Service with a snarl: Robert Service refuses to answer questions

Service with a snarl: Academic refuses to answer questions

HISTORIAN ROBERT Service recently wrote a well-publicised and widely distributed book Trotsky – a biography. In The Socialist issue 597, Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, reviewed this book, criticising its falsehoods, distortions and attempted character assassination of Leon Trotsky.
When the Socialist Party invited Service to debate his ideas at Socialism 2009 and when the RIA Novosti news agency organised a meeting on Marxism and the relevance of Trotsky in Moscow that included Peter Taaffe and others, Service refused both offers.
Recently Professor Service spoke at a public meeting in south London. PAULA MITCHELL and other Socialist Party members went to the meeting. Paula explains what happened. ROBERT SERVICE obviously likes an audience that likes him. At Southbank Centre on 11 November he got that, when around 100 fans gathered to hear him and Tristram Hunt, author of Engels: the frock-coated communist, discuss their work.

Untroubled by working class people and – he hoped – socialists, Service and the audience settled in for a good chortle at the expense of people with the temerity to dedicate their lives to fighting for a better world.

Tristram Hunt’s work on Engels is fairly sympathetic and though he is not a socialist, he gave a warm, honest account. Robert Service, and the event’s chair however, were set on diminishing, mocking and downright attacking Trotsky and Trotskyists from the start.

Service was introduced as having written biographies previously on Lenin and Stalin. The chair’s first question, spoken with relish, was, “Robert Service, you seem to specialise in biographing bastards. Was Trotsky therefore a natural choice?”

Service replied, ‘A lot of people thought that Soviet Russia would have been different if Trotsky was in charge. I expected he would overlap with Stalin but I didn’t expect him to be so unappealing as a human being. He was an unexpected bastard… I wanted to bring down the edifice… His ideas and practices in power were an anachrony to decent values.’

‘Some worthy qualities’

So instantly, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were lumped together in the typical method of capitalist ideologues. No matter that Trotsky spent nearly twenty years fighting Stalinism and that Stalin wiped out Trotsky and his supporters in an orgy of suppression, falsification and blood, trying to blot out their ideas and methods from history.

Service repeated some of his book’s false assertions. For example, before 1914 Trotsky was apparently “at best a war reporter”! What about being the chair of the Petrograd Soviet in the 1905 revolution?

He conceded that Trotsky had some worthy qualities. He was a fantastic writer, a wonderful public speaker and crucial in that regard to the revolution. But ‘he was a lousy tactician and had no sensible instincts about how he could achieve power… The only politics he could get on with were the politics of telling people what to do… He didn’t win power because he hadn’t a clue how to go about it… Trotsky couldn’t handle a bag of oranges.’

These assertions made the audience titter, but bear no relation to reality. This is one of the more disappointing aspects of Service’s talk – he is a professor of history, yet appears to have little grasp of real processes, or material and social circumstances. It was all unsubstantiated assertion about personal qualities, as if history is just made by individual personalities.

The fact that the Russian revolution took place in an economically underdeveloped country wracked by World War One and was followed by a three-year civil war when 21 armies from imperialist countries invaded to try to overthrow the revolution, and was then left isolated by the failure of the other revolutionary movements which swept across Europe – these facts, which created the circumstances where a bureaucracy could arise, were all absent from this discussion.

For Trotsky it was not a question of having to “take power” after the 1917 revolution, but of waging a battle first to put in place measures that would restrict the development of a bureaucracy, and then a battle of living forces, against the bureaucracy in the interests of the working class.

Service did say that one thing he admired about Trotsky was that he was always honest. But Service obviously doesn’t mind a few untruths himself. At one point he declared, “People who call themselves Trotskyists call themselves democrats – but Trotsky wasn’t a democrat, he supported the dictatorship of the proletariat, he wrote a pamphlet called ‘terrorism and communism’.”

He failed to mention (though several people in the audience reminded him) that the ‘terrorism and communism’ pamphlet was written against terrorism. Service must know that since he claims to have read it.

He must also know that ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ means rule of the majority in society as opposed to rule of an exploiting minority. Because this term can be misunderstood, socialists today prefer to use the term ‘workers’ state’ to mean the same thing.

In fact, the period of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Russia was the most democratic society there has ever been, with committees at all levels of society, with votes for working class men and women for the first time in the world, with rights for national minorities and so on. This man is a professor of Russian history, he must know the facts, he just prefers to ignore them.


When the floor was opened up for questions, the first question was: “Have there been any Marxist reviews of your books?” Service instantly, gleefully, launched an attack on the Socialist Party.

“There has been a review by an organisation that used to be known as the Militant – do you remember it? … Peter Taaffe ….they even invited me to debate at one of their conferences [whoops of hilarity from the audience – what a ridiculous idea! – PM] but you can’t give these people oxygen.”

Unfortunately for Service, a couple of “these people” were in the audience. Tom Baldwin got up to explain that he was the person who had invited Mr Service to debate (“Oh you are a real person then?”) and asked why he was not prepared to debate – not just at our event, but with any Trotskyist anywhere.

Before Tom could finish his question he met a tirade from Service about how ‘there’s no point, I’ve done it before, these people don’t want the drip, drip of reality, they say they want to debate but give you ten minutes and then start booing, it’s really just a stitch-up.’


I said he had just read a bit from his book about how Stalin had hunted down Trotsky to wipe out him and his ideas, and yet he himself had just said that Trotskyists shouldn’t be given oxygen – isn’t that the same thing? If he doesn’t want to debate in a socialist event, OK, but why has he refused to debate in Moscow, in front of an open audience, alongside other academics and even a priest?

But neither most of the audience nor Service himself would have heard this question, because as soon as I opened my mouth both he and the chair talked over me. The chair loudly repeated: “Just a question, what’s your question, do you have a question”. When I said yes and tried to repeat it I was told: “That’s the wrong question!”

And they call us undemocratic! If Service had come to debate at Socialism 09, he would have been given at least 20 minutes to put his case. Anyone in the audience, including opponents of ours, would have been given five minutes each to speak, and then he would have had time to reply to any points made. This apparently would have been a stitch-up.

But depriving Trotskyists of oxygen, not allowing one sentence to be spoken without interruption, shouting over people, then telling them they’re asking the wrong question – that’s presumably the stuff of rational academic debate!