The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Reading ‘Trotsky’

Posted on | December 12, 2011 | 21 Comments

For the past few days, my bedtime reading has been Robert Service’s Trotsky: A Biography. It is my boast that I’ve read more Marx than most Marxists and, as an amateur student of Communism, I’ve long been fascinated by Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky was an early comrade of Lenin, but spent more than a dozen years allied with the Menshevik faction of Russian communists after the split at the Second Party Congress in 1903. Trotsky at that time rejected Lenin’s dictatorial tendencies, but later sided with the Bolsheviks on the eve of the Russian revolution, emerging as the leader of the Red Army.

Trotsky was inarguably the most intellectually gifted of the Bolshevik leaders, and his talent as a writer earned him the nickname “The Pen.” Certainly anyone who has read Trotsky’s work appreciates his subtlety as a writer in comparison to the blunt formulations of Lenin. I had often wondered how much of Trotsky’s reputation as a writer in the English-speaking world was due to the talents of his translator Max Eastman, but Service makes clear that Trotsky’s ability won him admiration among Russian radicals long before anyone in the English-speaking world had ever heard of him.

Aware of his gifts, Trotsky was self-confident to the point of arrogance, and insisted on his own intellectual independence. His willingness to criticize Lenin, while at the same time also criticizing the faults of his own Menshevik allies, was an early indication of Trotsky’s distinctive genius — which, of course, ultimately led to his own fatal downfall.

Trotsky’s undeniable superiority made him an object of suspicion and envy. Vera Zasulich was said to have remarked to early Russian Marxist leader Georg Plekhanov, “That young man’s a genius,” to which Plekhanov replied: “That is something I can’t forgive Trotsky.” And indeed, Plekhanov conspired to prevent Trotsky from joining the editorial board of the Russian Marxist journal Iskra.

Trotsky’s personal abilities as a writer, orator and leader made him the odd man out in the succession struggle that followed Lenin’s death in 1924. The brutal and ruthless Stalin could not tolerate the potential rivalry, and Trotsky was purged, exiled and finally assassinated.

Well, “the only good Communist,” et cetera — but Trotsky has always seemed a more sympathetic and humane figure than other Communist leaders, if only because of his denunciations of Stalinism. If there was any socialist alternative to the bloody paranoid police state over which Stalin so viciously ruled, Trotsky symbolized it.

Of course, the search for a humane “true socialism” is a snipe hunt. As Hayek observed in the famous 10th chapter (“Why the Worst Get on Top”) of The Road to Serfdom, any attempt to impose a socialist economy ultimately requires coercive measures, so that socialist movements are always ultimately led by ruthless and immoral men. Thus, the idealists and dreamers who follow such movements must eventually either repudiate socialism or else consent to the rule of murderous dictators.

Trotsky never seemed to see what Hayek saw so plainly. Having been radicalized in his youth, he remained loyal to his radical dream until the day that dream — as embodied in the person of KGB assassin Ramon Mercader — slammed an ice-axe into his head.

There is a lesson to be learned from Trotsky’s life, but some people seem doomed never to learn it.


21 Responses to “Reading ‘Trotsky’”

  1. Anonymous
    December 12th, 2011 @ 12:34 am


    Do you recommend Service’s book?

    Have you read Isaac Deutscher’s 3-part bio (The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Disarmed, The Prophet Outcast, and if so how do you think the two authors compare?

    A lot of lefties like to romanticize Trotsky versus Stalin’s excesses, but if anything he was often the “harder” of the two before and during their power struggle but prior to his exile.

    He was the one who prosecuted the Civil War and suppressed the uprising at Kronstadt as head of the Red Army, opposed NEP, and was for the liquidation of the Kulaks before he was against it (Stalin was against it before he did it). He only got “softer” once he was no longer in a position to act on his positions.

    Unfortunately he was also, via Burnham and Kristol, the father of post WWII American conservatism.

  2. Charles
    December 12th, 2011 @ 12:43 am

    At $11.56 the Road to Serfdom is also cheaper than the $14.93 Trotsky biography.

  3. Joe
    December 12th, 2011 @ 1:20 am

    I need to hint to the wife this is what I want for Christmas. Sounds like an interesting read.

  4. higgins1990
    December 12th, 2011 @ 1:21 am

    When the people in St. Petersburg marched to the palace at Tovarichiski to show their support for Krezenski, Trotsky had his snipers open fire on them.  He was no less a murderer than Lenin and Stalin.  The only difference was that Trotsky never had complete power.

  5. Peter Davis
    December 12th, 2011 @ 1:46 am

    I’ve only done a fairly small amount of reading about the Red Army vs White Army fight after the October Revolution but it is my understanding that Trotsky had plenty of blood on his hands.


  6. Anonymous
    December 12th, 2011 @ 1:49 am

    “How do you tell a communist? He reads Lenin and Marx. And how do you tell an anti-communist? Someone who understands Lenin and Marx.” -Ronald Reagan

  7. MrPaulRevere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 1:50 am

    That’s either a serious indictment or a rhetorical stink bomb and I vote for the latter. Perhaps you would care to elaborate.

  8. K-Bob
    December 12th, 2011 @ 1:50 am

    When you wrote “Trotsky” you were thinking “Gingrich,” right?

    How many internets, etc.

  9. MrPaulRevere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 2:09 am

    Thanks a lot Stacy, I have The Road to Serfdom somewhere in the house and I’ve just spent 20 minutes looking for it to no avail… (wink)

  10. Anonymous
    December 12th, 2011 @ 7:54 am

    OT: Stacey, your link to DaTechGuy in Axis of Fedorables goes to his old site.

  11. Anonymous
    December 12th, 2011 @ 8:11 am


    With one small change — I think maybe “midwife” is more accurate than “father” — I’ll stand by the claim, which I’ve elaborated elsewhere (here, for example, and a little bit here).

  12. Bob Belvedere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    Robert Service is a wonderful historian.

    Mr. Service’s book is a great read.  It will encourage you to buy it, I
    think, to know that it has been denounced by various Communist and
    Marxist organizations for it’s ‘falsifications’, which tells you it must
    be pretty damn accurate.

    To fully understand The Russian Revolution and the thinking that drove it, I would very highly recommend The Russian Revolution* by Richard Pipes.  One of the reasons I do is because the parallels between the struggles between the various factions of the Left in Russia and the modern American Left are stunning.

    *It is the middle book in his trilogy on The Revolution – the other two bookending it: Russia Under The Old Regime and Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime.

    Mr. Pipes was also a member of Team B over at the CIA which looked at the Soviet Union’s real strength and, as Wikipedia summarazies: ‘The Team B reports became the intellectual foundation for the idea of “the window of vulnerability” and of the massive arms buildup that began toward the end of the Carter administration and accelerated under President Ronald Reagan’.

  13. Bob Belvedere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    Exactly.  Mr. Hayek understood him and his kind very well.

  14. Bob Belvedere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    He was drenched in it.  His pursuit of The Whites, even after they had ceased to be an ‘effective’* opposition was maniacal.

    *Sadly, the various factions never really put aside all their differences and so they never had much of a chance to succeed.

  15. Bob Belvedere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    The Raygun was dead solid perfect on that one.

  16. ThePaganTemple
    December 12th, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    How do you tell a Trotskyist?

    Just like any other brain dead commie moron but with a fixation on the tango.

  17. JewishOdysseus
    December 12th, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Richard Pipes is a true national treasure, I am privileged to own a copy of “Survival is not enough” which he was kind enough to autograph for me…The late great Amb. Jeanne Kirkpatrick happened to be present as well for that lovely Boston get-together!

    BTW, it’s well-established that Trotsky was every bit as murderous as Stalin, Lenin,…The Left is always putting up some phony humane Bolshevik who “would have avoided those excesses,” but it’s just to evade their moral responsibility for supporting the most bloodthirsty form of government in history.

    Hayek was 110% on the money, of course.

  18. Bob Belvedere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 11:38 am


  19. Anonymous
    December 12th, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post.  It seems many are only too willing to repeat history b/c “the right people” have not had the chance to implement socialism.  (When I hear “progress” used in political terms, I shudder, and think of the “progress” promised under Stalin’s 5 year plans.)

    The Hayek insight is indeed timely when we have both parties attempting to “fix” society a la healthcare.  There are shades of Republican leaders in this paradigm as well.

  20. MrPaulRevere
    December 12th, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    Thanks for the reply, that was some fascinating reading.

  21. Anonymous
    December 12th, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

    “Fascinating” isn’t as good as “life-changing,” but it’s better than “boring” 😉