Review of Trotsky, a Biography by Robert Service
This book is very thick – running to 600 pages – but is very thin when it comes to an honest political examination and analysis of the ideas of Leon Trotsky, the subject of Service’s tome. His justification? That this book is, allegedly, the first “full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist”. He grants that Isaac Deutscher, who wrote a trilogy on Trotsky and Pierre Broué, who produced a single volume, 1,000 page study in 1989, wrote with “brio” (liveliness). As for Trotsky’s own account of his life, My Life, this is dismissed as “self-serving and an example of self-aggrandisement”!
This is a mild example of the epithets Service flings at Trotsky. He presented “serious inaccuracies” in his writings, he was an “intellectual bully”; he was “vain and self-centred”. Two lines after making this charge Service says that Trotsky “disliked boasting”! He is accused of base motives in allegedly “abandoning his first wife” and his two daughters, who Service nevertheless concedes urged him to escape from Siberia in order to link up with Lenin and the RSDLP leaders who were producing Iskra (The Spark), the revolutionary paper of the time. On virtually every page there is at least one distortion, and often more, of Trotsky’s ideas, his personal life, etc.
There is not one relevant new fact which adds to our picture of Trotsky in this book… apart from learning that Trotsky’s children acquired a “Viennese accent”, surprise, surprise, when they were living in that city. There is, however, an abundance of repeated pro-capitalist and Stalinist calumnies against Trotsky’s ideas and actions from the moment he became active in Russian revolutionary underground circles till the day he was assassinated. Service, egged on by Andrew Marr – for a time in his ‘misguided’ youth a Trotskyist of the most timid variety, it must be added – on BBC Radio’s Start the Week of 12 October, attempted yet another ‘assassination’ of Trotsky, this time of the literary kind.
Incredibly, we learn, for instance, that prior to 1914, Trotsky was not a “Marxist theoretician”! Unfortunately for Service’s “self-serving” account, there is the small, ‘unfortunate’ detail of Trotsky as the chairman of the Petrograd soviet during the 1905 revolution, at the time the greatest event for workers and the oppressed worldwide since the Paris Commune of 1871. During this revolution he also edited and wrote for a daily paper and a Marxist theoretical magazine.
Moreover, before 1914 Trotsky formulated his famous theory of the ‘permanent revolution’. This explained that the capitalist-democratic revolution – land reform, unification, the end of feudalism and tsarist dictatorship – in an ‘underdeveloped’ country like Russia could not be completed by the capitalists themselves. With this idea he was at one with Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the time. But Trotsky went further and showed that only the working class – with its special dynamic characteristics in Russia – was capable of playing the leading role in an alliance with the peasantry in completing the capitalist-democratic revolution. This in turn would be an overture to an international socialist revolution. It was a magnificent outline of what actually happened in 1917: a workers and peasants’ socialist government and the ten days that shook the world.
Service goes on to argue that Trotsky was “not original”; this theory was really the intellectual property of Alexander Helfand, better known as Parvus, who collaborated with Trotsky. Unfortunately for Service, we have the admission by Trotsky himself that Parvus contributed the “lion’s share” of this theory. But Parvus stopped short of drawing the bold revolutionary conclusion advanced by Trotsky.
Parvus argued that the outcome of an alliance of the working class and the peasantry would limit itself to the framework of capitalism, possibly setting up a government like the then ‘Labour’ governments in Australia. Trotsky, on the contrary, argued that once having carried through the capitalist-democratic revolution, a worker and peasants’ government would come to power, which would then be forced to go over to the tasks of the socialist revolution, in turn leading to a movement internationally.
Service’s attempts to rubbish Trotsky’s original theoretical contribution in the earlier part of the book is then cancelled out when, through gritted teeth, he is forced to concede later that Lenin admitted in private conversations with Joffe – one of Trotsky’s friends – that Trotsky had been right about perspectives for the Russian revolution. Trotsky’s theory is relevant today in all those societies, in the ‘underdeveloped’ world who have yet to fully complete the capitalist-democratic revolution.
All of Service’s acerbic comments about Trotsky are merely warmed-up ideas served up by previous critics, going back to Stalinism itself, capitalist commentators, jaundiced social democrats and reformists. We find the same accusations against Trotsky over terrorism, the Kronstadt revolt, on “authoritarianism”, without a shred of new evidence to back this up.
Trotsky, for instance, is accused of “omitting” in My Life any mention of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921. Trotsky himself explained when he replied to the “hue and cry over Kronstadt” in the 1930s that this was for the simple reason that this was not considered to be a major event until resurrected by latter-day critics such as anarchists and, unfortunately, by Victor Serge in the 1930s. Trotsky was accused of “suppressing” the Kronstadt sailors”, the “same ones” who participated in the October revolution.
In a forensic analysis, he showed that this was not the case – he played no direct role in the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt but accepted full “moral responsibility” for the actions that were taken. The Kronstadt ‘rebels’ demanded “soviets without the Bolsheviks”, which was applauded by the counter-revolutionaries in Russian and worldwide. Service just repeats falsehoods – without any evidence whatsoever – to try and convince us that the sailors of 1921 were the same as the heroic insurrectionists of the October revolution, which they were not. The vast majority of Petrograd workers supported the action taken against them.
Using independent sources Trotsky showed that the leaders of the revolt, for their own selfish ends – during the civil war – demanded special privileges. They even threatened to take over the Red Fleet which, with the thawing of the ice between Russia and Finland, would have opened the gates to an imperialist attack at the very heart of the Russian state. Reluctantly, therefore, the Russian workers’ government, after the mutineers refused to negotiate and withdraw, quelled the revolt.
An equally dubious approach – not outlining the sequence of events as they actually happened – is employed by Service over the Russian revolution itself. It was “a coup” – and the charges of “terrorism” are resurrected against Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. In fact, the Russian revolution took place on the basis of a democratic vote of the Congress of Soviets – the most representative institution in history – expressing as it did the direct views of the workers, the soldiers and peasants in Russia at that stage. The Winter Palace was taken with the minimum of victims – certainly nowhere near the scale of the five million Russians who were killed and horribly injured in the First World War. Service “forgets” to mention that the revolution brought the carnage of this war to an end. Weighed on the scales of history, which was more progressive: the relatively bloodless Russian revolution or the world war ended by the revolution?
The author accuses Trotsky and Lenin of totalitarianism and dictatorship because parties other than the Bolsheviks were “outlawed”. In the first period after the revolution, all parties – including the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, and only excluding the reactionary Black Hundreds – were allowed to exist. That only changed when each one of them systematically took up arms with the armies of the Whites – the counter-revolutionary landlords and capitalists – in an attempt to forcibly overthrow the revolution. In fact, in an overindulgent act, the arrested General Krasnov – who had organised a counter-revolutionary uprising – was freed by the Bolsheviks only for him to immediately organise a White army that killed thousands of workers and peasants.
Charges of terrorism
As with all slanderers of revolutions – back to the English and French revolutions – the charges of “terrorism” sit uneasily on the lips of those like Service. He complains about the “lack of democracy” after the revolution. Did the North and Abraham Lincoln permit the Southern slave owners to act with impunity in the North during the American Civil War? Did Oliver Cromwell let the royalists operate freely in areas controlled by the Parliamentarians during the English civil war? Russia’s terrible civil war, which ensued from the intervention of imperialism’s 21 armies backed up by the White armies, resulted in widespread destruction of life with a terrible famine in parts of Russia. The entire responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of imperialism, which tried to crush the revolution.
The fairy story of Bolshevik unpopularity at the time when they were in power and of those like Lenin and Trotsky is even countered by Service himself. He points out, for instance, that the revolution at one stage was reduced to the old province of Muscovy and the two major cities of Petrograd and Moscow. Why then did the revolution endure and triumph, defeat the Whites and drive the imperialist armies out of Russia? It was because the mass of the population saw the advantages of the workers and peasants’ government and their actions in giving land to the peasants, freedom from tsarist oppression and bread. Workers worldwide also supported Russia’s working class.
But it is on Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin and the bureaucracy that the shallowness of Service’s method is displayed. He sets out his stall – the real reason for writing this book – from the outset in his introduction. First, there is the touching defence of Stalin, who was “no mediocrity but rather had an impressive range of skills as well as talent for decisive leadership”. But on the other hand, Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin “shared more than they disagreed about”. The implied conclusion – spelt out in his subsequent analysis – is that Stalin’s regime was, in effect, an “outgrowth” of the bolshevism of Lenin and the “acquired” bolshevism of Trotsky.
In reality, between the regime of Lenin and Trotsky, of revolution, which involved the participation of the masses and of workers’ democracy at the beginning of the revolution, and that of Stalin, was a “river of blood”. The purge trials of the 1930s – which Service scandalously mentions only in passing – represented a one-sided civil war against the remnants of the Bolshevik party. He actually compares Stalin’s monstrous purge trials to the alleged “show trials” of the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) in 1921. In real terrorist acts, the SRs had put two bullets into Lenin’s body and killed two Bolsheviks Uritsky and Volodarsky.
Trotsky never committed a terrorist act against Stalin or his regime. Moreover, the Bolsheviks allowed two prominent social democrats from the Second International into Russia in 1921 to defend the accused. They were not executed even though they were found guilty. Stalin allowed no such latitude to the accused in the Moscow trials.
Stalinism was not a “natural development” of Leninism but its negation. This, the author is incapable of seeing. He is firmly in the camp of those capitalist commentators and other opponents of Marxism – of which Trotskyism is only the modern manifestation – who wish to wipe out any memory of the real lessons of the revolution and of Trotsky’s struggle.
Service writes that “once Trotsky was a frequent topic of public discussion, at least outside the USSR. Those days are gone.” Wishful thinking! ‘Trotskyism’ has become for the capitalists and their media the new swear word – replacing ‘commie’ – in their lexicon. In a period of massive social upheaval, following on from the present devastating economic crisis of world capitalism, the new generation is looking for ideas on how to go forward in a challenge to the capitalist system. That inevitably means looking back to the past examples of struggle.
The real Trotsky
The most determined and conscientious of the young workers, women, black and Asian fighters, in seeking a method of struggle today, will rediscover Leon Trotsky. He fought for a new world of workers’ democracy and socialist collaboration, free from exploitation. His ‘modern’ biographer seeks to prop up a system sick unto death. He therefore engages in this book in a massive distortion of Trotsky’s ideas.
Service is wrong when he alleges that Trotsky was identified as a ‘Menshevik’ when he accuses him of not being scientific. Equally, he has not the slightest understanding of Trotsky’s attitude towards the German revolution of 1923. He says that Trotsky took no position on this earth-shaking event. Yet the leader of the German Communist Party at the time, Brandler, wanted him to go to Germany to assist the working class to take power. It would take a much bigger book than Service’s to refute all his errors.
Commented on but not really understood by Service is why Trotsky – with the silent acquiescence of world capitalism at that stage – saw both his daughters and both his sons, himself and virtually his whole family murdered by Stalin. Stalin thought he could wipe out an idea and a method. He did not succeed – Trotsky and his ideas live on. If the mighty Stalinist machine, its lies and distortions, could not succeed, what chance of Service achieving success?
The most nauseating aspect of this book is the highly personalised attack on Trotsky. “Attack a man or woman’s ideas but leave the man himself.” This is not a maxim to which the author adheres. It is not a question of ‘idealising’ Trotsky, adhering to a cult of the personality, etc. but of learning from Trotsky his method of Marxist analysis which allows us to develop the political tools that can prepare for a socialist world. You will not find this in Service’s book; read it but also go to Trotsky’s My Life, even to Deutscher’s trilogy – which if not perfect and certainly not ‘Trotskyist’ at least tries to present a recognisable picture of Trotsky’s life and what it represented. Read also the material produced by the Socialist Party on Trotsky’s life and its relevance for today.
This book is clearly intended as a platform for a political offensive against the future ‘danger’ of Trotsky’s ideas gaining a wide audience, especially for a new generation awakening to political life, as they will. We challenge Robert Service to debate with representatives of the Socialist Party on the ideas he sets out in this book, either at our forthcoming ‘Socialism’ event or at any other venue of his choosing!