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Trotsky: A Biography

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Robert Service completes his masterful trilogy on the founding figures of the Soviet Union in an eagerly anticipated, authoritative biography of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidenti Robert Service completes his masterful trilogy on the founding figures of the Soviet Union in an eagerly anticipated, authoritative biography of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidential speeches, and medical records, Service offers new insights into Trotsky. He discusses Trotsky s fractious relations with the leaders he was trying to bring into a unified party before 1914; his attempt to disguise his political closeness to Stalin; and his role in the early 1920s as the progenitor of political and cultural Stalinism. Trotsky evinced a surprisingly glacial and schematic approach to making revolution. Service recounts Trotsky s role in the botched German revolution of 1923; his willingness to subject Europe to a Red Army invasion in the 1920s; and his assumption that peasants could easily be pushed onto collective farms. Service also sheds light on Trotsky s character and personality: his difficulties with his Jewish background, the development of his oratorical skills and his preference for writing over politicking, his inept handling of political factions and coldness toward associates, and his aversion to assuming personal power. Although Trotsky s followers clung to the stubborn view of him as a pure revolutionary and a powerful intellect unjustly hounded into exile by Stalin, the reality is very different. This illuminating portrait of the man and his legacy sets the record straight."


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Robert Service completes his masterful trilogy on the founding figures of the Soviet Union in an eagerly anticipated, authoritative biography of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidenti Robert Service completes his masterful trilogy on the founding figures of the Soviet Union in an eagerly anticipated, authoritative biography of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidential speeches, and medical records, Service offers new insights into Trotsky. He discusses Trotsky s fractious relations with the leaders he was trying to bring into a unified party before 1914; his attempt to disguise his political closeness to Stalin; and his role in the early 1920s as the progenitor of political and cultural Stalinism. Trotsky evinced a surprisingly glacial and schematic approach to making revolution. Service recounts Trotsky s role in the botched German revolution of 1923; his willingness to subject Europe to a Red Army invasion in the 1920s; and his assumption that peasants could easily be pushed onto collective farms. Service also sheds light on Trotsky s character and personality: his difficulties with his Jewish background, the development of his oratorical skills and his preference for writing over politicking, his inept handling of political factions and coldness toward associates, and his aversion to assuming personal power. Although Trotsky s followers clung to the stubborn view of him as a pure revolutionary and a powerful intellect unjustly hounded into exile by Stalin, the reality is very different. This illuminating portrait of the man and his legacy sets the record straight."

30 review for Trotsky: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    "There are many reasons for [Trotsky’s] enduring appeal. He was thrown from the pinnacle of power before his later ideas could be tested in practice. He was a brilliant advocate as writer and orator. He gained sympathy for his personal plight after being deported…And he died a martyr’s death." - Robert Service, on Leon Trotsky, in Trotsky: A Biography Now I’m getting serious. At least a little serious. I’ve been a Russian history dilettante for awhile now, dabbling in the popular biographies of Ro "There are many reasons for [Trotsky’s] enduring appeal. He was thrown from the pinnacle of power before his later ideas could be tested in practice. He was a brilliant advocate as writer and orator. He gained sympathy for his personal plight after being deported…And he died a martyr’s death." - Robert Service, on Leon Trotsky, in Trotsky: A Biography Now I’m getting serious. At least a little serious. I’ve been a Russian history dilettante for awhile now, dabbling in the popular biographies of Robert Massie, and puzzling over the fate of the executed Romanovs in Ekaterinburg. I read Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy, which is long on length, small in font, and heavy on calamity. Recently, I finished the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s trilogy on Stalin. But with Robert Service’s Trotsky, I feel like I’m moving to the next level. Maybe I’m not scratching the surface yet, but I’m scratching that thin layer that covers the surface. Trotsky is a major figure in Russian-Soviet history. He stands alongside Lenin and Stalin as one of the three major figures of the Russian Revolutionary period. But he is a little harder to pin down. Unlike those other two, Trotsky never held a top leadership post. He was – I am told, since I cannot read or write Russian – a brilliant orator and writer, a man of ideas with a blazing ability to transmit them. He played a big role in the revolution, especially his direction of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Despite this, Trotsky endures in large part because he never got to fulfill his promise. He was exiled and then murdered by Stalin, meaning that many of his plans were never put into action. This allows dreamers of the Marxist dream to hold out the idea that things would’ve worked, if only Trotsky had been there. In that way, he’s like a superstar athlete struck down before his time, leaving the gilded fantasies of what might have been. Service’s biography of Trotsky takes us from the cradle to the grave, in 501 pages of text. Trotsky is divided into four parts, each part consisting of a number of relatively short chapters. Part One concerns Trotsky’s childhood (when he was known as Leiba Bronstein) in present-day southern Ukraine, the son of a relatively well-off farmer. It follows him through his time as a young revolutionary, his marriage to Aleksandra Sokolovskaya, their joint exile to Siberia, and Trotsky’s escape. It also traces his attempts to unite the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Part Two deals with Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution, including his actions during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, which saw Russia withdraw from World War I, and his role as People’s Commissariat for Military Affairs. This section ends with Trotsky at the apex of his powers. Part Three is focused on his downfall, because this is a Russian story, and there must be a downfall. Lenin suffers a debilitating stroke, General Secretary Stalin tightens his grip on a burgeoning dictatorship, and Trotsky attempts to lead a left opposition to Stalin’s policies. Despite Trotsky’s best efforts, he is sent to internal and ultimately external exile. (This was obviously before Stalin began dealing with every trouble with a bullet). Finally, Part Four covers the waning days of a fading émigré, a period marked with failed attempts to break back into Soviet politics. And if you thought this story didn't have enough twists – communist godfather turned enemy of the state – Trotsky even has an affair with Frida Kahlo, while staying at her pad in Mexico. It ends, of course, with an ice axe. This is a lot of ground to cover, with very little breathing space, but Service does a good job of structuring things for maximum clarity. He follows an overall chronological narrative, giving us the events of Trotsky’s life in sequence. He intersperses this arc with thematic chapters that don’t lend themselves to a thorough discussion within the main story. These chapters, on topics such as Trotsky’s Judaism, his home life, and his relationship with various women, amplify Trotsky’s personality, and provide a nice counterpoint to the narrative of his frenetic and busy life. In terms of style, this certainly didn't wow me. I liked this book a lot (and learned a lot), but the prose runs the gamut from workmanlike to inelegant. His sentences are rather mundane, and often times did not flow together. Overall the writing could have been smoother, with better transitions. One topic tends to lurch into the next, rather than flow seamlessly. There also tends to be too much repetition, the repeated hammering of the same nails. That’s not to say this is a dry read. It’s not. The material is inherently interesting (at least if you have an underlying interest in Russian-Soviet history) and is filled with betrayals and escapes and grudges and affairs and a Soviet agent with an ice axe and a mission. Moreover, Service is prone to bits of energetic editorializing, where he breaks free from recounting the moments of Trotsky’s life, and instead gives us his interpretation of the man’s character. Trotsky lovers will hate this part (which I’ll touch on in a moment); I found it rather entertaining. In terms of accessibility, this is not an academic treatise. On the other hand, it’s not exactly designed as a popular history, either. Service is narrowly focused on Trotsky, meaning he has little or no time for larger contextual explanations. For example, the larger outlines of the Russian Revolution – the Provisional Government and the fate of Nicholas II – are entirely ignored. If you aren’t already familiar with the big picture, there is a chance you will be horribly lost. I definitely noticed this lack of handholding. At times, when I got to sections on unfamiliar topics, I bogged down a bit. For instance, when Service dealt with Trotsky’s pre-Revolution role in developing and proposing various communist theories, I was overwhelmed by the sloganeering, the abstracted principles, and the slew of disembodied names I was asked to recall. I’m not a student of Marxism (nor will I be), so it might have been nice if he’d explained a bit more what Trotsky desired. In the realm of content, this book was embroiled in a minor (in relative terms, very, very minor) controversy with regards to Service’s depiction of Trotsky. (You can see this in the wildly diverging star-ratings it has received). Robert Service is a rather highly regarded British historian and author, who has specialized in the history of the Soviet Union. He was once a professor at Oxford, which says a lot to me. Despite Service’s resume, Trotsky’s publication was met with some harsh criticism, particularly a piece published by the American Historical Review that alleged numerous factual errors. I can’t speak intelligently about all the ins and outs of Trotsky’s life, and whether Service has every fact down cold. However, despite having more pressing obligations, I did read the AHR piece, and in my opinion, several of the factual “errors” are pretty mild. One of them, for instance, refers to the book’s alleged misnaming of the assassinated Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand. In Trotsky, Franz Ferdinand is referenced as “Archduke Ferdinand.” Not exactly pants-on-fire stuff. What Service’s critics are really upset about, I think, is Service’s conclusions about Trotsky. Service acknowledges his subject’s world-historical import, but he doesn’t like him much. He does go out of his way to point out his many flaws (he is almost gleeful at times). More pertinently, he scoffs at the notion that Trotsky might have saved the Soviet experiment, the idea that if only Trotsky had succeeded Lenin, a worker’s utopia would have come into being. I don’t have a strong opinion of Trotsky, mainly because don’t know enough about him. Still, it’s worth noting the question of bias cuts both ways. The people attacking Service are, by and large, supporters of Leon Trotsky. Therefore, the working definition of “bias” seems to be “anyone who takes a position different from me.” I already know I’m going to get an angry message from someone calling me various names and telling me to read Deutscher’s trilogy, conveniently forgetting that Deutscher was a Trotskyite and not exactly unbiased himself. (I actually have an omnibus edition of Deutscher’s The Prophet on my bookshelf. Probably won’t read it, though, life being brief, The Prophet being lengthy). Most people in the world aren’t busy engaging in counterfactual historical arguments about the legacy of a man who died 77 years ago (and who, in his later years, looked a bit like a Jim Broadbent in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). If you’re like me, and you just want to learn a little bit more, inching towards that rabbit hole of Soviet history, this is a solid volume. It is comprehensive (though by no means complete); approaches its protagonist from a variety of angles; and it manages a decent balance between Trotsky the theorist, with his talk of world revolutions, centralism, and factionalism, and the earthy, telling details of Trotsky the man.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Philippe Malzieu

    It was interresting to read both a biography of Staline and Trotsky. This one is quite different than Kersaudy's book. In Stalin's biography, there is many photos, short chapter, it is reading like a novel. Here it is an university work. Trotsky interest me because it is a french passion (not the better). Many politicians, journalist and other was trotskyst when they were young. It is a good school for manipulation and success in business. But the method is always the same, and when you have the It was interresting to read both a biography of Staline and Trotsky. This one is quite different than Kersaudy's book. In Stalin's biography, there is many photos, short chapter, it is reading like a novel. Here it is an university work. Trotsky interest me because it is a french passion (not the better). Many politicians, journalist and other was trotskyst when they were young. It is a good school for manipulation and success in business. But the method is always the same, and when you have the key, it is easy to win. Trotsky had no pity, he was a murderer. If he had the power, I think that he would have been quite worse than Stalin. We should set up statues with Ramon Mercader who killed him.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dimitri

    The Leninist who wanted to outlenin Lenin, the purist of the communist world revolution, the mightiest pen of Oktober. An insufferable Smart Alec who always presumed others to fall in line with his views and never developed a realpolitik instinct. Even without Stalin, somebody would've sidelined him after 1924. Perhaps I don't like to root for the loser. Perhaps Trotskiist theory is too incoherent to be convincing. Perhaps he's inevitably become the might-have-been among Marxists. The story of Tr The Leninist who wanted to outlenin Lenin, the purist of the communist world revolution, the mightiest pen of Oktober. An insufferable Smart Alec who always presumed others to fall in line with his views and never developed a realpolitik instinct. Even without Stalin, somebody would've sidelined him after 1924. Perhaps I don't like to root for the loser. Perhaps Trotskiist theory is too incoherent to be convincing. Perhaps he's inevitably become the might-have-been among Marxists. The story of Trotski shines, however, whenever it looks around the man. It's a front seat to the Oktober Revolution from its 1905 roots to beyond the NEP. Much more than Stalin, where everybody is in bit of a rush to the 30s. So that's a very evened out 3 stars.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Charles J

    I continue to be fascinated by the Bolshevik Revolution, because in its success there are many lessons. Unbiased history and biography of the Bolsheviks is a relatively recent phenomenon; prior to 1991, a combination of lack of primary materials and philo-Communism among Western historians meant very few objective books were published. Since 1991, though, the balance has shifted, even if plenty of Communist-loving propaganda is still published by major historians, because the global Left has alw I continue to be fascinated by the Bolshevik Revolution, because in its success there are many lessons. Unbiased history and biography of the Bolsheviks is a relatively recent phenomenon; prior to 1991, a combination of lack of primary materials and philo-Communism among Western historians meant very few objective books were published. Since 1991, though, the balance has shifted, even if plenty of Communist-loving propaganda is still published by major historians, because the global Left has always, and continues to, fully support the goals and methods of Communism. They mostly just keep it a bit more quiet in public than they used to. British historian Robert Service is not one of those, though. He has made a career of dispassionately analyzing Communists and Communism, including writing biographies of Lenin and Stalin. His reward for this is to be regularly attacked by Communists and their allies, and those attacks reached a fever pitch upon the publication of "Trotsky" in 2009. This because for a hundred years the fiction that Trotsky was the conscience of the Russian Revolution, the man who would have implemented “real Communism” leading to the workers’ utopia, has been maintained with a straight face by a great many influential people all around the world. He is second only to the loathsome “Che” Guevara as the object of idolatry by the modern Left. Thus, since Service shows definitively that Trotsky was just as much an evil killer as Stalin or Lenin, philo-Communists were not pleased, and attempted to, among other things, suppress publication and dissemination of his book. They were not successful, though of course the point of such suppressions is not to succeed against people like Service, but to warn the less established that they must toe the line. Service has much appreciation for Trotsky’s virtues, however. He was brilliant, an outstanding writer and polemicist, decisive, and personally brave. He lost the competition to succeed Lenin because of his limitations—inability to build coalitions, ability to make enemies, and failure to see where events were leading. Trotsky inspired loyalty in those who followed him, and hatred in those he opposed. Unfortunately for him, over the decades the former group shrank in size, and the latter grew, until he was assassinated in 1940 in Mexico City. Perhaps indicative of the mental hold he had over others, the last words (in 1978) of Ramón Mercader, his assassin, were “I hear it always. I hear the scream. I know he’s waiting for me on the other side.” Trotsky was born Leiba Bronstein, in southern Ukraine, in 1879. His father was what was later called a kulak; his grandfather was an agricultural colonist who came south as part of the plans of Alexander I to make the lands near the Black Sea more productive, mostly be resettling Jews. At age eight Bronstein was sent to a state school in Odessa. At age sixteen, he fell in with bad company and became a Marxist true believer, mostly only in the discussion circle sense. Doubtless, like other politically active sixteen-year-olds, what he had to say was very tedious. His little group, aiming at higher ambitions, had no trouble raising money to cause trouble for the authorities; Service notes that they “set about gathering money from sympathizers: this was normal procedure at the time since not a few wealthy citizens either disliked the Imperial political order or wanted to defend themselves against being associated with it in any future revolutionary situation.” Their activities consisted of writing and disseminating revolutionary propaganda; Bronstein quickly discovered the genius for writing and polemic that set him apart for his entire life. But in 1898, when he was nineteen, Bronstein and all the other members of his group were arrested for revolutionary agitation. Unlike under later, ideological, regimes, this didn’t mean all that much to a young man. In fact, such an arrest enhanced his reputation among his peers. After some time in a comfortable jail, during which he got married to another revolutionary from his group, Bronstein was sentenced to four years in “administrative exile”—i.e., he was sent to a village in Siberia, a stock Tsarist punishment. There he was free to do as he pleased. But rather than serve out his sentence with his wife and, soon enough, two babies, he learned of Vladimir Lenin’s publication in Germany of a new underground newspaper, Iskra (“Spark”). He wanted in; he wanted to be relevant; he was nothing if not vain and self-centered; therefore he assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that he was critical to this movement. So he “escaped” in 1902, abandoning his wife, and went to Geneva, where some of the Iskra board members lived. Lenin, however, was in London, where the real action was at, so off Bronstein went, changing his name to Trotsky for good measure, and soon taking up with Natalya Sedova, who was his partner for the rest of his life. At this time, there were many Marxist groups, cutting across borders, and few clear lines. Trotsky sometimes lined up with Lenin, sometimes not, and vicious political arguments, in print and in person, were the norm among all Marxists. Lenin and Iskra were important, but by no means dominant. In 1903 the main Russian group, the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, with Lenin leading the former. Trotsky was neither (after briefly being a Menshevik). Among other things, Trotsky soon enough was accusing Lenin of Jacobinism, as opposed to truly representing the proletariat. But in 1906 Trotsky (along with many other leaders of the new St. Petersburg “Soviet”) was arrested again, and sentenced to more Siberian exile. Naturally, he escaped on the way, and went back to London, but quickly moved to Vienna, where he stayed until the war began. Trotsky was prominent in Marxist revolutionary circles, but not dominant. He was not a member of, much less a leader of, any faction. Unlike Lenin, he tried to be a uniter, not a divider (a task hampered by his vanity and arrogance; he was always happy to let everyone know who the smartest person in the room was). Unsuccessful at being elected to party leadership, he set out to write his way to relevance, through books and magazines, but mostly through writing in the new newspaper Pravda. That newspaper is remember by those who lived through the 1980s as the punch line to a bad joke, but at this time was highly influential. World War I upset the apple cart. It reshuffled the position of all the Marxists; some, like Lenin, resolutely advocated Russian defeat as the most likely route to civil war and the worker’s revolution. Others abandoned Marxism. Trotsky held steadfast in his belief in proletarian revolution, trying to hold all the threads together, and participating in the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference, pushing a successful “moderate” line that ultimately Lenin temporarily endorsed. The French quickly tired of Trotsky, who had moved to France as a magazine correspondent, and deported him to Spain, and the Spanish deported him to New York, where he proceeded to agitate some more. But in 1917 the February Revolution overthrew Nicholas II, and Trotsky hurried back to Russia. The events following are expertly covered by Sean McMeekin’s excellent recent "The Russian Revolution," in a much more interesting fashion than Service. The Bolsheviks were not shot out of hand by the Kerensky government, as they should have been, and they managed to seize power. This was due in large part to Trotsky’s skill; Service quotes him as describing his approach, “The attacking side is almost always interested in seeming on the defensive. A revolutionary party is interested in legal coverings.” His tactical skill, along with his oratory and writings, were critical components of Bolshevik success. Upon taking power, they, with Trotsky’s leadership and full approval, immediately began a reign of bloody terror that within a few weeks dwarfed the past century of Tsarist political repression. In the Civil War, Trotsky, despite no military background, took command of the Red Army with considerable success, considerable bravery, and considerable brutality. Trotsky was in favor of the Civil War, like Lenin, because it gave them the best chance to exterminate as many enemies of the Revolution as possible, a chance they took every advantage of. After the Bolsheviks won the Civil War, though, Trotsky’s political position began to erode. He had made a lot of enemies, and many Bolsheviks were worried that Trotsky fancied himself the Russian Napoleon, and would try to become him after Lenin’s death. (No doubt his obsessive need to win at games, like Napoleon, contributed to that view.) Internal disputes grew among the victors, revolving around such matters as how independent trade unions should be (Trotsky thought not independent at all, since the state now fully represented the workers). Still, Bolshevik consolidation of power through terror continued, with Trotsky leading the charge, openly endorsing terror and killing (something his supporters have tried to hide or downplay for decades), while manipulating Western governments into recognizing and funding the new Communist regime, and attacking the Russian Orthodox Church. Soon enough, Trotsky’s main competitor for second-most-important, after Lenin, became Stalin, who while not as smart, was more clever and more politically astute. Most importantly, all Stalin wanted was to be in charge, while Trotsky was happy to be an important man in a working power structure. Gradually Trotsky was edged from power, forming an informal “left opposition,” and watching his influence slip away. This process really accelerated when Lenin became disabled and then died; towards the end, as Stalin tightened his grip, Trotsky still retained his famous rapier wit: “At one meeting addressed by Trotsky a zealous official switched off the lights. Trotsky declared: ‘Lenin said that socialism was the soviets plus electrification. Stalin has already suppressed the soviets, now it’s the turn of the electricity.’ ” But the end came—Trotsky was internally exiled, then deported to Turkey. From there, he went to Mexico, still trying to breathe life into the dying ashes of his international influence. He created the Fourth International, which modern Trotskyists like to think is relevant, and corresponded with various people. He wrote books, in part for money, but mostly to get out his point of view, often glossing over inconvenient parts of his past. But his influence inside the Soviet Union was zero, and his entire family remaining in Russia (including his first wife) were killed (one of his two sons was died in France after an operation, probably assassinated). He therefore outlived all his four children. Trotsky also amused himself by having an affair with that nasty piece of work, ugly Stalinist painter of ugly paintings Frida Kahlo, who was the wife of the artist Diego Rivera, in whose house Trotsky found refuge for a time (along with his partner, Natalya). Trotsky never lost faith in Communism; he just thought Stalin had perverted it and made it tyrannically bureaucratic, but that the Soviet Union was still a shining beacon, and capitalism (meaning the West) was doomed (which it is, or probably is, but not for the reasons Trotsky thought, which are obviously laughable at this remove, although to be fair between the Great Depression and the World Wars the argument was a bit stronger then). Trotsky was tried in absentia by Stalin and sentenced to death. Western intellectuals and Communist fellow travelers of the time (but I repeat myself) took the verdict as valid, and believed, for the most part, that Trotsky was indeed a betrayer of the Revolution. He still had some supporters, but a lot more enemies, and plenty of those on the Right, too, obviously. After a botched attempt by a group of Mexican Communists, Stalin succeeded in getting Mercader into Trotsky’s guarded compound, taking advantage of Trotsky’s refusal to believe that bad people were everywhere out to get him, whereupon Mercader bashed his head in with an ice axe. Trotsky has had an earthly afterlife, not because of his genius, but because the Communist delusion needed something to coalesce around after the myriad unparalleled crimes of actual, in-practice, Communism were revealed. Thus, starting in the 1960s, significant segments of the international Left have claimed to be inspired by, or followers of, Trotsky, although given that his works were neither original nor comprehensive nor coherent, this says more about his “followers” than it does about Trotsky. In Russia, of course, he has no relevance at all—as Service puts it in one of his few non-pedestrian writing passages, there he is “an antiquarian curiosity, something to be discussed along with Fabergé eggs, Ivan the Terrible or peasant weaving patterns.” (My sole complaint about this book is the writing style, which is very plain and very choppy. Perhaps this is a taste thing, since it’s Hemingway-esque, if less descriptive in tone, and I think Hemingway is grossly overrated. Maybe Service thinks the opposite. But short sentence follows short sentence, endlessly, and no flow ever develops, so the reader has to plow through the paragraphs, like an icebreaker through Arctic ice. The facts are all there, but it’s only a small step from plain and choppy to bullet points. Still, one can communicate through bullet points, so I suppose this is not a fatal problem, just an irritating one.) The author does not obsess about Trotsky being Jewish, but he does not ignore it. The fact was central to Trotsky’s life: in his youth as an orthodox Jew, and from his teen years on as an atheist Jew, his Jewishness played a significant role in his decision-making. Part of this was that he sometimes resonated with other Jews, given the common background, but most of it was more meta than that—it was not his Jewishness, but his awareness of other people’s awareness of his Jewishness. Thus, he hesitated to take too prominent a role in certain situations, knowing that the Revolution might not benefit from an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment. And there was plenty of that, Trotsky or not, in part because the Bolsheviks’ enemies used any criticism at hand, and in part because there were, in fact, lots of Jews among the Bolsheviks, something that was used quite a bit against Jews in later decades. Service quotes the classic formulation of the impact, from Jacob Maze, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, “Trotsky makes the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills.” I learned quite a lot new from this book, though it was mostly interesting detail about Trotsky, not about the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, or Communism. There has been a recent vogue among some on the fringy Right to ascribe the success of Communism to a supposed appeal to low status people in Russia and elsewhere, offering them higher status in exchange for loyalty to Communism. (The purpose of this analogy is to offer a parallel to today’s Left, which supposedly offers higher status to people who, due to biology or oppression, are low status. This is, apparently, called “Bioleninism”; I’ve run across it in my examination of some of these fringes.) As a historical analog, it makes no sense, and like so many ideas on the fringy Right, such as those of Mencius Moldbug, it seems to appeal to those who have no real grasp of history. (On the other hand, as a secondary explanatory device only of today’s Left, it actually isn’t bad at all. It’s the claimed historical analogies I object to as false.) It is simply not true that Russian Communism recruited primarily from the lower status castes of Russian society. If that were true, it would have been peasants who dominated Communism, and actual peasants never wanted anything to do with Communism. Rather, it was people like Trotsky—intellectuals on the make and on the rise. Communists successfully recruited all across the societal spectrum. For example, most of the Bolsheviks’ military officers were former Tsarist officers, all through the ranks—a policy that Trotsky insisted on, that professionals run the Red Army, not amateurs. But those officers weren’t drawn to Communism by its offer of higher status, which they already had—some thought the Bolsheviks the lesser of two evils, some thought they could help control the Bolsheviks, some were non-political. And as Service notes, and is commonly noted in histories of the Bolsheviks, massive funding for their activities was provided by high-status people who were either ideologically sympathetic or simply as an insurance policy. Such examples could easily be multiplied. Certainly, some Bolsheviks came from humble circumstances, but all successful societies, of whatever political stripe, have mechanisms for bringing the most talented into the running of society. Typically this is through the Church or through the military; some, like the Ottomans, are better at it than others. But to suggest that what drove Bolshevism’s initial success was low-status individuals getting back at those who lorded it over them is bad history. True, within a few decades it was mediocrities all the way down, but that merely shows a poorly organized system, or one inherently defective, not one that appeals to low-status people. No, what the Bolsheviks offered was heaven on earth, and to each man, the most important driver of human action, transcendence, the ability to participate in the formation of this heaven. In Trotsky’s own words: “Man will become incomparably stronger, more intelligent, more subtle. His body will be more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical; the forms of daily existence with acquire a dynamic theatricality. The average human type will rise to the level of Aristotle, Goethe, Marx. It is above this ridge that new summits will rise.” Or, as Service says, “[Trotsky] never recoiled from his belief that the October Revolution was the first great glimmering of the dawn of the global socialist era.” “He believed in the achievability of a universal order which would totally liberate the human spirit.” Transcendence is a far more powerful driver than status seeking, and it is that which explains the lure of Communism through the past century. No doubt the modern Western Left, with its obsessive focus on emancipation from imaginary oppression, offers increases in status, and a complete divorce of status from merit, more so than formal Communism did, but that is not its main attraction. Such emancipation is a type of seeking after transcendence, even if it has more immediate benefits for some, and it is the collective belief in being able to remake the world to achieve “new summits” that provides the dynamo inside the Left, which is fundamentally a religious belief. I am not sure, given how central this urge is to human nature and the grip it clearly maintains on so many people, how to destroy that dynamo. Probably by providing and drawing people to an alternate, more powerful, religious belief, something that the spiritually decayed West has failed at through the past century. What Trotsky’s life teaches us is that very smart and very talented people can wholly buy into such beliefs, and their drive to achieve transcendence, and the costs they are willing to impose, should never be underestimated.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Bhaskar Sunkara

    Read this after watching Hitchens and him debate at some stuffy Hoover Institute roundtable. Littered with factual errors, which are at least finally getting exposed at the academic level http://www.jstor.org/pss/10.1086/ahr.... Read this after watching Hitchens and him debate at some stuffy Hoover Institute roundtable. Littered with factual errors, which are at least finally getting exposed at the academic level http://www.jstor.org/pss/10.1086/ahr....

  6. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    After his death Trotsky has enjoyed better press in the west than he had had in his lifetime. Service shows how it was/is out of proportion to his qualities as a person and as a political leader. Robert Service documents who he was personally and politically through this new scholarly work. Service, particularly in the later chapters, shows Trotsky to be a self-involved, arrogant, intolerant, and tin eared man with a gift for prose. He demands loyalty and doesn't appreciate the costs others must After his death Trotsky has enjoyed better press in the west than he had had in his lifetime. Service shows how it was/is out of proportion to his qualities as a person and as a political leader. Robert Service documents who he was personally and politically through this new scholarly work. Service, particularly in the later chapters, shows Trotsky to be a self-involved, arrogant, intolerant, and tin eared man with a gift for prose. He demands loyalty and doesn't appreciate the costs others must pay for supporting him and his lost cause. He mourns the loss of his children, but it is hard to tell what the feelings really were. Natalya, who sacrifices herself for him is casually betrayed... a betrayal that could have consequences far beyond the dire ones for his family. From what is presented, it's easy to conclude that Trotsky could never have won the power struggle with Stalin. His sense of timing was off. He didn't showcase Lenin's warning on Stalin until it had consequences for him. His actions upon his expulsion from Moscow and later expulsion Russia itself, show an incredible naivete for someone of his position. In the last chapter, Service gives words to the impression you get as you read this, which is that Trotsky doesn't really want leadership responsibility, he wanted to write more than to lead. Service gives little to suggest a better outcome had Trotsky won against Stalin. While he some modern management ideas, such as using qualified, if not ideologically pure, military officers who had served the Tsar, he was still an authoritarian. In the aftermath of the Revolution, he stifled dissent. His response to the Kronstadt Revolt was not to sort out the issues, but to dispatch an army. In his later years he praised Russia's invasion of Poland for its re-appropriation of property with no thought for the lives or losses of the Poles. The post-revolution ruling elite was stacked with authoritarians so there is no reason to conclude that Trotsky would derail the culture of execution and pre-emptive censorship. The hair splitting differences between groups and individuals is mentioned, and fortunately, for me, not belabored. The prose in the chapters on his early life and on his death by assassination stand out in a book with many well written chapters. My only disappointment is that Trotsky's father's new status after losing his farm in the revolution and his death are given little description and no analysis. There is a lot to digest. This book is not for the casual reader, but highly recommended for those interested in Russian history.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Alexw

    I have read Stalin by the same author and saw his book chat with Brian Lamb on C-Span Book TV. This 600 page biography of Trotksy is summarized on Page 459 which states, Trotsky failed to explain how the common objectives of communism could be fulfilled. He was an idealist.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Stefanie

    An even-handed review of the complex and contradictory character of Trotsky. A charismatic man, with abundant literary gifts, including polemics and oratory, absolutely committed to revolution. His fearless leadership and organizational skills are celebrated in his pivotal roles in the October Revolution and the Red Army. His factiousness led to his demise from party leadership, expulsion, exile, death, and murder. Despite his many gifts, the myth of Trotsky is debunked by his egotism, coldness, An even-handed review of the complex and contradictory character of Trotsky. A charismatic man, with abundant literary gifts, including polemics and oratory, absolutely committed to revolution. His fearless leadership and organizational skills are celebrated in his pivotal roles in the October Revolution and the Red Army. His factiousness led to his demise from party leadership, expulsion, exile, death, and murder. Despite his many gifts, the myth of Trotsky is debunked by his egotism, coldness, lack of introspection, and human empathy. The romanticized vision of Trotsky's leadership of the soviets is revealed to be no better, and possibly worse, than Stalin, due to similar governing methods of terror and totalitarianism. Trotsky dedicated his life to the 'proletarian revolution.' After reading this account, it's with a bittersweet awareness that his talents were directed a to misguided experiment. Personally, he avoided self-negation precisely by not deviating from the cause, but one can't help to feel that his purpose and talents were compromised.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Liviu

    quite good a biography of Trotsky avoiding the hagiography around his name

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jacob van Berkel

    Gustave Flaubert wrote that, if you write the biography of a friend, you should write it as if you were taking revenge for him. It follows that, if your write the biography of an enemy, you should write it as if you were taking revenge on him. Robert Service certainly had something like this in mind when writing this book, as witnessed by his own remarks that: If Mercader's ice axe didn’t finish Trotsky off, I hope my book does. And even before he wrote the book he called Trotsky "an appalling f Gustave Flaubert wrote that, if you write the biography of a friend, you should write it as if you were taking revenge for him. It follows that, if your write the biography of an enemy, you should write it as if you were taking revenge on him. Robert Service certainly had something like this in mind when writing this book, as witnessed by his own remarks that: If Mercader's ice axe didn’t finish Trotsky off, I hope my book does. And even before he wrote the book he called Trotsky "an appalling figure".* So no love there. Personally I don't mind this at all. I don't believe in 'neutral' or 'objective' journalism or history writing, only the mad pretentions thereof, which are always best dropped. So someone setting out to write an antagonistic biography of someone, and is open about that antagonism, that is not only perfectly legitimate, but even preferable to pretending to be 'objective'. As long as the piece of journalism or history writing holds itself to standards of fairness and accuracy, there's no problem with taking a stance at all. Robert Service, however, apparently did neither. The weirdest thing for me is when Service projects motivations onto Trotsky that he (or we) would have no way of knowing. Sometimes Service even explicitly states that the available sources (often Trotsky's own writing) say something different about his motivations, but Service then simply ignores his sources and makes something up based on his personal feelings on Trotsky. For instance in chapter 5 (p.52 in my edition) Service informs us that a young Trotsky, after spending 2,5 months in solitary confinement in 1898, wrote to his future wife Alexandra that he was feeling suicidal. But then Service tells us: "He was never genuinely suicidal; his comment was designed to make her want to protect him." How does Service know this? He doesn't say. The endnote only refers to the letter to Alexandra in which Trotsky wrote he was feeling suicial. Service simply overrules the only available source on Trotsky's inner feelings, believing his own mind-reading powers to be more reliable than the actual sources. There are unfortunately more instances of this, especially concering Trotsky's relationship with his family. Trotsky can express all the grief and regret he wants in letters and his diary, but Service always knows better and keeps repeating how "heartless" and "self-absorbed" Trotsky was when dealing with his parents or his children and first wife. In this respect the book reminded me of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story, which benefited greatly from similar mind-reading abilities. So not very fair then. But is it at least accurate when it comes to facts outside of Trotsky's mind? According to Bertrand M. Patenaude, who is Robert Service's fellow fellow at the Hoover Institution (note: this means not a Trotskyist), writing in the American Historical Review, it is not. In fact the attack from Patenaude was so unsparing that it was described thusly: Every so often, one scholar will assess another’s book so harshly that it becomes legendary.This piece first tears to shreds Service's claim that his book is "the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside of Russia who is not a Trotskyist.", which is, according to the piece's author, "plainly and inarguably quite untrue." Then it quotes Patenaude at some length, giving us some idea what sort of details Service gets wrong in this book:'“I have counted more than four dozen [mistakes],” he writes. “Service mixes up the names of Trotsky's sons, misidentifies the largest political group in the first Duma in 1906, botches the name of the Austrian archduke assassinated at Sarajevo, misrepresents the circumstances of Nicholas II's abdication, gets backward Trotsky's position in 1940 on the United States' entry into World War II, and gives the wrong year of death of Trotsky's widow. Service's book is completely unreliable as a reference…. At times the errors are jaw-dropping. Service believes that Bertram Wolfe was one of Trotsky's ‘acolytes’ living with him in Mexico (pp. 441, 473), that André Breton was a ‘surrealist painter’ whose ‘pictures exhibited sympathy with the plight of the working people’ (p. 453), and that Mikhail Gorbachev rehabilitated Trotsky in 1988, when in fact Trotsky was never posthumously rehabilitated by the Soviet government.”'So neither very fair nor particularly accurate. Though, in fairness, I have to agree with Service's response that these inaccuraries are not very serious. More consequential accusations of inaccuracies are leveled by David North, a writer for the World Socialist Website (a Trotskyist organization), and they often seem to relate (again) to Service's secret method of knowing what Trotsky's inner motivations are. Besides this, I also found the book an unnecessarily boring read, perhaps due to the focus on bureaucratics, but maybe it's just that the style of writing doesn't suit me. And all this is a shame, because I think Trotsky really does deserve the kind of critical treatment Service had in mind. Because, while the fact that Stalin was a pretty bad guy is now almost universally accepted, Lenin and Trotsky are still remembered by many (though certainly not everybody) as the benevolent Old Major and Snowball. Which, in my opinion, is also neither very fair nor particularly accurate. ____ * BBC Radio 4's "Great Lives" series, with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service, aired August 8 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD54q...

  11. 4 out of 5

    David James

    Leon Trotsky has long sidestepped the sort of scrutiny and criticism meted out to Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin for their roles in the establishment of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. This has occurred for a variety of reasons, including his break with Stalin, his exhaustive writings that critiqued Stalin, and his assassination (which made him a martyr), most likely ordered by Stalin. But perhaps the biggest reason he has escaped comparatively unscathed is that for those on the far left, Leon Trotsky has long sidestepped the sort of scrutiny and criticism meted out to Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin for their roles in the establishment of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. This has occurred for a variety of reasons, including his break with Stalin, his exhaustive writings that critiqued Stalin, and his assassination (which made him a martyr), most likely ordered by Stalin. But perhaps the biggest reason he has escaped comparatively unscathed is that for those on the far left, Trotsky is the only potential hero they can dredge up from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. To admit that Trotsky was as much of a tyrant and cold blooded killer as his compatriots in that fateful year is to admit that the entire Marxist enterprise was incapable of efficiently producing anything other than corpses, and to be forced to confront Marxism's responsibility for creating Stalin. By embracing Trotsky, Marxists can pretend to distance themselves from reality and sustain the canard that Marxism has anything of worth to offer us. British historian and Oxford professor Robert Service concludes his trilogy of biographies of the three primary architects of the Soviet Union ("Lenin" and "Stalin" being the other two) with the best and most important volume. The Trotsky we meet here is a man who never believed in basic human rights, never believed that people should have the power to choose their own leaders, and never believed that any of his own ideas could possibly be wrong. As we follow Trotsky through his days as a member of the Politburo and head of the Red Army, we see a man who reveled in executions, random killings, and full-throttle warfare. More importantly, Service documents how Trotsky was the first of the Bolsheviks to introduce the idea that terror against civilians was a legitimate means of empowering the state. We learn that Trotsky provided the arguments for severe state censorship of all ideas. Most damning, Service shows how it was Trotsky, through his writings in the 1920s, who provided the crucial intellectual underpinnings for what became known as Stalinism. By the 1930s, when Trotsky was in exile and the Great Terror was in full swing, even Trotsky himself recognized that Stalin was enacting Trotsky's ideas, and he had little complaint about this aspect of Stalin's rule. His biggest concern with Stalin wasn't that the man was killing people by the millions, it was Stalin's failure to forcefully spread communism into Europe that Trotsky found most despicable. The left has long insisted that Stalin betrayed the Revolution, and that he was an aberration from true Marxism. The underlying lesson of Service's three exceptional inquiries into the lives of the men who put Marxism to the test is quite the opposite. Stalin, Service shows us, was the natural result of communism in action. Had Trotsky, not Stalin, emerged triumphant from the struggle to succeed Lenin, Service makes it clear that the death toll wouldn't have been significantly lower. Stalin may have ordered Trotsky's killing (this has never been conclusively documented, but it hardly seems plausible that he didn't), but what Service makes clear is that Trotsky was ultimately killed by the cause to which he had devoted his entire life. And he was just one of what, by conservative estimates, were one-hundred-million victims of a political/economic theory that led to the world's first and, in the end, deadliest totalitarian state. This is the truth about Leon Trotsky.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Anukriti

    I read this book for a very VAIN reason- the fact that it was discredited by the American Historical Review. It would be safe to say that Robert Service has done a great DISSERVICE to Trotsky. I must say that I do suffer from ignorance to a high extent in understanding fully,the author's unarmed attack on trotsky. I had to read quiet a bit about Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and the origin of the theory by Engels and Marx. Even then it was impossible to understand this seething hatred of him. Aft I read this book for a very VAIN reason- the fact that it was discredited by the American Historical Review. It would be safe to say that Robert Service has done a great DISSERVICE to Trotsky. I must say that I do suffer from ignorance to a high extent in understanding fully,the author's unarmed attack on trotsky. I had to read quiet a bit about Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and the origin of the theory by Engels and Marx. Even then it was impossible to understand this seething hatred of him. After having read the same author's other book on Stalin- this came as a shock. Most of the prose consists of redundant adjectives showing the author's abhorrence toward the leader. Why write in thousands of sheets what can be said in a few scores? All the Commuism apart though, the book makes for a monotonic read. The author is so hell bent on complete assassination of Trotsky that much else has been considered "beside the point" by him. Give it a shot if you are prepared to get bored and waste a lot of good reading hours on a lop-sided version of history by a great writer. :)

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    Well written, well supported, though actually a bit lean through the years of the Revolution.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Denerick

    A critical biography of Leiba Bronstein (Better known to the world as Leon Trotsky), Service does an excellent job of exploring the life, the complexities, and the many hypocrisies of this giant of 20th century history. From his early intellectual ferment to his heroics in the October revolution and Civil War, Service illustrates a man of fixed ideological belief - a demagogue, an intellectual, but most importantly a deeply inhumane individual. Trotskyists have always asserted that the USSR would A critical biography of Leiba Bronstein (Better known to the world as Leon Trotsky), Service does an excellent job of exploring the life, the complexities, and the many hypocrisies of this giant of 20th century history. From his early intellectual ferment to his heroics in the October revolution and Civil War, Service illustrates a man of fixed ideological belief - a demagogue, an intellectual, but most importantly a deeply inhumane individual. Trotskyists have always asserted that the USSR would never have degenerated into totalitarianism if Trotsky had only have pipped Stalin to absolute control of the communist regime following the death of Lenin. They claim he was a democrat with fundamentally humane inclinations. As Service demonstrates this was simply not the case. Trotsky held most people in contempt and was extraordinarily selfish and egotistical. His supposed humanitarianism is a myth, one that can easily be debunked by his conduct in the civil war (As well as his despicable suppression of the Kronstadt mutineers who demonstrated in favour of a democratic system and against the budding totalitarianism that was evident long before the ascent of Stalin) His dogmatism, his inherent lust for violence, his inability for compromise all indicate an intellect clowded by its own egotism. His was an undoubtedly eloquent and sophisticated pen; but he had a tendency for unnecessary alienation. He was a bad politician and a brilliant orator. For all his talk about 'democracy is the life blood of socialism' there is actually very little evidence that he truly believed in a democratic socialism. When he was in a position of authority he was consistently in favour of uncompromisingly oppressive policies. This man was no saint. The biography itself is rather conventionally written; the sentences lack cadence and Service is uninspiring in his delivery. It is a functional work. Furthermore his analyses of leftist revolutionary thought is shallow and almost non existent. His analysis of Trotsky's political writing are similarly woefully inadequate. Read this book for a strictly historical account (With some fair minded and much welcomed criticism), but find the deeper political analyses elsewhere. Based on what this book set out to accomplish (Re-evaluate the life of Trotsky and liberate him from the various hagiographers) I would have to say that it is groundbreaking scholarship, a transformational book. But its shortcomings are apparent also.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Howard Olsen

    A straight forward biography of the real life Emmanuel Goldstein. Service focuses more on Trotsky's intellectual development, rather than on the more exciting elements of his life. It feels like every meeting he ever went to is described in detail, while the two years he spent leading the Red Army during the wars after the Revolution (despite having no military experience) go by too quickly. Of course, that is a reflection of Trotsky's milieu. He and the other Communists were intellectuals and r A straight forward biography of the real life Emmanuel Goldstein. Service focuses more on Trotsky's intellectual development, rather than on the more exciting elements of his life. It feels like every meeting he ever went to is described in detail, while the two years he spent leading the Red Army during the wars after the Revolution (despite having no military experience) go by too quickly. Of course, that is a reflection of Trotsky's milieu. He and the other Communists were intellectuals and revolutionaries who spent most of their time pre-1917 going to meetings and furiously denouncing one another, along with bourgeois capitalism. (Soviet politics proceeded along the same path until Stalin put an end to all that fussin' & fightin'). Still, for all the talk of Trotsky's writings, I still couldn't tell you what a "Trotskyist" is, except maybe that they are an admirer of Trotsky. Also, Service does not provide any sort of primer for basic marxist thought, which can make it difficult for beginners to follow what is going on when Stalin and Bukharin gang up on Trotsky. Also, Service doesn't state this explicitly, but Trotsky was clearly a dictatorial personality who did not hesitate to use the power of the state to kill off those whom he considered the enemies of the Revolution. Despite his gifts and unquestionable dedication to the cause, there was little in the man to admire. I feel like there could be a better biography out there, but will take this over the lame-o apologias that have preceded it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Steven Passmore

    I think I have to disagree with the other reviewers who accuse Robert Service of being non-partial, or biased against Trotsky. Obviously there was several character flaws in David Bronstein that inevitably must appear in any true study of the man. Trotsky was vain, but at the same time lacked self-conscious of his actions. He was an individualist who advocated collectivism. He had a habit of using people until they were no longer politically useful. His reaction to the Kronstadt rebellion was he I think I have to disagree with the other reviewers who accuse Robert Service of being non-partial, or biased against Trotsky. Obviously there was several character flaws in David Bronstein that inevitably must appear in any true study of the man. Trotsky was vain, but at the same time lacked self-conscious of his actions. He was an individualist who advocated collectivism. He had a habit of using people until they were no longer politically useful. His reaction to the Kronstadt rebellion was heavy handed and hypocritical. On the other hand he is an amazing character in the history of the Soviet Union. He possessed a rhetorical flourish that cut down his enemies with a stroke of the pen. He was a master political operator, a hard worker who avoided the drink, and created the Red Army from the pieces of the Imperial Russian Army despite having no prior military experience. I don't think the Soviet Union however would have been that much different under Trotsky after the death of Lenin. Trotsky was instrumental in the creation of the secret police services during the Red Terror, which would later claim a higher body count than the Nazi SS (and also killed more communists than Hitler). Trotsky didn't believe in "constructive criticism", and was equally vengeful against his enemies as Stalin. Overall the cast was set for the Soviet Union during the creation of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Which despite the context of two decades of aristocratic led war and conflict in Russia is a very dangerous thing to excuse or advocate.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nate

    This was a really interesting book, I wish it would've talked more about his ideas though. Here's what you need to know about Trotsky: He was ruthless. The popular idea is that if he would've taken over after Lenin instead of Stalin things would've been really different. In some ways it probably would have (He would've tried much harder to encourage socialist revolution in other countries, he never thought the USSR would last without "continual revolution") but it sounds like he would've been eve This was a really interesting book, I wish it would've talked more about his ideas though. Here's what you need to know about Trotsky: He was ruthless. The popular idea is that if he would've taken over after Lenin instead of Stalin things would've been really different. In some ways it probably would have (He would've tried much harder to encourage socialist revolution in other countries, he never thought the USSR would last without "continual revolution") but it sounds like he would've been every bit as brutal as Stalin to people he didn't like. He was courageous. The stories are pretty incredible, time after time he went headfirst into really dangerous situations. From this book you really get the feeling that the USSR never would've happened without him or Lenin, they really are the only two people indispensable to the cause. Even in exile and right to the very end he never backed down. He had no political talent. Which makes how far he went even more amazing. Like I said I wish the book would've talked more about his ideas. There is some ideology in the book but I really wanted more. From what I did get though I'm even more convinced that socialism is wrong wrong wrong. My biggest problem is how authoritarian it is. These guys hated liberals as much as they hated the imperialists.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Titus Hjelm

    Service closes his trilogy with another captivating portrait. What emerges is a picture of a selfish man who really didn't know better even when things were turning against him in the battle of succession after Lenin's death. Again, for me at least, the most interesting aspect was Service's analysis of Trotsky's marxism. Even more so than Lenin, Trotsky's connection to 'the source' seems to have been idiosyncratic, to say the least. Practical concerns overrode theory even when the man was clearl Service closes his trilogy with another captivating portrait. What emerges is a picture of a selfish man who really didn't know better even when things were turning against him in the battle of succession after Lenin's death. Again, for me at least, the most interesting aspect was Service's analysis of Trotsky's marxism. Even more so than Lenin, Trotsky's connection to 'the source' seems to have been idiosyncratic, to say the least. Practical concerns overrode theory even when the man was clearly at his best as a provider of ideological justification for the October Revolution and its (embattled) legacy. His inconsistencies prove the point. Again, as with Lenin and Stalin, Service clearly points out how Trotsky was never the idealised socialist, but an architect of state terror and other aspects easily condemned in hindsight. Hagiography this is not--Service is much more critical of Trotsky than the other two revolutionaries. Perhaps this is because unlike with Trotsky, the faults of the others have been unanimously agreed upon by historiography. I wouldn't read this as the only source of information, but it does--with its faults--balance some of the more praising interpretations.

  19. 5 out of 5

    John Kerridge

    I started this book as my final instalment following Service's books on Stalin, Lenin and Comrades. If you read these books from the knowledge and perspective that the author is not a left wing idealists or supporter then they are quite enjoyable to read. On the other hand if you are a hardened communist then you will no doubt hate these books. The weakest of the volumes for me has been Lenin. Jeepers it took some reading. Stalin was by far the most interesting. Trotsky was very interesting on I started this book as my final instalment following Service's books on Stalin, Lenin and Comrades. If you read these books from the knowledge and perspective that the author is not a left wing idealists or supporter then they are quite enjoyable to read. On the other hand if you are a hardened communist then you will no doubt hate these books. The weakest of the volumes for me has been Lenin. Jeepers it took some reading. Stalin was by far the most interesting. Trotsky was very interesting on so many levels and if you like books about political intrigue and history you will enjoy this book. As for Robert Service and the complaints about his historical license, etc. as with all writers of history time will be their jury. Service has done a professional and informative job. Not perfect. He allows his own political bias to emerge on the odd occasion, which is his weakness as a writer, but don't let this put you off. Simply use your own intelligence.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mouldy Squid

    An exhaustive (you can tell my how long it has taken me to finish it), dense and illuminating biography of Leon Trotsky. Service has done a remarkable job collecting, researching and writing the tome. Probably the best biography of Trotsky available, but not for the timid or the merely curious; those who do not want to know every available detail of Trotsky's life, but only an overview, best look elsewhere. For the rest of us, the history nuts or the student of modern history, this is the biogra An exhaustive (you can tell my how long it has taken me to finish it), dense and illuminating biography of Leon Trotsky. Service has done a remarkable job collecting, researching and writing the tome. Probably the best biography of Trotsky available, but not for the timid or the merely curious; those who do not want to know every available detail of Trotsky's life, but only an overview, best look elsewhere. For the rest of us, the history nuts or the student of modern history, this is the biography to get.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Very good. Objective and not a hagiography by any means. Might read Stalin and Lenin by the same author.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Revanth Ukkalam

    The world likes its underdogs. When it doesn't have one it makes one. The world also likes cruel men who are less cruel than other men. Leon Trotsky checks both boxes. Here is a great and highly readable, extremely opinionated account of the life of one of the most venerated communist heroes of the twentieth century. He is remembered today as a dissenter, a maverick, and a man of supreme passion. All of those qualifiers are quite accurate however this book contributes proportion to the figure by The world likes its underdogs. When it doesn't have one it makes one. The world also likes cruel men who are less cruel than other men. Leon Trotsky checks both boxes. Here is a great and highly readable, extremely opinionated account of the life of one of the most venerated communist heroes of the twentieth century. He is remembered today as a dissenter, a maverick, and a man of supreme passion. All of those qualifiers are quite accurate however this book contributes proportion to the figure by also highlighting his erratic ideological temperament. He seems to have always spoken his mind, he is not much of a hypocrite in that but he was particularly self-contradictory and in his own writings (according to the author among politician-writers he is second to only Churchill), he always selectively quoted himself and the rest to justify his often unreasonable views. Trotsky comes through as a very power-hungry person, not position-hungry (he displayed self-restraint in moments of acquisition of power because of his being a Jew); he tried to rub his meditated ideological positions against the party, nation, and populace. He was a brilliant leader. He not only led very successfully the October Revolution but also the Red Army to victory in the Civil War as the Commissar of Foreign Affairs. In moments where the book explores his charisma in public visible life, Trotsky glitters glamorously. The strength of the book lay in its focus on details in Trotsky's opinions and especially in relation to raging Soviet debates. The book is most interested in that. Interest in his personal life suffers just a little as a result perhaps.

  23. 4 out of 5

    The Four

    For a book with a reputation of being overly biased and hateful against Trotsky, this books wasn't very biased and hateful against Trotsky. It dragged at times, and took me way too long to get through, but yes it's good so, like...read it.

  24. 4 out of 5

    JD Newick

    (Should preface this by saying that I'm not a Trotskyist, Leninist, Stalinist, or Communist of any brand whatsoever.) Service's biography of Lenin is without a doubt a definitive one; his volume on Stalin is useful but I feel that Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives is slightly superior despite not being dedicated entirely to the Man of Steel. His biography of Trotsky, on the other hand, has raised the most controversy, partly as a result of Service's own marketing of it- publicised (Should preface this by saying that I'm not a Trotskyist, Leninist, Stalinist, or Communist of any brand whatsoever.) Service's biography of Lenin is without a doubt a definitive one; his volume on Stalin is useful but I feel that Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives is slightly superior despite not being dedicated entirely to the Man of Steel. His biography of Trotsky, on the other hand, has raised the most controversy, partly as a result of Service's own marketing of it- publicised as being the first biography of Trotsky to have been written outside of Russia by a non-Trotskyist, the blurb and reviews all hailed it as a book which takes Trotsky from the pedestal which his followers had put him on, and reveals him to be every bit as violent and monstrous as Lenin or Stalin were in his methods and ideology. Suffice to say, many Trotskyists were outraged. It's easy to see why- Trotsky was far from being a pro-democratic, anti-totalitarian ideologue when he himself was building up his position before the Revolution and when he held positions of immense power following the Revolution. It's always been easy to see Trotsky as a victim of Stalin's betrayal of all that the October Revolution,a martyr who represented a more "human" and less "bureaucratic" and "degenerate" form of Bolshevism (witness Snowball and Emmanuel Goldstein from Orwell's classics)- truth is that until he began rewriting his own history after 1928, Trotsky was just as contemptful of freedom and democracy and just as enthusiastic about tyranny and force as Stalin and Lenin were. Service's efforts to discredit and demonise Trotsky sometimes come across as rather too impassioned for a scholarly biography- probably the biggest flaw of this book, and quite a flaw it is. "There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it" Service himself declared at the time of the book's publication- a very unprofessional claim to be making for a biography that's supposed to be "definitive". I understand that there's been an official Trotskyist rebuttal of Service's portrayal, perhaps I should give that a read. As a biography, it's a highly informative and well-written recounting of his political activities, political ideas, and private life. Just bear in mind when reading it that it's a very negatively biased approach to the subject. Bits I found particularly interesting: Service's discussion of Trotsky's Jewish roots, and his contention that he refused the highest offices offered to him by Lenin in order to not give propaganda fuel to the Bolsheviks anti-semitic opponents; his listing of the huge staff that were on board his Civil War "Trotsky Train" (he took a 35-piece military band around the country with him!); and his argument that Trotsky's son Lev Sedov's death in Paris in 1937 was not, in fact, a murder committed by the NKVD (I don't agree with him on that matter). Also, the love letter he sent to Natalia Sedova in 1937 is something which James Joyce himself would have been proud of.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

    This is an entertaining biography of one of the (flawed) giants of the 20th century. It suffers from needed detail about Trotsky's philosophy and the internal (and interminable) disputes between communist factions. But it tells the Old Man's story well, painting him as a brilliant, self-centred, erudite, historic yet ultimately self-destructive global political force. (Don't be put off by how long it took me to read. I dipped in and out. It is written with aplomb)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Michael T.

    Trotsky is, I think, an innately fascinating historical figure. Even as we approach the 20th anniversary of the demise of the Soviet Union, it's legacy is still hotly debated. Was there ever a moment when the Russian experiment with full market socialism was not on the track to an oppressive & murderous outcome? Was what happened in Soviet Russia even worthy of the name of communism? And does the failure of the Soviet experiment discredit all of the nobler aims which the human impulse towards so Trotsky is, I think, an innately fascinating historical figure. Even as we approach the 20th anniversary of the demise of the Soviet Union, it's legacy is still hotly debated. Was there ever a moment when the Russian experiment with full market socialism was not on the track to an oppressive & murderous outcome? Was what happened in Soviet Russia even worthy of the name of communism? And does the failure of the Soviet experiment discredit all of the nobler aims which the human impulse towards socialism or collectivism may lay claim? Robert Service is an Englishman, decidedly NOT a communist, and is something of an expert on the Soviet Union. This biography of Trotsky is part of a trilogy, the other two being biographies of Lenin & Stalin. (I have read them both.) Service points out (& I tend to agree) that Trotsky was in some senses the communist idealist's last hope, in the sense that both Lenin & Stalin held & abused power to a degree that Trotsky never did. But that this hope for him is ultimately illusory -- by his own words & deeds, Trotsky both said & proved that he would have been at least as ruthless & oppressive as Lenin. (Stalin set the bar awfully high, but it can be convincingly argued that his excesses were a logical extension of what Lenin had started.) All of this is not to diminish the self evident talents of Lev Trotsky the man. In fact, reconciling the brilliance of the man with the very bad paths that he took are a cautionary tale. Even with Trotsky's brilliance, he was ultimately, much like his former comrades, far too willing to allow an ill defined end to justify some pretty horrifying means.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Aasin Peña

    A lot of other reviews are very detailed, and I feel I have little to add to the conversation. For what it is worth though Robert Service does a superb job of summarizing Trotsky’s life in as simple a way as possible. One thing to note though is that some history of the USSR, and the other major figures of this time are needed otherwise you may be scratching your head a few times. The fault, if anything, was that at times I felt as though Service could have gone into more details of certain matte A lot of other reviews are very detailed, and I feel I have little to add to the conversation. For what it is worth though Robert Service does a superb job of summarizing Trotsky’s life in as simple a way as possible. One thing to note though is that some history of the USSR, and the other major figures of this time are needed otherwise you may be scratching your head a few times. The fault, if anything, was that at times I felt as though Service could have gone into more details of certain matters. There were a few instances where some interesting tidbit about Trotsky was said, but only in passing, and the reader is left longing for further details of the situation. Still though Service cannot be blamed for this as he goes into great detail most of the time on the most important matters? One issue I do have is that Service could not help, but put his two sense in throughout the book. We will be reading about some policy that Trotsky wanted to implement, and then Service will come in with what I could only describe as a snide remark. After reading this it is obvious that Service took a dislike of Trotsky, but come on man I am reading a biography here not an editorial. It is an enjoyable read still. Service writes in an easy to understand manner even with some difficult topics to discuss such as the NEP, and he has done his research. I was astounded at how many works he cites throughout the book! A great look into a very peculiar man, and his dreams for the world.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Stoned nINJA

    How one of the most Powerful and best orator of Bolshevik party was killed by an ice pick in mexico and it didn't even made news in "PRAVDA" the national newspaper of SOVIET RUSSIA which he help started and headed in his golden years . How it feels to overthrow 1000 year old monarchy and the establish a Soviet (council) you'll never know it but Robert service will put you right in the civil war and October revolution when the soviet union was established on ideas of Marx and Engle who were dead How one of the most Powerful and best orator of Bolshevik party was killed by an ice pick in mexico and it didn't even made news in "PRAVDA" the national newspaper of SOVIET RUSSIA which he help started and headed in his golden years . How it feels to overthrow 1000 year old monarchy and the establish a Soviet (council) you'll never know it but Robert service will put you right in the civil war and October revolution when the soviet union was established on ideas of Marx and Engle who were dead since 1850s but yet there ideas shaped rest of the history and the world we live in today . Trotsky was a revolutionary in his heart and if Marx was alive he might have choosen him over less charismatic LENIN . Trotsky was most at home in big public speakings and writing fanatically in his study . Until the end of his life he stayed true to his "Permanent Revolution" so much so Stalin sent special unit of spies to infiltrate his inner circle and kill his arch enemy who could have taken power from him after Lenin at one time . Its an amazing book and if you are interested in communism and Russian history this is a must , it cover everything from early Tsar years of late 1800s to what laid the foundation of modern Russia as we see it today .

  29. 5 out of 5

    Raigo Loide

    Trotsky has been a somewhat hero of the Russian revolution for the Western intellectuals, who saw him as the moral opposition to Stalin. This book explains why this vision is naive and ignorant, based solely on Trotsky`s better verbal skills. Trotsky, no doubt, was a talented organizer and public speaker, and also one of the best political writers of his age. At the same time he was part of the same system that created Soviet labour camps and predecessor of KGB. He was more an idealist than Stali Trotsky has been a somewhat hero of the Russian revolution for the Western intellectuals, who saw him as the moral opposition to Stalin. This book explains why this vision is naive and ignorant, based solely on Trotsky`s better verbal skills. Trotsky, no doubt, was a talented organizer and public speaker, and also one of the best political writers of his age. At the same time he was part of the same system that created Soviet labour camps and predecessor of KGB. He was more an idealist than Stalin, and therefore less successful as a politician, but he wasn`t much better man. Service brings out his narcissistic nature and ultimate self-confidence that finally caused his downfall. The book is not too easy to read, especially in summertime, but is a good source of information and an interesting point of view.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jason P

    Excellent biography of an extraordinary historical figure. I had previously read Service's biography of Lenin, and I'm coming to really enjoy his writing style. I also like how many of the reviews from the left claim he's a horrible anti-communist and reviews from the right call him a communist sympathizer. Just maybe this shows he is doing a good job of providing all the necessary complexities and nuances for such interesting historical figures. Trotsky was one of the most important figures of Excellent biography of an extraordinary historical figure. I had previously read Service's biography of Lenin, and I'm coming to really enjoy his writing style. I also like how many of the reviews from the left claim he's a horrible anti-communist and reviews from the right call him a communist sympathizer. Just maybe this shows he is doing a good job of providing all the necessary complexities and nuances for such interesting historical figures. Trotsky was one of the most important figures of the Russian Revolution. He led the Red Army in the Civil War. Lost the power struggle against Stalin leading to his expulsion from the Soviet Union. He would then lead the left opposition against Stalin abroad and meet several interesting characters, including his affair with Frida Kalho, before he was ultimately assassinated by a Stalinist spy.

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