Monday, December 22, 2008

Tony Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October 1879 - 1917

This first volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Leon Trotsky is a compelling read. Unfortunately, it isn't the best introduction to the politics and ideas of Trotsky - reading it requires a certain knowledge of events leading up to the Russian Revolution of October 1917. That said, it doesn't require the deepest historical understanding - with this work Tony Cliff was trying to reassert the importance of Leon Trotsky's ideas to a new audience.

You cannot however understand Trotsky without knowing a great deal about Lenin. This might at first seem strange - the two revolutionaries had a political falling out early on in their careers - over a seemingly trivial decision about the nature of the socialist organisation they were trying to create. During this period (Trotsky called them his "wasted years") the two men, who were to go on to lead the Russian Revolution, frequently exchanged polemical attacks on each others ideas and methods.

However Trotsky's brilliance was his ability to develop and understand events in Russia, he developed the theory of Permanent Revolution, which Lenin later came to support - this was the idea that even a backwards, effectively feudal country like Russia, with an underdeveloped working class could lead a working class revolution. This theory was, of course, to underpin the reality of the Russia Revolution and simultaneously to make both Lenin and Trotsky internationalists. The backward Russian working class could seize power, but without international revolution, their state would soon become isolated and distorted.

Cliff's biography comes alive when the events of 1917 are described. The 1905 revolution which Trotsky helped lead is fascinating, primarily because it shows Trotsky as a leader who can handle defence and withdrawal in the face of a stronger opposition. When Trotsky is re-elected to the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917, the balance of power rests much more on the side of the revolutionary workers and Trotsky's brilliant organising and strategising demonstrates the "art" that is insurrection.

Despite Trotsky's heroic life, this isn't a biography that hides Trotsky's failings. The writers who, as part of the International Socialist tradition, rediscovered the genuine revolutionary tradition for a new generation of socialists, were never afraid to criticise Trotsky's mistakes, in order to learn the lessons of History. In particular, Cliff repeatedly underlines the error that Trotsky made in distancing himself from Lenin's Bolshevik party. To be fair to Trotsky though, this was something that he himself wasn't afraid to acknowledge.

Shining through this volume of the work, is Trotsky's brilliance. As a polemicist, a theoretician and a writer. He is also a man of humour and emotion. But most of all he is someone who dedicated his life to making a revolution happen, defending its gains and constantly trying to organise those who had the power to change the world. Learning from his life is part of learning how we can challenge the existing system in the future.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky; Sword of the Revolution 1917 - 1923
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Choonara - A Rebels' Guide to Trotsky
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

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