Joshua Rubenstein is the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA and a Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. His most recent book, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, is a concise biography of the figure. As part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, Rubenstein gives special emphasis on how Trotsky interacted with his Jewish origins.
Jeffrey Kalmus: You note that Trotsky’s contemporaries portrayed him as being out of touch with reality. In fact, you yourself describe him as such. How did Trotsky view the world, and what was unrealistic about it?
Joshua Rubenstein: The first person who really says this openly was Milovan Djilas, and I picked that up from his book The New Class. So Trotsky, in spite of his brilliance, was so enamored with Marxism and Marxist theories and how history is supposed to play out, that he seemed to have lost any ironic ability to take a step or five steps back and look at history and politics independent of his theories. So, revolutions are supposed to happen in Europe! Well, they may or may not. If we have a proletarian revolution in Germany, that will resolve Hitler and Hitler’s threat, he thought. To the Jews in the 1930’s, it was a threat Trotsky recognized, very vividly recognized. And the real solution for him is a proletarian revolution. So even when the Russians under Stalin, say, invaded Finland in 1939-1940, Trotsky defends the Red Army and defends Stalin, and his followers were bewildered. He made all kinds of claims that the Red Army had come to the defense of the working class, which had nothing to do with Stalin’s intention. There are lots of examples.
JK: Referring to how he understood Stalin, you write that, as a Marxist, “Trotsky never liked to ascribe historical events to personalities.” In what ways was Trotsky’s own history due to his personality?
JR: Of course, Trotsky is one of the two most important figures in the Bolshevik Revolution, and Lenin needed him, because Lenin wasn’t such a great orator. Lenin also went into hiding; he wasn’t the public figure in those months of August, September, and October leading up to the Revolution. Trotsky himself was, and Trotsky recognized that. He says in his diary and elsewhere, if it weren’t for Lenin being there and my being there, the Revolution wouldn’t have happened. But at the same time, he thinks we are just expressions of the proletariat. He liked to write about history, too. His history of the Russian revolution is regarded as a classic, it’s wonderfully written, very vivid—it’s very convincing. But in the end, there’s this tension he can’t overcome, which is the role of Lenin and Trotsky and people like themselves in the course of history. Well, people make history. History doesn’t make history, as Trotsky believed. There’s no such thing as history independent of human action, other than natural disasters, which can intervene and disrupt history.
JK: Trotsky seems to care for the Jews only insofar as they are poor and oppressed; we saw this at the Beilis trial on the blood libel. Can you elaborate on what it means for Trotsky to sometimes “be a Jew in spite of himself”?
JR: Well, he’s a Jew in spite of himself because around him, when Jews are oppressed, Jews are threatened, Jews are physically attacked, he responds in a very vehement, and sometimes courageous ways. The way he writes about the Jews being vulnerable if Hitler were to come to power, the way he denounces the Tsar at his trial in 1906, the way he writes about the Beilis trial and recalls it many years later, after World War II has begun—it is very striking to me. So in that sense, Trotsky had certain sensitivities that he couldn’t altogether suppress, even though he downplayed what little Jewish background he had. And finally, wherever he is, he’s with Jews—in the revolutionary movement, in a restaurant in the Bronx, editing a paper in Paris—he’s surrounded by other Jews. Yet whether he understood that, whether that mattered to him, whether it was just coincidence, I’ll leave that to others to sort out. But, that’s simply a fact.
JK: Does Trotsky’s life contain any lessons for contemporary revolutionaries?
JR: I would say on the one hand the issues Trotsky was confronting are really very far removed. The particular issues—the Tsar, the Russian Empire, the Bolshevik underground movement—it’s too romantic. However, the questions of democratic values still apply. People feel oppressed and they want to protest it or overcome it. If you disavow democratic values along the way, then it’s not clear what you will accomplish even if you dislodge the government in place. This was Victor Serge’s very acute criticism of Trotsky. What was the role of democratic values in the Russian Revolution? And did the fact that Trotsky and Lenin disavowed them have tremendous impact on the fate of the revolution, or its violence? Trotsky’s logic had been, with the revolution, everything is possible. Every utopian dream was possible as long as we preserve the revolution. So to defend this revolution, nothing is forbidden. This is a very dangerous logic.
JK: In a talk you gave about the book, you said you were very careful not to romanticize Trotsky, and you just mentioned that his story could be conveyed pretty romantically. What is potentially romantic about Trotsky’s life and what are the sober realities of it?
JR: The potential, the allure let’s call it, and the romanticism is that Trotsky was one of the handful of people most responsible for this tremendous revolution in the Russian Empire—not some island in the middle of the Pacific. And he has this tremendous flair, he’s a great orator, he’s handsome, he’s charismatic, he always dresses well to create a physical impression, and then he’s exiled. And no matter where he is, he persists in writing; he persists in speaking out and exposing Stalin on his terms, on Trotsky’s terms. And all the suffering, his children dying or killed, people close to him dying, his grandchildren lost from history, it’s easy to identify with him, easy to sympathize with him and forget what he was responsible for, what he contributed to. There’s this argument about who was the better student of Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin, but you could turn it around and say, who was the better teacher of Stalin, Lenin or Trotsky? Stalin was as much a student of Trotsky, an heir of Trotsky, as he was of Lenin.
Interview has been condensed and edited.