Assessing Leon Trotsky


By Jason Schulman

The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky

By Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova Trotsky, published in France in 1951; Haymarket Books, 2015

Leon Trotsky ,By Irving Howe, Penguin Books, 1978

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a workers’ revolution led by a Marxist party with the intent of sparking a Europe-wide revolution, which never came. These two books on the leader of the Bolsheviks’ Red Army and the Marxist theorist of “permanent revolution” and “combined and uneven development” are worthy additions to any socialist’s personal library. One is co-written by Trotsky’s widow (herself a revolutionary) and an anarchist-turned-Bolshevik who joined Trotsky’s small international movement of anti-Stalinist communists (“Trotskyists”) in the 1930s. The other is by a former Trotskyist who became a founding editor of Dissent magazine and, with other erstwhile Trotskyists seeking a less “sectarian” existence, helped form what is now DSA. 

Serge and Sedova pack a great amount of detail into less than 300 pages, especially when discussing Trotsky’s life from 1917 onward. Less comprehensive than Isaac Deutscher’s well-known “Trotsky trilogy,” it is a more approachable introduction and offers a more personal touch than Deutscher can provide, especially when Sedova—whose words appear in quotations—speaks. Particularly memorable (and grim) are the reminiscences of the Trotskys’ lives in the Soviet Union between the end of the Russian Civil War and their forced exile in 1927, as well as their persecution in various countries during the early 1930s—the years when official Communism suddenly veered into a “strategy” of catastrophic forced collectivization in Russia and ultra-left sectarianism abroad. The latter development ensured the Nazis’ triumph in 1933, even though Trotsky had repeatedly urged a united front of German Social Democrats and Communists to prevent this outcome.

The deaths of all four of Trotsky’s children are agonizingly recounted by Sedova, who, with Serge, makes clear what Howe succinctly summarizes: Trotsky in exile “feels guilty with regard to his children, all of whose lives, in one way or another, have been sacrificed in the political struggle,” while in his fight for a new mass revolutionary International during the years of what he believes to be “the death agony of capitalism,” he “is overcome by the incongruity between the magnitude of his political perspective and the paltriness of his political means.” Additional anguish comes when the Trotsky-aligned Left Oppositionists in Russia—some 8,000 or so “Old Bolsheviks”—die in Stalin’s purge trials, described by Serge and Sedova as “the greatest political massacre in history.”

Although Serge remained a Marxist to the end of his days and Howe did not, there is some symmetry in their assessments of Trotsky’s strengths and flaws. Serge praises him for having “[a] sense of life integrated with both thought and action which is the antithesis of the after-dinner heroism of Western socialists,” while Howe argues that “in the last ten or twelve years of his life Trotsky offered a towering example of what a man can be.” Both men criticize Trotsky for, in Howe’s words, his use of “deplorable means,” although Howe does not give examples of specific acts.

In an appendix to his book, from a previously unpublished manuscript from 1940 on Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours, Serge writes of Trotsky’s uncritical defense of the suppression of the Kronstadt Revolt of 1921: “I see the worst sufferers of Bolshevik intolerance (which long precedes Stalinism) showing it here,” and denounces, perhaps unfairly given the fate of Trotsky and his family, Trotsky’s “contempt for different convictions. Contempt of the man who thinks differently.” Unfortunately, this sort of intolerance has characterized the internal life of Trotskyist groups more often than not, which was reason enough for some of DSA’s founders to abandon “Trotskyism” even if they still drew on Trotsky’s writings as they saw fit.

Ultimately, regardless of how one assesses Trotsky as either man or author, both of these biographies provide excellent examinations of one of the most important socialists of the 20th century.

Jason Schulman is a member of NYC DSA who teaches political science at Lehman College, CUNY. He is a co-editor of New Politics.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.


Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.