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Labor Action, 19 August 1946



Trotsky’s Last Book –
A Portrait of Joseph Stalin


From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Trotsky’s Life of Stalin was unfinished when Stalin’s assassin struck him down in 1940. He had completed seven chapters but had prepared a great quantity of notes and memoranda. These were given to Charles Malamuth, who had translated others of Trotsky’s writings into English and was translating the life of Stalin. Malamuth completed the book. From the literary point of view he did a good job, making a connected, readable whole of the last chapters and yet keeping clearly before the reader the original material on which he worked. Politically, Malamuth has inserted into the book the idea that Stalinism was the inevitable result of the “one-party dictatorship of Bolshevism.” Trotsky spent the greater part of his last years refuting that view.

It is also necessary to remind readers that this book has already entered into the political life of the time. It was ready for issuance in 1941, but the Roosevelt administration stopped its publication. In those days Stalin was the great friend of the democracies and an ally in the struggle against totalitarianism. Today Stalin is the totalitarian enemy of the capitalist democracies. There is therefore no reason to prohibit its further publication.

A furious and unbelievably dishonest attack has been launched on the book by the Stalinists and their literary supporters. It is clear, therefore that this is no ordinary piece of literature. To read, better still to study it is a political education. All we can do here is to indicate some of the main lines of thought.

Characterization of Stalin

Trotsky’s task was to write a Marxist biography of a contemporary political figure. He set out therefore to show how Stalin’s early life, personal characteristics, and first experiences in politics fitted him for the role he plays today: executioner of Bolshevism and embodiment of bureaucratic tyranny. Trotsky, briefly, has written a study of personality in relation to social and political change. In this reviewer’s opinion no such piece of historical writing in the same field even faintly approaches this type of biography.

Undoubtedly there are here and there places where Trotsky may seem to go beyond the margin of legitimate deduction from evidence. But these are singularly few and the reason for them is obvious to anyone who knows Trotsky’s impersonal attitude to history, his passionate devotion to fact and truth in political, and particularly, in historical controversy. Trotsky is relentless and with cause.

Stalin for years has carried out and has now completed a task absolutely unparalleled in human history. He has, as far as possible, obliterated the true history of the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution, and the rise of Bolshevism and the records of the foundation of the Soviet State. He has substituted a version of his own which is imposed on 200 million people in Russia and actively propagated by his parties all over the world. This was and is one of his greatest political weapons in his struggle against the revolution inside and outside Russia.

Trotsky was one of the few living people with the personal knowledge able to analyze and refute authoritatively this mass of lies. Here again the job is magnificently done. Whoever wishes to find out the truth about these matters can now do so. The Stalinist fabricators are left in ruins. If the personal exposure of Stalin plays so great a part it is because Stalin placed himself in the center of his historical reconstruction.

Those were the two main tasks that Trotsky set himself. Closely allied to this was the historical analysis of Stalinism as a political and social development. Here Trotsky seems to have probed deeper, to have clarified his previous analysis, buttressed it with historical analogies carefully worked out (e.g. the references to Thermidor). Here unfortunately we have not got his completed text. No collection of notes and memoranda, however ample, however orderly, can be a substitute for a finished work. Sufficient to say that here in unfinished form we have the ripest and most profound reflections of Trotsky on the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Analysis of Bureaucracy

This reviewer is not attempting here any account of Trotsky’s ideas on these subjects, least of all any controversy. That is for other places. But he wishes to stress what strikes him about the work in comparison with those writings in which Trotsky had previously treated the same subjects. A good example, in fact a very striking one, is his analysis of bureaucracy in a political party, to be more precise in the Bolshevik Party.

As never before he relates the growth of bureaucracy to the activity of the masses. He recognizes even before 1905 the tendency of the more strict party men to dominate bureaucratically over the workers, a tendency which, however, is immediately destroyed by the workers themselves as soon as they take revolutionary action. One of the most startling passages in the book is where he analyzes the relation between the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and the October Revolution.

“The protocols undoubtedly show that with the exception of several plenary sessions in which Lenin, Zinoviev and I participated, the Central Committee did not play a political role.” (p. 224)

That is astonishing enough. But the next sentence must shatter many previous conceptions. It reads:

“It [The Central Committee] did not assume the initiative in a single important issue. Many of the Central Committee decisions for that period remained hanging in the air, having clashed with the decisions of the Soviet. The most important resolutions of the Soviet were transformed into action before the Central Committee had time to consider them.”

I have emphasized the most significant words. That this is no incidental passage is proved by the sentence which concludes the paragraph.

“Only after the conquest of power, the end of the civil war, and the establishment of a stable regime, would the Central Committee little by little begin to concentrate the leadership of Soviet activity in its hands. Then would come Stalin’s turn.”

Role of the Party

Trotsky goes so far as to say (p. 64) that it is their differing conceptions of the relation of the revolutionary masses to the party which places Lenin and Stalin at opposite poles of the revolutionary idea. Again (p. 58) he writes that Lenin acknowledged the “erroneousness” of his theory that revolutionary class-consciousness was brought to the proletariat from the outside by Marxist intellectuals. It is not only the fact itself which is new and significant to this writer. Its importance is as a part of that clarification and deepening of Trotsky’s ideas which is evident in every line of the book.

It is perhaps necessary to note at once that the role of the party and Lenin’s conceptions of Bolshevism receive equal thought and theoretical sharpening. The analysis of Lenin’s struggle with Stalin in 1912 (p. 145) is worth long and careful study by all who would understand Bolshevism.

Conflict of Purposes

And this is perhaps the chief difficulty of the book. Trotsky, I would suggest, was riding too many horses at once. He was writing a biography for the general public and at the same time giving the results of years of effort and reflection on the great events in which he had taken part. Some of the ideas are not fully developed. There are sentences and passages, which, taken by themselves, can be misleading. Furthermore, and this must be insisted on, he was ever a great and indefatigable corrector of his manuscripts. Had he had the opportunity to complete the whole and tie all the strands together, particularly in the concluding chapters, the various ideas would have been easier to grasp both in their individuality and as part of a whole. But the biography of Stalin is to be recommended to all types of readers.

The worker just finding his way to Bolshevism will get a picture of how a great Marxist looks at individuals in relation to society and a panorama of the modern world in general and the Russian Revolution in particular. The party member, the intellectual and the aspiring young Bolshevik can find here the ideas and reflections of the greatest political mind of our time, just at the moment when bourgeois society plunged into its final madness.

A Fundamental Work

Trotsky adheres firmly to his theory of Russia as a Workers’ State and all the political and theoretical consequences that flow from it. Yet he penetrates more deeply into the Russian development than ever before. This book cannot help those who believe Russia is a Workers’ State. It can only throw them into deeper confusion, especially with Russia occupying the world position that it does today. On the other hand, in the writer’s present opinion, nowhere in his previous writings has Trotsky so completely and profoundly summarized the principles and practice of Leninism as a theory of revolutionary mass action. A final word, perhaps superfluous. The book bristles with controversial issues, large and small. I have only indicated here some of the major ones and my own reaction to them. But the controversial questions as raised here by Trotsky have this virtues. They are first, serious questions, and secondly, there is little doubt as to where Trotsky stands on point after point. Therefore, even for those who disagree or will disagree violently with him, on few or many points, the book has precious value. It will serve not only as a mine of information and ideas but as a stable point of departure in a world of intellectual quicksands.

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