Trotsky for Beginners, by Tariq Ali and Phil Evans

Trotsky for Beginers cvr

Trotsky for Beginners, by Tariq Ali (text) and Phil Evans (images), was published in 1980 and marked a fruitful collaboration between two individuals identified with differing strands of Trotskyism: Ali the International Marxist Group – the British section of the Fourth International, founded by Trotskyists in 1938 – and Evans the Socialist Workers Party (though he left the SWP at about this time).  The result celebrated Trotsky just at the point IMG cadres were being urged to infiltrate the Labour Party.

It is a brief run-through of Trotsky’s life and ideas, bulked out by Evans’s cartoons alongside original pictures.  Together the authors paint a broad-brush portrait of Trotsky’s enormous contributions, theoretical and practical, to the cause of international socialism, not least the influence he had on Lenin.  The emphasis is on his power as a thinker, both in government and opposition, and his shrewd ability to see how historical forces would play out.

Naturally sympathetic towards its subject, still Ali and Evans are not afraid to admit that Trotsky made mistakes.  They show that his key weakness lay in his dislike of factionalism, which allowed him to be outmanoeuvred by Stalin, leading to his expulsion from the Central Committee, from the party, from the country, and finally to his murder in Mexico.  He was not a man who favoured backroom deals, and he underestimated those who did.  Stalin’s strategy of temporary alliances, isolating and picking off competitors from left and right of the party, worked beautifully, until there was none left to oppose him; Ali is particularly contemptuous of Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s flip-flopping.

The problem with the book’s format is that while it is intended for readers with little knowledge of Trotsky’s life and times, some background knowledge is necessary to be able to follow the complexities of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia.  However a lengthy ‘who’s who’, covering organisations and individuals, helps to provide context, and there is a bibliography listing books by and about Trotsky.  It would have been worth including more on his role as organiser of the Red Army, and the final decade of his life as a prophet outcast is perfunctory.  His interest in social matters (as indicated by the title of a collection of his writings, Problems of Everyday Life) is entirely ignored.

More fundamentally, while Stalin’s Socialism in One Country and manipulation of foreign communist parties as instruments of Soviet policy are shown to have had disastrous consequences in China, Germany and Spain, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is not critiqued.  Trotsky’s ability with a pen is constantly noted, and his intellectual superiority to Stalin is obvious, but it would be facile to assume that his political defeat and the purges that swept away his political generation vindicated his ideas.  Perhaps more words and fewer pictures would have been appropriate to do Trotsky, and Trotskyism, justice.

That aside, despite its age Trotsky for Beginners holds up well, and Trotsky’s sincerity and integrity shine through the grim retelling of the tragedy that befell both him and his country.  It may, belatedly, attract some to the cause he espoused, and for which he died; even if not, it will surely encourage readers to recognise and confront tyrants, wherever they are found and whatever guise they assume.

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