The case of Trotsky decline and fall has been told many times, and why not? The story is one of the most compelling ones of modern history. Leon Trotsky, one of the most gifted and talented men of the twentieth century, was one of the most influential men of both the 1905 and the 1917 revolutions, to say nothing of the Russian Civil War, which he personally helped to bring to a close as Commissar of War and military chieftain of the Red Army. Although a Menshevik before the October Revolution, Trotsky quickly became the most visible Bolshevik leader during the 1917 insurrection, the principle lieutenant of Lenin.
Trotsky’s career as an agitator, revolutionary hero, and finally Politburo member has been well documented by Isaac Duetcher and others. It’s a tragic story insofar as Trotsky’s dynamism, personal courage, revolutionary fame, intellectual prowess, and oratorical gifts, were ultimately no match for Stalin’s political gifts and bloodthirsty tenacity. However, as Bertrand Patenaude, author of Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, makes clear: Trotsky never really had a chance. Notwithstanding his public grandeur and ability to perform heroic feats in a revolutionary context, Lenin’s right hand man had severe limitations when it came to factional struggle. He could be vain, haughty, inflexible, and unfriendly—utterly incapable of forming political groups or even maintaining many close friendships. His past as a European revolutionary won him few friends among the Party’s rank and file, most of whom—and especially those promoted by Stalin--had never left Russia. Neither Trotsky’s Jewish ethnicity nor his fetish for Party unity helped him either. Patenaude ascribes this fetish—which prevented him from trying to make any overt bids for personal power--to Trotsky’s attempt to overcome his well-known past as a Menshevik.
Trotsky’s defeat at the hands of Stalin may therefore have been foreordained. What’s perhaps more interesting is the way he operated in exile. Banished from Russia, Trotsky did some things extremely well, and failed at others. Until his death at the hands of Stalin’s assassin in 1940, Trotsky maintained an extraordinarily vigorous schedule as a professional revolutionary and intellectual. His historical and autobiographical writing were inspired. His political analysis was sometimes trenchant (he predicted that Nazi Germany and Communist Russia would become temporary allies), sometimes convoluted--twisted by the strange imperative of defending the Soviet Union as a proletarian state while attacking Stalinism, the historical manifestation of bureaucratic degeneration. His attempts to form a new political order—a Fourth International—hampered by his uneven interpersonal skills and limited organizational capacities as well as by his political isolation in exile.
Nothing about Trotsky’s years in exile are as interesting as his time in Mexico. In Mexico, Trotsky learned of the disappearance of a beloved son, held an affair with Frida Kahlo right under the nose of his benefactor, Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, and contested Stalin’s Show Trials by means of the Dewey Commission and a relentless series of articles, speeches, and press releases. His time in Mexico revealed all of the celebrity’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, Trotsky managed the affairs of the Fourth International ineptly, alienating many of his American followers by ideological blindness and interpersonal insensitivity. On the other hand, Trotsky continued to fight Stalinism and Nazism (but also liberal democracy of course) even as he was forced to live a highly regimented and restricted life due to the constant threat of political assassination at the hands of the GPU or even the Mexican Communist Party and its allies.
The threat to Trotsky’s personal safety, as well as that of his wife and grandson, was always very real, if not always believed by his myriad political traducers. Near the end of his life, Trotsky almost fell victim to a paramilitary assault led by the famous muralist Siquieros. In retrospect, it seems almost incredible that Trotsky’s fairly unprofessional security regime could have protected him for so long. One wonders why Stalin didn’t kill him earlier, although Patenaude seems at one point in the text to allow for the possibility that at some point Stalin may have tolerated a living Trotsky to act as scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Communist Russia or abroad.
In the end, Trotsky died courageously, true to his reputation as a man of courage and action. Struck in the head with an icepick by his alleged friend, Jacson, Trotsky cried out and did battle with his assailant. Sadly, the attacker outlived his time in a Mexican jail and eventually found his way to the Soviet Union, where he was rewarded in secrecy for his treachery. The talented Siquieros too outlived his act of cowardice, even today known to the world as a revolutionary artist of the highest order.
Of course, Trotsky is no innocent martyr. He took the sins of October to his grave. As Patenaude remarks, in his last days he protested against the American government for presuming to meddle in his personal affairs, appalled at the thought that a mighty state might take an intrusive interest in the personal affairs of a private individual. One of the leading architects of the Soviet police state saw no irony in his protest. Trotsky’s legacy was at least partially redeemed by his wife, who outlived him by twenty years. Over time, and despite Trotsky’s defense of the Soviet Union—even in its attack on Finland—Natalia, Trotsky’s great love, defected from Trotskyism, denouncing the Soviet Union and its many client states in Eastern Europe in the process.