I have a shelf of Leon Trotsky biographies so I was not in a hurry to read Irving Howe's small, yellowing, and seemingly dated biography. However, Howe's book is a brilliant overview of Trotsky's life and theoretical contributions to Bolshevism and Marxist theory and practice. In fact, this short book goes a long way toward explaining many of the fundamental mistakes of the Soviet experiment. Perhaps Howe's greatest strength as an historian of the Soviet Union is his balanced approach to his subject matter. He is deeply sympathetic to socialist project, and yet willing to critique almost every mistake Trotsky and other Bolshevik (and Menshevik) leader made.
According to Howe, Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was a genuinely important contribution to socialist thinking. It essentially predicated the course of events in post-revolutionary Russia by pointing out that a fragile working class would necessarily depend on ongoing, global revolution to avoid counterrevolution or degeneration. On the other hand, Trotsky flipped sides on this question after the February Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks had every reason to overthrow the Provisional Government and even socialist democracy in the service of the working class. Thus, Trotsky (who was of course not alone in this) ironically came to be responsible for working against the very theory he had once proposed, and would propose again once he had left power.
Howe's Trotsky was a deeply ambivalent figure. He was in a sense a deeply divided thinker. On the one hand, he produced relatively sensitive works that advocated for some level of social and intellectual plurality. Literature and Revolution is a case in point. Trotsky admitted here that Proletarian culture was not yet rich enough to afford Russia or the world with a rich literary culture. In fact, Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution would eventually mean that the Proletariat, qua class, should wither away. When workers created enough wealth, they would have ample opportunity to stop behaving as workers. They would have enough leisure time to produce worthy literary and artistic creations. Until then, Russian workers should appreciate the great bourgeois works of the previous century. On the other hand, Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism celebrates authoritarianism, and defends the Bolshevik's rather outrageous claim that the Party could fully represent Russia's workers.
In the end, Howe agrees with the Menshevik position that Russia was not yet ready for a socialist revolution. Like the Mensheviks who seemingly abandoned the field of combat, Howe thinks Stalinism was the almost inevitable result of the Bolsheviks' decision to prematurely eliminate both the bourgeois parties and competing socialist parties from political life. Indeed, Howe believes that once Lenin and Trotsky convinced their reluctant comrades to take power, the Party was doomed to rely on ever increasing levels of compulsion and terror to maintain their fragile grip on power.