Tariq Ali focuses almost exclusively on Trotsky’s political life, leaving his personal life and even his military career during the civil war as no more than an afterthought. The aim of this political biography is to show that, for the most part, Trotsky and Lenin had similar theories of revolution, differing occasionally but generally converging in the end. Trotsky was politically aggressive, by which I mean he believed that the revolutionary struggle must be pushed aggressively forward, and that compromise with the bourgeoisie, whether revolutionary or reformist, must be avoided whenever possible, in favor of working class revolution. He also believed in the necessity of democratic action: open and unconstrained debate prior to making decisions, combined with party discipline in carrying out the agreed plan. In this, he and Lenin were of the same mind, until the necessities of war made democratic practice untenable. In the aftermath, though, Trotsky believed that democracy was essential, but by then it was too late: Stalin had consolidated power, and democracy became merely a means of identifying enemies to be liquidated.
Ali has only contempt for most of Trotsky’s contemporaries and comrades: Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bucharin; and deep hatred for Stalin. Fittingly, as far as I can tell.
The period from around 1928 to 1940 is covered in just a few pages, other than an extended discussion of Stalinist perfidy in Spain, and the terrible decision (mandated by Stalin) of the German communist party not to join a united front with German socialists to oppose the Nazis starting in 1930, leading to the Nazi electoral victory in 1932 and all that came after. By 1928 Stalin was in control, Trotsky was stripped of all responsibility, and eventually expelled from the communist party. He left Russia in time to avoid a show trial, and eventually ended up in Mexico, where he lived the last three years, until eventually murdered by a soviet agent.
This book makes it clear that Trotsky was a brilliant intellectual, but doesn’t adequately convey the extent to which Trotsky was able to turn theory into effective action. It completely downplays his role as head of the Red Army during the civil war, and says little about his role in St. Petersburg in seizing control of power there during the October revolution. But, it’s a short book, and Trotsky’s revolutionary theory was as good a choice as any other as the book’s theme.