Russ Roberts

Robert Service on Trotsky

EconTalk Episode with Robert Service
Hosted by Russ Roberts
PRINT
Taylor on the State of the Eco... Brady on the State of the Elec...

Robert Service of Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the University of Oxford talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the life and death of Leon Trotsky. Based on Service's biography of Trotsky, the conversation covers Trotsky's influence on the Russian Revolution, his influence on policy alongside Lenin, his expulsion from Soviet Union in 1928 and his murder in 1940 by Stalin's order.

Size: 38.0 MB
Right-click or Option-click, and select "Save Link/Target As MP3.

Readings and Links related to this podcast

Podcast Readings
HIDE READINGS
About this week's guest: About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:

Highlights

Time
Podcast Highlights
HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
0:36Intro. [Recording date: June 22, 2010.] Trotsky: Elusive figure for many of us in the West; involved in the Russian Revolution in 1917, eventually broke with Stalin, was exiled, and later murdered on Stalin's orders. Book is vivid portrait. What kind of a man was he and what was his impact? Trotsky by any standards a remarkable man. Committed revolutionary from his late teens onwards. He had a whole basket of talents; recognized early on that he was a great orator in the making and he worked at being an orator, public speaking, at a time when his colleagues didn't think that was a great asset to have. Other great talent he had was as a writer; by any standard he was one of the great political writers in the 20th century. Only person who comes near to him in the quality of his prose is Winston Churchill. He was a good editor; very, very good organizer. Downside is that he was vain; he was exceptionally arrogant, and fairly cold. People around him have to serve him. Often true of geniuses. Mercurial figure. His health was never very good. Needed cosseting; parents, wives. He put revolution before everything. Lived, breathed the revolution. Would have sacrificed himself in the revolutionary cause. Risked his life in many ways for that cause. More so than Lenin and Stalin, who never put themselves in the way of danger; but Trotsky definitely did. A bit of a daredevil--escapes from first Siberia and then from the north of Russia. Vivacity about him. And he wrote about these escapes with great panache. Never lost an opportunity to do a bit of writing, earn a bit of money, and put it to the revolutionary cause. Also like Churchill. Trotskyists who assume that when he wrote about himself it was a mirror of reality--he sculpted everything to fit the statue he wanted to put up of himself.
4:50As a revolutionary--not just the Russian Revolution, but an ideal, a world revolution, a world devoted to a socialist, Marxist economy; a world where the Proletariat were in charge. He wasn't content with just Russia doing this. He wanted a dictatorship in Russia; was almost eager for it to be installed by state terror. He thought of Russia as just being the first country in the world that would have such a revolution; thought in the short term the important thing would be to spread it to the rest of Europe and to North America; and then the rest of the world would follow suit. He lived by this. Got into a bit of trouble with fellow revolutionaries, who said sometimes we must look after Mother Russia. He had conflict with the Nationalists; also had conflict on strategic issues, the use of the Russian army. Two abortive revolutions in Germany, one of which he opposed the use of aid to but the other he was an enthusiast for in 1923, where there was a real possibility that much of Europe would go socialist or communist. He thought that from the end of the 19th century onwards, great industrialized countries were "ripe for revolution." He thought the ripest country of all was Germany. Didn't have as much confidence in Russia or Ukraine, from where he came, as in Germany. In that respect, he was like the other Bolsheviks in Russia--really looked up to the Germany working class, Germany proletariat. Often thought of as having assumed that the Germans would simply make the revolution by themselves; but because he had this global perspective, he always quietly assumed that the Soviet Red Army would have to become involved. The German middle classes were determined to see off the revolution than had been the case in Russia. Their army was not as demoralized as the Russian army was in 1917. Trotsky, all through the 1920s, made it the assumption that there would be a revolution in Germany; it would be a better revolution than in Russia; but it would still need Russian help. That would mean that there would be another European war, because the British, French, and possibly the Americans would get involved on the other side. Would be carnage again; but out of this would come a perfect European revolutionary, multinational state.
9:27He was onto something, although it didn't happen in the way he expected. He was a great writer; also a prolific writer. Also, frequently prescient. Some hubris, but some he understood the trends of history. One could argue that Europe has many of the features of a socialist state, without the dictatorship, without the violence, without the state control of the Russian system, but certainly Europe has gone much closer to a socialist ideal. May not last. Wouldn't go quite that far, but it is certainly true that the European states built up their welfare mechanisms partly in reaction to the Russian revolution that the Communists undertook. There was fear that the Communists might be right; that the workers of Europe might throw out their governments and might overturn capitalism. A lot of the governments of the larger powers--Germany, France, Britain--built up social insurance, health care measures so as to see off this threat. Happened in the United States as well, when in the 1920s Roosevelt had feeling that there had to be some means of depriving the Communists of opportunities for anti-capitalist propaganda. After the first world war, Europe was in a mess. The Americans withdrew. Food relief, coordinated by Herbert Hoover, philanthropist--if he had died in 1923, he would have been remembered just for that. Remembered well in Holland and Belgium to this day. But then Europe was in a mess. The Socialist parties all had splinter groups that were being attracted to the Communist party of Russia. Communist parties became disciplined, centralized, and put themselves at the disposal of the Communist International. Trotsky said these parties can now be used much more readily than before to quicken the pace of transformation. He urged the rest of the Soviet Communist leadership to take risks and make revolutions. And there were some, short-lived: Germany, Hungary. Bulgaria, northern Italian cities in ferment in 1920. Every reason to think something might burst out and be durable. Didn't happen because, firstly, everyone knew what was coming; so if you were a priest or shop keeper or factory worker, or just a member of the factory workforce who believed in God, who believed in private property, who didn't want the country to be savaged, then you knew what was coming and you knew what you had to do about it: to be more resolute in staving off Communism than the Russians had been in 1917. Reactionary movements, opposed to Communism, reaction to Communism, became very widespread in Europe. By the 1930s, democracy itself was a minority phenomenon. One of the reasons for this was the determination of the anti-Communists to see off Communism. Price of that was the removal of democracy; prepared to pay that price. October Revolution in Russia was a disaster; had this effect of giving an opportunity for Fascism and for very far-right politics to take a grip on countries. Result of all that was the second world war. And a terrible, 70-year run for the Russian people. Russian friend in St. Louis: How are you doing? Fine, like all Americans. They have a lot of experience with hardship.
16:59Going back to the Revolution and thinking about the pre-Revolutionary period: in the pre-Revolutionary people what was so striking about Trotsky was his confidence that a revolution was inevitable. A lot of ideologues have a certain overconfidence--like entrepreneurs really, a lot of faith in their own company and their ability. He was very much that way. Talk about what happened in 1905 and the abdication of the Czar in 1917, which created a provisional government led by Kerensky before the Bolsheviks took power. When Trotsky was growing up, the agricultural sector to which his father belonged was on the rise. His father wasn't an agricultural worker--he owned a farm; very successful. Somebody ought to write a biography of Trotsky's father--spectacularly successful Jewish farmer in the south of what we now call Ukraine. Really an economic hero. Mention Jewish and his being a farmer--the Russians were very worried about the role Jews would play and they sent a lot of them in Ukraine in hopes they would become more Russian and less Jewish, which they did. Hoped they would become successful farmers, and very few of them did. Not a Jewish tradition. Why should anybody living in a town, suddenly dumped in the countryside, become a successful farmer? Most of them failed. But Trotsky's father succeeded; renting land from Poles, Ukrainians. Gave his young son a good education because he could afford it. Trotsky grew up with a fixity of purpose that many youngsters who had a rebellious streak had in those years. Looked around and saw poor peasants; Russian factories in Odessa, hub of Russian imperial economy, great cereal export port--fed Germany. Joke--that stopped in 1917, when they had a 7-year stretch of bad weather, Bukharin, Paul Gregory podcast. Modernizing their economy rather fast. A lot of people had always had a hard time, and some had a harder time because of the pressures of the modernization that was taking place. Turned to revolution: the only way all these problems can be settled, get rid of the oppression--Czarism was a political dictatorship, no trade unions, no legal political parties, no free press--had to submit things before they were published. Combination turned a lot of people into revolutionaries. What's remarkable about Trotsky is that he doesn't just become a revolutionary--he becomes a Marxist, extreme kind of revolutionary; and doesn't just become a Marxist, but an extreme kind of Marxist. Big changes can come in our country not over decades but overnight if we only establish some kind of workers' dictatorship, because Tsarism under the Romanov imperial family is weak. We the Marxists can lead the workers when we get one sniff of a chance. In 1905, after a peaceful demonstration of workers outside the winter palace of the Imperial family, when the Czar Nicholas II wasn't in residence, police and troops fire on the peaceful demonstrators on a Sunday, soon to be known as Bloody Sunday; and all hell gets let loose. Workers rise up; peasants seize the pasture lands of landlords in the forests; the non-Russians rebel. For a year and a half it looks as if Tsarism would fall, Nicholas II would be out. Workers set up their own councils in St. Petersburg; and one of the great revolutionary leaders of that council, that Soviet as it is in Russian, is Leon Trotsky, come back from exile, back from Switzerland. Knows he has his chance, knows he is a great speaker; everybody knows he's a great writer; his chance had come. So he gives a few good speeches and gets arrested. November of 1905. Then put on trial. Gives another big speech. Understands the drama. Sent into exile again, within the country--Russia is big enough that you don't have to kick people out of the country; you can exile them inside the country. Even though he had a record of escaping from Siberian exile already, they send him back there again. He bribes a drunken sleigh master to take him across the snowy wastes and back to St. Petersburg. Reunites with his wife and children, and he's off to Vienna, where he stays, predicting revolution. Saying: We failed that time, another time will come. Utterly convinced that the workers can take power, keep power, never share it with anyone, maintain a revolutionary administration which will deny civil rights to the enemies of Marxism permanently and somehow this revolution will spread itself to the rest of Europe and then all around the world. Will bring down the European empires, the American government; and once the industrial powers have fallen, not long till the third world will fall.
26:04Prediction was aided and abetted by the lack of zeal with which the Czar and the police force treated their enemies. Clearly the repressive nature of the Czar, while clearly repressive, did not have the terrorist side. Could have killed their enemies. Tactical error, mark of some humanity, or incompetence? Mixture of a lot of things. If you were sent to penal servitude, then it was grim. If you were sent to administrative exile, when you were out there in Siberia you could get yourself a part-time job; and you were given a stipend by the government. So it wasn't a grueling set of conditions that we are familiar with, with the Soviet Gulag. if you take the Russian empire and its population and compare it with the size of the police force, then actually the United Kingdom had 7 times more policemen than the Czar. The reason they didn't have as many as he might have wanted was that he didn't have the resources. This was a poor country. Big country, very hard to police. Nicholas II was no wooly liberal but he didn't have the resources and he hadn't had the time to build up his bureaucratic apparatus policing. Police were so badly paid that everyone assumed they were easily bribed; and they were easily bribed. These revolutionaries, if they wanted to get out of Siberia, could always bribe a policeman; and then they told their stories as if they were acts of derring-do. Some were, but most of the time it was the rustle of the ruble note and they got a ticket on the train, Trans-Siberian railroad. If you were from a wealthy family like Trotsky's you could live in Vienna and Geneva. He worked as a journalist in Vienna.
29:261917: Provisional Government initially that falls to the Bolsheviks. What was Trotsky's role there? Trotsky didn't come back to the Russian Revolution until May of 1917 because he was stranded in New York. Had to get a transatlantic liner across to Scandinavia. When the liner pulled into the port of Halifax the British didn't take kindly to him because they heard rumbled what kind of policies he was likely to promote back home, not just revolutionary dictatorship but withdrawal from the war. Which England in 1917, if Russia withdraws, Germany makes it tougher for the Allied forces. Well known about Trotsky because he had been writing for New York newspapers in this vein. He gets bundled off the liner and strip searched brusquely. He remembered it for the rest of his days--sense of personal propriety and never in Tsarist prisons been handled quite as roughly as he said the British naval establishment applied to him. Gets back home, down to St. Petersburg--Petrograd as it was then called. Changed the name because it sounded a bit German. The British royal family were the Saxe-Coburgs until the first world war, and then they changed their name to Windsor. There was a liberal provisional government that was committed to fighting the war on the Allied side--after the abdication of the Czar, who had been pulled down by worker demonstrations in the crucial city, the capital, Petrograd. Tolerance of the new cabinet of liberals because they promised civic freedoms. But economy was collapsing; chaos, food shortages; deaths of soldiers on the Eastern front. When Trotsky came back to Russia, circumstances could not have been better for a lunge at power. Although he had his disagreements with Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, for years before 1917, he joins Lenin in the Bolshevik party and becomes a Bolshevik. The two of them work out a policy for seizing power. Workers' Councils as a blind behind which they would put the party in power. Kerensky, a moderate socialist, didn't have the garrison behind them to enable them to resist the seizure of power on October 25, 1917. And suddenly the world hears the news that the first socialist state has been proclaimed. Reforms undertaken in agriculture, industry; and over the following year, this one-party state is installed. Also a terror state, also a state that will introduce a preventive censorship, so the building blocks of what became the Soviet Union are already being laid in very strong cement in 1917-1918.
35:14Talk about that terror. The ruthless disposal and treatment of ideological enemies--and some economic enemies eventually become part of that. But what do you mean by that? Think for most uneducated--self included--think of Lenin as not Stalin. Stalin was a murderer of enormous proportions, one of the one or two worst of the 20th century. Lenin was of course somewhat ruthless, had a revolution to carry out; unlike his predecessor Kerensky, he was not loathe to use violence. How much violence was there? We know a lot now. No excuse for people not having known it before. Historians often did take this gentler view of Lenin and Trotsky than they did of Stalin. But terror is a system of dealing with your political or economic opponents outside the law and applying the most brutal methods of oppression to them. That was going on from the start, from the first year of Soviet rule onwards. Lenin and Trotsky as much as Stalin later supplied the orders and they also supplied the intellectual rational for what we being done. Trotsky wrote a book called Terrorism and Communism where he said that state terror was a good way of starting off a revolutionary dictatorship. Effective in quickening the revolutionary schedule, getting rid of problems physically before they got out of hand. Don't talk about it much in the book. In early days of the Revolution, Trotsky's got many different roles, but one is that he's in charge of the Red Army. Weird thing, because he's the sort of intellectual type; he's anti-military, anti-war all through his youth. Has to use the army, because there is a civil war being fought. He kills a lot of people who don't fight well. Not much detail on that. There was a lot of terror--KGB. Trotsky wasn't part of that organization. He didn't physically sign many of the death warrants. Who did? Felix Dzerzhinsky, Pole who was in charge of the political police, the Cheka. What Trotsky did do, though, was set the policy, form the intellectual rational for it. Never going to get reconciliation between the party of the proletariat and the party of the middle classes. Interests are completely divergent; violent struggle inevitable, might as well get yours in first. That together with his undoubted role as an inspirer combined to give him a reputation as a rather romantic figure, like Garibaldi. Entirely overlooks the role he played as one of the architects of one of the most gruesome state terror dictatorships of the 20th century. We shouldn't romanticize him. Hard, hard man. Professorial, goatee, handsome man; and he knew it. Had the military uniform specially made for him; Trotsky train decked out so he could throw down the gate and speak. He loved revolution and being in the midst of the fighting. But that should not allow us to romanticize him. Never understood his responsibility. When Lenin died in 1924 and struggle for succession took place between him and Stalin, and when Stalin won and made the dictatorship even more ruthless and millions of people died, Trotsky never looked back and said he might have helped create the conditions for this, for this scale of terror. That we know of. Looked at all these scraps of paper--you can read the drafts, see what he is crossing out when he gets things published, when he has second thoughts. Never regretted setting up the Revolution; that was the glory period. Never saw that, much as he was a victim--assassinated in 1940, in Mexico City--that there was a connection between the extra-judicial murder of himself and the kind of thing that he had condoned back in 1917-1919. The ends justify the means when they are your ends.
44:28Leaders: it's very rare that anyone with an historical legacy admits fault. The strategy most take is: I was right and I'm going to find evidence that proves it. Psychologically difficult for a human being to say my life was a lie. But what is unforgivable is for his followers not to ask those questions. 1917-1924 period. Under the impression that there was a Revolution, the Bolsheviks triumphed, Lenin is the new head of the government; dictator until he dies in 1924, Stalin new dictator. But Lenin was not the only person in charge in this period--dominant figure but there is a whole group of people who are interacting. The power hierarchy is fluid. How was the government actually working? It took a year and a half for the system to clarify. Within that year and a half, the Soviet regime became a one-party state. Inside that state, the party was essentially the government. Big change. There had been no one-party state anywhere. No model. Figuring it out as they went along. Shocked the world at the time. But that party was disorganized. How was it going to run the economy and politics if itself it was a mess? The party turned back to its pre-Revolutionary doctrines of centralism, discipline, hierarchy and it achieved a change in itself steadily so it was able to fit itself out. The Soviet Empire covered one-sixth of the earth's surface; roads and rivers and rail system didn't reach all the parts they needed to reach. The peasants often revolted; the workers often went on strike. The very people in whose name the revolution had been made were a problem. Took years for the one-party state to regularize its relationships. At the top of that party, all kinds of interests; no single leader in a formal sense. Lenin the dominant leader. When Lenin died, still a lot of contention at top of party as to which pair or trio of leaders--no one thought there would be a single leader. What will emerge next as the ruling system? Lenin wanted a collective leadership--didn't think anyone fit to take over from him. Wrote a last will and testament--a briefing paper on his fellow-revolutionaries critiquing them. Suppressed. Became clear Lenin had been prescient, at least about two things. One was that Trotsky would make a bid for power. Second that Stalin quietly would exercise a lot of power and be in position to take power. Trotsky wanted an emphasis on European social revolution; didn't think the Russian Revolution would amount to much without a Germany revolution. Stalin wanted to pursue the new economic policy of Lenin, which gave a certain amount of room for private trade. Still a one-party state, still severely regulated economy, but Stalin wanted a breathing space; Trotsky didn't. Dust-up between the two of them was not just a personal dust-up; policy too. By 1927, Trotsky had lost--underestimated the pockmarked Georgian, didn't speak French, awful table manners, smoked a pipe in the house, swore at his wife, swore at Lenin's wife as well. Not alone in underestimating Stalin. Stalin had a lot of talents, very fluent writer, did speak Georgian and Russian; had edited Pravda; had been training to be a priest. Trotsky was a snob, as many intellectuals are.
53:44Unending fight over ideology, hair-splitting that runs from 1918 through the 1920s. A lot of their squabbling, impression of a faculty meeting. Boys at play. Preening, ego, fighting over things that are not so important. But some of the things were important--international, economy. In 1917-1923, state control, uncertainty about how it was going to turn out; big country, government couldn't run it in 1920 out of Petrograd. But they did to a lot of things, found themselves in a lot of messes. One Hayekian issue: mix between agricultural prices and industrial goods prices. They "got it wrong." What happened? Although they made concessions to the peasants in 1921, they still held the commanding heights of the economy. Had all the big factories, foreign trade, and the banks; and they had the planning mechanisms to enable them to set the prices coming out of their factories. They charged, in real terms, three times more for the industrial products coming out of the state factories than had come out of those factories years before. They were gougers! They didn't have the sense to see that the peasants could do other things with their grain. They could eat more bread; feed more to their livestock. Pictures of cattle or pigs in the 1920s--they are not skinny like before 1914; they are fat and healthy. The other thing they could do with their cereal was turn it into vodka; or keep it in the barn. Enraged Trotsky, who was quite an economic prognosticator. He said: The period of appeasing the peasantry has to stop, because they are going to have us by the throat forever. So what we've got to do is change the whole basis of the economy, so that the peasants, who are 85% of the population don't work on their own farms. All the farms brought together, run by the state; we'll give them fertilizers and tractors, we'll train the peasants, take the proceeds; they'll be grateful to us because we've given them fertilizers and tractors. We'll turn the Soviet countryside into a rural, industrial zone. Others, even among Bolsheviks, said you must be joking. These people had revolted in 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921. The only reason we've got them stabilized now is that we've given them the right to trade their grain. We've got to keep making concessions to these people because the towns and cities are going to starve. And Trotsky said No: we must go for them, persuade them about the glorious future that awaits them if they agree to be collectivized. Opponents said you'll have to use force; Trotsky said education, propaganda will do it. Did he really believe you wouldn't need force? No. Stalin ended up doing in the 1920s what you had to do. All sectors of the economy--everything to be state-owned, state-planned. Can't see anything in the writings of the Bolsheviks that said how this central planner was ever going to have enough information, quickly enough, and be able to process it to run a whole economy like that. Acted on a wing and a prayer, work it out as they went along. That was Hayek's argument early on: one that it wasn't practical, and the other that it would lead to despotism. Right on both counts.
1:01:32Post-Lenin period. Paul Gregory podcast, Bukharin's relationship with Stalin. Your book has a slightly different perspective on Bukharin--when he was younger. From Paul's book we learn that Bukharin and Stalin were allies; from your book, Bukharin not quite the soft intellectual. In the post-Lenin period, Trotsky finds himself allied with Kamenev and Zinoviev. On the other side are Stalin and Bukharin. They ruthlessly pushed the other three out. What happens? Get us to Trotsky's descent. The left opposition, which became the united opposition. Nomenclature, they were very fussy about that sort of thing. The left opposition agreed that there had to be a faster pace of transformation and a more definite commitment to spreading the revolution beyond Soviet frontiers. The ascendant majority inside the leadership led by Stalin and Bukharin said that no, while we must maintain at home, while we agree about a lot with the left opposition, we don't want to take risks; don't want the revolutionary transformation to be pursued at the moment. Battle Royal behind closed doors; Stalin and Bukharin won. Threw Trotsky and others out of the leadership, out of their homes, out of the party. Political death--not a player any more. They said that if the defeated oppositionists came crawling back and recanted everything they had stood for, then they would be readmitted to the party. Kamenev and Zinoviev agree to humiliate themselves; Trotsky didn't. Sat out in Kazakhstan until 1928, then moved to Turkey in 1929. Was confident he would come back to power; thought Stalin and Bukharin stupid, would mess up the economy, would not be able to coordinate the political system. When Stalin collectivized the peasantry in 1929, Trotsky thought, well on the whole that's probably what he ought to be doing, but always a danger that that very right-wing Bukharin might come back to power and then there will be a counter-revolution. Bukharin more open to prices, markets. Between Bukharin and Stalin there were differences, too. All Bolsheviks. All believed in the one-party state, in state terror, in the ideology state, society as a resource, mobilizable by the political leadership in whatever way the leadership felt like. Differences among them not so significant as the similarities. Core of my work. But they felt differently among them. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Bukharin underestimated Stalin; in Gregory podcast, Bukharin makes the fatal error--turned out to be fatal, not just a bad night of talking. Allows Stalin later to brand him as anti-party. Everyone knew Stalin was bugging everybody, but still stupidly talked in their houses and their dachas. Everyone knew the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, was following them around, yet they still traveled around the country and passed messages to each other. Stalin knew the main story he needed to know, mainly that they despised him and wanted him out. If you are vengeful, ruthless, cunning, well-organized, then you put the party and the police off the lead and you go for them. You ruin their careers. Missed a trick with Trotsky because he kicked Trotsky out of the country, eventually went to Turkey, France, Scandinavia; and then no country would have him at all because of Soviet diplomatic pressures in the 1930s. The only place that would have him was Mexico, which was where he spent the last 3 years of his life. Why do you think Stalin had him killed? When it happened, did everybody know it was Stalin? Stalin did not brag about it. How do we find out at the time that it was Stalin? It was said at the time by everybody who didn't like Stalin that Stalin had done it. Would have to be credulous person not to think the Soviets had done it. The killer himself, Ramon Mercader, always claimed he was a disappointed Trotskyist who had turned against Trotsky after meeting him in Mexico City and finding that he had feet of clay. Went through years of prison in Mexico till he was released in the 1960s and was spirited back to the Soviet Union, which he didn't like. He asked to leave. By then he was fated as a Soviet hero. Everyone knew Mercader had killed Trotsky on Stalin's orders. But over time this was denied by the Soviet Union and the killer; but everyone knew; many leads. Why Stalin bothered, interesting question. So many police resources put at his disposal; two attempts on assassination in 1940. The Trotskyists, particularly the American Trotskyists--Trotsky relied on the American Trotskyists--sent down an electrical system, alarmed himself in the villa where he ended up living. The Mexican police supplied a force outside of the building. Guard towers built in case of an armed assault on the villa. If you go around it today, it's just as it was in 1940. Still has the rabbit hutches Trotsky tended. He was a farmer's boy. Didn't have a lot of money by then. Trotskyists from the United States--he had to entertain and feed them. Very practical man. But stupid man. He let this man come into his study who he'd barely known, wearing a Macintosh, in which he not only has a huge dagger--seen pictures [hands spread two feet apart for those listening]--and a huge ice axe with part of the handle hacked off. Sunny afternoon, middle of Mexico City. These Trotskyists have all these sophisticated methods, and still they let him in; and Trotsky talks to him--alone! Alone in the study. While Trotsky is poring over the manuscript that Mercader had brought him in to have a look at, Mercader gets to his feet and makes his choice of weapon, reaches into his pocket, and plunges the ice axe into the head of Leon Trotsky, who takes a good 24 hours to die. Very brutal death.
1:13:55So, Trotsky lives long enough to see the rise of the Gulag, though limited public knowledge of it. People certainly understood that Stalin was a very evil man who tried and executed all his political opponents. He lives long enough to see the rise of Hitler. He sees no other revolutions on the horizon on that point, though China is yet to come. In his last years, what was he writing about, thinking, as he saw these world events happen? He thought there was going to be a second world war. He did make a few predictions that were right. He saw the possibility of a Nazi-Soviet pact. And Trotskyists tend to praise him in an excessive way for this. But actually, quite a number of people foresaw the second world war, though not the Nazi-Soviet pact. What Trotskyists fail to remember, though, is that when the winter war from 1939-1940 occurred and the USSR invaded Finland--a fact that is little known--Trotsky was in favor of it. American Trotskyists--young men, some of the brightest intellectuals in the 1930s at that stage--read that this was what Trotsky was recommending and said: This is Stalinist imperialism. Trotsky has gone over to the other side. Wrote to him imploring: Finland is a neutral country, disgusting aspect of the alliance between Germany and the USSR and we will not have anything to do with it. And he came back at them with a vengeance: You whippersnappers in New York, you understand nothing. He gave such a rigid statement of Leninist philosophy--of the theory of the one-party state, the one-ideology state--and such a bland interpretation of Stalin's foreign policy that he more or less broke the Trotskyist movement up.
1:16:48Striking--in Bukharin we saw the same thing. They worshipped the party. Strange, romantic idea. And they worshipped the USSR and couldn't bring themselves to question basic aspects of the previous 20 years. Would have been like wishing away their lives. Hard to do. But when you are in a hole, stop there. They could have just kept quiet. Ultimately they had this servile attitude for the need for the party always to be right, couldn't be wrong against the party. Stalin inevitable? No. Had Trotsky been a better infighter--he liked speaking and running things but it seemed like he didn't like the maneuvering that is necessary for a one-political-party state rule. If he had somehow won or his allies more effective, would he have turned into a Stalin? Don't think he would have turned into a Stalin as a personality; something deeply disordered about Stalin's personality. Wasn't mad; Stalin had a gross personality disorder; thoroughly wicked man. Had Trotsky mounted to power, would still have been a one-party, terrorist, one-ideology state; and he would have had to face up to the implausibility of his policies in regard to the people he wanted to rule. Don't believe, with his record in the civil war, with his record on brutal force, that he wouldn't have used brutal force on the peasants as well. Might not have been quite as intensive a terror as under Stalin, but there would have been state terror. He would have had to come out of the closet; would have had to say: I am in favor of using massive runs in favor of pursuing my ideological views; and I'll do this for a generation and I hope that will change society for the better. Same as Lenin and Stalin--Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky are blood brothers. Huge romance about the maleability of the human enterprise; given a generation or two people would become used to this and would become better people. Trotsky really did believe that with this communist revolution, people would be transformed. Whereas in the past the great thinkers and writers had come from the upper and middle classes, when the communist revolution took place, there would be a great liberation of the talents and there would be hundreds of Darwins. Thousands of Aristotles, perhaps millions of Shakespeares; would be a paradise of mankind. Something close to a religious faith. Stayed with him right to the end. But this is a man who has blood on his hands. Some of the bloodiest killers wrote poetry.

Comments and Sharing



TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Adam writes:

I just want to say that I am really enjoying these history-oriented episodes of EconTalk. From the interview on Prohibition, to the Gregory one a couple of weeks ago, and this one, it has been a great departure from the usual stuff. It makes me wish you had another podcast where you focused entirely on interviewing historians, so I could get both my history and econ fix every week!

emerich writes:

About half way through I thought to myself, "thank god we no longer fall prey to such pernicious ideologies." Then I realized that most people still believe instinctively that smart leaders can organize us better than we can organize ourselves if we decentralize decision making. Much more depressing is that many, many smart and talented people still think that as soon as they have power, they can move the pieces around to everyone's benefit. I am continually astounded at how little our poltical and intellectual leaders have learned from the big catastrophe's of the 20th-century--Stalinism, Nazism, and Maoism.

Ryan writes:

Maybe it's because I have a liberal arts degree but I'm really not a big fan of those history podcasts. Especially those about Russia seem to a be futile exercise in what stupidity on a grand scale and egomaniacs can achieve. I am someone that prefers to look at positive examples, at countries that have developed, that have achieved a decent level of success. South Korea would be a splendid candidate in that it's not as much of a black/white case as Russia. In fact by continously analyzing Russian history we develop a wrong idea of governance, a strong government might actually bring economic development to its citizens. South Korea until the late 80's was far from a democratic poster-child yet its economy is on its way to become one of the largest in the world.
What is there to learn from the Russian experience that is not blindingly obvious? Don't make ridicolous plans when you lack basic information? A country with phenomenal natural resouces and yet its population doesn't seem to gain from then, in contrast they suffer from massive pollution.
Why study a country that wasted its human potential on an arms race when Japan used its scientists to conquer world markets. That's what we should be talking about and not how Stalin managed to ruin the country for decades to come.
It's foreign policy consists of picking up needless fights with the US, what is Russia even doing in Iran apart from trying to gain some leverage?
At heart I am a classic liberal with an Austrian bend when it comes to economics but even countries like Germany used a model that centers around a strong government.

As far as I'm concerned Russia is and remains a basket-case and deserves hardly any further study. We should be emulating the best and not the worst. Google over Enron any day.

Robert Kennedy writes:

I think Ryan makes a good point. Russia is an easy example of how central planning doesn't work. Maybe too easy.

Let's explore the nuances of Japan, South Korea, China, wherever, where it appears that central planning is indeed producing positive economic results. (That said, I expect that I will continue to suffer from the confirmation bias that those cultures thrived in spite of central planning, not because of it!)

All that said, I also agree with Ryan that these historical discussions are very interesting. I knew nothing about Bukarin and very little about Trotsky. Most of my education on Russia came from high school textbooks in the late 1960s which were likely products of the Cold War fears of that time.

Nethy writes:

Interesting political turnaround econtalk seems to have been doing recently.

Seriously though, I've been enjoying these podcasts too.

Mort Dubois writes:

I vote with Ryan. Let's hear about South Korea, or maybe Singapore. Our recent history demonstrates that emergent orders aren't necessarily benign. Ignoring examples of the benefits of strong government doesn't make your ideological beliefs more attractive to those of us on the fence.

Mort

David P writes:

I'm really enjoying these recent couple of economic history of communism podcasts. I hope I can hear one about Che Guevara some time in the future.

emerich writes:

With all due respect, the posts by Ryan, Kennedy, and Dubois reveal a certain misunderstanding, to put it politely (ignorance to put it impolitely) about Japan and Korea, not to mention China. You think South Korea is centrally planned? South Korea may not be a libertarian nirvana, but it is a regulated capitalist state, similar in kind to the U.S. The same is true of Japan. The index of economic freedom ranked Korea and Japan last year at 31 and 19, respectively, out of 179 countries. (The U.S. is #8.) In per capita GDP, the World Factbook ranks Korea and Japan at #49 and #41. China is ranked 150 in economic freedom, and despite much publicized economic growth, its GDP per capita is 128th out of 227. But Hong Kong, which had the same per-capita GDP as the mainland 60 years ago, is ranked #1 on economic freedom and #15 in per capital GDP. Oh yeah, and North Korea (heard of it?) is ranked 179 in economic freedom and 188 in per capita GDP. Now why would that be? Does anyone need a regression line to see a pattern?

emerich writes:

Oh yeah, I forgot Singapore. Singapore and Hong Kong top the rankings in economic freedom, Hong Kong #1 and Singapore #2. Singapore's per capita GDP is now eighth in the world, higher than that of the United States.

Robert Kennedy writes:

emerich,

Thanks for the insights. i'd be interested in looking a little deeper at the index for economic freedom. what's the source?

And yes, i'm sure my comments were somewhat naive. i do occasionally fall for the popular conceptions of those countries. for that, i appreciate the gentle nudge about the head & shoulders!

Aaron writes:

I'm with Ryan on this one, at least as far as the constant beating of Russia's dead horse is concerned. Why shouldn't there be more podcasts about what nations have done right - regardless of their current or past political systems? The problem with preaching "get out the frying pan" as a policy is that "into the fire" fulfills the letter, while not leaving you any better off. Harping on someone else's bad ideas does not, in and of itself, create good ideas.

Firat Uenlue writes:

I side with Ryan on this issue.
What emerich forgot to mention is the factor of time. The fact that South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are now more or less liberal economies that resemble the US in large parts misses the point. Taiwan and South Korea were brutal dictatorships until the 1980's where the state played a heavy role in developing the economy. During the rule of Park an activist named Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped, almost killed and put into prison for his political engagement, 25 years later he went on to become president in South Korea.
At least 200 students were killed 1980 during the Gwangju democratic movement's uprising, it's possibile that more people were killed during this incident than 1989 at Tian'anmen. The less said about the GMD rule over Taiwan the better, again this was a bone-fide dictatorship.
There is debate in academia about the role of METI etc in Japan's development but seriously, even today the Japanese government uses the savings of its citizens as a piggy bank, hence it's imo without any base to deny the role of the government in previous years. Not to mention FILP etc. The accounts that play down the role of government in Japan are usually overriding facts with theory.
As far as China is concerned, I have a degree in Sinology and no doubt my former professors would kill me for this, but you really cannot compare China pre/post 1978, it's two different worlds.
They went from being a total and abject failure on almost any count (you could make a good case that they were even worse off than the SU) to becoming the growth story of the past decades producing wealth on a scale that has never been achieved before in such a short time-scale. If Spain/Greece etc were to drop out of the euro their new currency would put their gdp/capita at the level of about Shanghai.

Singapore and HK are different as they are city-states and these necessitate and allow a different management paradigm.

This debate has to factor into where countries stand on their level of development, a state-led system might bring benefits at the early stage but perhaps you need a more open system later on.
The fact that they are now resembling the US doesn't invalidate anything.

emerich writes:

Robert Kennedy,
A number of different organizations do studies of economic freedom but the best known is a joint project by the Wall Street Journal and Heritage. http://www.heritage.org/index/ranking.aspx.
I agree with Firat that Japan and other countries intervene in the economy, but that's hardly evidence of the success of intervention. One of my favorite justifications for regulatory intervention used by Japanese regulators is that "excessive competition confuses consumers." Japan's post-ware"economic miracle" was astounding, frightening the West and inducing near-hysteria. Then it stopped. IHMO a core reason for Japan's 20-year stagnation since 1990 is that dirigisme works much better when you have models for success but serves less well when you need to innovate. The Soviet Union seemed to everyone to be beating the West in the pace of its industrialization, until it became suddenly obvious the wheels had come off. China is reaping enormous benefits just by allowing a growing portion of the economy to privatize. Should we extrapolate their past growth rate forever into the future?

emerich writes:

Robert Kennedy, the best known ranking on economic freedom is an annual one done jointly be the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. http://www.heritage.org/index/ranking.aspx

Mike writes:

Is it accurate to call the US, Korean, & Japanese economies 'liberal?' when, with heavy government subsidies, incentives and bail-outs, market signals are muffled and confounded?

What could-have-been? ..if markets had been free???

I'll argue that the miraculous gains were the result of technology and the utilization of oil. Government's confounding price signals subdued what might-have been.

Here we are in America with a Bolshevik (majority) belief in the necessity for Tsars and Regulators: a wrong belief.

These podcasts from Orson wells to Bukarin to Stalin; and the one comparing Jamaica to Barbados; are all necessary to the journey to understanding the making of a nation's wealth.

Richard writes:

Hi Russ . . . fascinating interview. I join those who welcome examining the personalities and lives of the early Soviet leaders in the context of that failed experiment. It is relevant not as an abstraction but as a case study (and as such, may be offputting to some who choose their Austrianism or libertarianism in more purely abstract form -- but Hayek, of course, grounded his conclusions in actual events).

I wish your interview with Service had touched on the modern-day American neo-cons, some of whom are often described as reformed Trotskyites, today promoting idealistic internationalism on behalf of Jefferson rather than Marx (Christopher Hitchins is an example of one such public personality who embraces such a description of himself). I think that examination might help expose to what extent Trotsky himself viewed his most distinctive idea, internationalism, to be grounded in idealism as opposed to geopolitics (the best defense being offense).

Perhaps this is a derivative topic related to Trotsky for another day.

sriyansa writes:

Great podcasts Russ!

I disagree with Ryan and others in this comments that by talking about figures from the russian revolution is beating a dead horse. Or that fact that whatever we have learnt from that part of history is enough.

The October revolution and the Soviet state remains probably the biggest experiment in social and economic structuring in human history. It was led by some of the smartest men in human history. But it was a catastrophic mistake. And yet both the Bukharin and Trotsky podcasts have shown us that the revolution need not have gone that way. If either of those men had emerged victorious we would have seen a different USSR and maybe even a different world.

The other aspect why these are illuminating is from an organizational perspective. While likes of Clay Shirky will disagree, driving real social change through mass action seems to be as difficult today as it was in 1918 (maybe even more so, because as we go deeper into niches that we like, agreement on a big agenda might not occur). yet, mass mobilization (through intellectual incentives) can be used for human good and if not anything else Lenin, Trotsky and ilk can still teach us about that.

The story of Taiwan, Singapore or South Korea cannot be necessarily juxtaposed as successes to the failure of USSR primarily because as both countries and cultures they are not as diverse. Managing diversity might just be single biggest task in changing something and it becomes more difficult as the country gets bigger and its component cultures more diverse.

Though what worked these smaller, fairly autocratic states would be a great discussion as well :)

Vijay Ponnusamy writes:

Another interesting and insightful podcast. After listening to Hitchens on Owell, Paul on Buharain and this one, I an beginning to develop an interest in History.

Mr.Roberts, time is ripe to have another discussion with Christopher Hitchens. He was a Trotskist once and, I suspect, he is still sympathetic to socialism in some form or other.

Anyway, Thanks a lot for this wonderful podcast!!

TGGP writes:

James Scott has an interesting take on the Russian Revolution in "Seeing Like a State". You should have him on sometime. He also wrote about the failure of collective farms, both in Russia and African "villagization" programs by such lionized figures as Julius Nyere.

Yuri Slezkine wrote about the adoption of Russian culture by Jews in "The Jewish Century". He considers Bolshevism in part to be a "Jewish revolt against Jewishness" (and his own book's deconstruction of the ideas of the previous generations is in part Slezkine's way of following after his ancestors!).

Benson Bobrick's "East of the Sun" has a number of errors, but it has an interesting account of Tsarist political exiles and the relatively easy time that, say, Decembrists had.

Kerensky had armed the Bolsheviks out of fear following the "Kornilov affair". The Bolshevik seizure was more of a coup than a revolution, which is why it is included in D. J. Goodspeed's "The Conspirators: a study of the coup d'etat".

You meant to write "broke the Trotskyist movement up" not "brought the Trotskyist movement up".

A book Bryan Caplan likes to recommend on the difficulty of communists admitting they were wrong is "The God that Failed".

keatssycamore writes:

Mr. Roberts,

Once again, you have my sincere thanks for creating/doing the podcast each week and putting it out there for free. I don't have a lot of disposable income to spend on entertainment, so I appreciate your efforts very much. No less so when the content is not specifically "economics".

harun writes:

Taiwan may have been a political dictatorship, but it was economically free more or less, and its growth was not done by state run firms but by small and medium sized enterprises.

Access to free markets in the USA also helped.

The one governmental policy in Taiwan that really helped was land reform, which the US pushed and paid for.

Central planning does not work better when Asians do it. "The right people" do not exist. What you end up with is state run enterprises that are political and corrupt while the growth is done by the true companies. This is Taiwan's experience.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top