Trotsky: the graphic biography

Rick Geary's Trotsky: A Graphic Biography summarizes and illustrates some of the great biographies of Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky (notably the Isaac Deutscher bios, which my father, a lifelong Trotskyist, speaks highly of).

Trotsky was an amazing figure: brilliant and fiery, an impassioned rhetorician and propagandist, who fought fiercely with Lenin on ideological grounds -- but eventually reconciled -- and was purged (and then assassinated) by Stalin after Lenin's death. The unlikely story of how Trotsky -- the son of a wealthy landowner -- became a revolutionary fighter and general is improbable, exciting, and thought-provoking, and Geary's comic-book retelling does it great justice.

From his theory of "permanent revolution" (the idea that the Soviet Union could only sustain its revolution by bringing on revolutions in every other country) to his doomed affair with Frida Kahlo, Trotsky's genius, hubris, frailty and strength are well covered in this volume.

(Actually, my dad takes some issue with this, "Geary's facile description (which, by the way, echoes the Stalinist perception of Trotsky's theory) really misses the point: Yes, the theory did have something to do with the extension of the revolution abroad, but that was merely an aspect of it. Trotsky's theory, influenced by Parvus, was that the historically distinct stages of social evolution (barbarism, feudalism, mercantile capitalism, capitalism) was not so distinct any more. In the age of capitalist expansion (primitive accumulation), capitalism was penetrating social systems of previous historical stages and combining with them. Russia, characterized as a form of feudalism, had by the time of the rolling in of the 20th century been penetrated by some very large scale capitalist enterprises by foreign investors. So, here was a society in which serfdom had only been recently abolished, still with an absolute monarch, overwhelmingly peasant and illiterate, but also experiencing the growth of a nascent industrial proletariat as a result of foreign capital. Trotsky's view was that the historical tasks normally assigned to the bourgeois forces emerging within the bosom of feudalism could not be accomplished by the Russian bourgeoisie. They were too weak, already bypassed by foreign capitalists, and therefore unwilling to carry out the democratic reforms appropriate to the normal development of capitalism. So, Trotsky said, the new revolutionary forces would have to do double duty, carry out a bourgeois revolution and a socialist one.")

(That said, Dad adds, "I did enjoy reading his graphic bio")

The only thing really missing from this is Trotsky's own words. He was an incredible and inspiring writer, and his autobiography, My Life (written while exiled in Turkey) is an excellent companion to this introductory text.

Trotsky: A Graphic Biography


  1. Interesting. I’ve loved Rick Geary’s illustrations for years and love being surprised when they pop up unexpectedly. The book sound interesting too. I’ll look for it.

  2. Unfortunately, the myth of Trotsky as a great man exiled and murdered by Stalin doesn’t hold up to the historical facts. Trotsky was every bit as much a murdering bastard as Stalin was — the only thing that would have changed if Trotsky had been the leader would have been that Stalin would have been the guy to get the ice-pick in Mexico.

  3. i think maybe with graphic books you’re allowed to judge them by the cover – at least a little, right? Based on that, this one looks neat.

    I always understood Trotsky as a very mixed bag, with lots of inspiring wonderful things about him and also many mistakes. I can see how it would make a good bio.

  4. Q: Is there an image less appealing than a naked, paunchy man who’s junk is covered by a skull?

    A: Yes, the image of a naked, paunchy man who’s junk is not covered by anything. But only just barely.

    — MrJM

  5. This looks very interesting, I have been interested in Trotsky for awhile but haven’t committed myself to learning more about him.

    I wonder if this is at my local library?

  6. I just never understand why Communism (whether Stalinism or Trotskyism) is (or was) so fascinating to the left of the democratic first world. They always ignore the brutal and obvious reality of Communism while looking off to some distant glorious idealization.

    Trotsky made the Red Army. He was a brutal zealot. And the only reason he didn’t continue his own rampage was that Stalin was a larger, more jealous brutal zealot who couldnt stand sharing power. Whatever Trotsky wrote, whatever his “theory”, his practices were barbaric and repellent.

    1. He was a brutal zealot. And the only reason he didn’t continue his own rampage was that Stalin was a larger, more jealous brutal zealot

      So, kind of like Bush Sr. and Bush Jr., only not part of a dynasty?

  7. Ah, running dog reactionary trolls on a BB thread. Singular!

    Deutscher’s trilogy is masterful indeed. Your father is quite correct, Cory. My regards to Comrade Doctorow.

    We should all be grateful for the founder of the Red Army; after all, it saved the world.

  8. Someone at the BBC is clearly looking for a job in a US-media conglomerate.

    The percentage of US-produced media broadcasted by BBC is ridiculously small. They could stop buying US stuff tomorrow, and almost nobody would notice it.
    Geeks in the organization don’t want it.
    Taxpayers obviously don’t need it.
    So why is this being pushed from the top?

    The only explanation is that execs are tired of the pay freeze imposed last year, are looking for greener pastures, and certain contacts asked for a friendly gesture before the job offer is put on paper…

  9. Does it cover the Kronstadt Rebellion wherein Trotsky slaughtered all those sailors for the hideous crime of forming a labour union?

  10. @Markm, #5 – I would think Trotsky would be fascinating for anyone interested in history.

    I do feel compelled to point out that greedy capitalists have caused way more harm to humanity then any communist or socialist ever has …

    If Trotsky, Lenin and the rest were fighting for ethical reasons you have to remember that most wars are fought over power and money.

    Whats worse, someone fighting, killing and/or dying to break free from an oppressor or someone fighting, killing and/or dying so the rich can make more money by exploiting the stupid and poor?

    We already know what happened in the case of Russia but we cant say their motives were bad and given another scenario things could have easily turned out very different, maybe better, maybe worse but wherever our humanity and decency are co-opted for greed and money we, as a people, will always lose.

    Our modern system is designed to come up with creative ways to justify greed, selfishness and the existence of rich people.

    Would a better world glorify these lesser human traits? I don’t think so.

    What would you fight for?

    A rich asshole who pays you the bare minimum for your efforts, lies to you, exploits everything he can so he doesn’t have to do the same work and then drops you whenever its convenient for him, despite the effects that has on your life.


    Would you fight so that your treated fairly, that your respected, so that you wouldn’t be exploited, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about your medical bills (americans only), so that your kids would always have access to higher education, etc etc.

    Why would Trotsky or any communists be interesting to read about? because their movement stood for something bigger and better then pure greed and selfishness.

    P.S. No. im not a communist but I think its pretty obvious why the movement is interesting and I think their ideals (thankfully) still have a lot of power in our world.

  11. Another interesting person drunk with himself. The only reason I never became a true believer in any political system was that I understood early on that all systems can be quickly perverted by unreasonable individuals.
    I recall the three men in the gulag comparing notes. One man had been for Comrade Ivan, the second had been against, and the third was Comrade Ivan.

  12. ArghMonkey, that’s such a load of crap.

    “Sure, the communists killed a lot of people, but at least they had good intentions.”

    With that logic Dick Cheney is a real American Heroe.

  13. @arghmonkey
    The problem is that the Bolsheviks never were for any of the positive things you mention. I’m all for unions and making things better for workers – but the Bolsheviks were against real unions from the start (Kronstadt) to the end (Solidarity in Poland). And Trotsky was involved directly in the slaughter of unionists at Kronstadt.

  14. Let’s remember that while in the USSR Trotsky was against freedom of speech. a cornerstone of liberal democracy (no Soviet Marxists were until they wound up in exile). He was no fan of liberal democracy, either.

  15. @Sirkowski – Who are you quoting there? not me.

    I did say “I do feel compelled to point out that greedy capitalists have caused way more harm to humanity then any communist or socialist ever has …”.

    @Jonathan – And they had problems with gays and prostitutes and others, though they orchestrated a revolution they were still stuck in their time, to which I say “so what?”.

    Ideas evolve but what they stood for is clear, giving people power over their lives, not the rich elite.

    @Teller – Just like god gives the stupid and poor hope that their suffering in life will be rewarded and that those who harmed them will be brought to justice?

    Your chance of being poor and becoming rich is the same as winning the lottery, why not just change the rules of the game!?

  16. It’s really not practical to try to find fault with the Socialist ideal of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

    It’s the practice of Socialism that degenerated into the mess which has dominated much of the 20th century.

    And that happened because WE are imperfect, not Socialism. Men are not 100% altruistic, 100% of the time. Of those of us who would give our lives for our families, fewer would do so for our neighbours, and far fewer for strangers. And more than a few of us would prefer our families to do at least a little better than the family next door.

    And out of that imperfect sentiment, Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism etc. are born, only to eventually collapse under the weight of power lust.

  17. Yes, Teller, as long as there are rich people we know there will be plenty of long pig to go around, come the revolution.

  18. Oh, and incidentally, those of you going on about the existence of the rich would do well to remember that for more than 80% of the world’s population you ARE the rich.

  19. Argh: Get a job. Work hard. Invest a little. Save a lot. That’s your lottery ticket. Be the rich guy who’s different.

  20. @Salparadise – Basically.

    I just think changing any system is going to require doing things that we don’t like, for peace you have to be ready for war etc.

    I am not forgiving anything anyone did or will do, I just realize that the system in place wont go without a fight, if by fighting we can achieve something better then we should fight, we should also realize that we may fail, that’s a risk that has to be weighed also, this isent something to be taken lightly of course, I understand why revolutions happens and ultimately if the pros outweighed the cons then why wouldnt we all fight for something better rather then suffer with what we have? I could answer that question too *L* but I want to hear what you think …

  21. @unusual suspect – So you think the communist idea will inherently fail?

    Im not sure im totally convinced but then, like I said, im no communist, im a democratic socialist if anything …

  22. “So you think the communist idea will inherently fail?”

    Yes, partly because it is a degenerate form of Socialism, but mostly because it fails to appeal sufficiently to people’s baser instincts.

    Capitalism is better at this, and should last a little longer. (At least until there is no more capital to compete over.)

  23. @ Arghmonkey
    “I do feel compelled to point out that greedy capitalists have caused way more harm to humanity then any communist or socialist ever has …”

    That’s debatable, if one wants to compare numbers, but comparing the body count is like choosing your poison. Any system that even unintentionally leads to the death of large numbers of its own citizens (or citizens of other countries), is one to be avoided.

    We quite clearly see in retrospect that the Bolsheviks were awful both in motive and in practice. It isn’t simply a dichotomy between laissez-faire capitalism and authoritarian Leninism. You don’t have to leap to defend somebody like Trotsky, because he and the other Bolsheviks do not really represent the goals of socialism that you put forth.

    For a nation that called itself a union of Soviets, it was incredibly ruthless about getting rid of any popular control of the government. As other commentators have noted already, by the time of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, the Bolsheviks were quite openly against the interests of the workers.

  24. @Antinous #16

    No matter what political beliefs spawned it or how flippantly the comment was made, are you seriously comparing Bush’s (1st and 2nd) abuses of power as president with Stalin? Even if something thinks it’s just a matter of degree, any number you choose to compare is going to be off by a couple of orders of magnitude (Guantanimo vs. Siberian work/death camps?).

    Pretty soon we’re going to need a new Godwin’s Law where comparing anyone’s actions to Bush’s is going to stop any meaningful discussion on a topic dead in its tracks.

    1. Even if something thinks it’s just a matter of degree, any number you choose to compare is going to be off by a couple of orders of magnitude (Guantanimo vs. Siberian work/death camps?).

      Um, there’s this country called Iraq that we’ve kind of obliterated. At any rate, I don’t consider state-sponsored terrorism a numbers game. You’re either a terrorist (which both Stalin and Bush are) or not.

  25. “Um, there’s this country called Iraq that we’ve kind of obliterated.”

    And there’s a country called the Ukraine that Stalin pretty much obliterated.

  26. I hope I don’t come off as too sarcastic when I say I love internet political comments. Or perhaps it’s a bit inhuman of me to regard them as data.

    It’s monstrous to defend either the soviet union’s or capitalism’s barbarisms. I don’t regard any of them as ‘necessary evils’. But one can plausibly speak of a human project to which both have contributed and at which both have failed. The question of Russian serfs is a bit academic compared to the question of modern forms of servitude. It’s not to say serfdom doesn’t exist, today, but I’m assuming the BBers are largely in the western world, where the problem isn’t serfdom, so much as–speaking for myself–not living as awesome a life as maybe one could.

    Kudos to Cory for talking a bit about Trotsky’s thought, but, as with Che, people take Trotsky as a myth more than a thinker. It reminds me of the lives of the saints: while ecclesiastics study the scripture, the laypeople study the lives, for moral inspiration. Understand that I don’t take morals for a good thing.

    Anyway, I’ve got a copy of Trotsky’s My Life sitting around somewhere. TLDR

  27. When you consider the fact of what Russia was at the turn of the century – a vast, poor, economically undeveloped nation with a thousand-year history of brutal authoritarian rule, whose citizenry were still serfs fifty years earlier, being dragged into modernity by the economic exploitation of foreign powers, and desperately needing to catch up with the rest of Europe militarily – it’s kind of hard to imagine what the nice path leading them through the 20th century might have looked like. I don’t think the ends justify the means, particularly in Russia’s case, where the means were so appalling, and the ends so mediocre. But it’s not at all obvious that a course more in line with the ideologies and myths of the West was ever in the cards.

    Russians today broadly support an authoritarian ruler who has crushed his political opposition and revived the secret police. Arguments of the form “well, you have to consider the good that Stalin did as well as the bad” are mainstream. This ought to be a clear indication to the West that our view of the world and the Russians’ do not overlap as much as we might like to think. And the idea that we know better than Russians what’s good for them is…well, that’s pretty much Trotsky’s point, isn’t it?

Comments are closed.