Sunday, 2 May 2010

Out of Service

Review by Ian Birchall, LSHG Newsletter, 38, (April 2010)

Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service
Macmillan, London, 2009, £25.00

Robert Service claims that “this book is the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist”. [xxi] As Paul Leblanc points out in his brilliant demolition of the book, this is simply untrue, ignoring substantial biographies by Joel Carmichael, Robert Payne and Ronald Segal, among others. Carmichael’s book is actually in Service’s bibliography.  Service claims that Trotsky’s previous biographers have been too sympathetic to their subject - Pierre Broué is dismissed as an “idolater” [xxi] – and that he wishes to redress the balance. Those of us who admire Trotsky might in principle welcome this. Serious criticism is always useful and can help to raise the level of the argument. Unfortunately there is little new here for those who already know something of Trotsky, and Service’s case is poorly presented and inadequately documented.

Service tells us that Trotsky was arrogant. [4] Clearly there is some truth in this. Nobody without a powerful self-belief and recognition of their own importance could have played such a significant leadership role in the Russian Revolution, and then carried on the struggle unremittingly despite isolation and persecution. There are few modest men and women in the ranks of political leaders.  But Service goes on to exaggerate his case with unsupported assertions. Thus he produces a quotation from Alfred Rosmer retailed by Max Eastman to the effect that Trotsky “has no humanity. It’s entirely absent from him”. [334] Rosmer is unlikely to have said any such thing. In Lenin’s Moscow [London, 1987] and elsewhere [for example, “Nashe Slovo” in Revolutionary History 7/4] he shows his warm affection for Trotsky. Trotsky’s close friendship with Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer survived their political disagreements.

Service’s other main charge is that Trotsky’s “lust for dictatorship and terror was barely disguised in the Civil War”. [4]. He repeats the claim several times, as though that somehow made it more plausible. The Russian Civil War was fought with exceptional bitterness on all sides, and Trotsky undoubtedly used some brutal means. But Service never takes on the arguments about revolutionary terror, or how a revolutionary state might survive without it, preferring to reiterate accusations about Trotsky’s psychology. Kronstadt is evoked on several occasions, though again without any suggestion of what alternatives were open to the Bolsheviks. Since he quotes Victor Serge’s polemics against Trotsky on the question, he might have had the elementary honesty to note that in 1921 Serge – “with unutterable anguish” - supported the Bolsheviks against Kronstadt. [Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford, 1967, p. 128] This is an indication that the tragedy of Kronstadt was not such a clear-cut case as those who delight in using it against the Bolsheviks seems to assume.

Service is keen to expose “silly fibs” in Trotsky’s own recollections. Few readers will be shocked to learn that Trotsky’s claims to have travelled to America second-class – when in fact he got a first-class cabin though he had only paid a second-class fare. [153] A whole chapter is devoted to “Trotsky and his Women” [446-54] (perhaps Service was hoping for tabloid serialisation), though there is nothing new here, merely the brief affair with Frida Kahlo which is pretty widely known.

But on the substantial political arguments Service is surprisingly thin.  The whole argument between Stalin and Trotsky hinged on the question of spreading the revolution. But Service has little or nothing to say about Trotsky’s role in the Communist International. The cursory account of the Second Congress fails to mention the way in which Trotsky supported Lenin, in opposition to the likes of Zinoviev, in attempting to draw the revolutionary syndicalists into the Comintern. [254-5] He is apparently unaware of Reiner Tosstorff’s important study of the Red International of Labour Unions (Profintern, Paderborn, 2004.)  Trotsky devoted particular attention to the tangled affairs of the French Communist Party, but no mention is made of his extensive writings and interventions. [Service might have profitably consulted the documents collected by Broué in Le Mouvement communiste en France [Paris 1967] or Robert Wohl’s, French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924 (Stanford, 1966)].

He does note that Trotsky opposed the disastrous March Action in Germany in 1921, [286] though he seems unclear as to what actually happened. He refers to “the Berlin insurrection”, though reference to Broué’s The German Revolution 1917-1923 [Leiden 2005] would show that the main strike action took place in Mansfeld and Halle in Central Germany. But then he attempts to nail Trotsky for inconsistency by claiming he changed his position by supporting a revolutionary attempt in 1923. [306] Now there is a legitimate argument about whether there was a potentially revolutionary situation on Germany in 1923. But there is no doubt that the situation in Germany had radically changed – maybe even Service has heard of the massive inflation of 1923. A glance at Broué or Victor Serge’s Witness to the German Revolution [London 2000] would have helped.

Trotsky’s writings on fascism in Germany – among his finest work – get only a passing mention. [305] Trotsky devoted the last ten years of his life to trying to draw together the anti-Stalinist left and to building the Fourth International. Service belittles this work, reducing the various disputes in and around the FI to Trotsky’s authoritarian style and “crotchetiness”. [439] Unfortunately the roots of sectarianism on the left run far deeper than one individual’s character defects. There is nothing new, and indeed nothing concrete, here. Service makes no mention of Tony Cliff’s biography of Trotsky, presumably because Cliff was not a recognised academic.  But the final volume The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star (London, 1993), gives a great deal of detail on Trotsky’s activity, informed by Cliff’s own active involvement in the movement. It is a far more rewarding source than anything Service has to offer.

Despite his archival researches, Service takes a cavalier attitude to Trotsky’s published works, and one often wonders if he has actually read them. Thus he alleges that in the New Course Trotsky “expressed contempt for Bolshevik veterans”. [335] Such claims are unwise when the text is easily available on the Marxist Internet Archive, where we find that Trotsky actually wrote “Theoretical preparation, revolutionary tempering, political experience, these represent the party’s basic political capital whose principal possessors, in the first place, are the old cadres of the party.” [Chapter One] His argument, which Service seems wholly unable to appreciate, was about the importance of drawing in and integrating a new generation of those radicalised after 1917. If Trotsky was so contemptuous of the old Bolsheviks, it would be hard to explain why so many of them were drawn to the Left Opposition.

Likewise with Their Morals and Ours. Service begins with a standard sneer at ‘dialectics” [471], but completely misses the main point of Trotsky’s argument, that ends and means are interrelated, so that the means must always be appropriate to the end. A quotation about “ruthlessness” is quite meaningless if ripped out of this context.

Then there are the detailed errors which accumulate until they undermine the reader’s confidence in Service. We are told that Trotsky could win support from painters but not from writers [453]. This is justified by describing the well-known poet André Breton (sometimes misnamed Bréton [453]) as a painter. (Wikipedia might have helped here). Service believes Breton’s “pictures” showed “sympathy with the plight of working people”; Breton, who loathed Socialist Realism, would have been appalled.

We are told that Trotsky’s son wrote to “others in the Coyoacán household such as Bertram Wolfe”.[441] Why Bertram Wolfe, a followed of the Bukharinite Jay Lovestone, would have been at Coyoacán is unclear. The addressee was actually a quite different person, Bernard Wolfe, who was briefly one of Trotsky’s secretarial staff. Wolfe describes his experiences in his delightfully titled Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer [New York, 1972]. Service could have consulted this in the British Library, but because of the book’s title he would have had to go to the Rare Books room and sit at the so-called “wankers’ table”.

 And we are told that “by 1939 Victor Serge … resigned from the Fourth International”. [444] In fact Serge was never a member of the Fourth International. This error is particularly culpable, since Service cites as his source David Cotterill’s The Serge Trotsky Papers[London, 1994], though he does not seem to have actually read it.

Service concludes that Trotsky was “close to Stalin in intentions and practice”. [497] Nowhere in the 500 pages of his shoddily researched book does he produce any proof of this claim. But alongside the common assertion that “Lenin led to Stalin”, Service adds the argument that “there was no alternative”. Revolutionary socialism – socialism from below – was doomed to failure. War, fascism and starvation survive, but Service does not seem unduly bothered. All his anger is directed at a man who, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to change things.
Ian Birchall

Editors note: Service's biography of Trotsky, despite the numerous errors highlighted above, for some reason won the 2009 Duff Cooper Prize. Ian Birchall has written a review of Reiner Tosstorff’s study of the Red International of Labour Unions Profintern, Paderborn, 2004. in Historical Materialism journal, 17,4 (2009).

1 comment:

  1. Any chance of reformatting this? Difficult to read.