Jim Higgins

Now Let Us Praise Leon Trotsky

(July 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.80, July/August 1975, pp.27-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

LEON TROTSKY suffered a great deal during his life. The years of triumph were few and short-lived. For the rest it was a struggle against great odds with, in his later years, great, almost unbearable, personal tragedy. Since his death a romantic appreciation of his life, his style as a man, has for all but a few obscured the essence of his politics. Many of those who claim to be closest to every word of his work have, by sterile orthodoxy or opportunist adaptation, squeezed out the living revolutionary content of his thought. Isaac Deutscher’s biography is, deservedly, a much praised work, but in the end – particularly the third volume – it says more about Deutscher’s political distance from Trotsky than about the book’s subject.

Of course biography, good biography at least, is often written by people with strongly held views. In that sense the biography of one person contains elements of the author’s own autobiography. Historical objectivity, like absolute truth, is a bit of a lie. Even those historians dedicated to detailed exegesis on 18th century laundry lists can tell us little more than the irredeemable dullness of their own thought and the frequency of change of some dim Hanoverian’s small clothes – I assume it was infrequently and, if it is proved he changed three times a day, I shall further assume incontinence.

Recognition of this simple fact should not absolve historians from striving towards the ideal. This injunction applies with greatest force to those who wish to change the world by an examination of its history. The past can make fools of the most erudite scholars, even erudite, marxist scholars, unless they recognise their own subjectivity and the subjectivity in all written history.

Naturally we cannot demand the same rigorous conditions from those ‘historians’ writing from academic ambition or an ideological commitment to the status quo, and most of the time we do not get it. Given these reservations we should deal lightly and with understanding of Joel Carmichael’s Trotsky [1*], subtitled ‘an appreciation of his life’. The book is an absurdity, a quite unnecessary and redundant absurdity. It leans oppressively on Deutscher and Trotsky’s own My Life (reprinted by Penguin at £1.50) and gets both of them wrong. It contains two central themes, first that Trotsky was overly troubled by being Jewish and second that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was the result of Kaiser gold. The first point is bolstered by the assertion that: ‘he wrote about [the Jewish question – JH] more than any other revolutionary’, which is not true – Martov wrote more. Trotsky, like Martov and like a number of other Jewish revolutionaries, wrote about the Jewish question because they were internationalists. They disliked Jewish separation and detested Zionism for perfectly sound socialist reasons, which are equally valid today for Jews and non-Jews. Any half way intelligent reader of Trotsky on this question will be forced to the conclusion that he had an eminently sane approach to the question untrammelled by psychological trauma.

The Kaisergeld accusation rests, as it has for years, on the testimony of Eduard Bernstein. We are enjoined to trust Bernstein because: his ‘probity and acumen were never challenged’. Now the fact is that at the time Bernstein made his accusation the German Communist paper Rote Fahne called him a liar, which deals with the challenge to his probity, and his acumen had been challenged for years by Lenin, Luxemburg and countless other revolutionaries. The accusation was that the German government made a modest subvention of six hundred and sixty-six million dollars (equivalent) to the Bolsheviks. No need to read that again, it is not a misprint, 666 million dollars. The negative proof offered to prove this assertion is that the Bolsheviks had forty one papers in 1917. At 15 million dollars a throw you could have 41 papers in Britain today; whether, as a result, you would also have a revolution is another question. You can just imagine – or can you? – Ludendorff and Hindenburg discussing whether to equip another hundred divisions for the Western Front or give the cash to that bald headed little Russian: Lenin.

According to Carmichael, Trotsky knew all about the Kaisergeld and proved his guilty knowledge by never referring to it. No wonder he kept quiet when we learn, from the intrepid Joel Carmichael, that Trotsky had been in receipt of German cash since 1915. Here the money came, it is alleged – as did the much larger sum to the Bolsheviks – from Helphand for the purpose of carrying on anti-Allied propaganda. Now the real situation was that Trotsky had publicly and loudly broken with Helphand by 1915, a fact that Carmichael acknowledges and then has the unmitigated gall to say:

‘Yet his real relations with Helphand must have been more complex, perhaps just because they could not be disclosed.’

By the same fractured logic we might say that Edward Heath is a Trotskyist. He has undoubtedly read Marx, always speaks against Marxism and is never seen in the company of Marxists: all pretty sinister I think you will agree.

JOEL CARMICHAEL, according to his publisher’s blurb ‘... has written extensively on Marxism and the USSR for magazines such as Encounter ...’ There really is not much you can add to that. If you want to know more about Trotsky and his life save your £5.95 and with the money buy the paper back Deutscher trilogy and My Life; they are actually worth the money. But enough of this persiflage, let us now talk about Trotsky.

It is clear, from whatever source – adulatory or condemnatory – that he was a great man and a great revolutionary. He was bountifully endowed with all those attributes of the popular revolutionary hero. Of striking appearance, reputedly the finest orator of his day, the equal of Jean Jaurès. A prolific writer, his published work is about twice the volume of Lenin’s, with a brilliant style that at its best enters the realm of art. As a Marxist theoretician he stands easily in the company of Lenin and Luxemburg. Like Lenin he was meticulously careful of the details as well as the broad sweep. In the Russian movement noted for unpunctuality, mess and inefficiency he was a shining example of the opposite virtues. Always tidy and well groomed he stood out among the more bohemian comrades. A frequent criticism was of a haughty aloofness, a certain arrogance. Those who knew him best deny this, his impatience was with anything that might detract from important business in hand. With comrades who could teach him something or who could themselves be taught he was patience incarnate. With errant but valuable comrades the degree of his patience and attention were only matched by the decisiveness of the break when all persuasion failed. At Coyoacan, in his last exile, he would apparently spend hours talking to an illiterate Mexican comrade. Joseph Hansen, in his introduction to My Life, recounts a story that confirms Trotsky’s continual search to learn something new. Apparently, a young American farm worker came to visit Trotsky, more as a tourist attraction than from political sympathy. The boy, it transpired, was a pacifist. Trotsky was keen that he should be approached to become a guard. It was explained that a Mid-West, pacifist, farm boy was not the most promising guard material. ‘But he is a real American peasant,’ Trotsky replied. This particular social class was one that Trotsky was anxious to study at first hand.

If in saying all this, the impression is given of an omnipotent genius whose life was unsullied by error, then that itself is an error. Trotsky was wrong on a number of occasions but to say that is merely to acknowledge his humanity. It does no honour to our old revolutionary heroes to describe infallibility as their main characteristic. Infallibility is for popes and those who want to build a church, not for revolutionaries who want to build a party of real people. Too often we find that, in order to enhance the eminence of a cherished historical figure, it is thought necessary to diminish the stature of any others who stand in the same plain. Just recently the market has been very bearish in Trotsky and very bullish in Lenin stock. In matters of this sort it is possible to enhance our own understanding through a fuller appreciation of all the leading Marxists of the past; polygamy, in these things if no other, is much to be preferred to monogamy.

IT IS generally acknowledged that the three outstanding revolutionary socialist figures of the 20th century are Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lenin. If pressed hard I would put them in that order of ascending merit, but really it is not very helpful. All have to be considered in their own specific circumstances and time. In comparing Lenin and Luxemburg it is necessary to understand the quite different working-class situation they faced in their separate countries. Luxemburg had to break through the ossified structures of German Social Democracy, to let the class breathe. Lenin had to provide the hard framework in which the spontaneous action of the Russian workers could be guided to state power.

Even more in the case of a comparison of Trotsky and Lenin it is important to see the complementary nature of the relationship. The pre-1917 disputes where Trotsky called Lenin a cheap lawyer and Lenin called Trotsky a swine have a certain antique charm; the important thing, however, is that the last six years of Lenin’s life were spent in fruitful joint activity with Trotsky. Quite the reverse conclusion can be found in the Lenin relationship with Stalin. At one time Lenin called Stalin, ‘this marvellous Georgian’; years later, after the revolution, he called for Stalin’s removal and broke off all relations with him. Now that is significant, not because Stalin had not been a ‘marvellous’ chap, he probably was in comparison to many of his contemporaries, but because in later, much more important tasks Stalin fell far short of what was required.

It is true that Trotsky was wrong in 1903 to side with the Mensheviks against Lenin. He understood much later than Lenin that sometimes a split is preferable to unity around the wrong politics. But whatever his fault in this regard it certainly was not individualism. Trotsky was for the unity of social democracy, the party as it was, as the prerequisite for socialist victory. In a sense the individualist was Lenin. In the same spirit Lenin was wrong on his theory of the Democratic Dictatorship of the Workers and Peasants as against the Trotsky theory of the Permanent Revolution. As Adolf Joffe testified, on his death bed, Lenin had admitted to him that Trotsky had been right. For Lenin the limits of the revolution were the eight hour day, agrarian reform and political democracy. The recent suggestion that Lenin really had an open mind on the question, that his theory was modified by the notion: ‘On s’engage, et puis ... on voit’, which roughly translated means: Let’s have a bash and see what happens, does not bear too much examination and does less than justice to Lenin. The truth is that he was wrong and no amount of chuntering about the beauty of his dialectic can disguise the fact. The strength of both men is that while Trotsky could build in to his theory the capacity of the working class to go beyond the democratic tasks, Lenin could, when the event actually occurred, see through all the complexity of the present, and past obfuscation, to the class reality. In 1917 both men came together, neither capitulated, there was really no need so to do.

In his much quoted, and overrated, Revolutionary Silhouettes, Lunacharsky tells of how, in the first popular, mass phase of the revolution Trotsky seemed to outdistance Lenin:

‘... the late M.S. Uritsky once said to me: “Here the great revolution has come, and there is a feeling that however able Lenin is, he is beginning to fade alongside the genius of Trotsky” ...’

Such was Trotsky’s popular following that Lenin suggested that he should be the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commisars – Trotsky refused. This tells something about both men, their dedication to the revolution without interest in personal pre-eminence. In the field of mass agitation, Trotsky clearly surpassed Lenin. But Lenin is in no way diminished, his authority in the party, his relationship to the leading cadre, and through them to the worker militants was the vital link in the success of the uprising. Both men were effective administrators, the scourge of slipshod methods and inadequate communication. In the task of mass and party agitation they complemented one another completely, this collaboration was repeated in the Soviet government.

IF FURTHER examples are required, we can go on to confess (if that is the word) that Trotsky was wrong when he called for the militarisation of labour during the trade union debate in 1922. But that is not sufficient explanation. The previous year Trotsky had called for the introduction of his own form of NEP. It was the rejection of that policy that forced him to see militarisation of labour as the logical next step if the policy of War Communism was to be continued. Again it must be said that Trotsky was right to oppose the invasion of Poland in 1920 and Lenin was wrong to insist on the offensive. But that does not tell all the story. The prize that awaited the success of the Polish adventure was to bring the revolution right to the German border, the heartland of the European working class. There is a certain irony in the fact, that Trotsky, who was later accused by Stalin and his henchmen of wishing to export the revolution on Red Army bayonets, should have opposed the only time it was tried.

From 1904 through to 1917 Trotsky was not a member of any group in the Russian Social Democracy. His role was as journalist, author and agitator. In 1905, the brief interlude of the first Russian Revolution brought him right to the forefront of the class struggle, as chairman of the Petrograd soviet. During that revolutionary upsurge he edited The Russian Gazette and took its circulation in a month from 30,000 to half a million. By way of comparison, the Bolshevik paper, New Life, had a circulation only one tenth of the Russian Gazette. At the same time Trotsky managed to virtually expropriate the Menshevik paper The Beginning and edit that as well.

From 1917 to 1923 Trotsky’s fortunes directly mirrored the fortunes of the revolution. With the fading of the chance for the international revolution, the apparatchiks began their long control of the party. It is some measure of the merit accorded to Trotsky by his opponents that no one individual could act as a counterweight. The triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had to be thrown jointly into the scale to balance the lone Trotsky. The triumvirate was an alliance that rested far more in their mutual fear and respect for Trotsky than in any community of interest.

From 1923 until his murder, Trotsky fought for the re-establishment of the party as a revolutionary vanguard and he failed. As he told Zinoviev, to rebuild the party, re-establish democracy within it and to restore the revolutionary role of the Comintern was made extraordinarily difficult in the wake of the defeats in Germany, Britain and China. Even so there was, for him, nothing else to do but to fight, to swim against the stream. In exile from 1929 he struggled until 1933 to reform the Comintern. With the victory of fascism in Germany he devoted the rest of his life to the construction of a new revolutionary international. It is this last period of his life that his biographers leave very much out of account. Deutscher because he thought the whole thing was an aberrant irrelevance and Carmichael because he just does not know. In his Diaries in Exile, Trotsky wrote that he thought his work for the construction of the Fourth International was the most important in his life, because he was uniquely placed to carry it through. He was right. Not because the FI ever became anything like the revolutionary force he strained and worked so hard to construct. Not at all because he continued, against contrary evidence, to describe Russia as a ‘workers’ state’. Nor because he mistakenly assumed that the second world war would usher in the social revolution in its aftermath. He was right because in fighting to build the Fourth he was holding together a genuine revolutionary tendency. In fighting for revolutionary internationalism he maintained unbroken the tradition of Bolshevism. The greatest tribute he paid to Lenin, and he paid many, was his herculean efforts to build parties in the Leninist mould.

For many the history of Trotskyism in the 1930s has a slightly ridiculous cast. The small squabbles in the even smaller Trotskyist groups, compared to their cosmic pretensions can be made the subject of some jolly jokes. As a matter of fact the heated debates of the seemingly small change of controversy within Bolshevism before 1912 would look equally ridiculous were it not that the winter of discontent was made glorious summer in 1917. Lenin built the party with what there was to hand, some of his more dubious methods are not new principles of organisation for imitation, but products of a particularly difficult situation. Their justification rests in the fact that the party was built, despite Tsarist terror, jail and exile, in the seemingly barren soil of Russia.

For twenty five years after Lenin’s death, Trotsky kept alive, sometimes only just alive, the thin red line of the revolutionary tradition. If with a touch of condescension and a lot of hindsight we can look back with some amusement to the ‘dog days’ of the 1930s, congratulating ourselves on our own lack of error, we should still bear an important point in mind. We would not, could not, be here today – as we are – without the work of L.D. Trotsky. Even today a study of Trotsky’s writing can teach us a great deal. The rigour of class analysis (a perfect model of such writing-analysis, perspective and clear prescription for action – is in the writing on Germany). We owe to Trotsky the intensely practical and indispensable notion of transitional politics. He has a great deal to teach on the absolute necessity for internal democracy in the revolutionary organisation and what is a workers’ party. In the brilliance of his historical and theoretical writing he can illuminate many of our present tasks. As, I think, Isaac Newton once said: ‘The reason we can see much further is because we are standing on the shoulders of a giant’.



1*. Trotsky by Joel Carmichael, Hodder and Stoughton, £5.95.


Last updated on 30.12.2007