Top critical review
28 people found this helpful
Warts and all
on 7 December 2010
I have now finished Service's book. Well, I have to agree with some of the critical comments above. It is written in a rather pedestrian style, and yes, Service does come across as snide in parts. He doesn't much like his subject, that's clear. As for the alleged errors of fact, I'm not qualified to pronounce on that, but in a book of 500 densely written pages (excluding notes and index) it would be surprising if there were no errors of fact in it. These complaints may be nit-picking. Readers like myself who know little of Trotsky the man are more interested in getting an overall picture of what made him tick, than in a catalogue of details.
The main thing I would look for in any book about a subject like Trotsky, who seems to inspire adulation and loathing in equal measure, is that the writer should attempt, however unsuccessfully, to present both sides of the picture. This is something that Service does, however grudgingly. His very dislike of Trotsky means that his praise of the man's achievements and personal qualities has to be taken seriously. Conversely, his criticisms are backed up with quotes which seem to go some way to prove the point. For example, here is Trotsky's son Leva: "Papa never recognizes when he's in the wrong. That's why he can't bear criticism. When something is said or written to him with which he disagrees he either ignores it entirely or gets back with a harsh reply". For another side of Trotsky which is not normally acknowledged by his disciples, Service reveals that he treated the women in his life between badly to abominably. After ditching one of his mistresses and while attempting to reopen relations with Natalya, he wrote her - or at least Service claims that he wrote her - a frankly pornographic note reproduced on page 450 of the book (the language makes it inappropriate for repetition here). In fact, it seems that he was a self-centred, priapic old goat.
Irrespective of all that, he was a great man with a lasting influence. Oddly enough, Service reveals that the contemporary politician with whom Trotsky had the closest resemblance in many ways was - Winston Churchill!
While this may seem a potty assertion, it is not quite as daft as it sounds. Both men were highly intelligent political mavericks, who were much smarter than their party colleagues and unafraid to go their own way without fear or favour. They both supported themselves by writing books (highly articulate and well written books by any standards, and quite exceptional by the standard of books written by politicians). They both had an obsession with a cause (the Nazi threat in Churchill's case, international revolution in Trotsky's). They both suffered eclipse after great early success and promise. They both showed exceptional physical bravery on the field of battle, and the ability to take sometimes brutal decisions under stress. They both inspired a remarkable level of loyalty, amounting to hero-worship, in the people they led and inspired. Trotsky of course never lived to emulate Churchill in making a spectacular come-back.
Yes, Service does mention Trotsky's Jewish background rather a lot, but this may be because it was important in his development. This background provided Trotsky with a properous, loving and supportive family, and a first rate education by the standards of the time (though it stopped short of university, a lack which did not seem to hamper Trotsky in his later life). It is also significant that Trotsky faced anti-semitism himself, and to this extent his Jewishness must be taken into consideration, however little it meant to Trotsky himself.
Stanton Carlisle seems to have looked on this book as an exercise in character assassination. This was not how it appeared to me. Trotsky comes across as a far more likeable character in this book, than in hagiographical accounts that attempt to portray him as superhuman. I think it rather endearing for instance that Trotsky was an expert croquet player! Imagine, say, Stalin playing croquet. You can't. Trotsky was a warm human being with a sense of humour and perhaps the most brilliant polemicist of his generation.