In this short but informative “political essay with a narrative foundation” about Marxist critic, polemicist, philosopher, and firebrand Leon Trotsky, Irving Howe offers readers who know little about Trotsky a comprehensive yet concise overview of the revolutionary leader’s many contributions to Bolshevism, his disillusionment with Stalinism, and his years in exile. Though Leon Trotsky is, in Howe’s words, “a small book on a large subject,” it manages to include the major currents in the intellectual growth of its subject. The book is intended as an introduction to Trotsky’s life and thought and as a critique of his political and intellectual role in twentieth century history.
As Howe sees him, Trotsky, though his life was a succession of painful episodes and his “message” to fellow socialists eventually fell upon deaf ears, remains a “figure of heroic magnitude” whose writings about the coming terrors of Russian totalitarianism were uncannily accurate. To Howe, Trotsky the social critic and polemicist is inseparable from Trotsky the man: his life was given over to the furtherance of the aims of the October Revolution.
Trotsky’s life as a free-thinking revolutionary began early, even though his early circumstances hardly dictated that he would rise up against hereditary privilege and the suppression of the proletariat. Born into a prosperous family of Jewish landowners living close to the Black Sea, Trotsky (né Lev Davidovitch Bronstein) had a relatively easy life as a youth. However, he had an astonishing social conscience for the place and time in which he lived; Trotsky recalled, for example, that he was “shaken” by his father’s brutal dealings with his peasants. Later, in a private school in Odessa, young Trotsky joined a demonstration against an instructor who harassed a boy because of his German origins. (Trotsky considered this episode, which ended with his expulsion from school, as his first true political “test.”)
Trotsky, no longer a political virgin, increasingly gave himself over to radical causes, which Howe mentions in passing but fails to elaborate on. Among other things, we are told that the budding revolutionary was said to have exclaimed at one point, “. . . a curse upon all Marxists, and upon those who want to bring dryness and hardness into all the relations of life!” Howe implies that Trotsky’s life became not a struggle against Marxism—for he embraced it with fervor at age eighteen—but a fight against all forces, whether outside or inside the Marxist movement, that would make life “hard” and “dry” for the masses of working people.
Trotsky’s decision to enter the ranks of committed socialists was to make his life hellishly painful. For, not long after having joined socialist groups, Trotsky was arrested by the Czar’s police and kept for months in solitary confinement, only thereafter to be sent to Siberia. Siberian exile, however, turned to his advantage, since he was given ample opportunity to study the literary classics as well as the newer writers—Zola, Ibsen, and Gogol. It was this Siberian period that helped Trotsky become so well acquainted with literature that he became a literary critic, a vocation that he turned to when politics soured his spirit.
In the years preceding the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky wrestled with what he termed “the organizational question”—the question of how best to create a worker/peasant alliance that would overthrow the Czar. In 1902, he met Lenin and other leading Russian radicals-in-exile living in London. Increasingly, he was referred to as a “leader” of the socialist movement. However, Trotsky found it quite difficult to jump to either the Mensheviks’ side (the side of the group which was more moderate in its political aims than were the members of Lenin’s group) or that of the Bolsheviks.
What plagued Trotsky in those prerevolutionary years and all the years to follow the formation of a one-party state was the implicit threat of totalitarianism in the Leninist/Bolshevik outlook. Lenin, calling for “severe discipline, strict centralism, hierarchic structure, and . . . a corps of ’professional revolutionists,’” seemed to be paving the way for a state as unresponsive to the workers as was the Czar’s government. What Trotsky feared (and his worst fears would, of course, be realized) was that a clique of revolutionaries would dictate to the Russian masses—those who theoretically were to control their own destinies—what they could or could not do with their lives. Moreover, such a ruling clique would, he felt, go against the Marxist ideal of a classless society, since one group of people would place themselves at the top. In so believing, Trotsky prophetically forecast that “process of degeneration” which was to overtake the Bolshevik party in the 1920’s.
Trotsky, at age twenty-six, provoked the Czar by becoming the...
(The entire section is 2023 words.)