Trotsky, the Passionate Revolutionary

Dave Kellaway reviews a new biography of Leon Trotsky, The Passionate Revolutionary, written by Allan Todd and just published by Pen and Sword books (2022)


‘I do not measure the historical process by the yardstick of one’s personal fate. ‘… I know no personal tragedy…In prison, with a book or a pen in hand, I experienced the same sense of deep satisfaction that I did at the mass meetings of the revolution.’

Leon Trotsky, 1930, Turkey

Many new socialist activists in the late 1960s and 1970s came to an understanding of the contribution Trotsky made to the revolutionary Marxist movement through reading Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume masterpiece, The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast. It is true to say that probably more people came to know about Trotsky’s ideas through reading those books than by directly reading his writings. 

Today people coming into the movement are not necessarily passing through the diffusion of the classic Marxist tradition more typical of that period. This book by Allan Todd is a timely one. In a very readable and succinct 200 pages or so, he tells both Trotsky’s personal story and outlines his key ideas.

The interplay between his personality and the political conflicts is skillfully evoked. History is not made by great individuals but their personal inclinations and people’s perceptions of their personality can influence certain political situations. His fateful defeat by Stalin was decisively shaped by objective historical forces like the backwardness of the Russian economy, the exhaustion of the revolutionary forces after the civil war and the isolation of the Russian revolution. But Trotsky’s self-confidence and brilliance, a certain arrogance and aloofness did play into the hands of Stalin, the devious master of a party apparatus

Todd can stand on the shoulders of Deutscher. There are many references and direct quotes from him as well as some fresh evaluations of his work. At the same time, he calls out the extremes of the hatchet job constructed by Robert Service’s more recent tome. Service is alleged to have said  ‘if the ice pick had not finished him off then I certainly will’. For anti-communists like Service, there is very little difference between Stalin and Trotsky. If Trotsky had won things would have been just as bad. Todd’s key chapters on the period from 1923 on with the rise of Stalin and the eventual forming of the Left Opposition show that there was a fundamental moral, theoretical and political opposition between the two leaders.

At the same time, some Trotskyist currents have treated him as a sort of infallible prophet using his texts as biblical truth. This book accepts the crucial legacy of Trotsky’s ideas for the movement but discusses his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Todd puts the finger on one of the ways his great strength could become a weakness.

Russian revolutionaries nicknamed him, The Pen, because of his ability to write quickly and to write persuasively. Trotsky was the leader of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905 and in the 1917 revolution and he led the Red Army to victory in the Civil War. However, he was also a cultured, multi-lingual intellectual who believed passionately in the power of the written word and ideas. Unfortunately in politics words and ideas, even if they are right, do not always defeat an opposition that is organised with its own social base and interests. Trotsky overestimated how the clarity of his ideas on what was happening in Russia would win the party back to him. He thought the shallow, narrow Stalin would not become a threat. As Todd shows this was linked to the error in prioritising the sacred unity of the party over making an open break and attacking Stalin.

You can still see a certain exaggerated belief in the power of words and ideas in the way certain revolutionary currents – often with very little influence – make regular calls to ‘the masses’ to organise a general strike or ‘kick out the Tories’ without any real analysis of the actual relationship of forces on the ground. On the eve of a Second World War that Trotsky had accurately predicted he confidently believed that the few thousands of activists organised in the ranks of the Fourth International, because they had the right ideas, would be able to become an alternative leadership to the Stalinists in the post-war revolutionary upsurge. Quite possibly, if he had not been assassinated, Trotsky would have adjusted his analysis

This book neatly divides up his life into key phases.

Youth and early radicalism

We follow the development of the young Trotsky who grew up in a successful Jewish farming family in southern Ukraine which was part of Tsarist Russia. His mother encouraged his reading and education and his father’s success imbibed Leon with self-confidence even if the son became to become aware of the inequality and exploitation on his father’s farm.  Staying in Odessa for school opened him to the world of culture and Western Europe. He loved literature and Italian Opera. He was top of the class.

His political education was fostered by his subsequent lodging in another town with the Spentzer family who were cultured, opponents of the Tsar. Joining a Narodnik group he eventually became acquainted with Marxism through the relationship with his first wife, Sokolovskaya, who was older than him. Although a brilliant student he dropped out to pursue active politics. He began to organise local workers into the South Russian Workers Union and eventually was detained in Kherson prison and deported. Inevitably he edited and wrote most of the newspapers of the group. While in Odessa prison he encounters a prison guard called Trotsky whose nom de guerre he was to later adopt. Exiled with his wife to Siberia he reads Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia en route.

One interesting detail about Trotsky was how he did his own laundry unlike other exiles who gave it to the women comrades:

‘he chided those who placed this burden on their women for being conventionally bourgeois ‘

page 24

A momentous decision is taken by Trotsky to escape and rejoin the socialist network in exile. This means leaving his wife and child resulting in a more difficult situation for them. The writer discusses how Service sees this as evidence of Trotsky’s cold-hearted callousness but he shows from other sources that it was a decision totally shared by his revolutionary partner. There is no documented record of Sokolovskaya regretting that decision and indeed she maintained very friendly relations with Sedova, Trotsky’s lifelong partner.

Russian Opposition in exile

We follow Trotsky all the way to Holford Square near Kings Cross in London where he arrives early in the morning and gets Lenin out of bed. The cab fare needed paying too. During the period running up to the 1905 events in Russia Trotsky throws himself into the intense debates between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within the Marxist Russian opposition. Some of the goings on were not so different to the splits and faction fights on the British revolutionary left. Partly out of personal friendship, particularly with Martov, Trotsky sticks with the Mensheviks while all the time trying to find some unity with the other side. He was concerned also with Lenin’s over ‘conspiratorial’ model of the party. However during the 1905 events in Petrograd – in many ways a precursor of the 1917 revolution he ended up working in a united way and won the respect of the Bolsheviks. Later Stalin would try and use these differences to portray Trotsky as never really a true Bolshevik.

Vienna must have been someplace to be between 1907 and 1913 when Trotsky was based there. You could see Lenin, Trotsky, Freud and Adler frequenting the same cafes. This period of downturn in the Russian struggle after the defeat of 1905 meant it was more difficult to get unity between the factions. Todd picks up here one of Trotsky’s political weaknesses:

Trotsky made matters worse as regards the Bolsheviks as, whilst attacking them in public via his articles in Pravda and other publications, he made his criticisms of the Mensheviks mainly by private discussions or letters. This period shows Trotsky’s inability to work with others, and to build up a large team of close supporters.

page 63

The collapse of the Second International as the so-called socialist parties each supported their own bourgeoisie in killing workers from other countries in the First World War clarified matters among the Russian exiles. An illuminating story of Trotsky’s internationalism is when he was arrested en route back to Russia by police in Nova Scotia and forcibly carried off to a prisoner of war camp.

Ever the revolutionary, Trotsky – POW Number 1098 – used his command of German to inform the German POWs of the Zimmerwald Manifesto, Liebknecht’s anti-war campaign in Germany, and the significance of the Russian revolution. His revolutionary influence on them worried the prison authorities – and the German officers – so he was banned from addressing further meetings. Finally, on 29 April, Trotsky was released; as he left, the German sailors sang the Internationale.

Page 85

Leader of October and commander of Red Army

Once back in Russia he agrees with Lenin that unity with the Mensheviks was dead. Lenin with his April Theses also agrees with Trotsky about the immediate need for a dictatorship of the proletariat and that there did not need to be a stage of bourgeois revolution before you could make a socialist one.  Readers are familiar with the way Lenin worked with Trotsky as leader of the Soviets to overthrow the Tsarist regime.

Todd explains the phenomenal role of Trotsky as chief of the Red Army with his special train during the Civil War and the way he used unconventional, revolutionary methods for involving soldiers that irked the hierarchical sensibilities of some Bolshevik leaders. He does not shy away from noting the harsh reprisals and even terror employed by Trotsky. Desertion was punished at times by random executions among the units involved. This was not unusual in early twentieth-century warfare.  The French army did the same as dramatised in Kubrick’s magnificent film Paths of Glory.

Why and how did Stalin defeat Trotsky?

In Chapter 7 Todd covers the big historical question people always ask. How could someone like Stalin defeat the leader of the Soviets, the Red Army commander and such a great mind and orator?

To a degree, Trotsky prepared the ground for Stalin’s manoeuvres by agreeing to restrictions on multi-party democracy and factions inside the party. At the Tenth Party Congress he opposed the Workers Opposition and the Decemists:

accusing them of placing ‘…the workers’ rights to elect representatives above the party’, and arguing that ‘The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering in the spontaneous moods of the masses.’

PAge 116

He also argued for the militarisation of the unions or total party control. Todd argues Trotsky took an administrative, centralist approach and failed to see the political reactions. Two years later he would be making similar criticisms against Stalin. 

Trotsky also underestimated the way the party was changing. The old guard who he thought was a bulwark against degeneration was weakening and the new recruits Stalin was bringing in were more likely to back him rather than Trotsky.  His personal aloofness and failure to socialise much with other leaders also meant it was easier for Stalin to foment opposition to him and begin to smear him with all sorts of lies.  Brilliance and success can breed resentment among one’s peers.

The 12th Party Congress saw Trotsky still hesitating to move against Stalin even though Lenin had clearly indicated in his testament that he should be removed. Lenin’s death meant it was easier for Stalin to keep Lenin’s documents secret from the party. Tactically he needed to organise his support and perhaps take some strategic official posts that were offered, instead he prioritised publishing his programme in the New Course. Again he may be thought the very strength of his ideas was sufficient to win people over against Stalin.

Todd also recognises the objective social forces were going against Trotsky:

By 1921, the people were exhausted, and Trotsky’s romantic rhetoric and revolutionary exhortation were out of kilter with the new times. After 1921, what was needed was Lenin’s quiet, unobtrusive personality, which was more attuned to the people’s political moods

page 125

Poor health did not help Trotsky either as he was absent recuperating at key times. This was the case at Lenin’s funeral although Stalin misled him about the timing thus allowing Stalin to use it as a propaganda tool.

At the 13th Congress Stalin had stacked it with his delegates. Yet again Trotsky showed a misplaced faith in the vitality of the party by stating no one could be ‘wrong against the party’, and that he would accept any discipline the Congress decided on: ‘In the last analysis, the party is always right….’  There were also difficulties in linking up with Zinoviev or Kamenev after they also went into opposition. Nevertheless, there was still support inside the party. 2000 people came to a meeting to hear Trotsky. When the authorities cut off the electricity, the meeting continued by candlelight with Trotsky quipping:

 ‘Lenin said that socialism was the soviets plus electrification. Stalin has already suppressed the soviets, now it’s the turn of the electricity!’

page 141

Stalin had to continually rewrite history. When Eisenstein’s film October: Ten Days That Shook the World was released the new regime realised that Trotsky was given too big a role (even if this was historically the case) and so it was sent back for a re-edit.

Prophet outcast and assassination

With many of his former comrades capitulating to Stalin, Trotsky was forced into exile, first in Russia and then in Turkey. After Turkey, he really became a prophet outcast as the capitalist countries were just as worried about him as Stalin. British Prime minister, Chamberlain was quoted as saying the United Kingdom could not establish diplomatic relations with Russia until

 ‘Trotsky had been put up against the wall’

page 161

Removed from any political power he still produced some of the best analyses of the rise of fascism in Germany. His early call for a united front of all workers’ parties in Germany, if implemented may have stopped Hitler and possibly the horrors of the Second World War. The clarity and predictive qualities of this work are extraordinary given he was not inside Germany and had to rely on the media of the time and comrades’ communications.

Finally, Trotsky is accepted by Mexico, has a brief affair with Frida Kahlo and is exonerated of Stalin’s accusations at the Dewey Commission. He is assassinated by Stalin’s agent, Ramón Mercader. Two of the best books on the last days and the Stalinist plot are the books by the Cuban writer,  Leonardo Padura, The man who loved dogs and Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna

Allan Todd’s book is a really good introduction to the life and works of Leon Trotsky. All the way through it laces a clear account of the ideas and political struggles with the human dimension. I loved this story of when his father came to visit him in Moscow after the revolution.

He’d walked to Moscow, having lost his farm during the Civil War; as Sedova recalled: ‘Father and son greeted each other warmly… he said… “We fathers slave away all our lives to put something by for our old age, and then the sons come along and make a revolution”

Finally, although Trotsky was grimly aware that Stalin could kill him in the end, he never wavered in his revolutionary optimism. It is easy to be pessimistic if you want nothing to change.

History must be taken as she is; and when she allows herself such extraordinary and filthy outrages, one must fight her back with one’s fists.’

Page 195

Trotsky, The Passionate Revolutionary By Allan Todd can be pre-ordered here.

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Allan Todd is a member of ACR’s Council and of Left Unity’s National Council, and an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist. He is the author of Revolutions 1789-1917, Ecosocialism not Extinction, and Trotsky: The Passionate Revolutionary – and the forthcoming Che Guevara: The Romantic Revolutionary (out 30 May 2024)

Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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