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My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Dover Value Editions) Paperback – June 5, 2007
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Trotsky's characterization of his rural, agricultural family as struggling to maintain lower-middle class status seems simple and straightforward. However, in contrast to Trotsky's early years, few of us think of the lower-middle class as living in a house made of mud with a thatched roof that leaked when it rained. The picture becomes all the more unexpected whe we learn that the mud house contained a working piano and furniture that was suited to less rustic circumstances. As Trotsky's industrious but illiterate father became more prosperous, he replaced the thatched roof with a metal one, and more of the dirt floors were covered with tile.
Perhaps the most telling report that makes clear the lingeringly primitive conditions in which Trotsky was raised is that he was one of eight children, four of whom survived infancy. As Trotsky tells it, the deaths of newborn children were regarded with no more emotion than the survival of others. High infant mortality and maternity rates were readily recognized and accepted as facts of life.
As Trotsky's lower-middle class life became less precarious, his father employed more -- in fact, hundreds -- of seasonal laborers to help with the harvest. Many became afflicted with night blindness, an inability to see even in twilight, a condition caused by lack of fat in their diet. Trotsky records no effort to remedy this set of circumstances, no doubt because dietary fat was in short supply. This is but another instance of the primitive and difficult character of life that prevailed during the author's upbringing.
Though unschooled and illiterate, Trotsky's father had high aspirations for his son's education. He placed a substantial value on disciplines such as mathematics, and later engineering, as providing tools for living a good life, one far removed from remote rural villages constituted largely of mud huts. He was encouraged by Trotsky's star pupil status when he attended a realschule in Odessa, and admission to a first-rate university seemed a virtual certainty.
While a university student, however, Trotsky soon became more interested in what today we might call cultural studies, and above all politics. His education in these disciplines, while in its own way rigorous, was largely informal, obtained through close association with like-minded students and workers. Russia was still a monarchy when Trotsky was coming of age politically, and it was typical of the government and politics of the time that Czar Nicholas II responded with bemused incredulity and derision when presented with a proposal for a national constitution.
As one who had first-hand experience with suffering, capricious injustice, and heavy-handed officialdom, Trotsky had a broad spectrum of political parties and ideologies from which he might choose. His decision to join the social democrats, then the most prominent party on the left, eventually aligned Trotsky with revolutionaries, many of whom had thoroughly studied Marx, and from whom he learned a great deal that was compatible with his temperament and outlook. He also recognized, however, that there were those among his associates who were fools, adventurers, and careerists, not thoroughly imbued with a commitment to disciplined work and appreciation of the peculiarly complex circumstances that gave a revolution a real chance to succeed. Thus while Trotsky enthusiastically supported and worked for the revolution of 1905, he recognized that it was developmentally premature. As a learned Marxist scholar, Trotsky anticipated disappointment and exaggeration of repression.
Nevertheless, 1905 taught Trotsky and many like-minded men and women a great deal about the social circumstances of revolution, and fostered the development of better informed and more effective revolutionary organizations. The revolutions of February and October of 1917, followed by a protracted and bloody civil war between the Monarchist Whites and the Revolutionary Reds, eventually provided what might have been the foundation of a dictatorship of the proletariat that could have been the essential bridge to a genuinely socialist society.
Throughout this period of intense political and revolutionary activity, Trotsky showed himself to be a quick and accurate judge of the character and capabilities of others. His judgments were seldom off the mark, and they provided him with an invaluable tool in sizing up prospects for success in the innumerable, unfamiliar, and demanding tasks of making a revolution and constructing a society that would follow. While Trotsky understood the importance of individuals in history, he was also a keen and creative student of the more important place of suitably structured institutional forms in fomenting a successful revolution and making a social system work.
That said, one wonders who was the more important actor, Lenin or Trotsky, in making the revolution and subsequent developments at least marginally beneficial. As with his books The History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky defers to Lenin, whom he regarded as the theoretical and ideological genius whose guidance was decisive in making the revolution. Had Lenin not died when a new society was taking shape, perhaps Trotsky would have prevailed against the Stalinist bureaucrats.
Still, Trotsky's two and a half years spent creating an effective Red Army where there had been none was an exercise in extraordinary foresight, charisma, and organizational brilliance. One wonders how an individual could have the energy, stamina, and, when all is said and done, genius to have created an effective. large-scale fighting force out of the sad remnants of a demoralized, ill-equipped, undisciplined, and, in truth, defeated manifestation of wholesale disorganization. Trotsky's insistence on the strictest form of punishment for breaches of discipline took me by surprise, though it may have been necessary.
It's difficult to imagine how the persistence of two men in key positions could have been so essential, and how the death of one and the reprehensible and stupid discrediting of another could have been so costly. One wonders if Lenin and Trotsky had vastly underestimated Stalin's self-serving organizational skills and the effectiveness of crude propaganda in a social setting that was still very much in flux. Clearly, though Trotsky does not say this, the organizational components of a durable socialist society were far from being in place. The institutional structures that made for stability had yet to be conceived and constructed. Beyond that, it may simply be that after the exhaustion of years of war Stalin's socialism in one country had more commonsense appeal than Trotsky's permanent revolution.
My Life is a very long and detailed book that requires a substantial investment of time and effort on the part of the reader. Trotsky's biography, while clearly written, contains so much information that those already familiar with the revolution and its Stalinist aftermath will be more comfortable with it than new-comers to this literature. Nevertheless, it is a remarkably interesting and informative book for anyone who reads it with care.
Trotsky made contributions to Marxist thought, for example in his theory of permanent revolution and the theory of combined and uneven development. But he is best known for his political activities: firstly as a key leader, alongside Lenin, of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and then later as the leading opponent of the bureaucratic tyranny of Stalin's regime, which destroyed the fledgling workers' democracy in the 1920s and forced Trotsky into exile.
Trotsky clung to the view that Russia under Stalin was a "degenerated workers' state". I think he was mistaken on this: much more convincing is Tony Cliff's theory that Russia (and, later, the other so-called "communist" regimes) was a state capitalist society. But despite this weakness, Trotsky did keep alive the fundamental Marxist idea that socialism must be based on internationalism and democracy. (The "dictatorship of the proletariat" was meant to mean the DEMOCRATIC control of society by the working class.)
One early episode gives a flavour of the book. At school Trotsky took part in a minor bit of rebellious behaviour in class against an unpleasant teacher. When the school cracked down, Trotsky learned his first political lesson. Some boys bravely stayed loyal to each other, some became tell-tales, and the majority wavered in the middle.
Trotsky writes: "These three groups never quite disappeared even during the years that followed. I met them again and again in my life in the most varied circumstances."
We can obviously see this in 1917. The revolution happened when the "middle" one of these groups (the mass of workers and peasants) was won over to the side of those who had for years been consistently opposing the injustices of capitalism: the Bolsheviks.
I'll end with two more quotations which give an indication of Trotsky's personality and politics. Both are from the Foreword to the book.
"A well-written book in which one can find new ideas, and a good pen with which to communicate one's own ideas to others, for me have always been and are today the most valuable and intimate products of culture."
"To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one's own place - that is the first duty of a revolutionary."
As this book shows, Trotsky certainly found his place in a historic sequence of events.