Trotsky—truth and fiction

This article was presented at the panel “The Trotsky Moment” at the national conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies held in Los Angeles November 18-21, 2010.


Downfall of a Revolutionary


A Graphic Biography

In the Casa Azul:

A Novel of Revolution and Betrayal

The Sweetest Dream:

Love, Lies, & Assassination


A Biography

FOR MILLIONS of people throughout the world, Leon Trotsky was initially seen as a revolutionary liberator. Bertrand Patenaude, one of the more careful critics among his recent biographers, notes that Trotsky—winning over “vast crowds of workers, soldiers, and sailors in Petrograd with his spellbinding oratory” in 1917—“proved to be Lenin’s most important ally when the Bolsheviks stormed to power in the October Revolution.” Trotsky himself, in his history of Russia’s revolution, placed emphasis on the multitudes: “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”1

It is hard, however, not to fixate on the man. In his simple, slender, remarkable graphic biography, Trotsky, A Graphic Biography, Rick Geary summarizes part of the story in the first four frames:

In 1917, Leon Trotsky burst upon the international stage as the brain behind the Russian Revolution. He presided over the complete transformation of his country, not merely a change of government but a total restructuring of society on every level. To many, he was the heroic St. George, slaying the dragon of capitalist repression. To others, he was the ruthless and Satanic purveyor of bloody rebellion, the cold, detached theorist gone mad with power. In truth, he fitted neither of these images. He was a writer, a thinker, a nation-builder—albeit a reluctant one—with deep roots in his Russia’s agricultural heartland. Trotsky’s dream was for a world free from injustice, inequality, and war, and in this he was absolutely single-minded. To him, the ideas of Karl Marx showed the way, and for one brief moment he set the machinery in motion to achieve that end…. He lived to see his work betrayed and his ideals perverted by those who seized power after him. He would be ejected from the government he helped to establish and hounded into exile and death.2

Over the past ten years, four English-language novels dealing with Leon Trotsky have appeared—converging with the appearance of four English-language scholarly works. They invite a consideration of different forms of “truth” (and un-truth).

Each of the novels deals with Trotsky’s Mexican exile of 1937-1940. The Ghost of Leon Trotsky depicts a small group of aging U.S. Trotskyists (fictional creations inspired by the author’s friendship with an old U.S. Trotskyist). Author Lois Young-Tulin writes: “Trotsky and Stalin were rival protagonists in a conflict that continued for decades. Stalin was the savage and machinelike manipulator; Trotsky, for all his ruthlessness, believed in man’s dignity. Stalin, through the agency of the assassin, won the gangster’s battle; but Trotsky’s ideas and his faith in ‘permanent revolution’ live on.”3

In her panoramic and accomplished work, In the Casa Azul (referring to artist Frida Kahlo’s Blue House where Trotsky lived for a time), Meaghan Delahunt puts the same thought—this time in Trotsky’s own mind—most succinctly: “I am that which my enemy is not.”4

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna focuses on a fictional young man, Harrison Shepherd, who inadvertently finds himself as part of Trotsky’s Mexican household, after serving for a time as an assistant to the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. What Trotsky represents to Kingsolver is communicated in a conversation between Trotsky and the fictional hero:

“Diego told me you were meant to succeed Lenin. You were his second in command, with the people’s support. You would have led the revolution to a democratic Soviet Republic.”

“That is the case.”

“Then why did Stalin come to power instead of you?”5

A question to which Kingsolver—for all her skill as a novelist—provides answers appropriate in relation to the flow of her artistic creation, but which give short shrift to the historical complexities.

In some ways the most incisive comments are from an “amateur” novelist, Lillian Pollak, an elderly veteran of the U.S. Trotskyist movement who actually met Trotsky during his Mexican exile. In the penultimate chapter of her fine novel, The Sweetest Dream, the heroine is marching in Trotsky’s funeral procession with a huge crowd of working-class Mexicans. She writes:

These people know Trotsky although they have not met him. They know his story, because Mexico’s past is full of revolutionary martyrs. Trotsky is the brave revolutionist who fought for the dispossessed, the oppressed. They know him as a man with simple tastes who gathered cactus in the countryside and tended rabbits in his garden. They have heard he was a world-famous leader, a great orator, a fine writer, who fought for truth and humanity with his pen and they know that although he made errors in his lifetime, he never swerved in his fight for truth, for humanity, for socialism and for that, he was killed.6

All this contrasts with historical works on Trotsky produced in the same 2000-2010 period, by Robert Service, Ian Thatcher, and Geoffrey Swain—each volume entitled Trotsky. He comes through in their accounts as conceited, unpleasant, more wrong than right—even a paragon of killing and authoritarianism. (The partial exception to this chorus of academic negativity is the study by Bertrand Patenaude, Trotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary, which also focuses on the Mexican exile and—well-researched as it is—reads like a novel.)

The negative image of Trotsky is more or less grounded in the 1918 to 1921 period when an idealistic Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky gave way to a brutalizing civil war, when Trotsky was the tireless organizer and commander of the Soviet Republic’s new Red Army. For Robert Service, his role as ruthless Red Army commander reveals the cloven hoof under the red robes of the Revolutionary Messiah. “Trotsky’s earlier ideas about ‘proletarian’ self-liberation were like old coins that had dropped unnoticed out of his pocket,” Service tells us, adding that Trotsky’s “lust for dictatorship and terror” rivaled that of Stalin’s.7

Critics often see Trotsky’s succumbing to the Leninist temptation (the vanguard party) as the source of totalitarian corruption. The Leninist party described by Ian Thatcher is characterized by “strict centralization and iron discipline,” bent on “providing the workers with theoretical and organizational guidance,” not “reacting to events, but carefully moulding them through a carefully planned conspiracy”—a scheme in which “no deviation from the leader’s line should be tolerated.” (Unfortunately, uninformed readers cannot know that, in fact, the two Lenin works cited by Thatcher to buttress this description of “Leninism”—What Is To Be Done? and Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder—essentially say the opposite of what he attributes to them.)8

How can one harmonize the heroic Trotsky portrayed by the novelists with the ruthless Trotsky of the civil war? Perhaps Isaac Deutscher made the most thoughtful effort. In his biography of Trotsky, he emphasized the growing cleavage after the 1917 Revolution between “the power and the dream”—and the deepening contradiction felt by the Bolsheviks who had created a machine of power to make the dream a reality. “They could not dispense with power if they were to strive for the fulfillment of their ideals; but now their power came to oppress and overshadow their ideals,” Deutscher wrote, adding: “Nobody had in 1920–21 gone farther than Trotsky in demanding that every interest and aspiration should be wholly subordinated to the ‘iron dictatorship.’ Yet he was the first of the Bolshevik chiefs to turn against the machine of that dictatorship when it began to devour the dream.”9

The one and the many
The danger of admirers slipping into deification is suggested in the work of perhaps the finest of the novelists. At one point, as Trotsky is encouraging Harrison Shepherd to write novels, the young man (actually, Barbara Kingsolver) notes: “His halo of white hair was lit from behind by the blue blaze of the street lamp outside.”10

Yet a focus on the larger-than-life individual—separated from the labor movement and class struggle—can easily make the hero seem a deluded Don Quixote: ridiculous or even contemptible. This is evident in Ian Thatcher’sTrotsky. Trotsky is mocked for seeing himself as God’s gift to humanity—a theme Thatcher beats to death with undocumented assertions. Mocking Trotsky’s self-portrayal in his 1930 memoir My Life, Thatcher scoffs: “Above all, Trotsky wanted to prove that the best of all Leninists was Trotsky himself.… Little wonder, then, that Lenin is presented as turning first of all to Trotsky as a sounding-board for ideas.… Little surprise, then, that all the best elements in the Bolshevik Party gather around Trotsky, wanting to serve in the ministries he headed.”

According to Thatcher, this megalomaniac wanted to be top dog even when all the Russian Marxists adhered to the global network of pre-1914 socialist parties, the Second International, but (in Thatcher’s words) “Trotsky was not able to maneuver a position of dominance for himself as the sole spokesman of the Russian social democracy amongst the International.” Thatcher tells us that in his disagreements with Lenin over signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, “Trotsky lost his nerve…. He was clearly incapable of claiming for himself the mantle of leader of the Bolsheviks, especially if he was challenging Lenin.” Trotsky’s power-lust had to be thwarted by his comrades in 1923 with (again in Thatcher’s words) “the Central Committee’s refusal to grant him dictatorial powers.” When attacked (under the slogan “Leninism or Trotskyism”) by an alliance of Bolshevik leaders in the early 1920s, Trotsky typically “claimed that there was ‘no better Bolshevik’ than he,” Thatcher asserts, neglecting to mention that this was a well-known quote from the now-deceased Lenin.11

“Trotsky may have claimed that he was for the restoration of the party’s [democratic] rights,” Thatcher reflects, “but this would have clashed with his obviously sincerely held belief that the truth was on his side and his side only…. It was this belief that, in turn, drove the conviction that the party could not do without him.”

Even when he was kicked out of the USSR, Trotsky was “convinced that the workers of the world were in as urgent need of his leadership as ever.” In calling on German Communists to form a united front with the Socialists to stop the rise of Hitler, Trotsky was simply displaying his self-centered egotism. “In fulfilling these tasks [the German Communists of] the KPD could have no better guide,” Thatcher snorts, “than Trotsky himself.” From Thatcher’s point of view, even as Trotsky tirelessly worked to organize a revolutionary communist alternative to Stalinism, he was essentially concerned with advancing his agenda for domination: “Convinced that he was armed with a correct politics, Trotsky was certain that the future belonged to him.”12 In comparison to this broken-record with footnotes, the imaginative efforts of the novelists seem more insightful.

Trotsky as an individual cannot be understood by magnifying his individualism. It was an intimate connection with the mass workers’ movement that gave Trotsky’s life meaning. This comes through best in veteran activist Lillian Pollak’s fine novel. Essential to his very being was a commitment to the development of a revolutionary party of the working class. Thus Meaghan Delahunt goes into the mind of Trotsky’s companion, Natalia Sedova, who reflects: “When the party rejected him, he had no alternative but to create something new. A new international party: The Fourth International. To challenge Stalin from the outside. And people often asked why he wasted his energy on this small grouping, ineffectual, beset by divisions from the beginning. And my only answer, the answer I always give: He was a revolutionary. He knew no other way.”13

Artistic license and scholarly contortion 
Artists and scholars are different in more than one important way. If a novelist gets certain facts wrong, the novel as a piece of literature is not undermined—just as William Shakespeare’s historical plays remain among humanity’s greatest works of art despite the fact that they are notoriously inaccurate.

Beyond this, artists necessarily distort historical reality in order to create an artistic vision and insights capable of conveying a certain understanding of life. Because author Lois Young-Tulin removes all of the actual, historical U.S. Trotskyists guarding Trotsky in Mexico, replacing them with fictional characters, she is able to explore aspects of the human condition that could not otherwise have found their way into her novel. Kingsolver makes her young hero into a cook in the Trotsky household, producing delicious meals. The historical reality is indicated in Bertrand Patenaude’s careful study as follows: “Dinner at noon was served one dish at a time, starting with soup, followed by potatoes, a vegetable, a meat dish, salad, and then the inevitable apple compote. Sometimes there was fresh fish from Acapulco…. The fare sounds unobjectionable, but the staff without exception rated the food along a scale of bland to distasteful. Newcomers quickly learned that one had better clean one’s plate, lest the Old Man and Natalia’s feelings be hurt or their inquiries result in a visit to the doctor.”14 A different novel might make wonderful creative use of this culinary detail—but Kingsolver’s particular purpose may have been better served through the exercise of what is commonly called “artistic license.”

Historians inhabit a different universe. Documentable inaccuracies and conscious distortions are most definitely “not okay.” The fact that Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky is filled with multiple inaccuracies seriously undermines it as a work of scholarship. His frequent anti-Trotsky editorializing, based on assertion rather than documentation, works against its credibility as a serious study. The fact that he introduces distortions of the historical record for the purpose of advancing an ideological agenda discredits it.15

Overshadowed by Service’s much-touted biography has been Patenaude’sTrotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary. Like Service, Patenaude has been a Fellow at the Hoover Institution, well-known for an anti-Communist and conservative agenda antithetical to all that Trotsky stood for. But along with a vibrant style comparing favorably with the novels we have looked at, it is a far more careful work of historical reconstruction. It is certainly not the volume that one should turn to if one wants to comprehend Trotsky’s politics. He castigates Trotsky as “the man who helped create the first totalitarian state, which even now [that is, in the late 1930s] he championed as the world’s most advanced country.” This ignores what Trotsky actually said in The Revolution Betrayed, not to mention his protracted struggle to replace bureaucratic dictatorship with workers’ democracy in the USSR. That is, after all, why he was living in Mexico rather than Moscow. Such crudities are mercifully rare in Trotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary. Trotsky and his comrades are generally allowed to have their say—although disillusioned ex-Trotskyist neo-conservatives are given the last word.16

The universe of academia is, naturally, not the same as the artistic universe, but it is also quite different from the universe of revolutionary politics. Ian Thatcher himself notes that “Trotsky was not…motivated to write The History of the Russian Revolution as a textbook for student use… It was a manual of sorts on how to make a revolution.”17 Thatcher’s volume definitely is meant to be a textbook for student use. The author is geared toward generating not professional revolutionaries but professional historians. Starting with a typical “review of the literature,” he goes on to provide a scholarly survey of the subject, in one section of the book after the other laying out what his subject said and did in one period after another, each section providing a “critique” drawing from the scholarship of various and sundry academics. As is so often the case with too many professional historians writing for “non-specialists,” sweeping assertions are made on the basis of such summary critiques—but it is impossible for the average reader to track down and evaluate all the articles which presumably “raise questions” about the validity of Trotsky ideas and about traditional interpretations of his role. Certain footnotes of Thatcher, Service and even Swain don’t hold up under too much scrutiny, but an unsuspecting reader has no way of knowing this.18

It is not simply political bias that accounts for these problems. Among professional scholars there are “natural” dynamics that often come into play which sometimes distort serious scholarship. In academia, as any alert graduate student soon learns, a negative critique of others is a method through which one gives expression to one’s own scholarly self. Careers can advance with a distinctively “original” interpretation, in a terrain littered with yesterday’s “cutting-edge” critiques and counter-critiques. “Ian D. Thatcher paints a new picture of Trotsky’s standing in Russian and world history,” reads the blurb on the back of his book. “Key myths about Trotsky’s heroic work…are thrown into question.” The back cover of Swain’s book tells a similar story: “This biography offers a new interpretation of Trotsky’s career.” Another scholar is quoted: “He gives no comfort to romantics who sentimentalize Trotsky as a more restrained alternative to Stalin.” The blurb on the dust jacket of Service’s book announces, “Service offers new insights into Trotsky,” and promises, “This illuminating portrait of the man and his legacy sets the record straight.”

Lies and truth
Swain, Thatcher, and Service are not in agreement on all matters (and Swain’s work strikes me as the most substantial of the three). Yet they are united in the enterprise of cutting Trotsky down to size. Lenin and Trotsky had entirely different visions of the 1917 insurrection, they tell us, and Trotsky was certainly as close to Lenin after the revolution as he likes to maintain. What’s more, Trotsky, far from being an internationalist, firmly believed in the possibility of building socialism in one country, just as Stalin did. As all three authors emphasize, their “innovative” interpretations fly in the face of what Trotsky himself insists upon in his autobiography and other writings. This naturally raises the question: was Trotsky lying? All three accuse Trotsky of rationalizations and evasions, and of superficial or mistaken judgments—but not of blatant falsehoods, conscious lies, or the fabrication of documents. Their Trotsky is far too proud for that. Yet if Trotsky actually thinks he is telling the truth, then some of their assertions are implausible. On top of this, Trotsky’s account is consistent with a variety of sources (in ways that their innovative accounts are not).

Artistic license and all, there seems to be more truth in the interpretations of the novelists. They deny neither Trotsky’s grandeur nor the drama inherent in the man, his revolutionary convictions, and the context of social struggles and the working-class movement. In fact, the appearance of all these works (each in their own way containing fiction and non-fiction) indicates a growing interest in what Trotsky represented—suggesting that we may indeed be entering a “Trotsky moment,” particularly with the re-emergence of capitalist crisis, radical ferment, and global insurgencies in our own time.

  1. Bertrand M. Patenaude, Trotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 8; Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Three Volumes in One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936; reprinted by Haymarket Books, 2008), xvii.
  2. Rick Geary, Trotsky, A Graphic Biography (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 3-4.
  3. Lois Young-Tulin, The Ghost of Leon Trotsky (New York: iUniverse, 2008), 77.
  4. Meaghan Delahunt, In the Casa Azul (New York: Picador, 2001), 189.
  5. Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 245.
  6. Lillian Pollak, The Sweetest Dream (New York: iUniverse, 2008), 345.
  7. Robert Service, Trotsky, A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 267, 4.
  8. Ian D. Thatcher, Trotsky (London: Routledge, 2003), 119. Analysis and documentation correcting the anti-Lenin caricature can be found in: Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993); Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What Is to Be Done?” in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010); Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings 1895-1923, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008).
  9. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1959), 78.
  10. Kingsolver, 212.
  11. Thatcher, 9, 10, 55, 98, 126, 128. The Lenin quote was part of the public record from the early days of the revolution—quoted, for example, in Service, 190.
  12. Thatcher, 161, 164, 176, 182.
  13. Delahunt, 257.
  14. Patenaude, 130, citing correspondence of Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s top U.S. aide, to his wife Reba.
  15. For details, see critiques of Service’s Trotsky, A Biography include: Paul Le Blanc, “Second Assassination of Leon Trotsky,” Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 25, 2009 ( and under the title of “Trotsky Lives,” in Revolutionary History, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2010); Hillel Ticktin, “In Defense of Leon Trotsky,” Weekly Worker, 6 April 2010 (; and Thomas Twiss and Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary Betrayed: Leon Trotsky and His Biographer,” International Socialist Review, issue 71, May-June 2010.
  16. Patenaude, 282. For ample material on Trotsky’s actual views, see Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), with a valuable introduction by Ernest Mandel, and Thomas Marshall Twiss’s scholarly re-examination,Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (University of Pittsburgh, doctoral dissertation, 2009). Serious surveys of Trotsky’s thought can also be found in: Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (Kolkata [Calcutta, India]: Progress Publishers, 2006); Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1978); Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, eds., 100 Years of Permanent Revolution, Results and Prospects (London: Pluto Press, 2006); Pierre Broué, Revolutionary Historian (special issue of Revolutionary History, vol. 9, no. 4, [London: Merlin Press, 2007], which includes a sampling of Broué’s work); Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2003); Ernest Mandel, Trotsky As Alternative (London: Verso, 1995); Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2010).
  17. Thatcher, 187, 162.
  18. Two of many examples can be offered here:
    (1) On the first page of his study, Swain (in a point reiterated by Service and Thatcher) asserts that in Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), historian “Richard Day … argued convincingly that Trotsky, far from being an internationalist, firmly believed in the possibility of building socialism in one country.” Day himself, in response, commented: “I truly cannot imagine how anyone could possibly say that Trotsky was not an ‘internationalist’ from beginning to end.” (Richard Day, e-mail to author quoted in David North, Leon Trotsky & the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification [Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 2007], 27). 
    (2) On the same page of his study, Swain tells: “Erik van Ree demolished the notion that Trotsky was Lenin’s heir,” citing Erik van Ree, “‘Lenin’s Last Struggle’ Revisited,”Revolutionary Russia, Vol. 14, No. 2, December 2001). Ree purports to debunk Moshe Lewin’s classic account Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York: Vintage Books, 1970) but confesses that it “makes no claim to a presentation of new facts.” Instead, he offers a “new” interpretive twist (consistent with the form of anti-communism the author shares with such neo-conservative authors as Richard Pipes, whom he approvingly cites, and also with the Maoist variant of Stalinism that he once embraced)—or as Ree puts it, presents “an alternative model for understanding the final conflict between Lenin and Stalin,” one which presents Lenin as a fanatical centralizer, “as convinced a centralizer as Stalin,” whose proposals therefore “probably did more to prepare the later Stalinism than to hamper it” (88, 105, 119). Ree’s “new interpretation” involves attributing to Lewin positions he doesn’t hold and knocking down straw men. For example, centralization is, by itself, not inherently undemocratic, nor has it been seen by Lewin and others as the key issue dividing Lenin and Stalin. While the article argues in passing that the meaning of the alliance between Lenin and Trotsky at this time has been misunderstood, it is hardly focused on the issue of “Lenin’s heir,” nor does it “demolish” the notion that Lenin and Trotsky were closely allied in a struggle against the bureaucratic and authoritarian policies represented by Stalin.



Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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