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.