Trotsky with Hitchens and Service


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge.
I’m Peter Robinson. Be sure to follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/uncknowledge. That’s
a new departure for us. Try it out. Twitter.com forward slash uncknowledge. Christopher Hitchens
is a journalist and author. His most recent book is entitled, God is Not Great: How Religion
Poisons Everything. During at least part of his life, a subject to which we will return,
Christopher referred to himself as a Trotskyist. Correct? Christopher Hitchens: That’s — I guess, Trotskyist,
yes. Peter Robinson: All right. Christopher Hitchens: Post-Trotskyist, yeah. Peter Robinson: We’ll give you time to elaborate. Christopher Hitchens: Yeah. Peter Robinson: Robert Service is a historian
who has published major biographies of Lenin and Stalin, and his most recent book, Comrades,
represents the definitive study of Communism as a worldwide movement. Robert Service’s
next book, to be published in November, 2009, Trotsky. Very simply and briefly, was Leon
Trotsky a good guy or a bad guy? Bob? Robert Service: I don’t think he was a good
thing. I mean, he had a lot of good things about him as a person, but he wasn’t a good
thing for anybody at any time. Peter Robinson: Christopher? Christopher Hitchens: He’s one of the very
few people with the Communist movement about him it would be worth asking that question. Peter Robinson: All right. Segment One: Trotsky
and Revolution. Leon Trotsky, born in Russia in 1879. Second only to Lenin, Trotsky leads
the Russian Revolution in October, 1917. On Lenin’s death, Trotsky finds himself outmaneuvered
by Stalin. In exile, Trotsky writes his autobiography and an attack on Stalin called The Revolution
Betrayed. In Mexico City in 1940, Trotsky is assassinated by an agent of Stalin’s secret
police. Let’s begin at the beginning. Trotsky is born to a farming family in Russia, in
what is today in southern Ukraine. How do you go from a farm family to effectively second
in command in the Revolution of 1917. Robert Service: He comes from a farmer’s family
where there’s a huge impetus towards education. His father is pretty uneducated, but like
a lot of Jewish colonists down in that part of the world — Peter Robinson: The Pale of Settlement in– Robert Service: The Pale of Settlement, in
what is now Ukraine. He wanted to get his children educated. And he sends them off to
Christian schools. Actually, Trotsky didn’t have a university-level education, but he
had a very thorough Lutheran church education in science, in languages and all the rest
of it. So, if you want to get on, join the professions, that’s quite difficult for a
Jew in the Russian Empire of those days. But you could also become a revolutionary. Now
that way you could rise very quickly to the top. Peter Robinson: So, are you, you’re impl
— I think– let me over to you. What I hear — Christopher Hitchens: Good career move.. Peter Robinson: Well, yes. It’s exactly that
you’re suggesting becoming a revolutionary as a career move. Christopher? Christopher Hitchens: And you’re leaving out
— or we’re in danger of leaving out or leapfrogging to 1917 and omitting 1905, which I think is
the — his baptism, his crucible as a revolutionary where he became a tremendous speaker in whatever
you want to call it, Petrograd, Petersburg, where the idea of the Soviet as the parliament
was, an alternative Dumas, was first put forward. Where the revolutionaries conducted themselves
as if they were speaking for a democratic majority rather than a factional minority
and where they impressed [inaudible] by their demeanor at trial before they were sent off
to Siberia. The great missed opportunity for Russia is 1905. Peter Robinson: Yes. Christopher Hitchens: If that doesn’t work,
then it’s more, another decade of Czarism and then a terrifying war, which is the wreckage
of the whole country. Peter Robinson: Can you — can I just —
you’ve just — what is this 600 and some pages, I think, Bob. Robert Service: Yeah, it’s far too big. Peter Robinson: Well, but it’s — the point,
if I had your books here on Lenin and Stalin, this is about — you were treating Leon Trotsky
as a figure of major importance in the 20th Century. Why? Give me a sentence or two to
help a layman understand why this figure matters to you. Robert Service: He’s one of the half dozen
outstanding Marxist revolutionaries. He helps to make the October Revolution that brings
the Communists to power in 1917. He’s a leader of the Red Army that fights the civil war,
and he’s the intellectual architect of a lot of aspects of Communism that get laid down
in the ’20s and actually still have an impact through the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Peter Robinson: Which now leads me to ask
you why you called yourself a Trotskyist. There’s something in this man you admire,
something in his writings to which you adhere? Christopher Hitchens: Yes, the struggle of
the left opposition against Stalin in the 1920s led to a sort of emulating movement,
an anti-Stalinist, Marxist left in the rest of Europe and Asia, in fact everywhere, include
America, Latin America, usually rather small, but often quite intellectually influential.
And the thing about Trotsky, his record is something as Service was saying, is that he
combined in himself the role of man of action and man of ideas. And he could write about
literature, and did. He signed the — helped to write the Surrealist Manifesto with Andre
Breton and the people of that kidney. He’d hold forth on an amazing number of subjects,
but he was a soldier as well and a revolutionary, and a person of immense moral and physical
courage. So you had a charismatic figure, who in addition — I’ll just make one more
point — Peter Robinson: Yes? Christopher Hitchens: –wrote pamphlets and
made speeches against the menace of Hitlerism, which are much better and were made much earlier
than any of Winston Churchill’s. Irving Howe describes them as the greatest political polemic
ever written in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Peter Robinson: I just thought of something.
We’ve got just about one minute left in this segment, but I just — I think I spotted something.
You just spoke about Leon Trotsky in roughly the same way I’ve heard you describe George
Orwell. Same tones of admiration for much of the same reasons. Christopher Hitchens: George Orwell was — Peter Robinson: True? Christopher Hitchens: Well, no. Peter Robinson: No? Christopher Hitchens: But I can see what you
must be noticing. In fact — Peter Robinson: Man of action, man of the
left standing — Christopher Hitchens: George Orwell in fact
— George Orwell joined a sort of Trotskyish or Trotsky sympathizing, not actually officially
Trotskyism, but a militia that had a lot of Trotskyist influence in it — Peter Robinson: In Spain. Christopher Hitchens: — in Spain to fight
against both Stalin and Hitler. Peter Robinson: All right. Segment Two. Defeat
and Exile. On the death of Lenin in 1924, a succession struggle takes place among Stalin,
Trotsky and others. Trotsky does not do too well. By 1927, he’s removed from the Central
Committee. In 1928 he’s sent into internal exile and in 1929 he’s expelled from the Soviet
Union to which he never returns. What is taking place during those five years between the
death of Lenin and the expulsion from the Soviet Union of Trotsky? Robert Service: There’s a factional struggle
and the left opposition, as Christopher’s been saying, posed the idea that the revolution
was finished under its existing leadership of Stalin and others and that compromises
had been made with the revolutionary spirit of the October events of 1917. Peter Robinson: And this is Trotsky’s position? Robert Service: This is Trotsky — Peter Robinson: He’s a purist. He wants to
return the — Robert Service: Well, he says he is. Peter Robinson: Ah. Robert Service: He says he is, but actually
most of his ideas overlap considerably with those of Stalin. The amount of dancing on
the end of a pin, you know, a number of angels dancing on the end of pin on this question
are very considerable. And I think that it’s a mistake to take Trotsky at his own face
value, to take his words at their face value. He believes — Peter Robinson: Robert Service, I quote you
from your forthcoming biography, Trotsky, “I became convinced that Trotsky’s diagnosis
of the causes of his defeat by Stalin was self-serving and misleading. Trotsky did not
go down to defeat at the hands of the bureaucracy. He lost to a man with a superior understanding
of Soviet public life.” Explain that. Robert Service: Stalin understood how the
system worked. They were all bureaucrats. Trotsky said he was criticizing bureaucrats,
that it was a bureaucratic system and he was on the outside of it criticizing the bureaucrats.
But when you don’t have a free press, an autonomous judiciary, when there is no pluralist politics
at all, then everyone’s carrying out orders in an administrative political system. So
his critique in the 1920s of Stalinism as it was emerging was a false critique. It was
based on lack of self-knowledge. Peter Robinson: But was it a false critique
or was it a critique that was true but to which he himself failed to live up? To end
with a proposition [sic], good grief, that’s a mess. But in other words, is there something
in what he says, even if there’s a bit of hypocrisy or more than a bit in his saying
[inaudible]? Christopher Hitchens: Well he’s rehearsing
for what he does later call Revolution Betrayed. And I think the great area where — Peter Robinson: His book against Stalin. Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Peter Robinson: Which he writes in exile. Christopher Hitchens: And he says the great
point where he thinks the Revolution’s being betrayed is in the Stalinist, essentially
Stalinist concept and bureaucratic concept of Socialism in one country. Trotsky felt
the Revolution had to keep going in order to survive and needed to ignite counterpart
brother or sister revolutions in two countries in particular, Germany and China. And Stalin
was not in favor of revolutions in nationalist policy in either place. Robert Service: Now there I would totally
disagree with you. I think the evidence is really strong that all the Communist leadership,
the entire Communist leadership in the 1920s knew that the October Revolution in Russia
would not survive unless it could expand. It couldn’t survive in an isolated state.
The only difference, serious difference, between Trotsky and Stalin was what were the chances
of a successful German revolution? So that, for example, in the attempt — Peter Robinson: Trotsky rated them as higher. Robert Service: Trotsky rated them as higher
— Peter Robinson: Stalin and — ah, Lord, do
I hate to use this term of him, but he’s a conservative figure in a certain sense — Robert Service: He’s a cautious figure. Peter Robinson: He wants to consolidate the
gains within Russia first. Fair? Christopher Hitchens: [inaudible] yes. In
conservative, you know, it’s to the point of reactionary. Robert Service: They all wanted to expand
the Revolution. Internationalism wasn’t just an ideological imperative, it was a practical
one because if Russia stayed isolated, it would always be vulnerable to a crusade against
it by Germany or Britain or France or the USA. Peter Robinson: Richard Pipes, Christopher,
in his history of the Russian Revolution, “In theory, one can conceive a Trotsky grasping
the torch from the dying Lenin. What one cannot conceive is how he could have been in a position
to do so. Lenin insured that the man who controlled the central party apparatus controlled the
state, and that man was Stalin.” So it’s not Stalin destroying the beautiful prospect by
wresting control of the Revolution from Trotsky. It’s the very founder of the Soviet State
insuring that Stalin will succeed him. Christopher Hitchens: Even though, at the
last, Lenin realized he had made a mistake. Robert Service: Ah. Peter Robinson: But by then he had strokes,
he [inaudible]– Christopher Hitchens: Because Stalin was a
very crude and ruthless machine man. Peter Robinson: And by the way, do we know,
is that established that Lenin effectively attempted to change his mind? Robert Service: Yes. Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Peter Robinson: It is. It is established. Christopher Hitchens: There’s a reasonably
— what I think you’ll agree is a good book — Moshe, Professor Moshe Lewin’s book. It’s
called Lenin’s Last Struggle about the realization. But it doesn’t negate what Pipe says about
Stalin being made inevitable by that and to that extent. Isaac Deutscher makes a wonderful
ironic comment about this. He said — Peter Robinson: Isaac Deutscher writes the
three-volume biography of Trotsky in the ’60s, ’50s? Christopher Hitchens: ’56. Peter Robinson: All right. Christopher Hitchens: They’re called seriatim
[in a series; one after another] the Prophet: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, The
Prophet Outcast. The Bolsheviks made a huge study, all Marxists did in those days, of
the French Revolution. They wanted to know what had gone wrong with it, how it eventually
ended in Bonapartism, how could they prevent a Bonaparte from arising. They looked around
their number, they were looking for someone flamboyant, ambitious, clever with military
genius who — obviously Trotsky’s the one you have to fear Bonapartism from. Peter Robinson: Because Stalin is the plodding
figure. Christopher Hitchens: While Stalin, boring,
mediocre committee man who’s always ready for another few hours of, you know, iron-bottomed
attendance at the — they didn’t think he had it in him to be a Bonaparte. Peter Robinson: Right. Robert Service: Right. Christopher Hitchens: It’s one of the most
sad and in a way almost beautiful ironies of history. It’s so tragic. Peter Robinson: Segment Three. What if —
let me read you a question that we got from a Twitter subscriber. Here it is. And this
is the question of questions. It’s from a man, Eric Ford Holivinsky [assumed spelling].
Anyway, some say the USSR would have been better had Trotsky led instead of Stalin.
How so? So let us cast aside Segment Two in which we just demonstrated it would have been
pretty hard for Trotsky in fact to have taken control and just experiment here in our minds.
If Trotsky is in charge instead of Lenin, how are things different? Christopher? Christopher Hitchens: Instead of Lenin or
instead of Stalin? Peter Robinson: Excuse me, I’m sorry. If Trotsky
takes charge instead of Stalin. Sorry. Christopher Hitchens: Well I think there would
have been less anti-Semitism. And I’m not just being tautologous, I think because in
general, less paranoia and less Russian-Georgian, if you like, chauvinism, backwardness and
suspicion of the kind Stalin incarnated that leads to things like, not just purges but
show trials where this sort of fantastic inquisitional sort, that are, you know, almost pornographic. Peter Robinson: Let me quote — Christopher Hitchens: I don’t say there wouldn’t
have been some pretty warm work and Trotsky’s enemies would have been ruthlessly dealt with. Peter Robinson: Let me quote Bob in Trotsky.
Trotsky — I’m quoting you to yourself, Bob — “If ever Trotsky had been the paramount
leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased.” Robert Service: Yeah. Peter Robinson: How so? Robert Service: Because he would have taken
more risks in promoting the cause of revolution in Germany. They all agreed that there had
to be a revolution in Germany, but Trotsky was prepared to take far more risks. The other
thing that — so there would have been a bloodbath in Europe before Hitler. Christopher Hitchens: Or perhaps instead of. Robert Service: Instead of Hitler, yeah. Christopher Hitchens: Well, I’m not sure how
much of a bloodbath that is. If it preempts National Socialism. Robert Service: Well the other thing that
would have happened had he succeeded Lenin in the mid-1920s — the other thing that would
have faced Trotsky, was how would he have brought about the industrialization of the
economy, which he said he was going to do, and how would he have pushed peasants into
collective farms, which he also said he was going to do, without force? It’s very, very
unlikely that he wouldn’t have taken the decision that actually some force would have been necessary.
In other words, a sort of gentle Stalinism would have arisen under Trotsky’s leadership.
These two were blood brothers who hated each other. You know, one a flamboyant multi-lingual,
world historical personality. The other — Peter Robinson: And an extremely good writer,
by the way. Robert Service: An extremely good writer,
yeah. Peter Robinson: An extremely good slinger
of prose. Robert Service: I mean his autobiography is
magical to read. Stalin, solid, stolid, plotting, careful and also very steady. He didn’t take
off four months just to go and write a book on literature and revolution. But one way
or another, the basic agenda of the two men was much more similar than it was dissimilar. Christopher Hitchens: In fact, some of that
isn’t, doesn’t even need to be speculative because there was a point where Trotsky said
that labor should be — when he was fresh from running the army — the workers should
be put in the army and put under orders. No, none of this sentimental dancing around about
trade union rights and so forth. I mean it is a—we need to basically make labor into
conscription. Peter Robinson: Let me just simply put before
you several of the outrages of Stalin and you tell me how they’d have been different,
if at all, under Trotsky. The enforced famine in the Ukraine. Famine takes place, Stalin
forces the kulaks [independent prosperous farmers], he sets up roadblocks so they can’t
escape from the famine and effectively starves them out. Trotsky? What would have been different? Robert Service: I don’t think this would have
been the same. Peter Robinson: It would not have been the
same. Robert Service: There is something really
truly grotesque about what happened under Stalin, but something pretty grotesque would
have happened under Trotsky. And it’s only because we know how awful it was in the 1930s
under Stalin that we tend to let Trotsky off the hook. That’s my basic position. Peter Robinson: Do you grant that? Christopher Hitchens: Well, only because we
know the circumstances. The material circumstances were very grim. Peter Robinson: Yes. Christopher Hitchens: I mean there was a great
deal of scarcity and dislocation that anyone would have had to deal with. I mean, I think
it would have had famine in the Ukraine if Generals Denikin and Kolchak and Wrangel had
won the civil war and defeated Bolshevism altogether. So, I’m a materialist before I’m
a Marxist on that. But Stalin is a — Peter Robinson: You don’t think so? Robert Service: No I don’t think so. Christopher Hitchens: There’s good evidence
that Stalin used the famine to destroy Ukrainians. Peter Robinson: To starve out his enemies,
yes. Christopher Hitchens: Clear Ukrainians, in
other words. Peter Robinson: Ah, right. Christopher Hitchens: He was a racist. Peter Robinson: Right, right. Christopher Hitchens: He was arguably [inaudible]
— Robert Service: But famine wasn’t inevitable
in the former Russian Empire. It was something that often happened. It was much more likely
to happen with a centralized state-run economy where a few people at the center, in Moscow,
take all of the big decisions. And if you’ve got a bungler like Stalin, it’s more likely
to happen than if you’ve got a somewhat more astute character such as Trotsky. But it was
still a risk that you wouldn’t be able to run an economy. I feel it was an absolute
certainty that you couldn’t run that kind of economy and get the kind of results that
you wanted for popular consumption such as you can have under a market economy. Peter Robinson: Of the purges, Christopher,
purges — I’m speaking very loosely here by which simply to say, even within the — Khrushchev
drew the distinction that Lenin never killed a fellow Communist. Stalin hardly ever stopped.
Right? So the notion was that anyone who might be in a position to pose some sort of threat
to him, Stalin eliminated. Trotsky would not have done that? Christopher Hitchens: Not in that way. No,
I don’t think so. Of course you are right, Stalin killed more Communists than Hitler
did. Quite a lot more. And Stalin was paranoid. He had a sort of primitive mind open to conspiracy
theory, didn’t enjoy faction fighting. Trotsky loved it. He enjoyed polemics and he carried
his own with people close to him all his life. Robert Service: Yeah. Christopher Hitchens: Sometimes he was a bit
thuggish in prose, I’ve got to say. But you don’t get the feeling that he secretly just
wants to torture and kill anyone who gets in his way. Peter Robinson: Ah, all right. Segment Four.
I’m borrowing a phrase from your essay on the Ivan [sic Isaac] Deutscher biography,
Trotsky’s Moral Moments. Christopher Hitchens writes, in the second half of the 1930s, as
a moral moment for Leon Trotsky, quote Christopher, “Trotsky was perhaps the most prescient writer
of his day in warning of the true menace of National Socialism.” Give us a sentence or
two of explanation. National Socialism meaning of course the Nazis. Christopher Hitchens: The rise to power in
Germany of a mechanized and highly modernized but nonetheless sort of medievally cruel and
superstitious movement based on a very primitive race theory, the theory of racial superiority.
And Trotsky writes a marvelous polemic saying it’s incredible to see how millions of Germans
now use electrical lights — Peter Robinson: I’ll quote it for you. Christopher Hitchens: — and drive on autobahns,
but do you believe in the power of signs and magical symbols. Peter Robinson: Trotsky, “Today there lives
alongside the 20th Century the 10th or 13th. A hundred million people use electricity and
still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism. Capitalist society is puking
up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.” That’s pretty good,
isn’t it? Robert Service: That is good, but then if
you take the whole of Trotsky in those years, and not just that prescient — Peter Robinson: Christopher does call it a
moment, a moral moment. Robert Service: A good commentary on Nazism.
Yeah, he was right about Nazism, although he still thought of Hitler as a mere puppet
of the, what he called the big bourgeoisie in Germany rather than an independent actor
who could do even more damage than any kind of right-wing movement yet known. Peter Robinson: Here’s the bit that — Christopher Hitchens: Yes, but I should just
add that Stalin’s line, the so-called third period of the Comintern [Communist Internatioinale]
line, the German Communist Party’s line was that Hitler was just that and no more. And
that he could be allowed to win and it would be no worse because next would come Communism.
It would just be a door opener for a Red Germany. And Trotsky writing to the general working
class saying, if you give–if Fascism comes to power, it will ride over your skulls and
your spines like a terrific tank. It’ll be the end of civilization. You have to make
common cause with the Social Democrats, making a united front against this monstrosity. He’s
look at — Peter Robinson: He saw, he understood Nazism. Christopher Hitchens: It’s Cassandra, Peter.
It’s like hearing Cassandra and being ignored. Robert Service: No. Peter Robinson: But listen to this now. This
business about 20th Century, next to which lives the 10th or the 13th, people use electricity,
still believe in the power of signs and exorcism. Couldn’t almost every word of that have been
said about the Revolution in Russia to which Trotsky devoted his life’s energies? That
this thing was in fact a kind of — at least certainly that is the point that Pipes makes
in his history of the Russian Revolution. And Bob touches on it again and again, that
Communism does not account for what took place in Stalin under — and indeed through to Gorbachev.
You have to understand the Russian substructure of it all. That there’s a kind of barbarousness,
which Marxism unleashes, right? So why— here’s what I’m trying to say. We grant that
he had a moral moment looking at the Germans and the rise of Hitler, but does that —
it seems to me you’re being a little too forgiving, that he didn’t have a few moral moments about
his own country. Christopher Hitchens: Actually, what Pipes
overestimates — no, I suppose I mean underestimates, is the element of barbarism in Russia that
has nothing to do with Communism but that is authentically Russian. Peter Robinson: Yeah, but that’s exactly the
point that Pipes is making. Robert Service: Yes, yes. Christopher Hitchens: Serfdom, Czarism, anti-Semitism,
pogroms, the black hundreds, the Czar being the head of the Orthodox Church — Peter Robinson: That’s precisely, that is
Pipes’ point [inaudible]– Robert Service: But there’s another aspect
of this moral moment, that at the same time as Trotsky pointed out in the iniquities of
Nazism, he thoroughly approved of the kind of revolutionary war that had been carried
into Poland and hopefully, as he thought, into Germany in 1920. So when the moment comes
for the Soviet Union to invade Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, eastern Poland — Peter Robinson: He’s all for it. Robert Service: He’s all for it. And he falls
out with a lot of American Trotskyists over that very question. And when the Soviet Union
invades Finland in the winter war of 1939 to ’40, the same thing. He’s all for it. So
his idea of foreign policy is not a sort of morally pure position at all. If you take
the German case, it looks a bit that way. If you take the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian,
Polish, Finnish case, it doesn’t look that way at all. Peter Robinson: Trotsky’s most — I’m quoting
you once again to yourself, “Trotsky’s most enduring and tenacious battle was against
the monstrous regime that had resulted from his earlier exertions.” Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Peter Robinson: Stalin. On the other hand,
as Bob has just told us, it’s not as if Trotsky wrote off the Russian Revolution once Stalin
had complete control of it. Christopher Hitchens: That’s right. Peter Robinson: He was still a partisan. Christopher Hitchens: There’s a great argument
among Trotskysant or Trotskyish academics, intellectuals, historians and so on, as to
what would have happened if he hadn’t been killed in 1940. In that, having always thought
that the worker’s state, however deformed or degenerated by Stalinism, was an advance
over its rivals, even if extended by bayonets. After the Hitler-Stalin pact — Peter Robinson: 1939. Christopher Hitchens: The direct collusion. Peter Robinson: Right. Christopher Hitchens: There’s evidence that
in his papers and in his arguments and correspondence he was moving to a position of saying that
actually Stalinism was a new form of barbarism and that the only responsibility one would
have, historically, would be to take the side of its victims. These are the last things
he’s writing before Stalin has him killed. Peter Robinson: Hmm. So — Christopher Hitchens: So yes, the logic of
this seems to be accepted by the person who we’re talking about. Peter Robinson: Segment Five. Trotsky Today.
Robert Service. “When Trotsky was assassinated, the idea again went the rounds on the Western
Political Left that the tragedy of Soviet History lay in Trotsky’s failure to win the
struggle to succeed Lenin.” That somehow, that it was Stalin instead of Trotsky is the
tragedy of Soviet history. Which is it? Robert Service: Yes. Peter Robinson: That retains some currency
today, does it not? Robert Service: It sure does. And I think
it’s totally wrong. It’s a romantic view of Trotsky. Trotsky was in favor of a one-party
state of mass terror, of an end to political and cultural pluralism. He was a thorough,
schematic thinker and practitioner of all of that. The idea that somehow a humane version
of Communism could have come out of Trotskyism is pure romanticism. But it appealed to people
in the ’60s and the ’70s who wanted just such a figure, someone who’s standing outside all
of the worries about the Viet Nam War and all and wanted to think that there was a possibility
that the USSR, if only it had been differently led back in the ’20s, then a different turn
could have taken place. Peter Robinson: Now, which leads me to your
[Hitchens’] thinking, because as I read your writings over a quarter of a century now,
you have subscribed to — Christopher Hitchens: Can’t ask for more than
that. Robert Service: [Laughs]. Peter Robinson: You subscribe to this —
you were a — you really did fall for Trotsky for — you were part of the “If Only” school,
were you not? Now you’re not. Christopher Hitchens: Well. Peter Robinson: So what’s happened? Christopher Hitchens: Less and less, but never
— Peter Robinson: Explain yourself, not Trotsky,
yourself. Christopher Hitchens: Well, look. Here’s the
thing. It’s a matter of how many “what ifs” and “if onlys” one’s allowed. The American
general who was set to invade Russia after the First World War in Siberia. Remember how
Ronald Reagan said the US and the USSR have never had a fight? Yes they had. The US was
part of the foreign intervention after– I’ve forgotten his name [quite possibly William
S. Graves]. It was a Michigan detachment because they were good fighters in the snow. He said
that in the areas of Russia controlled by the Whites, by Generals Kolchak and Denikin,
he said he didn’t know of anything in the annals of history that showed a regime that
took human life at a lesser price than that. Peter Robinson: [inaudible] Christopher Hitchens: If Trotsky’s Red Army
had not won the Russian Civil War, then the word for fascism — we have to face the fact
— was probably going to be the Russian word instead of an Italian word. We were not replacing
a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary here. Okay? These things were not,
so to speak, on the historical agenda. Now that doesn’t mean that Communist teleological
propaganda is thereby vindicated. But we have to — we’ve got no right to say that we’re
all completely sure that it’s a disaster that Trotsky wins and the Whites don’t. Peter Robinson: Hmm. Robert Service: Yeah — I — that’s — Peter Robinson: Will you buy that? Christopher Hitchens: I think perhaps — Peter Robinson: That’s fair. Is it? Robert Service: It’s a little exaggerated,
but it’s pretty fair that the Whites had officers who were vicious, carried out a brutal civil
war against the Reds. Christopher Hitchens: Brought the protocols
of the elders of Stalin to Europe in their backpacks when they left. Not doing us any
favors. Brings the German arm of Fascism with it. Robert Service: But I mean, if the Whites
had won the Civil War, that wouldn’t have been the end of the matter. I think they’d
have had a hard time consolidating a far right regime, just as the Communists had a hard
time in the 1920s consolidating a far left regime. What I’m trying to say is that the
discussion among the Communist leaders, the factional fighting, was over a fairly narrow
terrain. And to disregard that and to put up Trotsky as a humanitarian Communist — Peter Robinson: A lot of nonsense. Robert Service: — is basically worthless. Christopher Hitchens: That really would be
romantic. But don’t forget my earlier point about 1905 either. In 1905 there aren’t Bolsheviks
nationally. Robert Service: That was the chance. Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Robert Service: That was the chance. Christopher Hitchens: And it’s called —
what becomes the Bolshevik Party is called the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.
And it’s the Russian and International Left that really hopes for a democratic and relatively
peaceful victory over Czarism. Which, if it had been consummated, would have prevented
the First World War in all likelihood. Peter Robinson: Do you buy that? Christopher Hitchens: Without the First World
War, it’s hard to imagine either Nazism or Stalinism taking the form that they did. Peter Robinson: Yes. Robert Service: I think that if Russia had
undergone a revolution in 1905, all sorts of forces would have been let loose, as they
were in 1917 and — Peter Robinson: Even if the liberals had managed
to retain control? Even if, who was it Stolypin, the Prime Minister? Robert Service: The big, big difference — Peter Robinson: It was fancifully not fated
to happen. Robert Service: Well, it would have been difficult.
But the big, big difference between 1905 and 1917 is the First World War. The brutalization
and disruption of the First World War gave the Communists their chance. They wouldn’t
have had the same chance, I agree with this, 1905. Peter Robinson: Christopher writes, Christopher
notes, Trotsky admits, as the Second World War is underway and his own life is drawing
to a close (he doesn’t know the ice pick is headed at his skull, but he knows he’s in
failing health) that the war might end without a Socialist Revolution. Quoting Trotsky, “We
would be compelled to acknowledge”, Trotsky wrote, “that Stalinism was rooted not in the
backwardness of the country, but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a
ruling class.” In other words, we were wrong from the get go. Robert Service: Yeah. Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Peter Robinson: “Then it would be necessary
to establish in retrospect that the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal
system of exploitation.” Which is the view of the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail
Gorbachev himself, in about 1989, ’90 and ’91, when the thing goes out of existence?
Here’s what I can’t — I’m asking for a kind of moral and historical assessment. Christopher Hitchens: Well you may say —
you might say he took a lot of persuading before he [inaudible] Peter Robinson: Yes! An awful lot of persuading.
And even then, I’m not aware of — is there a word of remorse that he utters? Robert Service: I don’t think so. I mean,
he does actually entertain this thought only to dismiss it. In the end, he dismisses it,
but at least he had had the thought that actually the October Revolution of 1917 was founded
on a falsehood. Peter Robinson: Tens of millions dead and
it occurs to Trotsky that it may have been, oops! Just a mistake. Robert Service: Yeah. Peter Robinson: But he puts that out of—. Robert Service: And he’s demoralized and ill
and he’s expecting to die. But the better thing for Trotsky would have been to have
died several years earlier and to have stayed a martyr and not to have written the sort
of stuff he wrote in the 1930s that condemn him in his own words as a weak version of
Stalinist — Peter Robinson: You reckon it would have been
better for his reputation if he had never written The Revolution Betrayed? Robert Service: Yes. Peter Robinson: That’s the attack on Stalin. Robert Service: Oh, throw that in as well.
I mean, it would have been good if had written that too. But if he died somewhat earlier,
if we didn’t have the correspondence that he held with the American Trotskyists who
said, “How on earth can you support the USSR’s invasion of eastern Poland? What on earth
do you think you’re doing, condoning what is essentially an alliance between the Third
Reich and the USSR? What are you doing, saying it’s okay to invade Finland, and why on earth
do you assert that Marxism, Leninism is a scientifically proven set of doctrines? Why
are you getting so uptight about new ideas of philosophy?” Christopher Hitchens: I wouldn’t be without
that stuff you see and so — Robert Service: You wouldn’t be without? Christopher Hitchens: I wish it had gone on
a bit longer. I mean, it starts with a great discussion over Kronstadt, for which Trotsky
was historically personally responsible. Peter Robinson: The rebellion of the sailors. Robert Service: The naval garrison. Christopher Hitchens: The naval garrison of
Petersburg. Robert Service: ’21, 1921. Christopher Hitchens: Which was put down by
brutal force and for which Trotsky accepted, as military commander, general responsibility.
And it was brought up against him by a faction, actually I think one of them quite well associated
with Hoover, James P. Cannon, in various polemics in the late 1930s, which are, I think, an
imperishable read. They show a polemical mind and some very good rival polemical minds engaging
at a very high level. I wish he’d lived another few years and had to accept the whole logic,
which I think he would have done. I’d also love to see what he would have said about
Zionism and Jewish Nationalism after the end of the Second W– Peter Robinson: Did he think of himself as
Jewish? Christopher Hitchens: He thought of himself
as a very — Peter Robinson: He did. Robert Service: He thought of himself post-ethnically.
But in terms of background, he was absolutely open about the fact that he was Jewish. He
never denied it. Christopher Hitchens: And very sensitive to
anti-Semitism as a weapon of reaction. But not, he thought of himself as a cosmopolitan. Robert Service: Right. Peter Robinson: We need to wrap it up, alas.
Claire Luce used to say that history gives each man, no matter how large, only one sentence.
Lincoln freed the slaves. What’s the sentence that history gives to Leon Trotsky? Christopher? Christopher Hitchens: Well, this is a sentence
about him if I follow your Lincoln analogy? Peter Robinson: Yes, yes. Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, it’s very good.
I’ll have to — I’ll brood about it. Peter Robinson: Will you? All right, you take
a pass. Robert Service: I’d say it will be a double
verdict. Such a waste of a talent. This was in the most amazingly brilliant man, a writer,
a thinker, an active politician, but such a dreadful mistake of a life and a career
and an ideological and revolutionary commitment. Peter Robinson: I would give you… Christopher Hitchens: George Steiner’s book
— not book, George Steiner’s essay on him is called Trotsky and the Tragic Imagination.
And with me it is the element of tragedy, which you don’t find if you’re usually talking
about the fall of someone who is power hungry. Peter Robinson: Hmm. Christopher Hitchens.
Robert Service, author of the forthcoming Trotsky. Thank you very much. Christopher Hitchens: Thank you. Robert Service: Thanks. Peter Robinson: I’m Peter Robinson for Uncommon
Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.

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