“There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.” Robert Service London, October 2009,
“Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” Leon Trotsky
Over the last decade or so we have seen a relentless campaign to promote the death of Marxism. It is perhaps then a little surprising that over the corresponding period we saw a plethora of biographies on the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Over the past ten years, we have seen four English-language novels and four English-language academic books. This is not counting books produced in other languages.
Bertrand M. Patenaude’s book is one of the better ones. The book, published in Britain as Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky and in the United States as Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary has been widely reviewed in both the capitalist press and various pseudo-left publications. One has sympathies with any historian who attempts a biography of Trotsky since he or she will have to with apologies to Thomas Carlyle “drag him out from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion.”
Patenaude, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, had unprecedented access to Trotsky’s personal papers at Harvard and of course to documents held at the Hoover archives. Even this privileged access has not prevented him from repeating some distortions and fabrications about Trotsky and the Russian Revolution.
It is unfortunate, but Patenaude’s book is not the only one to give an inaccurate and politically driven portrait of Leon Trotsky. Many of these recent books do not have even the most basic academic integrity.
The current low standard of books on Leon Trotsky has not always been the case. A significant number of historians who while not being close to Trotsky’s politics have written excellent and in most cases objective books. It is not possible to examine all of them, but perhaps the historian worth reading the most is E H Carr.
Carr was one the first major historian to attempt a rehabilitation of Trotsky. His publications on the history of Soviet Russia are “monumental.” According to the Marxist writer David North, “Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky, but he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy, and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a challenging and critical period of Soviet history.”
Carr was followed by the writer and historian Isaac Deutscher who had close links with Trotsky’s Fourth International. He published three biographical trilogies: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. Unlike Carr Deutscher was sympathetic to Trotsky and his ideas. Deutscher was expelled from the Polish Communist Party for Trotskyism in the 1930s. He was a delegate to the first conference of the Fourth International. However, he disagreed with Trotsky over the founding of the Fourth International in a period of defeats and believed that the new group was too weak. His books are still standard reading for anyone interested in the topic.
This cannot be said of the current spate of biographies? These books are in many ways a useful barometer to the growing shift to the right in academia. After all, academics do not live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society.
It is churlish to say that every writer who produces a work on the figures of the Russian Revolution should adhere to Marxism but is it too much to ask for some objectivity or even real serious history. It is hard not to notice that most history departments have become little more than production lines for anti-Marxist books.
Many of these books are as Oscar Wilde said “hitting below the intellect.” By far the worst of these books is Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky
In the preface of his book Service makes the boast that he is "the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside of Russia who is not a Trotskyist." This is simply not true. It is hard to believe that the editor of this book would have let this comment pass without checking it.
Patenaude correctly criticizes Service’s book for its level of factual inaccuracies. Writing in the American Historical Review, he says “I have counted more than four dozen [mistakes],.” He continues, “Service mixes up the names of Trotsky's sons, misidentifies the largest political group in the first Duma in 1906, botches the name of the Austrian archduke assassinated at Sarajevo, misrepresents the circumstances of Nicholas II's abdication, gets backward Trotsky's position in 1940 on the United States' entry into World War II, and gives the wrong year of death of Trotsky's widow. Service's book is entirely unreliable as a reference…. At times the errors are jaw-dropping. Service believes that Bertram Wolfe was one of Trotsky's ‘acolytes’ living with him in Mexico (pp. 441, 473), that André Breton was a ‘surrealist painter’ whose ‘pictures exhibited sympathy with the plight of the working people’ (p. 453), and that Mikhail Gorbachev rehabilitated Trotsky in 1988, when in fact, Trotsky was never posthumously rehabilitated by the Soviet government.”
Patenaude goes on to explain how he came to review the book saying he was “initially inclined to turn down the review request.” He felt that working on the study would lead him away from other tasks. “Nonetheless, after checking to make sure that David North's book did not mention my own recent book on Trotsky, I accepted the invitation, fully expecting that I would add my voice to the chorus of praise for Service's biography.”
“I wrote the review at the request of the editors of the AHR,” They asked me to review both Service's book and North's book. I did find this a little curious, because Service is a major figure in the field of Soviet history and his Trotsky has been hailed by several reviewers as the definitive biography -- so why dilute the effect by combining it with a slender, essentially self-published volume written by an avowed Trotskyist who devotes most of his pages to criticism of Service and his book?”
|Bertrand M. Patenaude|
Patenaude would later retract his sharp opinion of North who after all is a leading authority on Leon Trotsky and has written extensively on him. Patenaude wrote “Enter David North. David North is an American Trotskyist whose book collects his review essays of Service’s volume and of earlier biographies of Trotsky by Ian Thatcher and Geoffrey Swain. (He does not mention my 2009 book, Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary.) Given North’s Trotskyism, he might reasonably be suspected of hyperbole in his brief against Service. But a careful examination of North’s book shows his criticism of Service to be exactly what Trotsky scholar Baruch Knei-Paz, in a blurb on the back cover, says it is: ‘detailed, meticulous, well-argued and devastating.’”
North has his own deep-seated criticism of Service’s work on Trotsky. In his review, he writes that Service’s book “is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility.”
Swain and Thatcher
North has also been heavily critical of other biographies of Trotsky by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher. Thatcher from Leicester University produced his Trotsky in 2003 published by Routledge.
In his opinion “Thatcher and Swain belittled Deutscher for creating the “myth” of Trotsky. The Thatcher-Swain biographies set out to create a new anti-Trotsky narrative, utilizing slanders and fabrications of old Stalinist vintage in the interest of contemporary anti-communism”.
Thatcher’s Trotsky as North says is little more than character assassination. The book is also heavily pregnant with undocumented assertions. Like Service’s book both make it exceedingly difficult for the average reader to trace articles and evaluate for themselves Thatcher’s and Swain’ comments. Even something basic as footnotes are not very accurate and sometimes misleading.
Patenaude is not immune to this right wing shift in academia. His book despite being better than some others does sufferer from the repeating the same myths and mistakes of previous books. Patenaude’s use of sources close to Trotsky who were either hostile or had broken with his politics is not really useful, and Patenaude is far too uncritical of them.
Patenaude relies a great deal on the testimonies of Trotsky's bodyguards. These are mainly from the American Trotskyist movement. Many of these people had broken with Trotskyism and should have been treated with caution.
It is clear that Patenaude is not entirely acquainted with Trotsky’s writings and politics and still less so with the major political ‘social and cultural subjects tackled by Trotsky. This limitation on his part could have been rectified by quoting from writers that did.
Patenaude does portray a certain amount of sympathy for his subject which is done so from a liberal, not Marxist standpoint. He also has the annoying habit of using throwaway lines such Trotsky attempted to "cloak the Bolshevik coup" and that Trotsky "helped create the first totalitarian state." Aside from not being true Patenaude does little to back up such a serious charge. His viewpoint on other struggles inside the Bolshevik party is predominantly impressionistic.
'Warts and all.'
On the plus side, Patenaude’s account is important because it brings together a wide range of sources on Trotsky’s murder. Some these sources have not been available in English before. He also makes use of the personal papers of the Alexander Buchman, Albert Glotzer and the FBI and the GPU agent Joseph Hansen.
Patenaude employs a novelist type writing style. It is a shame that this style does not work when he tries to use this method when encountering Trotsky’s revolutionary past.
The primary focus of the book centers on the last decade of Trotsky's life and work. Patenaude portrayal of Trotsky’s life while 'imprisoned' in Blue House would in some instances not look out of place in cheap adult books and sometimes borders on the salacious. Having said that he does manage to show the element of tragedy in Trotsky’s life. Barely a member of Trotsky’s family and close friends survived Stalin’s murderous clutches.
Despite having unpatrolled access to Trotsky’s archive, Patenaude has nothing to say politically that has not been said before. Not much is said about Trotsky’s followers around the world. Next, to nothing is written in the preparation and discussion following the publication of the Transitional Programme.
It is clear that Patenaude has no sympathy for the Trotskyist movement. He believes it is full of “sects” and is riddled with “splits and mergers.” Trotskyist’s will need a strong stomach if they read this book. The book is likely to gain a wide readership, but young people and workers and the general reader interested in the life and ideas of Leon Trotsky who struggled against Stalinism, fascism, and capitalism, should read as much as possible of the great man himself and, at least, a few biographies from a much earlier period these should be read in conjunction with this book.
 Robert Service, Trotsky, A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)
 The American Historical Review (2011) 116 (3): 900-902