Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary; Trotsky: A Biography

In This Review

Trotsky: A Biography
By Robert Service
Belknap Press, 2009
648 pp. $35.00
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Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary
By Bertrand M. Patenaude
HarperCollins, 2009
384 pp. $27.99
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In the recent profusion of books on Stalin's Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky has seemed almost forgotten, but now along come two new biographies -- one a full-life study, the other a detailed tale of his Mexican exile. To a large degree, the same man emerges from both: in each account, he is a figure more of fascination than admiration -- quite in contrast to earlier biographies written by his devotees. He is a compelling crowd rouser but remote and cold personally, puritanical but more than a little lascivious, and the object of fervid political devotion yet ruthless in the pursuit of his compassionless notion of revolution. Service deals with Trotsky's life from boyhood to the end but concentrates on the critical period from his days as a youthful revolutionary and foe of Bolshevism through the 1920s and the dramatic arc from his ascendancy to his defeat. The writing is trim and unadorned, allowing Service to march expeditiously over new ground: Trotsky's early political affinity with Stalin, the smug self-confidence that worked against him in the post-1923 maneuvering, and his moments of striking political insight, which were matched by those of disastrous misjudgment.

Patenaude's style is much richer, leaving a more vivid impression of the man -- his personality, the petty dramas of his life in exile, and the immensely complicated web of relations with his wife, family, patrons, friends, aides, and followers. Patenaude also ably captures the intensity and far-flung nature of the "Old Man's" ongoing struggle with Stalin. Maybe it is the way Trotsky mingled with familiar American figures -- such as the philosopher John Dewey, the writer Saul Bellow, and the novelist James Farrell -- that makes him seem within arm's reach and much less larger than life.