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Rise & Fall of a Revolutionary

Isaac Deutscher’s three volumes on the life of Trotsky were entitled The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Disarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. To Deutscher, whose last volume appeared thirty-three years ago, Trotsky was still a “prophet.” To Dmitri Volkogonov, his latest biographer, Trotsky was no prophet, and, in fact, Volkogonov suggests he was wrong more often than right. To most people, Trotsky has become an increasingly dim memory, and his prophecies, whatever they were, belong to a distant age.

Volkogonov, who died recently, is that strange Russian phenomenon, a general turned scholar. Having previously published books on Lenin and Stalin, Volkogonov could dare to go over the same ground as Deutscher and others because a huge archive was available to him and to no one else before him. As director of the Institute of Military History in Moscow from the mid-1980s to the spring of 1991 and head of the Russian Archive Declassifying Commission after August 1991, he was able to see documents whose declassification would have seemed out of the question a few years ago.

Whatever Trotsky’s ultimate historical status may be, Volkogonov has made a valiant effort to bring him back to living history. The essential story has not changed, and Volkogonov does not add anything vital or surprising to it, although he presents some new information from previously secret documents. The Russian Revolution is going to haunt us for a long time, and Trotsky’s place in it will always give him a claim on our attention. Yet those who are under the age of fifty have had little occasion for thinking about him.

Trotsky was born Leib (or Lev) Bronstein in 1879 to a Jewish family in the Ukraine. In later life, he used many pseudonyms, but one of them, Trotsky, which he took from one of the warders in a prison in Odessa, stuck to him.

His revolutionary career can best be told as having traversed three periods. The first began when he was arrested in 1898 as a member of a small social-democratic group. It lasted with various phases until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, during which he went over to the Bolshevik wing of the revolutionary movement. The next five or six years were his great period in the Revolution, when he was regarded as second only to Lenin among its leaders. By 1923, he was engaged in an increasingly ferocious struggle with Stalin, the Party’s general secretary. This period came to an end with Trotsky’s expulsion from Moscow and exile, first to Alma Ata in a faraway corner of the Soviet Union in January 1928 and then to Turkey in February 1929. The third period of exile lasted until the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in August 1940.

Of these three periods, the longest, of almost twenty years, came in Trotsky’s pre-Revolutionary years. By 1902, at the age of twenty-three, Trotsky was accepted as a regular contributor to the social-democratic newspaper Iskra, which was published in exile and brought together the entire spectrum of tendencies in the movement. Trotsky soon separated himself from the leftist tendency represented by Lenin and drew closest to the moderate wing of Julius Martov and Paul Axelrod. In 1905, at the age of twenty-six, he had a prominent part in the abortive revolution of that year, serving as chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet. He proved himself to be a brilliant orator and organizer. He was imprisoned for over a year, given a life sentence of exile, and escaped while being transported to Siberia. He was now a hardened, dedicated revolutionary, with an impressive record of accomplishment and sacrifice.

In this period, Trotsky was a difficult man to classify. He was by temperament an extremist, but his closest associates were the more moderate Mensheviks. He stayed independent of the different factions and might be said to have constituted a faction of one. Exile from Russia gave him an opportunity to acquire a broad European culture, which he drew on in his writings on all manner of subjects, literary and political. At one time or another he wrote essays on Ibsen, Maupassant, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy as well as on Marx. Before 1917, he had spent seven years in Vienna and three years in Switzerland, France, Spain, and the United States. He was fluent in German and French and he knew some English. In his personality and his ability to deal intellectually with a variety of subjects, he outshone all the Bolsheviks, including Lenin.

During all these formative years, Trotsky was no admirer of Lenin—and vice versa. They parted company as early as 1903 over a proposal by Lenin to reduce the number of editors of Iskra from six to three, eliminating just the three whom Trotsky most admired. Lenin won by a narrow margin and earned Trotsky’s hostility for the next fourteen years. They rarely addressed each other without insults and seemed destined to compete for the revolutionary leadership. As early as 1904, in a sustained polemic against Lenin, Trotsky saw what was bound to happen in a Leninist revolution: “The caucus substitutes itself for the party; then the Central Committee for the caucus; and finally a dictator substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” It was a stunning presentiment of Stalinism, which he himself failed to take seriously after 1916. Trotsky paid dearly for his political position during this period, when he was personally closer to the Mensheviks than to the Bolsheviks. Stalin and his acolytes never forgave him and used his record against him in the later struggle for power.

In 1917, at the outset of his second period, Trotsky returned from New York, where he had already spoken out against the Provisional Government of the short-lived February Revolution, which held the promise of a parliamentary republic. Once he was back in Russia in May, Trotsky’s hostility to the new regime brought him closer to Lenin and finally resulted in a rapprochement between the two former rivals. Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks in August 1917 and thereafter had no word of criticism for Lenin, whose leadership he accepted. During the hectic days leading to the overthrow of the Provisional Government, headed by Alexander Kerensky, and the imposition of a Bolshevik regime in October 1917, Trotsky’s oratory was one of the major weapons in the Bolshevik armory.

Backed by Lenin, Trotsky took on the hardest assignments and rose to his supreme moment of influence and popularity. He became, as Volkogonov puts it, “the orator-in-chief of the revolution.” He favored the armed uprising, whereas two longtime Bolsheviks, Zinoviev and Kamenev, voted against it, something they were not permitted to forget. Barely two months after he became a Bolshevik, Trotsky was put on the first Politburo of the Central Committee. He briefly served as the first Foreign Commissar. Without any military experience, he took charge of military affairs during the civil war that raged until the beginning of 1921. In this role, he turned out to be a resourceful strategist and performed his greatest service to the fragile Bolshevik regime. About his only deviation from Lenin came at the peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, when he advocated a policy of neither peace nor war, whereas Lenin favored accepting the German terms so that the revolutionaries could hold out and wait for more favorable circumstances. But this temporary difference was not held against him, at least not at that time.

In effect, Trotsky’s most successful years in the Bolshevik—now the Communist—Party and regime came between 1917 and 1923. He was in a powerful position for about seven years, during which the names of Lenin and Trotsky were inseparable, though Lenin’s always came first. Trotsky first met Stalin in 1907 but paid hardly any attention to him. They clashed for the first time in 1918 during the civil war, when Trotsky complained bitterly about Stalin’s conduct as head of the army on the southern front. In the following years, Trotsky underestimated Stalin and did not realize how deadly Stalin’s enmity could be. Unconvincingly, Volkogonov says that Trotsky’s rejection of Stalinism was “chiefly motivated by personal considerations.” Trotsky and Stalin certainly had different personalities, but this statement is one of the least persuasive in the book.

In any case, by 1923 Trotsky knew that he was in trouble with almost all the other Soviet leaders. By the time Lenin was incapacitated in 1922 and died in January 1924, Trotsky was virtually isolated and forced on the defensive. Even though Lenin’s so-called “Testament” had seemed to praise Trotsky more than any other leader, the top leaders were determined to discredit and block him. Volkogonov publishes a hitherto top-secret document summarizing the debate in the Politburo and Presidium of the Central Control Commission on whether Lenin’s “Testament” should be made public. All the members except Trotsky wanted it to be kept secret. In this critical period between 1922 and 1924, Trotsky seemed to have no stomach for the factional struggle. He virtually retired from the current affairs of the Party to devote himself to writing, took frequent sick leaves, and failed to attend Lenin’s funeral. Volkogonov gives some evidence to show that Stalin deliberately deceived Trotsky, who was off in southern Russia, to prevent him from attending the funeral. Trotsky’s supporters, according to Volkogonov, numbered no more than seven or eight thousand members, whereas “tens of thousands of members obediently followed the line laid down by the Central Committee,” which was controlled by Stalin, its general secretary. By 1924, Trotsky’s fate in the Party was sealed.

During the next three years, Trotsky was politically destroyed. Some of his closest supporters, such as Karl Radek, capitulated to the Stalinist pressure and repudiated him. Volkogonov traces the various steps by which Trotsky was made into a political monster and deprived of one post after another. His so-called Menshevism before 1917 was hauled out and made into a contemporary crime. His old invective against Lenin and Lenin’s against him were dusted off and ceaselessly rehashed. In 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Party. In January 1928, he was sent to Alma Ata on the Chinese border. In February 1929, he was banished to Turkey, finally settling on the island of Prinkipo.

Of Trotsky’s three periods, the shortest covered his part in the Russian Revolution. It lasted only about ten years, the latter half of which he spent in the factional struggle against Stalin.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Trotsky’s earlier career, in exile he was unquestionably heroic. He was throughout a hunted man. With a few supporters, he faced the entire Stalinist system without flinching. The same cannot be said for the governments of Germany, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, Austria, and England; all of them refused to admit Trotsky, a homeless exile. As Volkogonov relates, Trotsky appealed fruitlessly to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and Harold Laski, among others on the left. Before Mexico agreed to receive him, he spent two years in France, 1933 to 1935, and a year and a half in Norway, to December 1936. His treatment by the Western countries was for the most part shameful.

Everywhere the Soviet government used all of its far-flung means to drive him from one country to another and to make his life miserable. In 1934, it succeeded in planting an informer, Mark Zborowski, in his entourage. Almost everything Trotsky or his closest associates did or planned to do was transmitted to the Kremlin until 1939. The Soviets also had an agent who worked as typist for Trotsky in Mexico and may have been connected with the FBI. His family was hounded and destroyed. One daughter, Nina, died of the effects of persecution and tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six. Another, Zinaida, no more than thirty, committed suicide. His faithful son, Lev, thirty-two, died in France after an operation for appendicitis; there were signs he had been poisoned. Volkogonov thinks that he was probably murdered.

Yet Trotsky carried on his attack on Stalinism. He put out books, pamphlets, and articles one after another exposing Stalin’s dictatorship. He made an effort to form a Fourth International. Until 1934, according to Volkogonov, Trotsky still hoped that “the Party would not tolerate Stalin for much longer.” Two years afterward, he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in which he gave up the “peaceful way” and implicitly called for a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the Stalinist system. Stalin received extracts from it from Zborowski before it was published in Paris in 1937. Volkogonov believes that this book convinced Stalin that Trotsky was “a real danger, and that by his pen he could still inflict telling ideological blows.” Stalin then set in motion the trials and persecutions which made the year 1937 go down “in Russian history as synonymous with Stalin’s unbridled terror against his own people.” Volkogonov writes that tens of millions of people were seized, 23,000 NKVD officials arrested in 1937–1938, and three heads of Red Army intelligence were liquidated. Virtually all the Moscow trials in the 1930s, in Volkogonov’s view, were really against Trotsky, who was the “chief target.” In any case, he was used by Stalin as the main pretext for his campaign of terror.

Volkogonov mentions a strange interlude during Trotsky’s stay in Mexico. He and his wife, Natalya, were living in the house of Diego Rivera, the painter. Trotsky was then fifty-seven; Diego’s wife, Frida Kahlo, whose painting has recently been given new attention, was twenty-eight. It seems, from the accounts of Volkogonov and others, that Trotsky was for a time infatuated with her and endangered his relationship with both Natalya and Rivera. But Trotsky “managed to shake himself free of Frida’s charms and to tell Natalya everything.”

Finally, Volkogonov retells the story of Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. He has added some interesting details, such as the statement by Luis Mercader, the brother of Ramon Mercader, the assassin, and now a professor at Madrid University, that the entire operation cost the Soviet government at least $5 million. But essentially, the macabre story is familiar—how Ramon Mercader, alias Jacques Mornard, alias Frank Jacson, managed to insinuate himself into Trotsky’s household as the lover of an American secretary. The real murderer was Stalin, who ordered the deed and benefited from it.

Volkogonov’s own attitude toward Trotsky is largely critical. He sees Trotsky as “one of the architects of the Soviet totalitarian bureaucratic system.” Lenin was its inspirer, Trotsky its agitator, and Stalin its executor. Volkogonov draws on the Marx-Lenin Central Party Archive to describe how Trotsky in December 1917 contributed to the destruction of a free press in Russia. When the Bolsheviks cracked down on Maxim Gorky’s paper Novaya zhizn, and on other journals, Trotsky proposed even “harsher measures against the bourgeois press and foul slanders on the Soviet regime.” Trotsky helped to institute the Red Terror and never regretted his part in smashing the rebellion of sailors at the Kronstadt naval base. Volkogonov, as has been noted, believes that Trotsky rejected Stalinism chiefly for “personal considerations.” He was an “adventurist,” a personality of “vast egoism,” a “Don Quixote of the twentieth century.” Many of Volkogonov’s citations from the Soviet archive emphasize Trotsky’s responsibility for the arrests and executions of dissidents and other excesses and cruelties of the early Communist regime.

On the other hand, Volkogonov gives Trotsky credit for never wavering in his belief that Stalin’s system could not last, although its demise took much longer than he had expected. From 1933 on, Trotsky warned that “the basic task of Stalin’s foreign policy was to reach agreement with Hitler,” so the German-Soviet pact of August 1939 came as no surprise to him. Trotsky also predicted in the summer of 1939 that Germany “is bound to open an offensive against the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1941”—he was wrong only in that the offensive came in June of that year. Yet Trotsky continued to insist that Stalin’s Russia was a “workers’ state,” even if degenerated, and that it had to be defended from the Nazi attack.

Trotsky’s three periods help in placing him in twentieth-century history. During the first period, from 1898 to 1917, he was basically a free-floating social-democrat who was critical of Lenin and whom Lenin rapaid in kind. He commanded attention in the abortive revolution of 1905 but without putting his own stamp on the larger movement. In 1906, he became associated with the idea of “permanent revolution,” which meant the continuous transition from a bourgeois revolution to a socialist revolution. This notion was not original with Trotsky; it had been put forward by Marx and Engels, and was particularly linked at the time with Alexander Helphand, better known as Parvus, whose career in Russia and Germany is among the strangest of that period (his greatest coup was to arrange for the German government’s subsidizing of Lenin’s party in 1917). Trotsky’s particular interpretation of the “permanent revolution” extended it beyond one country to the world at large. In any case, Trotsky did not emerge during these nineteen years as the leader of a party or a tendency; on the contrary, he was a one-man band, who moved between the factions and disturbed all of them.

In the second period, from 1917 to 1927 or 1929, Trotsky had only seven or eight years as a prominent leader of the Russian party and government. During this period, he differed with Lenin conspicuously only in the case of the Brest-Litovsk treaty but otherwise supported him and was in turn backed by him. In effect, Trotskyism was little different from Leninism. But once Lenin was stricken in 1922, and especially after he died in January 1924, Trotsky was faced with the enmity of Lenin’s old guard. His Menshevik past was constantly dredged up against him. By 1924, Trotsky was totally isolated in the Politburo of eight. He became a victim of the very Leninism that he had adopted and had helped to install; neither factionalism nor freedom of the press was allowed and there was no room for an opposition. Trotsky gambled his prestige and power on the “world revolution,” just when it had become nothing more than a political mirage after the abortive German uprising in 1923. His greatest triumph in his second period came at its very beginning, and he began to lose his influence as soon as the Bolshevik regime succeeded in beating off all rivals and entrenching itself.

Without Trotsky’s third period, from 1929 to 1940, it is questionable whether he would stand out as one of the most memorable figures of the twentieth century. He repudiated his first period in order to get to his second; he committed himself in his second period to a Leninism which first served his ambitions and then betrayed him; and he emerged fully on his own against the Stalinist tyranny only in his third period. He never had much support in Russia or elsewhere, and such support as he had depended almost wholly on his name and writings. Throughout the 1930s, he fought to the bitter end against almost inhuman odds and only an assassination could still his voice. He was truly heroic in his lonely battle against a Stalinism that ruled over a huge portion of the globe. Trotsky was a “prophet,” but he chose a prophecy—“world revolution”—that is further away from reality today than it was after his death fifty-six years ago.

Volkogonov’s book does not add much that is new or revelatory to the story of Trotsky’s career. Most of his archival material is drawn from the second period of Trotsky’s career, as he rose and fell in the Soviet bureaucracy. On the whole, his book shows that Trotsky in power supported just those theories and actions which led to his own undoing. It does not supersede the work of Deutscher—whom Volkogonov calls “Trotsky’s best biographer”—and others, but it adds enough to make it a minor contribution to the sizable library that has accumulated around the life and times of Leon Trotsky.

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