Conceptually, Three Who Made a Revolution is a brilliant methodological renunciation of Marxism. Wolfe, himself a former communist, came to appreciate how individuals, more than the impersonal laws of history, are the agents of change. For example, the fact that Stalin outlived Lenin by nearly a generation and a half meant a tremendous difference in the history of the Soviet Union. The author does not ignore social forces and institutions, however, instead astutely combining these topics with his biographical vignettes.
Throughout the book, Wolfe stresses the discipline of Lenin. He describes how this ascetic radical completed his legal studies on his own; how he mastered several languages by memorizing all the necessary nouns, then verbs, and then rules of grammar, practicing constantly with other people; and how he accepted his prison term as an opportunity to study and write. Lenin is portrayed as transcending personal relationships for the “correct” path to history, necessarily risking friendships. Such commitments—love of order, system, hierarchy, and discipline—were reflected in his popular tract Chto delat? (1902; What Is to Be Done?, 1929).
Wolfe’s depiction of Trotsky emphasizes his family roots. Trotsky never forgot his country origins and was attracted to Lenin’s fusion of the interests of the urban proletariat with those of the peasantry. Like other rural Jews of the Ukraine, his family tended...
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