Cold Feet

Nicholas Mosley

  • The Tragedy of Leon Trotsky by Ronald Segal
    Hutchinson, 445 pp, £12.50

There are still questions of enduring interest that remain to be asked about Trotsky. Why did he not come to power, instead of Stalin, after Lenin’s death in 1924; and if he had, how different would the history of Russia, and of the world, have been? Was there something in his nature, or is there something in the nature of power, that makes it impossible to imagine seriously that he could have assumed this kind of power? Isaac Deutscher’s massive and authoritative biography, written during the 1950s and 1960s, however brilliant, was too scholarly, and too much in the Marxist tradition, to give emphasis to such hypothetical questions. But they perhaps explain why Trotsky is still such a controversial figure today, in the worlds both of fringe politics and of political theory.

Trotsky had been more dramatically at the centre of the Russian Revolution than even Lenin had: he had organised street-fighting, roused factory workers, led troops, while Lenin still waited in the wings disguised in a red wig. Trotsky was then put in charge of the armed forces which had defeated the counter-revolution. In 1917, Lenin himself proposed that Trotsky should be made Chairman of the Soviet of People’s Commissars – virtually head of government. Trotsky, quite reasonably, declined this offer: the move had been a tactical one on the part of Lenin, who was the obvious and natural leader. But from that moment until Lenin’s death Trotsky was the obvious and natural heir-apparent.

The virtue of Ronald Segal’s book is that, although he goes over much of the ground covered in greater detail by Deutscher, and does not always provide quite enough mapping of contours to guide readers unfamiliar with the territory, he gives a good, straightforward account and stresses these questions of human nature and power.

Half-way through the book, Mr Segal states that it is quite clear that the reason Trotsky did not get power in 1924 was simply that he did not want it: whenever power was offered to him, or was within his grasp, he turned away from it, whatever his later explanations and justifications were. During 1923, when Lenin lay dying and the rest of the Party élite were intriguing about the succession, Trotsky remained aloof; when his aloofness seemed to be in itself some sort of decision, he became ill; his illness was recognised by his doctors to be ‘mysterious’. (It started when he was out duck-shooting and, literally, got cold feet.) This illness recurred at moments of crisis during the next few years while Stalin manipulated the bureaucratic machinery to suit his own ends. Then, when there was no longer any chance of his getting power, Trotsky’s illness left him, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the business of opposition.

Mr Segal is wary of the suggestion that the illness was mainly psychosomatic: he is more bold in suggesting the nature of the conflict in Trotsky that might have seemed to have caused it. Before the Revolution Trotsky had broken with Lenin because he had seen that Lenin’s insistence on ruthless party discipline would ‘lead in the end only to the degradation of despotism’. But then he had realised that ‘it was Lenin’s way alone in the end that had led towards the socialist revolution’. So, when the battle came, he rejoined Lenin; and occasionally himself descended to ‘degradations of despotism’, ruthlessly ordering the death of revolutionaries who were demanding the democratic rights promised by the revolution. But when the war was over, he saw the prospect of despotism again. And so, Mr Segal says, there was a gap which Trotsky ‘would never manage to close’ between the realisation, on the one hand, that the revolution could not be maintained without despotism, and the knowledge, on the other, that despotism was just what the revolution had been designed to destroy.

Stalin, of course, did away with the gap, simply by staking everything on such despotism that not only were revolutionaries who happened to disagree with him killed, but so was almost everyone who could be called a revolutionary at all, since every revolutionary must have some memory of the promise to end despotism. On the theoretical level, the battle was between Stalin, who insisted that socialism should be consolidated in just one country, Russia, which Marx had said was impossible, and Trotsky, who said that socialism was only possible if there was world revolution, which Marx had said should be happening but wasn’t. This gave Trotsky a chance for endless rhetoric. The battle went on in a fog of words – Marx’s theories were tailored to fit apparent facts, facts were tailored to fit apparent theories – but what was happening, in effect, was that the protagonists were separating towards the two poles of the insoluble dilemma: Stalin was going for power without morality, and Trotsky was being driven into the powerless moralising of permanent opposition.

Mr Segal emphasises the intellectual repugnance that Trotsky fell towards Stalin: Stalin was a mediocrity – Stalinism was merely the exercise of the brutal and the banal. Trotsky, on the other hand, was interested in literature and the arts; he wrote two or three very good books himself; he was at home in discussions of morals and aesthetics. But Mr Segal does not make enough of Trotsky’s almost physical recoil not only from the brutality of the new leaders but from the social tedium associated with them – and with almost everyone who comes to power. In his autobiography, Trotsky says of Stalin’s élite (in a passage not quoted by Mr Segal): ‘If I took no part in the amusements which were becoming more and more common in the lives of the new governing stratum, it was not for moral reasons, but because I hated to inflict such boredom on myself. The visiting at each others’ homes, the assiduous attendance at the ballet, the drinking parties at which people who were absent were pulled to pieces, had no attraction for me.’ But he might well have said the same sort of thing about much recently recorded political life in, say, Washington or London. Trotsky’s repugnance was not simply, as he imagined, for Stalinism: it was for what seem to be the necessary conditions for the exercise of power.

Trotsky could never understand how such mediocre people could keep a hold on power: he believed a sensible proletariat must rise up and smash them. But in this, as Mr Segal says, he was simply ‘innocent’. As a good Marxist, he looked at history, but always through the rosy spectacles of faith in the coming rule of the proletariat. If he had seen history straight, then (again in the words of Mr Segal), ‘history might have shown him the paradox by which triviality of thought has informed an immensity of violence, and vanity has manifested itself in the fullness of evil.’ It was Stalin who went on to be one of the most successful politicians in history, successful in that he managed to achieve almost everything he had aimed at: a monolithic, bureaucratic tyranny exercised over a large part of Europe and Asia. And this was not in spite of squalid mediocrity, but because of it. And it was Trotsky, the man of reason and sensibility, who could not see clearly the nature of evil, and so did not see how it might be prevented, and so was banished and killed.

At moments, he seemed to see politics as something like a work of art out of which, after all the struggles, something beautiful must grow: he also saw that it might merely be the continuing struggle that would be beautiful. In this, his responses were those of an artist, and a Marxist. In his life he seemed to manage to stay on the tightrope above the chasms of purely denunciatory prophecy, on the one hand, and the arrogance of power, on the other; he managed it, too, in My Life and The History of the Russian Revolution, both of which can be said to be works of art. For the rest, in his justifications and polemics, he too often fell into one or other of the two abysses. He found it impossible to reconcile himself to the idea that it might have been in the nature of things that the Stalins would be the sort of people who held power; that Trotskys might sometimes lead romantic wars, but for the most part were the sort of people who shouted from the touchlines – and that the proper working of a revolutionary society might depend on the Trotskys, at least, being able to understand this predicament.