By Allan Todd

Pen & Sword Book. 227 pages. £25. ISBN 978-139901-076-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Years ago I met Reg Groves, author of a book called The Balham Group, a history of a small gathering of early British Trotskyists he had been involved with in the 1930s. It would have been in the 1970s when I first had the opportunity to talk to Groves, and there had been something of an upsurge of interest in Trotskyism and other left-wing alternatives to capitalism. The so-called “underground” bookshops that flourished at the time had racks of publications offering a variety of views on current problems.

And past problems, too. It often seemed to me that the Trotskyist magazines and papers were particularly inclined towards resurrecting old arguments. They involved the different factions that existed in what had never been much more than a limited, if dedicated, number of devotees of Trotsky’s ideas. The Left, it seems, has always been prone to dissension within its ranks, but the Trotskyists appeared to have taken the art of factionalism to greater levels than most. Splits and miniscule groups with only a handful of members were par for the course, and most managed to produce a publication of one sort or another. In them they put forward their arguments for having the only correct interpretations of what Trotsky had said and intended. There is a story, “The Party”, by Isaac Rosenfeld, a one-time American Trotskyist, which satirises such groups: “the fact is that the party has existed separately for only seven years; it split off from the parent body, which in turn was born by separation from an earlier party and so on”.

Leon Trotsky, as he was known, was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in 1879 in a rural area of Southern Ukraine. His father was a wealthy landowner, despite the restrictions placed on Jews owning or even renting very large areas of land. His mother was better educated than his father,  subscribed to a lending library, and gave her children (Trotsky had a brother and two  sisters) opportunities to take an interest in the arts. Trotsky spent seven years at St Paul’s School in Odessa,  though at one point he was briefly expelled for taking part in a demonstration against an unpopular teacher. But he was an extremely successful student with maximum marks in every subject. While in Odessa he lived with the Spentzer family who introduced him to the work of a variety of writers. He later said, “It was a good intellectual family. I owe it a lot”.

Allan Todd notes that, at this stage of his life, Trotsky looked and behaved like “a typical bourgeois cosmopolitan youth”. But he was noticing the very real inequalities in Russian society, and was aware that his comfortable way of life was derived from wealth created by the peasants his father employed and exploited. He argued with his father about this, sometimes in front of the peasants, and Todd says he “already displayed tendencies towards a lack of discretion and an inclination to contradict”.

In 1895 Trotsky moved to a school in Nikolaev, a town used by the police as a useful place to settle and observe political revolutionaries. For Trotsky it was an opportunity to develop his political thinking. He met people linked to the Narodniks, the promoters of a form of agrarian socialism and, in many ways, the forerunners of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) who initially played a prominent part in the 1917 events in Russia. They were not Marxists, and neither was Trotsky at that time.

It was when he became a student at the university in Odessa that he began to take greater note of Marxist theories. He helped form the South Russian Workers’ Union (SRWU) which, despite its title, consisted mainly of “student activist intellectuals”. Trotsky had already come to the attention of the police and he was arrested in 1898 and exiled to Irkutsk. He associated with the Mensheviks, who tended to be less in favour of tight central control than the Bolsheviks. It was in 1903 that he began to use the name he became known by, Leon Trotsky. I’m deliberately moving quickly through his activities, such as escaping from exile, travelling to various European cities – Zurich, Vienna, Paris, London – meeting Lenin, and being nicknamed “The Pen” because of the frequency and quality of his numerous essays and articles for the radical press. It all necessitated his leaving behind a wife and two daughters when he chose to become an active revolutionary. It’s worth noting that Todd remarks how Trotsky’s intellectual “brilliance” sometimes annoyed those who were less gifted than he was. He could come across to them as arrogant.

Although still allying mostly with the Mensheviks, Trotsky was also displaying a growing commitment to Marxism by attacking other groups in the wider revolutionary movement such as the Narodniks and the anarchists. He was active during the 1905 Revolution in St Petersburg, arrested, and sent to Siberia. He escaped and made his way to Finland. He had, by this time, formed a relationship with Natalya Sedova, “a seasoned revolutionary” who was to become his lifelong companion. Again, it’s necessary to move at a fast pace through the years leading up to 1917. Trotsky wrote steadily, sometimes as a literary and art critic, and was a war correspondent during the Balkan conflicts of 1912/13. Like many hopeful revolutionaries he was taken aback when, in 1914, the workers of the world didn’t unite, but instead turned on each other and supported the war programmes of their respective countries. The slogan, “Workers of the World Unite” now had a hollow ring to it.

He kept moving through the usual locations – Vienna, Zurich, Paris – though the war situation made it increasingly difficult to settle in any one place. At one point he was in New York. When, in 1917, it became obvious that something was afoot in Russia he left the United States and headed to Petrograd, as St Petersburg had been renamed once war with Germany broke out. Arriving there he was acclaimed by the crowds of workers and soldiers who were demonstrating in the streets. He was particularly popular among the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base.

Trotsky was still not formally a Bolshevik, but identified with them as the insurrection developed. It was largely his plan that ensured the success of the overthrow of the Kerensky government in November 1917.  And there’s no doubt that Trotsky was responsible for the formation of the “new” army that eventually defeated the various White armies that attempted, with the help of interventionist British, American, French and Japanese forces, to defeat the Bolsheviks. Todd mentions Trotsky’s harsh methods when imposing discipline on the troops, with deserters shot. It was a harshness that also came out when he later suppressed a rising by sailors at Kronstadt who were protesting against increasingly rigid controls imposed by the Bolsheviks.   

It was when the fighting finished that Trotsky’s troubles began. Lenin was ill and would soon die, and Stalin, who had fallen out with Trotsky during the war years, was General Secretary of the party and building a power base within it. It’s a fascinating period to study, assuming one can follow all the twists and turns at the meetings, and the scheming that went on in private. What it came down to in the end is that Trotsky, for all his high intellect, was outflanked by Stalin. The increasing bureaucratisation within the party gave Stalin the opportunities to appoint his own people to key positions. And it’s more than likely that Trotsky made the mistake of assuming that because Stalin wasn’t an intellectual he wasn’t intelligent. It’s a mistake frequently made by intellectuals whose arrogance turns people against them. Trotsky had dismissed Stalin as a “nonentity” and described him as “the gravedigger of the revolution”.  And it would seem that Trotsky simply hadn’t the kind of mind set that can cultivate personal contacts and use them to good advantage when wanting to take control. There was also the basic clash between Stalin’s idea of Socialism in One Country and Trotsky’ s theory of Permanent Revolution which suggested that, unless there were revolutions in other countries, the revolution in Russia would stagnate.

In the end Trotsky was outmanoeuvred and forced into external exile. Many countries refused to give him sanctuary, and after brief sojourns in Turkey and Norway he was offered refuge in Mexico, which then had a left-wing government. It also had a powerful communist party which would prove troublesome to Trotsky. It’s from this point that the legend of Trotsky as the true revolutionary holding out against the tyranny of Stalinism, and leader of small bands of dedicated Trotskyists, began to take hold. Volunteer guards came from the United States and elsewhere to protect him against possible attacks. It was assumed, if not directly known, that he was on Stalin’s hit-list. Members of Trotsky’s family still living in Russia were arrested and executed, and his son, Lyova, active in Paris as Trotsky’s advocate, died in mysterious circumstances. A Stalinist agent, Mark Zborowski using the name Etienne, had infiltrated Lyova’s organisation and seemed reliable but  regularly passed information to Moscow.

There had been attempts on Trotsky’s life, especially that led by David Sequeiros, the Mexican artist and fervent communist. The final one came in 1940 when Frank Jacson cultivated a relationship with Sylvia Agelof, an American Trotskyist in Mexico, and through her gained access to Trotsky. Jacson was actually Ramon Mercader, a Spaniard and an NKVD operative. The story of how he drove an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head is well-known. Mercader himself was overpowered by Trotsky’s guards and was later tried and sentenced to twenty years in a Mexican prison.

I’m not sure what the state-of-play is now with regard to supporters of Trotsky. No doubt there are some out there, but we hear little of them these days. And it’s also worth wondering how his reputation stands in general?  I don’t think many people would now be inclined to take his teachings to heart. And I have doubts about what he would have done had he ever been in a position of authority.  I suspect he may have been pushed by circumstances into adopting some brutal methods and measures. He was hardly liberal-minded during the difficult early days of the Bolshevik take-over and wanted to militarise the unions and apply conscription to the workers. And there is his undeniable ruthless record with regard to military discipline and the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I can understand why he has had some appeal over the years. An intellectual who is also a man of action, and actually participates in world-shaking events, might well appear attractive to  those whose own activities go little beyond talking and writing about the possibilities of revolution. Am I being cynical in saying this? Perhaps, but it is possible that, for some, following a dream that may never become reality is a good way of seeming to be spotless. Others engaged in the dirty business of struggling to achieve even minor changes will inevitably come out stained and be accused of compromising.

Trotsky is a fascinating figure to follow on paper. He would have loved to have been in a position to concentrate on writing. His range of interests – he could easily and knowingly converse about art and literature with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera or the French surrealist André Breton – could take him beyond the world of revolutionary politics. But events determined which course he had to follow and how and why he came to his tragic end.

Allan Todd provides a brisk account of Trotsky’s life and achievements, and also indicates that he had some failings as a person and as a possible leader of a country beset by numerous problems, both internal and external. His book has notes, many of which point to the importance of Isaac Deutscher’s work in documenting Trotsky’s story. There’s a very short bibliography (to be fair numerous books are referred to in the notes), and some illustrations.