North, David. In Defense of Leon Trotsky.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Cox, John K.|
|Publication:||Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308|
|Issue:||Date: Spring-Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 87 Source Issue: 1-2|
|Topic:||NamedWork: In Defense of Leon Trotsky (Essay collection)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: North, David|
North, David. In Defense of Leon Trotsky. Oak Park, MI: Mehring
Books, 2010. xi + 194 pages. Paper, $15.95.
"While the Stalin industry is a going concern in the growing field of Soviet scholarship," David North writes, "the protracted depression in Trotsky studies continues" (p. 32). With this volume comprised of review essays and lectures, North, chair of the international editorial board of the World Socialist Web site, aims to shore up Leon Trotsky's reputation in recent historical discourse while also militating against new interpretations, some of which are slightly positive, of Stalin. His audience is, interestingly enough for the historian, not the world beyond academe and it is not the non-Marxist critic of Soviet thought and practice. Ultimately it becomes apparent that the defense North has in mind is not an assertion of the value of Trotsky's ideas in intellectual or political terms. Nor is it a well-developed reassessment of the importance of Trotsky's role as an alternative to Stalin who might have led the Soviet Union down a different and ultimately more humane and successful path. Rather, it is a passionate, and, at times, nearly embittered, historiographical argument over the contours of the Stalin-Trotsky feud.
Obviously, Trotsky was an important historical figure: he wrote many theoretical works in the service of Bolshevism, led the Red Army to victory in a brutal post- 1917 civil war against the Whites, and vied with Stalin for leadership of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party after Lenin's death in 1924. Over the long haul, Stalin was able to out-maneuver Trotsky, strip him of his party functions, and eventually exile him. Trotsky met a gruesome end in Mexico in 1940, at the hands of an assassin who was in all likelihood dispatched by Stalin. But North maintains tenaciously that only a handful of accurate, useful studies of Trotsky have ever appeared; chief among them is Isaac Deutscher's large-scale biographical trilogy from the early 1960s. The works of Pierre Broue (1988) and Max Eastman (1925) have pride of place among the others.
And the drought of good works on Trotsky continues. Meanwhile, inadequate works about the man, and even slanderous ones, have begun appearing again. This is the essential background for understanding the impetus behind North's work. The three works that have set off alarms for North are all by British professors: Ian Thatcher's Trotsky (2003), Geoffrey Swain's Trotsky (2006), and Robert Service's Trotsky: A Biography (2009). The majority of the book under review consists of broadsides against these three recent biographical texts. That there should be lively debate over the interpretation of Trotsky's actions, ideas, and influence is doubtless a good thing, but as flawed as the biographies of Thatcher, Swain, and Service might be, North's method of settling accounts with them is itself unsatisfactory. No Russian-language archival sources are brought to bear on disputed points, and indeed North very often quotes from English-language translations of Trotsky's own works to argue against the three British professors. Circumstantial evidence, guilt by association, illogic, and ad hominem jibes are not absent from North's argument. Older treatises and memoirs are often cited via reprints rather than originals, resulting in confusion about dates and sequence. The final product is more of a reassertion, albeit a gripping one, of what Trotsky thought and said rather than an argument designed and destined to be intelligible to all or, more significantly, the recreation of the historical record in as accurate a way as possible. North's ability to argue effectively and, ultimately, to further his own (pro-Trotsky) cause would be greatly enhanced if he supplied more concrete and verifiable alternative information in his critiques.
Sometimes North's unorthodox--for the academy, anyway--techniques bear intriguing fruit. He challenges us to think of Service's biography, for instance, as something more than the error-plagued product of an individual mind; the capitalist system itself is responsible for the "perfect equilibrium between the commercial timetable and the content manufacturing process" (p. 167). At other times, North introduces perspectives from recently published Soviet memoirs, a nod towards what "could have been" if his towering counter-arguments had profited from other fresh sources.
The reader of this volume will, if nothing else, be challenged to learn more about Trotsky from a variety of sources. It is likely that North's emotionally charged arguments will haunt another generation of historians of the Soviet Union; it will certainly provide grist for the mills of certain factions of leftists. We have here Trotsky extolled both as "the last great representative" of Classical Marxism (p. 34) and as an irrepressibly "creative" force (p. 94) by dint of his theories of permanent (i.e., global) revolution and the bureaucratic origins of dictatorship. We are faced with hard questions about the legacies of Stalinism and its possible effects on our thought today. In addition, for political activists on the left the most fundamental issue arising from this book will arguably be the reminder of how valuable Trotsky's political wisdom could have been to the Soviet Union in his day and to us in today's era of permanent economic crisis. For historians the following sentence might well be the most important in the book: "Trotsky conceived of Marxism as the 'science of perspective'" (p. 11). Inside an intellectual system like Marxism, nothing is discrete, random, or accidental. Trotsky's importance, then, may lie not only in his ideas (potentially) and revolutionary deeds (concretely) but also in the roaming and adaptive critiques he forged while on the run--holy only to some, but interesting to all.
John K. Cox, Ph.D.
Professor of History
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
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