Trotsky has always been something of an icon for the intelligentsia, and it is not hard to see why. He fitted the perception that dissenting intellectuals like to have of themselves. Highly cultured, locked in struggle with a repressive establishment, a gifted writer who was also a man of action, he seemed to embody the ideal of truth speaking to power. The manner of his death solidified this perception, which has shaped accounts of his life ever since.
Trotsky was a charismatic leader whose appeal extended across the political spectrum. When Trotsky was on the run from Stalin, H L Mencken offered to give him his own library (Trotsky refused because he did not want to be indebted to a reactionary). The Bishop of Birmingham signed a petition on Trotsky's behalf, and he was invited to become rector of Edinburgh University. Maynard Keynes tried to secure asylum for him in England, a campaign supported even by the power-worshipping Stalin-lover Beatrice Webb. Literary notables like Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy joined the chorus of adulation. A hero-martyr in the cause of humanity, Trotsky deserved the support of every right-thinking person.This has never been a terribly plausible view of the man who welcomed the ruthless crushing of the Kronstadt workers and sailors when they demanded a more pluralist system of government in 1921, and who defended the systematic use of terror against opponents of the Soviet state until his dying day. Introducing a system of hostage-taking in the Civil War and consistently supporting the trial and execution of dissidents (Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, liberal Kadets, nationalists and others), Trotsky never hesitated to endorse repression against those who stood in the way of communist power. This much has long been clear, but the full extent of Trotsky's role in building Soviet totalitarianism has not been detailed - until now.