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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good balance on Trotsky
The book is clear, well written. It is not written from wither an anti-communist or a Trotskyist position. Just information and evaluations from his contemporaries.
Published 6 months ago by Terry ASHTON

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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Yet Another Biography of Trotsky
Just what the world needs, yet another biography of Leon Trotsky. True, if you're running a `Jewish Lives' series `dedicated to illuminating the range and depth of the Jewish experience', it's a bit hard to leave him out. And although Trotsky's biographers have addressed to varying degrees the Jewish dimension of his life, there has been only one full-length work on the...
Published 19 months ago by Paul of London


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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Yet Another Biography of Trotsky, 22 Mar 2013
Just what the world needs, yet another biography of Leon Trotsky. True, if you're running a `Jewish Lives' series `dedicated to illuminating the range and depth of the Jewish experience', it's a bit hard to leave him out. And although Trotsky's biographers have addressed to varying degrees the Jewish dimension of his life, there has been only one full-length work on the topic, Joseph Nedava's Trotsky and the Jews, which appeared way back in 1971 and is almost unobtainable today.

Rubenstein dissociates himself from what he sees as Isaac Deutscher's `too forgiving' and at times hagiographic trilogy and Robert Service's `gratuitous criticism of Trotsky's character and personality' (pp 212-13), but he broadly concurs with the rejection of Trotsky's philosophy and life-work presented by Service and other liberal and social-democratic biographers of the man. Hence we get a condemnation of the Bolsheviks' overturn of the Provisional Government, the closing of the Constituent Assembly, the establishment of a Communist political monopoly, and so on, and the usual homily that Trotsky ended up at the sharp end of the very state that he helped to create. Many readers will be familiar with this, as they will be with the stock accounts of Lenin's What Is To Be Done?, the prediction of Bolshevik substitutionism in Trotsky's Our Political Tasks, and, to move on to later days, how Stalin outmanoeuvred Trotsky, stole much of his programme for the First Five-Year Plan, and finally had him assassinated. Rubenstein has a fluent writing style, but as an account of Trotsky's life, it adds little either factually or conceptually to the many biographies that have been published over the years.

Rubenstein points out that although Trotsky denied any causal connection between his Jewish origins and his political views and actions, the Jewish question impinged heavily upon his political life. Hence he describes his part in the fight against the Bund in 1903, his call during the 1905 revolution for the workers to repel pogrom gangs, his condemnation of official Jew-baiting when on trial in 1907, his angry commentary during the Beilis trial of 1913, and his poignant descriptions of beleaguered Romanian Jews in his coverage of the Balkan wars. Rubenstein then looks at how it impacted upon Trotsky after 1917, including his reluctance to be head of state lest it exacerbated anti-Semitism, the fraught days of the Civil War in which the White forces used the presence of Trotsky at the head of the Soviet regime as an important mobilising factor in their vicious pogroms that ravaged many areas of the former Russian Empire, then on to Trotsky's disgust at the use of anti-Semitism by Stalin in the fight against the Left Opposition and during the Moscow Trials, his continued refusal to endorse the Zionist project, and finally his ominous premonition of the fate of the Jews as the Second World War drew near.

On the one hand, Rubenstein claims that `it is hard to sort out the motivations behind Trotsky's complex reaction to the Beilis trial' and his descriptions of Romanian Jews (and by implication the other times when he condemned anti-Semitism), whilst, on the other, he suggests some sort of subconscious forces were at work:

'Twice he mentioned feelings of disgust and nausea that overtook him when he contemplated their misery. Perhaps he did not think of himself as a Jew in the same way that they were Jews; he was a Marxist, a convinced internationalist, a man who resisted any narrow, parochial appeal in the name of a universal, political faith. But he had still been born and raised as a Jew. Perhaps the starkness of their lives touched something so deep inside his emotional life that he needed to vomit it out, to disgorge it before it compelled him to see himself in their faces. At moments like these, Leon Trotsky was a Jew in spite of himself.' (p 67)

Elsewhere, Rubenstein seems to be perplexed by Trotsky's standpoint. After relating Trotsky's sharp critique of the Bund in 1903, he proceeds: `But Trotsky was not indifferent to Jewish suffering.' (p 31) With one short word -- the conjunction `but' -- Rubenstein creates a contradiction that did not exist: there was nothing contradictory in opposing the Bund's specific demands vis-à-vis the structure of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and being strongly opposed to the Tsarist regime's treatment of its Jewish subjects.

It is true that Trotsky's general attitude towards the plight of the Jews was considerably more vocal than that of many of his contemporaries. Jews were especially oppressed within the Russian Empire, liable to be attacked by pogrom gangs, subject to discriminatory legislation, and treated with suspicion by many of their fellow-countrymen. This he despised, and the Beilis trial -- a particularly vile episode even by Tsarist Russian standards -- brought forth his deep hatred of discrimination and bigotry. His anger here, and his subsequent feelings of disgust in respect of Stalin's use of anti-Semitism and his prediction of Hitler's Holocaust, was based not upon a recognition, conscious or otherwise, of his Jewish origins or a fear that he too could personally be a target, but upon the intimate connection between Tsarism and such uncivilised behaviour, and the continued existence and indeed revival of the latter in a supposedly socialist land or in a modern country such as Germany. It was not the result of any self-identification with Jews on his part, or a plea for any special treatment of Jews, but the recognition that Jews were the immediate and primary target of systematic state-run bigotry, be it in Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany, or were being picked out as a scapegoat in an act of outrageous hypocrisy by an allegedly progressive regime, as in Stalin's Soviet Union.

That Trotsky drew little attention to his Jewish origins did not contradict his militant opposition to any acts of discrimination against Jews. His strong stand against anti-Semitism was not based upon any subconscious atavistic identification with the ethnic group into which he had been born. Rather, it was rooted in his socialist principles, to which he remained fully committed to the end.

Not surprisingly, Rubenstein's verdict upon Trotsky is negative. In rejecting Judaism for Marxism, he `spurned one messianic religion' and `adopted an alternative utopian faith -- one that was secular and far more dangerous' (p 115). Rubenstein criticises Trotsky not merely for rejecting the tenets of liberal democracy once the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, but also for his stubborn adherence to his revolutionary principles after the rise of Stalinism. Although it is easy for Marxists to be dismissive of liberal criticisms of the disdain shown by the Bolsheviks for bourgeois democracy, on the grounds that the capitalist world has been notoriously inconsistent in its democratic credentials, Rubenstein cites an pertinent assessment of Trotsky by Victor Serge. Serge wrote that whilst the majority of the Left Opposition resisted Stalinist totalitarianism `in the name of the democratic ideals expressed at the beginning of the revolution', some old Bolshevik leaders defended a `doctrinal orthodoxy which, while not excluding a certain tendency towards democracy, was authoritarian through and through' (p 188). This is an important matter. Any socialist regime will almost certainly come under terrible pressures from within and abroad, and authoritarian measures might be necessary at some point or another. But Marxists must never forget that such a regime requires the maximum of democracy not only to thrive but indeed to survive in a recognisably socialist form.

Contrary to Rubenstein's assertion -- and he is by no means the only one to assert this -- Deutscher's trilogy is not hagiographic. It is sympathetic, but certainly not uncritical. Indeed, one of its strong points is that it describes how the Soviet regime became bureaucratised and how the Soviet Communist Party became transformed into a ruling élite, and how Trotsky both consciously opposed and inadvertently assisted those processes. Having read a large number of biographies of Trotsky, I remain firm in my opinion that, despite its age and its shortcomings, Deutscher's trilogy is still the best account of Trotsky's eventful life, and is the work that I would recommend to anyone wishing to learn about one of the last century's most controversial and, for Marxists, inspiring figures.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good balance on Trotsky, 28 April 2014
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The book is clear, well written. It is not written from wither an anti-communist or a Trotskyist position. Just information and evaluations from his contemporaries.
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Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary's Life (Jewish Lives)
Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary's Life (Jewish Lives) by Joshua Rubenstein (Paperback - 18 Oct 2013)
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