Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Defence of Leon Trotsky

The appearance of a new work on 'the exile and murder of Leon Trotsky' by an American academic Bertrand M Patenaude, Stalin's Nemesis, which is being serialised on Radio 4 was always likely to cause a bit of a stir. I mean, if people know one thing about the legendary revolutionary it is that, thanks to the Stanglers, they are able to come up with some kind of answer to the question 'whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?'.

The work has been widely reviewed (the reviews are usefully collected together by a welcome newish addition to the blogosphere, POUMista) but it has also been an opportunity for reactionaries and liberals of every stripe to once again slander and denigrate someone who faced the most terrific slander and denigration during his life from almost every quarter. Just as Stalin smeared the Jewish Trotsky as an agent of Hitler, so Richard Overy describes Trotsky's supporters as a 'motley crew', while Trotsky himself suffered from a 'blindness to any sense of humanity' and apparently 'never had any scruples about killing those in the way of the Marxist utopia'. It is a pity that Overy has seemingly not made time to read Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours where he answered exactly Overy's critique about 'moral scruple' over seventy years ago:

'A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man. "We are to understand then that in achieving this end anything is permissible?" sarcastically demands the Philistine, demonstrating that he understood nothing. That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be achieved only through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character. It irreconcilably counteracts not only religious dogma but every kind of idealistic fetish, these philosophic gendarmes of the ruling class. It deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of the development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws. "Just the same," the moralist continues to insist, "does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?" Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation, or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the "leaders." Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers, that is, those characteristics in which petty-bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.

Overy concludes with a bon mot: 'Trotsky was also famous for the metaphor 'the dustbin of history'; sad to say, he has probably joined the trash'. I like the 'probably' in that sentence - Overy may know little about Trotsky but he is a good enough historian to have some sense that many people concerned about the future of humanity continue to recognise Trotsky as a heroic fighter for the oppressed and exploited and are likely to be still reading and learning from Trotsky long after Overy's own books have been surpassed and lie, unread, mere dusty relics on a library shelf.

I have not read Stalin's Nemesis itself yet, but another of the reviews - that of Robert Service in the Guardian - simply demands a response in some form or another. Service, we learn, is writing 'a biography' of Trotsky. Given his biography of Lenin (2000) was a 'badly-written demonisation' we can guess what his forthcoming work on Trotsky will also be like - but Service's review of Stalin's Nemesis gives us a taste of what lies in store. Service starts out with a metaphor about writing about animals:

The death of a hunted fox is usually written about in two ways. One focuses on the chase and killing with sympathy for the defenceless animal. The second, usually favoured by the hunters, takes into account the hens, rabbits and lambs that have been the fox's victims.

True enough. I feel sorry for any poor little hunted fox, but I also feel for the unfortunate hens, rabbits and lambs that are killed by foxes too.

Trotsky's assassination in Coyoacán in August 1940 more often than not attracts treatment in the first mode, and Bertrand Patenaude's book falls into this category.

Eh? How did we go from foxes, hens, rabbits and lambs to Trotsky and his death at the hands of Stalinist terror? Can human activity and behaviour - politics - really be simply described using animal metaphors? It's one thing if you are writing a novel - or a 'fairy tale' like Orwell in Animal Farm - to reduce matters in this way for artistic effect - and Orwell did it with great skill - but Service is a historian at Oxford University - isn't he is supposed to, well, view things a little more seriously and historically?

Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, was the final abode of the fallen Soviet leader after Stalin had him deported from the USSR in 1929. He stayed successively in Turkey, France and Norway before the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas offered him permanent asylum. The intervening years were disastrous. His followers in the Soviet Union were shot or put to forced labour. Abroad, his daughter Zina committed suicide and his son perished in mysterious circumstances in a Paris hospital. He knew he too was marked for liquidation when the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros led an attack on his villa-fortress in May 1940. Three months later NKVD [Spoviet secret police] agent Ramón Mercader got into the compound and drove an ice axe into his cranium.

Ah, so that's what happened to Leon Trotsky! Cheers Robert, though you might have mentioned that Trotsky also sought refuge from Stalin in the great parliamentary democracy that is Britain but that the government of the day (incidently a Labour government) refused him political asylum as well...

Trotsky blamed all his troubles on Stalin.

If true, then perhaps understandable given Stalin wanted him dead, and was in the process of murdering his family and close friends.

In his elegant autobiography - one of the 20th century's political classics - he laid out how a criminal group had seized control of his beloved Communist party and pushed it to a terminus of self-seeking bureaucracy, corruption and violence.

Well, that's close to what Trotsky argued actually happened. Trotsky's My Life is indeed a classic but isn't Service thinking of The Revolution Betrayed here (My Life stopped in about 1929)? This doesn't really bode that well if he is writing a biography of Trotsky does it...

Patenaude does not hide how Trotsky himself had been associated with dictatorship and terror, but flashbacks to earlier episodes of Trotsky's career mostly show how the fox was caught by his hunters. The hens he had bloodily torn apart and devoured do not figure prominently.

'The hens he had bloodily torn apart and devoured' - Service really needs to get a grip and pull himself together a bit. He is supposed to be a historian - surely he might deign to mention something of the historical context to the Soviet 'dictatorship' and 'terror' - namely the Russian Civil War? Just in passing even? No? Oh well, hens bloodily torn apart and devoured for no reason other than it is in a fox's nature to tear apart and devour hens it is then and Trotsky is not a human being but an animal living by instinct. I see.

Not every unhappiness in Trotsky's life, was attributable to Stalin. Mentally unstable and afflicted by tuberculosis, Zina had left the USSR to join her father in the Sea of Marmara. A number of fires soon occurred in Trotsky's rented house. The suspicion of the resident Trotskyists was that Zina was the culprit. She was only happy when she was performing political tasks for her father, but he shrugged her aside and sent her to Berlin for medical attention. In Germany she wrote painful letters to her mother saying that the root of her difficulties was the alienation from the man she had "adored since the day of her birth". In despair she gassed herself. Trotsky's Bulletin of the Opposition denounced Stalin for what had happened, but the decisive factor was Trotsky's own incapacity for emotional empathy.

This is just sick frankly. 'The decisive factor' in Trotsky's daughter's suicide was apparently not the context of Stalinist persecution and exile (the suicide was 'not attributable' to Stalin at all apparently) but Trotsky's 'own incapacity for emotional empathy' - really, how low can one go? Talk about kicking the man when he is down.

On the political plane, too, he helped to design and build a political order that persecuted whole social categories.

I like this bit about 'social categories' - at least he recognises that enemies of the Russian Revolution were not defenceless, harmless and loveable farmyard or woodland animals but 'social categories' - but does he mean maybe 'exploiters' and 'oppressors' or something like that? Or what? He does not say - it is pathetic, frankly...

His Terrorism and Communism, written in 1920, justified the application of terror to presumed "enemies of the people". In his period of power after the October Revolution, he revelled in introducing a harsh dictatorial regime and never questioned the need for one-party rule. His ferocity continued after his deportation. In 1931, when the Menshevik leaders were arraigned in a show trial, he spared not an ounce of compassion. For Trotsky, as for Stalin, such people deserved to be punished without pity.

Still not a mention of the context of the Russian Civil War I see. Nevermind, one can't ask for everything I suppose. At least Service has moved on from talking about foxes and hens and is at least attempting to present some historical 'facts' before us. We have to be grateful for small mercies.

The strength of Patenaude's account is in his detective work on the last weeks of Trotsky's life. He has a good feel for the topography of the villa on Avenida Viena and has blended his story with an account of contemporary political conditions in Mexico. He is also up to date with the recent Russian research on the operations of the NKVD.

At last - something about the book itself under review. It sounds an interesting read. Thanks Robert.

Trotsky still has the power to raise passions.

No shit - Service is so passionate in his hatred he can't even bear to describe him as a fellow human being - he has to portray him as a bloodthirsty predator.

The brutal circumstances of his assassination, together with his genius for producing books of literary brilliance, continue widely to elicit the feeling that he would have constructed "socialism with a human face" in the USSR.

Trotsky also wanted 'socialism with a human face' internationally as well as in the Soviet Union - a small point but I think one worth mentioning given his defence of this basic principle of Marxism led to his exile and murder at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy (who wanted 'socialism in one country'). Memo to Robert Service - Trotsky's internationalism might be worth mentioning in the biography somewhere. Look up 'Permanent Revolution, Marxist Theory of' for more information on this perhaps.

But Trotsky was a master of selectivity and evasiveness when telling the story of his career and he drew a curtain across his complicity in consolidating an edifice of lawless dictatorship.

Thank goodness Service doesn't engage in any 'selectivity and evasiveness' himself when it comes to telling the story of Trotsky's revolutionary career - no, none whatsoever.

The fox indeed endured a grisly end. But it is surely also important to remember the deaths of the hens, ducks and lambs.

Eh? It was 'hens, rabbits and lambs' earlier - now it is 'hens, ducks and lambs' - what about the rabbits? And where did the ducks come from? Either get your animal metaphors right, Service, or just stick to writing about humans as humans. Actually, given his lack of interest in Trotsky the man, let alone Trotsky the revolutionary Marxist, why does he even bother? Oh, yes, I remember now, to try and discourage people from reading too much else about Trotsky and the Russian Revolution in case they get some odd ideas about 'socialism with a human face' being slightly better than the current wonder to behold that is global capitalism in the midst of one of its endemic crises. Denigrating one of twentieth-century capitalism's greatest critics through the form of a 'biography' that will doubtless sell well enough - Service's anti-Trotskyism all starts to make sense now - even if the need for such propaganda on behalf of the existing order in the twenty-first century is, in a way, only a reminder and a recognition of Trotsky's enduring appeal and importance.

Edited to add: The first volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Trotsky, Towards October 1879-1917 (1989) is now online

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At 1:18 am, Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

I heard parts of the Patenaude book on the radio. It seemed to me a reasonably fair account, although I saw no signs of original research; it was a pretty well-worn account.

My main reservation would be with his suggestion that Stalin's motivation in hounding down Trotskywas personal revenge, and that he did not fear Trotsky's organisation.

What this forgets is that Stalin,like Trotsky,had lived through Zimmerwald, and had seen that, in periods of acute social crisis, very small organisations can very rapidly grow and become significant.

At 11:17 pm, Blogger Conrad Barwa said...

Trotsky perhaps should bear some of the responsibility in setting up the Bolshevik state apparatus which was quite repressive - yes, yes, Civil War, the threat of the Whites etc. but none of this detracts from the facts that this wasn't a regime that respected peoples' rights very much. It is all very well if those in charge were some sort of Platonic elite but they clearly weren't in this case for the most part, and rarely are.

More damningly perhaps is the way Trotsky allowed himself to be outmanouvred by Stalin after Lenin's death; I think one thing most people would agree on is that it would have been much better for Russia, not to mention much less bloody if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin.

At 1:48 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

With the failure of socialist uprising in Germany etc, it was inevitable that socialism in Russia would be deformed. It's not a matter of personalities.

At 9:15 am, Blogger Adam Marks said...

"More damningly perhaps is the way Trotsky allowed himself to be outmanouvred by Stalin after Lenin's death".

The rest of what you say is debatable (in the good sense), although it's very difficult to hold to any notion of rights when your antagonist simply wants to wipe you out. There was one estimate of the Finnish Civil War, whereby the White army killed 100,000 Finns in the course of a few months. What common basis was there for rights in the greater civil war? Insisting on such a thing is projecting modern values and conditions back onto a very specific past episode.

That said, the top quote is hatstand. How on earth could anyone come to that conclusion without secret access to parts of Trotsky's mind that even he could not reach? That'd be some talent.

At 6:20 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

See the Carnival of Socialism at my blog.

At 12:22 am, Anonymous Conrad Barwa said...

"With the failure of socialist uprising in Germany etc, it was inevitable that socialism in Russia would be deformed. It's not a matter of personalities."

Well that is debatable, structural factors played an important role but I don't think this means all individuals can be excused for everything happened in Soviet Russia. This sounds not only crudely deterministic but also like a socialist fairytale - ie "oh if only the German Revolution had been successful etc.etc." the problem is that there are any number of conditionalities and if only x happened then things would have been different line that one could take.

"What common basis was there for rights in the greater civil war? Insisting on such a thing is projecting modern values and conditions back onto a very specific past episode."

Whoa tiger, I am not insisting on anything. I think this line of arguement is getting a bit repetitive yes, it was nasty war, civil wars usually are even now; never mind back then. My point wasn't the conduct of it then but the fact that after the war was won there should have been some dismantling of the security apparatus or regulation. As it was, it led to an outcome where far more people ended being butchered by a Bolshevik installed regime than were killed by the Whites.

"How on earth could anyone come to that conclusion without secret access to parts of Trotsky's mind that even he could not reach? That'd be some talent."

Sheesh, take it easy on the Trotsky deification; the guy was allowed to make mistakes you know. His inaction and slowness in moving to counteract Stalin's machinations are hardly new points in this debate; one could provide reasons for them but I think it is hard to look back and not see this as a gross error.

At 9:12 am, Blogger Adam Marks said...

"His inaction and slowness in moving to counteract Stalin's machinations are hardly new points in this debate..."

Nothing to do with Trotsky worship, it just seems barking. The one thing that is not is 'damning' evidence of Trotsky's complicity in the rise of Stalin's police state. You could have picked any number of more usedful events and/or pronouncements from Trotsky to cover that accusation (however fair or unfair they might be).

At 1:16 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for comments people.

There is indeed an issue about the failings of Trotsky's Left Opposition in the 1920s to fight the rising Stalinist bureaucracy effectively - see for example the discussion of this in the third volume of Cliff's biography of Trotsky. Its a while since I've really looked at this but off the top of my head I remember in particular they were completely wrongfooted ideologically when Stalin had his 'left turn' against Bukharin and began the first Five Year Plan of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation in earnest. Many of the Left Opposition went over to Stalin in that critical period - though of course it didn't save them later.

In part Trotsky, not altogether unreasonably, had a vision of history where every revolution would inevitably be followed by a reaction, as happened in the Great French Revolution. He therefore thought he would be best off trying to bide his time - act defensively - rather than go on the offensive against Stalin openly from the start (as Lenin himself wished Trotsky to do).
Trotsky feared that if he used his supporters and perhaps even his Red Army against Stalin then he would be seen as ushering in the 'Thermidorean Reaction' or as a new Napoleon. The tragedy is that Trotsky should have gone to the rank and file of the party and what was left of the working class and tried to more effectively organise there and win the argument there. The greater tragedy of course is that by then the Russian working class had been more or less destroyed by the Russian Civil War and the revolution had failed to spread - indeed instead fascism had triumphed in Italy. The whole thing is tragic actually - but 1920s Soviet Russia was a more interesting place than is often imagined - and certainly completely different from the 1930s by which time the Stalinist counter-revolution was in full swing.

At 4:31 pm, Blogger Undergroundman said...

"I like this bit about 'social categories' - at least he recognises that enemies of the Russian Revolution were not defenceless, harmless and loveable farmyard or woodland animals but 'social categories' - but does he mean maybe 'exploiters' and 'oppressors' or something like that? Or what? He does not say - it is pathetic, frankly..."

No, it is you who are pathetic in resorting to the only response uncritical worshippers of Trotsky are capable of when confronted with detailed research and the facts-cheap sarcasm and abuse.

Trotsky was indifferent to the deaths of millions of ordinary Russians who were the raw material of history and notr irreplaceble individuals.

Maybe Service doesn't 'mean' what you want him to mean for the reason that you've already decided he is 'the enemy' who needs to be slandered for revealing Trotsky was an ideologue who thought in terms of 'social categories'and that this rationalised the horrific use of state terror against anyone who opposed the Bolsheviks.

That was clear from the mass murder of the Kronstadt Sailors ib 1921 which cannot be defended other than by sliding into the expedient falsehoods of the 'revolution' in danger as decided exclusively by Trotsky and the commissars of Revolution.

If anybody is 'sick' it is those who continue to put this psychopathological terrorist on a pedestal.

At 4:34 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

'Trotsky was indifferent to the deaths of millions of ordinary Russians who were the raw material of history and not irreplaceble individuals'

Have you read any biographies of Trotsky not written by right-wing Cold War Warriors like Service? Just wondering like...


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