By JEFF MACKLER
Paul LeBlanc, “Leon Trotsky,” Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2015, 224 pages, $16.95 paperback
Paul LeBlanc’s new and admirable brief biography of Leon Trotsky comes on the 75th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination in Coyoacan, Mexico, at the hands of Stalinist agent Ramon Mercader. Trotsky, along with Vladimir Lenin, was the co-leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the world’s first socialist revolution. This was an event that changed the course of world history in establishing for the first time a government and state of the working class—a workers’ state—which abolished capitalism and ruled society through democratic working-class institutions (soviets) that advanced the interests of the vast majority.
Interest in the ideas of Leon Trotsky, as LeBlanc aptly notes, has far from waned in recent decades, with one or another book, novel, and other works—poems, plays, films—focusing on Trotsky’s revolutionary socialist ideas published on average every six months. LeBlanc is a lifelong revolutionary socialist activist and scholar, currently Professor of History at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. He is the author of “Unfinished Leninism” and the co-editor of “Trotsky’s Writings from Exile.”
LeBlanc sets out to focus on the latter period of Trotsky’s life when, following his failed Left Opposition efforts to challenge Stalin’s bureaucratic regime, he was expelled from the central leadership of the Bolshevik Party and exiled, first to Siberia and then to Prinkipo, a small island off the Turkish coast. As with any serious scholar, however, LeBlanc does not refrain from covering critical aspects of Trotsky’s leading role during the Soviet Union’s revolutionary period.
LeBlanc writes, “To understand the man, we must, of course, look at his entire life—but in some ways the most decisive qualities of this revolutionary are to be found in the Trotsky who, in order to remain true to the ideals that animated his entire life, followed a trajectory that took him out of the center of power. This was the doomed but determined fighter who sought to defend and explain the relevance of the heroic best that was the early communist tradition. He expended immense energy to place the recent revolutionary experience—including achievement, mistakes, and failures—into perspective, and to use such insights for analyzing and battling global crises, new totalitarianisms and the deepening violence that engulfed humanity from 1929 to 1940.”
While LeBlanc properly refers to Trotsky as a “brilliant innovative theorist,” early on in his book he nonetheless, and strangely, refers to “aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought, especially in relation to the much-vaunted theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, his prescriptions for defeating Hitler, and the much misunderstood Transitional Program” (emphasis in original).
Here LeBlanc’s weak side, or super-objective “scholarly” impulse to present a “balanced” view of Trotsky’s politics, at least at first, is far off the mark. While he attributes this “unoriginality” to the fact that Marx and other revolutionaries had previously dealt with similar issues, none did so in the context of the actuality of the Russian Revolution, not to mention Trotsky’s Marxist epic analysis of the conditions that led to the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the rise of fascism in Germany, and the necessity of the workers’ united front to thwart Hitler’s drive for power.
Using LeBlanc’s method, one might easily point to the “unoriginality” of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity since Einstein undoubtedly based his ideas on the accomplishments of the mathematicians and physicists who preceded him. Indeed, were we to apply this ahistorical conception to any human field of endeavor, we would be compelled to discount as “unoriginal” the contributions of Beethoven in music or Manet and Picasso in art. The latter artists were all trained in the school of classical realism, much as Marx was trained in the classical economic theories first advanced by Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
Fortunately, LeBlanc’s “unoriginal” label with regard to a number of Trotsky’s key contributions to Marxism gives way to a valuable and accurate exposition of Trotsky’s central ideas. Indeed, perhaps forgetful of his initial evaluation, LeBlanc spends considerable time explaining the brilliance and uniqueness of Trotsky’s ideas, especially when contrasted to their twisted distortions at the hands of Stalin, his heirs, and Trotsky’s pro-capitalist critics.
Undoubtedly, Trotsky himself sought to root in Marxist theory his views and the absolutely necessity of their relevance in the fight against Stalin, but to the end of returning the Soviet Union to its revolutionary roots as opposed to affirming some religious-type dogma.
At times, I did find LeBlanc’s effort at balance a bit disturbing. He has the habit of making statements that are patently untrue or distorted, only to soon afterward present the other side of the equation, in which he almost always returns to a clear-sighted affirmation of Trotsky’s political conceptions and practice. Perhaps this is just the required or acquired academic expression of LeBlanc’s work, wherein “balance” is a prerequisite to publication.
Like this reviewer, LeBlanc received his initial education in revolutionary socialist politics from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), founded in 1928 by James P. Cannon and other expelled U.S. Communist Party members. Trotsky himself played a key role in the formation of the SWP, once the preeminent revolutionary socialist party in the U.S. until its degeneration beginning in 1979. That LeBlanc retains the essential lessons preserved in the SWP’s half-century of leading revolutionary Marxist work is a testament to his integrity.
In a few important instances, however, LeBlanc briefly challenges Trotsky’s views on critical questions, as with his interpretation of the events surrounding the 1921 Red Army’s crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion during the height of the civil war. Without a single reference to Trotsky’s writings on this subject—one that has inflamed anarchist passions and anti-Leninist/Trotskyist sentiment to this day—LeBlanc faults Trotsky, who led the Red Army’s quashing of this “rebellion” that threatened the very existence of the nascent Soviet state by opening the door to a possible British imperial invasion.
Trotsky was the central leader of the 1.5 million person Red Army that successfully and heroically defended the beleaguered Soviet Union when it was invaded by the armies of 14 nations, including armies from opposed sides of the first world imperialist war.
Similarly, and again without a single reference to Trotsky’s writings, LeBlanc comes close to identifying Trotsky’s views with those of Joseph Stalin with regard to the latter’s disastrous 1929 collectivization of agriculture and associated slaughter of untold tens of thousands or more of Russian peasants. Serious students of Marxism and its revolutionary practice would do well to revisit these questions from Trotsky’s vantage point.
Despite these significant lapses, LeBlanc’s book is a modest but important contribution toward the education of today’s emerging youthful revolutionaries. The author properly references a number of Trotsky’s key writings as landmark accomplishments and necessary readings in revolutionary socialist literature, including Trotsky’s magnificent three-volume “History of the Russian Revolution” and his autobiography, “My Life.”
Trotsky bibliographer Louis Sinclair long ago told this reviewer that Trotsky’s life works constituted some 80 volumes, making him perhaps the most prolific writer among revolutionary socialists. That he was also among the pantheon of Marxist thinkers, the central organizer of the insurrection that toppled capitalist rule, the founding leader of the revolutionary Soviet Army, and the most important post-revolutionary expositor of Marxism makes LeBlanc’s contribution all the more valuable. I am sure that he would agree that reading Trotsky’s work is similarly a necessity for those who would follow in this great revolutionary’s trailblazing and heroic footsteps.
Photo: Farrell Dobbs of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party speaks with Trotsky (rt.) in Mexico.