Coming on the heels of Rick Geary’s popular comic book, Trotsky, Paul Le Blanc’s new biography of Leon Trotsky covers some familiar ground, but also offers a new take on the life and writings of the Marxist theorist.
Like Geary’s Trotsky – a thin non-fiction art comic that sought to share the political biography of the Marxist theorist to comics readers, who remain overwhelmingly under 30 – Le Blanc’s new book is pitched to reach younger readers, with an up-to-date version of Trotsky’s lasting importance. The release of both of these popular accounts reflects a shift from the late 1960s, when new generations of radical intellectuals focused more on providing scholarly versions of radical subjects rather than producing comics and other popularizing versions. Now we seem to have more balance between scholarly and popular offerings, and that’s a good thing.
Le Blanc’s new book will unavoidably be compared to the authoritative biographies of Trotsky published in the 1950s and ’60s by Isaac Deutscher, who contributed over 1,000 pages in three volumes about the great revolutionist’s life. Actual followers of Trotsky did not necessarily thank Deutscher, and many a hair was split over details, not to mention the biographer’s gloomy conclusion that the Fourth International was stillborn and that precious few of Trotsky’s predictions had been borne out. (The collapse of the East Bloc, after Deutscher’s death, certainly fulfilled one of them, and meanwhile, high figures in the Trotskyist following had mostly forgiven Isaac his sins.)
Le Blanc – an activist of the New Left generation, a former college dean and one of the true scholars of Rosa Luxemburg – sets himself a biographer’s task that is different from Deutscher’s and a bit closer to that of Rick Geary.
Le Blanc’s book seems to assume that the reader has read something (though likely lighter fare than Deutscher’s biographies) about Trotsky, or that the reader might be moved to do so after returning this volume to the shelf. What interests Le Blanc mostly is essentially the later Trotsky and the standing of Trotsky’s reputation in the eyes of contemporary observers and later scholars alike. The book has the great virtue of sparing us a lot of the associated reading because Le Blanc acutely summarizes assorted perspectives in an only slightly impartial fashion (Trotsky invariably gets the benefit of the doubt).
What comes across is the huge disadvantage faced by the great heretic, first of all against the power of the Russian regime, after Stalin’s seizure of power, and secondly, against the vast political, cultural and assorted social influence of the Popular Front. Le Blanc gives us a few concise pages on Trotsky’s singular literary triumph, The History of the Russian Revolution, which (although he does not say so) stands with sometime communist W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and sometime Trotskyist C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins – all published within a few years of each other – as the greatest of the 20th-century Marxist historical texts. No one looked back at Russia so clearly, and of course, no future generation would have the same intimacy with the subject.
Trotsky’s insight was not so clear on the situations and radical prospects of his own present 1930s world, and still less lucid on the prospects of the largest Trotskyist movement in the world, the several hundred faithful in the United States. How to overcome the obvious disadvantages? Combat the lies of Stalinism (a literary task done best by Trotsky himself in relation to Russia specifically), and build the perfect Bolshevik Party everywhere – an impossible task that repeatedly fell back upon itself, and has continued to fall back upon itself since Trotsky’s death.
Thus the problem of Le Blanc’s task, to somehow redeem Trotskyism from sectarianism and obscurity. Working-class Communist regulars were to be won over through logic (they almost never were); intellectuals, appealed to on the basis of culture as well as proletarian visions. This second, more successful effort impelled hundreds of ardent US lower-middle-class (and mostly Jewish) youngsters into factories, where working conditions, political disappointments or personal opportunities (like the GI Bill) prompted the vast majority to leave, often sooner rather than later.
The less famous among them remained the lifetime radicals who greeted and aided the new generations of rebels. The more famous, distinctly former Trotskyists, wrote and argued their way into high literary positions in the 1950s and ’60s, and the most famous among them became renowned in the mainstream as defenders of the canon and defenders of universities against the supposed threats of antiwar protesters. Above all, they had become embittered anti-communists. Thus the difficulty of scholarship looking back, a historical saga arguably managed best by Alan Wald and a handful of others who successfully make the connections between Trotsky himself, the movements of his lifetime, and the personalities as well as the movements to come after.
Writing with zest, Le Blanc makes the most of his subject, and in a sense brings Trotsky himself from a rapidly receding past into the present. Only Rick Geary, in my estimation, has done better. To our surprise, Le Blanc says he wishes to emphasize “the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought” (author’s italics), so as to insist that Trotsky placed himself fundamentally within the classic traditions of Marxism while seeking to adapt to an ever-changing reality. He suggests that Trotsky might be understood as anticipating the political effects of global capitalism. This strikes me as highly improbable, but to read the book whole is to see what the life and writings of Trotsky offer, and this is well done.