Rubenstein’s biography of Trotsky is informative and balanced
Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life by Joseph Rubenstein. Yale University Press, 2011, 225pp.
By David Strom
SAN DIEGO — In his book, A Revolutionary’s Life, Joseph Rubenstein wrote a well-researched biography of Leon Trotsky that is neither a fawning nor a completely derogatory view of this twentieth century revolutionary. His book is rich in detail that paints a fascinating picture of the life and times of this revolutionary Russian Jew, from his early family life to his assassination in Mexico in 1940 at the age of 60.
Leon Trotsky was born on October 26, 1879. His parents had eight children and Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Trotsky) was their fifth. The Bronstein family was not like other Russian Jewish families. They owned land, farmed and lived outside the Pale of Settlement where most Russian Jews lived. One of the most unique features of their family life was that they didn’t speak Yiddish. They were not a religious family. In fact, his parents probably were atheists. Thus, Trotsky received minimal religious education. Nonetheless, to the Russian authorities, Trotsky was a Jew.
There was the continuing “Jewish Question” within czarist Russia and the Soviet Union. As a student, Trotsky was not allowed entrance to the grammar school his family hoped he could attend when they first applied for admission. However, when he was admitted the following year he became a stellar student. He did not give much weight to the anti-Semitism displayed by the school authorities, as did many other Jewish communists. Rather, he focused on the horrible economic conditions in which the people lived. In his autobiography In My Life, a source for much of Rubenstein’s information about Trotsky’s inner reflections and beliefs, Trotsky wrote: “The national inequality probably was one of the underlying causes of my dissatisfaction with the existing order, but it was lost among all the other phases of social injustice.”
As a teenager Trotsky was not familiar with Friedrich Engels. He studied some British thinkers, like the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and the liberal John Stuart Mill. Although they were banned in Russian universities, these authors’ were available to him and had a visible impact on his developing philosophical and political ideals.
In radical circles two competing visions of revolution emerged: populism and socialism. “Populists saw the overwhelming majority of the population-the peasants-as the most likely avenue to resistance.” Marxists saw the working class as the future leaders of the coming revolution and they did not believe in terrorism. Many Populists did. Marxists held the working class would eventually overthrow the capitalist class. Trotsky slowly moved towards these newer radical ideas.
When he was not yet twenty-one, Trotsky was arrested along with other members of the union he organized and thrown in prison for publishing a radical anti-Tsarist paper. In prison he consumed the library’s books. He was educating himself in a variety of areas: Dickens, Shakespeare, the Bible, Tolstoy, Marx and other writers.
The Kishinev pogrom took place in April 1903. Nearly 50 Jews were murdered, hundreds wounded, and there was “looting and destroying as many as seven hundred homes.” Trotsky was not indifferent to Jewish suffering. Living in London, at the time, “the pogrom affected him deeply, as did other anti-Semitic actions over the years.”
The Social Democrats (Marxist Party of Lenin) were planning to hold a demonstration on May Day, just days after the Kishinev pogrom. Trotsky maintained: in Iskra, the Social Democratic newspaper: “To go out to the streets would have meant to give battle against the enemy in accordance with special conditions created by the enemy. To avoid such a battle did not mean to admit defeat. It meant leaving to oneself the right to choose a more favorable moment.”
Trotsky, then at the age of 24, displayed a knack for analyzing and using practical strategies for solving situations. At the time of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky was considered a great orator and organizer of the working class.
With the overthrow of the Tsar, Russia was in great turmoil. The Russian forces suffered grievous losses during the many battles in the ongoing and seemingly never ending war with the German nation. The Kronstadt sailors were “in outright rebellion against their officers.” During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, these sailors steamed their cruisers up the Baltic to aid the Communists in capturing Petrograd. Their aid was decisive in the saving of Petrograd.
The Petrograd Soviet elected Trotsky as its president. Initially he gave a conciliatory speech. “We are all party men,” Trotsky declared, “and more than once we shall clash with one another. But we shall conduct the work of the Petrograd Soviet in the spirit of lawfulness and of full freedom for all parties. The hand of the President will never lend itself to the suppression of a minority.” By the end of October, the Bolsheviks ended the conciliatory approach promised by Trotsky.
Martov, a Menshevik revolutionary and friend of Trotsky, made a case for avoiding a civil war by forming a coalition “acceptable to the whole revolutionary democracy.” It was not to be. Trotsky barked, “You are miserable isolated individuals. You are bankrupt. You have played out your role. Go to where you belong: to the dustbin of history.” Trotsky not only rejected the more democratically humane socialist and tolerant view of the revolution, but was endorsing and helped lay the foundation for decades of rule by a ruthless dictator and one-party system.
The Kronstadt sailors once praised Trotsky but then they realized the Trotsky they so admired was actually very dogmatic and didn’t allow dissent. When they saw that the Communist government meant terror and despotism, they called for the overthrow of the government and for a time imperiled it. They were bloodily destroyed or sent into Siberian slavery by Communist troops led in person by the Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, and by Marshal Tukhachevsky, one of whom was later assassinated, the other executed, by the regime they they saved. The decision to destroy the Kronstadt sailors, and by its cold-blooded action in doing so, Trotsky and Lenin had made the choice that moved the regime from benevolent socialism to malignant fascism. After winning the civil war, and the retreat of the foreign nations that invaded the Soviet Union, Trotsky and Lenin were the leaders of the nation.
Rubenstein gives his readers a clear understanding of how Trotsky’s tumultuous relationship with Vladimir Lenin and the vagaries of Lenin’s leadership had a profound effect on his life. By December 1923, after several strokes, Lenin’s strength was dwindling. He grew concerned about succession. He wrote about those he considered his likely veteran Bolshevik successors: Zinoviev, Kamenev, Yury Pyatakov, Bukharin, along with Stalin and Trotsky. He found each wanting in some degree. Lenin could not make up his mind and wanted to avoid “a major split in the party.”
“Comrade Stalin, having become general secretary, has concentrated unlimited power in his hands, and I am not convinced that he will always manage to use his power with sufficient care. On the other hand, Comrade Trotsky… is characterized not only by outstanding talents. To be sure he is personally the most capable person of the present Central Committee, but he also over brims with self-confidence and with an excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of things.”
Within ten days of his original writing on this topic, Lenin’s secretary secretly gave a copy of the testament to Stalin. He had her destroy it. Unbeknownst to her, copies remained in Lenin’s safe. Lenin continued to give this topic thought. To the original testament, “He added an additional paragraph, this time targeting Stalin specifically and calling for his ouster:
Stalin is too crude, and this defect, which is entirely acceptable in our milieu and in relationships among us as Communists, becomes unacceptable in the position of general secretary. I therefore propose to comrades that they should devise a means of removing him from his job and should appoint to this job someone else who is distinguished from comrade Stalin in all other respects only by the single superior aspect that he should be more tolerant, more polite and more attentive toward comrades, less capricious.
Finally, Lenin had made up his mind. He encouraged Trotsky to challenge Stalin on his authoritarian methods in Georgia at the next Party Congress. But Trotsky refused to challenge Stalin. One possible reason that is implied by Rubenstein’s account is anti-Semitism. Although anti-Semitism was officially outlawed, it wasn’t eradicated from the minds of some of the communist leadership or from the attitudes of the general public. Trotsky always feared that if the people didn’t like the government’s policies and mandates, they would blame the Jewish leadership. This is exactly what Stalin did in a very surreptitious way. By not informing the Congress of Lenin’s last testament on Stalin, Trotsky allowed Stalin to solidify his growing power. Trotsky’s power was in eclipse. In fact, he was doomed.
Eventually Trotsky was thrown out of the Communist party and exiled. Where could he go in his banishment? No western European country would give him or his family asylum. Turkey welcomed him but eventually, he ended up living with some of his political followers in Mexico. His abandoned his ex-wife and two daughters remained loyal to Trotsky while they remained in the Soviet Union. His two sons with his second wife traveled with their father and mother. One son returned to the Soviet Union to finish his education. The other worked with his father in spreading the Marxist ideas of his father. Most of Trotsky’s family were eventually murdered by loyal Stalinists.
Anti-Semitism continued to hound Trotsky. While he was in exile in late 1933, Trotsky told “the New York Times that he viewed Hitler’s persecution of the Jews as a way to distract the population from the country’s problems.” By 1938, Trotsky was urging his followers to confront anti-Semitism, a reversal of his denial of its impact in his formative years. After Kristallnacht, Trotsky’s fears were frightening to think about, but accurate. “The number of countries which expel Jews grows without cease. The number of countries able to accept them decreases…It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies almost certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.” (Emphasis in the original)
Only once, in January 1937 in an interview with the New York Forverts did Trotsky back away from his long held view that Jews would assimilate within their countries of residence. “Even under socialism, the Jews might well need a temporary territorial solution.” He remained skeptical, if not antagonistic, to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Trotsky never turned his back on being a revolutionary Marxist. When he had power in the early days of the Russian revolution, he used it, at times, ruthlessly. This type of power led to a far more ruthless future under Stalin.
While in exile, Trotsky was a brilliant journalist who remained an outspoken critic of Stalin. He spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism. Having escaped one assassination attempt, Trotsky could not find refuge for himself and/or his family outside of Mexico, where he died at the hands of a hit man hired by Stalin in 1940. Having been removed from power, Trotsky was no longer a threat to the Kremlin or the western democracies. However, he could not renounce the revolution he helped create, even after it betrayed him and eventually destroyed him.
This reviewer was reminded of a song he learned as a young man. It is sung to the tune of Clementine:
Chorus: “Oh my party line, oh my party line. Oh my darling party line, for I never will desert you for you are the life of mine.
Leon Trotsky was a Nazi; oh I knew it for a fact. Pravda said it. We all read it before the Stalin-Hitler Pact.”
(Repeat chorus) “Oh my party line….”
After reading Rubenstein’s biography of Trotsky, this ditty makes more sense to me than it did in my youth before I understood Trotsky’s true role in the history of the Russian Revolution.
Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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