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  • Published in Book Reviews

Trotsky’s eventful life is a natural story for biographers, but the key thing is to engage with his real politics rather than textbook caricature, argues Peter Stauber

Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life (Yale University Press 2011), x, 225pp.

It would be hard to write a boring biography of Trotsky. He was personally involved in fascinating political events, and his life was at times so adventurous that a mere re-telling of the facts would make for a riveting read. Consider, for example, just how much the Russian revolutionary got around, or how many different occupations he managed to cram into one life.

Born in modern-day Ukraine, Trotsky spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Odessa, at that time one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Russian empire; he lived in Vienna, Paris, London, New York, St Petersburg, Zurich, Istanbul, Norway and finally Mexico. He was in Siberian exile twice and spent many months imprisoned in Tsarist jails. He acted as Commissar of War during the Russian Civil War, rushing tens of thousands of miles on a train from front to front in order to direct the movements of the Red Army. He was an editor for various newspapers in different countries, a war correspondent in the Balkans, a fantastically gifted orator and writer and, unlike the more puritanical Lenin, he had a profound knowledge and appreciation of classical literature.

While Isaac Deutscher’s classic biography of Trotsky comprises three thick volumes, Joshua Rubenstein had the difficult task of putting all of this into two hundred pages. His book is not an analysis of Trotsky’s political thinking, but rather a standard biography, mapping the most important way-stations of his life. The fact that the biography is part of the ‘Jewish lives’ series did not make Rubenstein’s task any easier, as in this respect Trotsky is a particularly ungrateful subject. He was dismissive of his Jewish identity, and even though anti-Semitism was rampant in Tsarist Russia, discrimination and the at times brutal treatment of his fellow Jews did not inform his sense of the injustice of the existing political order.

As Rubenstein writes, Trotsky, ‘as a child, did not identify with his fellow Jews. As an adolescent in Odessa, he lived with a self-identified Jewish family but absorbed little if any emotional attachment to his origin. When the allure of Marxism captured his imagination and his faith, Trotsky abandoned his Jewish identity. For him, it was a necessary step toward embracing all of humanity (or at least the proletariat)’ (pp.114-15). Rubenstein highlights some interesting aspects of Trotsky’s ambivalent attitude towards his Jewish origins, for example his response to widespread anti-Semitic attitudes among the population during the Civil War.

On the one hand, he voiced concerns over the high number of Jews in the Cheka, the secret police founded by the Bolsheviks, worried that their presence ‘could only provoke hatred toward Jews as a group’. On the other hand, he tried to form Jewish units in the Red Army, ‘hoping that they would counteract anti-Semitic claims that Jews were avoiding military service’ (p.113). While Trotsky did not concern himself too much with his Jewish origins, his enemies shamelessly exploited anti-Semitic feelings. In the 1920s, Stalin and the party bureaucrats ‘resorted to anti-Jewish prejudice to ensure Trotsky’s defeat’ (p.141).

By necessity, a book of this length is not able to do justice to Trotsky’s complex writings, and yet there are failings on the political level which do not have anything to do with the number of pages. Rubenstein’s account of the Russian Revolution follows the standard, simplified textbook version; by its nature the Bolshevik party already contained within it the seeds of totalitarianism. Somewhat incongruously, he writes that the first step towards dictatorship was taken at the Congress of Soviets, held on 25 October 1917, when the revolution was still in full swing. The Bolsheviks ‘were in no mood to negotiate’ and refused the Menshevik-Internationalists’ request to form a coalition. Trotsky denounced Menshevik leader Yuli Martov as ‘bankrupt’ and told him to go to the dustbin of history. ‘From that moment on, the Bolsheviks saw their way clear to a one-party dictatorship’, writes Rubenstein (p.100).

Trotsky’s role in this was crucial. He rejected the Menshevik’s ‘more cautious, more tolerant, more liberal understanding of what a socialist revolution must mean’ (p.100) and thereby laid the foundations for decades of ruthless dictatorship. At this point the account entirely fails to deal with the actual conduct of the Mensheviks across the revolutionary period, which made co-operation with Martov in particular a non-starter for anyone determined to defend the new and vulnerable revolution.

The rest of the account of the revolution continues in a similar vein; the introduction of censorship of the press, whose aim was to suppress the counterrevolution, was one of the ‘initial steps toward creating a police state’ (p.103). And the civil war was, according to Rubenstein, provoked by the Bolsheviks’ ‘insistence on a monopoly of power’ (p.101). Any detailed account of the early months of the revolution would suffice to dispel this liberal just-so story; the Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, for example, left the post-October coalition because they refused to accept the Brest-Litovsk settlement with Germany. Lenin, however, was surely correct to insist on peace.

The problem with all this, of course, is that Rubenstein’s argument is de-historicised and imagines that the failure of western-style liberalism in Russia was simply a matter of Bolshevik malice rather than real social, and military, forces. The problem that the revolutionaries faced after the October events was that the revolution was threatened by various factors at once. Most pressing were the reactionary White armies, generously funded by western states, which effectively surrounded the most industrialised areas of Russia. If these had defeated the revolutionary government, the result would have been not a constitutional liberal regime; rather, as has been said before, Nazism might well have worn a Russian face.

In the midst of this crisis, fueled by international hostility, the alliance between peasants and workers was breaking apart as the former, once the estates had been broken up, pursued individualistic objectives. Moreover, industry was devastated. The civil war drew the most militant workers to the front to fight alongside the largely peasant army, which meant that the Bolsheviks could not rely on grassroots democracy to lead the country. Instead, some sort of central administration had to be established to govern a vast territory.

Trotsky and Lenin tried to safeguard the revolution in Russia until it could spread to other countries, above all, Germany (that, at least, was their hope). The Bolsheviks’ autocratic measures immediately following the revolution have been criticised from the left; Rosa Luxemburg, for example, was quick to point to the democratic deficits in Russia. Yet Rubenstein’s account in its insistence on the Bolsheviks’ ‘dehumanizing dogmas’ (p.123) imposes a preconceived liberal demonology on revolutionary socialist politics rather than investigating the historical context.

Rubenstein’s biography may be of interest to readers who are unfamiliar with Trotsky’s life, but in terms of its politics, it has limitations. It does not really fully engage with Trotsky’s own politics and the justifications he would have given, and did give, for his actions. As well as Deutscher’s volumes, Trotsky’s own writings, his history of the Russian Revolution for example, are immensely readable, and give the context for the decisions that were taken during the revolution. Sometimes you need to go to the source.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.