A magisterial autobiography chosen by Jacqueline Mulhallen
My Life by Leon Trotsky would be fascinating if it were a mere account of the incidents of the author’s life, as one of the leaders of the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions and the man who transformed the Red Army from a rabble of deserters into a a splendidly successful fighting force which defeated the Whites. But it is far more. It includes history, political analysis and polemic and there are evocative accounts of peasant life in Russia in the late nineteenth century, war, prison life and escape.
The last part of the book, and perhaps the reason for writing it, deals with the most immediate events of Trotsky’s life leading up to this expulsion: Stalin’s machinations against him, blackening his name, arresting his supporters, organising a massive press campaign, and ridiculing Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution after Lenin’s illness and death. Stalin was then able to build support for his own idea of socialism in one country, thereby undermining any support for international socialism.
Trotsky built up the left opposition and was able to fight back, but Stalin arranged show trials and had Trotsky supporters murdered. Trotsky had to make clear what was happening if any hopes for socialism were to remain, and so he was writing in Constantinople, having been expelled from the Soviet Union and unable to find any country which would grant him asylum – something, as he says, ‘the person who most needs [it] has the least chance of obtaining’ (p. 573).
The enormity of what was at stake is made clear by Trotsky’s account of his earlier life. The son of a peasant family, struggling to become richer, Trotsky knew little of politics but was stirred by injustice. He saw the peasants badly treated, and, later at school in Odessa, he disliked the petty injustices of teachers towards children. He became active in socialist politics, was imprisoned, sent into exile and made a splendid escape. He went to Europe, living in Vienna, Paris and London and meeting Lenin and other leading socialist figures.
His closeness to Lenin and his leadership among the Bolsheviks was inevitable after his achievements in 1905, and 1917, but it is clear that, although he had loyal supporters, he also made enemies particularly during his Red Army days, something that Stalin was able to capitalise on.
In the introduction Trotsky says rather regretfully that his adventurous life was not one he sought; with his love of order and discipline he would have preferred to have had a quiet life as a writer. He shows that he could have certainly done this. He varies the Life with different styles, changing tense here and there, including dialogues, descriptions and accounts by others. He brings Yanovka, his childhood home, vividly to life: the sowing and harvesting; the mill run by his mother; the mechanic, Ivan Vasilyevich, a hero to the child, and other workers.
His lyrical description of his flight from prison by reindeer-drawn sleigh through snow-covered forests, his adventures at war with the Red Army, his tales of prison, school and duck-shooting, all read like parts of a novel. However, while these incidents can be appreciated for their own sake, they also serve to show how his character was formed.
I was already familiar with Trotsky’s life and politics before I read My Life, as I had read other biographies, his wonderful History of the Russian Revolution, and articles about and by him. So I can hardly say this book made me a socialist. But it is a book I would not be without.
Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.
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