Stalin's Nemesis

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(337)

Bertrand M Patenaude, Faber & Faber; £20

Leon Trotsky spent the last four years of his life in a prison-like exile in Mexico. Pursued by Stalinist enemies, he survived an armed assault on his home before succumbing to the blows of Ramon Mercader, a GPU agent posing as a political sympathiser.

Stalin's Nemesis is a very readable account of these years, which despite Trotsky's enforced isolation were very eventful. They included his mercurial relationships with artists and benefactors Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and his work directing the international Trotskyist movement. This was at a time when its bastardised predecessor was justifying the show trials of leading Bolsheviks and then a self-serving flip-flop from Popular Front against fascism to Nazi/Soviet Pact.

Stalin's Nemesis is also enlivened by frequent flashbacks to defining moments in Trotsky's earlier life. These help to ensure that the narrative has both pace and context. They also make Trotsky's plight appear all the more poignant - cut off from the active movement which made and defined him, the man formerly known by Lenin as "The Pen" nonetheless does his best to intervene in practical and theoretical controversies. Most notably, the biggest Trotskyist party of the time, the American Socialist Workers Party, was riven by arguments around how to define the Stalinist regime in the USSR.

The orthodoxy, defended by Trotsky (though not without qualms), was that it remained a workers' state of some sort, but one in which the bureaucracy was playing a reactionary role. Patenaude is very cagey about his own analysis, but he implies a preference for the "revisionist" theory of bureaucratic collectivism. This had the benefit of recognising that the establishment of Stalinism involved a social as well as a political counter-revolution, though it was not without its own flaws.

Patenaude does not come across as a Marxist, but he has clearly researched the topic thoroughly. One disappointing exception is his designation of the October Revolution as a coup, which only makes sense if you take as its essence its culminating moment, rather than the popular movement that swept the Provisional Government into irrelevance. Overall he displays a guarded admiration for Trotsky's gifts, but regular reminders of his grouchiness ensure that this is certainly no hagiography. To my mind he tends to exaggerate the centrality of this trait in the numerous disputes Trotsky was engaged in, at the expense of the issues involved.

I imagine this will be quite a popular book, and that is no bad thing. There is material of interest for well read Marxists, but hopefully it will also encourage a new audience to seek out the work and legacy of Trotsky. They would be well advised to start with the fourth volume of Tony Cliff's Trotsky biography, which covers the period of this book. Sadly it is missing from Patenaude's bibliography, as well as from his analysis.