Wednesday, May 19, 2010

No More Heroes

Back in my university days, I bought and read Dmitri Volkogonov’s biography on Lenin to help me with an essay I was writing on the lovable old mass murderer. The question asked whether he was a revolutionary before he was a Marxist or the other way around. Taking the question literally I argued that he became a revolutionary because the Tsar had his brother executed and that he formed his own brand of Marxism later. This is no departure from standard texts on Lenin but my source, Volkogonov, had written three biographies on the three iconic figures of the Russian Revolution, Stalin, Lenin and later on Trotsky which certainly were departures from the way that they had been portrayed by the Soviet Union. Volkogonov had been known as a hard-line general in the Soviet Union when his book denouncing Stalin for his crimes was published leading to his dismissal from his job as head of the Institute of Military History at the Ministry of Defense by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev. Subsequently he wrote the biography on Lenin which dismissed its subject as a murderer and then, around the time I was writing my essay on Lenin, his biography on Trotsky was about to be published in English which was widely expected to consign him to the same league of blood-stained butchers as the other two.

But as that was the end of my formal education in history I never got round to reading Volkogonov’s biography on Trotsky and my interest in him diminished until Robert Service brought out his new tome on the man who many people had pinned their hopes on as the real hope for the Russian Revolution - Animal Farm’s Snowball and 1984’s Goldstein who could have made it all better if that dastardly Stalin (or Napoleon or Big Brother) hadn’t destroyed him. Robert Service mentions in his introduction, two biographers of Trotsky who were particular admirers of Trotsky, Pierre Broue and Isaac Deutscher, the latter of whom wrote a famous Trotsky trilogy of “literary dash” that Service himself doesn’t claim to rival.

A review of Service’s new biography has appeared in the London Review of Books by a writer called Sheila Kirkpatrick in which she says Service has written a book that is “less fun to read than Deutscher or Volkogonov” and which she takes issue with because it highlights his love affairs such as with Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo: Don't Mention the affairs!

Kirkpatrick gives an interesting description of Volkogonov’s biography of Trotsky and attitude towards the three big names:

“Volkogonov was well along in his political evolution from anti-Stalinist Leninist to anti-Leninist when he wrote the Trotsky biography. Thus, while his Trotsky was a Leninist revolutionary (major revisionism in Soviet terms), Volkogonov no longer approved of Leninist revolutionaries. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky: they were all men of blood to him now, historically almost indistinguishable from each other.”

Summing up Service’s conclusion she says:

Would the Soviet Union have fared better under Trotsky’s leadership than Stalin’s? Service takes the position, increasingly common in recent scholarship, that it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. He’s surprised at ‘the number of people who had no sympathy for Communism and yet accepted the idea that the USSR would not have been a totalitarian despotism under Trotskyist rule’. For Service, Trotsky was ‘close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism even though he claimed and assumed that he would.’ He ‘revelled in terror’ and was ‘a ruthless centraliser and a friend of army and police’. ‘As soon as he had power, he eagerly suppressed popular aspirations by violence.’

And then goes on to say that Service also attacks the wishful thinkers who also wanted to believe in Trotsky despite evidence pointing towards him being just as inclined to spill blood for the revolutionary cause as both Lenin and Stalin. She finds this to be ironic as it suggests a kind of Marxist faith in the inevitability of history and perhaps an indulgence in irresponsible “What if…?” counterfactual history. I don’t think that is a fair charge, however. It is fair to make plausible guesses about what kind of leader Trotsky would have been. Service’s aim doesn’t seem to be in writing an alternative history but rather to answer those who choose to do so in a way not based on facts but on, well… faith. However, in sensing that Service has allowed a certain amount of anger into his writing she says, I think sarcastically:

It’s almost a relief to find Service finally taking a political and emotional position, after all that above-the-battle detachment. Still, it strikes me as an intellectual cop-out. Granted ‘what if’ history has its pitfalls, but does it make sense to say that, with Trotsky in power from the end of the 1920s rather than Stalin, everything would have turned out the same?... is it remotely plausible that he would have become paranoid about Jews after the war and launched the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign?

Well,now I think she is deliberately missing the point. Obviously Service isn’t saying that everything would have been exactly the same, only with Trotsky at the helm. For a start, Trotsky wouldn’t have engineered the death of Trotsky in Mexico with the aid of a delightful looking assassin. Ms. Kirkpatrick surely knows this and is being deliberately mocking.

I'm sure that Service is actually saying is that there would still have been a bloody tyranny under Trotsky although I am only about two-fifths of the way through reading his book myself. When I have finished I may well return to the subject and if Ms. Kirkpatrick is correct and I am wrong I shall be back to eat humble pie.
But first let me offer my own devastating critique of the book:

On page 15 there is a sentence: “Nearly all Jewish settlers went on bringing up their children up speaking Yiddish.”

I would suggest the first “up” is superfluous.

On pages 24-25: “but if Leiba’s difficulties with the vocabulary a couple of year later are anything to go by…”

“Year” is a countable noun and the plural is “years”! Sheesh!

On page 31, a childhood friend of Trotsky is named “Karlson” and then later on in the same paragraph as “Carlson”!

On page 48, a hectograph is described in parentheses as “[a small, rudimentary, gelatin duplicator)”

Spot the typo!

Here’s one that I don’t know if it is a mistake or not. In the chapter, “Love and Prison” Trotsky is described as incarcerated, along with his first wife, from 1898 onwards. But on pages 55-56 it reads, “It was in fact another year before they learned of their fate. In November 1898 the Nikolaev group heard that they were to serve a term of administrative exile.”

Shouldn’t that be “November 1899”?

Still, I do like the picture of Trotsky's assassin, Ramon Mercader, which appears in the book. He seems to be diguised as a hitman or secret agent.


Roderick Russell said...

Angrysoba you pose the question “does it make sense to say that with Trotsky in power from the end of the 1920’s rather than Stalin, everything would have turned out the same”

It seems to me that Lenin’s communism is inherently a philosophy that does not work, except through coercion and force. In the early days of the USSR there were many other potential rival political movements that could have come forward and taken a very different route. Without Stalin’s ability to create a huge secret police state it is quite possible that communism in the USSR might have collapsed in the 1920’s through its own failings. Now I don’t doubt that Trotsky was prepared to be just as brutal as Stalin, but was he as capable?

I would recommend Simon Montefiore’s book “Young Stalin” for the development of this extraordinarily gifted, yet very conspiratorial psychopathic killer.

angrysoba said...

Hi Roderick, thanks for the comment.

Actually, the question posed wasn't my own but one that I quoted from Sheila Kirkpatrick's review of Robert Service's book.

My hunch is that she is somewhat misrepresenting what Service is saying and her question is somewhat rhetorical. Service's answer would be, I am guessing here, probably somewhat similar to yours that the point is the Soviet ideology simply doesn't work without coercion and that Trotsky was no less prepared to do everything in his power to coerce the Soviet Union into its "destiny" as Stalin was.

As it happens, Service does talk about Trotsky's tactics during the Civil War which included executions of officers and decimations of indisciplined Red Army units.

I think you're also quite right to ask whether he was as capable. One of the ironies of Isaac Deutscher's biographies on Trotsky, in which he called Trotsky the Prophet (Armed, Unarmed and Outcast) is in the way that Service finds Trotsky wrong in all of his predictions and his evaluation of his opponents. Some prophet!

Thanks for the recommendation as well. Coincidentally, I received Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar" that I had ordered yesterday.