- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009



By Robert Service

Harvard University Press, $35, 600 pages


By Bertrand M. Patenaude

Harper, $27.95, 370 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

During the anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, I frequently saw student-age marchers wearing T-shirts bearing the likeness of Leon Trotsky, one of the hard-core revolutionaries who inflicted communism on Russia. Occasionally, I chatted with these marchers, and I agree with Robert Service’s conclusion that they “were untroubled by the desire to read what he [Trotsky] had written and done.” Even now we find the journalist Christopher Hitchens affectionately referring to him, in a dust-jacket blurb, as “The Old Man,” the doting nickname of his exile years.

The British scholar Robert Service earlier wrote commendable biographies of Stalin and Lenin. Now, his new biography rounds out his trilogy of the Soviet Union’s Founding Murderers with a massive study of Trotsky, a grotesque character, politically and personally, even by the demanding standards of communism.

He was born as Leiba Bronstein in 1879, in a Jewish agricultural colony in what is now the southern Ukraine, son of relatively wealthy parents. A rebellious student, he took up radicalism more or less on a whim (he did not even bother to read Marx), became a prolific (and gifted) writer of pamphlets, and took on the name Trotsky. The czar’s police shipped him to a tolerably comfortable Siberian exile, where he continued his writing, fathered two children with an unfortunate wife named Alexandra and skipped away to freedom the first chance he saw. Leaving his family with no resources? Well, someone must pay the price of “revolution.”

Trotsky roamed Europe for more than a decade, supporting himself with polemical writing. During a brief respite in New York, he harangued a Harlem audience, “I want you people to organize and keep on organizing until you are able to overthrow the … rotten, capitalistic government of this country.” He returned to Moscow when the revolution flared, and although his obnoxious demeanor made him detested by most everyone who met him, force of personality propelled him into the communist leadership.

During the post-revolution wars with various White Russian groups, Trotsky careened around the USSR in a military train, acting as de facto leader of the Red Army despite an utter lack of military experience. A printing press on the train enabled him to spew out an incessant flow of propaganda.

But what should the communists do once they controlled Russia? Trotsky argued that the USSR should be a springboard for world revolution, starting in war-torn Germany. Stalin and Lenin initially demurred, saying that the USSR must be stabilized before any direct actions were taken elsewhere. Then Lenin decided to take a shot at tottering Poland, only to be thumped by forces led by the self-taught commander Josef Pilsudski that shattered the Red Army. Trotsky’s differences with Stalin over economic policy deepened after Lenin’s death, and in due course he was unceremoniously ushered away from Moscow into a swinging-door series of travels that included stops in Turkey, Norway and, finally, Mexico.

Mr. Service is decidedly unsympathetic to Trotsky’s economic ideas. He writes, “Trotsky was far from showing that his ideas would solve the economic problems of the Soviet state order. He spent a lot of his time in disputing, less of it in thinking. Style prevailed over content…. Trotsky offered a prospectus for revolutionary exploration without any guarantee that he would not steer the ship of the USSR off the end of the world.”

Trotsky’s exile was one long whine. Mr. Service writes, “He … always rejected appeals to basic human symphony as mere sentimentality.” He insisted that the Soviet revolution would remain insecure except as the “first stage of the socialist world revolution.” Stalin’s proposal for “socialism in one country” was a “petit bourgeois utopia.”

Trotsky’s exile years are sprightly covered by Bertrand M. Patenaude, a Stanford academic, in “Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary.” Trotsky lived in fear. Stalin had already killed scores, hundreds of other enemies, and he knew he was targeted. Mexico took in Trotsky because its leftist president, Lazaro Cardenas, wanted to make a show of staying independent of “American capitalism.” Trotsky had to pledge to keep out of local politics.

He and second wife Natalya Sedova settled into a comfortable villa in a Mexico City. But a coterie of admirers, many of them Americans, flocked to the villa to help his writing projects, foremost being a tell-all book on Stalin’s perfidies. Trotsky displayed awful judgment in his personal life. The artist Diego Rivera was one of his chief patrons in Mexico. Trotsky repaid the favors by engaging in an affair with his wife, Frida Kahlo. When Natalya caught on, he apologized via an erotic (no, let’s call it “smutty”) letter that can’t be quoted here. (The prurient are referred to pages 556-7 of Mr. Service’s book.)

The total collapse of Trotskyism was laid bare in 1934 when he called a “Fourth International” conference in Brussels on 1934 to supplant the Soviets as the dominant force in world communism. Only 14 “delegates” showed up, most of them from “far-left youth groups, as Mr. Service notes. Nonetheless, Stalin remained obsessed with killing him. A machine gun assault on the villa failed. So Stalin turned to the Murder, Inc., professionals of the NKVD and OGPU. Mr. Patenaude vividly recounts the tradecraft used to recruit a young Spaniard, Ramon Mercader, and use other communists passing as Trotsky admirers to infiltrate him into the household.

Under the name “Frank Jacson.” Mercader posed as a Belgian businessman who wished to write about Trotsky. The ploy succeeded. On Aug. 20, 1940, he was admitted to Trotsky’s office. He pulled a heavy ice axe from under his coat, and he slammed it into Trotsky’s head. The blow was fatal.

Mercader stuck to his story of being a disgruntled Belgian follower of Trotsky (the Mexican police learned his true identity in 1950). Freed in 1960, he proceeded to Cuba, thence to the USSR. Premier Leonid Brezhnev awarded him the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” in 1961. Mr. Service is scornful of the countries that sheltered Trotsky and the personages who paid homage to him in his exile years. “The enthusiasm of so many prominent individuals to do the decent thing by Trotsky says much for civic tolerance. It also reflects their naivete. They were blind to Trotsky’s contempt for their values. They overlooked the damage he aimed to do to their kind of society if ever he got the chance. Like spectators at a zoo, they felt sorry for a wounded beast.”

American “intellectuals” who formed a Trotsky “defense” committee included the prominent educator John Dewey, novelists John Dos Passos and Mary McCarthy, and literary critics Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson. I do not think either volume should rekindle leftist enthusiasm about Trotsky. But, alas, I could be wrong.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide