Leon Trotsky, one of the leading figures of the Russian October Revolution, remains a controversial figure. For many, Trotsky's assassination in Mexico marked a tragedy in Soviet history, cutting off the possibility of a humane version of communism taking hold in Russia, with Trotsky himself arguing that he would have held back the tides of arbitrary rule and terror. But is that so? In answering this question and others about Trotsky's ideas, political defeat, and exile, Hitchens and Service speak to the very nature of communist ideology.
Christopher Hitchens is an author and journalist whose books, essays, and journalistic career span more than four decades. He has been a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, World Affairs, The Nation, Free Inquiry, and became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2008.
Peter M. Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he writes about business and politics, edits the Hoover Institution's quarterly journal, the Hoover Digest, and hosts Hoover's television program, "Uncommon Knowledge."
Robinson is also the author of three books: How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life; It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair with the GOP; and the best-selling business book Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA.
Robert Service, a noted Russian historian and political commentator, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford.
His research interests cover Russian history and politics in all its aspects from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Service has finished a biography of Leon Trotsky, drawing on the Hoover Archives, which will be published by Macmillan and Harvard University Press in October 2009.
He is the author of The Russian Revolution 1900–1927, 4th edition (London, 2009), Lenin: A Biography (London, 2000), “Architectural Problems of Reform in the Soviet Union: From Design to Collapse” in Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, vol. 2 (2001), Russia: Experiment with a People (London and Harvard, 2002), “Stalinism and the Soviet State Order,” in Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, vol. 1 (2003), A History of Modern Russia. From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century, 3rd edition, expanded and updated (London and Cambridge, Mass., 2009), Stalin: A Biography (London and Cambridge, Mass., 2004), “Military Policy, International Relations and Soviet Security after October 1917,” in Russia: War, Peace and Diplomacy. Essays in Honour of John Erickson (London, 2004), “Soviet Political Leadership and 'Sovietological' Modelling,” in Leading Russia: Putin in Perspective: Essays in Honour of Archie Brown (Oxford , 2005), and Comrades: A World History of Communism (London and Cambridge, Mass., 2007).
Service holds an M.A. in modern languages from the University of Cambridge and an M.A and a Ph.D. in government from the University of Essex.
Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens defends why he called himself a Trotskyist. Hitchens says "he combined in himself the role of man of action and man of ideas," and admires his opposition to Stalin and Hitler as "a person of immense emotional and physical courage."
I am impressed with Mr. Service's scholarship and Mr. Hitchens' continued efflorescence. One may understand Hitchens' atheism in his previous devotion to Trotsky. What most people never deduce is that all human governments end up screwing some (often idealistic) group. The "proletariat" is a fiction that the Marxist view intends to make reality, creating a mindless and materialistic mass devoted to animal appetites, while a select minority exact a dictatorship of the elect beyond the (at least) American imagination. "Working class" is not the same thing as the alleged "proletariat." A small jump to see "God" (which Mr. Hitchens rarely defines) as a tyrant whose whimsey somehow includes occasional benevolent impulses. "Marxism" or "Trotskyism" is the perversion of Fourierism, such movements often occurring in human history. If a shining angel appeared to Mr. Hitchens and said, "You are cured of your cancer, but you must take a vow to 'God'" and the cancer were cured, Mr. Hitchens would doubtless rationalize this "miracle" as remission. That being said, Mr. Hitchens remains one of our modern lights and sparklers (pyrotechnically speaking) and we should pray for more such English emigres.
Here is Hitchens at his worst.
His expressions of admiration for Trotsky must rank with the most brainless things that a man of supposed intelligence can have said. As those who know of Trotsky's story will be aware, he was one man among a handful of persons down the Ages who can be regarded unquestionably as one of History's most heinous creatures: one of those baleful curses visited upon humankind by some malignant Providence. He was a man to whom the word ' flagitious ' can be applied without the slightest extravagance - in fact if anything, it rather understates matters. And yet Hitchens delivers his encomiastic drivel in the most sententious, self-consciously sage tones, with that air of omniscience that is so galling and so ridiculous in someone who is talking manifest rot.
Hitchens certainly is an almost encyclopaedically read man, but with all his brilliance in debate, with all his praiseworthy iconoclasm and trenchancy when he discusses religion and his beautifully phrased belligerence when he discusses the threat from Islamists, he seems to lack a certain critical judgement.
May it be said of him, as it was said once of Churchill, that he is 'brilliant but unsound'?
To take off on this point, in this discussion Hitchens tries to make out that Trotsky's warnings about Hitler were more strenuous and edifying than Churchill's ever were. Fascinating rubbish from a man who should know better. Hitchens must have an odd inferiority complex when he contemplates Churchill....not surprisingly, for with all Hitchens' self-advertised gift for the English language, he comes a very poor second to Churchill whose virtuosity was of course unparallelled, and in the years of WW2 so formidable and inspiring - and which in itself steeled the British backbone more than any other single element.
Here's what Churchill said about Trotsky at the time when Trotsky was begging England and Germany and France to admit him to their countries on some pretext or other:
"All his scheming.....all his atrocities, all his writing, all his harangues...have led only to this - that another Comrade (Stalin) rules in his stead, while he, the once triumphant Trotsky whose frown meted death to thousands, sits disconsolate - a skin of malice stranded for a time on the shores of the Black Sea, and now washed up in the Gulf of Mexico"
"He possessed in his nature all the qualities requisite for the art of civic destruction.....No trace of compassion, no sense of kinship, no apprehension of the spiritual, weakened his high and tireless capacity for action. Like the cancer bacillus he grew, he fed, he tortured, he slew in fulfilment of his nature"
"It is a need of self-preservation that impels the Soviets to extrude Trotsky and his fresh-distilled poisons"
I had always thought Hitchens superb, but having heard so much evidence now, of his lapses from good sense and critical judgement, it is not so hard now to supress the feelings of incredulousness and indignation that I first felt when I heard Leon Wieseltier calling Hitchens a 'buffoon'.
My only real question is this: Why does no one mention that even though Trotsky being the supreme leader of Russia may have increased the chances of a bloodbath in Germany, wouldn't said bloodbath have had huge odds of stopping the holocaust because it would certainly not have left Hitler in power? If so, wouldn't this mean that Trotsky certainly would have been the lesser of two evils? (not that there isn't already enough evidence for this.)
However, the point remains that Trotsky was morally (logically) superior to Stallin. The fact that both were men of ideas and action is acknowledged and they are operating on the unspoken assumption that Trotsky is a sort of poster-boy for socialism (at least compared to Stallin, and he was the only one who was close in fame who may have been compared to establish a thorough discourse about socialist ideology and politics.) This promps Hitchens' first response to the first question.
I am very surprised to discover how Trotsky's ideas evolved and became contagious in the West. When I studied history back in post-soviet state there's was hardly any mentioning of Trotsky with the exception of him being a "traitor".
The second surprising note is Hitchens' admiration of Trotsky. Yes, he's "the man of both action and ideas", but so is Lenin. It appears to me from the conversation of Trotsky confronting Stalin is in greater degree a struggle for power rather than substantial difference in policies.
I love Christopher Hitchens. I'll quote a poem from a *different* Robert Service for this video:
"My Father Christmas passed away
When I was barely seven
At 21, alack-a-day,
I lost my hope of heaven.
Yet not in either lies the curse:
The hell of it's because
I don't know which loss hurt the worst-
My God or Santa Claus."
"The Sceptic" by Robert Service