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BOOK REVIEW: "My Life" by Leon Trotsky

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BOOK REVIEW: My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography by Leon Trotsky (Dover Publications via Mehring Books) originally released 1930

Leon Trotsky’s critical role in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which brought the Bolsheviks to power, cannot be overstated. Trotsky, along with V.I. Lenin, would successfully battle capitalism and imperialism in Czarist Russia and bring communism to that backward nation.

And yet in 2014, so-called academics, “historians” (paging Robert Service!) and anti-Semites have been working overtime to smear Trotsky, who tried to defend the original idea of international “permanent revolution” and true Marxism in the face of Stalin’s shortsighted “socialism in one country” and an infamous and murderous bureaucracy that led to the deaths of millions.

Trotsky always stuck by the original working-class struggle as viewed internationally. That what happened in the Soviet Union should happen throughout the world. In his many articles, pamphlets and books he wrote throughout his life, he never wavered in his position.

And even as the USSR was crumbling in the late 1980’s, Trotsky’s name was never cleared by the Soviet bureaucracy, including glasnost and perestroika peddler Mikhail Gorbachev, the same “Gorby” who today is reportedly saying that America’s belligerent “triumphalism” is stoking a “new Cold War.” If only Trotsky were here to add his thoughts on these geopolitical matters …

But once one reads Trotsky’s absolutely fascinating and gripping autobiography, My Life, published in 1930, a decade before his assassination while in exile in Mexico, one learns all the things that the Stalinist apologists prefer folks don’t know about how Stalin never embraced true Marxism, despite both the Soviets and the Americans claiming that that is what Stalin and his successors tried to portray.

So, with My Life, written during his exile in Turkey, we get a revolutionary-in-the-making born as Lev Davidovich Bronstein in 1879 in the Ukrainian town of Yanovka. Trotsky’s family, middle-class Jewish farmers, were not poor and not particularly religious. As he writes, his childhood was “the grayish childhood of a lower-middle-class family, spent in a village in an obscure corner where nature is wide, and manners, views and interests pinched and narrow.”

Young Lev had his sights set higher. And through his schoolboy days up until his was a teenager, observing rural life, he couldn’t help but be moved to tears by the injustices he often saw befall simple peasants trying to earn a living. And when he found himself in Odessa, the “petty-bourgeois” pursuits of materialism – “the instinct of acquisition” – did not come naturally, the way it did to most around him. Trotsky said he “sailed away with a mighty push” from that poisonous “instinct.”

This would lead him, in the late 1890’s, to embrace the growing revolutionary fervor that was gripping portions of Europe and Russia as the 20th century began to loom. Trotsky shares tales of his first prison experiences and his first exile to Siberia - for “spreading revolutionary ideas” - when “Marxism had definitely become the basis of my philosophy.” And while Trotsky’s (Bronstein’s nom de plume came from the name of a prison guard he knew) theoretical views were formed during his prison time, his “political self-determination was achieved in exile.” This meant that assassinating the Czar’s ministers was not paramount – “but the revolutionary overthrow of Czarism.” Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto was increasingly sought after during this turbulent time. It was in that book, one of the biggest selling of all time, next to the Bible, where the theory of "permanent revolution" was first coined and later fully embraced and linked to Trotsky.

Trotsky does escape from his Siberian gulag and heads to London where he meets Lenin, where they get to know one another and discuss Lenin’s views on Russian capitalism. The two revolutionary communist leaders would have a rocky friendship, but would stay solid until the end, despite Stalin and others who tried to claim Lenin denounced Trotsky before his death.

Lenin was not merely a remarkable party worker,” writes Trotsky. “But a leader, a man with every fiber of his being bent on one particular end, one who finally realized that he was himself a leader after he had stood side by side with the elders and had been convinced that he was stronger and more necessary than they.”

And while Trotsky protested the construction of a mausoleum for Lenin – “a monument unbecoming and offensive to the revolutionary consciousness” – Lenin’s embalmed corpse (in Red Square, where it can be viewed to this very day) “was used as a weapon against the living Lenin – and against Trotsky.”

As for Stalin, when someone asked Trotsky, shortly after Lenin’s death in 1924, “what is Stalin?” the founder of the Petrograd Soviet and the Red Army responded: “Stalin is the outstanding mediocrity of the party." But behind his yellowish, feline eyes, this “mediocrity” still had great power, which made him dangerous, particularly to the "Old Bolsheviks." These early revolutionaries who would face sham "show trials" and be executed during the "purges" and "The Great Terror," primarily in the 1930's, following the publication of My Life. It should also be noted that it was Trotsky and his "Trotskyists," who would found the Fourth International in 1938, to replace the corrupted, Stalinist Third International, which Trotsky noted was not helping the international working class come to power.

Throughout his autobiography, Trotsky maintains a decidedly hopeful and optimistic tone, despite all of the setbacks he and his comrades faced in those years following the October Revolution of 1917. He dodged many bullets - literally and figuratively. He overcame much and lost many family members, friends and comrades. And yet, his personable writing style is intensely engaging and his statements about politics, economics and humanity are often profound and still relevant today, particularly as the issues of unbridled corporatism and income inequality fill the headlines. And even if you disagree wholeheartedly with revolutionary communism, it is a fact that Leon Trotsky was a key political and revolutionary figure in the first half of the 20th century, a figure whose stature has only grown in the 70-plus years since his assassination by Stalin’s agents in Mexico, following his final exile from the Motherland.

My Life is an amazing story of an amazing life, regardless of your thoughts on Leon Trotsky's political views and stances. I found it to be one of the most historically important autobiographies of the past century. Well worth reading and re-reading.

For those interested in learning more about Trotsky, read David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky and Bertrand M. Patenaude’s Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary. Mark Van Aken Williams' The Prophet of Sorrow, about the man who assassinated Trotsky, also makes for interesting reading. Also, Isaac Deutscher’s 1954 three-volume biography on Trotsky – The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast – will be released in a single volume in early 2015 and simply titled The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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