Saturday, 29 March 2008

Review – My Life by Leon Trotsky

Having read a year or two ago Issac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky, I decided a few weeks ago to get myself a copy of My Life – Trotsky’s autobiography up to 1930.

There are several important differences between Deutscher’s biography and My Life. The first is obviously that My Life doesn’t cover the last ten years of Trotsky’s life. The second and much more important for myself is the different purposes to which they are being written – Deutscher is trying to understand Trotsky’s life from his own position many years later, whilst My Life is an exposition in opposition to the Stalinist slanders that had seen him expelled from Soviet Russia. There are several ways this shows through. Firstly is the constant reference that is made to Lenin at many points, as it was necessary for Trotsky to explain his relationship with Lenin in opposition to accusations about his ‘non-Bolshevik’ past. Secondly are comments on the background of the Stalinist caste at the time of Trotsky’s expulsion, this is not done for the purpose of point scoring, but to contrast them to Trotsky and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

I don’t know how much point there is in going into the details of Trotsky’s life – most famously he was the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet at points in both the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolution, the creator of the Red Army. This isn’t to mention the theoretical advances of the Permanent Revolution and the characterisation of the degeneration of Soviet Russia. It’s impossible to do justice to his life here, I’d much prefer to recommend people to read the book to understand for themselves.

But just one last point. In relation to the posts I’ve had on here in relation to human rights I think the last chapter of this book ‘A Planet Without a Visa’ is quite interesting. It tells us of how although the right to asylum formally existed in the countries of Western Europe, the chapter shows how every one of these countries found ways of denying him this ‘right’. I think this illustrates how although rights may exist on paper, the balance of class forces at any one time determines how ‘real’ these rights are.

3 comments:

Mick Hall said...

I read both of the books you mention many years ago and I agree with both the points you make about My Life. Although if you read between the lines this book does give one an idea of the type of man Trotsky was. However if your looking for a book about Trotsky, with warts and all, this book is not for you for the reason Phil have given.

For me Issac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky is a master piece, the more so when you realizes the limitations he faced as far as archive material was concerned. I cannot think of a single Biography that comes close to this Trilogy. Andrew Mungo's book on Ataturk and Desmond Greaves biog of Connolly both had a major influence on my life being very fine works, but for sheer scale Issac Deutscher’s book on Trotsky is unbeatable.

It is a book I return to over and again thus my copies are in a desperate state, however it is impossible to even come close to understand the road to socialism, the 1917 Russian revolution and Stalinism unless you read this book.

Mick Hall said...

sorry, I realize your not Phil, it is you both have a similar blog title.

Comradely regards

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I have to admit i read deutscher's book first and found it fascinating but I found that the best one of the trilogy was the first and then they got progressively worse compared to that - i haven't read any other biographies of trotsky.

i think the reason for the getting prgressively less good is the lack of data to some extent meaning this was replaced with greater and greater speculation - i remember this frustrating me a little about it - i think i would have liked to know more about the activities of the International left opposition - but then that's me.

becuase my life doesn't cover the last decade of trotsky's life in cannot match-up to deutschers biography - but it does however present what trotsky thought was important about his life as opposed to what deutscher thought was important.

I think another difference comes from the time period they were writing in, I think trotsky had to hold back on some stuff as he didn't want to drop people in it with the Stalinist GPU which over the course of the next few years was rounding up the left opposition. Deutscher is much freer in this respect.

I think they both complement each other reading wise - although i think the order in which I read them is better as i think understanding the context in which My Life is being written is quite important.