A leading historian of the Russian Revolution, Robert Service is bringing out a biography of Leon Trotsky in November. He discusses Trotsky’s legacy with the American based British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who is a former Trotskyite, and the regular host of ‘Uncommon Knowledge’
I was surprised to come across this at the National Review Online, the National Review is firmly conservative with an emphasis on national security conservatism (high defence spending, a large internal security apparatus, vigilance against internal subversion, high willingness to use military action). There is even a double conservative reference, since the ‘Uncommon Knowledge’ series is associated with the Hoover Institution, a conservative foundation attached to Stanford University, though with more links to the left (Hitchens is a Fellow) and libertarianism than National Review conservatism. I think the answer to why NRO/Hoover Institution are interested in talking about Trotsky may lay in the role of ex-Trotskyites in the American right. A significant number of Trostskyite intellectuals made the move from criticising Stalin, to rejecting all forms of Marxism, and favouring a tough Cold War posture; these were the original Neo-Conservatives, people like Irving Kristol and James Burnham. Some of these people, including Burnham, were writing for National Review in the 1950s, So the one big disappointment of this webcast was the absence of Trotsky’s influence on US Conservatism.
Hitchens seemed a bit evasive to me about how much of a Trotskyite he has been. He is well known to have been a member of the International Socialists, forerunner of the current Socialist Workers’ Party, the largest Trotskyite current in Britain since the late 60s. He acts at Trotsky’s apologist in the program, but in the mildest way. He ends up conceding to all of Robert Service’s points that Trotsky was the same kind of totalitarian as Stalin, and would have run the USSR in much the same way as Stalin if he had won the power struggle after Lenin’s death. Service makes a convincing argument that all the beliefs that Trotsky represented some very humanitarian form of Communism, substantially different from Stalinism, is just a romantic myth.
What Service and Hitchens agreed on is that Trotsky was an interesting character in a way that Stalin, and other Bolsheviks, were not. A great writer, a great intellect, a great military commander, a great orator. One point that Service made was that as a Jew, Trotsky had a much better chance to use his talents in a revolutionary organisation than in a more conventional career, in the conditions of Tsarist Russia. In his character, Service conceded some romanticism to Trotsky.
A particularly interesting discussion comes at the end, when Service and Conquest talk about Trotsky’s very last months, where he seems to have at least contemplated the possibility that the Russian October Revolution, which put Lenin and the Bolsheviks into a power, might have been a complete mistake. On a somewhat less poignant note, Service points out the conflicts Trotsky had with his American followers about his support for Stalin’s invasions of Poland, the Baltic states and Finland during the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 39-41.
There was a look at what Robinson referred to as ‘moral moments, when Trotsky made an early condemnation of the Nazis in beautiful resonant rhetoric. Robinson’s point in referring to ‘moral moments’ was the contrast with Trotsky’s own use of terror and destruction of pluralism when he was in power. As usual, Service deflated the romantic reading of Trotsky, by pointing out that Trotsky supported the nazi-Soviet pact, and that the Nazi barbarism he condemned was similar to his own barbarism. Furthermore Trotsky’s analysis of Naziism was not so great, Hitler as a tool of big business.
The point of the program was to a large degree to give Service the chance to deflate romantic illusions about Trotsky, which he did very successfully, though the impression is still left of a remarkable personality, who was to some degree drawn to revolutionary terror by a genuinely held romanticism.
The interaction of the three in the discussion was very good. Service was the flattest personality on screen, an honest academic presenting his work in a very neutral way of speaking. Hitchens is a rather more flamboyant character, a bit of a charlatan even, but entertaining with his air of an exhausted bon viveur, and decayed lower aristocracy (a product of his education rather than social origin). Robinson has the air of a slightly camp preppie (privately educated US east coast upper class). He’s really a very good discussion chair, just the right amount of slight self-dramatisation and a great capacity to get people to talk, and form those segments into a flow.