Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Book Review - Leon Trotsky by Irving Howe

Leon Trotsky by Irving Howe

New York : The Viking Press, 1978                   ISBN 0670423726


What an unusual little book. It is a brave man who would attempt to sum up the life of one of the begetters of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in less than 200 pages, especially so when the massive biography written by Isaac Deutscher (at over 1500 pages), would seem to have cornered the market (if that's an appropriate phrase to use given this subject!).

But, as Howe writes in his preface "...this is not a biography; it is a political essay with a narrative foundation." We do get a bare-bones narrative of Leon Trotsky's life, interwoven with a critique of his writings. In fact, quite a lot of this work falls somewhere between political and literary criticism of Trotsky's writings. This might seem unusual, but is less so when it is realised that Irving Howe, as well as being heavily involved in U.S. socialist circles, was a Professor of Literature.

What also becomes clear is that Howe has an ambivalent relationship with his subject - he expends much more ink on Trotsky's work when he was on the outer with very little influence, than on his time in power during the Revolution itself, and the Civil War which followed, in which it could be argued that Trotsky was the saviour of the Bolsheviks.

There is of course a reason for this. Howe was one of those socialists who was acutely aware of Stalin's despotism and tyranny, and as such focuses much of this work on Trotsky's response to and rebuttal of Stalin and his methods. Of course he here faces a problem - if Trotsky's work was so brilliant during this time, why was he so absolutely ineffective at engineering any change? Howe does tackle this issue, pointing out that Trotsky's grasp of the political process was poor (although he did triumph in the Revolution and the Civil War), and his responses to Stalin were fettered by his continuing belief that the Bolshevik party should be the only party to be allowed to carry the Revolution forward.

This became an insuperable problem for Trotsky, as Stalin had bureaucratized the party to such an extent that the socialist ideal had become lost in a sea of careerism and rent-seeking. Trotsky, for all his verbal brilliance, failed to take any concrete action against this tendency, and all too soon it was far too late, and he was sent into exile.

Whilst being quite forthcoming about the brutality of Stalin and his cronies, Howe is more reticent about Trotsky's actions during the Civil War, where he authorised many actions that today would be considered war crimes. Howe does point out later on in the book, when he describes Trotsky denouncing Stalin for resorting to any means to get his way, that Trotsky did exactly the same thing during the Civil War. Howe fails to make the link that occurred to me on reading this passage that Stalin could use Trotsky's earlier actions as justification for his terror in the thirties - that perhaps it was Trotsky after all, with his hostage taking and political commissars, that sowed the seed that grew into the early morning knock on the door and the show trial.

Howe does try to make the best of a written oeuvre that, especially in the "wandering years", was a result partly of writing to keep himself in the spotlight, and partly of writing merely to pay the bills. So, while we get Howe trying manfully to create over-arching theories in Trotsky's attitude to Fascism or the Jewish Question, what we see is something slightly less coherent. Trotsky was, however, quite clear-eyed about the dangers of Fascism, and from where it gained it's power - if socialism was the movement of the proletariat, fascism was the movement of the class immediately above them, and gained power in those countries where that class was predominant (Germany and Italy having lost a lot of their 'natural' upper classes in their unification struggles).

Howe spends as many pages describing Trotsky's literary style as he does discussing his political theories, and while this is mildly interesting, I'm sure not many people would come to Trotsky for reading pleasure. As such, I'd find it hard to recommend this book to anyone who wanted to find out more about the man and his ideals - the only thing going for it for a dilettante is it's length.

You could try looking for Leon Trotsky at your local library, or you might find a second hand copy somewhere. It was published as part of the 'Modern Masters' series, edited by Frank Kermode.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

1 comment:

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