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Profiles in Power: Trotsky, by Geoffrey Swain


Today, Good and Bad Kirsty have a somewhat more pleasant task in front of them.  (To refresh your memory, Good Kirsty is my inner historian, the uptight one who deals with my thesis.  Bad Kirsty is my inner reader.  Silly value judgments aside, she’s a little more outspoken than her academic counterpart).
Good Kirsty:  We realised the other day that we’ve been telling you to read Geoffrey Swain’s biography of Trotsky at pretty much every opportunity, but never actually reviewed it properly.  Today seems like the day.
Bad Kirsty:  And we actually get to talk about a book we like!  About time, too.  I was beginning to feel like the Bad News Bear.
GK:  Let’s start with a quick list of the things Swain’s book does not have.  Here’s a major one: there’s no cod psychology.  No attempts to Get Inside the Subject’s Head.  A few rather crisp authorial judgments, yes.  But none of this living-the-character claptrap.
BK:  No ridiculous language either.  There’s not a furrowed brow, a wrung hand, a pale visage or a nervous tic to be seen.
GK:  No lurid imaginings.  No purple passages.
BK:  No embarrassing attempts to be down with the youth.  No tabloid speak.  No questionable pop culture comparisons.
GK:  Of course, the absence of these things doesn’t automatically make for a good book.  But it’s part of the reason this one is so useful, although I am only partly on board with Swain’s overall analysis.
BK:  I feel rather as if all this, together with Swain’s consistent referencing and critical use of sources, shouldn’t even have to be mentioned.  And yet, in the light of recent high profile biographies in Russian history (some of which we have discussed here), these things clearly cannot be taken for granted.
GK:  Grouching aside, though, this really is a very good book and, I believe, an accessible one.  It is published by an academic publisher (Longman) and hasn’t received nearly as much attention as the recent books by Service and Patenaude, but it is a far more reliable introduction to Trotsky than either.  It contains the best short account of Trotsky’s Civil War years I have yet found.   And at 248 pages, it’s concise without omitting too much detail.
BK:  At this point, I must stick my hand up and say that I found the length something of a disadvantage.  The politics of the Russian revolutionary movement both before and after 1917 can be a headache to understand; at first glance there seem to be endless groups and factions (beyond the plain old Bolshevik/Menshevik split, which is not nearly as plain as it may look), allegiances are forever shifting and the terminology can appear impenetrable unless you know your Marx.  Perhaps precisely because of the major strength of this volume – its concentration on the Revolution and Civil War years, the height of Trotsky’s activity – there’s barely room at times to do more than narrate the intra-party arguments, with little context and less reflection.  Chapter 2 (which covers ten years, from 1907-1917) is particularly afflicted.  I have a solid idea of the RSDLP’s dynamics within those years, and even I occasionally had to reach for Trotsky for Beginners.
GK:  Yes, there are times when the narrative almost seems telescoped, and keeping up requires a good deal of concentration.  At the same time, getting to grips with Trotsky and his role in the Revolution does mean understanding the ins and outs of the Russian underground (and later, the intra-party struggle around the succession to Lenin) on at least some basic level.  It’s hard, and frankly it can get boring, but it has to be done.   Personally, I find any kind of linear narrative hard to process when it comes to this stuff; I always end up drawing a diagram or playing with post-it notes.
BK:  Maybe they should give away pads of them with copies of this book.  Although that would presume that the rest of the readership is as nerdy as you.
GK:  Fair point.  But there is a very interesting thread among all the detail about splits and factions and points of theory, concerning Trotsky’s attitude to organisation and ultimately to the whole idea of a revolution, not to mention his opposition to Lenin.  Chapter 2 may be dense and difficult, but there’s a lot of value in there about Trotsky’s political values and the consistency with which he espoused them; while Swain’s stance towards Trotsky has been the subject of heated discussion, Trotsky emerges better here (in my subjective opinion) than he does in his own memoirs, where the pressures of the time required a serious revision of his own history with Lenin.  Swain’s observation that Trotsky “was forced to appear as a second-rate Lenin”, and his sensitive dissection of the consequences of this identity, seem particularly acute to me.
BK:  So you concur with this part of Swain’s analysis, which is a fairly major point.  But not with all of it?
GK:  No.  I have a higher opinion of the innate value of Trotsky’s thought than Swain does (to judge by his statements in his Introduction).  And his analysis of Trotsky’s relationship to Stalin raises a number of questions with me; but I need to do extended research of my own before I can lay out my own thoughts.  I think that the process of interrogating Trotsky’s version of events is absolutely necessary, and I suspect the delineations are indeed less clear than historians often like to believe.  But I don’t think I agree with Swain’s conclusions.  Again, I need to look into this myself before I can really explain why.
BK:  Very mysterious of you.  So I suppose the conclusion is: you may agree with Swain’s argument, or with some of it, or not at all.  But read this book.
GK:  Yes.  Do read this book.  It’s very good, and you’ll have something intelligent to argue with.
BK:  Fair enough.  Rather nice to do a positive review, wasn’t it?
GK:  Yes, it was.  Right then.  Over and out.
Longman, ISBN: 978-0582771901

"Writing is learning to say nothing, more cleverly every day. "
William Allingham

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