Trotsky is both the hero of the Russian Revolution–the mastermind of October, the founder of the Red Army–and also its Job, hounded across a “planet without a visa,” his family exterminated, himself murdered in Mexico in 1940. An enthralling orator, a brilliant writer, a born leader, he is larger than life, a dream for a biographer. The trouble is that he himself wrote My Life and that another gifted writer, Isaac Deutscher, spent more than a dozen years writing a superb biography.
The publishers of Dmitri Volkogonov’s Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary claim that this is the book destined to replace Deutscher’s trilogy as the standard work on the subject. In staking such a claim they do their author a disservice because they push the reviewer to read the two biographies in conjunction, with disastrous results for Volkogonov. The new book reads like a crib by not the brightest of pupils. The essential facts are the same, and so, quite often, are the incidents and the quotations–but not the general picture. The new, reduced version is flat, it lacks color, it has no shades or nuances. It provides neither the background, which gives meaning to a story, nor the atmosphere, which brings events and actors to life. Switching from one book to the other is like reading Proust in the original and then in comic-strip form.
Volkogonov’s lack of depth is felt from the very beginning. Young Trotsky appears in London in 1902 and duly meets Lenin, but the complexity of émigré conflicts and Trotsky’s subsequent ambiguous relationship with both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks are oversimplified. Later on, we are shown the still-young man back in St. Petersburg leading the Soviet, but the revolution of 1905 is somehow missing. Even the theoretical side, the concept of “permanent revolution,” elaborated by Parvus and Trotsky, is dismissed in a couple of pages. Volkogonov never conveys the deep connection between the theory’s domestic aspect (the workers will carry the Russian Revolution to its socialist stage) and the international one (the revolution will survive only if it spreads to the countries of advanced capitalism). Here lies both the essence of Trotskyism and its tragedy. Volkogonov’s simplistic discussion of permanent revolution, as well as concepts like the dictatorship of the proletariat, shows how little those who preached “Marxism-Leninism” for the epigones understood Marx, reducing his ideas to a book of obligatory quotations.
Volkogonov is no better at explaining historical controversies. The Chinese question, for instance, figured prominently in the struggle between Stalin and the Opposition in 1927. Volkogonov has views on the subject, and even suggests that Trotsky’s “arguments were plainly debatable.” To find out what the dispute was all about, what the issues were, how Communists were massacred by Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai and so on, you have to turn to Deutscher’s second volume, since the facts are simply unavailable in this book. Similarly, the author mentions that Trotsky did forecast Hitler’s rise to power. That is fine, except that the German upheaval and the part played in it by Stalin’s strategy of “two evils” (the Nazis and the Social Democrats) during the so-called “Third Period” of the Comintem do not figure here. A reader lacking this background would miss completely the importance of the German question in the controversy with Stalin. Trotsky was then passionately warning the labor movement about the impending catastrophe, and he was doing it in vain.
The main drawback of the book, however, is the absence of any social background. We do not sense a Soviet Union bled by war and civil war, with a dwindling proletariat drowned in a peasant sea while the Bolsheviks were faced with the task of completing an industrial revolution out of “primitive socialist accumulation.” All this helps to explain the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy, just as knowledge of Stalin’s bloody collectivization–a second civil war–helps us to understand the increasingly totalitarian nature of the system. It is the immensity of the domestic task, and not some religious interpretation of doctrine, that accounts for Trotsky’s and Lenin’s obsession with the spread of the revolution and, when it failed to spread, the desperate search for some immediate solutions (like, Trotsky’s idea of “militarization of labor,” an unforgivable intellectual sin, even if it was only a temporary aberration). Without this society in upheaval as a setting, the story loses both meaning and drama.
Does this biography reveal crucial secrets from the Soviet archives that might alter our interpretation of Trotsky’s role? Even this, alas, is stuff for blurb writers. What is important is not new and what is new is relatively unimportant. Nor is this surprising. Until the 1930s, when Stalin established his control over truth, the Soviet Union was full of publications. Besides, Trotsky, himself a serious historian fond of documents, took his archives out of Russia and left them for researchers to exploit. So the essential facts have already been well documented. Volkogonov does not pretend that he was under the table in the Kremlin. On the other hand, with the help of Soviet archives, particularly those of the army and the secret police, he confirms many things that were known, though not fully proved. Thus, it was no secret that Moscow was aware of everything that happened in the Trotsky movement and household, thanks to an informer, Mark Zborowski, acting in Paris as chief assistant to Lev (Lyova) Sedov, Trotsky’s son. Volkogonov now provides details–though even here there are some doubts, since the author draws heavily on Pavel Sudoplatov, the not-so reliable former Soviet secret agent [see Walter Schneir, “Sudo-History,” June 6, 1994].
The reason Trotsky was warmly greeted by its American publishers is both obvious and ideological. The purpose of this book, one of Volkogonov’s own trilogy, the other two dealing with Stalin and Lenin, is to proclaim that Marxism is wrong and revolution evil, and that the world, fortunately, has now got rid of such delusions. “Stalin,” he argues, “showed what Bolshevik radicalism could do in one country” and it is “not hard to imagine what would happen if the entire planet were consumed by the revolutionary fire.” To make this case, he minimizes Russia’s peculiar circumstances and, in dealing with the Soviet Union, puts the blame squarely on the Bolsheviks. Here is a typical sample of the bias: “Lenin might claim that it [civil war] was provoked by international imperialism, but the generals who organized the White movement were not under the orders of foreign capitalists. They acted independently.” Volkogonov never wonders if the White generals could have acted in the same way without foreign aid.
The author has serious problems with his protagonist. Discovering Trotsky, he is overwhelmed by his dazzling oratory, the brilliance of his writing, the scope of his ideas and interests. He even concedes that “totalitarianization [sic]…came sharply into focus” only in 1927. To compensate for this admission, however, Volkogonov stresses time and again that his hero was “second only to…Lenin’, in “laying the foundations of totalitarianism.” Even so, he could have built a story about Trotsky as a representative of “classical Marxism” led astray by the backwardness of Mother Russia. Such a narrative would have removed Marxism and revolution from the indictment, but this is not what Volkogonov was being paid for.
Thus Volkogonov was faced with a puzzle, pondering how “a man with so powerful an intellect…could believe so fanatically in the Utopian idea.” He answers his own query, with clichés, psychological platitudes and plain incantation: Trotsky was victim of the “dedication to the false idea,” a “prisoner of the Communist idea,” of Marxism as “a revolutionary religion”; he was punished for his “love of revolution,” naturally a “revolution for the sake of revolution,”‘ and, recurring as a refrain, for his “fanatical faith.”
“Once a Stalinist, always a Stalinist”: The principle seems to be wrong as a general rule, since so many decent people made sacrifices, fought and died with the name of the Georgian tyrant on their lips, that you cannot lump them all together as time-servers beyond redemption. But the formula may fit when applied to turncoats who made capital first as keepers of the cult and then as iconoclasts. Volkogonov, who died in December in Moscow, was one of them. He had been a high priest of the “doctrine” in the armed forces under Brezhnev. But, as some of his Russian critics point out, despite having decided that his previous beliefs were nonsense, he did not give back the academic titles and the general’s epaulets. He was closer to our own “new philosophers,” who claim that their former stupidity is a guarantee of their present wisdom and their past blindness assurance of today’s acute vision. Having risen in rank–as Boris Yeltsin’s military adviser and head of the commission supervising Russian archives–Volkogonov went on preaching the opposite view with the same apparent conviction.
If you want to.learn something about Trotsky the revolutionary, first in sympathy then in conflict with his times, you must turn to Deutscher, not Volkogonov. Having just read the first for my satisfaction and the second out of duty, I can assure you that a tremendous gap separates an inspired writer from a pedestrian scribbler, the historian with a vision from a trimmer to fashion, a socialist thinker from a converted Stalinist hack.