[Marxism] WSWS review of Robert Service Trotsky bio

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 13 07:39:45 MST 2009

In The Service of Historical Falsification
A Review of Robert Service’s Trotsky: A Biography
By David North
11 November 2009

Trotsky: A Biography
Robert Service
Harvard University Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009


Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced 
without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. 
Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been 
conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, 
an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to 
distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. 
Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, 
Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. 
Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s 
intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s 
source, let alone substantiate its credibility.

Trotsky once declared, as he defended himself against the slanders 
of Stalin’s regime: “There is not a stain on my revolutionary 
honor.” Service, however, portrays Trotsky as an individual 
without any honor at all. He attempts to discredit Trotsky not 
only as a revolutionary politician, but also as a man. Service’s 
Trotsky is a heartless and vain individual who used associates for 
his own egotistical purposes, a faithless husband who callously 
abandoned his wife, and a father who was coldly indifferent to his 
children and even responsible for their deaths. “People did not 
have to wait long before discovering how vain and self-centered he 
was,” Service writes of Trotsky in a typical passage. [56]

Service’s biography is loaded with such petty insults. Trotsky was 
“volatile and untrustworthy.” “He was an arrogant individual” who 
“egocentrically assumed that his opinions, if expressed in vivid 
language, would win him victory.” “His self-absorption was 
extreme. As a husband he treated his first wife shabbily. He 
ignored the needs of his children especially when his political 
interests intervened.” [4]

Trotsky’s intellectual and political life was, Service would have 
his readers believe, as shabby as his personal life. Trotsky’s 
“lust for dictatorship and terror were barely disguised in the 
Civil War. He trampled on the civil rights of millions of people 
including the industrial workers.” As for his subsequent political 
defeat, Service dismisses, without counter-argument, Trotsky’s 
analysis of the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy and its 
usurpation of political power. Service simply asserts, as if he 
were stating the obvious, that Trotsky “lost to a man [Stalin] and 
a clique with a superior understanding of Soviet public life.” [4]

According to Service, Trotsky was nothing more than a second- or 
third-rate thinker. Trotsky, he writes, “made no claim to 
intellectual originality: he would have been ridiculed if he had 
tried.” [109] “Intellectually he flitted from topic to topic and 
felt no stimulus to systematize his thinking.” [110] Trotsky wrote 
quickly and superficially: “He simply loved to be seated at a 
desk, fountain pen in hand, scribbling out the latest opus. Nobody 
dared to disturb him when the flow of words was forming in his 
head.” [319] And what was the result of this “scribbling”? Service 
writes: “His thought was a confused and confusing ragbag.” [353] 
“He spent a lot of time in disputing, less of it in thinking. 
Style prevailed over content…This involved an ultimate lack of 
seriousness as an intellectual.” [356] This is Service’s verdict 
on the literary work of a man who must be counted among the 
greatest writers of the twentieth century. (5)

A biographer need not like or even respect his subject. No one 
would suggest that Ian Kershaw harbors the slightest sympathy for 
Adolf Hitler, to whose life he devoted two extraordinary volumes 
that were the product of many years of research. However, whether 
a biographer admires, despises or feels a cool and detached 
ambivalence toward the object of his scholarly attention, he must 
respect the factual record and strive to understand that person. 
The biographer has the responsibility to examine a life in the 
context of the conditions of the times in which his subject lived. 
But this is beyond Service’s intellectual capacities and the 
boundaries of his knowledge. Instead, in a manner both pointless 
and absurd, he assumes from the outset the standpoint of a 
disapproving career counselor. Trotsky, Service opines in the 
biography’s introduction, “could easily have achieved a great 
career as a journalist or essayist if politics had not become his 
preoccupation.” But Trotsky did choose a career in politics, and 
revolutionary politics at that, a decision that Service cannot 
abide or come to grips with.

Service describes his book as “the first full-length biography of 
Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a 
Trotskyist.” [xxi] What is meant by “full-length”? Service’s 
biography is certainly long, plodding on for 501 pages. But in 
terms of content, it is no more than a super-sized version of the 
biographies produced by Thatcher and Swain. Like the earlier 
works, this is a biography without history. There is not a single 
historical event that is recounted with anything remotely 
approaching the necessary level of detail.

Service reduces the immense and complex drama of the revolutionary 
epoch in Russia to a series of vacuous tableaux, which serve only 
as the scenic background for Service’s ridicule of Trotsky’s 
alleged political, personal and moral failures. The coming to 
power of the Nazis in 1933, the eruption of the Spanish Civil War 
and the formation of the Popular Front in France are dealt with in 
a few desultory sentences. Even the Moscow Trials and the Terror 
merit little more than a page. Far more attention is given by 
Service to Trotsky’s brief intimacy with Frida Kahlo!

full: http://wsws.org/articles/2009/nov2009/serv-n11.shtml

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