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A New Biography of Leon Trotsky

Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (Critical Lives),
(London: Reaktion Books, 2015), 224 pp., $16.95.

reviewed by Joe Auciello

With a right foot planted firmly in academia as a professor of history at LaRoche College and a left foot set deeply in the revolutionary left as a lifelong socialist and current member of the International Socialist Organization, Paul Le Blanc is suited far better than most critics to write a survey of the life and ideas of Leon Trotsky.

Le Blanc brings a scholar’s knowledge of the current critical research and debate regarding Trotsky and the problems of 20th century socialism as well as the invaluable perspective of an active, political militant. The issues and conflicts involved in working for a revolutionary solution to the injustices and crises of capitalism are not solely theoretical for Le Blanc or for Trotsky.

This biography is not a Trotsky for Dummies or a beginner’s book, nor is it an exhaustive study, much less a “definitive” work. Le Blanc has accepted more modest aims, consistent with the other volumes in the “Critical Lives” series. It is a well-researched, amply illustrated brief overview of Trotsky’s life and major ideas that will serve as a gateway to further reading, especially to Trotsky’s own voluminous writings.

The challenge for Le Blanc is to relate a biographical narrative while presenting and evaluating political events and theories with sufficient but not excessive depth—all within about 175 pages of text. Despite some inevitable compromises, Le Blanc largely succeeds—an accomplishment that ought not to be taken for granted. Other biographers, at far greater length, have accomplished far less.

Le Blanc has also produced a highly readable work. His prose is not cluttered with academic jargon nor weighed down with the predictable, prefabricated phrases and clichés so beloved by too many left-wing writers.

In the “Introduction” to an anthology of Trotsky’s writings, his major English-language biographer, Isaac Deutscher, noted that the effort “to convey a general image of Trotsky’s personality and to give an introduction to his ideas…has been no easy task.” Nor has this challenge lessened over time.

Le Blanc meets his biographical task by focusing primarily on the last dozen years of Trotsky’s life, after his internal exile in Central Asia and then involuntary deportation from the Soviet Union. (Not coincidentally, Le Blanc coedited the 2012 Trotsky anthology entitled Writings in Exile.) Of course, Trotsky himself wrote that those years involved “the most important work of my life—more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.” Trotsky saw as his task “the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method…” Le Blanc’s biography shares a similar aim.

There are advantages to writing about ideas thematically, as Ernest Mandel’s books on Trotsky have shown (Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought and Trotsky as Alternative). For instance, chapters devoted to economic strategy can analyze the development of Trotsky’s thinking from the early years of the Left Opposition in 1923 to the alternative plans he put forward in the 1930s. Similarly, Trotsky’s complex and conflicting ideas on the centralized vanguard party and proletarian democracy can be fruitfully considered in a chapter that spans years, even decades.

Le Blanc has adopted a different approach that combines a biographical framework with relatively in-depth expositions of core ideas and events tied to the writing of Trotsky’s major works. Within a chronology of the last phase of Trotsky’s life, Le Blanc can, for example, explore the turmoil and triumph underlying Russia’s 1917 socialist revolution by linking it to the publication in 1931–33 of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. The growth of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, in the government and the Bolshevik party, Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country, the transformation of the Third International from a revolutionary instrument to a diplomatic one, the extermination of party cadre accompanied by show trials—Le Blanc can take up all these topics in his discussion of Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, published in 1936.

So, one vital quality of this biography can be found—as it must for the book to be successful—in the exposition of and commentary on Trotsky’s central ideas. Le Blanc’s explanations of theory and history are clear, concise, yet sufficiently comprehensive. A reader unfamiliar with Trotsky would learn a good deal from Le Blanc’s presentations and would be well equipped to plunge more deeply into Trotsky’s writings.        

Ultimately, Le Blanc pulls together the strands of these integrated ideas in the last chapter of the book where he outlines the essential points that he considers the defining features of Trotsky’s thought. Thus, Le Blanc fulfills the main purpose of his critical biography.

One approach Le Blanc takes throughout his book is puzzling, though. He writes, “…I will be inclined to emphasize the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought…” and then enumerates just those topics that have typically been understood to constitute “Trotskyism.” Le Blanc locates Trotsky’s unique theoretical contribution in this way: “His distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the old revolutionary perspectives, and in a sense became original simply through applying old principles… to new realities” (pp. 13–14).

The virtue in this line of thought is to emphasize how firmly Trotsky’s work is situated within the Marxist and Bolshevik traditions, shattering the Stalinist slanders that would see Trotsky as an “alien element” within Bolshevism whose struggle against bureaucratization after Lenin’s death, had it come to fruition, “would have been a decisive success for world reaction.” (These quotes are taken from William Z. Foster, History Of The Three Internationals, p. 259 and p. 349.)

But the Stalinist and Maoist distortions have held little currency for decades. Surely, they no longer need to be refuted. What’s more, if Trotsky only remained true to revolutionary perspectives, it would be hard to account for what Le Blanc describes as a kind of renaissance in biography, criticism, and fiction about the Russian revolutionary, “the equivalent of a significant work every six months, reflecting the impact he had on the history of the twentieth century…” (pp. 7–8).

Regarding topics such as the theory of permanent revolution, the conclusions from another writer’s book-length study remain compelling: “Trotsky’s perspective… was a major theoretical and political breakthrough.” (Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development (1981), p. 189.)

Nonetheless, any criticism of Le Blanc’s Trotsky must be weighed against an appreciation for the book’s many qualities. Isaac Deutscher, in an essay cited earlier, wrote, “[I]n the field of ideas, Trotsky, I am sure, is still a superb teacher.” Le Blanc has reminded readers of the validity of this judgment by showing why Trotsky’s legacy endures. In those writings are lessons that well deserve to be studied by the new generation of young revolutionaries.

Thousands today are fed up with capitalism and are searching for a more humane alternative and a way to build a more just society, one that values all human beings. Many are stirred when they hear about socialism from, of all things, a presidential candidate running in the capitalist Democratic Party. Their impulse is to be applauded, but their hopes will be frustrated. They will find a much better model to follow and a more valuable aid in learning to think critically and act accordingly if they study the ideas and example of Leon Trotsky.