Review submitted to International Socialism but never published.



    Pierre Broué’s new biography of Trotsky[1] is a monumental piece of work, running to 935 pages of text. Few people have better credentials than Broué for taking on the subject; an active Trotskyist militant since 1944, he is already known for his books on the Spanish Civil War, the German Revolution and the Bolshevik Party.[2]  When the Closed section of the Trotsky Archives in Harvard were opened in January 1980, Broué was the first researcher to enter, at 9.00 a.m., and has since worked extensively on the Archives.[3]

    But perhaps the most striking thing about Broué’s book is the direct attack he makes on the work of Isaac Deutscher[4] . No biographer of Trotsky could ignore Deutscher, but Broué quite baldly states that ‘Deutscher is not a historian’. (16) He accuses Deutscher of failing to read documents properly, of factual inaccuracies and of filling gaps in his information with pure imagination. But the attack is not primarily on Deutscher’s professional competence; rather it is on his politics. Deutscher downgraded the importance of Trotsky’s political activity in his later years, arguing that his strength lay in ‘theoretical ideas’ and that his ‘passion for action’ was a ‘weakness’. (760) Broué goes on to endorse George Lichtheim’s opinion that Deutscher’s work was a veiled apologia for Stalin and his successors.(16)[5]

    More than one generation of Marxists have grown up taking their knowledge of Trotsky’s life – if not their analysis of his politics – from Deutscher’s trilogy, and an attack on Deutscher on such a scale, and from such a source, deserves careful consideration. Yet it must be said from the beginning that Broué does not offer us a ‘new’ Trotsky. How could he? A bourgeois politician’s private papers might provide startling revelations about the hidden motives behind his actions. But a revolutionary tells the truth to the world, however bitter it may be. As Trotsky said to the Red Army: ‘Our advantage is that we have nothing to hide.’ Documents went into the Closed Archives to protect Trotsky’s correspondents, who might risk death at the hands of Stalinists or fascists, not because they contained views different from those he presented publicly. No-one already familiar with Trotsky’s life and work will come away from Broué’s book with a radically different view, although they will undoubtedly be led to reconsider many points of detail.

    As a result many of the points on which Broué corrects Deutscher are of limited interest. Presumably not many readers will be profoundly shocked to learn that Deutscher confused VM Smirnov with IN Smirnov (249), or that he was wrong about the exact date of composition of Literature and Revolution. (425) Moreover, Broué sometimes falls into the same traps he accuses Deutscher of falling into. All too often he relies on Trotsky’s autobiography My Life, when some external corroboration  would be useful. In challenging Deutscher’s account of Kronstadt (301), or of Trotsky’s hesitations in joining the Bolsheviks in 1917 (175), he relies on his own imagination of what Trotsky’s feelings might have been.

    Of course Broué has brought to light a mass of detailed information. In studying the various murderous attacks on Trotsky and his supporters he has discovered how much Stalin’s secret services relied on anti-Bolshevik émigrés. (868-9) He points out that Vyshinsky, the prosecutor in the Moscow Trials, had in 1917 issued a warrant for Lenin’s arrest on the grounds that he was a German agent.(826) In 1934, when Trotsky was about to be expelled from France, Paul-Henri Spaak – the future Secretary-General of NATO – offered to smuggle him illegally into Belgium in his own car.(794) And when Trotsky applied for a British visa in 1929 his British correspondent who kept him informed of developments was no less than Ivor Montagu – who a few years later became a pillar of Labour Monthly and a loyal defender of the Stalinist line.(602) For anyone working on the history of the  international revolutionary movement between 1900 and 1940 Broué’s book will be a rich mine of information.

    Admiration and commitment are merits – perhaps indispensable ones – in a biographer, but hero-worship is a grave danger. Broué – formed by over forty years of defending Trotsky against Stalinist slanders – does not always draw the line. Having quite legitimately noted the exceptional power of Trotsky’s intellect, he goes to suggest that one of the reasons for the repeated collapse of Trotskyist organisations may have been that Trotsky’s ‘intellectual machine’ was too powerful to pull such ‘light vehicles’.(22) Even less plausible is the claim that Gramsci’s reputation today is based on an understanding for which he owed an intellectual debt to Trotsky.(23) Trotsky’s own achievement is, in all conscience, great enough without it being necessary to make him responsible for Gramsci as well. And Broué quotes Jacqueline Lamba’s account of Trotsky’s discussion of dogs with Andre Breton (899), but fails to mention that what really shocked Breton was Trotsky’s claim that dogs had souls![6]

    Trotsky’s record before and during the Revolution is now well-established and unlikely to be challenged except by the dying race of old-guard Stalinists. The period of opposition and exile after 1924 is somewhat different, and it is here that Broué is able to develop some of his more substantive differences with Deutscher.

    Broué makes clear that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky was one between social forces and political lines, not simply between individuals. Yet he is equally anxious to show that the process was not one of inevitables, determined in advance. He accuses Deutscher of believing that there was no alternative to Stalinism because of the incompatibility between democracy and primitive accumulation. (386-7) As he points out, when Deutscher alleges that ‘the bureaucracy…would remain, perhaps for decades, the only force capable of initiative and action in the reshaping of Soviet society’[7], he was writing from the point of view of his mid-fifties illusions in Kruschev. (594) In opposition to this, Broué quotes Trotsky to the effect that if he and Lenin had fought Stalin together they would have won: ‘Our joint action against the Central Committee at the beginning of 1923 would without a shadow of a doubt have brought us victory…How solid the victory would have been is, of course, another question.’(333) He does not quote two further sentences from the same paragraph: ‘Lenin’s wife said in 1927 that if he had been alive he would probably have been doing time in a Stalin prison. I think she was right.’[8]

    For Deutscher there was a conflict in Trotsky between ‘the detached thinker’ and ‘the active political leader’; the former could see the inevitability of defeat, while the latter refused to accept it.[9] Broué will not admit any such crude disjunction between theory and practice, and therefore attempts a defence of Trotsky’s various tactical decisions between Lenin’s death and his final defeat and exile. He disapproves of Deutscher’s use of psychological explanations of Trotsky’s behaviour, and rejects Deutscher’s allegations that Trotsky showed ‘incomprehensible passivity’ at the time of the Fourteenth Party Congress (466), throughout which Trotsky ‘sat silent’.[10]  Broué shows that Trotsky’s apparent passivity was based on a carefully thought out political strategy, and a refusal to unite, at that point, with the so-called Leningrad Opposition of Zinoviev. He quotes an oppositionist who recalls that in Leningrad the anti-Stalin resolution had been carried unanimously – in other words, Zinoviev was running a bureaucratic apparatus with as little interest in workers’ democracy as Stalin.(473)

    Broué justifies Trotsky’s subsequent rapprochement with Zinoviev and Kamenev, quoting Trotsky’s description of them as ‘considerable personalities’.(481) But all the evidence would seem to suggest that Trotsky was right to be wary of alliance with Zinoviev; such acute and honest observers as Alfred Rosmer[11]  and Victor Serge (who records that his circle used to describe Zinoviev as ‘Lenin’s biggest mistake’) present a distinctly unflattering portrait of him.[12]

    Deutscher is even harsher on Trotsky for adopting the principle which he sums up as ‘With Stalin against Bukharin? -  Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? – Never!’ – a position which he describes as no less than ‘suicidal folly’.[13] Broué analyses the circumstances in some detail and concludes that Trotsky never accepted a position of ‘support’ for Stalin. (586)

    As Broué points out, what really lies behind the argument is the inadequacy of the terms ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ to describe the conflict in the post-Lenin period.(587) Drawn from the experience of the parties of the Second International, they simply did not fit the new reality; to put Stalin to the ‘left’ of Bukharin now seems grotesque.

    But it is easy to be wise after the event; in retrospect we can all discover ‘errors’ in the Left Opposition’s tactics, but its various vacillations and retreats derive from one basic problem – it did not understand what the enemy was. It faced an exceptionally unprecedented set of circumstances (all historical processes are unprecedented, but some are more unprecedented than others). On the one hand the hope persisted that the obvious deformations of the Party could be rectified from within; on the other, the main danger seemed to be the possibility of the restoration of old-style capitalism, based on private ownership of property.

    Revolutionaries trying to understand new circumstances often turn to analogies from the past, and Trotsky did this when he took the concept of Thermidor (the date of Robespierre’s fall) from the French Revolution of 1789. But, as Broué shows by analysing various texts where Trotsky uses the term, he was not consistent in his use of the word.(590) Sometimes Trotsky uses it to mean the passage of power to a different class, but as Broué reminds us ‘the bourgeoisie remained in power throughout the French Thermidor, just as during the previous period.’ (590) Trotsky revised his ideas on Thermidor in 1935, in an article called ‘The Workers State, Thermidor, and Bonapartism’, although, of course, he never recognised Stalin as representing an alien class. Neither Deutscher nor Broué, both willing to criticise Trotsky on many points, pursue this; yet it is futile to dissect Trotsky’s tactical moves without placing these in the context of the nature of the enemy he was facing. As Victor Serge reminds us, the class nature of the Russian state was a live issue that provoked heated controversy among those who faced death at Stalin’s hands.[14]

    But if Broué fails to deal with this issue, he does provide much valuable information on the size and state of the opposition in Russia. In 1926, he estimates the Trotskyist opposition had some 4000 supporters – a small minority of the Party, but not an insignificant one.(490) After Trotsky’s exile, the opposition, despite repression and demoralisation, survived; in October 1928 the Left Opposition distributed 10,000 leaflets in Moscow to commemorate the anniversary of the Revolution.(565) Despite the repression of the early thirties, the opposition persisted and maintained its intellectual life, ‘turning prisons into universities’. (703) While obviously not all those accused of ‘Trotskyism’ actually had any sympathy for Trotsky’s ideas, the opposition continued to hold some support until 1938, when a cluster of Trotskyists who had led a hunger strike in a labour camp were massacred. (881) Whether the Left Opposition could have won is an unanswerable question; what is made quite clear by Broué’s account of the opposition inside Russia is that the struggle was eminently worth waging.

    But this leads to a further question, perhaps more fundamental even than the class nature of Stalinist Russia, namely Trotsky’s political perspective. Broué is justly scornful of those like Deutscher who saw Trotsky primarily as a ‘prophet’ rather than as a militant (755)[15] So while Deutscher – who opposed the founding of the Fourth International – sees Trotsky’s organisational efforts in his last ten years as largely futile, Broué – while not neglecting the heart-rending circumstances of Trotsky’s family life – concentrates on the political task to which Trotsky devoted himself unsparingly, that of building a political and organisational alternative to Stalinism. Indeed, Broué describes the commitment to form a new International as the ‘most important’ turning-point in Trotsky’s life. (744) Broué traces in some considerable detail Trotsky’s relations with individuals and organisations, showing a patience in pursuing potential supporters comparable to that of Lenin in the bleak years between 1905 and 1912.

    In this context Broué sheds new light on Trotsky’s split with Alfred Rosmer. Whereas this is often attributed to the impact of the personality of Raymond Molinier, Broué shows that there was a serious political divergence between Trotsky and Rosmer over the question of the calling of an international conference. In this connection it pleasing to see Broué bring to the fore someone who in most accounts (including the writings of Alfred Rosmer) has only a shadowy existence – Marguerite Thévenet, Rosmer’s wife. As the argument drew on towards the irreparable break, Rosmer fell ill and took leave of absence, but Thévenet carried on fighting ferociously to the bitter end. (679)

    Trotsky committed the last ten years of his life – in full knowledge of the risks – to building an organisation. But what organisation was he building?  To pose that question is to reveal some of the contradictions in Trotsky’s thought – and in Broué’s analysis. For Broué repeatedly assures us that Trotsky had a long-term perspective: ‘his eyes were fixed on a world horizon and on decades.’ (576) He suggests that Trotsky had probably no illusions in the older generation who had already been through too much and that his hopes were set on the youth. (673) Broué points to the contradiction, when Hitler was only weeks away from power, between the short-term solutions that were needed and the long-term processes which were all that Trotsky could offer.(728)

    But elsewhere Broué finds it much harder to come to terms with the time-scale that lay behind Trotsky’s politics. Thus he quotes Trotsky’s declaration of October 1938: ‘In the course of the coming ten years the programme of the Fourth International will gain the adherence of millions, and these revolutionary millions will be able to storm heaven and earth.’ He comments: ‘Doubtless the period of time was not the essential thing in his eyes.’(753) Unfortunately this will not do. It is one thing for an individual to take as the basis of his or her personal commitment to revolutionary activity the proposition: ‘If we succeed in the short term, well and good; if not, we will bequeath a tradition and an experience to coming generations.’ But as a basis of revolutionary tactics it is quite simply inadequate. It is one thing to look back from the vantage-point of the 1980s and say that if Trotsky had not fought his heroic fight then the revolutionary left would not have survived and been able to grow after 1968. But to claim that Trotsky was looking to the eighties is a quite different matter. He was not, and his political judgments make it clear that he was not.

    It is here that Broué is at his weakest. He presents the arguments of Deutscher, Serge, Pivert and others against founding the Fourth International, and replies to them. (751) But the actual treatment of the Fourth International is very thin.[16]After 935 pages it may seem churlish (if not masochistic) to ask for more, but Broué effectively evades the issue. He quotes a text from Trotsky which puts the word ‘found’ in inverted commas, as though nothing had really changed in international Trotskyism with the founding of the Fourth International.(911) Yet the statutes of the Fourth International laid down that the new organisation would be based on ‘democratic centralism’ (that is, an organisational form that was inappropriate to the movement as it existed and therefore bound to lead to both bluff and splits), while the Transitional Programme concludes: ‘Workers – men and women – of all countries, place yourselves under the banner of the Fourth International. It is the banner of your approaching victory!’ One gets the impression that Broué is not prepared to defend the detailed political perspective that lay behind the founding of the Fourth International, but that he is also not willing to subject it to rigorous criticism. Since he has been arguing that the building of the Fourth International was the central task of Trotsky’s life, this produces a bizarre inconclusiveness. In a historian of Broué’s stature, it is a sad spectacle.

    In fact, as Broué himself shows, Trotsky’s whole perspective for Russia was based on the view that imminent war would tip the scales one way or the other.(917) Indeed, in an article written just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Trotsky argued that the war would produce either the ‘overthrow of the bureaucracy’ in Russia, or ‘a decline of the proletariat’; and that if the latter were the case ‘…nothing else would remain except only to recognise that the socialist programme, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia. It is self-evident that a new “minimum” programme would be required – for the defence of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.’[17]  Clearly this is not the utterance of a man for whom  ‘the period of time was not the essential thing.’ Broué tells us that he has searched the archives and has failed to find any note or document where Trotsky developed this idea. He therefore suggests it may have been no more than a debating point. (942) The fact remains that Trotsky did say it, and that it is not the statement of a man with his eyes fixed on a future decades ahead, but rather one who realises the desperate urgency of the struggle he is engaged in.

    It is precisely the discrepancy between the urgency of the perspective and the inadequacy of the organisation that led to the weaknesses of Trotsky’s politics in the last years. After the outbreak of World War II, the attempt to find a link between tiny organisations and mass sentiment led Trotsky to raise the ‘transitional’ demand of conscription under workers’ control.(921) Trotsky’s attempt to defend this position led to the bizarre spectacle of a revolutionary citing in his support the fact that ‘the Institute of Public Opinion established that over 70 per cent of the workers are in favour of conscription.’[18]

    Even more crucial is Trotsky’s position on the mass organisations of the working class. In discussing the French strikes of 1936 Trotsky noted that in such a period of mass struggle, the traditional organisations of the working class grow rapidly – but that their growth is a sign of their death agony. (815) He thus showed a dialectical grasp of both the resilience and the weakness of the mass organisations. But he did not always show the same balance. In 1939 he predicted that in the coming war ‘Attlee and Pollitt, Blum and Thorez…will be crushed under the wheel of history’.[19]

    Of course Trotsky had lived through an age of massive upheavals. In the weeks before Hitler came to power Leon Sedov had written to him that the German CP was so demoralised that there were many reports of branch treasurers running off with the funds.(729) Nonetheless it was rash for him to predict that neither the German nor the Italian CP could make a lasting recovery. (736) Likewise Trotsky predicted that the corruption caused by class collaboration would lead to the development of a chauvinist current within Stalinist parties which could lead to their breaking apart.(914) The analysis was right, but  the time-scale wrong; it was not in the Second World War, but in the Eurocommunism of the seventies that the process came to a head.

    Whereas Deutscher dismisses – almost flippantly – the whole experience of ‘entrism’ as a failure[20]  Broué, in keeping with his whole approach, gives it much more serious treatment. Yet though he claims some short-term gains for the ‘French turn’(799), the eventual balance-sheet was not positive. In Spain the Left Opposition supporters rejected Trotsky’s advice to enter the Socialist Party (PSOE), and eventually found themselves in the POUM. (884) But there is no way of showing that, if ‘entrism’ had been practised in Spain, it would have achieved better results than in France.

    Broué begins his book by noting the current revival of interest in Trotsky in Russia. (17) Yet he also quotes Trotsky’s grandson as saying, quite rightly, that what matters is not ‘rehabilitation’, but the publication of Trotsky’s works in Russia.(937)

    Certainly Trotsky’s writings would be a revelation to those in Russia now groping to make sense of their society and their history. But there is a tendency for Broué to suggest that Trotsky would provide all the answers. No revolutionary, however great – and Trotsky was one of the greatest – can stand outside their own time. There is much in the world today that is not covered by, or which directly contradicts, the analysis left to us by Trotsky. Only a rigorously critical attitude can enable us to take and develop what is valuable in Trotsky’s work. Broué’s biography is undoubtedly a major contribution to historical scholarship, but it falls short by being too reverent to its subject matter, too unwilling to confront the really difficult problems that Trotsky left unanswered.


    [1] Trotsky, Paris, 1988; all page references given in brackets in text

    [2] The Revolution and Civil War in Spain (with E Témime), London, 1972; Le Parti bolchevique, Paris,  1963; La Revolution allemande, Paris, 1971

    [3] Isaac Deutscher, by special permission of Natalya Sedova, had previously worked on the Closed Archives

    [4] The Prophet Armed; The Prophet Unarmed; The Prophet Outcast: Oxford, 1970

    [5] See The Prophet Outcast, pp 259-60. Lichtheim’s judgment is dated 1967. Broué might have noted that already in 1963 Tony Cliff had put forward much the same position in his article ‘The End of the Road: Deutscher’s Capitulation to Stalinism’ in Neither Washington nor Moscow, London, 1982.

    [6] A Schwarz, Andre Breton, Trotsky et lanarchie, Paris, 1977, p 210

    [7] The Prophet Unarmed p 438

    [8] Trotsky, My Life, New York, 1960, p 481

    [9] The Prophet Unarmed, p 439

    [10] The Prophet Unarmed, p 253

    [11] Lenins Moscow, London, 1987

    [12] Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford, 1967, p 177

    [13] The Prophet Unarmed, p 315

    [14] See for example The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Harmondsworth, 1968, p 88

    [15] Deutscher’s rejection of revolutionary practice may be judged from the following passage: ‘This is not to say that the ex-communist man of letters, or intellectual at large should retire into the ivory tower…But he may withdraw into a watch-tower instead. To watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world, to be on sharp lookout for what is going to emerge from it…this is now the only honourable service the ex-communist intellectual can render to a generation in which scrupulous observation and honest interpretation have become so sadly rare.’ Heretics and Renegades, cited in Cliff, ‘The End of the Road’, Neither Washington nor Moscow, p 189

    [16] Disappointingly, Broué, with his unparalleled knowledge of archive material, has nothing to add about where the FI was founded; was it, as many of us have long believed as an article of faith, in Rosmer’s barn, or was it, as Charles Van Gelderen claims (S Bornstein & A Richardson, The War and the International, London, 1986, p 24) in Paris

    [17] In Defence of Marxism, New York, 1965, p 9

    [18] Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, New York, 1973, p 345. For a interesting critical assessment of the FI position on the war see S Levy, ‘The Proletarian Military Policy Revisited’, Revolutionary History , No 3. Levy judges that ‘we were unable to become a major force in order to apply it’.

    [19] Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, p 43

    [20] The Prophet Outcast, p 272