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7 July 2009


Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky

By Bertrand M Patenaude (Faber and Faber, 20.00 HB)
Reviewed by Niall Mulholland
Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

American academic Bertrand M Patenaude's new book, Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky, is likely to gain a wide readership, including young people and workers interested in the life and ideas of this great revolutionary.

An account of Trotsky's last years in exile in Mexico, during his heroic struggles against Stalinism, fascism and capitalism, and, pertinently, during the last great economic crisis, is to be welcomed.

Overall, Patenaude gives a sympathetic account of Trotsky, at least on a personal, human level. The author's novelistic writing style, which switches back in time to key parts of Trotsky's life, such as his years leading the Red Army, makes the book, for the most part, gripping.

Patenaude summarises Trotsky's role as a young revolutionary in Czarist Russia, and his arrest, exile and escape to Europe, where he met leading exiled Russian Marxists, including Lenin. The sharp polemical debates between Trotsky and Lenin and other wings of the Russian social democratic movement, including over Lenin's advocacy of an organised revolutionary party dedicated to leading the working class to change society (to which Trotsky later fully agreed) are briskly dealt with, as is Trotsky's pivotal role in two revolutions (1905 and 1917).

One of Trotsky's great theoretical contributions, the theory of the permanent revolution, which brilliantly foresaw the development of the 1917 revolution, and his close collaboration with Lenin in that momentous year, are given broad outline. The main focus of the book is on Trotsky's personal and political struggles in the 1930s.

The 1917 Russian Revolution saw the working class, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, come to power and abolish capitalism and landlordism. But Russia, economically and culturally underdeveloped, then faced twenty one capitalist armies of invasion and a devastating civil war, with resulting famine, economic collapse and the loss of many of the most politically advanced workers.

The failure of socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist countries, such as Germany, left the Russian working class isolated and exhausted. In these conditions, a bureaucratic, nationalist reaction developed, led by Stalin, which eventually drowned the revolution in blood, although the historical gains of the state-owned planned economy remained.

Forced into exile by the Stalinist regime, Trotsky was hounded by the forces of Stalinism, fascism and capitalism and eventually found refuge in Mexico. Patenaude gives a detailed account of these years and the personalities that collaborated with Trotsky, including the painter Frida Kahlo and the muralist Diego Rivera, who subsequently broke with Trotsky and later abased himself to return to the Stalinist Mexican communist party.

'Warts and all'

The book covers all the main aspects of Trotsky's work and relations while 'imprisoned' in Rivera's Blue House and later in other fortified dwellings. Patenaude describes Trotsky's literary output and his engagement with genuine revolutionary artists.

The description of the terrible human cost of Trotsky's principled defence of genuine Marxism - the murder of most of his family and many supporters - is, at times, heartbreaking. The 'Old Man' is revealed 'warts and all', as he valiantly struggled to publicly expose the calumny of the Moscow show trials and extermination of the Old Bolsheviks, while living in extremely difficult circumstances and working with slim resources.

Patenaude provides an account of the assassination attempts and finally the murder of Trotsky in 1940, detailing the role of Stalin and his army of agents and spies. The examination of Trotsky's personal life, however, sometimes borders on the salacious.

Patenaude relies a great deal on the testimonies of Trotsky's young bodyguards, mainly drawn from the US Trotskyist movement, and from some of Trotsky's political co-thinkers. In doing so, rather too much attention is paid to the views of people that subsequently broke with Trotsky and revolutionary politics, which of course skews their accounts.

For those readers coming to the subject for the first time or for those keen to get to grips with the debates of the international Left during the 1930s, Patenaude does not provide an adequate or in-depth account. At best, he projects a liberal/leftist portrayal of the great Marxist. Passing remarks, such as that Trotsky tried to "cloak the Bolshevik coup" (ie the October 1917 socialist revolution) and that Trotsky "helped create the first totalitarian state", make clear the author's political bias, as well as his lack of rigorous objective analysis.

While largely attempting to account for all sides in the Trotskyist movement's key debates in the 1930s, Patenaude largely does so in an impressionistic fashion and brings with it his political prejudices. The author argues that Trotsky personalised debates during faction fights in the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP), that Trotsky was incapable of working with others in smaller groups etc.

But Trotsky's approach on, for example, the class characterisation of the Soviet Union and his call for a political revolution to restore real workers' democracy, and the position of revolutionaries on the impending world war, were grounded in decades of political experience and in defence of genuine Marxism. The leading opposition figures in the SWP - Shachtman, Burnham and Abern - as predicted by Trotsky, all subsequently broke with Marxism and moved to the right.

For an examination of these important debates, as well as Trotsky's incisive analysis of fascism, the Spanish Revolution and other vital issues in the 30s, all of which have great relevance today, there is no better place to go than Trotsky's published collected writings.