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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
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.
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