Books to read: The idea-maddened killer

Among the great totalitarians of the last century, Leon Trotsky usually gets the best press.  It’s easy to see why.  Trotsky was striking in appearance, a brilliant author, an orator of genius.  Unlike Stalin, he never declared cold war on the human race, family included.  Unlike Lenin, he demonstrated great physical courage, and acted fearlessly in pursuit of his ideals.  Trotsky himself posed, when out of power, as the democratic alternative to Stalinist despotism and cult of personality.

Yet a reading of Robert Service’s excellent biography leaves no doubt that Trotsky was an inflexible zealot, who urged violence against enemies of the state and presided over wholesale slaughters during the civil war.  He was a moral monster of a different kind:  an idea-obsessed creature.  The idea, of course, was the Marxist version of revolution.  It froze all human feeling in Trotsky’s heart.

This deformity was evident in his early life.  The son of a wealthy but illiterate farmer, he received the best education his father’s money could buy, which he repaid with an implacable hostility to his father’s world and way of life.  The vision of the perfect society which consumed him trumped filial affection.

At the age of 23, he abandoned his first wife and their two infant children in Siberia, to join Lenin’s group of exiled revolutionaries.  He never looked back, taking up with the woman who would become his second wife.  His children grew up without his presence or support; in later life, years would pass between visits with them.

“Few revolutionaries left such a mess behind them,” Service writes.  “Even so, he was acting within the revolutionary code of behavior.  The ‘cause’ was everything for the revolutionaries.”  No doubt.  But Trotsky embodied the code with a particularly heartless rigor.

Everything in Trotsky’s universe revolved around the Marxist idea of revolution – and his own ideas on the subject were extreme.  After the October 1917 coup, he participated in the persecution of non-Bolshevik socialists.  Later, he played a leading part in the emasculation of the trade unions, which became mere appendages of the one-party state.

During the civil war, he executed countless Whites to terrify the opposition, but also a number of Reds who didn’t live up to his notions of the revolutionary warrior.  In the moral class system that was Leninism, the larger murders counted in his favor, while the smaller would come back to haunt him.

Trotsky considered Stalin to be a “centrist” and compromiser.  He attacked the new Soviet leadership from the left, demanding a faster pace in the collectivization of agriculture.  He wanted to crush the prosperous farmers or kulaks – the class from which he had arisen.  When Stalin did just that, Trotsky questioned his competence and sincerity – this was the work of a “new caste of oppressors and parasites,” not true revolutionaries.  Quite literally, he could conceive of no worse condemnation.

If Service is correct, the policy differences between Trotsky and Stalin were minimal – and Trotsky’s quarrel with Stalin’s methods focused on their incompetence rather than their immorality.  He never complained about the show trials.  “He himself,” Service writes, “had helped to plan the political stage for the show-trial of the Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1922.”  He largely ignored Stalin’s persecutions of suspect groups, believing they were justified.

Trotsky and Stalin were radically different personalities, but their crimes, on inspection, were animated by the same idea.

Those – like Trotsky himself – who oppose rationalism to obscurantism, and glorify the former, should consider the twentieth century, and the murderous course of formulas and abstractions when wielded by willful, ruthless men.

In the end, Trotsky had many admirers but few friends, and quarreled with most of them over matters of revolutionary doctrine.  Despite his brilliance, acknowledged bravery in battle, and success as head of the Red Army, he lacked the basic human skills to weave a faction together around him to oppose Stalin’s ambitions.  Instead, he expected others to bend to his superior logic, and unleashed his scorn when they failed to do so.  He never compromised, and when wrong he never apologized (except once, to his wife, after being caught in an affair with the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo).

It might be wondered how the seemingly less-talented Stalin defeated Trotsky.  In fact, it was never much of a fight:  after Lenin died, Trotsky alienated all those who feared his rival and might have supported him.  That he clung to power as long as he did is a testament to the force of his personality and dazzling intellect.

He had plenty of both.  Service makes it clear that Trotsky contributed as much as anyone, Lenin included, to the triumph of the Bolsheviks.  Without Trotsky’s idea-maddened genius, the October revolution might have fizzled, and the civil war might have been lost.

It is pointless to imagine how much better the world would be today, had that been the case.


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