Trotsky, né Lev Davidovich Bronstein, 1905
In the first round of the French presidential election in 2002, some 10 per cent voted for world revolution, which is to say for soi-disant Trotskyist candidates. In Britain, too, Trotsky remains the darling of leftist actresses, academics and media folk. One reason this is the best biography of Trotsky to date is that it disregards all sentimental nonsense and gives us the facts.
In doing so, Robert Service explains, without an iota of sentiment or indulgence, why a failed Bolshevik leader whose cranium was smashed with an ice-pick by the agent of the pitiless regime he helped establish, became, even more than Lenin himself, the number one celebrity of revolutionary mythology.
Lev Davidovich Bronstein, his name till he was 23, had everything Western romantics could wish for in a revolutionary: a brilliant, cultured mind, a superb writing style, a gift for oratory, a taste for good clothes and a middle-class lifestyle and a set of passionate convictions — so passionate they ruled out alternative modes of thought from an early age. He could also be brave to the point of recklessness. Best of all from the viewpoint of his admirers in the West, he was something of a fantasist, who failed totally in his primary purpose in life: to internationalise Bolshevism and bring its murderous violence to foreign enthusiasts.
His polemical penmanship could be as brutal as it was colourful and he was as adept at fudging an argument as he was at falsifying, in his autobiography, aspects of his background. Hints of penurious origins are bogus. Service shows that his father was the most dynamic, entrepreneurial and well-to-do farmer in Kherson province, where he was born.
Though he showed organisational qualities in the October Revolution, in the building of the Red Army and in the pursuit of the Civil War — in all of which he played, with Lenin, a pre-eminent role — he was less of a leader and more of a permanent oppositionist in the cause of permanent revolution (the Russian, for the record, means literally "uninterrupted"). He never really went for the top job when Lenin died, confining himself to complaining about Stalin. It wasn't Stalin's ruthlessness that upset him, though he considered him crude and an intellectual dwarf, but his bureaucratic ways.