The Man Who Made Communism Respectable

I have just read the opening chapters of Robert Service’s study of Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky (born Lev Bronstein). Service is a good writer who handles a lot of archival scholarship cogently and intelligently. He also writes with a certain sympathy toward his subject without, however, glossing over the fact that for all of Trotksy’s (imaginary) respectability as a Marxist theorist and historian, he was one of the founders of twentieth century totalitarianism.

The book emphasizes Trotsky’s superlative abilities as a communicator. Service calls him the greatest orator of the Russian Revolution. That may be true, though at times I think Service is a little over complimentary. Of the many disabilities that kept Trotsky  from the top leadership of the USSR – in addition to his pedantry and fussiness – is that he did not cut a commanding figure. Trotsky was a silly and pompous looking man. Stalin, by comparison, was brutal looking. Lenin was ruthlessly handsome. No one could call either man “silly.”

Trotsky’s martinet attitude, made worse when he donned a uniform, did nothing to help. As it turns out this middle-class Jewish intellectual was one of the masterminds of the Red Army, and a much more successful commander than Stalin who tried in later years to appear the inspiring generalissimo. What was Trotsky’s undoing was his ill-concealed contempt for others. He was a poor politician.

Sheer brainpower will take a person very far, but the greatest leaders in history (whether heroes or villains) know how to inspire and command others. Stalin succeeded where Trotksy failed because he was convincingly affable. Of course he would cast comrades aside and even kill them when he was done with them. Trotsky, to his credit, did not hold grudges the way Stalin did. But he was intensely arrogant and it is an odd fact of human nature that we will allow ourselves to be manipulated by people who pretend to like us, even when we sense it is false, rather than let them openly flaunt their superiority over us.

According to Service:

For a while… Trotksy behaved as if no constraints existed on communists so long as they showed sufficient will power, unity and readiness to use mass violence. He gradually began to see that this was utopian. But he never completely abandoned the unrealistic agenda he had held out to himself and the party. He lived for the dream which many people found a nightmare.

Following his downfall and exile, Trotsky became the self-appointed historian of the Russian Revolution and for decades held sway over Western scholars’ treatment of Communism – a romanticized view in which Bolshevism was presented as noble creed that had been betrayed by the “bureaucratic” Stalin. In that sense, Trotsky succeeded admirably. But as a leader of world revolution his ineffectual idealism failed him, and in the end he was beaten both theoretically and physically by his nemesis, being assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico City in 1940.

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