I would like to suggest that what most characterizes Leon Trostky, and the revolutionary generation he symbolizes, are: 1) the dominance of ideas; 2) the need and willingness to act on them; and 3) the fanatic belief in ideological purity. Any of these can be overdone and lead to distortions. Given,, however, the intensity of the first two that one would expect in the life of a genius like Trotsky, together with the circumstance of isolated frustration of the revolutionary, and it seems to me that the pressure of all this on the third element would create—and in Trotsky’s case, did create—a highly distorted revolutionary purism, which in turn contributed substantially to his political failures.
Since I realize that tempers are quickly touched when old political coals are raked over, let me try to avoid any unnecessary misunderstanding by stating immediately that I consider Trotsky to have been magnificent in failure; that by and large his failure was socialism’s failure; that it was a political and certainly not a moral or literary failure; and that, in failure, he remains one of the better reasons yet offered by the twentieth century for maintaining one’s integral humanity. But when all that is said, it remains true—and it is about time that we recognized it—that Trotsky was, in his own terms, a political failure: he lost out in the struggle to preserve the revolution in Russia, and he did not succeed in building an effective new International. His literary attack on the Third International and the monster at the head of it, carried on without the aid of peers and at the ultimate cost of his own life and the lives of most of his family, was—again in his own terms—an intellectual and moral victory only. There is a transcendant irony in the fact that Trotsky’s intellectual purity, which he believed in passionately as an indispensable requirement for political action, should have contributed to his failure as a political activist and his success as— the phrase would have choked him— a moral symbol. If he could speak to us now I think he would in self-disgust insist on being swept into the dust-bin of History. In this, however, we will not oblige.
One more preliminary word: I beg the partisan reader to recognize that with such a man and such a subject, detailed argument is impossible in anything less than a fat book. I simply wish here to urge a proposition concerning revolutionary purism which, it seems to me, has some relevance to the intellectual reconstruction of socialism. I assume, moreover, that the reader has had some experience of the pull of ideological purism (and not necessarily in connection with Stalinism). Also, please realize that it is not part of my argument that ideas and ideas-in-action and clear-thinking have somehow become irrelevant or dangerous to the socialist movement.