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Trotsky Q&A: Ian Thatcher

Ian D. Thatcher is Professor in History at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. He previously worked at the universities of Auckland, Glasgow, Leicester, and Brunel. His interest in Trotsky goes back to his undergraduate dissertation, Perspectives on Stalinism: A Critical Assessment (1987). It continues to the present day with articles on Trotsky and Lenin’s Funeral, History, 2009 and on the Mezhraionka in Slavonic and East European Review, 2009.

How did you first discover Trotsky?

As part of O-level history that we studied at school between the ages of 14-16. I was so taken with the study of the Russian revolution. This was partly because my home town of Middlesbrough was suffering from the newly elected and much hated in my area Thatcher government. To be a socialist at that time meant an interest in the Russian Revolution that was still seen as the alternative to capitalism. I devoured the school texts and Miss Rowley, my History teacher, would send additional readings to my home address. Trotsky stood out for me as a Bolshevik who still believed in socialism even though the regime in Russia had exiled him. This intrigued me: a socialist alternative to the horrors of the Gulag. I had to learn more.

What are the particular rewards and challenges of working on Trotsky?

Trotsky is such a challenge because he wrote on just about everything – culture, high and low, economics, politics, society, international relations, the Russian and world workers’ movement. It is hard to keep up with him; one has to read very broadly to try to reconstruct his intellectual outlook. Here I recognise my limitations – I would love to know German, Polish, French, Latvian, Lithuanian at least! The rewards are immense though, even working mainly in Russian. I saw a real potential to re-evaluate Trotsky just by undertaking the basic task of trying to read all of his writings chronologically. It seemed to me that current studies had started at the other end and projected backwards. This gave a dominance to Lenin and the Bolsheviks that was not necessarily there and relegated Trotsky’s works that did not touch upon Bolshevik themes. There was the need to overcome both Trotskyist and Stalinist domination of Trotsky’s life and thought. I think that I have been able to shed new or fresh light on Trotsky’s career. The cost is lots of abuse! I am a little concerned that some see me as an anti-Trotsky scholar.

What are the criticisms you most consistently hear of your work, and from
which quarters?

The most vocal criticisms come from the Trotskyist left. The late Al Richardson of Revolutionary History wrote in a review that one should not write on historical characters one does not like. This contains many assumptions, including that I do not admire Trotsky and/or did not before I decided to spend considerable time trying to outline his thought. There are a host of Trotskyist groups who target my work. David North wrote a pamphlet attacking myself and Geoffrey Swain. I have not read it but friends who have tell me that I should take legal action. I prefer to ignore it. Within academia one comes across very odd statements. Paul Blackledge of Leeds Met University who writes on Marxism and History said my analysis of Trotsky as historian was confused since despite my criticisms I still declare Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution to be essential reading. Well, one can think of something as flawed but compelling!

How has your perspective on Trotsky evolved in the course of your career?

My view on Trotsky has to be qualified by the statement that I do not consider myself to have ever captured the ‘whole’ Trotsky. I deliberately limited my ‘biography’ to a ‘political life’. This is partly because I consider Trotsky to have been an essentially political animal, and also because it is his thought that interests me most. In this sense the ‘evolution’ has involved a deepening of my acquaintance with Trotsky as thinker, as political analyst. The most striking thing is how his thought deteriorates as the 1930s progress. Everything is put into pre-determined categories. The writing is wooden and dull compared to earlier works. This is partly to be explained by the circumstances in which Trotsky is living and working. It is also an inability, refusal(?), to come to terms with the recent past, with what went wrong with the Russian Revolution. Viktor Serge commented on this in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Indeed I doubt whether biographers have presented a rounder Trotsky than Serge’s portrait.

Why do you think people should study Trotsky now – indeed, do you think they should?

If anyone has a keen interest in the history of the Russian Revolution, of the twentieth century, and the politics of Marxism, then Trotsky is still essential reading. I was struck, for example, by how modern scholarship on the 1905 Revolution confirms much of what Trotsky wrote at the time. It has never been my interest or task, and some see this as a real weakness, to try to apply Trotsky’s thought to the modern world.

Which work by Trotsky would you recommend to someone starting out?

For all of its flaws, I would still suggest the autobiography, My Life. It contains a insight into the young Trotsky and of the making of the man – the emphasis on the mind, the superiority of town over village, and a burning sense of self-worth as the champion of the oppressed. One cannot imagine Stalin ever producing such prose!

Ian Thatcher is the author of Trotsky (Routledge Historical Biographies).

Join us again tomorrow as Michael Carley reviews Leon Trotsky on Britain.

10 comments on “Trotsky Q&A: Ian Thatcher

  1. David North
    August 31, 2010

    You are devoting an entire week to a discussion of Leon Trotsky. So far, you have featured biographies written by Professors Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher. These books are travesties of historical scholarship. In a review entitled “The Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification” (reprinted in the newly-published In Defense of Leon Trotsky, Mehring Books 2010), I document in detail the numerous distortions and outright falsifications of the historical record by these two authors. In your interview, Thatcher claims, disingenuously, that he has not read my criticism “but friends who have tell me that I should take legal action.” Professor Thatcher, wisely, has declined this advice. A specialist on Trotsky, the noted political scientist Professor Baruch Knei-Paz (author of The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, published by Oxford University Press) praised my analysis of the Thatcher and Swain biographies as “a very impressive piece of work — detailed, meticulous, well-argued and devastating in its criticism.”

    The Thatcher and Swain biographies are part of an unrelenting campaign of anti-Trotsky historical falsification, to which the new biography by Robert Service is only the most recent addition. Having taken the welcome step of hosting a “Trotsky Week,” do you not think it would be appropriate to inform your readers of works, such as my own In Defense of Leon Trotsky, that expose and answer the historical falsifications churned out by anti-Marxist academics?

    David North

  2. Melrose
    August 31, 2010

    I very much enjoyed this interview. I am always fascinated in how people become caught up in something that absorbs much of their personal or professional life, and how their relationship with the topic evolves through time. It is also interesting to read an article which shows that Trotsky, often put on a pedestal, seems, like the rest of us, perhaps to be somewhat fallible, i.e., Professor Thatcher’s feeling that Trotsky may have had trouble coming to terms with, as he puts it, “what went wrong with the Russian Revolution” – a very human trait a lot of us have. It also seems to me, from this interview, that Trotsky is a far more rounded figure than he is often made out to be – his writings covering a far wider range of subjects than I imagined they would.

  3. Jackie
    August 31, 2010

    Like Melrose, I enjoyed this interview. Not just because it tells us what sparked Mr. Thatcher’s interest in Trotsky, but also because he views Trotsky as fully human, not just an historical icon. I would think that would be necessary for a well rounded portrait, though I think sometimes that idea gets lost.
    I also must say I like the painting that is on the front of the book, it’s actually rather riveting.

  4. Hilary
    September 1, 2010

    Thank you, I too appreciated and enjoyed the personal journey and the personal take on Trotsky that Prof. Thatcher describes here with such frankness and good humour. One of the fascinating things about this Week is the sense for a newcomer to the subject as I am of looking through different windows on Trotsky and what he and his writing meant at the time, through the intervening years, and mean today.

  5. Ken
    September 2, 2010

    One question I have, and I think it’s a question that’s probably important to the whole week, is how far can we talk of restricting studies of historical figures to a ‘political life’? I don’t work particularly in the realm of biography (though my field does necessitate some reading of it), but my approach to political history rests firmly on the notion that you can’t separate out the ‘non-political’ aspects of a community from the political. Cultural developments, for example, provoke reactions which affect the ways in which communities conceive of themselves politically. Why, then, would changes in Trotsky’s cultural tastes, say, not impact the way that he looked at his politics?

    I ask this as a question for the whole week, because I’d like to see the authors probe the ideas of why its important to study one figure so closely.

  6. Pingback: Trotsky Week on Vulpes Libris « Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  7. u.S
    January 9, 2011

    Prof. Thatcher is a brilliant scholar. It is clear he has put a lot of time, effort and passion into his work. I for one appreciate his unique insight into the life of Trotsky, and appreciate the fact he is not afraid to go back to the basics and take the facts as they are, ultimately offering us a new and honest view.
    Makes a refreshing change. Prof. Thatcher is one of the best Russian Scholars around.

  8. Pingback: Trotsky Q&A: Gabriel García Higueras « Vulpes Libris

  9. Ivan Smirnov
    July 30, 2013

    This is a surprisingly friendly set of answers about Trotsky, all told. But the puzzle remains: if Trotsky was as unimportant as Thatcher claims in his book, how can he be worth writing about and why has no one noticed this before? How did he end up in the Politburo if he didn’t count?

  10. Ivan Smirnov
    July 30, 2013

    Stalin himself noted in Pravda that the October Revolution in Petorgrad went so well because of Trotsky, and Lenin testified to an enemy of Trotsky, Gorki, that it was Trotsky who organised the Red Army into an effective force. Yet Thatcher denies Trotsky credit for both achievements. This is carrying animus to the point of absurdity: like and ememy of Churchill claiming he had nothing to be proud of in 1940 and at most was only a decent writer.

    Well, to each his taste…..Trotsky will outlive Thatcher in the world’s memory, I am sure.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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