Pierre Broue. Trotsky.
Fayard, 1988. 1105 p.
Pierre Broue, French historian, Trotskyist, militant, and editor of the Cahiers Leon Trotsky, has just published an imposing biography of the “organizer of victory” of the October Revolution. As the Soviet state takes timid steps toward the tacit or full rehabilitation of Trotsky, the appearance if this book seems timely indeed. That rehabilitation will be meaningful only when Trotsky’s writings become widely available to the Soviet public and when the historical truth about his role in the revolution and in the establishment of the young Soviet state (a role second only to Lenin’s) can be freely discussed in open debate. When virtually every other “old Bolshevik” murdered by Stalin has been rehabilitated under Gorbachev, the caution with which the partisans of “glasnost” proceed in the case of Trotsky is testimony to the explosiveness of the questions linked to his name, questions with real implications for contemporary Soviet and world politics. Today, the prospect of a prompt Russian translation of books like Broue’s and of their diffusion in the current ferment in the Soviet Union is merely a heady one. Only a few years ago, it would have been surreal. One can think of few people more qualified than Broue to write this biography. For 45 years, the author has been active in Trotskyist politics in France, where Trotskyism has arguably been of more real political importance than in any other country outside the Soviet Union itself. He has authored massive tomes on the Bolshevik party, the German revolution and the Spanish revolution, each in the orthodox mold of the master; he has edited and prefaced an authoritative French edition of Trotsky’s post-1928 writings; he has been at the center of much “Trotsky research” of recent decades, and was at the door of Harvard’s Houghton Library on the day, in 1980, when Trotsky’s archives were first opened to the public. Broue’s biography of Trotsky is necessarily read in the shadow of Isaac Deutscher’s lengthier study, whose final volume appeared in 1963. In the past decades, the rise at a “Sovietology” inspired by the Cold War has made possible serious biographical studies of most of the revolutionaries of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. (To their credit, neither Deutscher nor Broue, as politically-committed leftists, can be called “Sovietologists”, let alone Cold Warriors.) Significantly absent from this scrutiny has been a biography of Lenin that even approaches what both Deutscher and Broue have done for Trotsky. Lenin’s life blends all too completely into the history of Bolshevism and of the revolution itself. Some intangible quality in his personality, the supreme product of the century-long evolution of the Russian revolutionary milieu, has defeated every attempt to evoke the man behind the cascade of statistical studies of Russian agriculture, questionable epistemology, factional polemics, and central committee resolutions which constitute the bulk of his writings. By partisan accounts, even some of Lenin’s most historically significant speeches were delivered with the cool pedagogy of an accomplished schoolmaster. For many, Lenin’s utter lack of the qualities conventionally associated with “charisma”, combined with his steeled pursuit of one lifelong goal, was precisely the source of an overwhelming charisma. But the “wine, women and song” in a life devoted to honing an apparatus and leading it to power have thus far eluded a biographer worthy of the man. One even senses that Lenin, lacking any trace of personal vanity, would take pride in this. The problems confronting the biographer of Trotsky are of a rather different order. Trotsky lost. He is not first remembered, by the average reader, for his unique application of the theory of permanent revolution to Russia, for his almost unparalleled oratorical skill in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, for his military organization of the seizure of the Winter Palace or for building the Red Army (indeed, for decades, in both the Soviet Union and even in supposedly “progressive” circles in the West it was flatly denied that he had done any of these things). Trotsky is remembered as the man who was defeated by Stalin. Lenin had admirers; Lenin had enemies. But there is (unfortunately) little controversy among his admirers and his enemies over what Lenin stood for and what he accomplished. “Leninism”, a term invented after his death by Stalin, is part of the official ideology of 20 countries and countless political parties in the world today. Trotsky’s name, on the other hand, has until very recently been associated with anathema in those same countries and in many of those parties; where there is discussion of Trotsky, there is controversy, in a way there is not with Lenin. With Lenin, there is a problem of saving him from many “Leninists” who are in fact merely Stalinists; with Trotsky, there is first of all a problem (pace the 40 contemporary variants of Trotskyism) of establishing his true historical stature, almost on a par with Lenin, in order to then laugh, cry or simply understand. It is therefore hardly surprising, yet still noteworthy, that both of Trotsky’s major biographers, Deutscher and Broue, have come out of the Trotskyist milieu. Deutscher’s 3-volume study appeared from 1954 to 1963, at a time when such a biography was still, even in the West, very much an act of historical recovery. (He had, in 1949, published a single volume on the life of Stalin.) Prior to 1980, Deutscher was one of the very few individuals allowed to consult, ,Trotsky’s archives at Harvard. For all its sweep and novelty in the atmosphere of ignorance and calumny still evoked by Trotsky in the West at the time, Deutscher’s biography was also a political tract, an advocacy of “Deutscherism”, or an historical accomodation to Stalinism veiled in Trotskyist language. This accomodation was even more palpable in the earlier study of Stalin, a virtual paean to the Stalinist industrialization of the 1930’s. “Deutscherism” amounted to a belief in the ability of the Stalinist bureaucracy to reform itself, a belief confirmed for Deutscher in the emergence of Khruschev, presumably dashed in the emergence of Brezhnev. But the best heirs of Trotsky retained the Old Man’s perspective that only a new working-class revolution could put an end to Stalinism. Broue’s book is no less a work of political advocacy, and one senses that he wants to polemicize with Deutscher on every page. He admits as much in the preface. One can readily agree that Broue is more restrained, certainly more the historian, and more correctly “Trotskyist” than Deutscher. But one would also think that 25 years later, after uncovering new archival material, and most importantly after so much world history and so many polemics in which the relevance of Trotsky’s ideas has been debated almost as intensely as 50 years ago, Broue would write a biography showing the marks of these developments. The reader approaching this book with such hopes, however, will be disappointed. Like his earlier orthodox books on the Bolshevik Party, Spain and Germany, this is as close to an official Trotskyist work on Trotsky as we are ever likely to see. And there is, ultimately, something dry about Broue’s Trotsky. One major problem for Trotskyism, and for Deutscher, is that almost all the leading figures of the left opposition in the Soviet Union capitulated to Stalin after 1928. Many of them did so because they saw Stalin implementing the left’s “super-industrialization” program on his own. All their self-abasement and toadying did not stop Stalin from shooting every one of them over the next decade. But Trotsky, to his great credit, realized that there was a political dimension to Stalin’s “borrowing” of the left’s economic program, and did not capitulate. Since his death, a fondness for Stalinist “productivism” has led many Trotskyists to blunt this political critique and to become the noisy “left wing” of the Stalinists, an affection which has generally been little reciprocated. This is not Broue’s problem. He shows repeatedly where Deutscher’s chiding of Trotsky concealed a covert (or not so covert) political agreement with Trotsky’s adversaries, or at the very least a misunderstanding of Trotsky’s views. But if we admit that Broue’s book is more “truly Trotskyist”, more truly the work of an historian, it must also be said that the “literary” merits of Deutscher are superior to those of Broue. The panorama of an epoch moves in and out of Deutscher’s trilogy, in which the arena of Trotsky’s life is not merely the historical stage of the socialist movement in Europe and North America, but the whole Zeitgeist associated with Nietzsche, Ibsen, Freud, the post-1917 Russian avant-garde, or finally the avant-garde figures such as Breton and Rivera who rallied to Trotsky during his 1930’s exile. With Deutscher, one is present as Trotsky breathlessly awakens Lenin and Krupskaya in a London dawn in 1902, to introduce himself upon escape from Siberian exile, or when, in 1907, he escapes a second time across the tundra of the Ostyaks; one is present during his emigre life in Vienna before 1914, or when, after his internment in Canada in 1917, he is carried to the camp gates on the shoulders of the German POW’s whom his speeches, in German, won over to revolution. All this evocation of a real life, in its quotidian as in its world historical dimension, does not excuse Deutscher’s attempt to enlist Trotsky in his own variant of Trotskyism, but it gives his book a human quality far more intense than Broue’s more documented, prosaic and more “correct” account. Perhaps the most striking example of Broue’s shortcomings is his portrait of the most critical years of Trotsky’s life, when from 1923 to 1927 he was losing his battle with Stalin. In some sense what is unique to “Trotskyism”, as opposed to “Leninism”, is the legacy of Trotsky in this period, after Lenin’s death in 1924. Trotsky and Trotskyism’s claim to constitute the real continuity of Bolshevism against Stalin began in the fight against Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country”, the struggle against the Bukharinist right and the Stalinist “center” in the industrialization debate, and the battle over the Comintern’s suicidal bungling of the Chinese revolution in 1927. One of the most perplexing questions hanging over Trotsky’s life is his failure, on several occasions, to fight Stalin inside the party when the fight between them was still undecided. Trotsky allowed Lenin’s testament, calling for Stalin’s removal from the position of general secretary, to be suppressed by decision of the party. He repudiated his American follower Max Eastman when Eastman published the testament in the New York Times in 1926. On several occasions when Stalin still remained vulnerable, Trotsky sat silently in party proceedings, to the consternation of his supporters. When the Left Opposition was completely defeated and Trotsky was formally expelled from the Bolshevik Party, a friend and colleague, Adolf Yoffe, shot himself in protest in his Kremlin office. He addressed his suicide letter to Trotsky, in which he wrote: “…I have always thought that you have not had enough in yourself of Lenin’s unbending and unyielding character, not enough of that ability which Lenin had to stand alone and remain alone on the road which he considered to be the right road …You have often renounced your own correct attitude for the sake of an agreement or a compromise, the value of which you have overrated”. No one had ever talked to Trotsky in that fashion. It goes to the heart of a “psychological” dimension of Trotsky’s inability to carry on the struggle against Stalin without Lenin. (This is not to suggest a psychological explanation for his defeat, but merely a psychological aspect of it.) Yet it is such a dimension which Broue, writing a purely “political” and “historical” book, is at great pains to avoid. He thinks that by showing, against Deutscher, the superior Marxist logic in Trotsky’s reasons for shying away from several lost opportunities, he has obviated the need for any “psychology” and gives further lofty Marxist reasons why such a discussion is not necessary. But, while quoting abundantly from Yoffe’s testament, he manages to omit the above passage! For Broue, as for most orthodox Trotskyists, revolutionary politics are exclusively a question of “correct positions”, as he is at great pains to show against Deutscher. Yet by eschewing any discussion of Trotsky’s failure of nerve on several occasions, in the 1923-1927 period, he appears less honest than Deutscher’s politically-motivated, but partially “psychological” portrait. Habent sua fata libelli: books have their fates. Deutscher’s book, for all its problems, had the good fortune to appear on the upswing of the post-1956 thaw in the world Communist movement. When thousands of militants of the 1960’s looked around for alternatives to Social Democracy and Stalinism, Deutscher’s book was one place to start. In France and Britain, for the decade after 1968, Trotskyist groups were the most visible organized expression to the left of the PCF and the Labour Party, even if it is patently false to characterize them as the most authentic heirs of the ferment of the 60’s. In Japan, they were even more dominant. Today, Broue’s book appears in a context of unprecedented mass ferment in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself, and it may, in the long run, be as influential as Deutscher’s. But in the West, since the mid-70’s, the important Trotskyist groups have largely shriveled up, along with most other carryovers from the New Left. And much of the current, vocal opposition in the East is unfortunately clamoring not so much for Trotsky and soviets as for Milton Friedman and more consumer goods. More importantly, the prestige of the Russian Revolution and its heirs has been drastically deflated as a model or point of reference, and not merely in the West. Still more importantly, from the 1960’s onward, an international discussion has taken place in which the whole concept of Bolshevik vanguardism, and therefore of Trotskyism, has been radically questioned, from various points of view, some of them to the “left” of Trotskyism. None of this had happened when Deutscher wrote. But, in 1989, Broue’s book reads like the work of a man from another era. He writes as if the “poetry” that the early phase of the Russian Revolution could yet evoke, for many, in the 1960’s, were still in the air. Of course, Broue is writing a biography and is not obliged to make his work “relevant” to the polemics of the present. But he truly writes as if the history of the past 25 years, and therefore the way in which we think about the more distant past, had never occurred. He is certainly to be commended for not bending to the waves of cretinization which have swept through the French intelligentsia since the appearance of the “new philosophers” in 1977. But it seems slightly breathtaking to write, in the midst of a deeper crisis of Marxism of which the “new philosophers” were only the vulgar pamphleteers, without the slightest sense that something has gone wrong and without attempting to join these developments polemically. Broue is a militant and has written a militant book for a new generation awakening to politics. But he does not seem to have noticed that, in the past 15 years, much of the world appears to have exited the political universe defined by the Russian Revolution, that “historical’ turning point where history did not turn”, as someone put it. Even the head of the Soviet state has recently expressed a desire to leave that universe. This may of course turn out to be an illusion and some future turn of the historical spiral may again find the international left debating the “Russian enigma”, the “philosopher’s stone” of 20th century history, as intensely as it did 15 or 20 years ago. But I doubt it. Everything that underwrote the centrality of the “Russian question” In the international left as late as the 1970’s rested on the view of Russia as a generalizable model of the future. Future of a society without classes, for some, future of a new form of class domination, for others, still-valid model of a future proletarian revolution, for still others. Even as they awaited the new working class revolution to restore the power of the soviets and rid the Soviet Union of bureaucracy, the Trotskyists saw the “gains of the October Revolution” preserved in the system of central planning and state property that assured a steady, if unspectacular, rate of economic growth. But today, short of an internal expansion of the market and an entry into the international division of labor, even that mirage has evaporated for the Eastern bloc. Again, Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 and his biographer is not obliged to deal explicitly with any of these questions. But to the extent that all history is, to some extent, inevitably “present” history, one might think that Broue would approach Trotsky with the questions of the present. To the extent that he does not, the reader can only look elsewhere for enlightenment on the ever-fascinating “Russian enrgma”.