http://network.nationalpost.com — When Leon Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin in 1940, American novelist James T. Farrell took to the pages of Partisan Review to memorialize him. “The life of Leon Trotsky is one of the great tragic dramas of modern history,” Farrell’s obituary began. “Pitting his brain and will against the despotic rulers of a great empire, fully conscious of the power, the resources, the cunning and cruelty of his enemy, Trotsky had one weapon at his command — his ideas. His courage never faltered; his will never broke.”
To his American admirers, Trotsky appeared as a kind of Soviet Garibaldi, fighting for freedom against an evil empire. The problem, as Robert Service shows in his new biography Trotsky, is that Trotsky was one of the men chiefly responsible for that evil. In the October Revolution of 1917, he was second to Lenin in leading the Bolshevik coup to success. In the years of civil war that followed, Trotsky, as commissar for the Red Army, designed the campaigns that inflicted horrific suffering on civilians. None of the Soviet leaders outdid him in zeal for collectivization and terror, or in his commitment to spreading the revolution. Service sums up Trotsky this way: “He was close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism … He reveled in terror.”
How, then, did Trotsky become a symbol of a more humane and democratic communism? In part, as Service writes, it was because of the left’s “naivety. They were blind to Trotsky’s contempt for their values.” But for the Jewish intellectuals who clustered around Partisan Review, he was an especially irresistible figure, since Trotsky was the most powerful Jewish intellectual who ever lived. This part of Trotsky’s legacy is a significant chapter in the political history of American Jews, and Trotsky helps explain the allure and the danger of the mass murderer who was affectionately known to his followers as “the Old Man.”
He was born in 1879 as Leiba Bronstein — Trotsky was a nom de guerre. Bronstein’s parents were Polish Jews who had settled in Ukraine as part of a czarist project for dispersing and assimilating the Jewish population. As Service shows, this meant that Bronstein “did not have a life associated mainly with fellow Jews.”
Quickly, Bronstein was drawn to the communist revolutionary movement. He was 18 when he was arrested and exiled to Siberia. However, Siberia was less a prison for Bronstein than a kind of finishing school. Bronstein married a fellow prisoner, made contact with other communists and began to read the clandestine newspaper Iskra.
Iskra was edited from London and Geneva by a group of communists including Vladimir Lenin, and Bronstein decided he had to join them. Trotsky — as he was now known on his forged or stolen passport — escaped from Siberia and presented himself in London as a new recruit.
It soon became clear that Trotsky was a brilliant writer: At their first meeting, Lenin greeted him with the words: “Ah, the Pen has arrived!” And it was by his pen that he became known to revolutionaries, writing for Iskra and other illegal publications. When the first Russian Revolution broke out, Trotsky smuggled himself back into St. Petersburg, where he discovered that he was equally magnetic as a platform orator. Still just 25, he became head of the Petersburg council; when the revolution was crushed, he was arrested again and escaped again.
By 1917, Trotsky’s peregrinations had led him to New York, where he arrived “to a hero’s welcome among emigrant socialist sympathizers from the Russian Empire,” especially Jews. Indeed, one of the ironic themes of Trotsky is the way the revolutionary kept finding himself in Jewish milieux, despite his refusal to claim a Jewish identity. Trotsky detested Zionism. Yet many of his closest comrades were non-Jewish Jews. One might say that the rejection of Jewish particularity was the form in which Trotsky and many Jews like him lived their Jewishness.
When the czar was overthrown, in February 1917, Trotsky began planning to get back to Russia, and he arrived on May 4. Service traces that revolutionary year, the advances and retreats of the Bolsheviks, until they seized the capital in October. Then came the years of triumph and cruelty; and then came the great fall, which turned Trotsky into the socialist martyr described by Farrell.
Starting in 1923, as Lenin was crippled by strokes, Trotsky and Stalin waged a bureaucratic and propaganda war over who was entitled to succeed him. Trotsky entered the battle with many advantages. His highly visible role in the Civil War had made him iconic; he was still a brilliant and popular writer. Most important, he was Lenin’s own choice. The ailing leader dictated a “testament” in which he warned that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky had the potential to split the Communist Party, and he came down firmly on Trotsky’s side: “Stalin is too crude and this inadequacy…becomes intolerable in the position of General Secretary.”
The question is why Trotsky allowed Stalin to outmanoeuvre him so decisively — by 1928, Trotsky had been stripped of office, expelled from the party and exiled from the U.S.S.R. Service concludes that Trotsky didn’t want to replace Lenin; so he “lacked the decisiveness for a concerted advance on power.” While Stalin expertly manipulated the Communist Party apparatus, Trotsky remained aloof. When it came to making speeches or writing pamphlets, no one could beat Trotsky. When it came to making allies, he couldn’t be bothered.
And there was another factor in Trotsky’s failure of will. In 1917, just after the revolution, Lenin had wanted to appoint him as Commissar for Internal Affairs, which would have made him head of the secret police. Trotsky refused, on the grounds that “it would be inappropriate for a Jew to take charge of the police in a society pervaded by anti-Semitism. If Jews were seen to be repressing Russians, a pogrom atmosphere might be provoked.” For the same reason, he initially resisted taking charge of the Red Army. “The party’s leadership was widely identified as a Jewish gang,” Service writes, and “Trotsky continued to believe that his own prominence in government, party and army did practical damage to the revolutionary cause.”
If Trotsky allowed Stalin to get the better of him, it may have been because he still feared the consequences of a Jew heading the Soviet government. Of course, such scruples made no difference to the enemies of the Jews. By the time Hitler took power, Trotsky had long since been made a non-person in Stalin’s U.S.S.R. The rabbi who made the famous quip was right: “It’s the Trotskys who make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins who pay the price.”
The New Republic
This piece first appeared in Tablet Magazine.