Tragic Trotsky captures in novel-like autobiography
March 20, 2012 | Rabbi Jack Riemer
Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, Joshua Rubenstein, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 224 pages, $25
Yale University Press is now publishing a series of books called Jewish Lives. The first couple of books in the series raise an obvious question: Sarah Bernhardt? Emma Goldman? Walther Rathenau? And now Leon Trotsky? Most of these people were barely Jews, and so you wonder why they were included in this series. I guess the answer is that, whether they identified as Jews or not, the world thought of them as Jews, and that had a great deal to do with their destinies.
Leon Trotsky is a good example of a fringe Jew whose Jewishness made a difference in how he was perceived, whether he wanted that or not. He started out as Lev Bronstein, and came from a family in which Jewishness was not much of a concern. And he surely did not live much of a Jewish life. He gave his children no Jewish education, and when he applied for a visa to Mexico, he listed them as ‘nothing’ in the space that was designated for listing religious affiliation.
When he was in Vienna and sent his children to public school, he listed them as Lutherans, because he thought that would be easier on their shoulders as well as their souls than being known as Jews.
When he was in power in Russia, he denied help to Jews who appealed to him for assistance, and angrily said to them: “I am not a Jew. I am a Marxist Internationalist! I have nothing in common with Jewish things, and I want to know nothing about Jewish things!” You can’t get much further away from affirming one’s Jewish identity than that.
And yet, as Joshua Rubenstein makes clear in this very well done biography, the fact that he was Jewish played a central role in his life. It was one of the reasons why he deferred to Lenin and others so as not to give the enemies of Communism an easy target. He turned down the position of Commissar of Home Affairs after the October Revolution because, as he put it, “Is it worthwhile to put into the hands of our enemies the additional weapon of my Jewish origins?”
The fact that there were so many Jews within the leadership of the Communist party was probably one of the reasons why fervid anti-Communists like the Pope were not eager to speak out on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust.
Rubenstein makes clear a fact that most of us have forgotten. Secular Jews in Eastern Europe had three alternative programs for meeting the threat of antisemitism. Some saw the answer in assimilation. Some saw the answer in Zionism. And some saw the answer in joining forces with the non-Jewish radicals in an effort to overthrow capitalism and create a new kind of society. The Bundists have been largely forgotten, since history did not go their way, but this book reminds us that at one time they were a powerful force within Jewish life.
Trotsky was in many ways a tragic figure. He did so much to bring about the revolution, and then saw it taken over and perverted by Stalin. He spoke out against Stalin with unending determination, even though he had no support, no army, and nothing but his voice and his pen with which to wage war. He ended up being killed in Mexico, an end that was surely predictable for someone who tried to overthrow Stalin with no allies and no aides.
Joshua Rubenstein has told a fascinating story in this book. It is very well documented, with close attention to the sources in several languages, and yet it reads like a novel. The man who overthrew one tyranny and then led the way to another one – one that was perhaps even more brutal – is a sad story. One closes this book with a touch of sympathy, even for a man who showed very little sympathy for others, because he was so passionately involved in changing the world. Perhaps the scene that reveals the man in all his rigidity and conviction is the one in which he goes to eat at a deli in New York so that he can be with the Russian waiters who work there, and so that he can speak his old mamaloshen, and yet, at the same time, refuses to leave a tip, and tries to persuade other customers not to leave tips either, because tipping goes against the creed of true Communists.
No wonder the waiters hated him!
Trotsky is almost forgotten now, but this book brings him back to life, in all his zealousness, and in all his naivete.