The Life and Death of Trotsky
Only an old maestro of the potboiler like Robert Payne, author of more than one hundred books, would dare publish a biography of a figure like Trotsky without undertaking a serious discussion of his political ideas. This is Robert Payne’s accomplishment, and while by no means unique, it is notable.
For example, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which he first formulated after the 1905 revolution, remains one of his most controversial and original ideas. Payne only mentions it in passing and fails to explore the question, presumably of some importance in a biography of Trotsky, whether this theory was vindicated by the October 1917 revolution. A major issue in the development of Russian Marxism was the organizational dispute between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, the latter insisting on the dominance of a “vanguard party,” organized on the rigid principle of “democratic centralism.” Payne devotes a few casual paragraphs to this crucial fight and then lets the whole matter drop. Trotsky’s own course as “vacillator” between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the years between 1905 and 1917 is barely mentioned.
In a remarkably skimpy and mindless chapter on the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin Payne makes no effort to present, let alone analyze the programs of the Trotskyist Left Opposition which challenged Stalin in the 1920s; the name of Preobrazhensky, its major economic theorist, nowhere appears, which is rather like doing a book on Robespierre without mentioning Danton. (You can of course believe that Trotsky did not really stand for what he said he did, but you must at least report what he thought he stood for.) In brushing past Trotsky’s writings on pre-Hitler Germany, Mr. Payne does not discuss Trotsky’s repeated calls for a united front of the left-wing parties (as against the Stalinist lunacy that described the non-Communist left as “social fascist”), in order to stop the Nazis. About the complex theoretical controversies regarding the nature of Stalinism which Trotsky engaged in during the last years of his life, Mr. Payne is appropriately shy.
Some things he does rather well. A concluding chapter presents a vivid report on the GPU agent who assassinated Trotsky in 1940; an earlier chapter on Trotsky’s exile in Prinkipo between 1929 and 1933 contains a lively vignette of his experience as a fisherman. Mr. Payne’s material comes mainly from the books of others, notably Max Eastman’s portrait of Trotsky’s youth and Isaac Deutscher’s masterful three-volume biography. Though he does list Deutscher in his bibliography, Mr. Payne neglects to acknowledge his debt to him, perhaps because there is no single point at which acknowledgment would be more appropriate than any other.
The book is peppered with the kind of small blunders that reveal a quickie job. It would be tedious to list these in detail, but one of them is weird enough to mention. Mr. Payne says that Karl Radek, the Communist propagandist, was notable for “a rather ruthless honesty”—this would make a whole generation of …