Thursday, January 14, 2010

LD and Me

LD is Lev Davidovich Bronstein, more widely known as Leon Trotsky. My relationship is a longstanding one, dating back to college when I learned much more detail about the Russian Revolution than I had learned in grade school and high school during the first couple of decades of the Cold War. In college I learned that the American stereotypes about the Russian Revolution were not particularly accurate. Reading works based on original sources and the words of participants left me with what I can only call a romantic view of a revolution that could have been.

A big part of that revolution that could have been was Leon Trotsky who, despite his intellectual and oratorical abilities, lost out in a power struggle with Josef Stalin. The years since college, lots of reading and the bloody history of the Soviet Union under Stalin dulled that romantic vision but not entirely. The Russian Revolution did create the opening to create a new political order in place of the Romanov autocracy. In all that I have read and learned about those events I see men honestly acting in the belief that they were creating something truly revolutionary. The tragedy is that the system they created evolved into an entirely new form of Russian autocracy.

In my view Trotsksy will always be among those honest believers. I cannot say for certain that Soviet Communism would have been different had Trotsky prevailed over Stalin. The Bolsheviks’ refusal to recognize the legitimacy of other parties or the results of Russia’s first popular elections while Trotsky was a member of the ruling Politburo suggest that the seeds of totalitarianism were already taking root on Trotsky’s watch. He was ruthless as Commissar of War during the civil war. My relationship with such a man has become more difficult as I have come to understand both the futility and evil of war.

Still, I continue to admire Trotsky. Maybe it’s the dashing figure he cut as a wartime leader, or his eloquent prose or maybe just because he became an outcast. I cannot bring myself to sweep him into the dustbin of history with Stalin and all the other murderous leaders in history. Something about the man and his struggles appeal to me.

All this comes to mind as I am reading Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, by Bertrand Patenaude. This Trotsky is far more of a real, live human being than the Trotsky of many previous biographies and has all the flaws that come with being a real, live human being. Where other biographers deal with the official, public Trotsky, considering his personality and manner as secondary factors, Patenaude focuses on his subject’s final years where many of the same faults and shortcomings were still in play. The details of a somewhat ordinary household provide the perspective to examine Trotsky’s accomplishments and failures. Extensive use of letters, diaries and contemporary accounts of Trotsky’s years in Mexico lend authentic weight to the story, which captures the arc of Trotsky’s life without re-telling its entirety. Patenaude has access to recently released Soviet documents that add new facts—confirming what was long suspected, actually—to the saga.

Patenaude’s Trotsky is brilliant, incisive, petulant and dismissive. At once fascinating and irritable to even his closest associates, Trotsky in this telling is a man who can inspire masses but not a man who invites or accepts the friendship of any other even as he depends on them for his very life. In this biography we get all the details of Trotsky’s years in Mexico, including his affair with Frieda Kahlo and Stalin’s inevitable and relentless pursuit of his arch-nemesis, first through the show trials of the Great Purge and, finally, Trotsky’s murder.

This biography is sympathetic but also unsparing. Patenaude explains well how Trotsky’s personality and intellectual rigidity cost him, and possibly history, dearly. The enmity Trotsky created with his brusque and dismissive manner created many allies for Stalin to use against him. The same traits continued to marginalize Trotsky for the rest of his life. But even with those difficulties, Trotsky continued to speak out, in his History of the Russian Revolution, his Bulletin of the Opposition and numerous articles. Trotsky does all of this on the run from Stalin. In that regard, he never gave up the fight.

Trotsky’s dedication to his ideal and ability to become an agent of that ideal are what inspire me. His belief was total and he made honorable and reasonable choices in an era war and revolution. After all these years, that judgment and my fascination with the man and his times are unchanged.

Forty years ago, in the throes of all that I learned in college about the Russian Revolution, I saw the event (which actually began in 1905) as a moment of hope despite its ensuing violence. I saw its architects as men of character and action in pursuit of a worthy ideal. Contemporary accounts describe the excitement of creating a new society, a new equality, a better life for all. My reservations about the violence and the ultimate result of their actions tempered but did not change my conclusion. My take on Trotsky is that he was an honorable man who followed his conscience and understanding in a life-long battle against exploitation that at times led to great violence. I can recognize and admire Trotsky’s contributions to history even as I regret the violence and repression that followed in the wake of his actions.


For a full review of Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary go here.