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What Trotsky Thought

The Life and Death of Trotsky

by Robert Payne
McGraw-Hill, 498 pp., $14.95


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 Bolsheviks and anti-Bolsheviks hoot with laughter.

If you repeat enough of what other people have written, you are bound to say some sensible things, and Mr. Payne does provide a standard summary of the standard criticisms of Bolshevism. But repetition also lures him into saying foolish things. The “chief lesson of history,” writes Mr. Payne, is that “the end never justifies the means.” Never? An absolute pacifist, enraptured with a presumed congruence between means and ends, might say this with honesty; but the rest of us, having to recognize tensions and disjunctions between what we want and how we try to get it, ought to be more modest. Once a means needs to be justified, there is clearly something about it that seems morally dubious; but one of the crucial ways in which we can undertake that justification is by claiming that the means is necessarily linked to (“will lead to”) a desirable proximate end. Simply to announce grandly that “the end never justifies the means,” as if that somehow suffices to set us apart from the amoral Bolsheviks, is mere cant.

The only interesting question about this book is, why was it written at all? Hack work for bread, or yachts, requires no explanation, but it seems unlikely that Mr. Payne will be able to acquire a yacht, or even much bread, from the profits of his book. What then leads people to do hack work for its own sake? And a well-known publisher to print it?

Between Mr. Payne’s shoddy work and the meticulous scholarship of Baruch Knei-Paz, a Hebrew University professor, there is a world of difference. Professor Knei-Paz knows Trotsky’s work intimately; he is well grounded in political theory; he quotes generously, if at times to the disadvantage of his own prose; and his criticisms, drawing upon a liberal or social democratic outlook, are cogent and fair.

Yet I want to complain a little that this is an academic study. Everything is spun out to tiresome length; everything written in the odd style of dissertations which are presumably addressed to learned colleagues but actually composed as if their readers know nothing.

More troubling is the fact that Professor Knei-Paz writes from the assumption that the ideas of a major historical figure can largely be isolated from his public career. This makes for bloodlessness, and for a failure to recognize that what may seem inconsistent or evasive to a scholar in his study was perhaps the desperate resort or hurried approximation of a man in, or slipping out of, power. Professor Knei-Paz’s academicism is especially damaging at those points where the history of ideas cannot be separated from history itself; thus, in his section on the mid-1920s, he offers an accomplished summary of Trotsky’s ideas but does not really take up their political articulation, e.g., why it was that Trotsky could not or would not work out a pact of common defense with Bukharin against Stalin. Professor Knei-Paz knows a great deal about Bolshevik history, but his work does not have the intellectual bite of such diverse writers as Leonard Schapiro or Stephen Cohen or the late George Lichtheim.

Still, there is much to admire in Professor Knei-Paz’s book, and in the remainder of this article I should like to discuss two of his major themes, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in relation to social “backwardness” and the disputes among the Russian Marxists concerning “the nature of the party.”

The 150 or more pages devoted to the theory of permanent revolution make clear this was not just a schematic formula for the seizure of power; it lay imbedded in Trotsky’s careful sociology of Russian life, developed first in his book 1905, then in a number of essays, and finally in The History of the Russian Revolution. All the Russian Marxists agreed that their country needed a “bourgeois revolution” or, as we might today put it, a radical modernizing of society. Trotsky also foresaw what the 1917 revolution seems partly to have borne out: that none of the social classes expected to lead this bourgeois revolution was in Russia capable of doing so. Knei-Paz offers an excellent summary:

While the formal structure of capitalism may have been incorporated [in Russia] through the exigencies of financing industry, the “infra-structure” was completely missing. For Trotsky grasped capitalism as a social and cultural system and not merely an economic arrangement…. The backbone of [bourgeois] revolution is not the industrial baron, but the self-made middle class who in the course of a long period succeed in penetrating the social organism and whose existence transforms social life; not merely industrialization, but an urban life having certain identifiable cultural attributes, characterizes a bourgeois capitalist society. The absence of such components, a direct result of the peculiar development of Russia, was in Trotsky’s view responsible for the weakness of the bourgeois liberal movement….

Every class that might have opposed czarism “from above” turned out to be devoid of revolutionary spirit. Capitalism itself, wrote Trotsky, appeared in Russia as “the child of the state,” a “child” nurtured through forced bureaucratic feedings, rather than as a phenomenon growing organically out of the country’s socio-economic life. This, by the way, is one of the few points where Knei-Paz neglects an important link in Trotsky’s argument: the stress on the absolutist, almost “supra-class” character of the czarist state, its tendency to become what Marx had called “an appalling parasitic body” choking the life out of all social classes, including Russia’s bourgeoisie.

It fell, then, in Trotsky’s view, to the tiny, inexperienced, but highly concentrated Russian proletariat to undertake the bourgeois revolution, apart from and even against the bourgeoisie. Still bolder—though as it would turn out, the implicit basis of Bolshevik strategy after April 1917—was Trotsky’s idea that, precisely because of Russian backwardness, a bourgeois revolution, even if carried out apart from and against the bourgeoisie, would not suffice. It would be necessary to “grow over” into socialist measures. Socialism, he took for granted, could not be built upon an economy of scarcity or a culture of backwardness; but power could be held, some socialistic advances made, until there followed speedily revolution in the advanced European countries.

Audacious and prescient as this theory was, we can now see its central difficulty: that it requires for the fulfillment of the socialist goal too many interdependent steps, one victory after another. Let the chain once be broken…and we are left with precisely the kinds of unforeseen problems which in fact arose in Russia during the 1920s. Professor Knei-Paz makes the crucial point that the backwardness which Trotsky’s strategy was supposed to leap over persisted in the Bolshevik party, the revolutionary agency that “assigned” itself the task of making the leap. Certain distinctive aspects of Bolshevism—its vanguardism, its dismissal of parliamentarism, its ill-developed economic notions—contained a strong heritage of backwardness. Here the traditional Menshevik criticism still seems pertinent: no amount of revolutionary or heroic will can undo the accumulated realities of history. One may therefore wonder whether the “Right Bolsheviks” led by Bukharin did not have a point, once the revolution had bogged down in the mid-Twenties, when they proposed conciliatory, “semi-Menshevik” policies designed to gain time, encourage a more relaxed social order, and accumulate capital through the furthering of what we would now call a mixed economy, in which a considerable degree of private ownership would continue, particularly in agriculture. Even Trotsky’s “Left” proposals in the mid-1920s had an essentially moderate character if compared with what actually happened during Stalin’s forced industrialization and collectivization.

In unexpected, sometimes grotesque ways, all these old disputes have recently taken on new meaning and urgency. Trotsky, within the limits of the Marxist categories, was struggling with the problems of “modernization” which confront underdeveloped countries. His grand strategy of a world-historical transformation led by a Promethean working class has not of course been realized, nor is there much visible reason to expect that it will be. Other classes, or social groupings that aspire to class ascendancy, have brushed aside the working class or subordinated it to ends that clash with Marxist expectations. The “hegemony of the proletariat” which is the beginning and end of Trotsky’s theory seems increasingly dubious, especially when that is regarded as a strategic prognosis for underdeveloped countries.

Something new, unforeseen in Trotsky’s or any other Marxist schema, has occurred. The bourgeoisie in the backward countries has indeed turned out to be as ineffectual as Trotsky said, and the peasantry as incapable of providing social and political leadership. Much of what has recently been happening in Asia, Africa, and Latin America becomes clearer in the light of this part of Trotsky’s analysis, though of course allowances must be made for national distinctiveness. The task of modernization, or what is a related phenomenon, the bourgeois revolution, does indeed fall to non-bourgeois classes—but also to non-proletarian ones. A “new class,” the insurgent nationalist elite of aspiring semi-intellectuals, army officers, and party bureaucrats, comes to the fore, usually finding more support among exploited peasants than in the thin ranks of the urban proletariat. Such elites rise, in bonapartist fashion, “above” the classes, taking advantage of their mutual weakness and parodying the Marxist vocabulary. (Imagine the “dictatorship of the proletariat”…in Ethiopia!)

It is all very strange: the movement begun in the name of a radical fulfillment of Marxism has ended, in parts of the underdeveloped world, as an agency serving as surrogate for a collapsed or enfeebled bourgeoisie, and in the course of this historical mummery has created a modernizing version of Marx’s “Asiatic despotism,” a statist rule destroying the autonomy of all the classes to which Trotsky had assigned parts in his drama of history.


One of the freshest parts of Professor Knei-Paz’s study is his detailed account, the most detailed that to my knowledge we have, of Trotsky’s early views on “the nature of the party.” After 1917, naturally wishing to minimize his differences with Lenin in the early years, Trotsky tended to pass over this subject rather quickly. He was honest enough to acknowledge the early differences, but not candid enough to acknowledge their extent. Isaac Deutscher too fails to provide enough material on this matter.

It is abundantly clear,” writes Knei-Paz, “where Trotsky’s sympathies lay” in the years between 1905 and 1917; “he was above all a supporter of Social Democracy as a broad, mass movement. Nothing was more repugnant to him than what he called the ‘abstract’ centralism of Lenin…representing an autonomous institutional structure whose relationship to the movement as a whole was ‘purely formal.’ ” Lenin’s centralism, wrote Trotsky in a cruel thrust, was “an innocent office man’s dream,” and Lenin’s methods in the disputes among Marxists, like those of Robespierre: “Comrade Lenin made a mental roll-call of the party personnel and arrived at the conclusion that he himself was to be the iron fist—and he alone.”

What Trotsky kept stressing, in language close to that of Rosa Luxemburg, was “the self-activity of the proletariat,” as against Lenin’s “substitutionism,” that is, the party “thinking for the proletariat” and becoming its “political substitute.” As a result—and this is about the only sentence that is quoted in most accounts of Trotsky’s post-1905 polemics against Lenin—“these methods [of Lenin] lead to this: the party organization substitutes itself for the party, the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization and finally, a ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”

The remark, like the text in which it appears, is striking for its anticipation of the degeneration that would overtake the Bolshevik party, and no doubt Trotsky should have remembered it during the years just before and after the revolution when he became a passionately uncritical defender of Bolshevism. Yet one may doubt that the remark is quite so prescient, or decisive, as historians often claim. Certainly it is not sufficient evidence for the notion that the youthful Trotsky perceived the cause of the eventual decline of the Bolshevik Revolution in a way the older Trotsky refused to acknowledge. Any effort to explain a major historical development, such as the rise of Stalinism, through the workings of an exclusive agency, such as the Leninist doctrine of organization, is inherently dubious.

What is valid, however, in the attacks Trotsky made upon Lenin should now be utterly clear. The “vanguard” party tends to substitute itself too readily for the class it claims to be representing; it thereby finds it all too easy to dismiss the claims of other parties to be authentic representatives of the working class. Yet these tendencies toward political usurpation hardly exhaust the complex actualities of the Bolshevik party under Lenin, either before or after 1917. Lenin did not rule out debate within his own party; at least until the early 1920s the Bolshevik movement was characterized by openness, indeed ferocity, of internal discussion. Factions were given formal recognition; divergent bulletins of opinion were issued within the party, and sometimes factional newspapers (e.g., by Bukharin’s short-lived “Left Communist” group in 1918) were published openly. At some points this record compares favorably with those of the European social democratic parties, among whom bureaucratic practices have not been entirely unknown.

That vivid internal disputes took place within Lenin’s Bolshevik party helps to distinguish it from the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Communist parties that followed; but simply pointing to such disputes is not an adequate reply to the more nuanced criticisms that can be made of the Leninist outlook. The tendency of the Bolshevik faction to see itself as a “chosen” instrument of History—Trotsky in 1906 didn’t use quite these words, but what he said is close enough—created a complex of attitudes intolerant of the atmosphere required for a democratic polity. That the Bolsheviks could debate freely with one another does not mean they were prepared to accept the norms by means of which competing opinions survive in a democracy.

Still, one ought to guard against the inclination of later historians (especially the sort who like to discover the “germ” of big events in small pamphlets) to assume that the early Trotsky was entirely right, the early Lenin entirely wrong. Once we grant the desirability of a socialist movement opposing czarism, an argument can be made that under the semi-clandestine conditions prevailing in Russia such a movement could thrive only if organized according to a centralist prescription. What proved profoundly damaging was the elevation of this formula into a universal “law” applicable both to post-revolutionary Russia and to all other countries as well.

Still more important, I think, is that in turning suddenly in 1917 to Lenin’s party, and thereby to Lenin’s view of the party, Trotsky was acting to fulfill his own theory of permanent revolution. That theory implied a series of class “substitutions” in behalf of a bold historical leap, and this leap could most plausibly be undertaken by a “vanguard” Leninist party enacting still another “substitution.” The kind of mass social democratic party that Trotsky had earlier favored may seem more attractive today, at least to those people who have a principled commitment to democracy; but it was not, I think, the kind of party that could act out Trotsky’s historical prescription. What he lost in critical acuteness when he accepted Lenin’s view of the party, he gained in political consistency and striking power.

The oscillations in Trotsky’s views regarding party organization can usefully be seen as a reflection of an inner struggle within the entire Marxist tradition between democratic, fraternal, even utopian impulses and what could seem authoritarian necessities imposed by the struggle for power. At various times Trotsky would verge sharply in one or another direction, yet not quite give up that aspect of his thinking he felt obliged to suppress. Which is one reason many old Bolshevik apparatchiks, sliding comfortably from Lenin to Stalin, could never feel quite at ease with Trotsky.


About Trotsky’s views concerning the West, Professor Knei-Paz is brief, properly so. He believes that almost nothing of Trotsky’s political outlook has relevance to contemporary socialist politics in democratic countries, and I think he is right. What then remains of Trotsky’s legacy? A record of historical grandeur and failure, a flawed intellectual brilliance, and a tragic power of endurance. A number of first-rate books which can be read with pleasure and profit even if one disagrees with them fundamentally. That Trotsky would have found this verdict exasperating, even philistine, we need not doubt: he wanted to change history, not just write brilliant books.

But there is another and major contribution he made to political life in our time, and that was his sustained assault upon Stalinism. At no single point is his critique entirely satisfactory—Stalinism, for example, has not proven to be the unstable, transient phenomenon preparing the way for the bourgeois restoration that Trotsky supposed it to be. It has shown itself, thus far, to be a relatively stable social system, with its own laws of being, comprehensible neither by the experience of capitalism nor by the image of socialism. Yet there is something deeply impressive about Trotsky’s persistent efforts to understand this new phenomenon, the ways he kept modulating his ideas to achieve conceptual clarity. And Professor Knei-Paz is right in stressing that in Trotsky’s writings of 1939, the year before he was assassinated, there are signs of possible major revisions in his thinking about Stalinism, perhaps on other matters as well.

Analytic success and failure dwindle, however, into insignificance by comparison with Trotsky’s contribution in attacking the social and moral horrors of Stalinism at a time when many people—socialist, liberal, conservative—were celebrating it. Again, the absence of historical dimension in Professor Knei-Paz’s book is serious: few of his readers are likely to know the extent to which the “advanced” political public yielded itself to corrupt fantasies about the Soviet Union. Trotsky was not, of course, the only critic of Stalinism, and others, like Rudolf Hilferding, were at a few points more theoretically acute; but in the Thirties it was Trotsky who provided the most persistent and powerful voice doing the crucial work of making known the political truth. This was hardly all that he meant to do in his last years, but it is what he did.

  1. *

    Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth (New York: Greenberg, 1925).

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