimpsed the possibility that he had been midwife to the birth of a bureaucratic despotism which bore no resemblance to anything that might legitimately be called socialist. But Trotsky kept the faith.

In his autobiography Trotsky wrote that “The feeling of the superiority of the general to the particular, of law to fact, of theory to personal experience, arose within me early and grew stronger with the years. . . . I was looking for laws beyond facts.” In this way Trotsky cut himself off from the immediacy of his own experience: his “laws” were more meaningful to him than the slaughter of millions and even his own suffering. His failure to understand the revolution and its consequences was an immense personal tragedy, one that is hardly lessened by the present efforts of some to make of Trotsky the redeemer of the revolution.

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