jump to navigation

Trotsky and The Wire: Or Adventures on the Times Website October 18, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Books, Film and Television, History, Trotskyism.

Two things that might be of interest to readers I noticed while browsing today’s Sunday Times online. The first is a review by Robert Harris of Robert Service’s new biography of Trotsky. On the basis of the review, it seems that the book is far from friendly to Trotsky. The review, for example, claims that Trotsky never visited Lenin after his stroke in 1922, something that came as a surprise to me if true, having read quite a lot of both Trotsky and the accounts of various Trotskyist groups of the political testament issue. Anyway, here is part of the blurb for the book on theHarvard University Press website

Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidential speeches, and medical records, Service offers new insights into Trotsky. He discusses Trotsky’s fractious relations with the leaders he was trying to bring into a unified party before 1914; his attempt to disguise his political closeness to Stalin; and his role in the early 1920s as the progenitor of political and cultural Stalinism. Trotsky evinced a surprisingly glacial and schematic approach to making revolution. Service recounts Trotsky’s role in the botched German revolution of 1923; his willingness to subject Europe to a Red Army invasion in the 1920s; and his assumption that peasants could easily be pushed onto collective farms. Service also sheds light on Trotsky’s character and personality: his difficulties with his Jewish background, the development of his oratorical skills and his preference for writing over politicking, his inept handling of political factions and coldness toward associates, and his aversion to assuming personal power.

I’m sure the idea of Trotsky’s political closeness to Stalin will raise a few hackles. As will the photograph at the top of the review. There are two versions of it; one with Trotsky and Lenin, and one without Trotsky. But the header says that Trotsky was added in. Is the case of the Trotskyist school of the falsification of history, or is the Sunday Times mistaken? I’d be interested if anybody knows the truth. I doubt I’ll have time to read the book anytime soon, but if anybody does so, please feel free to let us know what you thought. A review by Simon Sebag Montefiore is also here.

On a different note, the website also has a podcast of David Simon talking about why he created The Wire, as well as a transcript of his talk. I’m sure that will be of interest to people here too. Conor McCabe has some recent thoughts on The Wire and Irish politics here.

So overall then, the Murdoch press has its uses, even if accidentally.


1. Crocodile - October 18, 2009

Thanks for the Conor mcCabe link, especially for the youtube video. This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to the Byrds and Earl Scruggs.


2. Starkadder - October 18, 2009

While glancing thru the book in Waterstones, I looked up
“Kronstadt” in the index and noticed Trotksy never seems to have
expressed any remorse over his role in the supression of the
Rebellion-indeed, he often defended his actions there
quite strongly.

This certainly contradicts the image put forward by the likes
of Tariq Ali, who depicted Leon as perpetually haunted by
guilt over the affair.


3. splinteredsunrise - October 18, 2009

Oh god, Service still fighting the cold war. It’ll be an even worse hatchet job (icepick job?) than the Volkogonov. I seriously doubt whether there’s much of substance still to come out about Trotsky, so it’ll be another matter of interpretation.

On today’s papers, Coulter in the Turbine is worth a look. He’s in ebulllient form.


4. Garibaldy - October 18, 2009


I’ve no idea who or what an Earl Scruggs is. I presume WBS does though. 🙂

I can’t see him being racked with guilt over Kronstadt myself Starkadder.

Does seem to be the Cold War alright SS. The Harris review goes out of its way to attack Lenin too. I’d agree it’s interpretation, and I certainly could have done without seeing his ahem sweet talk to the missus. Having said that though, there does seem to be a move to unpick more of the inaccuracies in his accounts of events, both in this book and elsewhere. Apparently there was a recent article showing he was wrong to say that Stalin had deliberately kept him away from Lenin’s funeral.

I’ll check the Tribune out when I get the chance. Thanks for that.


5. Mark P - October 18, 2009

Jesus Christ, Garibaldy, you’d think you’d know better at this point. The point of this sort of writing on the Bolsheviks is to discredit Lenin, Trotsky et al by claiming that they were proto-Stalins, that Stalinism was an inevitable outgrowth of Bolshevism and indeed of Marxism or socialism itself. There is little or nothing to say about it beyond that, because once you’ve read one such account you have, in essence, read all of them.


6. Garibaldy - October 18, 2009

I understand the point is to discredit socialism, and I’d agree with you that one version of this story is pretty much the same as another in interpretive terms. But that doesn’t mean that there are not interesting things in it. Like the photograph thing for example. Or to see the latest distasteful attempts to suggest that the Bolsheviks were anti-semitic etc.


7. sonofstan - October 18, 2009

The juxtaposition in the title has me imagining the thoughts and sayings -and look – of a composite character: Proposition Joe Stalin….

Oh, and McW in the SBP has a nice piece on the micro-class dimensions of NAMA,


8. baslamak - October 18, 2009

A very poor review, whatever ones opinion of Trotsky, even a Hollywood movie could not do justice to his life, and all Harris comes up with is long ago put to bed carping. He lays out Robert Service’s opinions as if they were facts and makes not a single attempt to challenge his more obvious blunders.

Perhaps Harris should have written the book and Service reviewed it.

Now there is so much more post Isaac Deutscher info out there, there is a real opportunity for a socialist writer to tackle Trotsky’s life, warts and all, as he does need to be reevaluated, although even then I doubt his star will dim that much.


9. John Palmer - October 18, 2009

However much I think the world we live in today differs from the political universe – especially in Russia – during the first decades of the 20th century, a simplistic equation of Trotsky and Stalin is – well – simple minded. Having read the Harris two things still seem reasonably clear to me. The first is that many ugly and terrible things were done by revolutionaries during the ugly and terrible years during the post-revolutionary Russian civil war. They were dwarfed by the monstrosities committed by the counter-revolutionary generals, bandits and hired mercenaries – but ugly and terrible they certainly were. I was told by someone who met Victor Serge (who himself supported the suppression of the Kronstadt rising) that Trotsky did expressed profound regrets (I suspect more over its necessity than that it had happened.) The second point is that the the revolutionary left fooled themselves in inventing some metaphysical divide between the revolution and the counter revolution (if you like between the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky and the Stalinist dictatorship.) Elements of reaction, bureaucratic despotism and human rights abuses existed in the pre-Stalin regime – alongside the powerful elements of liberation, emancipation, democracy and social justice which fuelled the Bolsheviks (and other Russian revolutionaries). The former only destroyed all remnants of the latter with Stalin’s seizure of power. The best and most insightful treatment of all this by far in my view is “Before Stalin” by Sam Farber (party name Sergio Juncker) who was active in the old British IS and is still active in the labour movement in the US today.


NollaigO - October 19, 2009

Sam Farber.
Is this the same person?


10. Starkadder - October 18, 2009

Perhaps the suggestion that that the ideas of the Workers’
Opposition needs to be revived is a good one? Even if the
climate in post-Revolutionary Russia wasn’t right, Kollontai,
Shlyapnikov etc. are worthy of rediscovery.

I’ve never seen an episode of either “The Wire” or “The Sopranos”.
When other people start lauding them, I feel like the
“I’ll get me coat” bloke in the “Fast Show”.. 😦


11. Crocodile - October 18, 2009

@ Garibaldy:
Earl Scruggs is Trotsky to Lester Flatt’s Lenin and Steve Martin’s Stalin.
Hope that’s clear.


12. Garibaldy - October 18, 2009

Much clearer. But funny Steve Martin or recent Steve Martin?


Crocodile - October 18, 2009

Same guy. He has abandoned being bad at comedy for being surprisingly good at the banjo.


Crocodile - October 18, 2009


13. Garibaldy - October 18, 2009

Ah yes. Playing it with Frances Black to I believe. Flying all the way over in order to do so. He’ll never be as good as Eddie Murphy’s band.


14. Drithleog - October 18, 2009

Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatts were the duet who played the theme tune for the original Beverly Hillbillies series. Don’t think either of them were Trots!.


15. Conor McCabe - October 18, 2009

Scruggs wasn’t a Trot, but neither was he Bob Hope.


16. Bartholomew - October 18, 2009

The banjo player on the right is Bela Fleck – heard him play a gig with Jerry Douglas about fifteen years ago in a pub in Rathfarnham. Amazing players.


17. Bartholomew - October 18, 2009

On the right of Steve Martin, not of Earl Scruggs (Conor posted while I was writing). Certainly to the right of Trotsky.


18. Dr. X - October 18, 2009

Is he anything to Bela Kun, though?


19. No.11 - October 19, 2009

Re the photo at the top of the review: That’s some amount of retouching involved for just adding in one person. Judging by the one tone background and jacket in the photo sans-Trotsky along with the less detailed areas where other faces were removed, I would consider this the opposite: it was Trotsky and some other unfortunates who were removed.

Not claiming any advanced expertise but I have had some experience in a darkroom, being a photography graduate. If Trotsky were added in it’s some achievement, a remarkably advanced distortion considering the means at their disposal at the time.


20. Garibaldy - October 19, 2009

Thanks No.11. It looked that way to me as well. I would have assumed it was their mistake but for the fact they named the guy supposedly responsible.


No.11 - October 19, 2009

Just did a quick search and just this:


I wasn’t aware that Robert Service was so eager to denigrate socialism or “bolshevism” that he would actually resort to the very Orwellian/Stalinist tactic of rewriting history. I read the rest of the review and it would appear that he hasn’t confined it to the manipulating photographic evidence either.

Seriously, Robert Service, what a hack. At this stage he has about as much an authority on Soviet history as David Irving is on Germany’s (for wildly different reasons obviously).


21. The life of Trotsky « Poumista - October 19, 2009

[…] from an opposite perspective, the Cedar Lounge Revolution on a review by Robert Harris of Service’s book. Also an interesting comment […]


22. Jim Monaghan - October 19, 2009

I would recommend Pierre Broue’s Trotsky. the pity is that it is only in French so far.


23. Ed W - October 19, 2009

I’m not a disciple of Lenin or Trotsky, but I can recognise a fraud when I see one. A few years ago, Robert Service brought out a biography of Lenin – like the Trotsky one, it was much publicised and promoted. I had a look through it in the shop, and happened to look up Rosa Luxemburg’s name in the index.

At one of the entries, Service claimed that Lenin was not the least bit concerned or upset when Luxemburg was murdered by right-wing soldiers in 1919, since she had criticised a number of Bolshevik policies. This was an embarrassing scholarly howler – the document he was referring to, in which Luxemburg did indeed criticise the Bolshevik government, was only published in 1921 by her friend Paul Levi after he was expelled from the German Communist Party. Service obviously wanted to strengthen the impression that Lenin was a callous, intolerant bastard, but in this case, he would have had to be blessed with the gift of foresight to be familiar with the contents of a document not published for another two years.

It would have taken Service about ten minutes of research in a standard academic library to find this out (just look up “Rosa Luxemburg” in the catalogue, have a brief scan through one of the biographies or selected works and establish when the yoke was published). If the error was obvious to me, who speaks neither Russian nor German, it should have been obvious to Service, had he possessed the least bit of curiosity or scruple. I’d take whatever he has to say about Trotsky with a big helping of salt. There was a good short biography of Trotsky by a guy called Ben Thatcher that came out a couple of years ago – plenty of criticism of his subject but not the sort of crude hack-job I imagine Service has delivered.


24. John Palmer - October 19, 2009

EdW – You are quite right about Service and Lenin/Luxemburg. For what it is worth I think Paul Levi was a political giant whose critique of the Zinovievite leadership of the German CP after 1923 was extraordinarily prescient. By the way there is an interesting audio debate about the Trotsky biography on Poumista between Service and Chris Hitchens http://poumista.wordpress.com/2009/08/24/christopher-hitchens-and-robert-service-talk-trotsky/
I never thought I would say so, but in my view Hitchens comes out on top for his (partial) defence of Trotsky. It seems that however loony his views have got on more contemporary issues, he has not forgotten everything.


25. Jim Monaghan - October 19, 2009

One more book.
Broues book on the German revolution has been published in English. It does a lot to reclaim Levi.
It is a very very long book


26. John Palmer - October 19, 2009

Indeed Broue’s book does just that, Jim. I think it was very revealing that Lenin himself thought that while Levi 100 per cent correct in his denunciation of the March Action 1921 German CP ultra-leftism – regretfully – he had to be condemned for going “outside” the Comintern with his critique.
Starkadder – sure there are things to be learned from the Workers Opposition of Shliapnikov and Kollontai (although sadly Kollantai ended up as a time serving Stalinist ambassador in Sweden). But remember the Workers Opposition was fiercely opposed to the Kronstadt sailors’ rising and many of them volunteered to put it down.


27. Garibaldy - October 19, 2009

Regarding the photograph at the top of the review. I’ve just had a quick flick through the book in a shop, and the photograph does not appear in the biography. So the Sunday Times is responsible for that rather than Service. Interesting to hear about Service’s other mistakes.


28. Ed W - October 19, 2009

I saw that Broue book on the German revolution in a shop a while ago and was slightly intimidated by the size of it, but I have it marked down to read. I’ll have a look at the Hitchens / Service exchange as well – I remember a few years ago, when Hitchens was already well on his way towards neo-con land, he wrote a very sensible response to Martin Amis’ daft book about the Russian Revolution, so he’s not forgotten everything, as you say.


29. poumista - October 19, 2009

On the photograph, I think that Times does get it exactly the wrong way around. I found this article in Portuguese, which makes the claim that Trotsky featured in the 1919 original, but was erased for a 1967 publication. http://veja.abril.com.br/191197/p_062.html (Text below)

Somehow, the Times managed to claim that the retouching was done by Artashes Khalatov, who actually appears in the version with Trotsky, but not in the other one. Khalatov was dead by 1967: killed in the purges in 1938. I think that a lazy Times picture editor used this article for reference http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-301899_ITM but unfortunately it’s not public access.

Na foto original, ao lado, Lenin e Trotsky, os dois principais líderes bolcheviques, comemoram o segundo aniversário da revolução na Praça Vermelha, em 1919.

Na republicação em 1967, Trotsky e outro líder importante, Lev Kamenev (de barba e boné à esquerda de Lenin), tinham sumido. Também desapareceu Artashes Khalatov (de barba, abaixo de Trotsky), militar executado durante o expurgo do Exército Vermelho em 1937. Na frente, de mãos no bolso, está Maxim Litvinov, ministro das Relações Exteriores de 1930 a 1939. Ele morreu em 1951, provavelmente assassinado pela polícia secreta


30. Dr. X - October 19, 2009

I suspect that the photograph in this link (NSFW, btw) has also been tampered with:



31. Neil - October 20, 2009

Review from ‘The Socialist’


The SP in Wales & England emailed Service challanging him to a debate. He wrote back with brief and rude reply. It will be published in this weeks paper.


32. Garibaldy - October 20, 2009

Thanks for that Neil. Very interesting.


33. Ed W - October 20, 2009

“The Kronstadt ‘rebels’ demanded “soviets without the Bolsheviks”, which was applauded by the counter-revolutionaries in Russian and worldwide … the vast majority of Petrograd workers supported the action taken against them. Using independent sources Trotsky showed that the leaders of the revolt, for their own selfish ends – during the civil war – demanded special privileges. ”

Unfortunately Peter Taafe of the SP has gone down the same road as Robert Service – telling fibs to smear people he doesn’t like. The slogan “soviets without the Bolsheviks” was never used by the Kronstadt sailors – they put forward a different slogan, “all power to soviets, not to parties”, which did not imply that the Bolsheviks or anyone else should be excluded from the soviets, merely that any party which wanted to exercise power would have to do so by winning a majority in the soviets – a principle the Bolsheviks themselves put foward in 1917.

This is all set out in considerable detail in the two basic histories of Kronstadt by Paul Avrich and Israel Getzler. They also show that the Petrograd working class was in no position to support or oppose the Kronstadt sailors, since a strike movement in Petrograd had been repressed shortly beforehand by violence and mass arrests. The talk about “special privileges” is pure fiction. Trotsky’s article about the Kronstadt revolt is probably the worst thing he ever wrote and Taafe does his hero or himself no favours by treating it as some kind of brilliant historical document.

“In the first period after the revolution, all parties – including the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, and only excluding the reactionary Black Hundreds – were allowed to exist. That only changed when each one of them systematically took up arms with the armies of the Whites – the counter-revolutionary landlords and capitalists – in an attempt to forcibly overthrow the revolution.”

This is another fib, I’m afraid – the Mensheviks never “took up arms with the armies of the Whites”. They explicitly supported the Reds against the Whites in the civil war. Their leaders also opposed the Kronstadt revolt because they feared it might play into the hands of the Whites. They were banned after the end of the civil war in 1921. Several leading Trotskyists – Ernest Mandel and Marcel Liebman, for example – have acknowledged that the ban on the Mensheviks was wrong and disastrous.

If Peter Taafe wants to defend Trotsky against a right-wing hack like Service, he would be better off not trying to defend the indefensible by making statements that can be proved wrong after a few minutes’ research – just as the claim made by Service about Lenin’s reaction to the death of Rosa Luxemburg can be proved wrong after a few minutes’ research.


34. Mark P - October 20, 2009

Ed W:

I recommend Brovkin’s “The Mensheviks After October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of Bolshevik Dictatorship” on this subject. It is not, as you can probably work out from the title, a pro-Bolshevik account – in fact it takes a strongly pro-Menshevik and viciously anti-Bolshevik line.

On this particular issue it is revealing however: The Mensheviks were split between Right and Left factions, the Left advocating neutrality between the Moscow and Komuch governments. The Right actively supported the Komuch government and did indeed take part in various violent risings. The official position of the party leadership tended to be a fudge between these factions. Now you can draw different political conclusions from this on the subject of whether it was correct to ban the Mensheviks or not, but Taaffe is certainly correct factually when he said that there was Menshevik involvement in various armed attacks on the government.

You may be correct about the “Soviets Without Bolsheviks” slogan. I don’t have the time to do much digging on it a the moment. Google reveals its appearance in a large number of seemingly reputable sources, from studies of Russian history in the 20thC to encyclopedias. It also turns up a bunch of articles denying that it was a slogan, all apparently sourced from Avrich. As on the Menshevik point above, a view on the factual existence or otherwise of this slogan does not of course predetermine a view on the Krostadt and its suppression.


35. Ed W - October 20, 2009

I don’t want to get into a long discussion about the rights and wrongs of the Russian Revolution, so I’ll just refer back to what yer man from the Guardian said: comment is free, facts are sacred. There’s room for more than one opinion about the course of the Russian revolution on the left but it should be based on established facts. If you want to condemn or criticise the Kronstadt sailors or the Mensheviks, you have to base it on what they actually did in practice, not what they were accused of doing. The same goes for Robert Service if he wants to condemn Lenin – he has to stick to the facts instead of making up nonsense like the stuff I mentioned about Rosa Luxemburg.

My own reading about the position of the Mensheviks seems to have been different to yours – every source I’ve come across maintains that the party under the leadership of Martov was actively in favour of the Reds against the Whites during the civil war, and opposed the Kronstadt revolt because they feared it might create an opening for the counter-revolution to start again. That’s the version presented in Marcel Liebman’s book “Leninism under Lenin”, for example, which is highly sympathetic to Lenin and the Bolsheviks and written by someone who considered himself a Trotskyist. Anyway as I say I don’t want to go into too much detail about this, we could be here all week. This is what Ernest Mandel, who was also passionately loyal to Trotsky and would probably have made mincemeat of Robert Service, had to say on the matter:

“I think that the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1921. They should not have banned the Menshevik Party; they should not have banned the anarchist organizations; and they should not have suppressed multiple slates in elections to the soviets after the end of the Civil War. The paradox is quite striking: during the Civil War the Bolsheviks allowed themselves the luxury of an opposition in the press and in the soviets, but once the war was over they made an error of judgement. They thought that the main danger following the introduction of the nep was a political resurgence of the petty and medium bourgeoisie, which would threaten the restoration of capitalism in the short term. That was an error of conjunctural analysis, but it was no less an error. The peasantry was much too dispersed and demoralized to pose an immediate threat to soviet power. (Of course, in the long term, as the Left Opposition pointed out, this analysis was correct, and six years later in 1927 the danger became acute.) But in 1921 the main danger was not bourgeois counter-revolution; it was the depoliticization of the working class and the rapid process of bureaucratization. The measures taken at that time assisted and developed that process. We should have the courage to recognize that this was an error and that the Opposition slogan of 1923 ‘Extend rather than reduce soviet democracy’ was valid from 1921 onwards.”


36. Ed W - October 20, 2009
37. John Palmer - October 21, 2009

Yes, I think EdW is spot on. The trouble was that what existed in 1921 – as a result of civil war and its consequent military mobilisation and economic regression – was a massively weakened, fragmented and exhausted working class. Those who opposed the Kronstadt rising and the challenge from the Ukrainian anarchists etc thought they were defending the last remnants of the working class power which was born in 1917 (which explains why even the Workers Opposition and likes of Victor Serge – who rightly argued for greater democratisation, recognition of the rights of oppositions etc – supported the repression of Kronstadt.) One might argue that had the German revolution of 1923 succeeded and IF that had led to massive economic relief for the Soviet republic then the retreats into ever greater authoritarianism in Russia might have been reversed. But the failure of 1923 allowed Stalin to use the reactionary precedents of civil war repression and authoritarianism to build a nightmare dictatorship which not only buried Bolshevism but also – eventually – the world wide communist movement as an attractive and progressive force – and, indirectly, helped pave the way for Hitler.


38. No.11 - October 21, 2009

That Mandel interview is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.


39. Neil - October 22, 2009

Here is Service’s rather juvenile response to the Socialist Party’s offer of a debate.


It’s the same link as before, just scroll down to about half way.


40. Neil - November 3, 2009

More developments on the intrepid Robert Service fearless scourge of the left.

Robert Service had been due to take part in a debate in Moscow on Trotsky’s legacy. However when the bould Robert found out his opponent would be Peter Taaffe he promptly turned tail and fled, pulling out of the debate.

It just goes to show, these right wing types are full of vim and vigor when there in a friendly academic reception but out in the real world with people who are actually prepared to challenge their ideas, they are quite simply wusses!



41. Garibaldy - November 3, 2009

Thanks for that Neil,


42. Neil - November 19, 2009

The SP persuit of Service continues.

This one is absolutely priceless. Comrades can compare and contrast Services verbal committment to ‘democracy’ and ‘decent values’ and his actuall behaviour when confronted with opposing view points.



43. Mervyn Crawford - November 1, 2012

Ref Service’s ‘biography’ of Trotsky:

Letter from historians to German publisher Suhrkamp on Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky

Leon Trotsky and the defense of historical truth

The American Historical Review discredits Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky

Other articles:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: