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Book Review: Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life

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Joshua Rubenstein provides a nice, quick overview to the life of Leon Trotsky that I would recommend for anyone interested in learning a bit more about this enigmatic figure of 20th century radicalism. Often, shorter biographies tend to eschew a unique point of view. Rubenstein avoids this pitfall, firmly placing Trotsky’s life within a Jewish context, no doubt to an extent Trotsky himself would be uncomfortable with.

Among his many hats, Rubenstein is Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, a background which strongly colors his view of Trotsky. He is completely open about this and I respect him for this. Writing about leftists still leaves authors open to ideological attack and Rubenstein meets this head on. He respects Trotsky on one level, but also sees him as fully capable of murderous violence who used the system he revolted against in order to maximize Soviet power. By the time I read of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin, I wanted to root for Trotsky, but it’s hard to forget his own actions in the Kronstadt Rebellion, where he brutally crushed sailors protesting the new regime, killing 2000 outright and thousands more slowly in concentration camps.

Trotsky is the easiest Soviet revolutionary to romanticize. His fall from power and subsequent life in Mexico where he was sleeping with Frida Kahlo and getting killed by an ice axe to the back of the head make him like an earlier version of Che Guevara. No one is going to look bad on anyone who stood up to Stalin. Trotsky has missed some of the criticism directed at Lenin’s own murderous leadership. Trostkyism because a communist alternative to CPUSA Stalinism. Plus Trotsky is just so damn interesting. Unlike the dullard Stalin or the single-minded Lenin, Trotsky seems like a guy you’d like to spend some time with. He charmed people everywhere he went.

But as Rubenstein reminds us, while maybe Trotsky would have been less brutal than Stalin, maybe he wouldn’t have been. He was as committed an ideologue as Lenin or Stalin and clearly showed his willingness to engage in massive violations of human rights to achieve his goal. As Rubenstein states, it’s almost impossible to put ourselves in the political mindset of the early twentieth century, but it’s striking how utterly narrow-minded the communists were. They were so convinced of their own doctrinaire correctness and the destiny of history that flexible thought seemed impossible.

What makes this book different than other Trotsky biographies is its explicitly Jewish focus. Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, grew up in the atmosphere of official late 19th century anti-Semitism. But he never identified as a Jew. One of the most interesting parts of the book was seeing the communists and the Zionists interact–Russian Jews had many options open to them: emigration, Zionism, revolution. Trotsky rejected his own Judaism and chose the latter as a Russian. But Rubenstein also shows that radical movements were full of Jews seeing violence as their only defense and that Trotsky surrounded himself with Jews all his life. Not to mention that Stalin moved against Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev through stirring up anti-Semitism.

If anything, Rubenstein may overplay the Jewish angle a bit given Trotsky’s own discomfort with it. Sometimes, it feels tacked on. On other hand, the book is part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. In any case, this is a minor critique. It’s a fine and very readable overview.

An Afterword: A few years ago, I visited Trotsky’s home in Mexico City where he was killed. I was hoping for blood stains on the wall, but alas no. It was a very cool tour however. I peaked into the bathroom. I wondered if that was Trotsky’s toilet. I didn’t ask though. I have a sort of fascination with historical toilets. Not long ago, I put a picture on Facebook of a chamber pot in Albert Gallatin’s Pennsylvania home that I visited earlier this year.

Of course, it’s not the toilets themselves I am interested in (though the one in Martin Van Buren’s house is actually pretty cool). I think the interests comes from being not totally comfortable with great man history. The toilet humanizes these individuals. This is more salient in the history of radicalism. Trotsky’s life is supposed to be the story of people rising up against oppression, but like communist rule around the world, it became about a few extraordinarily powerful individuals. Even much of the history of the American labor movement tends toward celebrating Haywood and Lewis and Gompers. It feels like a betrayal. The toilet helps me deal with the failure.

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