John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

John Molyneux


Trotsky as icon

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review 186, May 1995, pp. 30–31.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Trotsky as Alternative
Ernest Mandel
Verso £14.95

There are now a lot of books devoted to Leon Trotsky – Isaac Deutscher’s magnificent trilogy, three studies by different SWP authors, an earlier work by Mandel and a number of others.

To this collection Mandel has now added the work under review and it has to be said that there seems precious little justification for it. If it has been written with a specific political purpose or to respond to a particular situation, this is not made clear. Likewise Mandel doesn’t appear to have anything new to say except in minute particulars and on various marginal matters.

This is not to say the book is without merit. Mandel has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Trotsky’s writings – five decades of quoting him for internal polemics in the Fourth International have seen to that. Also Mandel is an active Trotskyist which places him closer in spirit and politics to Trotsky than some writers who have tackled the subject.

Nevertheless, the book’s weaknesses outweigh its strengths. As an introduction it is unsatisfactory (unlike Duncan Hallas’s excellent Trotsky’s Marxism) because it tries to cover too much ground and too many issues. As a work for the more experienced reader or specialist it disappoints and irritates. Mandel has a habit of raising a contentious issue, for example Trotsky’s role in the trade unions debate of 1921–22, or his position on black nationalism in the late 1930s, making a few confident assertions about it and then slipping off onto something else without substantiating the assertions or discussing the issue in depth.

Both these problems are related to a third. Every sympathetic analyst or biographer is likely to a greater or lesser extent to paint Trotsky in his or her own image. In this case the boundaries between Mandel’s ideas and Trotsky’s are blurred again and again, and this is facilitated by the paucity of direct quotation, referencing, evidence and historical context.

This process begins in the very first chapter which is devoted to a 17-point exposition of the law of uneven and combined development. What we are presented with is not Trotsky’s concept in any particular text or series of texts or at any particular time or even in its stages of historical development, but Mandel’s own synthesis. To be sure, Mandel’s ideas derive more or less from Trotsky’s but it is still Mandel we are getting, not Trotsky – a fact confirmed by the footnotes which are used mainly to make supplementary points rather than cite Trotsky’s works.

And the trouble with Mandel’s Trotsky is that by and large he is a figure with the creases ironed out. Mandel does acknowledge the occasional difficulty and even error but you always feel these are being smoothed over and minimised. Nor does this tendency enhance Trotsky’s stature. On the contrary, in glossing over difficulties in aspects of Trotsky’s political life and thought, Mandel also underplays the truly incredible difficulties in the objective situation through which Trotsky so valiantly battled to preserve genuine Marxism. In fact much less sense of Trotsky’s greatness as a revolutionary emerges from this work than from Tony Cliff’s more critical study.

Finally Mandel has the infuriating habit of trying to demonstrate the vindication of Trotsky’s ideas by quoting some Russian source or figure who happens to have said something similar to him. Thus, we are told that Trotsky’s United Opposition campaigned against ‘the public promotion of sales of vodka, with arguments that anticipated those of Gorbachev’s leadership more than 50 years later’. This both insults Trotsky and speaks volumes for the accommodation to Stalinism that underlines the politics of the author for all his protestations of loyalty to the Old Man.

Paul McGarr Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 22 February 2020