Saturday, 18 February 2012

Leon Trotsky by Joshua Rubenstein - review

"An interpretation for the 21st century," says the blurb. My first reaction was to wonder whether the 21st century needs a new interpretation of Trotsky, or even whether Trotsky needs a new biography. We already have the three-volume classic by Isaac Deutscher, a Russian (former Soviet) perspective from Dmitri Volkogonov, and, just a couple of years ago, a book on his murder by Bertrand Patenaude and Robert Service's biography, a bit mean-spirited, perhaps, but well-researched and twice as large as this new one by Rubenstein.

With the Soviet Union gone and the cold war ended, the old question of whether Trotsky would have done a better job than Stalin, had he won the leadership battle of the 1920s, loses some of its edge; in any case, the evidence that Trotsky, too, could practise extreme violence seems overwhelming. On the international scene, Islamic terrorism has replaced the menace of world communism that so preoccupied the western world, especially the United States, in the postwar era. In post-Soviet Russia, Trotsky's old status as Enemy of the People No 1 is all but forgotten. When I last checked Trotsky on Russian Google, the main thing I learned was that as Frida Kahlo's lover for a short time in Mexico, he was a character in the 2002 biopic Frida.

Looking more closely at Rubenstein's book, I noticed something surprising: it is published in a series of "Jewish Lives", along with books on King Solomon and Moses Mendelssohn. Perhaps that is the new interpretation for the 21st century, I speculated: it might be hard on Trotsky, given his frequently expressed dislike of being pigeonholed as a Jew, but it would certainly be in line with this century's predilection for applying a Jewish prism to history and historical personages.

It turns out, however, that Rubenstein doesn't really go down the "Jewish Lives" road. With a nice mixture of respect and regret, he recognises Trotsky's stubbornness and consistency in refusing Jewishness as his defining identity and doesn't try to force it on him. To be sure, he nods to the "Jewish Lives" motif from time to time, noting the various occasions on which Trotsky failed to identify himself as a Jew, and doing his best to make something specifically Jewish out of his outraged comments on the Beilis "Jewish murder" trial (which outraged everyone on the left) and his patronage of a Russian-Jewish restaurant in the Bronx (he refused to tip the waiters, but that seems more like a principle than a recognition of ethnic solidarity). Overall, however, Rubenstein interprets Trotsky's life as Jewish only in the sense that he had Jewish parents and that others – not least the Nazis – saw him as a Jew and believed that blood tells, regardless. ...

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