Allan Todd’s book is a short, sharp addition to the biographies of Leon Trotsky, especially Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast and The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky by Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova. Todd deals especially well with Trotsky’s command of the Red Army’s fight on three fronts in 1918, painting a breathless picture of Trotsky’s ‘torrents of passionate eloquence’ in rallying the troops against the reactionary White forces and defending Petrograd – ‘the unceasing electrifier of a wakening army, now in one place and then in another’ (Deutscher). Also covered well is Trotsky’s dislike of factionalism, particularly in Todd’s third chapter ‘Escapes, Splits and Revolution, 1902-06’, where the arguments in the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party are clearly set out, including Trotsky’s vehemence against Lenin’s drive for party centralisation. Some areas could have given more information. The huge rise in working-class consciousness following the 1905 Russo-Japanese War is left unexplained, as is the fascinating shift by Lenin away from the Marxist view that ‘backward societies’ (such as Russia) had to go through a ‘bourgeois revolution’ before communism could flourish. Why did Lenin move in Trotsky’s political direction over this and what were the arguments? The uprising by the Kronstadt soviet sailors in 1921 could similarly have benefited from deeper analysis. The sailors, as ‘sons of peasants’ opposed the grain confiscations and the austere grip of War Communism. (Serge’s sympathy to their demands in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary is not cited.) Lenin and Trotsky crushed the uprising with the Red Army, and we know Trotsky was haunted by the affair for the rest of his life. However, while Todd does not always give the depth of debate a longer book would have afforded, he shows Trotsky as a brilliant commander and political analyst (see, for example, his writings on the rise of fascism) but also as one who knew he made mistakes. We see in slow, painful detail the stranglehold Stalin gained over the party. But what is Todd’s explanation for the many occasions when Trotsky could have spoken out against that ‘gravedigger of the revolution’? For example, Trotsky failed to form an anti-Stalin alliance with Zinoviev in 1925. Todd’s managerialist view is that Trotsky believed Zinoviev ‘didn’t fully appreciate the need for proper industrial planning to develop the socialist parts of the economy’.
Todd writes movingly of the depression and suicide of Trotsky’s daughter Zina and of the death of his other daughter Nina. And, in his tenth chapter ‘Love and Death in Mexico, 1937-40’, he records well the final years of Trotsky’s life, including more passion – this time with the artist Frida Kahlo. The infiltration of Trotsky’s circle and his assassination by an agent of Stalin is told crisply. The book is let down by several annoying typos. The worst are Akesandra (for Alexandra) Sokolovskaya, Trotsky’s wife; Kollantai (for the revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai); and Agelof (for Trotsky’s US supporter Sylvia Ageloff). However, for a concise, comprehensive and sympathetic biography of this committed, incisive and passionate revolutionary, Allan Todd’s book is highly recommended.