Trotsky: a biography

Trotsky: a biography was a very difficult read for me. I wanted to read it because interest in communism because as a left leaning liberal, communism is the most significant blot on the history of liberalism. I am proud to call myself a liberal because of liberalism’s noble heritage of extending rights into larger and large portions of society. Abolition and civil rights are the greatest examples of this, but also the efforts of progressives and liberals to use the power of government to deal with the worst examples of market failure (pollution, exploitation of low wage workers, monopolies, consumer fraud, etc). However liberals and progressives had a blind spot to the threat of communism, particularly in the years before World War II. Later, liberals began to define themselves in how they differ from communists, but the taint of prior acceptance remains even today as we see critics calling President Obama a socialist and worse.

Leon Trotsky is portrayed in this biography as so certain of his reasoning that he felt justified in using extreme violence to push aside all obstacles to his goals. As it became clear that Stalin was committing atrocities against is citizens to cement his power, Trotsky became a hero to western communists because he was in the opposition and had an explanation of Stalin’s mistakes. The thesis of this book is that these supporters ignored the fact that Trotsky engineered some of the worst atrocities of the USSR when he was in position to shape policy.

This book ably proves its point, but it failed to make its story compelling to this reader. I enjoyed learning about Trotsky’s childhood and early revolutionary career and the closing chapters had some excitement where Stalin’s assassination attempts play out. The bulk of the book, from years just before the October revolution to Trotsky’s deportation, were tedious to read. I can’t believe that this is because those years were unexciting, Robert Service is just not a very good story teller. The book might have been more interesting to someone who already knew the ins and outs of the disputes among the Bolsheviks. I still can’t tell you what was the substance of the dispute between Trotsky and Stalin (is it really possible that they just didn’t like each other).

The research that went into this book is significant and I am glad this book exists, I just wish that had left it to historians and book reviewers to read instead of slogging through.


Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.