Sunday, October 25, 2009


Downfall of a Revolutionary

By Bertrand M. Patenaude

Harper. 370 pp. $27.99

For an architect of the 20th century's signature people's revolution, Leon Trotsky wasn't much of a people person. A victim of Stalin's power-grab after Lenin's death, Russia's "Old Man" found himself exiled to Mexico in 1937, where, under the nose of his humiliated wife, he dallied with surrealist painter Frida Kahlo (herself married to his host, painter/dilettante socialist Diego Rivera) and provoked irrelevant fights about dialectical materialism while World War II's storm clouds gathered. Bertrand M. Patenaude, who has also written about U.S. aid to Russia during the young nation's 1921 famine, finds the beginnings of Trotsky's boorishness in a failure of character, not ideology. "He had never acquired the habits necessary for working within a political organization," Patenaude writes of his subject, who was murdered in 1940 by the proto-KGB, "let alone for maneuvering in the corridors of power."

This book isn't for socialist newbies; readers who don't know the 4th International from the 3rd or who aren't game for an old-fashioned, post-Marxist discussion about degenerated workers' states won't follow Patenaude's unpredictable leaps from interbellum Mexico to pre-Bolshevik Russia. Still, even a dry appraisal of Trotsky -- an ideologue so divisive that he found himself at odds with some Trotskyites -- offers a basic, human lesson: Don't be a schmuck, especially when fomenting proletarian revolution.

-- Justin Moyer

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