Icepicks At Dawn : Robert Service ~versus~ Leon Trotsky

    Today, I saw a dog,
    Yes, a dog.
    Talking to a pig,
    Yes, a pig.
    They were on the pavement,
    Discussing Trotsky.
    Not brotsky or crotsky or drotsky or frotsky.
    But Trotsky.

US British historian Robert Service done written a new book on Trotsky. Apparently, the news outta Leningrad Harvard isn’t good, and Trotskyists everywhere are taking up their metaphorical cudgels to go into battle for the dead Marxist. Thus:

[AWL] Review of Robert’s Service’s biography of Trotsky, November 12, 2009: “Trotsky towered over the early years of the 20th century. He faced terrible adversity and fought with tremendous power. Service’s book, despite his pretentions, has little to offer anyone who wants to understand the real Trotsky. No doubt it will put off a few gullible souls. But there is far too much of interest in Trotsky’s marvellous life to be soiled by this tired and pathetic slander”;
[CWI] Service with a snarl: Academic refuses to answer questions, The Socialist, November 18, 2009 / A ‘dis-Service’ to Leon Trotsky, Peter Taafe, The Socialist, October 13, 2009: “The most nauseating aspect of this book is the highly personalised attack on Trotsky”;
[SEP] In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service’s Trotsky, David North, November 11, 2009: “There is one final issue that needs to be raised, and that is the role of Harvard University Press in publishing this biography. One can only wonder why it has allowed itself to be associated with such a deplorable and degraded work. It is difficult to believe that Service’s manuscript was subjected to any sort of serious editorial review… it provides its imprimatur for a slanderous and slovenly work. Is Harvard today, in a period of political reaction and intellectual decay, atoning for its earlier displays of principles and scholarly integrity? Whatever the reason, Harvard University Press has brought shame upon itself. One suspects that at some point in the future, with the recovery of morale and courage, it will look back upon this episode with great regret.”

Sounds awesome!

Trotsky: A Biography
Robert Service
Harvard University Press

Robert Service completes his masterful trilogy on the founding figures of the Soviet Union in an eagerly anticipated, authoritative biography of Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidential speeches, and medical records, Service offers new insights into Trotsky. He discusses Trotsky’s fractious relations with the leaders he was trying to bring into a unified party before 1914; his attempt to disguise his political closeness to Stalin; and his role in the early 1920s as the progenitor of political and cultural Stalinism. Trotsky evinced a surprisingly glacial and schematic approach to making revolution. Service recounts Trotsky’s role in the botched German revolution of 1923; his willingness to subject Europe to a Red Army invasion in the 1920s; and his assumption that peasants could easily be pushed onto collective farms. Service also sheds light on Trotsky’s character and personality: his difficulties with his Jewish background, the development of his oratorical skills and his preference for writing over politicking, his inept handling of political factions and coldness toward associates, and his aversion to assuming personal power.

Although Trotsky’s followers clung to the stubborn view of him as a pure revolutionary and a powerful intellect unjustly hounded into exile by Stalin, the reality is very different. This illuminating portrait of the man and his legacy sets the record straight.

See also : John Gray, Behind The Myth, Trotsky: A Biography, By Robert Service, Literary Review, October 2009 | Bloodstained Chancer, George Walden, Standpoint, October 2009 | Shoot them like partridges, Poumista, November 20, 2009.

Not brotsky or crotsky or drotsky or frotsky. But Trotsky. (And hipsters.) (September 6, 2009) | The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky (September 1, 2009) | Trot Guide 2009 (July 11, 2009).

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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10 Responses to Icepicks At Dawn : Robert Service ~versus~ Leon Trotsky

  1. @ndy says:

    Service, one of the leading historians of the Soviet Union and the author of biographies of Lenin and Stalin, sums up his verdict on Trotsky this way: “He was close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism.… He reveled in terror.”

    …it is striking how many of Trotsky’s closest comrades were non-Jewish Jews, just like himself. One might even say, though Service does not pursue the subject this far, that the aggressive rejection of Jewish particularity was the form in which Trotsky, and many Jews like him, lived their Jewishness.

    ~ The Firebrand: A new biography tries to extinguish the myth of the kinder, gentler Trotsky, Adam Kirsch, Tablet, November 24, 2009

    Of relevance:

    A Jew in Prison: A Reflection on Anti-Semitism on the Yard
    David Arenberg
    Intelligence Report
    Winter 2009


    The Road to Utopia: The Origins of Anti-Zionism on the British Left
    Colin Shindler
    (School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London)
    November 18, 2009

    *Disco on The October Revolution 37:30 (approximately).

  2. THR says:

    Without touching on the broader question of Trotsky, the book of Service’s that I read did not lead me to conclude that he is a valuable historian of communism or the Soviet Union. His take on people such as Lenin and Castro is not exactly what you’d call multi-dimensional. Service might as well be producing agit-prop slogans for the CIA, circa 1963.

  3. @ndy says:

    I might have read an essay by Service at some point, but I’m basically unfamiliar with his work, and so cannot comment on his standing as an historian. However, I’ve read some Richard Pipes, and various other neo-cons, on the subject, and I think similar problems present themselves.

    I dunno where Service stands, but basically, their condemnations of Communism extend to communism, and the whole body of radical left-wing thought, as a whole. That is, ‘anti-Communism’ is ‘pro-Capitalism’. But that does not mean every ‘anti-Communist’ is of this ilk, and I think that the end of the Soviet Empire was a good thing for many professional (or semi-professional, or even amateur) ‘anti-Communists’. A case in point is Robert Manne.

    From an anarchist perspective, many of the ‘revelations’ regarding the nature of ‘Soviet’ tyranny are simply commonplace, and have been since the period of the Bolshevik (which is to say Communist) ascendancy. That these were used in propaganda wars between the two systems does not invalidate either the accuracy of these criticisms, nor the possibility — nor desirability — of radical challenges to capitalism, for the simple reason that such efforts proceed from radically different philosophical and political bases.

    So for example: in the Hoover Institution’s interview (August 2009) with Robert Service and Christopher ‘Drink-Soaked Ex-Trotskyite Popinjay For War’ Hitchens, Hitchens makes reference to Trotsky as though his was in some way a unique form of ‘Marxist’ dissent from Soviet orthodoxy (derived from the ‘Left Opposition’ within the Bolshevik/Communist Party). In reality, in addition to the anarchists, there were other, Marxist-derived oppositional elements, many dating from the early 1920s — the left-Communists and so on — whose ‘break’ with Bolshevism was of a more serious — if not necessarily profound — nature.

    Anyway, here’s Richard Gombin, The Radical Tradition: A Study in Modern Revolutionary Thought (1979), Chapter 1: ‘The Soviet State: Myths and Realities’:

    …The professional revolutionaries who had come to power in October 1917 were concerned to develop Russia’s capitalist potential to the utmost, to carry the country farther and faster along the road than the feeble bourgeoisie.

    All concrete measures taken once the Revolution had got over its brief period of anarcho-syndicalist demagogy (from the withering away of the State in State and Revolution to the slogans of workers control and land to the peasants) made necessary by the conquest of power in the first place and afterwards by its retention, these brutally and obstinately incarnate the original project. The same may be said of the centralization of political and economic power, of the return to individual leadership in the army and in industry, and of the introduction of piece-work and Taylorism (as brought up to date by the State economists).

    These measures represent the general line, the average line, of the Bolshevik project. A variety of tendencies inclined or corrected it in the direction of greater liberalism or severity. The man who drove things to their extreme limits, who was not afraid (with an outspokenness for which his colleagues had neither the courage nor the calibre) to say out loud what many were secretly thinking; the man who, with his curious mixture of fanaticism and a taste for work well done, incarnated all that the worker of the day hated most — that man was Lev Davidovich Trotsky.

    This statement will come as a surprise only to those who are unaware of the history of the early years of the Soviet Republic or who have preferred to ignore it. Historical veracity forces us to recognize that, for as long as he held effective power (roughly till 1923), Lev Davidovich rather represents the right wing of the Party, although the scale of reference is somewhat arbitrary.

    At any rate, in 1919, on the strength of his experience as the architect and leader of the Red Army, he attempted to instill a number of principles shared by military men of the period into the Russian economy. Only, contrary to any consistent military doctrine, Trotsky founded his assertions on Marxist ideology. He slated his principles with disarming frankness: at the height of his glory and power he had no hesitation about hammering a few Marxist ‘truths’ into an audience made up of union and party delegates.

    The road to socialism, he declared, runs through the highest possible degree of statism. Like a lamp which bums brightest just before dying out, the State before disappearing, takes on ‘the most ruthless form of government imaginable’, one which embraces the lives of all its citizens.’

    For, in Trotsky’s view, population growth was measured in terms of the productivity of man; it would have been unthinkable to construct socialism on the basis of a fall in production. Furthermore, socialist society signified for him ‘the organization of workers along new lines, their adaptation to these and their re-education with a view to a constant increase in productivity’.

    But this type of organization presupposed forced labour; Trotsky tried to sugar the pill by assuring the worker he was labouring for the State and no longer for some individual. He brushed aside the ‘Menshevik’ argument that this represented a return to the serfdom of the past by stating that ‘under certain conditions, slavery represented progress and led to a rise in production’. And he was convinced that coercive labour in a socialist society would be more productive than the so-called free labour in the bourgeois societies.

    In this respect, there can be no ambiguity: for Trotsky, socialism meant ‘authoritarian leadership … centralized distribution of the labour force … the workers’ State [considering itself] entitled to send any worker wherever his work may be needed’.

    No government coercion, no socialism. But what form was this coercion to take? There, the ‘prophet armed’, as the late Isaac Deutscher called him, made no bones about going to the heart of the matter: the militarization of labour. For, apart from the army, no other social organization has felt itself entitled to subject citizens quite so utterly, to dominate them so totally as does the proletarian government. Here then was the model, lying ready for use: the army. This implies that whole regiments would be posted to this or that sector of the economy, that production would henceforth be characterized by the introduction of military-style brigades, discipline and obedience.

    Once one has accepted the idea of the militarization of labour — not everyone did so at the time — it becomes possible to look upon the entire population as a pool of manpower to be counted, mobilized and utilized. Not only does this ensure the necessary supply of labour but it also serves to eliminate the legendary ‘laziness’ so typical of the Russian people. For the task of social organization consists precisely of confining laziness within a definite framework, of disciplining and goading man by means and methods which he himself has contrived.

    Militarization, which is an ‘inevitable method of organizing and disciplining manpower’ in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism, implies free use of the war department’s machinery for mobilizing the work force, especially in rural areas, where the process will be carried out under the supervision of ‘advanced workers’.

    To complete the picture, Trotsky proposed to promote the public image of the technical foreman; to introduce (or rather to reintroduce) piece-work and any other system designed to boost output. Taylor’s system which, in capitalist society, contributed to the increasing exploitation of workers, did not suffer this disadvantage under socialism. The necessary counterpart of any form of rivalry between workers was to be individual management, of which Lev Davidovich was a determined advocate; he was not in the least impressed with the notion of collegiate management favoured by the trade unions.

    To this it should be added that non-work was forbidden in the Trotskyist system. Deserters from the work front were to be ‘assembled in disciplinary battalions or else relegated to the concentration camps’.

    If Trotsky’s proposals for the militarization of labour were not adopted by the Ninth Congress of the CPSU (29 March-April 1920) it was because the left opposition was still too strong. But on the other hand, individual management, the return of bourgeois ‘experts’ (spehy) to their former posts, and the relegation of the unions to a purely educational role (Trotsky had wanted to turn them into direct instruments of the State in order to increase production) were all accepted by the same congress. Trotsky’s ideas were nonetheless partially implemented in the Tsektran organization (the body responsible for the running of the railways), of which he was the first director, and which he ran along strictly military lines. One need hardly add that workers’ management was dealt its death blow, as was the popularity of the Red Army Chief.

    The winter of 1920-21 saw the last act in this unequal struggle between Party authority and workers’ autonomy. Trotsky’s notions of industrial management, of political democracy and of daily harassment finally bore fruit in the towns as well. He became the symbol of Bolshevik authoritarianism, as it was he who gave the most fanatical expression to these ideas. The conduct of the workers in the large towns bore witness to the fact that the proletariat did not at all see eye to eye with his definition of socialism. Not by chance was the bloodiest uprising in Soviet history suppressed by the self-same Trotsky.

    The Kronstadt revolt was no isolated event. It was one of a series of strikes and street demonstrations which broke out during the winter of 1920-21. In February 1921, these strikes began to spread, notably to Petrograd, and the sailors’ initiative should be seen as an echo of the workers’ strike in the capital, just a few kilometres away from the island of Kronstadt. But while the Petrograd strikers were hunted down by the kursanty (officer-cadets), the sailors dug themselves in on their island or else took refuge on their warships and were thus well-armed to defend themselves.

    On 28 February 1921, a resolution was passed on the battleship Petropavlovsk following the return of emissaries who had witnessed the organized repression of the workers in the capital; this resolution called for new elections to the soviets with freedom for electoral propaganda, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The resolution also called for the release of political prisoners, for the right to cultivate a patch of land or to practise a craft. But above all it was the political demands (fresh elections to the soviets with anarchist and left-socialist participation) that turned the central authorities against Kronstadt.

    The Bolshevik authorities have constantly tried to present the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising as an affair financed and instigated by White Russian emigrés: this version has recently been brought up against available documents emanating from both emigré and Kronstadt sources. It now seems to be well established that the uprising was in no way linked with an insurrection planned by the White Russians but that it represented the most violent phase of a wave of discontent sweeping through the countryside and the large towns at that time.

    If one were to illustrate this episode with a single sentence, one might say that the Kronstadt sailors rose in order to defend the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’, for which they had fought since February 1917 and, in some cases, since February 1905. The erosion of this line had affected them in particular: in March 1918 the Baltic Fleet’s Central Committee (Centrobalt), an elective body, had been replaced, by decree, with a council of handpicked commissars. Their own soviet was entirely in the hands of Bolshevik officials. The Kronstadt sailors demanded the restoration of the free and popular character of the soviets…

  4. Pingback: Keeping up « Poumista

  5. Darren says:

    Erm, Service is English. That is all.

  6. @ndy says:

    Thank you for the correction Darren. Over.

  7. Paul Justo says:

    Let’s give it up once again for Atom & His Package with ‘Anarchy Means I Litter’.

    I tell ya this is gonna be huge in Shanghai.

    “I got a patch. I got a pin. Obtained political beliefs from the same songs as my friends. I got a five finger discount to the little record store, it’s easier that to get the stuff I want out.

    And if you want fair compensation for the work that you do, well then you’re greedy, get out, we have amazing names to call you.

    Ever think that there’s a difference who you’re stealing from? So, fine, I’m not punk and you are (a moron).

    We’re gonna tear this stupid city down. Throw our trash on the ground. (Whine whine whine when no bands come to town.)

    Liberate that bottle of malt liquor! Oh, I get it. Anarchy means that you litter (nice!). So, if you’re flying the flag, and you’re naming the name, then you’re setting back the ones who know how to behave.

    It’s a good thing this replenishes itself, or who would be left to take advantage of your “help”? Gonna drop our trash on you.”

  8. @ndy says:

    I prefer Hats Off to Halford.

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