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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

John Gray
Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service (Macmillan 624pp £25)

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Trotsky has always been something of an icon for the intelligentsia, and it is not hard to see why. He fitted the perception that dissenting intellectuals like to have of themselves. Highly cultured, locked in struggle with a repressive establishment, a gifted writer who was also a man of action, he seemed to embody the ideal of truth speaking to power. The manner of his death solidified this perception, which has shaped accounts of his life ever since.

Trotsky was a charismatic leader whose appeal extended across the political spectrum. When Trotsky was on the run from Stalin, H L Mencken offered to give him his own library (Trotsky refused because he did not want to be indebted to a reactionary). The Bishop of Birmingham signed a petition on Trotsky's behalf, and he was invited to become rector of Edinburgh University. Maynard Keynes tried to secure asylum for him in England, a campaign supported even by the power-worshipping Stalin-lover Beatrice Webb. Literary notables like Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy joined the chorus of adulation. A hero-martyr in the cause of humanity, Trotsky deserved the support of every right-thinking person.

This has never been a terribly plausible view of the man who welcomed the ruthless crushing of the Kronstadt workers and sailors when they demanded a more pluralist system of government in 1921, and who defended the systematic use of terror against opponents of the Soviet state until his dying day. Introducing a system of hostage-taking in the Civil War and consistently supporting the trial and execution of dissidents (Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, liberal Kadets, nationalists and others), Trotsky never hesitated to endorse repression against those who stood in the way of communist power. This much has long been clear, but the full extent of Trotsky's role in building Soviet totalitarianism has not been detailed - until now.

Rigorously researched, covering Trotsky's education and upbringing, his life as an émigré before the revolution, his time as a military leader, his losing battle with Stalin, his women, his life as an exile and his assassination, Robert Service's new biography discloses a man very different from the one celebrated by bien pensants. The author of distinguished biographies of Lenin and Stalin, Service is eminently qualified to set Trotsky in his historical context. Here Service surpasses himself, and produces a life that is genuinely revelatory. Trotsky's lifelong effort to distance himself from his Jewish background - 'The workers are dearer to me than all the Jews,' Service reports him saying - is carefully and sensitively examined. There is an interesting discussion of Trotsky's attempt to fashion a distinctive philosophical position for himself (despite having a commendably unorthodox interest in Freud, he was no more successful than Lenin in this regard). The book is rich in telling detail. The young Trotsky liked to dominate the independent-minded women revolutionaries in his circle, and to this end studied carefully Schopenhauer's The Art of Controversy, a guide to debating tricks. Trotsky was 'an intellectual bully', Service writes, who 'relished wounding his opponents'. None of this is flattering to Trotsky, but Service is always scrupulously balanced. The result is a powerfully demystifying biography of one of the most heavily mythologised figures of twentieth-century history.

Western historians have largely accepted Trotsky's self-serving account of his opposition to Stalin's policies and methods, but the differences between the two leaders were more limited than has been commonly believed. Trotsky favoured moving quickly to central planning and collective farming, and shared Stalin's view of the need to isolate the kulaks (richer peasants). Far from being more liberal than Stalin, during the New Economic Policy (NEP) he blamed Stalin for sheltering Menshevik economists. It was Trotsky who pushed ahead with the 'militarisation of labour', which imposed army-style discipline and punishment on Soviet workers. Hailed as an apostle of cultural freedom because of his interest in the arts, Trotsky believed as much as Stalin did that culture must be assessed (and policed) in terms of its political correctness. Trotsky's influential essay Literature and Revolution, Service writes, 'was essentially a work of political reductionism. When all is said and done, it was Trotsky who laid down the philosophical foundations for cultural Stalinism.'

It is often claimed that Trotsky's superiority was in his analysis of the European situation. In fact his views on international affairs were far-fetched in the extreme. It is true that he grasped the threat posed by Nazism more clearly than Stalin. Even so, he shared Stalin's vulgar-Marxist interpretation of Hitler as a 'tool of German finance-capital', never acknowledging the high levels of mass support Hitler had achieved among the German working class. Right up to his assassination in August 1940, Trotsky believed Europe was on the brink of proletarian revolution. When Nazi power was at its height he was still talking seriously of a revolt of German workers against Hitler and claiming that Finnish peasants would welcome Stalin as their liberator.

Trotsky may have seen the Nazi danger, but if his analysis of events had been accepted Nazi Germany would never have been defeated. Throughout the catastrophes of the 1930s he was consistently hostile to liberal democracy. In October 1939 he was praising the Comintern for remaining neutral in the European war. In July 1940 he wrote that the Trotskyite Fourth International should join the Comintern, refuse to support Britain against Germany and oppose American entry into the conflict. What was needed was 'a people's referendum on the war', which would reveal to American workers 'the futility of their democracy'.

There is something ludicrous in the spectacle of Trotsky scorning the futility of democracy at a time when Hitler had almost extinguished it in Europe. But it is of a piece with an entire life of self-deception. As Service writes, Trotsky 'had matchless self-righteousness'. In The Revolution Betrayed (written in 1936) he admitted that the Soviet Union was like Hitler's Germany, a totalitarian state. He never admitted any responsibility for bringing the Soviet version of totalitarianism into being. But along with Lenin he had created the system that Stalin inherited and used for ends with which Trotsky generally sympathised.

Inhumanly ruthless in his dealings with non-Bolsheviks and at the same time thoroughly inept in his relations with Stalin, Trotsky was too vain and self-deceiving to merit the status of tragic hero accorded him by Western admirers. Undoubtedly he was courageous, and it can hardly be denied that he was a key player in some of the formative conflicts of the last century. But in the end it is impossible to see him as other than an absurd figure, a fantasist seeking to found a paradise who helped build a hell on earth. Had Trotsky prevailed in his struggle with Stalin, would the world today be in better shape - or would it actually be worse? It is a question Robert Service does not answer. But he has given us the best biography of Trotsky to date, and there seems little reason why anyone should write another.

John Gray's most recent book is 'Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings' (Allen Lane).