A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Gabriel García Higueras is a Lima-based historian and the author of Trotsky en el espejo de la historia (Trotsky in the mirror of history). Today he’s talking to Kirsty about translations, ideologies and methodologies, and formative reading experiences.
How did you discover Trotsky?
I discovered him in 1982, when I was sixteen years old and in the fourth year of high school. We studied the Russian Revolution in World History class, and that was when I first heard of Leon Trotsky. Reading a few details about him was enough to get me interested in finding out more about his life. And so I investigated encyclopaedias and dictionaries; but the most detailed information came from an issue of Hechos Mundiales (a monthly history magazine published in Santiago, Chile from 1967 to 1973) dedicated to Stalin. One of the articles was called “The Enemy’s Name is Trotsky”. Reading this text, I better understood the historic importance of this figure and realised that he had a fascinating story. The events of his life, dedicated to the Revolution, captured my interest. What’s more, I was moved by finding out about his political persecution and how he was assassinated. This was the beginning of a long process of reading about Trotsky which continues to this day.
Which of his works did you read first?
The first of Trotsky’s works I read was My Life. A few months after the events I mentioned above, I found his autobiography in a Lima bookshop (I knew that Trotsky had written his memoirs). That must have happened in October 1982. It was an enjoyable read. Few of the books I read in my youth would have such an impact on me, or leave such a trace behind. I would say that I was drawn in for three reasons: Trotsky’s fascinating life, linked with some of the major events of the twentieth century; his lively, brilliant narrative, as much in his reminiscences of childhood and youth as in the chapters dedicated to his revolutionary activism; and his political struggle to achieve a return to socialist principles at the time of the bureaucratic deviation of the Soviet state after Lenin’s death.
I believe that Trotsky’s autobiography is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the modern world and, in general, for all lovers of literature.
Which translations did you read, and what do you think of the Spanish translations? Is Trotsky read much in Peru?
Regarding translations of Trotsky into Spanish, I have read those translated from Russian as well as translations from other languages. In the first category, I am talking about works such as History of the Russian Revolution and Permanent Revolution, which were translated directly from Russian by Andrés Nin at the start of the 1930s. In the second category we have translations from other languages such as French and English. These constitute the majority. The main publishing houses which released Trotsky’s works in Spanish worked from the French versions. One example is Editorial Ruedo Ibérico, in Paris, which published a notable amount in the 1970s, and Juan Pablos Editor, in Mexico, which released over twenty volumes of Trotsky in the same period. Among the translations from English are the Escritos de Trotsky (1929-1940) which were published in Spanish by Editorial Pluma, Bogotá, based on those released in the US by Pathfinder Press.
The Centro de Estudios, Investigaciones y Publicaciones “León Trotsky”, in Buenos Aires, has been carrying out a considerable amount of translation work in the last few years, revising and correcting some of the translations from French as well as translating for the first time works which were previously only available in English, such as Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-1935, and, recently, The Case of Leon Trotsky.
There is an excellent translation of My Life: an attempt at an autobiography from German by Wenceslao Roces. This outstanding Spanish translator, who lived most of his life in Mexico, translated the major works of Marx into our language. Critics consider his translations flawless.
As to the second part of the question, I can tell you that Trotsky is not read much in Peru. He was read in left-wing political and academic circles in the 1960s and 70s, when Trotkyism was a visible presence on the Peruvian Left. Currently Trotskyism is practically nonexistent here; which is why Trotsky’s work is not very well known.
How do you read Trotsky? Which qualities interest you in his writing?
In fact, I am interested in Trotsky’s entire intellectual output for historical reasons. In particular, I have always admired his writings on culture. In his lucid essays on art and literature, he approaches these themes from a broad, undogmatic perspective, opposing the idea of a proletarian art and proletarian culture.
Above all, though, I have always been drawn to Trotsky’s historical works. This interest became stronger during my training as a historian; studying the theory of history allowed me to go deeper into the methodological aspects of his work. Trotsky is one of the most original historians of the last century. In his historical writings he constructs a historiographical model based on the method and theory of Marxism which supplies a dialectical perspective on the history of Russia and its revolutions. He provides us both with his personal account and with first hand sources — drawn from his archives — which in subsequent decades influenced a current of Western historiography around the Russian Revolution. Trotsky unites the qualities of a shrewd historian with those of an eminent author. The brilliance of his style, clear and elegant, draws his readers in. One can mention works such as 1905 and History of the Russian Revolution as outstanding examples of Marxist historiography and historical narrative. Other works of literary and historical value are My Life and his biographies of Lenin and Stalin. Even Trotsky’s detractors had to acknowledge his mastery as an author.
I will take this opportunity to express my disagreement with the statements made by Professor Ian D. Thatcher in the interview published on Vulpes Libris in 2010 [link]. He states that Trotsky’s thought underwent a deterioration in the 1930s and that his writing lacks the brilliance of his earlier works. On the contrary, there are solid reasons to affirm that Trotsky reached his maturity in the 1930s as a thinker and author. His works published during this decade can be considered as the most polished of all his intellectual output. Apart from the historical works mentioned above, I am thinking — for example — of his political analysis of German fascism and his book The Revolution Betrayed.
Do you have any advice for those who want to start out with Trotsky?
From experience, I would recommend that those who wish to study Trotsky start by reading his work before they consult the works of his interpreters. Following this sequence allows for the advantage of getting to know Trotsky’s work at first hand, without intermediation. It would be a good idea to start with his memoirs and then continue with his historical and political writings.
Of the works produced by scholars of Trotsky’s life and ideas, the book by the academic Baruch Knei-Paz [The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky] is very much to be recommended as a broad and deep study of his thought. As for biographies of Trotsky, in my opinion, the most significant are those by Isaac Deutscher and Pierre Broué; the latter has not been translated into English. Of those published recently, I recommend the rigorously researched Trotsky: révolutionnaire sans frontières by Jean-Jacques Marie, published in French and Spanish, which includes material from the Russian archives. Most of the biographies published in the last ten years, such as those by Ian Thatcher and Geoffrey Swain, have not met my expectations as a specialist in the field. Less still that by Professor Robert Service, which contains innumerable distortions and questionable conclusions. (I have recently written a response to the author.) It is sad that Service, guided by the intention of discrediting Trotsky, has wasted the resources at his disposal and produced such an egregiously flawed biography.
I also think it opportune to warn readers about the books written by modern Russian authors, which — with a few notable exceptions — often contain conceptual errors and not a few ideological prejudices.
One last observation: before beginning to read a book about Trotsky, it is advisable to find out about the ideology of its author, due to the potential bias resulting from his or her opinions. In general, the ideological aim of the book is masked by a claimed “objectivity”. There are numerous examples of this type in the literature around Trotsky.
Many thanks, Gabriel, for taking the time to talk to us about Trotsky.
The translation is my own, and accordingly so are any errors. The Spanish language version is here.
No linking theme this week, except that I'm really looking forward to all that's on offer. An alliterative mysterious Malcolm on Monday? Can't wait! On Wednesday, if you like to spend time in the ancient world, will you like John James? I do, and I really want to know. And, as someone who had mixed feelings about ITV's Victoria, I'm dying to find out on Friday if they were the same feelings, and were just as mixed, as Jackie's.
Monday: Simon reads C.S. Lewis' letters to the mysterious Malcolm.
Wednesday: Colin travels beyond the limits of the Roman Empire in the historical novels of John James.
Friday: Jackie has mixed feelings about the PBS/ITV series Victoria.