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My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Dover Value Editions) Paperback – June 5, 2007
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At the beginning of the 21st century when socialist political programs are in decline it is hard to imagine the spirit that drove Trotsky to dedicate his whole life to the fight for a socialist society. However, at the beginning of the 20th century he represented only the most consistent and audacious of a revolutionary generation of Eastern Europeans and Russians who set out to change the history of the 20th century. It was as if the best and brightest of that generation were afraid, for better or worse, not to take part in the political struggles that would shape the modern world. As Trotsky notes this element was lacking, with the exceptions of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and precious few others, in the Western labor movement. Trotsky using his own experiences tells the story of the creation of this revolutionary cadre with care and generally proper proportions.
Many of the events such as the disputes within the Russian revolutionary movement, the attempts by the Western Powers to overthrow the Bolsheviks in the Civil War after their seizure of power and the struggle of the various tendencies inside the Russian Communist Party and in the Communist International discussed in the book may not be familiar to today's audience. Nevertheless one can still learn something from the strength of Trotsky's commitment to his cause and the fight to preserve his personal and political integrity against overwhelming odds. As the organizer of the October Revolution, creator of the Red Army in the Civil War, orator, writer and fighter Trotsky he was one of the most feared men of the early 20th century to friend and foe alike. Nevertheless, I do not believe that he took his personal fall from power as a world historic tragedy. Moreover, he does not gloss over his political mistakes. Nor does he generally do personal injustice to his various political opponents although I would not want to have been subject to his rapier wit and pen. Politicians, revolutionary or otherwise, in our times should take note.
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.