Trotsky slandered

Issue: 112

John Molyneux

A review of Geoffrey Swain, Trotsky (Pearson Longman, 2006), £14.99

‘Readers of this biography’, writes Geoffrey Swain, Professor in Russian and East European Studies at Glasgow University, ‘will not find their way to Trotskyism.’ Well, some might despite the author’s best intentions, but this cannot be regarded as an overstatement.

There are now many books on the life and politics of Leon Trotsky1 and this is one of the worst. It casually, but outrageously and repeatedly, slanders Trotsky. Perhaps such slander should be ignored, but I, for one, am fed up with the casual ‘academic’ slandering of great revolutionaries. Such books do real damage. They find their way onto university booklists, especially the booklists for the author’s courses, and exercise an influence on some students. They say, with the full weight of academic authority behind them, ‘Don’t even begin to look to Trotsky (or Marx or Lenin—Lenin is a favourite for this kind of treatment) for an intellectual alternative to the present system,’ and, inevitably, many of the students lack the resources to reply or even to discern the fraud that is being perpetrated. I, therefore, intend to respond—without academic diplomacy.

Swain does not hang about. On page 3 of his introduction he offers the following assessment of Trotsky’s intellectual capacity and theoretical contribution:

‘Trotsky scholars might be surprised to find in this biography that there are no references to Baruch Knei-Paz’s great study The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky…[his] approach makes Trotsky a far greater thinker than he was in reality. Trotsky wrote an enormous amount and, as a journalist, was always happy to write on subjects about which he knew very little. Trotsky could write beautifully, but he was no philosopher. Knei-Paz does a better job than Trotsky himself in synthesising his ideas. Trotsky was a jobbing journalist and revolutionary activist and his writings cannot be divorced from their context. Trotsky’s first revolutionary comrade, Grigorii Ziv, doubted that Trotsky had the patience to fully engage with Marxism as an intellectual tool. A similar verdict came from Lunarcharskii …[who] concluded… “He is as bold as can be in opposing liberalism and semi-socialism, but he is no innovator”.’

Leaving aside the merits of Knei-Paz,2 this is, by any standards, a monstrous, in legal terms ‘perverse’, judgment. I am well aware that journalism can be an honourable profession—one thinks of John Reed, Paul Foot, John Pilger, Eamonn McCann, Robert Fisk (all of them more than journalists)—but to describe the author of The History of the Russian Revolution as just a ‘jobbing journalist’ is laughable. No, it is slander of the first order.

For those who have read The History further comment is superfluous; for those who have not it is in three volumes, runs to more than 1,200 pages, and combines in one majestic whole a broad theoretical analysis of the revolution’s place in history and an exposition of its internal dynamic as it unfolded day by day in the deeds and thoughts of the different classes and parties and their leading, and not so leading, spokespersons. It is widely considered to be the greatest historical work of the 20th century. Nor does The History stand alone: Trotsky’s other major theoretical works include Results and Prospects (which sets out the theory of permanent revolution), The Third International After Lenin, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (which to date remains the foremost Marxist analysis of Nazism and how to fight it), The Revolution Betrayed and Literature and Revolution. Swain ‘deals’ with this large body of inconvenient evidence by simply ignoring it. Not a single one of the works I have cited, nor the theoretical analyses they contain, are either summarised or discussed anywhere in Swain’s book.

Instead Swain offers as corroboration a quotation from the esteemed Ziv (whose own contribution to Marxist theory stands at zero), who only knew Trotsky as a youth and whose last, fleeting, contact with him appears to have been in New York in early 1917, by which time Ziv had become a supporter of the First World War. This is backed by a quote from Lunarcharskii, which dates from 1923 (before most of Trotsky’s main theoretical works were written), which is unrepresentative of Lunarcharskii’s overall assessment of Trotsky and which is anyway palpably false: Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is clearly one of the most important innovations in Marxist theory since Marx, likewise his analysis of fascism. This is a bit like saying Shakespeare was a good comic dramatist but couldn’t handle tragedy and then writing a book about him which doesn’t mention Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

Even worse, because it denies one of the central principles of Trotsky’s entire life, is the following assertion, also in the introduction but repeated in the conclusion:

‘There is little [in this book] about world revolution. Trotsky believed in world revolution, but no more and no less than every other Bolshevik, and like all other Bolsheviks this belief was largely rhetorical… It was only in exile in 1933 that internationalism actually became central to Trotsky’s purpose’(pp2-3).

Here only the first sentence is true. The rest is arrogant garbage. Reading the comment on the Bolsheviks I could not avoid thinking of Professor Swain secure in his Chair at Glasgow University and wondering whether this man had ever in his life held a principle for which he was required to make a serious sacrifice. The Bolsheviks were men and women who risked their liberty and their lives for their ideas, who suffered, not by way of exception, but virtually as a rule imprisonment, Siberia and exile, and who, almost alone among Europe’s socialist parties, took an internationalist position in August 1914. And he has the gall to say they were not serious about their beliefs.

As for Trotsky, the evidence for the centrality of internationalism to his theory and practice long before 1933 is so abundant that to present even the main body of it would fill this whole journal. In 1904 Trotsky opposed the Russo- Japanese War on an internationalist basis.3 The theory of permanent revolution developed in 1905-06 is internationalist in its premise—Russia’s combined and uneven development is a product of its relationship to international capitalism; and in its conclusion—that a victorious socialist revolution in Russia would be able to sustain itself only if the revolution spread to Europe.4 In his years of exile prior to 1917 Trotsky was actively engaged with the revolutionary movement in a number of countries, including Austria, the Balkans, France and the US. In 1914 he, with the Bolsheviks and Luxemburg and Liebknecht, was one of the few to remain loyal to internationalism and played a leading role in the famous anti-war Zimmerwald Conference in 1915. After October he was appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, in part because of his internationalism, and at Brest-Litovsk he, at first, refused (mistakenly) to sign a peace with the Germans on internationalist grounds. From 1919 to 1922 he played an active and leading part in the Communist International.5

Swain knows all this and mentions much of it but only as isolated individual ‘facts’ and he does not allow these facts to affect his argument. He even claims that Trotsky really supported Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country. He bases this claim on Trotsky’s silence on the question in 1925-26 (which was for tactical reasons and did not at all signify agreement) and a couple of quotes taken out of context from Trotsky’s discussions of economic construction.6 He completely ignores a) that Trotsky had opposed socialism in one country in advance in Results and Prospects, and b) Trotsky’s major theoretical critiques of socialism in one country in The Third International After Lenin (which runs to 72 pages and predicts with striking accuracy the effect the doctrine will have on the international communist movement), Permanent Revolution and Appendix II of The History of the Russian Revolution—all of which were written before 1933.

Faced with the undeniable importance of international questions (principally Germany 1923, Britain 1926 and China 1925-27) for Trotsky in these years, Swain has a neat solution:

‘His critique of the failed German Revolution in 1923 was simply camouflage for an attack on his then domestic opponents Zinoviev and Kamenev. It was the same with his writings on the British General Strike, although here his opponents were Bukharin and Stalin. As to his enthusiasm for China in 1927, that too was essentially domestic in focus, for Chiang Kai-shek’s destruction of the Chinese Communist Party was simply a metaphor for Thermidor, for what would happen in Russia if the kulaks ever found a general’ (p3).

Swain is trading, for this cheap slur, on his audience not having read the texts in question, for it is hard to imagine how anyone who had read them, with their combination of passionate polemic and theoretical acuity (I wish I had space to quote them) could accept his cynical interpretation. Nevertheless it is obviously a line of argument with a future. How about, ‘The anti Vietnam War protesters didn’t care about Vietnam, they just had a grudge against LBJ over the draft’? Or, ‘The SWP only opposed the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon because of what Blair was doing on privatisation and the Labour Party’? Nearer the mark might be, ‘Swain has no real interest in Trotsky, he has only written this book for the money and another entry on his publication list.’

Sadly, refuting slanders takes much longer than issuing them and it is therefore impossible in the space of a review to pursue any but the grossest of Swain’s falsehoods and misrepresentations. One that has to be noted, however, is his insistent repetition of the old Stalinist charge that Trotsky ‘underestimated the peasantry’. Swain tells us that ‘Trotsky’s attitude to the peasantry was his Achilles’ heel’ (p216). In fact Trotsky never denied, in theory or in practice, that the peasants would play a crucial role in the Russian Revolution. What he argued was that the peasantry was unable to play an independent role, ie independent of the leadership of one of the main urban classes, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. In this Trotsky based himself on Marx’s famous analysis of the peasantry in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the whole history of peasant revolt in Russia and internationally.7 Moreover he was vindicated by the actual course of the Russian Revolution.

What the Stalinists did in accusing Trotsky of ‘underestimating the peasantry’ was run together, in a single demagogic phrase, Trotsky’s attitude to the peasantry before and after the October Revolution. Prior to the revolution the ‘underestimation’ consisted of rejecting Lenin’s view that the existence of a large peasant majority in Russia excluded the establishment of workers’ power (in this Trotsky was proved right). After the revolution it consisted of overestimating the obstacle the peasants constituted to the construction of socialism and exaggerating the threat of kulak (rich peasant) inspired counter-revolution. If Trotsky did exaggerate the kulak threat it was not because he was wrong about the peasants but because he underestimated the threat posed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Swain sheds no light on this question, but simply echoes the Stalinist line.

Swain’s book also contains an absolutely astonishing omission. There is no mention of, not a single sentence on, Trotsky’s campaign in 1930-33, from exile in Prinkipo, to alert the German Communist Party to the danger posed by Hitler, to criticise the strategy imposed by Stalin, and to urge the formation of a united front against the Nazis. Given the brilliance of Trotsky’s writings on the subject and the extreme importance of the events, this omission amounts virtually to historical censorship. How can it possibly be justified? Not, I assume, by ignorance, or by considerations of space—Swain manages to devote a couple of pages to Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo (the priorities of the News of the World at work here, I suspect), and whole sections to the relatively minor episodes such as the Vienna Pravda of 1908-10 and the Vienna Conference of 1912.8 Presumably Swain did not think he could get away with claiming that for Trotsky Hitler was just a ‘metaphor’.

The book also says next to nothing about such minor matters as the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials, the international slander and persecution of Trotsky as a fascist agent, Stalin’s purges and gulag, or the little question of whether socialism was actually built in the USSR. Trotsky’s spats with Victor Serge and Ante Ciliga are, however, featured, while the struggle for the Fourth International is, of course, dismissed as a trivial irrelevance.

All these slanders, distortions and omissions do serve a purpose, however. Swain’s avowed focus is on the period when Trotsky was in power or near to power, the decade of 1917-27 and the years of Trotsky’s direct struggle with Stalin.9 What they enable Swain to do is to treat that struggle in largely personal terms, as a battle for power between rival individuals, devoid of real principles and in isolation from wider social forces (I imagine he thinks of it as something like the rivalry between Blair and Brown). He attributes Trotsky’s defeat partly to ‘personality failings’, characteristic of Trotsky from his youth, partly to a ‘disagreement about how the party should operate’, with Lenin as much as with Stalin, and partly to his ‘ideological obsession with the kulak danger’ (p4). I doubt Swain realises it but this is all taken more or less directly from Stalin. It is not only factually false but also a miserably inadequate methodology—a species of the long discredited ‘great man’ theory of history.

‘History’, wrote Marx, ‘is the history of class struggle.’ This applies as much to Russia in the 1920s as it does to everywhere else. Trotsky lost to Stalin because at the time in question the social force he represented—the working class—was weaker than the social force Stalin represented, the rising bureaucracy. There were two ways in which Trotsky could have won: through the victory of the international revolution or, possibly, through abandoning the working class to engage in an unprincipled personal power struggle—in that case he would have ceased to be Trotsky. That the first option did not materialise is Trotsky’s and humanity’s tragedy; that he rejected the second, despite extraordinary difficulties and pressures, is his greatness. Swain’s inability or unwillingness to comprehend any of this leaves him with the distinction of having produced what is probably the most mendacious account of Trotsky since the days of high Stalinism.


1: These include Isaac Deutscher’s magnificent trilogy, The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast; Tony Cliff’s Trotsky (4 vols); Pierre Broue, Trotsky; Victor Serge and Natalya Sedova, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky; Ernest Mandel’s Trotsky—a Study in the Unity of his Thought and Trotsky as Alternative; Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky; Ian Thatcher, Trotsky; Dimitry Volkogonov, Trotsky: the Eternal Revolutionary; John Molyneux, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution; Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism. Of these Deutscher’s is the finest literary-historical achievement, Cliff’s the best and most detailed politically, and Hallas’s the best introduction. Unsurprisingly Cliff, Mandel, Hallas and Molyneux receive no mention in either Swain’s book or his bibliography—presumably lest the readers might find their way to Trotskyism!
2: Long ago I wrote a highly critical review of Knei-Paz’s book for the Critique journal. Unfortunately I cannot find a reference for it, but it was reprinted in H Ticktin and M Cox (eds), The Ideas of Leon Trotsky (London, 1995).
3: Bizarrely for his own argument, Swain actually records this fact (p18) but presumably fails to notice the contradiction.
4: Again Swain quotes Trotsky to this effect (p29).
5: Trotsky’s articles and speeches fill two volumes—see Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vols 1 and 2 (New York, 1972).
6: Trotsky’s silence in 1925-26 was one of a number of hesitations and tactical compromises he made in order to avoid an irrevocable split. In my view these were mistakes and derived ultimately from Trotsky’s failure, because of his lack of a theory of state capitalism, to see that the Stalinist bureaucracy could become a new ruling class. These matters are discussed in some detail in J Molyneux, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution, and T Cliff, Trotsky: Resisting the Stalinist Degeneration (vol 3). What Swain does is exploit these hesitations to misrepresent Trotsky’s fundamental views.
7: There is a basic Marxist principle at stake here. Until very recently the overwhelming majority of the world’s exploited and oppressed were peasants, not workers. If it were not for this political weakness, produced by their objective economic and social circumstances, they and not the proletariat would be the main revolutionary class, as was argued by the Narodniks in Russia and by various third worldists in the 1960s.
8: What these events do show is Trotsky at odds with Lenin, and Swain follows the Stalinist practice of highlighting every disagreement with Lenin, no matter how minor or superseded by history.
9: Swain claims that ‘the decision to concentrate on the years in power enabled me to do justice for the first time to Trotsky and Russia’s Civil War’(p2). Our ideas of justice obviously differ, but, once again, this is not even factually true. Tony Cliff, unmentioned by Swain, dealt with the Civil War and Trotsky’s role in it, at greater length and in greater detail (and with much greater political understanding) in Trotsky: the Sword of the Revolution (vol 2).