Robert Harris reviews Trotsky by Robert Service in the TLS:
Born in another age, Trotsky might have whiled away his time harmlessly enough on a small private income, calling for a workers’ revolution while never actually doing any physical work himself. It was his hatred of his parents, or at any rate their type — poor Jewish farmers who, by hard work and innovation, managed to build up a profitable business — that animated Trotsky. “There is no creature,” he wrote in 1935, “more disgusting than a petit bourgeois engaged in primary accumulation.” The absurd exaggeration (no creature?) and lapse into jargon is pure Trotsky.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and in St Petersburg in 1917 it was Trotsky — every bit as ruthless and clear-sighted as Lenin — who recognised that in a revolutionary situation power will always flow to the most fanatical. “I tell you, heads must roll, blood must flow,” he told the Kronstadt sailors. “The strength of the French Revolution was in the machine that made the enemies of the people shorter by a head. This is a fine device. We must have it in every city.” It was Trotsky who whipped up the workers and soldiers by his speeches, who urged the storming of the Winter Palace, who insisted that the Bolsheviks must maintain their grip on power by the institutionalised use of terror (“the organised violence of the workers as applied to the bourgeoisie”) and who insisted that ministers must henceforth become commissars.
Service makes it absolutely plain that Trotskyism was Stalinism in embryo. As early as 1922 he came up with the idea of staging trials of the regime’s political enemies that would have, in his cynical words, “the character of a finished political production” — show trials, in other words. As commander of the Red Army, he favoured hostage-taking and summary executions. According to Service, “he implemented a policy of decimating regiments which deserted or showed cowardice under fire” — military discipline on the field of a harshness barely seen since the Roman legions. “At times it seemed that Trotsky and Stalin were competing for the status of the most brutal commissar.”
It may be wondered why, given such lack of squeamishness, Trotsky allowed himself to be defeated by Stalin for the Soviet leadership after Lenin’s death.