The Great Outsider

The Basic Writings of Trotsky

edited by Irving Howe
Random House, 427 pp., $5.95

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky; drawing by David Levine

When on August 30, 1940, an agent of Stalin’s drove an ice-axe into Trotsky’s skull, the news scarcely caused a ripple of interest among intellectuals of the American Left. Except for the small group of Trotskyites—a group even then in the process of dissolution—most of them cared nothing for Trotsky and his ideas. Power is what they respected and Trotsky had none. His unique intellectual genius and his greatness as Marxist leader and strategist of revolution was of no interest to them; nor were they moved by his past achievements as the principal organizer of the October insurrection and victorious commander of the Red Army in the Civil War. They had attached their loyalty to the Soviet Union, and in no sense to Marxism. Insofar as they took Marxism into account at all, it meant merely what, at any given moment, Stalin said it meant.

This is what is not properly understood about the Thirties nowadays, and, by railing to stress it, most of the writing dealing with that decade is positively misleading. Consider the following a most unbelievable fact: in 1937, when the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Soviet charges against Trotsky was being organized, a considerable number of prominent American intellectuals published a manifesto warning “all men of good will” against assisting the Commission and declaring that critics of the Moscow Trials were slandering the Soviet Union and “dealing a blow to the forces of progress.” The manifesto was signed by Theodore Dreiser, Granville Hicks, Corliss Lamont, Max Lerner, Anna Louise Strong, Paul Sweezy and many other writers, artists, and professors. This statement—with its attempt to justify the blood-purges and its assertion of Stalin’s “integrity”—is to my mind far more revealing of the political atmosphere prevailing in the “radical” Thirties than most of the documents cited by historians and authors of memoirs.

The Thirties was a period of radicalization, to be sure, but it was mainly a radicalization controlled and manipulated by the Stalinist party-machine. Hence one can scarcely discuss this decade without also characterizing it as a period of ideological vulgarity and opportunism, of double-think and power-worship, sustained throughout by a mean and crude and unthinking kind of secular religiosity. No wonder that some of its survivors (joined, perhaps not too surprisingly, by a few ex-Trotskyites) have now turned into Cold Warriors of the “hard-nosed” variety whose endless exposures of Communism and the Soviet state, so simplemindedly Manichaean in political content, can hardly be said to serve any purpose except incitement to war.

How the radical intellectuals in the United States as well as in other Western countries accepted and spread the Stalinist mythology is one of the many themes Isaac Deutscher explores in this third and concluding volume of his biography of Trotsky. This volume, which comprises the years between 1929 and 1940, describes the critical social and political events of the period—the devastating effects of…

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