Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Trotsky and World War One

Ian D. Thatcher,
Leon Trotsky and World War One, August 1914–February 1917,
Macmillan, Basingstoke 2000, pp. 264, £45.00

THIS is certainly a book to be welcomed, for it charts in considerable detail Trotsky’s writings over the period covered, many of which have never been made available in English. Separate chapters are devoted to his writing in Switzerland and Paris, to his attitudes towards Russian politics, both at home and in the emigration, as well as to those of European Social Democracy, and to his relations with Martov and the Mensheviks, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Unfortunately, by restricting himself almost exclusively to Trotsky’s journalism, there is a marked neglect of its wider setting in his revolutionary activity. Whilst the author refers to the standard treatments of Trotsky’s life by Deutscher, Broué and Cliff, there is no reference to Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova’s biography, and the use made of Kostas Mavrakis’ Maoist mystification of 1976 can only be regarded as a curiosity. And we look in vain for references to more specialised accounts of Trotsky’s activity at the time, such as Jürg Ulrich’s Trotzki als junger Revolutionär, or Alfred Mansfeld’s description of the early part of the period in the Cahiers Léon Trotsky (no. 51, October 1993), or the 1992 Vienna Jahrbuch, and Walter Davis’ Trotsky in Nova Scotia (Halifax-Dartmouth Young Socialists, August 1971) from the end of it. He should also have mentioned Sigurd Zienau’s discussion of the correspondence with Henrietta Roland Holst dealt with on page 70 (Trotsky: A Rediscovered Document, Spokesman Offprints, no. 2, 1973). But the most striking omission is Trotsky’s close involvement with the French anti-war left during most of the war, which occupies only four and a half pages (pp. 181–5). For whilst the writer draws upon Rosmer’s single article in New International (September–October 1950), he nowhere shows any knowledge of the full length book Rosmer wrote, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la première guerre mondiale (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 4, 2000, pp. 46ff.). In fact, the frequent misspellings of French names (Monatte, pp. 54, 56; Renaudel, p. 141; Hervé, pp. 120, 126, 136, 158) show that the material relating to these not inconspicuous figures has been translated straight out of Russian without even checking the names in their French context.

This neglect of the wider picture also affects his critique of Trotsky’s politics during the war, which can only be described as neo-Stalinist. ‘Now that we know the contingent nature of Trotsky’s conversion to Bolshevism’, Thatcher concludes, ‘his departure in much changed circumstances a decade later is not so peculiar. Rather than ponder why Trotsky was excluded, we may prefer to ask: what kept him so long?’ (p. 213) Thus he repeatedly states that Trotsky’s claim that his and Lenin’s thought converged during the First World War, ‘like so many others, turns out to be false’ (p. vi; cf. also pp. 72–5, 212, 230 n173). Now to begin with, if he had read a little further in the New International magazine from which he draws his material on Rosmer, he would have come across the series of articles in which Hal Draper lays to rest the myth of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism during the First World War, which cuts the ground beneath the whole argument of his fourth chapter. And if he had followed more closely Lenin’s later remarks he would also have found him saying of Trotsky in December 1916 that ‘little by little he is moving to the left’ (Collected Works, Volume 23, Moscow 1964, p. 203). But to delve deeper into this question, the author would also have to be acquainted with the letter to which Lenin was replying at the time, Souvarine’s ‘à nos amis qui sont en Suisse’ (Le Populaire, no. 31, 27 November 1916; cf. La Critique sociale, no. 1, March 1931, pp. 43–8; the complete documentation was reprinted by Éditions Spartacus in June 1970), whose existence is nowhere even hinted at.

The sort of scholarship that has produced this book will always be of value, but to deal with Trotsky as a journalist pure and simple is really to reduce him to a one-dimensional man, which was precisely the technique of Zinoviev and Kamenev when they elaborated the orthodoxy of ‘Leninism’ and the heresy of ‘Trotskyism’. Surely we should have moved on a bit from this by now?

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011