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BEHIND THE MYTH Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service (Macmillan 624pp 25)

Trotsky has always been something of an icon for the intelligentsia,

and it is not hard to see why. He fitted the perception that
dissenting intellectuals like to have of themselves. Highly cultured,
locked in struggle with a repressive establishment, a gifted writer
who was also a man of action, he seemed to embody the ideal of
truth speaking to power. The manner of his death solidified this
perception, which has shaped accounts of his life ever since.

Trotsky was a charismatic leader whose appeal extended across the

political spectrum. When Trotsky was on the run from Stalin, H L
Mencken offered to give him his own library (Trotsky refused
because he did not want to be indebted to a reactionary). The
Bishop of Birmingham signed a petition on Trotsky's behalf, and he
was invited to become rector of Edinburgh University. Maynard
Keynes tried to secure asylum for him in England, a campaign
supported even by the power-worshipping Stalin-lover Beatrice Webb. Literary notables like Lionel
Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy joined the chorus of adulation. A hero-martyr in the
cause of humanity, Trotsky deserved the support of every right-thinking person.

This has never been a terribly plausible view of the man who welcomed the ruthless crushing of
the Kronstadt workers and sailors when they demanded a more pluralist system of government in
1921, and who defended the systematic use of terror against opponents of the Soviet state until
his dying day. Introducing a system of hostage-taking in the Civil War and consistently supporting
the trial and execution of dissidents (Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, liberal Kadets,
nationalists and others), Trotsky never hesitated to endorse repression against those who stood in
the way of communist power. This much has long been clear, but the full extent of Trotsky's role in
building Soviet totalitarianism has not been detailed - until now.

Rigorously researched, covering Trotsky's education and upbringing, his life as an migr before
the revolution, his time as a military leader, his losing battle with Stalin, his women, his life as an
exile and his assassination, Robert Service's new biography discloses a man very different from the
one celebrated by bien pensants. The author of distinguished biographies of Lenin and Stalin,
Service is eminently qualified to set Trotsky in his historical context. Here Service surpasses
himself, and produces a life that is genuinely revelatory. Trotsky's lifelong effort to distance
himself from his Jewish background - 'The workers are dearer to me than all the Jews,' Service
reports him saying - is carefully and sensitively examined. There is an interesting discussion of
Trotsky's attempt to fashion a distinctive philosophical position for himself (despite having a
commendably unorthodox interest in Freud, he was no more successful than Lenin in this regard).
The book is rich in telling detail. The young Trotsky liked to dominate the independent-minded
women revolutionaries in his circle, and to this end studied carefully Schopenhauer's The Art of
Controversy, a guide to debating tricks. Trotsky was 'an intellectual bully', Service writes, who
'relished wounding his opponents'. None of this is flattering to Trotsky, but Service is always
scrupulously balanced. The result is a powerfully demystifying biography of one of the most
heavily mythologised figures of twentieth-century history.
Western historians have largely accepted Trotsky's self-serving account of his opposition to Stalin's
policies and methods, but the differences between the two leaders were more limited than has
been commonly believed. Trotsky favoured moving quickly to central planning and collective
farming, and shared Stalin's view of the need to isolate the kulaks (richer peasants). Far from being
more liberal than Stalin, during the New Economic Policy (NEP) he blamed Stalin for sheltering
Menshevik economists. It was Trotsky who pushed ahead with the 'militarisation of labour', which
imposed army-style discipline and punishment on Soviet workers. Hailed as an apostle of cultural
freedom because of his interest in the arts, Trotsky believed as much as Stalin did that culture
must be assessed (and policed) in terms of its political correctness. Trotsky's influential essay
Literature and Revolution, Service writes, 'was essentially a work of political reductionism. When
all is said and done, it was Trotsky who laid down the philosophical foundations for cultural

It is often claimed that Trotsky's superiority was in his analysis of the European situation. In fact
his views on international affairs were far-fetched in the extreme. It is true that he grasped the
threat posed by Nazism more clearly than Stalin. Even so, he shared Stalin's vulgar-Marxist
interpretation of Hitler as a 'tool of German finance-capital', never acknowledging the high levels
of mass support Hitler had achieved among the German working class. Right up to his
assassination in August 1940, Trotsky believed Europe was on the brink of proletarian revolution.
When Nazi power was at its height he was still talking seriously of a revolt of German workers
against Hitler and claiming that Finnish peasants would welcome Stalin as their liberator.

Trotsky may have seen the Nazi danger, but if his analysis of events had been accepted Nazi
Germany would never have been defeated. Throughout the catastrophes of the 1930s he was
consistently hostile to liberal democracy. In October 1939 he was praising the Comintern for
remaining neutral in the European war. In July 1940 he wrote that the Trotskyite Fourth
International should join the Comintern, refuse to support Britain against Germany and oppose
American entry into the conflict. What was needed was 'a people's referendum on the war', which
would reveal to American workers 'the futility of their democracy'.

There is something ludicrous in the spectacle of Trotsky scorning the futility of democracy at a
time when Hitler had almost extinguished it in Europe. But it is of a piece with an entire life of self-
deception. As Service writes, Trotsky 'had matchless self-righteousness'. In The Revolution
Betrayed (written in 1936) he admitted that the Soviet Union was like Hitler's Germany, a
totalitarian state. He never admitted any responsibility for bringing the Soviet version of
totalitarianism into being. But along with Lenin he had created the system that Stalin inherited and
used for ends with which Trotsky generally sympathised.

Inhumanly ruthless in his dealings with non-Bolsheviks and at the same time thoroughly inept in
his relations with Stalin, Trotsky was too vain and self-deceiving to merit the status of tragic hero
accorded him by Western admirers. Undoubtedly he was courageous, and it can hardly be denied
that he was a key player in some of the formative conflicts of the last century. But in the end it is
impossible to see him as other than an absurd figure, a fantasist seeking to found a paradise who
helped build a hell on earth. Had Trotsky prevailed in his struggle with Stalin, would the world
today be in better shape - or would it actually be worse? It is a question Robert Service does not
answer. But he has given us the best biography of Trotsky to date, and there seems little reason
why anyone should write another.
Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service
The Sunday Times review by Robert Harris
On August 20, 1940 an agent of the Soviet intelligence services came up behind the seated figure of Leon
Trotsky and smashed an ice pick into the top of his skull with such force it penetrated three inches into his
brain. Trotsky, according to his assassin, gave out a piteous, shattering cry and in a final spasm of furious
energy threw himself onto me and bit my left hand.

The murder was ordered by Stalin, whose policy towards his enemies he once summed up laconically as,
One man, one problem; no man, no problem. But the assassination proved to be a serious political
mistake. Trotsky became a martyr 200,000 mourners lined the streets of Mexico City to watch his funeral
and in the years that followed a potent myth gathered around him: if only, his adherents argued, it had
been Trotsky who had succeeded Lenin and not Stalin, then the USSR might have been spared its famines
and its terrors, its show trials and its denials of freedom, and could have established communism with a
human face 60 years before Gorbachev.

Now, 50 years after the last full-scale biography of Trotsky in English, Robert Service has turned his
attention to this myth and has, effectively, assassinated Trotsky all over again. He tries to be fair. That
Trotsky had immense personal courage is indisputable. That he was one of the 20th centurys great orators
and polemicists is also in no doubt (in an arresting comparison, Service writes that among his political
contemporaries only Churchill equalled him as a prose stylist). He was personally incorruptible, even
priggish, disliking tobacco, alcohol and smutty stories. Money and luxury meant nothing to him. He liked the
novels of Georges Simenon.

But after that, Service more or less runs out of positive things to say, and the detail on the debit side is
mountainous. If one can imagine the most obnoxious middle-class student radical one has ever met bitter,
sneering, arrogant, selfish, cocky, callous, callow, blinkered and condescending and if one freezes that
image, applies a pair of pince-nez and transports it back to the beginning of the last century, then one has

Born in another age, Trotsky might have whiled away his time harmlessly enough on a small private income,
calling for a workers revolution while never actually doing any physical work himself. It was his hatred of his
parents, or at any rate their type poor Jewish farmers who, by hard work and innovation, managed to build
up a profitable business that animated Trotsky. There is no creature, he wrote in 1935, more disgusting
than a petit bourgeois engaged in primary accumulation. The absurd exaggeration (no creature?) and lapse
into jargon is pure Trotsky.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and in St Petersburg in 1917 it was Trotsky every bit as ruthless
and clear-sighted as Lenin who recognised that in a revolutionary situation power will always flow to the
most fanatical. I tell you, heads must roll, blood must flow, he told the Kronstadt sailors. The strength of
the French Revolution was in the machine that made the enemies of the people shorter by a head. This is a
fine device. We must have it in every city. It was Trotsky who whipped up the workers and soldiers by his
speeches, who urged the storming of the Winter Palace, who insisted that the Bolsheviks must maintain their
grip on power by the institutionalised use of terror (the organised violence of the workers as applied to the
bourgeoisie) and who insisted that ministers must henceforth become commissars.

Service makes it absolutely plain that Trotskyism was Stalinism in embryo. As early as 1922 he came up
with the idea of staging trials of the regimes political enemies that would have, in his cynical words, the -
character of a finished political production show trials, in other words. As commander of the Red Army,
he favoured hostage-taking and summary executions. According to Service, he implemented a policy of
decimating regiments which deserted or showed cowardice under fire military discipline on the field of a
harshness barely seen since the Roman legions. At times it seemed that Trotsky and Stalin were competing
for the status of the most brutal commissar.
It may be wondered why, given such lack of squeamishness, Trotsky allowed himself to be defeated by
Stalin for the Soviet leadership after Lenins death. It was certainly not that he was a nicer man: years later,
two of his most devoted followers agreed that Trotsky entirely lacked a feeling for others as individuals and
that he has no humanity; its entirely absent from him. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, Stalin had far
more charm at a human level and would take endless pains to humour obscure party officials who might one
day do him some good. Trotsky, in contrast, would sit ostentatiously reading French novels in politburo
meetings when other speakers bored him. His biting sarcasm made even thugs such as the chief of the
secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, afraid of opening their mouths.

This personal coldness extended even to Lenin, the only man who ever gained any kind of psychological
dominance over him, and by far the hardest of the troika who established the USSR. (Compared to Lenin,
Molotov once observed, Stalin was a kitten.) After Lenin suffered his stroke in 1922, Trotsky never went to
visit him. Service makes it clear that Trotsky could have been Lenins heir if he had shown even the most
basic ability to make alliances in the politburo. But he failed to exploit his opportunities. It was not just Stalins
cunning that defeated him; it was his own intellectual arrogance.

In 1927, the 15th Party Congress voted to expel Trotsky from the party. In 1928 he went into internal exile. In
1929 he was deported to Turkey, which only agreed to take him in return for a guarantee from Moscow that
he would not be assassinated. Thereafter, Trotsky drifted around the world to France, to Norway and
finally to Mexico making a living by writing (for his History of the Russian Revolution he was paid $45,000
by the Saturday Evening Post), dreaming of world revolution and bitterly complaining that the bourgeois
democracies that he wished to obliterate would not allow him to settle within their borders.

At no point in his denunciations of Stalin did Trotsky acknowledge that the violence and cynicism of the
Soviet state might, in large part, be the inevitable consequences of the regime they had created together. His
system of thinking that the proletariat was the progressive class, that the Communist party was the party
of the proletariat, and that therefore the Communist party was the progressive party and must have a
monopoly of power was entirely closed: a mantra in place of reasoning. Whatever might happen, Trotsky
would never stop believing: I shall still pass into non-existence with indestructible confidence in the victory of
a cause I have served all my life.

This is not political thinking: this is a secular version of religious fundamentalism. It bears out the wisdom of
RH Tawneys observation in the 1930s that being a communist seems to put a kink in the brain which can
never be straightened out. Seldom has the pathology of the revolutionary type, and its murderous -
consequences, been more mercilessly exposed than in this exemplary biography.

Trotsky by Robert Service

Macmillan 25 pp624