Saturday, August 8, 2009

Trotsky

The Trotsky trilogy by Isaac Deutscher
or,
Running dog lackey of the imperialist exploiter (Soviet edition)

This survey of Leon Trotsky's career is one of the great biographies of the twentieth century. Lovingly written and researched by a highly sympathetic author, (Deutscher claims to have been the first member expelled from the Polish Communist party for Trotsky-ism, in the early 1930's), the three volumes are a fascinating read of delirious Boshevism as seen through the battered, if still-rose-colored, glasses of mid-century international communism.

I confess I am only half-way through the set, but the narrative is harder and harder to bear as the story of Stalin's rise to power plays out in all its horror. (Stalin's agents eventually assassinate Trotsky, exiled in Mexico, in 1940). So I thought I would offer a quick review now, before I forget some of the pivotal themes. The climax of Trotsky's career occurs late in the first book, as the October 1917 revolution succeeds, carried off virtually single-handedly, as Deutscher would have it, by Trotsky's oratorical prowess in front of the Petersburg Soviets and a few other forums, such as the sailors of Kronstadt, near Petersburg.


In the quote below, Deutscher describes Trotsky's position a few years after the ensuing civil war, circa 1924, as Stalin was starting to collect all the levers of power and outflank the man who played such a leading role in the 1917 revolution. Unlike Trotsky, Stalin assiduously built a network of personal patronage in the nascent Soviet government, which then allowed him free reign over his subordinate's loyalty, thoughts, and eventually, lives.
"The Bolshevik [Trotsky] felt alienated from his own work- the revolution. His own state and his own party towered high above him. They appeared to have a mind and will of their own which bore little relation to his mind and his will and to which he had to bow. State and party appeared to him as blind forces, convulsive and unpredictable. When the Bolsheviks made of the Soviets 'organs of power' they were convinced, with Trotsky, that they had established 'the most lucid and transparent political system' the world had ever seen, a system under which rulers and ruled would be closer to one another than ever before and under which the mass of the people would be able to express and enforce its will as directly as never before. Yet nothing was less 'transparent' than the single-party system after a few years. Society as a whole had lost all transparency. No social class was free to express its will." p.262, volume 2

While Deutscher contributes perspectives like this and writes exceedingly well, he also shares in the grand delusion, being a dedicated communist himself, if exiled to England (England!) while working for the Economist magazine (the Economist!). Working in the 40's and 50's, he did not know exactly how decrepit the Soviet system would become, and how completely history would sweep its dreams into the proverbial dustbin. But he did know and suffer from Stalin's Orwellian depredations on truth and history, specifically on the memory of Trotsky, and he thus offers this labor of love to set that record straight.

Trotsky's story has the ingredients of Greek drama, except that his failings brought untold misery and death to tens of millions, not just himself. One can, in the end, have scant sympathy for him. He lived very much by the sword, both in his vigorous political agitation for the revolution, and in his brutal conduct of the civil war afterwards. That he then died by the sword of the revolution he did so much to create is ironic, but far from surprising. He shows a shocking lack of reflection on the lessons of history that were freely available in works like the Federalist papers. There is no appreciation (as indicated in the quote above) for the delicate art of founding a working government, such as our own founders evinced. That would be altogether bourgeois! This lack of grounding in political science shows in his (and all the Bolshevik's) marination in Marxist and Leninist dogmas- what was in essence a messianic eschatology almost completely divorced from a realistic appraisal of human nature.

Trotsky was a fierce intellectual and the leading thinker of his circle, and this makes him relatively sympathetic compared with the scoundrels and psychopaths who accompanied and followed him in power. As co-founder of a new government of a great nation, his duty was to heed historical experience and general prudence. In this, he was an utter failure, as were Lenin and colleagues. They viewed governing as some kind of parlor game where the best argument, penned in long "works" of obscure Marxist litany, pursuaded friends ensconced in an idylic post-revolution dictatorship (of the proletariat, one hastily adds). Little thought was given to the ongoing structure of political conflict, to checks and balances, let alone democracy and openness. All eyes were glued to the brass ring of power, with nary a thought about how power had corrupted every previous government in history.

Most of all, they had no time for legitimacy by popular appeal (and popular vote). They ascended to power on the back of the worker's unions (the soviets, i.e. the proletariat), conscripted the workers to fight the civil war, which in turn destroyed the industry that employed those workers, and finally expropriated them politically through the inexorable logic of single-party discipline (termed substitutionism by Trotsky) that concentrated power, step-by-step, at higher and higher levels. Expropriation happened because the party inherently represented a minority and had to close ranks to remain in power. It happened because, in the absence of a structured opposition and an overarching commitment to majority rule (another bourgeois concept!), let alone freedom of expression and journalism, no line could be drawn between dissent and disloyalty. Later, a few looked back wistfully to a time before the revolution when every party and party faction had its own freely published newspaper!

Something similar, of course happened in the case of the Catholic church and its own messianic eschatology, which also ended up concentrating power in an infallible father figure with the power to re-write history and burn opponents at the stake- in this case the pope on the Apostolic throne of Peter, instead of Stalin atop the Kremlin mausoleum.

One might ask whether the difference between the durability of the Catholic church and the Soviet system has something to do with an underlying humanism inherent in the former that was absent in the latter. (Not to mention the awesome power of religious, superstitious propaganda.) The Bolsheviks were atheists, as were all good communists and Marxists, but that was not the real problem, as shown by the functionally atheist countries of Scandinavia today. The Bolsheviks were deeply humanistic in theory, seeking the best possible world for all people. Yet it was a twisted and unsophisticated humanism, common to utopian visions, where the future they were certain of was more important than the present they were transcending, leaving them adrift and all too easily corrupted by their first brush with power.

It is a credit to the Catholic church, in a way, that its vision of heaven and the kingdom to come on earth has always been secondary to its own temporal hierarchy, power, pastoral relationships, and sophisticated vision of the human condition. And, perhaps, that its messiah was not a crackpot economist, whatever his beef with the moneychangers!

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