In today's Wall Street Journal, historian Lesley Chamberlain reviews a recent biography of Leon Trotsky and concludes that he "was not a bad man:"
We are left weighing a multiple tragedy, of a man so loyal to an ideology he died for it; of an ideology that in one form or another killed millions; and of a 20th century in which political radicals world-wide called themselves Trotskyists and believed that Lenin was good and Stalin bad, that even if the Soviet Union was a degenerate workers' state, the real thing could be established elsewhere. Trotsky had people killed. But . . . [he] was not a bad man.
Well, let's see. Trotsky was responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, helped mastermind the establishment of one history's worst totalitarian regimes, and broke with Joseph Stalin in the 1920s in part because he thought that Stalin wasn't going far enough in extending Soviet totalitarianism at home and exporting it abroad. Other than that, he was a helluva guy. If that record isn't enough to qualify you as a "bad man," I don't know what is.
Chamberlain's piece does imply two possible justifications for the claim that Trotsky wasn't so bad. First, like other Trotsky defenders, she puts a positive spin on his opposition to Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. However, as I explained in this post, Trotsky had no objection to political repression as such; when in power, he practiced it himself on a massive scale. He merely objected to the persecution of his own followers and other Soviet communists who had fallen out of favor with Stalin. Trotsky supported the murder or imprisonment of non-communists, including even non-communist socialists.
She also implies that Trotsky, "a man so loyal to an ideology he died for it," may not have been so bad because he and his followers believed in his cause and the rightness of their actions. By that standard, of course, virtually every mass murderer can be excused. Adolf Hitler believed that he was doing the right thing just as much as Trotsky did.
Most of the above may seem obvious. There would be no need to even bring it up if it weren't for the fact that some prominent Western intellectuals continue to defend Trotsky, (as well as some other communist mass murders, such as Che Guevara).
Ever since Stalin and the USSR lost their luster in the eyes of most Western leftists, some of them have searched for alternative communist heroes supposedly untainted by Stalinism. Thus, the continued lionizing of people like Trotsky and Che Guevara, and (in the 1960s) Mao and Ho Chi Minh. Unfortunately, their alternative versions of communism turn out to be not much better than the Soviet original, and in some cases even worse. Chamberlain is a serious historian who has written interesting books on Soviet repression, such as this one. The fact that she could write a review like this and publish it in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the persistence of Trotsky apologism isn't limited to fringe elements of the far left. I doubt that Chamberlain is one of the people who still yearn for a kinder, gentler communist hero to worship. But she echoes some of the arguments of those who do.