Trotsky. Downfall of a Revolutionary/Trotsky. A Biography

By Thatcher, Ian D. | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Trotsky. Downfall of a Revolutionary/Trotsky. A Biography


Thatcher, Ian D., Canadian Slavonic Papers


Bertrand M. Patenaude. Trotsky. Downfall of a Revolutionary. New York: Harper, 2009. 370 pp. Illustrations. Sources and notes. Index. $35.99, cloth.

Robert Service. Trotsky. A Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. xxii, 600 pp. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Select bibliography. Index. $35.00, cloth.

Robert Sendee has completed the remarkable accomplishment, shared only by the late Dmitri Volkogonov, of producing full-scale biographies of the three leading figures of early Soviet communism: Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. The final volume of Sendee's trilogy was worth the effort, in the author's estimation, because of its subject's role in planning and solidifying the October Revolution, thereby guaranteeing an impact on Russian and world history. The biographer's interpretation of the man will, therefore, be linked to an evaluation of the socialist politics to which Trotsky dedicated his life. Service writes consciously as a 'non-Trotskyist' (advocates would no doubt claim anti-) and also one infers, as a non-Marxist. The relationship between father and son, for example, has an underlying political aspect or interpretation. David Bronstein represents the good of late imperial Russia: a hard-working frugal fellow who stood for "enlightenment, material progress and promotion through merit" (p. 19). The son destroyed such promise by using his undoubted literary and oratorical talents to manoeuvre for revolution, civil war and the establishment of a centralized, brutal dictatorship.

If Service has little to praise in Trotsky's politics, the biography is not overly impressed with the central figure's character. Trotsky was egotistical, vain, and incapable of empathizing with the plight of humans unknown to him. He engaged with others on his own terms; former friends and comrades were ditched as though they had ne\^er existed. Trotsky claimed bourgeois rights of freedom of expression only when it was to his advantage to do so. A strong family man himself, Service is appalled by the way Trotsky abandoned his wife and two daughters when he escaped Siberian exile in 1902, even if this flight was condoned by "revolutionary ethics." These incidents are not only of relevance to establishing Trotsky's true mettle; the character flaws are intimately linked to Trotsky's political rise and fall. Self-belief was crucial in executing and defending a revolution; arrogance was not an attribute to build a broad support base in the Communist Party.

In a review of my own Trotsky, the late Al Richardson remarked: "Perhaps it is not the wisest course to write biographies of people you don't like." However, Service cannot be dismissed, as Trotsky was apt to do to his rival Pavel Miliukov, as a bourgeois professor in the pay of capitalism. There is a clear exposition and subtle analysis of Trotsky's ideas and vast intellectual output. Service has taken the time to read drafts of Trotsky's oeuvre, most notably in the case of the autobiography, My Life. It is impressive that Sendee offers so many original readings of Trotsky's major and minor writings. Most commentators accept that Our Political Tasks (1904), for example, was directed against Lenin's authoritarianism and was in its way prophetic about what occurred post- 19 17.

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