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George Breitman

Trotsky’s Story – Tragedy or Triumph

(Spring 1954)

From The Militant, Vol.18 No. 18, 3 May 1954.
Transcribed & marked up by Martin Fahlgren for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2012
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive ( 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 .

Trotsky’s Story – Tragedy or Triumph

(Last of a series.)

By executing some fast shuffles, as we showed in the previous article in this series, Isaac Deutscher reaches the conclusion in his book, The Prophet Armed, that Trotsky and Lenin set political and theoretical “precedents” that “paved the way” for Stalin. He also expresses “absorbing interest” in the question: to what extent did Trotsky “pave the way for Stalin” by “his own character”?

Since this volume does not deal with the period of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism, Deutscher doesn’t answer his own question fully here. But he makes some beginnings, throwing out hints about Trotsky’s character that have already been eagerly snapped up by, reviewers who reduce everything to their own shallow level, find in the most profound social struggles a pretext to indulge in amateur psychoanalysis, and glibly explain the course of Soviet history by alleged “defects” in Trotsky’s personality.

Deutscher, of course, is much too shrewd to go that far himself. Elsewhere he has quoted approvingly Plekhanov’s statement: “Owing to the specific qualities of their minds and characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces.”

Deutscher knows, and will say, that it was “other forces” (social, political, economic) that determined the victory of Stalin., He knows that Stalin won, not because he was more sociable and humble than Trotsky, but because he represented social forces in retreat and in reaction against the revolution (and because his was a character that could adapt to and express those forces, while Trotsky’s character couldn’t and didn’t).

But while Deutscher knows all this, he cannot refrain from making certain criticism of Trotsky’s character which we want to discuss briefly, not because they are new, but because they are genuinely related to Trotsky’s role.

Ideas and men

(1) As far back as 1904, Deutscher says, Trotsky “exhibited a characteristic of which he would never quite free himself: he could not separate ideas from men.”

The real substance of this stock complaint against Trotsky was that he took a serious attitude to serious ideas because he knew they are the indispensable bedrock for any party aspiring to lead a workers revolution. In other words, he was a principled politician — without deviation from 1917 — who put program ahead of all other considerations. He worked loyally with people when he found himself in political agreement with them, and did not hesitate to break and fight against even former friends after their political paths parted.

This characteristic offended and repelled centrists, vacillators and political dabblers; to people who were always ready to patch up, compromise or ignore basic differences in order to cement a “practical” bloc, Trotsky’s insistence on principles seemed “unworldly,” “harsh,” “sectarian” or “autocratic” (epithets which were all applied to Lenin and to Marx too). But far from being a fault, this was one of Trotsky’s greatest virtues. Instead of hampering him, it saved him.

Zinoview and Kamenev

Zinoviev and Kamenev were Bolsheviks too. But after Lenin’s death they thrust principles to the side and set out to be “practical” politicians, figuring that first they would combine with Stalin to get power and then later would decide on the ends that power would serve. They separated, that is subordinated, ideas to their bloc with Stalin, and this proved to be their undoing. For they found themselves serving ends they had never dreamed of, and when they tried to draw back, it was too late — Stalin had the power. Their reward was political degradation, to say nothing of bullets in the back of the head.

Trotsky too was approached by Stalin for a bloc. But he could not and would not separate Stalin from the ideas and forces he represented, and he rejected the offer. He saved himself as a revolutionist and was able to make further contributions to the movement precisely because his character inclined him to, and his experience increasingly confirmed him in, principled politics.

Out of his element?

(2) Deutscher writes: “Trotsky’s strength, Stalin said, reveals itself when the revolution gains momentum and advances; his weakness comes to the fore when the revolution is defeated and must retreat. There is some truth in this. Trotsky’s mental and moral constitution was such that he received the strongest impulses from, and best mobilized his resources amid, the strains and stresses of actual upheaval. On a gigantic stage, which dwarfed others, he rose to the giant’s stature... When the revolution was on the wane, however, he was out of his element and his strength sagged. He was equal to herculean, not to lesser, labors.”

There is “some” truth in this — this much: In periods of revolutionary upsurge, great leaders always shine most brightly — after all, that is what they have been living, working and preparing for. In periods of reaction and defeat, even the best of leaders are, so to speak, out of their element, thrown on the defensive, reduced to different labors.

Trotsky stood out among men in 1905 and 1917 because he so accurately reflected the revolutionary moods and hopes of the masses. He did not and could not play the same role in the periods of reaction that followed these two revolutions. But we must distinguish — for he did not play the same kind of role in both these periods of reaction either.

Role in two periods

After 1905, when so many revolutionists became demoralized and deserted, Trotsky stuck to his revolutionary guns and, as Deutscher admits, “went on expounding the idea of permanent revolution with an optimism and ardor uncommon in those years of depression.” But as Trotsky wrote later in In Defense of Marxism:

”I bad not freed myself at that period especially in the organizational sphere from the traits of a petty-bourgeois revolutionist. I was sick with the disease of conciliationism toward Menshevism and with a distrustful attitude toward Leninist centralism.”

Consequently Trotsky, then still pursuing the illusion of uniting the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, was largely isolated from 1906 to 1917. In this pursuit he certainly was out of his element, and he did not fully come into it until 1917 when he became a Bolshevik.

It will be noted that Trotsky explains his isolation at this time mainly by political reasons, while Deutscher emphasizes mainly personal traits.. The correctness of Trotsky’s explanation is confirmed by the role he played from 1923 on.

The wave of reaction that struck Russia after 1923 was deeper and longer than anything living men and women had ever experienced. The persecution and terror visited on the Trotskyist opposition was more severe than in the worst days of the Czarist reaction after 1905. Bolsheviks who had not flinched at jail, Siberia or exile in 1906 were broken morally and capitulated to Stalin in 1926. What did Trotsky do?

(3) This is the subject of Deutscher’s next book, but in this one he expresses approval for the statement that “it was Trotsky’s major weakness that he did not persist in his wisdom, especially when to be wise was to be alone.” (Our emphasis.)

This statement alone, in our opinion, is sufficient to disqualify Deutscher as any objective judge of Trotsky the man and his work.

Against all odds, Trotsky stood up against the fierce reaction represented by Stalinism. He stood up and fought back in defense of Bolshevism. He resisted all the pressures, spurned all the offers for compromise, refused to yield an inch on principle. He did this virtually alone, against practically the whole leadership of the party, who held the state power in their hands and did not hesitate to use its coercive instruments. If anyone in the history of the revolutionary movement “persisted,” it was Trotsky, whom Stalin could neither bribe nor beat into line.

This was not Trotsky’s natural “element.” But his strength did not “sag” at the prospect, This was not actually a “lesser labor” than leading a revolution — it was merely a different, harder and less personally gratifying labor. But Trotsky was equal to it, and he mobilized all his resources to carry it through to the finish.

Trotsky’s triumph

To Deutscher, Trotsky’s story is “tragic.” That only shows how little he understands. Trotsky, it is true, was expelled, exiled and finally murdered, but standing high above all these personal reverses, which Trotsky had foreseen was that greater triumph which he snatched from Stalin’s hands by discharging his revolutionary duty to the full.

Stalin’s aim was to exterminate Bolshevism root and branch. In this he was thwarted. For Trotsky, almost singlehanded, kept the banner of Bolshevism aloft and preserved it from stain; he maintained the continuity of revolutionary Marxism; he gathered together as new cadre and armed it and hardened it. Lenin’s great achievement was to organize Bolshevism; Trotsky’s was to preserve it in its most difficult days.

When the balance is struck, we believe, history will recognize as Trotsky’s greatest achievement not the role he played in the Russian revolution in 1917, outstanding as that was, when all the conditions favored revolutionary activity, but the role he filled in the reactionary years from 1923 to 1940 in patiently explaining the meaning of Stalinism and tirelessly recruiting the forces of the Fourth International who will lead the workers in ridding the world of both capitalism and Stalinism.

A Deutscher couldn’t understand that. He’s too busy searching for the “revolutionary” sides of Stalinism, and for signs that the Soviet bureaucracy is going to reform itself, to be able to recognize the real path of socialist revolution in our time or the magnitude of Trotsky’s work in clearing that path for the revolutionist of today and tomorrow.

* * *

It would be wrong, however, to conclude without some remarks about positive aspects of the book. For one thing, Deutscher has done a lot of research, particularly in the earlier writings of Trotsky — literary and cultural criticism, war correspondence, etc. — and he quotes enough from them to make his book worth reading. And to increase our appetite. When is some publisher going to be astute enough to get these writings translated?

For another thing, the book has many anecdotes and sidelights that will appeal to readers already familiar with Trotsky’s works. For example, Trotsky’s autobiography merely records in a phrase the fact that the police arrested the Petersburg Soviet which he headed in December, 1905; Deutscher devotes two pages to the amusing details. Trotsky spent only a few lines on the subsequent trial of its leaders; Deutscher has six pages highlighting the dramatic events.

But for a genuinely objective account of Russian revolutionary history, and for an account that can serve as a guide to people who want to participate in revolutionary politics, we repeat, the reader will still have to turn to Trotsky’s own writings, for which there is still no substitute.

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