A welcome new edition of neglected writing by Trotsky makes accessible revealing insights into Lenin and Russian society, finds Dominic Alexander
Leon Trotsky, Trotsky on Lenin (Haymarket Books 2017), xvii, 385pp.
It is not necessary to be a committed follower of Leon Trotsky to accept that, as a revolutionary leader, he was one of the major figures of the twentieth century. It should also be an entirely non-partisan claim to say that he is one of the greatest political writers of the whole era. It is therefore remarkable how many of Trotsky’s writings are obscure and difficult to obtain. Lacking academic or major publishing institutions with a direct interest in preserving or promoting his work in either East or West, Trotsky became marginalised.
The short book, The Young Lenin, intended by Trotsky as the first part of a biography of Lenin, was not translated into English and published until 1972. The translator, Max Eastman, had been a socialist earlier in his life, but by the time this finally saw the light of day, he was very firmly an opponent of the left. The perceived value in publishing the book then was not therefore in making Trotsky’s understanding of Lenin accessible to a wider audience. Happily, Haymarket Books have seen the benefit to be gained from one great revolutionary’s interpretation of another’s thoughts and actions, and have republished it.
Nonetheless, the first edition’s purpose was otherwise. The writer of the foreword, one Maurice Friedberg, understood it as a valuable warning: ‘as if to compensate for what his biography fails to reveal about Lenin, Trotsky reveals much about himself and about the spirit of the movement they both created’ (p.xvi). It is quite clear, in context, that the writer meant the reader to understand that spirit to be a malign one, and Trotsky to be revealing his monstrous aspect. This foreword is composed of pure Cold-War rhetoric, and provides a remarkably distorted impression of The Young Lenin.
It seems surprising that Haymarket Books were not able to provide an alternative preface, but the original introduction to the second text in the volume, On Lenin, also remains in place. This latter is a sketch of Lenin which was first published in Russian in 1924, right after the founder of Bolshevism’s death. The 1971 edition reproduced here was introduced by Lionel Kochan, another ex-Marxist, who was also not notably sympathetic to Trotsky, even if he was less relentlessly hostile than Friedberg.
Cold-war reading glasses
Both the preface writers take it for granted that Trotsky is hopelessly one-sided about Lenin. For Kochan the work is distorted by Trotsky’s ‘hero-worship’ of Lenin (p.203), while for Friedberg ‘adulation for his hero is coupled with scorn and venom for his idol’s critics’ (p.xv). Kochan’s more measured assessment concedes that Trotsky presents a ‘portrait of a recognisable human being’ (p.203), but both are clearly operating from a fatuous academic principle of ‘objectivity’. This assumes that open partisanship automatically undermines the pursuit of truth, but somehow never requires its proponents to examine their own invariably bourgeois presuppositions.
The more valuable of the two works is probably the first, The Young Lenin, written in the later 1930s, but this, Friedberg avers is ‘often dogmatic and bristles with hatred for Lenin’s ideological opponents, particularly those who seemed to doubt any of the basic premises of Marxism’ (p.xvi). So far, so typical of anti-Marxist orthodoxies, but he goes on to claim that Trotsky despised objectivity (this is ‘not the work of a scholar’, p.xv) and anyone ‘whose Marxist faith is so weak that it must be reinforced by reason’. Ideological blinkers have narrowed the vision here so that Friedberg seems to have read a different book altogether.
In fact, what Trotsky presents in The Young Lenin is a brilliant attempt to explain the genesis of an individual personality and his political instincts in terms of the social relations into which he was born and moulded. Both Friedberg and Kochan seem to misunderstand and misread what Trotsky was doing in these books. They cannot conceive of any approach to biography that does not conform to bourgeois presuppositions that only a psychological approach strictly limited to the private and personal is relevant to the formation of a person. Neither seems aware that Trotsky’s analysis of Russian society becomes a way of understanding Lenin’s early life. Instead Friedberg is baffled, finding ‘frankly nothing but conjecture’ which reads ‘like an old-fashioned vie romanisée’ (p.xv). Historical analysis is apparently just so much speculation for this writer.
The charge of dogmatism is also hard to sustain given that both books strain to forestall or demolish the mythology that was being built around Lenin even in 1924. The accusation that The Young Lenin lacks scholarship cannot be justified. Granted, there are no footnotes, but the essence of scholarship is an openness about the sources being used, and a clear assessment of their reliability. This is clearly present; see for example the critical discussion of when and how the young Vladimir abandoned religious belief (pp.79-81). Trotsky frequently and plainly discusses his sources in The Young Lenin, so it is very hard to see how Friedberg could have justified the charge of a lack of scholarliness, except through sheer prejudice.
History of Simbirsk and the Volga
Trotsky begins, not as a conventional biographer would with Lenin’s family origins, but with the Russian colonisation of the Volga region, and the nature of Lenin’s birthplace, Simbirsk. Towns such as this in the Tsarist era were not primarily centres of trade and industry, but outposts of the state. Simbirsk was founded in 1648, and was the only town on the Volga to withstand the great peasant rebellion led by Stepan Razin, holding out until Tsarist forces were able to relieve it and crush the rebels (p.3).
Trotsky gives us an important analysis of the nature of towns in an autocratic state like Tsarist Russia, by way of comparison with China:
‘Even when it is completely victorious, a peasant revolt is only able to set up a new dynasty and establish new feudal castes. Such is the whole history of old China. Only under the leadership of a revolutionary urban class can a peasant war become a tool of social transformation. But the old Russian cities, mere accumulations of the nobility, the bureaucrats, and their retainers, contained no progressive forces of any kind’ (p.3).
This began to change, particularly in the decade before Vladimir Ilyich’s birth, but the dynamics of the birth of a revolutionary intelligentsia depended upon this pre-history.
This deep background is therefore necessary for Trotsky to situate Lenin in the social contradictions that explain his nature. It explains how Vladimir attained his profound understanding of the dynamics of Russian society and consciousness of the mass of its people, both peasants and workers, in the course of becoming Lenin. His family, as Isaac Deutscher later confirmed in an appropriately ‘scholarly’ fashion, seems to have had only recently moved into the ranks of lesser officials out of the peasantry. Trotsky’s perception that Lenin had an instinctive grasp of Russian peasant and worker sensibilities is thus founded on the precise realities of his social milieu and upbringing.
Individual and society in history
In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky is concerned to explain the connection between individuals and their actions and the greater social forces in play. There is no reductivism here, but a lively and convincing dialectical sensibility, which effectively both tells the story of the revolution, and explains it. Trotsky’s explanation of the dialectic between socio-historical forces and the individual personality is admirable clear:
‘We do not at all pretend to deny the significance of the personal in the mechanics of the historic process, nor the significance in the personal of the accidental. We only demand that a historic personality, with all its peculiarities, should not be taken as a bare list of psychological traits, but as a living reality grown out of definite social conditions and reacting upon them. As a rose does not lose its fragrance because the natural scientist points out upon what ingredients of soil and atmosphere it is nourished, so an exposure of the social roots of a personality does not remove from it either its aroma or its foul smell.’
In The Young Lenin, Trotsky carried out this methodological programme, locating Lenin firstly in the peculiarities of his town and region, and then in the social and generational layer to which he belonged. Famously, Lenin’s elder brother, Sasha Ulyanov, was executed in 1887 by the Tsarist regime for his part in a plot by a group of Populist revolutionaries to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. The nature of the Populist movement and its influence on Vladimir is explained in a brilliant passage of analysis that captures and explains the dynamics of state repression and revolutionary ambition better than any number of standard accounts.
Vladimir and his elder brother were members of the raznochintsy, a ‘casteless intelligentsia’ of relatively poor but well educated young people, who ‘got hold of the idea of guiding the destinies of the country’ (p.9). They broke with the habits of mind of the previous generation in the wake of the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s, which they perceived as serving the interests of the landowners, and as a betrayal of the hopes for a true liberation of the people. Liberals thought that emancipation would allow Russia to follow a Western path of development, but ‘the raznochintsy, on the other hand, brusquely raised the question of a special destiny for the Russian people’ which would avoid ‘capitalist slavery’. The Populist movement appears as a movement primarily of students, who championed the cause of the exploited peasantry, but who also failed to make any sustained social connection with them. As a result, they fell into a strategy of terrorism against the state, which excited the full brutality of the autocracy in response.
The usual view of the Populists tends to show them as idealistic but misguided youth, led astray by their enthusiasm for a mixture of ideas from the West and Slavophile notions of a special Russian path to socialism. The fundamental cause of the revolutionary activism of the 1860s through to the 1880s was the susceptibility of the young to ideas, and not any of the social contradictions of Tsarist Russia. This suits a liberal understanding of Russian history very well, as such an analysis leads to a view that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the accidental result of personalities, such as Lenin, and the victory of certain malign ideas, such as Marxism. The importance of building the influence of liberal ideas can then be emphasised as the ahistorical cure of all social ills.
Trotsky’s analysis shows why this is all so much liberal fantasy. The raznochintsy’s revolutionary activity grew out of specific contradictions in the autocratic state in a modernising, post-serfdom era:
‘The decomposition of the feudal society proceeded at a faster pace than the formation of the bourgeoisie. This intelligentsia, a product of the decay of the old classes, found neither an adequate demand for its skills nor a sphere for its political influence. It broke with the nobility, the bureaucracy, the clergy, with their stale culture and serf-owning traditions, but it did not effect a rapprochement with the bourgeoisie, which was still too primitive and crude’ (p.23).
Here, Trotsky is revealing the real reasons for the weakness of liberal ideas in Russia in the fact that there was no social basis in a self-confident and dominant bourgeois class that would favour such notions as a means of imprinting its own social power over other classes. Instead:
‘The state, having need of an intelligentsia, reluctantly created one by means of its schools. The intelligentsia, having need of a reformed regime, became an enemy of the state. The political life of the country thus for a long time assumed the form of a duel between the intelligentsia and the police, with the fundamental classes of society almost entirely passive’ (p.24).
The seeds of the populists’ defeat lay, of course, in this last fact, but rather than dismissing the revolutionary youth as hopelessly misguided, Trotsky gives us a brilliant and sympathetic insight into the social-psychology of their politics: ‘since the struggle was forced upon the “intellectual proletariat” by its whole situation, it had to have some grand illusions’ (p.24).
The death of Lenin’s brother
This is the background within which we can understand the story of Vladimir and his siblings, and their reaction to their gentle, intellectual elder brother’s involvement in a desperate populist plot. Throughout the story Trotsky tells, there is no hint of dogmatism, or mere hero worship of Lenin. Instead, he shows us a convincing portrait of a talented and determined human being whose development cannot be separated from the circumstances of his time. The account of Vladimir’s politicisation, and the evolution of his theoretical and strategic ideas rejects the trope of a Damascene conversion from Populist terrorism to Marxist understanding at the news of his brother’s execution (pp.171-2, p.174).
That was the Stalinist mythology, but Trotsky reveals a more interesting and gradual process, including time in the backwater of Samara, where there was no worker’s movement and so ‘under these circumstances, Vladimir could make great progress in his study of Marxist classics without being forced to make a final choice between Social Democrats and People’s Will [the major Populist organisation]’ (p.151). Thus, Trotsky’s analysis is very far from the kind of reductionist caricature of Marxism that liberals automatically assume. Rather his view is sensibly dialectical:
‘Does this mean that ideas are unessential or impotent? No, this means only that ideas are socially conditioned; before becoming a cause of facts and events, an idea must first have been the result of them’ (p.144).
The second work reprinted in this book echoes many of the strengths of the first book, and is well worth reading for its accounts of important moments in the development and fruition of the Russian revolutionary movement. It ranges from the early days at the Iskra, when Trotsky first worked with Lenin, to October 1917, and to the controversies over the punitive Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany in 1918, which most Bolsheviks found hard to stomach, but upon which Lenin insisted. This book was, however, written under very strained political circumstances towards the end of Lenin’s life, and immediately after his death. This was the start of Trotsky’s struggle to defend his understanding of Leninism and revolutionary politics against the distortions of the growing Stalinist faction, at that point allied with Kamenev and Zinoviev. The result is some reticences and hesitations, which make it a less focused or consistent theoretical statement that it might have been. Indeed, the more crucial work from this period is the Lessons of October, which did set out Trotsky’s views in a concise and compelling way.
Nonetheless, there are some important arguments about the nature of Lenin’s theory made here. One such is the point that his decisions were not made according to ‘an abstract idea’, in the case of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, that ‘any agreement between us and the imperialists was unthinkable’ (p.275). Trotsky throughout the two books here, is relentlessly arguing against the tendency to reify Lenin’s thinking, deriving from it just those dogmatic, abstract principles, divorced from the concrete circumstances in which Lenin applied his strategic thought, which would lead to disastrous decisions by would-be revolutionaries. This kind of tendency to misread Leninism lay behind Zinoviev’s consistently poor advice to the German Communists during 1919-23, which was instrumental in the defeat of the revolution in that country.
On Lenin does even contain some criticism of Lenin’s positions at some points, notably during the tense days before the October Revolution, but this perhaps served as a tactic. Criticising Lenin here enabled Trotsky to appear to be simply discussing the difficult decisions of that time, while exposing the reluctance of Kamenev and Zinoviev to support thoroughgoing revolutionary action when it was needed most. It seems that Trotsky did not feel when writing in On Lenin that he could be quite as openly critical of the other leading Bolsheviks as perhaps he needed to be. There is curious detail in the section on October, which presumably was meant to have been read as a pointed, but deniable, attack on Stalin’s ‘unaccountable’ absence during the crucial period in October. Isaac Deutscher elsewhere points out that:
‘In the days of the upheaval Stalin was not among its main actors. Even more than usual, he remained in the shadow, a fact that was to cause embarrassment to his official biographers and perhaps justified Trotsky in saying that ‘the greater the sweep of events the smaller was Stalin’s place in it’.
Trotsky in On Lenin remarks rather cryptically when describing a discussion between himself and Lenin about the strategy for the Soviet revolution that:
‘Comrade Stalin was present, if I am not mistaken. It might be, however, that I am here compressing two meetings into one. Generally speaking I must admit that my recollections of the last few days before the actual upheaval became extremely confused’ (p.264).
Given Trotsky’s later vivid and detailed recollection of these events in his History of the Russian Revolution, for example, it is hard not to see this passage as disingenuous and as responding to very particular factional manoeuvres in the course of 1924. This kind of remark makes On Lenin interesting reading, but not as satisfying a demonstration of Trotsky’s insight as The Young Lenin. There, an open conception of a revolutionary Marxist understanding of the individual and society, and the role of the revolutionary leader, shines through very clearly. These neglected works by Trotsky deserve to be read alongside his more acknowledged classics.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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