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Reassessing Leon Trotsky’s biography of Stalin

November 12, 2017
Trotsky views MS

Leon Trotsky at work on his biography of Stalin

Part 1: Did Bolshevism lead to Stalinism?

Coming soon: Part 2: Did Trotsky view Stalin’s elite as a new ruling class? 

By John Riddell. The new edition of Leon Trotsky’s biography of Joseph Stalin, published in 2016 by Wellred Books, is a significant contribution to our understanding of  Trotsky’s thinking in the last years before his assassination in August 1940.[1]

This handsome and lavishly illustrated 890-page volume, carefully prepared by Alan Woods and a team of collaborators, presents all the texts collected by Trotsky for his never-completed study, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence.

This book also stands as a tribute to Trotsky’s personal courage and historical integrity in pressing ahead with such an ambitious and difficult study even as Stalin mobilized the resources of the Soviet state to kill witnesses, suppress evidence, and unleash his lethal plots to do away with his biographer.

Trotsky’s work consists of two quite different parts.

  • The first seven chapters, covering the years up to 1917, were drafted and reviewed by Trotsky as a continuous manuscript.
  • The rest of the book consists of fragmentary texts and documents assembled by Trotsky for the remaining chapters that he was unable to complete.

An initial and unauthorized version of this work was published in 1946 by Harper and Bros., translated and edited by Charles Malamuth.[2] It gave rise to both protests and confusion. Malamuth included the chapters on years up to 1917 essentially as prepared in draft form by Trotsky, and this portion is reproduced by Woods with little change. In the second half of the 1946 edition, however, Malamuth selected a portion of Trotsky’s still fragmentary texts and filled them out with extensive bracketed interpolations, which in one chapter made up 62% of the word count.

Trotsky’s cothinkers maintained that Malamuth’s additions ran “direct counter to Trotsky’s own ideas.” Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova, vigorously protested this “unheard-of violence committed by the translator on the author’s rights” – but to no avail.[3]

The objections focused on two concepts in Malamuth’s commentary that contradicted Trotsky’s long-held views. These concepts were: (1) that Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of Bolshevism; and (2) that the Soviet Union under Stalin was no longer in any sense a workers’ state.

In 1946, it was hard to be certain about Trotsky’s intentions on these points, given that much of what he wrote in preparing this volume was not accessible. But Alan Woods’ edition now provides the totality of Trotsky’s writings for this project. The two questions posed back in 1946 can now be revisited.

But before addressing these issues, we will look briefly at the new edition in terms of its stated aim of assessing Stalin as a person and political leader.

Isaac Deutscher’s appraisal

The great Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher included an assessment of the first (Malamuth) edition in volume 3 of his renowned biography of Trotsky. About 50 years ago, I read both books together. Deutscher’s points then seemed to me to be well taken.[4]

Deutscher said that given the way the book was put together, from a mass of diverse fragments, it inevitably lacked the “ripeness and balance of Trotsky’s other works” and included “many tentative statements and overstatements.” Trotsky’s tireless research into all the “nooks and crannies” of Stalin’s life, Deutscher continued, seemed to reveal that the notorious butcher (“Cain”) of the great purges “had been there all the time” even in his schoolboy days.

Among the nooks and crannies in Trotsky’s early chapters are quotations from other writers referring to Stalin’s ethnic heritage: his homeland’s “Asiatic cruelty”; its Georgian people who are “slovenly and shiftless” and “coarse, uncouth.” Deutscher cited this as evidence of Trotsky’s thorough research. To today’s reader, they are offensively orientalist in spirit.[5]

Deutscher regretted the absence of a clear delineation in the portrayal of Stalin’s life between the “potentiality of a criminal act” and its “actuality…. The monster does not form, grow, and emerge – he is there fully formed from the outset.”

All these points ring true. Yet Deutscher concedes that Trotsky would have grappled with these shortcomings had he been able to complete the work. For example, he would doubtless have lingered over the absence of a compelling explanation of why Stalin joined the revolutionary Marxist movement, at a time when it promised so little in the way of influence or rewards.

Stalin’s character and its evolution

Trotsky emphasizes Stalin’s obscurity and unimportance in the Bolshevik party through 1917. Yet scattered through Trotsky’s account are unexplained details that suggest a different picture.

For example, Trotsky stresses that Stalin was relatively unknown in the Bolshevik party going into 1917, yet mentions without comment that Stalin placed third in balloting for the Central Committee at the April 1917 Bolshevik party conference. After that conference, Trotsky tells us, Stalin “practically disappeared from the scene and was hardly ever seen.” Yet in the August CC vote for a now qualitatively expanded Bolshevik leadership (Trotsky and his co-thinkers were now members) Stalin placed seventh.[6]

Such contradictions reflect both Trotsky’s conscientious research and the intervention of Stalin’s assassin in preventing the writer from shaping this raw material into a consistent whole.

The portrayal of Stalin in the new part of this book, dealing with the period after October 1917, is more gripping and convincing than that of his younger years. Trotsky says that “[t]he revolution then [found] itself in the role of a bankrupt debtor” who has made promises to the working masses that objective circumstance blocks it from fulfilling. This generated social tensions expressed in bureaucratic culture and outlook, vividly and persuasive analyzed in Trotsky’s text.

“Stalin began to emerge .. as the organizer, the assigner of tasks, the dispenser of jobs, the trainer and master of the bureaucracy,” Trotsky says. Growing bureaucratization in the new Soviet state offered scope for Stalin’s “firmness of character and narrowness of outlook,” his single-minded pursuit of power, and, ultimately, his self-seeking cruelty.[7]

Trotsky’s narrative essentially closes in 1928. Stalin’s role in forced collectivization, Soviet industrialization, and the great frame-up purges are mentioned only briefly.

All in all, this new edition of Trotsky’s biographical manuscript, taken as a whole, provides a more satisfactory picture of Stalin’s character than the text available to Deutscher.

Did Bolshevism lead to Stalinism?

It has often been claimed that the structure and methods of Bolshevism before 1917 provided the seedbed for the subsequent development of Stalinism.

Trotsky’s argument in the first half of the book provides  some grounds for this speculation. Stalin before 1917 was a “committeeman” par excellence, Trotsky says, a praktik, a political empiricist, who “reacted with indifference and subsequently with contempt toward the émigrés,” that is, toward the “foreign centre” made up of Lenin and his close comrades in exile.

Trotsky also returns in these chapters to his well-known 1904 critique of Lenin and Bolshevism, Our Political Tasks. This pamphlet was “fairly accurate” in stating that “the [Bolshevik] committeemen of those days had ‘foregone the need to rely upon the workers after they had found support in the principle of centralism.’”

Trotsky’s opinion here should be set against Lars Lih’s widely respected analysis of the 1904 debate among Russian socialists in Lenin Rediscovered, which challenges the accuracy of Trotsky’s 1904 observations.[8]

Pointing to Lenin’s statement in 1905 that “there is evidently an illness in the Party,” Trotsky then comments: “That illness was the high-handedness of the political machine, the beginning of bureaucracy.” One might infer that such a bureaucracy, the very essence and breeding grounds of Stalinism, was already a malignant disease in the Bolshevism of 1904.[9]

Yet in reading Trotsky’s words, the context must be kept in mind. The Bolshevik local leaders under tsarism – the “praktiki” — were not office-proud privileged officials. They were activists on the run from severe, unrelenting repression. Trotsky tells us that they spent half their time on average in police detention. Extreme caution in consulting and selecting colleagues was a necessity of “konspiratsiia” – the rules for survival in the revolutionary underground.

The rise of mass workers’ struggles in 1905 eased the pressure of illegality and permitted the party to function more democratically and inclusively. Lenin was among the first to see this and pressed strongly for change. And the party did change, only to endure a new onslaught of tsarist repression in 1907 and after.

Elsewhere in his biography, Trotsky states that the political machine of the Bolshevik Party prior to 1917 was “petty bourgeois in its origins and conditions of life” and that Stalin “expressed the conservative inclinations of the party machine.” In Trotsky’s view, during the weeks after Russia’s February 1917 revolution, the conciliationist drift of this apparatus was steering the party toward liquidation into the Mensheviks. The party was then redeemed only by the arrival of Lenin, whom Trotsky terms “the leader of genius.”[10]

Yet four hundred pages later on, in the second part of Trotsky’s biography, we find a more worked out and polished section entitled “Stalinism vs. Leninism” that repeats general remarks about the deficiencies of the Bolshevik apparatus but comes to a quite different conclusion. Trotsky here repudiates his 1904 pamphlet and affirms that the Bolsheviks achieved a fruitful balance of democracy and centralism.[11] He then explains how outside forces (imperialist blockade and invasion, civil war, economic disruption, extreme deprivation) disrupted this balance:

The violation of this balance was not a logical result of Lenin’s organizational principles, but the political consequence of the changed balance of forces between the Party and the class. The Party degenerated socially, becoming the organization of the bureaucracy. Exaggerated centralism became a necessary means of self-defence.

Revolutionary centralism was transformed into bureaucratic centralism. The apparatus, which cannot and dare not appeal to the masses in order to restore internal conflicts, is compelled to seek a higher power, standing above itself. That is why bureaucratic centralism inevitably leads to personal dictatorship.[12]

Here we have Trotsky’s balanced view, consistent with his other later writings. The overriding cause of Stalinist degeneration was not inherent flaws in Bolshevism, he tells us, but the pressure of objective circumstances.

The discrepancy between these two passages justifies a warning. There are many such false starts and repetitions in the manuscript. If Trotsky had been afforded an opportunity to complete the text and edit it for publication, he would surely have addressed these issues. Stalin’s assassin cut that short. What Trotsky left to us was not a finished book but an archive of materials for a work in progress. As a result, no passage in the manuscript can be taken, in itself, as his definitive opinion.

Bureaucratism from the start?

What are we to make of Trotsky’s criticism of the Bolshevik underground leadership as petty-bourgeois in class orientation, bureaucratic in methods, and conservative in political direction?

First of all, this assertion, found in some pages of Trotsky’s unfinished Trotsky manuscript, contradicts the conviction that guided all his activity after the break with Stalin – that he was defending the historic record and policies of the Bolshevik movement since its inception.

Second, Trotsky is describing the Bolshevik movement during years in which he was in exile and was in strong opposition to their policies. It was not easy for him, in this position, to get a close feel for the Bolshevik movement, and he provides little source material on this point. His opinions carry weight but cannot be convincing without supporting evidence.

Third, the Bolsheviks’ emphasis on building strong local organizations led by a team of full-time organizers (praktiki) was their distinctive strength among Russian Social-Democratic currents – which Trotsky after 1917 recommended to socialists around the world. If the structure was so deformed, why did Lenin never notice this fact?

The most often-heard answer to this objection is that Lenin transformed the Bolshevik party immediately on his return to Russia in April 1917, a process frequently called the “re-arming of the party.” This interpretation is well stated, for example, in Alexander Rabinowitch’s authoritative history of the revolution in Petrograd.[13] It has been strongly contested by Lars Lih and recently by Eric Blanc; their key writings are on my website, along with rebuttals. These resources provide a basis for informed reconsideration of the “re-arming thesis” and need to be encompassed in weighing Trotsky’s assertions.[14]

Finally, on the face of it, this view seems simply implausible. As Trotsky writes elsewhere in this manuscript, in quite a different context, how is it possible that such a fatally flawed party carried out the October revolution?

Part two of this study, to be published separately, will consider whether the Stalin biography reveals a shift by Trotsky toward viewing the Soviet Union as a capitalist state.

This paper was prepared for presentation to the Geopolitical Economy Research Group’s “Revolutions” conference in Winnipeg, September 29-October 1, 2017.


[1]. Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence [Stalin], translated and edited by Alan Woods, London: Wellred Books, 2016. The introduction by co-editor Rob Sewall is available online. Photographs are taken from the collection of the late David King.

[2]. Leon Trotsky, Stalin – an Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, translated and edited by Charles Malamuth, New York: Harper & Bros., 1946.

[3]. See John G. Wright, “A Biography of Stalin,” Fourth International, July 1946, pp. 18–21, and Rob Sewell’s introduction to the 2016 edition.

[4]. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940, London: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 451-7.

[5]. Stalin, pp. 8, 9, 10.

[6]. Stalin, pp. 256, 260, 281.

[7]. Stalin,  pp. 653, 655, 664

[8]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What Is to Be Done?” In Context, Chicago: Haymarket, 1908.

[9]. Stalin, pp. 82–84.

[10]. Stalin, pp. 257, 265, 259.

[11]. Stalin, pp. 673–7.

[12]. Stalin, p. 676.

[13]. Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 32–47.

[14]. See in particular:

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