Leon Trotsky (Wikimedia Commons)

When Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by an agent of Stalin, in 1940, the American novelist James T. Farrell took to the pages of Partisan Review to memorialize him. “The life of Leon Trotsky is one of the great tragic dramas of modern history,” Farrell’s obituary began, and it only gets more idolatrous from there. “Pitting his brain and will against the despotic rulers of a great empire, fully conscious of the power, the resources, the cunning and cruelty of his enemy, Trotsky had one weapon at his command—his ideas. His courage never faltered; his will never broke.”

To the small but influential group of his American admirers, Trotsky appeared as a kind of Soviet Garibaldi or George Washington, fighting for freedom against an evil empire. The problem, as Robert Service shows in his new biography Trotsky, is that Trotsky himself was one of the men chiefly responsible for that evil. In the October Revolution of 1917, he was second only to Lenin in leading the Bolshevik coup to success. In the years of civil war that followed, Trotsky, as commissar for the Red Army, designed the campaigns that inflicted horrific suffering on the civilian population of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. None of the Soviet leaders outdid him in zeal for collectivization and terror, or in his commitment to spreading the Communist revolution across Europe and the world. Service, one of the leading historians of the Soviet Union and the author of biographies of Lenin and Stalin, sums up his verdict on Trotsky this way: “He was close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism.… He reveled in terror.”

How, then, did Trotsky become a symbol, to some of the most intelligent American leftists, of a more humane and democratic Communism? In part, as Service writes (and the Farrell essay demonstrates), it was because of “their naivety. They were blind to Trotsky’s contempt for their values…. Like spectators at a zoo, they felt sorry for a wounded beast.” But for the Jewish intellectuals who clustered around Partisan Review, he was an especially irresistible figure, since Trotsky himself was the most powerful Jewish intellectual who ever lived. While this part of Trotsky’s legacy is incidental to Service’s book, it is a significant chapter in the political history of American Jews, and Trotsky helps explain both the allure and the danger of the mass murderer who was affectionately known to his followers as “the Old Man.”

He was born in 1879 as Leiba Bronstein—the name Trotsky was a nom de guerre, like Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov) and Stalin (Iosif Dzugashvili). Bronstein’s parents, unusually for Jews in the Russian Empire, were farmers; they belonged to a colony of Polish Jews who had settled in the Ukraine, as part of a czarist project for dispersing and assimilating the Jewish population. As Service shows at the beginning of his book, this meant that Bronstein “did not have a life associated mainly with fellow Jews.” His parents were not devout, and Leiba was sent to a Lutheran German school in Odessa.

Very quickly, like many young, secular Jews of his generation, Bronstein was drawn to the Communist revolutionary movement—partly out of Marxist idealism, partly out of disgust at the reactionary and anti-Semitic czarist government. He was only eighteen when he was arrested, with other members of his small, amateurish revolutionary cell, and exiled to Siberia. As with so many Russian radicals, however, Siberia was less a prison for Bronstein than a kind of finishing school. Bronstein married a fellow prisoner, Alexandra Sokolovskaya—also Jewish, like several other members of his cell—and had two children. He made contact with other Communists, and began to read the clandestine newspaper Iskra (“The Spark”), which he received hidden in the binding of an innocuous book.

Iskra was edited from London and Geneva by a group of Communists including Vladimir Lenin, and Bronstein decided he had to join them. With surprising ease, Trotsky—as he was now known on his forged or stolen passport—escaped from Siberia and crossed Europe, presenting himself in London as a new recruit to the cause. (It is ironic that, compared to the later brutality of the KGB and the Gulag, the czarist police system looks like benign neglect.)

It soon became clear that Trotsky was a brilliant writer: at their first meeting, Lenin greeted him with the words: “Ah, the Pen has arrived!” And it was by his pen that he became to known to revolutionaries inside and outside Russia, writing for Iskra and other illegal, but widely read, publications. In 1905, when the first Russian Revolution broke out, Trotsky smuggled himself back into St. Petersburg, where he discovered that he was equally magnetic as a platform orator. Still just 25, he became head of the Petersburg council, or Soviet; when the revolution was crushed, he was arrested again and escaped again.

By 1917, Trotsky’s peregrinations and expulsions had led him to New York, where he arrived “to a hero’s welcome among emigrant socialist sympathizers from the Russian Empire,” especially Jews—he wrote a series of articles for the Forverts, the socialist Yiddish daily. Indeed, one of the ironic themes of Service’s Trotsky is the way the revolutionary kept finding himself in Jewish milieux, despite his adamant refusal to claim a Jewish identity. As Service explains, in his chapter “Trotsky and the Jews,” he followed an orthodox Marxist line on matters of nationality and religion: “In his own eyes, he had ceased to be a Jew in any important sense because Marxism had burned out the fortuitous residues of his origins.” He detested Zionism and the Jewish socialist Bund. Yet it is striking how many of Trotsky’s closest comrades were non-Jewish Jews, just like himself. One might even say, though Service does not pursue the subject this far, that the aggressive rejection of Jewish particularity was the form in which Trotsky, and many Jews like him, lived their Jewishness.

When the czar was overthrown, in February 1917, Trotsky immediately began planning to get back to Russia, and he arrived at Petersburg’s Finland Station on May 4, a month after Lenin. Service traces the complex, ever-shifting circumstances of that revolutionary year, the advances and feints and retreats of the Bolsheviks, until they finally seized the capital, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, in October. Then came the years of triumph and power and cruelty; and then came the great fall, which turned Trotsky the commissar into the socialist martyr described by Farrell.

Starting in 1923, as Lenin was crippled by strokes, Trotsky and Stalin waged a bureaucratic and propaganda war over who was entitled to succeed him. Trotsky entered the battle with many advantages. His highly visible role in the Civil War had made him iconic; he was still a brilliant and popular writer. Most important of all, he was Lenin’s own choice. The ailing leader dictated a “testament” in which he warned that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky had the potential to split the Communist Party, and he came down firmly on Trotsky’s side: “Stalin is too crude and this inadequacy…becomes intolerable in the position of General Secretary.”

The real question, as Service convincingly frames it, is why Trotsky, given all these advantages, allowed Stalin to outmaneuver him so decisively—to the point that, by 1928, Trotsky had been stripped of office, expelled from the Party, and finally exiled from the USSR. Service concludes that Trotsky, perhaps unconsciously, did not really want to replace Lenin as sole leader of the country; that is why he “lacked the decisiveness for a concerted advance on power.” While Stalin expertly manipulated the Communist Party apparatus, packing the Politburo with his supporters, Trotsky remained aloof, arrogant, inflexible. When it came to making speeches to big crowds or writing scorching pamphlets, no one could beat Trotsky. When it came to making friends and allies, he could not be bothered.

And there was one other factor in Trotsky’s failure of will. In 1917, just after the revolution, Lenin had wanted to appoint him as Commissar for Internal Affairs, which would have made him head of the secret police. Trotsky refused, on the grounds that “it would be inappropriate for a Jew to take charge of the police in a society pervaded by anti-Semitism. If Jews were seen to be repressing Russians, a pogrom atmosphere might be provoked.” For the same reason, he initially resisted taking charge of the Red Army, and rejected the invitation to become Lenin’s second-in-command in 1922. “The party’s leadership was widely identified as a Jewish gang,” Service writes, and “Trotsky continued to believe that his own prominence in government, party and army did practical damage to the revolutionary cause.”

If Trotsky allowed Stalin to get the better of him at the crucial moment, it may have been because he still feared the consequences of a Jew heading the Soviet government. Of course, such scruples made no difference to the enemies of the Jews. By the time Hitler took to power, thanks in part to the Germans’ fear and hatred of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” Trotsky had long since been made a non-person in Stalin’s USSR. The rabbi who made the famous quip was right: “It’s the Trotskys who make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins who pay the price.”

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.