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Chris Ward is Senior Lecturer in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. His contagious enthusiasm for Trotsky’s writing kick-started my own Trotsky obsession (so now you know who to blame). I caught up with him recently to talk about the man himself, his literary merit and a few crucial results and prospects.
First of all, I’d like to ask you the obvious question: how did you discover Trotsky?
Many, many years ago, when I started to become interested in left wing politics and Russian history. It’s as straightforward as that. Anyone who is interested in these things (or was… it wouldn’t be quite the same today, but certainly in the 1960s and 1970s) couldn’t really avoid coming across him.
Which of his works did you read first?
I think the History of the Russian Revolution was the first thing.
In your lectures at Cambridge you were always eloquent about Trotsky’s literary merit. What is it for you about Trotsky’s authorial voice that is so interesting? What makes him different?
Well, most of the revolutionary intelligentsia are not great stylists. Most of them are monomaniacs who write wholly about Party affairs. Even Lenin, really. Everything is refracted through Party affairs. So the first thing that’s attractive about Trotsky is the breadth of his intellectual interests. He’s interested, as you know, in all kinds of things. He’s very interested in literature, very curious about other cultures. Like all Marxists, he’s interested in history. But although all this is refracted through Marxism, it isn’t quite as dogmatic – in fact, nothing like as dogmatic – as the other luminaries of the Bolshevik party; most of whom are, with the exception of perhaps Lenin and Lunacharskii, pretty narrow minded and often rather poorly educated.
So, for you, it’s the breadth of Trotsky’s interests and his stylistic abilities that distinguish him?
Yes. If you look at something like the little essay he wrote after he was sentenced to Siberian exile in 1906 for his brief participation in the Petrograd Soviet, it’s a wonderful travelogue. He has an eye for detail and he’s interested in everything he sees around him. If you take someone like Lenin, for example, who spent most of his life abroad, you will search in vain for any vignettes of life on the Paris streets or what it’s like being in Vienna. There’s just nothing there. He’s absolutely focussed on Party affairs and he doesn’t seem to notice other things in the same way. Well, he certainly doesn’t. Whereas Trotsky does notice these things, and manages to bring them to life.
Clearly you’re of the opinion that people should be reading Trotsky now. Where would you recommend they start?
I would probably start with those essays written after 1905. Then, if they want to tackle something longer, certainly History of the Russian Revolution, which is just full of wit and interest and lots of asides.
Somebody like Trotsky, precisely because of this very persuasive voice of his, poses a certain amount of historiographical problems. For you, what are the challenges of working with Trotsky?
Well, he’s just wrong so many times! He’s very, very strong, I think, when he’s at the height of his powers; when he’s confident and in command of the situation. So that would be around 1905-1907, and then of course again when he’s at the peak of his influence in 1917-1921. When he’s writing about that, it’s always interesting. When you start to get into the later, more turgid stuff, which is really only of interest to specialists – his attempts to form a Fourth International, the arcane quarrels over the Chinese Revolution, his prognosis for revolution in the West – his style seems to desert him. And he’s just wrong anyway, and to work out why he’s wrong you need to be a specialist; you need to know what it is that he’s getting wrong. He isn’t always dreadful. There are some wonderful passages in What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? But it’s much more fitful than his work that’s concentrated in the revolutionary period, when he’s recounting what’s going on, or his travelogues. There’s also his journalism, some of which I’ve seen, some of which I haven’t, which is very interesting too. But again it’s very topical and ephemeral, and perhaps wouldn’t be so interesting to a wider readership.
Do you think there are passages in Trotsky which are directly relevant to our political lives today?
That’s very hard to say. If you take one single work, no, there aren’t. But scattered throughout all the things I’ve mentioned are astonishing observations on human nature, or history, or the nature of politics, which would strike a chord in any age. Just as if you were looking at a classical writer who might say something about the Roman Empire or the nature of power. These things are always interesting, but it’s hard to pinpoint a single thing. He was very much a man – like all men and women – of his time, and he was writing primarily about the things that were going on around him.
I suppose that’s an answer to the tendency that I’ve certainly seen, both in activism and in academia, to regard Trotsky as a fixed value.
It’s a pointless game, but we often do it. I don’t know what he would be like now; I don’t even know if he’d be a Marxist. If he had the same power, his mordant comments on contemporary politics would no doubt be just as lively as his comments on his own time. But he was wrong: there wasn’t an international revolution, the kind of Communism he espoused didn’t turn out to be one that would sweep over Europe, and so on. He was prescient about some things, the Nazi-Soviet war for example, but so were many, many other people. It wasn’t a unique observation on his part that these two powers would set about each other sooner or later.
For you, then, is it perhaps more useful to see Trotsky as a writer, as an observer… as a historian?
Yes. I think that, as a journalistic commentator on the world in which he found himself, he’s head and shoulders above any other member of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia. Perhaps Sukhanov would be an equal; but certainly no other Bolshevik. As a historian, I think that the sweep of History of the Russian Revolution bears comparison with Winston Churchill’s World Crisis; but it’s much better, because World Crisis isn’t informed by a theory. There isn’t a proper theoretical structure: it’s just narrative. Whereas Trotsky has a strong theoretical structure – rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter – which gives the narrative enormous drive and a real shape.
Has Trotsky been useful to you in your work on Stalin and Stalinism?
Oh, of course. Nobody could seriously tackle this stuff, even if one were hostile to Trotsky, without reading him. He was there; he had so much to say. Look at some of the theories that he generated: permanent revolution, but even more so the theory of Thermidorean reaction and the idea of a kind of bureaucratic ossification. It may be oversimplistic. It may be the case that, as Max Weber suggested, bureaucracy was (from his point of view at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th) the future, and the idea that there could be a kind of anarchistic world was impossible. But Trotsky’s idea of the bureaucratic deformation of the Soviet Union, even if you wouldn’t want to use that particular lexicon, is very, very suggestive and it’s very difficult – well, it would be wrong – to try to understand the Soviet Union without paying serious attention to what Trotsky had to say about it.
Since Trotsky has been a useful tool to you in your academic work, how has your relationship to him evolved over the course of your time as a Soviet historian?
Well, that’s about forty years now, isn’t it? I would say that he has become much, much more a historical figure who has less to say about our world; but that’s because culture has changed as well. Trotsky was very much a part of activism in the sixties and seventies, but it’s a long time ago now. Trotsky is a figure like Robespierre or Cromwell or indeed Lenin, who are now firmly located historically. That huge crisis coming out of the First World War, which then played itself out in the formation of the Soviet Union – that particular crisis, not all crises, of course – is now past. It’s gone. It’s reconfigured in a way that Trotsky didn’t anticipate. Well, he slightly anticipated it. He did say that, if the Soviet Union remained isolated as a socialist power, it would eventually degenerate into capitalism. But I don’t think he has anything to say to us directly about a modern political situation, except insofar as he makes striking comments, as many writers have done throughout history, about the nature of power, of politics and of revolution. But as a guide to revolutionary activity, I think, he’s not a living figure any more than Robespierre is.
Do you have any last words for our readers today? What would you suggest to them?
Well, just read him! Just read him, because, as I already said at the beginning of this little interview, compared to some of the turgid writing of other revolutionaries he’s very lively. He’s very, very funny, and he will just sweep you away on a wonderful narrative journey, with all kinds of asides about the contemporaries and situations he sees around him. He has a lot to say to anybody who’s interested in late 19th and early 20th century socialism.
Chris Ward is the author of Stalin’s Russia in the Hodder Reading History series.
Join us tomorrow as Kirsty talks revolution, reductionism and reaction with Tariq Ali.
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