What Tony Blair should be saying about Trotsky

The former prime minister has confessed to a student flirtation with revolutionary Marxism. At least he grew out of it

August 10, 2017
Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

Tony Blair, it turns out, was inspired to enter politics under the intellectual influence of the Bolshevik revolution. In a BBC Radio 4 interview, he disclosed that his life was changed when, as a student, he read the first volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky. Though Blair acknowledges that his flirtation with Marxism was brief, he stresses its transformative impact on his thinking: “I suddenly thought the world’s full of these injustices and here’s this guy Trotsky who was so inspired by all of this that he went out to create a Russian revolution and change the world. It was like a light going on.”

I’m one of a minority of pundits who believe Blair’s words should be more closely heeded, especially on the folly of Brexit and the nullity of the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, than they generally are. Nor is he alone in finding Trotsky an inspirational figure. My late friend Christopher Hitchens, who broke with the far left earlier than is commonly supposed (in the Balkan wars of the 1990s), maintained to the end of his life that “even today a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man.”

This historical revisionism is terribly misguided. Trotsky exemplifies the destructiveness of political absolutism. You can see its baneful outpourings in the politics of Labour now that the party is under the control of people who (like John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor) explicitly acknowledge their debt to Lenin and Trotsky.

Of Trotsky, Christopher Hitchens said that “even today a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man"
Some unkind critics have suggested that Blair is not as familiar with Deutscher’s work as he claims but I’m sure he’s telling the truth. Back in 2006, when he was prime minister, Blair told an event for World Book Day that the biography had “made a very deep impression” on him as a young man. I’ve read all three volumes; and, unlike Blair and Hitchens, I was aghast at its hagiographical dishonesty and brutishness.

Let’s take just one episode, though an especially monstrous one, in the history of Soviet Communism. The third volume of Deutscher’s biography, Trotsky: The Prophet Outcast, 1929-40, discusses Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture. That term in itself is a euphemism. It involved, as Stalin put it in 1929, “liquidating the kulak [the comparatively wealthy peasantry] as a class.” In August 1932, a law drafted by Stalin authorised imprisonment or execution for peasants who took even a few sheaves of wheat from a newly harvested field. The assault on the peasantry caused a famine in which some five million died.

If you read Deutscher’s account of these horrors and crimes, you find a mass of verbiage in which the victims are depicted as authors of their own destruction. Deutscher claims that collectivisation was essentially a noble end but the peasants “took a fiercely insane plunge into dissipation,” by which he means that they unaccountably refused to have their livestock expropriated from them by the state so they ate it instead.

The reader is left with the impression that to Deutscher, this—and not Stalin’s depredations—is the outrage. He condemns the “epidemic of orgiastic gluttony [that] spread from village to village… Men, women, and children gorged themselves, vomited, and went back to the fleshpots.” And his hatred and contempt for the common people could scarcely be more virulent: “The smallholder perished [in the ensuing famine] as he had lived, in pathetic helplessness and barbarism: and his final defeat was moral as well as economic and political.”
"The differences between Stalinism and Trotskyism are slight and familial"
There can be no doubt that Trotsky, who ordered the slaughter of many hundreds of sailors in the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921, would have pursued a lethal and murderous path if he rather than Stalin had succeeded Lenin. As Leszek Kolakowski notes in his immense three-volume survey Main Currents of Marxism (1978), a far more profound work than Deutscher’s: “Trotsky did not offer any alternative form of Communism or any doctrine different from Stalin’s.”

The differences between Stalinism and Trotskyism are slight and familial, while the identity of aims between the far left and the far right has become ever more apparent in the age of Putin, Le Pen and Trump. There is an ideological gulf between those currents and liberalism, which holds that humans have a pluralism of aims and that politics must provide the space to choose among them. It’s obvious that Labour, which under Clement Attlee played a crucial role in founding Nato, has abandoned its ideological moorings. And this is what Tony Blair should be saying about Trotskyism and its adherents.

At the World Book Day event 11 years ago when Blair revealed his admiration for Deutscher’s work, he also praised the favourite book of his son Leo, then aged five. It was Flat Stanley. Leo’s literary taste is certainly sounder than his father’s.