An Ex-Maoist Looks at an Ex-Trotskyist:                       
On Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky

Ian Williams

A quarter of a century since he wrote it, Howe's biography of Trotsky raises far more questions than it can directly answer. How could a devoted democratic socialist describe a founder of the Bolshevik Party and thus of the Soviet state as "one of titans of the century," not least when the author also recognizes that Trotskyism is "without political or intellectual significance: a petrified ideology?"1 Outcast and unarmed, the prophet's strong residual attraction for someone as intellectually and politically rigorous as Howe bears scrutiny. Throughout this biography he is in a state of quantum indeterminacy about his subject, shifting from a state of intellectual criticism to one of emotional attachment, often in the same paragraph. We read detailed condemnation of the totalitarian state that Trotsky helped bring to birth, of the failure of his political movement, and of his failed predictions, yet Howe interlards this with general superlatives about his subject's heroic virtues.         

Howe is not alone in this. There is, it seems, a special romantic Trotsky in the hearts of a certain generation of the American Left in particular: a proto-Che, a revolutionary and man of action who was yet an intellectual and man of sensibility. It is a mythic construct, as befits a mythical figure, or perhaps, in this more sordidly commercial age, a spectacularly successful example of rebranding. In either case somehow the American Left has absolved Trotsky of any moral responsibility for the events in the Soviet Union after his exile and indeed tends to overlook his direct responsibility for the formation and, more important, the subsequent development of the Soviet regime.          

Coming from Britain to the United States, one cannot help but be impressed, or rather somewhat depressed, by the influence of Trotskyism on the American Left. Admittedly the Left in much of the world is now hardly at the apogee of its influence, in contrast to the hopes many of us had at the fall of Berlin Wall, when we imagined a new promise for the core collectivist values of democratic socialism, untrammeled by the sordid reality of "actually existing socialism" of the East European variety.          

But here in the United States it seems that Leon Trotsky's attempt to pass himself off as a democratic socialist was in large measure swallowed by the noncommunist Left. The Dewey Commission, headed by the philosopher John Dewey to examine the charges against Trotsky at the Moscow trials, established that the accusations were ridiculous but would perhaps have done better to go on to scrutinize Trotsky's own behavior in power. Although Dewey, according to Howe, had serious misgivings about the exile's democratic credentials for liberal sainthood, it would appear that many American socialists took the commission's report as a clean bill of political health for the exiled leader.          

Within a few short years much of the noncommunist American socialist movement was deeply under the influence of the "Old Man"--what remained of it, that is, after his followers had joined the Socialist Party and their infectious polemical sectarianism had spread through it, splitting it into sects. As a result, instead of being a cluster of tiny cults breeding on the edge of a mass social-democratic party, as in Europe, in a sense "Trotskyism" in the United States killed the host and replaced it.          

The Bolshevik exile joined the mainstream of American socialism, particularly among those intellectuals, such as Howe, who still kept the red flag fluttering from their ivory towers, and this certainly contributed to socialism losing its admittedly slender chance to enter the mainstream of American politics. For American workers and liberals the choice was between Communist-dominated activism and fervent loyalties to smaller and smaller sects dominated by and named after obscure political leaders in unconscious imitation of the Hasidic sects following East European rabbi families decades after the shtetl was gone: Pabloites, Shachtmanites, Mandelites, each wishing on the other the fate of the Amalekites. No wonder most of the natural constituency for social democracy chose to go with the Democrats.         

However, even among those, often academics and intellectuals, who tried to keep alive the ideals of democratic socialism in America, Trotsky seemed to remain respectable when other manifestations of the Soviet "experiment" were beyond the pale. Although he himself sought sedulously to project himself as the pretender to the throne of Vladimir Ilyich temporarily occupied by Stalin, many of his admirers solipsistically cast him in their own image, whether anti-Soviet or democratic socialist.        

The resilience of Trotsky's attraction is shown by the continued respect that even the neocons and others who began their political life in his movement feel for him, although they have left socialism behind. Howe's book, inadvertently, sheds some additional light on this conundrum: how people ranging from the tiniest and most fissured sects advocating world revolution and the impending downfall of capitalism to powerbrokers in the Reagan and Bush administrations--and staunch anti-Leninist social democrats in between--can still have mental icons of the Old Man hanging inside their skulls.         

In Britain, by contrast, Trotskyist movements were peripheral to the Labour Party, buttressed as it was by a long tradition of indigenous socialism; spurning foreign models; and nurtured on unions, Fabianism, and Methodism. The cyclical Trotskyist attempts to infiltrate the Labour Party, usually through its youth movement, were regularly defeated. They made little or no impression in the unions, where indeed much of the burden of combating them was borne by the Communist Party, which had an industrial influence way beyond its membership. That was also why many on the left of the Labour Party tended to travel in parallel, if not necessarily in fellowship, with the Communist Party, since its union influence gave it some sway in the Labour Party, where unions had a block vote.          

Even so, in Britain, with the intellectual and emotional support of a mass socialist tradition, it was entirely possible to be a radical left-wing socialist and yet to regard Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin as cut from the same absolutist and totalitarian cloth.           

Howe's biography of Trotsky reflects much of the American Left's ambivalence. His clarity and honesty continually bring him back to a recognition that Trotsky never renounced Leninism and that, in the end, the latter gave birth to Stalinism. But the intellect he brings to bear on this is blunted, one suspects because of Trotsky's appeal to the intellectuals, like Howe, rather than to the intellect.           

Howe published the book in 1978, when Trotsky was important because, in effect, so many intellectuals thought he was. Even if Trotskyism and Trotskyists were of marginal importance to any meaningful political movement in the United States, the Soviet Union still stood, apparently strong, and in a bipolar world his views on the origins and development of the Bolshevik state system had relevance for socialists assessing means to the socialist future.         

It also followed a period in which Howe was wrestling for the souls of younger socialists in the New Left, trying to prove to skeptical revolutionaries that it was possible to be anti-Soviet and still a radical socialist. Although he did not pull his punches in those debates, it would not have helped to throw Trotsky, a Left icon, out with the Stalinist bathwater. In those days before the Reagan/Thatcher counterrevolution the achievements of social democracy in Western Europe were not the stuff to stir the blood of the young with hope. "The West is Red" was not a slogan to conjure with.           

Indeed, by the time Howe wrote, Trotsky may have had a rival in Mao Zedong, but the latter, although an intellectual with some of the necessary romantic qualifications, suffered several disabilities. He had missed martyrdom and had hung around too long to be distanced from any "mistakes" in the Chinese system. Indeed, he was not Jewish! What is more, Mao was not part of the Western intellectual tradition that had formed Trotsky and Howe. "Somewhere in the orthodox Marxist there survived a streak of nineteenth-century ethicism, earnest and romantic," Howe claims, with the added advantage that Trotsky was "frank and courageous" in the face of power (5).          

Howe introduces himself as still a socialist and admits to a "brief time" under "Trotsky's political influence," although in the forty years since "I have found myself moving farther and farther away from his ideas." So why was a social-democratic writer writing about an exiled Russian whose ideas he no longer espoused? Howe explains that Trotsky "remains a figure of heroic magnitude, and I have tried to see him with as much objectivity as I could summon." It was perhaps not enough.       

Heroes were in demand both when Howe was growing up and when he wrote his biography. The intellectually voracious radical Jewish culture of the 1930s and 40s thought that ideas mattered and that they could change the world. Is it too far a stretch to remember that this was the milieu that gave birth to Superman and other comic-book superheroes? Lev Davidovich Bronstein, the Russian Jewish intellectual, may never have stepped into a phone booth like Clark Kent, but he did transform himself into a Colossus, bestriding the globe. This was surely in the mind of Howe, who was rediscovering his Jewish roots and had recently written World of Our Fathers.         

It perhaps made marginally more sense to lionize Lev Bronstein than it did to cry when Stalin died, as some Jewish communists did--just before "Uncle Joe" was about to try for a second run at the Final Solution, by many accounts.          

The era and the people also gave birth to science fiction writers such as the explicitly Marxist Futurians in New York, with writers like Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, who ran dystopian thought experiments on society, and Isaac Asimov, who created a history of the future in broad galactic sweeps, reminiscent perhaps of Trotsky's depictions of the recent past. Big solutions, all-inclusive tidal waves of history, the certainty of true believers were all in the air in Howe's formative years.          

Howe rhapsodizes, as enthralled by the man as he is disturbed by the result: "His personal fearlessness, his combination of firm political ends with tactical ingenuity, and his incomparable gifts as an orator helped to transform him, at the age of twenty-six, into a leader of the first rank: he had entered upon the stage of modern history and only the ax of a murderer would remove him." It is interesting that one could write a short and entirely accurate encomium of Adolf Hitler in almost exactly the same vein, if one chose to eschew ethical judgment on the use of these singular talents and its consequences.

These occasional intrusions of hagiography into Howe's treatment perhaps highlight the path that many followers of the Old Man took to neoconservatism, even if it is not a journey that Howe himself ever chose. They help explain why Trotsky remains a hero even for those who have abandoned his socialist ideas. Trotsky was an intellectual who was a man of action. He had fomented revolution; he had waged a war that looked romantic the farther away from it the observer was in space and time. He wrote about his own times and deeds with verve and with the broad brush of certainty that appeals to intellectuals haunted by quibbles and details. And what's more, he was dead, martyred. No wonder people like Howe could see the warts, describe them, and yet simultaneously paint them over.         

However, Howe's hero never renounced the Bolshevik's methods, and he never seriously addressed, let alone apologized for, his own role in developing the totalitarian state that hounded him to his death, even though it had begun its execution of opponents while he was one of its leaders. Indeed, in his arrogance Trotsky never explained quite why he had been so politically maladroit in his assessment of the trend in the party represented by Stalin and why the latter, whom he despised so roundly, so equally roundly defeated and ousted him.        

"If there is a single text that supports those who believe Leninism and Stalinism to be closely linked or to form a line of continuous descent, it is Terrorism and Communism," Howe declares regretfully (74). He is clearly still not prepared to make the connection unequivocally in this biography. He deems it "perhaps profitless" to try to identify the precise time when "the revolutionary dictatorship of Lenin gave way to the totalitarianism of Stalin" (88). It is interesting that Howe himself is in effect distinguishing the two, when by then his general drift of political thought was rather to conflate them.          

It is equally interesting that Howe's other great mentor was George Orwell, whose emphasis on an intellectual tradition, on democracy and decency, anticipated Howe's and was so much clearer, so much earlier, about this issue. Orwell, for example, took Arthur Koestler to task for his residual loyalty to the party "and a resulting tendency to make all bad developments date from the rise of Stalin," whereas "all the seeds of the evil were there from the start, and . . . things would not have been substantially different if Lenin or Trotsky had remained in control."2

Trotsky himself made the break with his past, says Howe, during the last decade of his life, when he "offered a towering example of what a man can be." He adds, "A later generation . . . may be forgiven if it sees the issue of democracy as crucial and regards Trotsky's sustained critique of Stalinism as his greatest contribution to modern thought and politics" (130).         

However, an even later generation could equally be forgiven for regarding as lacking and somewhat insubstantial any critique that sedulously avoids considering the roots of totalitarianism in the theory and practice espoused by the ruling party when Trotsky was one of its architects. Terrorism and Communism would have allowed him to be cast as Squealer as much as Snowball.          

Accurate as his current allegations about Soviet practices may have been, Trotsky was far from the first to identify the regime's faults, and the absence of any hint of self-criticism could make it look like a Tweedledum-Tweedledee bout in which the only serious question was whether he or Stalin should be master.     

In contrast, Howe's critique of Bolshevism is measured and analytical rather than bell-book-and-candling exorcism. He distinguishes between the freedom of internal debate among the original Bolsheviks under Lenin and in the later Stalinist and post-Leninist organization and so to some extent discounts the inevitability of what happens when a party of true believers becomes possessed of exclusive state power. Few, if any, of the sects that claimed to follow Trotsky showed much toleration for dissent in their ranks, even if they, perhaps fortunately, never achieved state power to enforce their discipline. In fact the younger Trotsky was more astute than both Howe and the later Trotsky in foretelling the way that things would go when the Central Committee substituted itself for party, class, and state.          

Howe recognizes this in a strangely muted way. In describing his subject's failures he says, "this is not to excuse the principled failure of Trotsky to raise the issue of multi-party socialist democracy, it is, at best, to explain it" (125). This is strange wording, since by all of Howe's normal standards the failure to raise such an issue was deeply unprincipled.        

Where Howe went part of the road with the neocons in the early stages was in the strain of Trotskyism identified above all by anticommunism, or anti-Stalinism, developed by Max Shachtman, who took the Old Man's critiques of the Soviet system to new and higher levels of dissociation and whom Howe acknowledges as a major influence.     

The followers of Shachtman and their neocon political progeny had little or no difficulty in seeing Communism and the Soviet Union, not as some redeemable wayward revolution, but as an absolute evil to be crusaded against. That proto-neocon passion against the Evil Empire reached a crescendo by the fall of the U.S.S.R., ironically almost putting retrospective truth in the Stalinist canards about Trotskyism's alliance with fascism, in light of neoconservative support for U.S. alliances with right-wing dictatorships against the greater enemy of Communism.         

What did the neocons take from Trotsky? Certainly we know that politically they abandoned Trotskyism, in the sense of the revolutionary socialism that their hero would have considered his essence. However, there are strongly idiosyncratic characteristics of the Old Man and his movement that seem to be adoptable and transmittable even when pithed of their ideological core. As Howe, in his introduction, mentions, his hero's ideas "take on vibrancy only when set into their context of striving, debate, combat" (vi). As he points out, Trotsky's oratory earned "the dislike, even hatred, of many opponents because of what they saw as the polemical ruthlessness and arrogance of his style" (41).          

We miss from this an appreciation that the later Howe had himself become one of those opponents, an advocate for democracy and openness, for democratic socialism as opposed to the burgeoning totalitarianism of Bolshevism, who would surely have been cast rhetorically into the dustbin of history by his subject, depicted here as a Leftist Rush Limbaugh.        

However, no one who has had dealings with the various strains of Trotskyism in later years would have any difficulty in identifying this robustly unforgiving polemicism as an integral part of Trotskyite practice, even more so than that of their Stalinist antagonists.           

Indeed, Howe reports that Trotsky in 1920 condoned "acts of repression that undercut whatever remnants there still were of 'Soviet democracy.' Worse yet he did all this with a kind of excessive zeal, as if to blot out from memory much of what he had said in earlier years" (70).         

Trotskyism's obsession with the Soviet Union, its inability to shed the baggage of Bolshevism, led for decades to a strange sterile dialectic, all antithesis and no thesis, in which negative polemics and Talmudic exegesis of the Master's texts substituted for engagement with the realities of political and social life, with perhaps a penchant for infiltrating and suborning other political entities.         

It is fascinating to see how that passion has survived the demise of its target. The "striving, debate and combat," the deep self-certainty of the Trotskyist sects, the polemics with no quarter, the eschewal of all thought of consensus and compromise as betrayal of the truth are recognizable characteristics of the neocons--and to some extent of neo-neocons such as Christopher Hitchens, who, like Howe, has Trotsky and Orwell as twin icons. Could it be some common thread of anxiety for politically motivated intellectuals, un impuissance des clercs, a feeling that, despite the aphorism, the pen usually wilts in the face of the sword?

However, so much negative passion demands a thoroughly unworthy opponent, and radical Islam seems to have provided the neocons with more than enough target for their redirected revolutionary ire now that they have lost their primary target. Ironically some at least of their cousins who stayed in the nominally socialist fold have equally eagerly acted as apologists for the Islamic states against "imperialism."        

Howe recognizes the inherent idealism, in the Platonic sense, that Trotsky displays. Somewhat at odds with his own generally more approbatory treatment, he quotes approvingly Joel Carmichael's "shrewd" assessment of his subject: "It was no doubt his lofty--indeed in the philosophical sense 'idealist'--view of politics that made Trotsky misunderstand what was actually happening. . . . It astigmatized him, as it were, with respect to the power of the actual apparatus, and made him regard himself as Bolshevik paragon merely because of his identification with the Idea of the Party: he disregarded his failure to be identified with its personnel" (92).          

Certainly it could be argued that the neocons inherited from Trotsky the passion for the importance of ideas, and of fighting for them, and also that that intoxication, transferred from the heady intellectualism and sectarianism of the sundered American socialist movement, has transformed American conservatism, which had previously tended more naturally to empiricist defenses of the status quo or to golden days.

Almost equally integral to Trotskyism was the ability to hold huge, inspiring, eloquent--and utterly wrong--"Ideas" and to hold onto them in the face of uncooperative reality. Even the levelheaded Howe treasured Trotsky's "heroic" ability to be stunningly wrong in a spectacular, albeit imaginatively attractive way. In dealing with his "boldest" theory, of Permanent Revolution, Howe asserts that "the full measure of its audacity can be grasped even today by anyone who troubles to break past the special barriers of Marxist vocabulary" (28). However, while Howe is mesmerized with the "brilliance" of Trotsky's historical prognosis, he goes on to admit that history neglected to follow the course so brilliantly laid out for it. Nor does the idea that a minority working class cannot bring about socialism seem that audacious in the light of the historical experience of so many failed statist pseudo-socialist experiments in the Third World.        

Indeed, Howe admits that Trotsky "failed to anticipate the modern phenomenon of the totalitarian or authoritarian state, which would bring some of the features of permanent revolution into a socioeconomic development having some of the features of a permanent counter-revolution” (33). As failures go, this goes a long way. Howe is too kind when he concludes that "Trotsky's theory remains a valuable lens for seeing what has happened in the twentieth century--but a lens that needs correction" (33). A lens that fails so signally surely needs recasting and regrinding in its entirety.         

Toward the conclusion of his biography Howe tempers his romantic attachment and becomes less uncritical, seeing his subject emerging as "a figure of greatness, but flawed greatness, a man great of personal courage and intellectual resources, but flawed in self recognition, in his final inability or refusal to scrutinize his own assumptions with the corrosive intensity he brought to those of his political opponents."         

A quarter of a century after Howe's biography, six decades after Trotsky's death, and ten years after the curtain came down finally on the Bolshevik experiment, things can be seen in a different light. Trotsky's role "on the stage of modern history" has shrunk into perspective. He lost the arguments in the Soviet Union: capitalism did not collapse catastrophically, the industrial proletariat in the world did not move to revolution. The reformers and social democrats he despised built societies that, even after Thatcherism and the Third Way, still offer workers and other citizens more in the way of prosperity, freedom, civil, political and social rights, than any other societies that have existed on the face of the earth.        

Trotsky may not be in the "dustbin of history" to which he consigned his democratic-socialist opponents in the Leningrad Soviet (52), but he is now a bit player who exited, stage left, in a show that was a hit for a while but has now closed with no prospect of ever reopening. He is more reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than of Hamlet.         

Ironically the only admirers of Trotsky to achieve any degree of power are the neocons, those who have joined with the world's biggest imperialist power to remake the world in some neoliberal capitalist image. It is an achievement, but it is a severely qualified one. Howe, who knew just how ineffectual the squabbling Trotskyist sects were--"not distinguished for an ability to engage in fresh thought politically, or reach the masses of workers practically" (191)--would be amazed, possibly even amused, if he were around to see the heights reached by his former comrades, even if one suspects he would think they were climbing the wrong mountain.

After all, once the socialism was stripped out, which was quite easily done in the face of popular indifference, what was left of Trotskyism but the failed predictions, the ability to hold a deep belief, with quasi-religious fervor, in a secular idea in the face of all advice and empirical evidence to the contrary? Having infiltrated the conservative movement, Trotsky's heirs, still an antithesis looking for a thesis to batter, have substituted Islam, or Islamic fascism, to fill the gap in their universe left by the disappearing Soviet Union.        

They have a mission to remake the world, but instead of Trotsky's Red Army swooping to bring socialism to ungrateful Poles and Central Asians, it is now the U.S. military bringing democracy and free markets to lesser breeds hitherto without the law. And with the ruthless romanticism of the revolutionary, they think the price in blood is well worth paying, that history will absolve them.

Howe never succumbed to such temptations, retaining an attachment to socialism and democracy that eschewed such misplaced millennial visions. Somehow he contrives to admire the man while deploring his deeds; his philosophy; and, when it comes down it, most of his life work. But his uncharacteristic partial abandonment of his usual sharply critical spirit when it came to Lev Davidovich Bronstein--the Red intellectual who could, and briefly did--demonstrates the dangerous seductions of hero worship. It is difficult to steer a course between the Scylla of damnation and the Charybdis of canonization when dealing with historical figures, and if so rigorous a thinker as Howe steered so close to the rocks as he did with this biography, it is a warning to others to try harder for some objectivity.


1. Howe, Leon Trotsky, 193, 192. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

2. George Orwell, "Catastrophic Gradualism" in The Collected Essays of George Orwell, Vol. IV (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) 5.


Ian Williams is the United Nations Correspondent for The Nation. His most recent books are Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 and Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans, and his Past. His blog is Deadline Pundit.