Recently I looked through Vadim Rogovin’s book 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror. In it he lists out a series of common, and utterly false, statements made about Trotsky and Trotskyism. Specifically Rogovin is criticizing Robert Conquest’s book The Great Terror, which I haven’t read, but as Rogovin identifiesd the main points I felt a sense of dreary familiarity. So these are Trotsky’s faults as asserted (and unsupported) by Conquest (and a thousand others) and rejected by Rogovin.

Nine Myths

1.      Trotsky crushed the democratic opposition in the Bolshevik Party.

This seems to have been a throwaway accusation without foundation, of the kind you almost always find in biographies of dead communists.

2.      Trotsky was an ultra-radical doctrinaire who disagreed with Lenin’s concessions to the peasants and wanted to be a hard-arse to the peasants long before Stalin.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition wanted a slow, steady, consensual and peaceful transition toward collectivising agriculture. Stalin and his clique wanted to please the rich peasants and let the wealth trickle down. Their slogan was, literally, “Get rich!”

3.      Trotsky “never expressed a word of sympathy for the deaths of millions during collectivisation”.

Thanks to Stalin’s policy of helping rich peasants, famine ensued and Stalin made a sudden, brutal turnaround, forcing the ENTIRE collectivisation 1peasantry of the USSR into collectivisation. Millions died, and Russian agriculture has never recovered. If you actually read Trotsky’s writings on the collectivisation disaster, there are no lyrical, emotional eulogies. But he examines events dispassionately from the point of view of the peasant, conveying the peasant’s motivations and experiences in an honest and sympathetic way.

4.      In his 1930s exile he was not a revolutionary.

5.      He did not oppose or expose Stalin – he just quarrelled about which “stage” of Socialism had been attained in the Soviet Union.

6.      He did not stand for the destruction of Stalinism but simply for the patching-up of the system and a new leadership.

Conquest must be wilfully and deliberately confused. Trotsky’s position was pretty clear, I’d have thought. He stood for the defence of the gains of the October Revolution – the planned economy, the soviets as representative bodies. He opposed the reintroduction of Capitalism. Not so shocking for one who’d devoted his life to revolutionary socialism. At the same time he called for a political revolution – for the working class to organise itself and seize back the power from the usurping bureaucracy and dictatorship and establish genuine workers’ democracy.

7.      His political judgement was “unbelievably inept”.

He predicted the danger of Hitler and the holocaust; he anticipated the massive post-war revolutionary wave; he made a superb analysis of Stalinism; he was right about Spain and China. It’s really hard to say what was so “inept” about him.

Another Vadim Rogovin book, detailing how the Stalinist Terror was intended to destroy the remnants of the Bolshevik party, specifically the Trotskyist opposition groups

Another Vadim Rogovin book, detailing how the Stalinist Terror was intended to destroy the remnants of the Bolshevik party, specifically the Trotskyist opposition groups

8.      His influence in the USSR in the 1930s was “practically nil”.

It’s staggering to hear that these words were in a book about Stalin’s great terror. The main organised group against which the Terror was directed were Trotsky’s Oppositionists. By the end of the 1930s his influence was practically nil – his supporters had been rounded up, tortured, shot or locked in gulags, and his memory was being vilified and demonized. The Stalinists played on anti-Semitism while also claiming Trotsky was allied with the Nazis; claimed he was hungry for personal power while also attempting to restore capitalism. The Stalinists didn’t just make up all this crap for fun – they wanted to discredit Trotsky and his ideas. They didn’t take any chances; they sent assassins after him and in 1940 one put an ice-pick in his brain.

9.      Flowing from all this, Trotsky in the leadership of the USSR would’ve been basically the same as Stalin.

That final point is the one that most makes me cringe. A very commonly-asked question on Google Answers is whether Trotsky would’ve been “better” than Stalin in the leadership of the USSR. In truth it’s just the wrong question on so many levels. It’s a question you might ask after reading the shitty personalized school textbook account of the Russian Revolution but it’s not a question you’d even consider to be important if you knew the first thing about Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism.

Robert Service’s Trotsky: A Biography

Robert Service published a hatchet-job on Trotsky in 2009. It’s unbelievable how someone could maintain such a level of ignorance for 500 pages, but Service manages it. Throughout, he falsifies evidence, twists the truth, overstates what evidence means and now and then gets his facts spectacularly wrong. Details are at these links:

But more important than all this is the way he just clearly doesn’t have a clue about Trotsky or Trotskyism. How’s this, from page 356:

“[Trotsky’s] central argument was that the October Revolution would not have gone to the bad if only his leadership and policies had not been defeated by his internal party enemies.”

And here is how I reacted

And here is how I reacted


If you don’t know your Trotsky, I really have to stress how unbelievably, absolutely wrong this sentence is. It’s hard to convey a sense of how much this exposes Service’s lack of understanding, and consequently how frustrating it is to see Service’s Trotsky: A Biography in every bookshop I walk into whereas I have to order a never-before-touched copy of Vadim Rogovin’s 1937 from the college library warehouse.

It’s often said that the biggest contribution Trotsky made was his analysis of what was wrong with the Soviet Union, why the October Revolution “went to the bad”, in Service’s words. This analysis never personalizes the matter or pretends that a different leadership would have averted all the atrocities of Stalinism.

The best expression of Trotsky’s position that I know of is his book Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, most concisely in the Chapter “The Soviet Thermidor”. Sure, the Left Oppositionists were in almost every respect better than the Stalinist bureaucracy. But it was not a question of individual attributes but of the social forces at play.

Tsarist Russia had leapt in one year from a backward, semi-feudal regime to a dictatorship of the proletariat. It was saddled with an antiquated system. On top of this, there was the chaos of three years of World War followed by three years of Civil War and invasion from abroad. From the start the Bolsheviks knew they couldn’t build socialism in Russia alone – that only the triumph of socialism in one or more advanced countries, followed by a helping hand, would avert the defeat of the Revolution.

Well, the revolution defeated the White armies and the foreign intervention burnt itself out. The revolution overcame economic and

White Propaganda in the Russian Civil War - the Revolution of the masses as a dragon, the landlords, bosses, imperialists and anti-semitic hordes as a white knight

White Propaganda in the Russian Civil War – the Revolution of the masses as a dragon, the landlords, bosses, imperialists and anti-semitic hordes as a white knight

social chaos and started rebuilding. But the masses who’d made the revolution were exhausted, physically and emotionally, or else dead. The working class as such didn’t exist. Workers’ democracy gave way at every turn to bureaucracy in this isolated, backward, devastated country. It was inevitable and impersonal. It lay behind the defeat of Trotsky and the Left Oppositionists by Stalin. Stalin represented the interests of the rising bureaucracy while Trotsky represented the interests of the temporarily exhausted revolution.

The question of whether Trotsky would have been “better” as the supreme dictator of a bureaucratised Soviet Union is therefore ridiculous on so many levels it’s hard to begin. Trotsky and the Left Opposition saw which way the wind was blowing in the Soviet Union, and after doing all they could to fight the bureaucracy they chose exile, torture, imprisonment or death rather than compromise.1917 Russian Revolution

But if Trotsky had, somehow, against all the forces of history ranged against him, managed to become personal dictator of a bureaucratised, dystopian Soviet Union, there is no reason to suppose that he would have been “better” than Stalin because to maintain his personal rule and the rule of the bureaucracy he would’ve had to do a lot of what Stalin did. But even raising this point is as ridiculous as speculating on what might have happened if Lenin had for some reason been crowned Tsar at some point before 1917.

But Service actually says outright that Trotsky believed that the USSR’s history hinged on an internal party dispute. Trotsky spilt oceans of ink on a rigorous, scientific analysis of the Soviet Union while Service, in a massive biography of Trotsky, fails to outline this analysis at any point. To put it mildly, Service doesn’t do justice to Trotsky’s ideas. To put it harshly, Trotsky: A Biography is the work of an anti-communist quack, not a scholar.

I learned more about Trotsky from Deutscher's Stalin than I did from Service's Trotsky

I learned more about Trotsky from Deutscher’s Stalin than I did from Service’s Trotsky

The Blood-and-Guts Brigade

I told my uncle I was a Trotskyist and he asked me, gently and tactfully, “Well, wasn’t he just as much a part of the blood-and-guts brigade?” Yes, Trotsky carried out massive acts of violence and repression. He was a commander in the Russian Civil War, tasked with taking on armies massively funded by the dispossessed landlords and bosses and by foreign governments. Mark Adomanis writes with horror:

“Anyone who knows anything about Russian history knows that Trotsky was an intensely malevolent figure, a man who, when given the power to do so, had no qualms whatsoever with violating civil rights, shutting down opposition political parties, or physically liquidating those who resisted Soviet power.”

If we know that someone violated civil rights, banned political parties that took up arms against the state and killed enemies in a military context, well that doesn’t exactly narrow down our game of 20 questions. That could be Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. The question is not the nature of the measures he took but whether you agree with their aim, which was to defeat the proto-fascist Whites and establish Socialism. Philistines might be horrified at my asking that we morally evaluate an action based on its context rather than in and of itself but that’s because Hollywood war movies generally don’t show Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo or Dresden, and consequently their audiences are not in the habit of asking difficult questions of themselves.

This map conveys the desperation of the situation for the reds faced with a foreign-funded counter-revolution

This map conveys the desperation of the situation for the reds faced with a foreign-funded counter-revolution

In an extremely serious civil war, faced with the prospect of the collapse of the revolutionary regime and the mass slaughter of workers, socialists and Jews that would follow, Trotsky carried out terror and repression and he never shrank from admitting it openly and explaining why. The US military today, in a much less serious military context, blow up whole villages in drone strikes chasing an enemy they themselves created. Show me where Trotsky did anything as horrible as this everyday policy of US imperialism, anything as bad as the contemporary Amritsar massacre in India.

There’s no statues of Trotsky anywhere, just a small monument at the house in Mexico where he was killed. There’s no movies about him. He and his supporters were hounded and demonized by Churchill, Hitler and Stalin alike. This was the first indication I got that there must be something of value in his legacy.

But Adomanis, whom I quote above, is right to lambast Christopher Hitchens for trying to portray Trotsky in a positive light as an intellectual, cosmopolitan and all-round clever and witty person. He wasn’t cuddly and his message and politics, which are far more important than his personality, are not easy or simple or comforting either.

I did not become a Trotskyist until I’d read up on the history of the matter from writers of various political backgrounds and satisfied myself as to the full implications of his politics, and also as to the necessity of the terror. Nor did I make any allegiance until (unlike, it seems, Roberts Service and Conquest) I’d read some of his works. Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? is essential. His History of the Russian Revolution is majestic, hypnotic and so hard and sharp it’d nearly make you bleed. A range of books and a sea of shorter articles are available online.

Actually this is my favourite Trotsky book

Actually this is my favourite Trotsky book

  1. Eddie says:

    I think this is really good, if a little short on the more broadly appealing aspects of Trotsky’s politics i.e. socialist democracy and equality and the end of opression and explotation etc. etc.

  2. Sapteuq says:

    Thanks Eddie, true. To huge numbers of people, Trotsky represents the original uncorrupted core of the October Revolution – a vision of peace, equality, freedom, justice and real democracy, to be achieved by the masses themselves. That’s why he’s an icon and that’s why his legacy is under constant attack from those who want to discredit the ideas of socialism and revolution.

  3. […] The Legacy of Leon Trotsky ( […]

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