Sentimental Story

Leon Trotsky.
by Irving Howe.
Viking. 193 pp. $7.95.

This little book, an expanded version of an essay Irving Howe wrote in the early 1960’s, summarizes Trotsky’s life as a versatile man of action, theory, and letters, and offers the following evaluation of his character: “Personal tragedies, incalculable sufferings beset him, but he remained erect and combative, faithful in his vision both in its truth and error, insight and blindness. Even those rejecting his every word must recognize that in the last ten or twelve years of his life Trotsky offered a towering example of what a man can be.” Even if merited, this praise, it should be noted, rests on humanitarian values to which Trotsky, during most of his political life, must have accorded low importance, and which would scarcely have won the adherence of militant revolutionary followers.

Strong character can be produced by businessmen and baseball players; Howe himself and the other young leftists of the 30’s who turned to Trotsky as an alternative to Stalinism surely looked to him for more. They expected, first, a shared vision of social good and social evil; yet Howe repeatedly makes clear that Trotsky was far more adept at seeing the evil in what others had wrought—or had acquired by conquest and guilt—than the evil implicit in the events he himself had helped to shape. His admirers hoped to find an intellectual who, with great reluctance and a bow to historical necessity, had been forced to take power into his hands; they found instead a strategist who could order people killed when the survival of an “idea” seemed to depend on it, and for whom intellectual analysis was designed not so much to get at truth as to change the world. They expected to find at least the remnants of tortured and strained benevolence, hidden beneath a sense of irony and the scornful language of revolutionary invective; it was not there. And when they thought at last to find support from their hero in their own endless battles with the Stalinist majorities on the Left, they found instead a man who was far less likely than they to countenance anything that might injure the cause to which he expected some day to return in power. Rather like Alfred Dreyfus, of whom it has often been said that if he had not been Dreyfus he would have been an anti-Dreyfusard, Trotsky lacked some of the credentials of a solid Trotskyist.

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In the summer of 1917, the instability of the Kerensky regime was apparent, and its future shaky. The Bolsheviks saw themselves with two options: one, to form a multipartied government with other Left factions, taking over by peaceful means the organs of the provisional government; the other, to move alone to dispossess the provisional officials and constitute a single-party government in which they would be the sole authority. Trotsky’s misnamed theory of “permanent revolution” gave intellectual support to the notion that the Bolsheviks, who regarded themselves as the embodiment of the working class, could take the risk of assuming leadership.

Students of the Russian revolution have argued ever since the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 whether the ideology led to the takeover, or whether it merely provided an excuse for it. Howe reports two opposing arguments in polar form. Pro-Bolsheviks asserted that Lenin and Trotsky did nothing wrong because their seizure of power was entirely justified by the support of the “masses.” Anti-Bolsheviks called the coup, in Howe’s words, the “work of a small conspiratorial minority, usurping the power of the unstable Russian democracy.”

Howe describes both of these accounts as “myths,” and claims that the truth is much more complicated. In effect, however, his own account seems to coincide very closely with that of the anti-Bolsheviks. Furthermore, he suggests that the “undemocratic consequences” of the coup—i.e., Leninism and Stalinism—were inevitable, leaving the reader to conclude also that they were made all the more so by the theoretical justification which Trotsky himself had provided. Howe, nevertheless, pleads in extenuation that Lenin and Trotsky were both motivated by what they thought best for mankind, improvising with genius and moving with resolution, and, in the case of Lenin, with great political skill. Together, they bridged the gap that separated Marx’s dialectical materialism from the complex reality of underdeveloped, semi-Asiatic revolutionary Russia.

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Despite Howe’s long affiliation with socialism, it is clear that he himself has now come to reject much, if not all, of the Marxist theory of class struggle, proletarian dictatorship and hegemony, and the consequent withering away of the state. Certainly he acknowledges that Marxist ideology, even as interpreted by Trotsky, has been refuted by history. The proletarian revolutions which were forecast in the aftermath of World Wars I and II did not occur. The international working class demonstrated a lack of unity, suggesting that national and ethnic characteristics were a far more significant determinant of behavior than the nature of economic relations in the production system. Democracy, contrary to theory, has shown itself to be much less divisible than had been forecast by those followers of Marx who talked of depriving some classes of their democratic rights while retaining them for workers; when other classes lost their democratic rights, the workers lost them too. Finally, Marxist theory failed to contemplate the emergence of state bureaucracy after the nationalization of production. Yet Trotsky, to Howe’s disappointment, clung to the basic propositions despite tentative waverings near the end, and, as Howe puts it, refused “to scrutinize his own assumptions with the corrosive intensity he brought to those of his political opponent [Stalin].”

But even while criticizing Trotsky, Howe assumes that he was indeed moving toward the realization of the dream of a world in which no one dominates another. A different view of Trotsky would seem to fit the facts more snugly: his profession of this ideal, together with his theory of dialectical materialism, provided him with a cover for his own aggressive drive for power, which was probably the central motive in his life. Howe prefers not to look at this side of Trotsky’s nature, celebrating instead his literary achievements and his historical writings. Yet Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, impressive as it may be, is not impartial history, nor intended to be; it is a paean, as Howe himself recognizes, to the inevitable triumph of the Russian proletariat and its chosen instruments of leadership, among them, preeminently, Trotsky himself. The tone of the book makes it clear that such a man would never have been content with a literary career.

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Most revolutions destroy those leaders who lose out in the final stages of the struggle for status in the new regime. Trotsky’s courageous, resourceful, and doomed struggle to purge his revolution of its “mistakes” strikes many intellectuals as a singular achievement. He seems to stand alone on the political stage. To find his equivalent, though, one might look at industrial leaders who have originated enterprises of mammoth size only to lose control of them, and who have spent the rest of their lives trying to regain what they have lost. Like Trotsky, they inveigh against their displacers while continuing to cherish the product with which they began their careers. Howe makes frequent reference to the fact that industrial development in pre-revolutionary Russia was not the product of rising, energetic entrepreneurs but had rather been imposed on the country by the Czar and the military establishment, with the help of foreign investment. As the son of unusually well-situated Jewish farmers, Trotsky had little or no opportunity to give scope to his ambitions for power except in a revolutionary context: business careers were nonexistent, political careers under the czarist establishment closed to him. There were indeed elements in Trotsky’s character that would not have been satisfied by an industrial or political career, however brilliant, but it is equally unrealistic to believe that “ideology” forced him to take power when he would rather have been reading Turgenev.

I have introduced the industrialist as model only to suggest that in some cases Howe would have no difficulty ascribing ruthlessness and intellectual rigidity to ambition and the need for command. Why should Trotsky be exempt from such assessments of character, which writers like Howe apply automatically in dealing with most other subjects? Only, I suspect, because without faith in the character of at least one representative of the socialist idea, they would be left with nothing but the seemingly intractable problems of the present, and a future that begins to look tragic. But that the future may look tragic is no excuse for sentimental readings of the past.

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