Few political figures of the twentieth century have aroused as much controversy as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Trotsky's extraordinary life and extensive writings have left an indelible mark on revolutionary conscience, yet there was a danger that his name would disappear from history. Originally published in 1954, Deutscher's magisterial three-volume biography was the first major publication to counter the powerful Stalinist propaganda machine. In this definitive biography Trotsky emerges in his real stature, as the most heroic, and ultimately tragic, character of the Russian Revolution. This third volume of the trilogy, first published in 1963, is a self-contained narrative of Trotsky's years in exile and of his murder in Mexico in 1940. Deutscher's masterful account of the period, and of the ideological controversies ranging throughout it, forms a background against which, as he says, 'the protagonist's character reveals itself, while he is moving towards catastrophe.'
It has been some fifty years now since this volume was published. Given the gaping maw of history which separates us in 2012 from its original publication, what can we learn from this man and his life?
The first case that can be made is the strength of
The structure of the biography follows the arc of such a play - hero is brought up by his strengths, develops a fatal flaw which brings him down, and is destroyed. He starts off as a precocious schoolchild in Odessa, multilingual and fiery. Then a writer, then escaped from Siberian exile. After that writing newspaper articles and debating with theological fervor the ideas of Marx with Lenin. Shifting from Menshevik to Bolshevik. Journalism in the ethnic wars of the Balkans. Then a generalship in the Civil War, defeating the sixteen foreign armies. Signing a humiliating peace with the Germans to buy some time, then seizing most of the lost territory anyways after their own collapse.
Just a small part of his life would have secured him a place in history. It seemed inevitable for him to receive the mantle of power from the deified Lenin.
Then we see how he was totally outmaneuvered by the supremely political Stalin and all support crushed. His internal then external exile. How he tried to form a 4th Internationale, and shuffled from nation to nation, making prophecy in vain about the rise of fascism but none listened. Hitler screamed at the mention of his name. And we see how he retired to Mexico, and the story closes with an ice ax, a scream, and the bandages around his forehead like a halo.
But now, with the benefit of some seven decades of hindsight, can Trotsky really be considered a hero? His writings still glare and burn after nearly a century. Some scattered few still think of him as an alternative to the deformed state of the USSR. But he was a revolutionary like the rest, and fought as hard as the rest. He shot one man in ten in army units for repeated failures, and held hostage the families of officers who threatened to disobey. But revolutions and civil wars are not gentle.
The Soviet Union is gone, that experiment ended. Perhaps Bernstein was right and the revolution will be democratic. It is still too early to tell. Fortune turns its wheel, and King Lear wanders the fields.
Perhaps now some young fighter in Aleppo or Sana'a is scanning the Arabic translation of this other Prophet's life, hoping to learn from the mistakes and follies of history past.
The work was fair; Isaac Deutscher was just as willing to show Trotsky's flaws and errors as the heroic successes and produced a cracking read.
I'm still coming to a view on Communism, as a potential answer to the world's problems. Like most left politics, it seems intent on
Whether you have leftward sympathies, or not, this is a cracking read.