The Prophet Armed: Trotsky: 1879-1921
The Old Man
A review by Christopher Hitchens
Two images have been with me throughout the writing of this essay. Between them they seem to show the alternative paths for the intellectual. The one is of J. M. Keynes, the other of Leon Trotsky. Both were obviously men of attractive personality and great natural gifts. The one the intellectual guardian of the established order, providing new policies and theories of manipulation to keep our society in what he took to be economic trim, and making a personal fortune in the process. The other, outcast as a revolutionary from Russia both under the Tsar and under Stalin, providing throughout his life a defense of human activity, of the powers of conscious and rational human effort. I think of them at the end, Keynes with his peerage, Trotsky with an icepick in his skull. They are the twin lives between which intellectual choice in our society lies.
— Alasdair MacIntyre, "Breaking the Chains of Reason," in Out of Apathy (1960)
Yet, precisely like a personage in classical tragedy, Trotsky did not act to arrest, to defeat, the dangers he foresaw. Clairvoyance and policy drew apart, as if doom, seen as a historical process, had its irresistible fascination. He stumbled on, majestic. One thinks of Eteocles going clear-sighted to the death gate in the Seven Against Thebes, refusing the plea of the chorus for evasion or liberty of action:
We are already past the care of gods.
For them our death is the
Why then delay, fawning upon
— George Steiner, "Trotsky and the Tragic Imagination" (1966)
Alasdair MacIntyre and George Steiner — the authors, respectively, of After Virtue and Antigones — have both evolved a good deal since they wrote those lines. But if either of them was again to need a figure to represent dissent and defiance, or the fusion of the man of ideas with the man of action, or the wandering internationalist, he might be drawn once more to the character of Trotsky. Of no other participant in the Bolshevik-Marxist battles of the twentieth century could this really be said to be the case. Lenin is stranded in time and place, as are Mao and Ho Chi Minh. Stalin is annexed to the general study of pathological dictatorship. Combative and brilliant intellectuals such as Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, and Nikolai Bukharin are for specialists, and were localized before they were defeated. Fidel Castro has at least made it into the twenty-first century, but at the price of becoming a bloated and theatrical caricature. Only Che Guevara retains a hint of charisma, and he made no contribution whatsoever to the battle of theories and ideas.
The three succeeding portraits on the covers of this trilogy (which originally appeared volume by volume in 1954, 1959, and 1963) show the ardent young radical journalist and activist, the more mature Soviet tactician and commander of the Red Army, and the snowy-headed exiled sage. To have had a part in two revolutions, wrote Thomas Paine, was to have lived to some purpose. Trotsky took a leading part in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and also in many other political and military upheavals, from the Balkans to China, and was perhaps the most prescient writer of his day in warning of the true menace of National Socialism. Yet his most enduring and tenacious battle was against the monstrous regime that had resulted from his earlier exertions.
It is this, combined with the revolutionary credentials that he possessed, that helps explain the large footprint of Trotsky and Trotskyism among intellectuals. To start with a few American examples, Trotsky makes a magnetizing appearance in Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. He caused Mary McCarthy to write one of her most penetrating essays ("My Confession"), about herd behavior in the radical smart set. Clement Greenberg partly founded his seminal article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" on a passage from Trotsky's Literature and Revolution. Norman Mailer acknowledges as his own political inspiration a Trotskisant maverick named Jean Malaquais. Shift the scene a little, and we have no difficulty deciphering the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, or in recognizing the secret "book within a book" in that novel (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism), as a derivative of Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed. Nearer the present time, the hero of Milan Kundera's The Joke has only to write "Long Live Trotsky!" on a postcard in order to find out precisely how, why, and when a "joke" under communism has gone too far.
Nor was this the only nervous establishment that found him a specter difficult to exorcise. Winston Churchill, in an acidulated portrait in Great Contemporaries, depicted Trotsky even in impotent exile as having been the "ogre" of international subversion. (He perhaps could not forgive one of the two men to have outgeneraled him in the field, the other being Kemal Atatürk.) A.J.P. Taylor tells the story of how an Austro-Hungarian minister, upon being warned by a nervous colleague that a too-precipitate war with Russia in 1914 might mean revolution, demanded to know who would lead this revolution: "Herr Trotsky of the Café Centrale?" (Trotsky's time in the cafés of Vienna was not wasted.) In late 1939 the French ambassador Robert Coulondre had his last meeting with Hitler before the coming of war. The Führer was in a boastful mood, Coulondre recalled in his memoir, having just concluded a pact with Stalin, and spoke of the inevitability of further triumphs. The ambassador sought to sober him by warning of the unintended consequences of conflict. "You are thinking of yourself as victor," Coulondre said, "but have you given thought to another possibility — that the victor may be Trotsky?" Hitler leaped to his feet, as if "he had been hit in the pit of the stomach," and yelled that this threat was reason enough in itself for Britain and France to capitulate at once. It would be amusing to know if Churchill ever learned of this conversation.
Most haunting of all, perhaps, was the moment when Trotsky, hounded from country to country, was ordered by the Norwegian government in 1936 to move on. An agitation against him had been started by Moscow's agents, who had not yet made their pact with Hitler, and by Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the Norwegian Fascists, whose name would later become synonymous with collaboration. The invertebrate Social-Democratic government of Trygve Lie, who was subsequently the founding secretary-general of the United Nations, caved in and told Trotsky to stop writing or else submit to deportation. Trotsky told these gentlemen,
This is your first act of surrender to Nazism in your own country. You will pay for this. You think yourselves secure and free to deal with a political exile as you please. But the day is near — remember this! — the day is near when the Nazis will drive you from your country, all of you.
"After less than four years," as Isaac Deutscher records in relating this episode, "the same government had indeed to flee from Norway before the Nazi invasion; and as the Ministers and their aged King Haakon stood on the coast, huddled together and waiting anxiously for a boat that was to take them to England, they recalled with awe Trotsky's words as a prophet's curse come true."
I find I want to add Deutscher's comment on the memoir of Ambassador Coulondre mentioned above: "Thus, the master of the Third Reich and the envoy of the Third Republic, in their last manoeuvres, during the last hours of peace, sought to intimidate each other, and each other's governments, by invoking the name of the lonely outcast trapped and immured at the far end of the world." This is a majestic, sonorous collection, written in the stern and judging manner of the Talmudic scholar that Deutscher had been and the Marxist polymath that he became, and of Thomas Carlyle, whose study of Cromwell he so esteemed. (One must also marvel at the way in which Deutscher mastered the English language almost as late in life as his fellow Pole Joseph Conrad.) The Prophet trilogy strives to reconcile the materialist conception of history with the importance of the "great man," and though the trope of prophecy armed and unarmed is taken from the sixth chapter of Machiavelli's The Prince, it would be a dull ear that did not also detect the cadences of the Pentateuch.
To re-read this magnificent trilogy today, however, is to be overcome by a sense of melancholy and waste. Writing just as official "de-Stalinisation" was spreading across Russia and Eastern Europe, Isaac Deutscher was sure that Trotsky would be vindicated by history and rehabilitated in the Communist world. Nothing of the sort was to happen: communism proved itself able to adapt but not to reform, and "Trotskyism" remained one of the few unpardonable heresies of which a dissident on the other side of the Iron Curtain could be accused. Deutscher himself could not abandon the idea that the nations of the Warsaw Pact represented some version of progress — a quasi new order worth defending until the day when the workers recovered their senses and demanded "real" Bolshevism instead. Of the actual rebellions against Stalinism, in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland, he was contemptuous, writing "Eastern Europe found itself almost on the brink of bourgeois restoration at the end of the Stalin era; and only Soviet armed power (or the threat) stopped it there."
In the theoretical magazine of the post-Trotskyist groupuscule of which I was once a member, a learned commentary on this and other writings of his appeared, titled "The End of the Road: Deutscher's Capitulation to Stalinism." Deutscher did not live to see the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia (he died in the fall of 1967), but I think by then he might have preferred even "bourgeois restoration" to the communism of the Panzers.
Thus this mighty work of reflection and engagement is to a large extent the record of great debates that apparently no longer matter to us. The split between Menshevik and Bolshevik, the dispute over collectivization and industrialization, the polemics concerning Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov and Otto Bauer — all of these have come to appear as arcane as the strife over the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. There are some haunting and visceral moments to be added to the ones I cited above: the massacre of the oppositionists in the gulag and the hunting down of Trotsky's most distant relatives was exhaustively examined by Deutscher long before many modern historians had taken the full measure of Stalinism. And two major episodes, one of them under-represented and one of them described beautifully, repay more-intense scrutiny.
The first of these is Trotsky's coverage of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Writing at a time when Titoism appeared secure, Deutscher devoted little space to the ethno-nationalist bloodbaths that had convulsed the region and helped to bring on the great catastrophe of the First World War. He gave a rather spare account of Trotsky's work in the area, which was undertaken as a journalistic project for a liberal Russian newspaper at a time when Trotsky himself had not become a full-fledged Bolshevik. These dispatches from the front lines in Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria are actually among the finest war-correspondent files of all time. Trotsky was first of all most suspicious of the pan-Slavic prejudices of his "own" side, and hastened to inform Russian readers of the cruelties inflicted by the people of the Orthodox cross on the people of the Turkish crescent. He lampooned Russian and Bulgarian chauvinism as it had not been lampooned since Tolstoy ridiculed it in Anna Karenina. (The great examples of Russian literature were never far from his mind, though I can't be sure of any direct influence in this case.) But when the tide went the other way, and it was the turn of Bulgarians to suffer, he was no less trenchant and truthful. He saw that all parties in the conflict were being manipulated by the "Great" Powers in a cynical rehearsal for a larger war, and he believed that in all the contending countries there were healthy democratic and socialist elements that could rise above crudity and superstition. At the time, this was not merely a sentimental opinion. There actually were such forces. Their panic and capitulation in 1914, and the Europe-wide surrender of the Social Democrats to kings and emperors and generals, was for Trotsky the greatest imaginable tragedy, even if it did provide the opportunity for revolution.
Trotsky's second great moral moment was to occur during a repeat performance of this capitulation, which occurred nearly two decades later. As Hitler was advancing toward power in Germany, the European left once again abandoned its nerve and its principles, and declined to make common cause. The most depraved offender was Stalin's Communist International, which insisted that the Social Democrats were a greater enemy than the Nazis, and which implied that a victory by Hitler would merely clear the way for a Communist triumph. In a series of articles that really do vibrate with the tones of Cassandra, Trotsky inveighed against this mixture of ugly realpolitik and cretinous irresponsibility. The late Irving Howe once described those articles collectively as the finest polemic of all time. I am not sure that I would go so far, but it is very difficult to re-read them even today without a tingling in the scalp and a lump in the throat. Better than Freud or Reich (or Churchill), Trotsky intuited the sheer psychopathic element that underlay the mass appeal of fascism. Much of what he wrote was by analogy, and reflected his old obsession with the decay of the French Revolution ("Fascism is a caricature of Jacobinism"). But as the full seizure of power by the Nazis became imminent, and as Stalin colluded with it more and more openly, he abandoned mere class analysis, as in the following passage:
Today, not only in peasant homes but also in the city sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism... What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet; fascism has given them the banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the...course of the unhindered development of society comes out today gushing from the throat: capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.
Trotsky would have scorned to stress his own Jewishness in this situation. When he wrote that "Einstein has been obliged to pitch his tent outside the boundaries of Germany," he was alluding to the vulgar Nazi contempt for disinterested, rational scientific endeavor. But he partly understood that anti-Semitism was a harbinger, or predictive symptom, of something much worse than unchecked warfare. He had experienced the same premonitions in some of Stalin's viler attacks on him. Now, he thought, there was a real danger of a war not of mass destruction alone but of mass extermination.
His essays from this terrifying moment are worth re-reading not just for their prescience. (When Neville Chamberlain later signed a deal with Hitler at Munich, Trotsky was the only one to predict that this would lead directly to another pact — the one between Hitler and Stalin.) They are above all a moral warning against the crass mentality of moral equivalence. He wrote, "The wiseacres who claim that they see no difference between Bruning and Hitler are in fact saying: it makes no difference whether our organizations exist or whether they are already destroyed. Beneath this pseudo-radical verbiage hides the most sordid passivity."
Deutscher was so committed to the defense of Trotsky's honor,
in this desperate situation and in the ones that preceded and followed it,
that he could never quite accept the obvious: Trotsky was so much an intellectual
that in the final analysis, Marxism was not quite enough for him. He always
had the Russian classics in mind, and though these did seem to invoke the committed
life as the highest calling, they also supplied ample warning of defeat and
disappointment, if not despair. George Steiner cites a favorite passage of
mine from Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. It describes
one of his escapes from Siberian exile, in which he succeeded in boarding a
train under his real name, Lev Davidovitch Bronstein.
In my hands, I had a copy of the Iliad in the Russian hexameter of Gnyeditch; in my pocket, a passport made out in the name of Trotsky, which I wrote in it at random, without even imagining that it would become my name for the rest of my life...Throughout the journey, the entire car full of passengers drank tea and ate cheap Siberian buns. I read the hexameters and dreamed of the life abroad. The escape proved to be quite without romantic glamour; it dissolved into nothing but an endless drinking of tea.
History, too, might have endings and ironies that are simply inscrutable, or that do not yield to any known dialectic. In spite of the most appalling discouragements and reverses and persecution, Trotsky did continue almost to the end in a belief that the workers would rise again, and that Hitlerism and Stalinism and imperialism would be overthrown by a self-aware and emancipated class. It was this that led him to his only truly banal or farcical initiative: the proclamation of a Fourth International to succeed the Social-Democratic and Communist ones. But at the very end of his life, cut off in Mexico and aware of his own declining health, he admitted, after the outbreak of the Second World War, that the conflict might just end without a socialist revolution. In that event the whole Marxist-Leninist project would have to be abandoned:
We would be compelled to acknowledge that [Stalinism] was rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment, but in the congenital incapacity of the prosletariat to become a ruling class. Then it would be necessary to establish in retrospect that...the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal system of exploitation.
Being Trotsky, he could not admit that in the event socialism "petered out as a Utopia," there would be nothing left worth fighting for. On the contrary, "it is self-evident that a new minimum program would be required — to defend the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic system."
Isaac Deutscher disapproved so much of this closing statement — it came only months before Stalin's envoys of murder got past Trotsky's few dedicated bodyguards — that he almost failed to cite it, and shrouded it in his own verbiage about new "cycles" of postwar revolution, to be set in motion by Stalin's absorption of Eastern Europe. Professor George Lichtheim, who did unearth the article and who quoted it in an essay critical of Deutscher in 1964, went on to say that although Trotsky himself retained an element of grandeur, Trotskyism was completely finished as a political phenomenon, even a marginal one.
In point of fact, Trotskyism, or a variant of it, did have a brief blaze of revival in the Europe-wide annus mirabilis of 1968. The goateed face of "the Old Man" was on banners and posters as the Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle was shivered and shaken, and as worse dictators in Spain, Portugal, and Greece were assailed. That year there were also active Trotskyists in the seminal stages of the worldwide movement against the Vietnam War, and in the civil-rights campaign that put an end to the long domination of Orange Unionism in Northern Ireland. None of these activists had much in the way of a lasting effect. But the historical record ought to show that they exerted a certain force in Eastern Europe as well. The two best-known intellectual dissidents of the Polish movement of 1968, Jacek Kuron and Karel Modzelewski, both had "Trotskyist" pasts, and both went on to help form the KOR (Workers Defense Committee), which became the nucleus of Solidarnosc. In Czechoslovakia the Trotskyist Petr Uhl was the longest-serving political prisoner of the Red Army's occupation regime, and earned wide respect for his courage and principle. When the longest-serving Yugoslav detainee — a Kosovar — was released, he proposed naming a street in Pristina after Trotsky, because of the latter's principled defense of Albanian minority rights: this street would have been the only one in Europe so named. A couple of years ago I had a reminiscent lunch with Adam Michnik, one of the intellectual inspirations of the 1989 transition and a distinguished figure in the new Poland, and we compared and contrasted the activity of various Trotsky-ish sects in the events that leveled the Berlin Wall. It wasn't a completely quixotic or ironic conversation; the epigones of the Old Man had, partly inadvertently, carried out his final wish by taking part at last in a successful revolution — against communism.
Even today a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man. Where once the Stalinist press and propaganda machine employed the curse of Trotskyism to criminalize and defame the "rotten elements" and "rootless cosmopolitans," now the tribunes of the isolationist right level the same charge at neoconservatives and the supporters of regime change. In Patrick Buchanan's vituperations, and in a plethora of related attacks on a hidden American "cabal," it is openly said that the cunning members of a certain ethnic minority are up to their old tricks of "permanent revolution," and even that the arcane figure of Leo Strauss is the partial reincarnation of Trotsky. Intended as a mortal insult, and wildly, not to say laughably, mistaken in point of any theoretical resemblance, this charge might yet have a faint tincture of interest to it. As Alan Wald helped demonstrate in his brilliant if orthodox 1987 study The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left From the 1930s to the 1980s, there is an occluded relationship between Trotsky and the founding editors of Commentary, Dissent, The Public Interest, and Partisan Review. Harold Isaac's The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution — once the best-known book in America on a seismic event — was first published in 1938 with an introduction by Trotsky himself. (It was later, in less congenial times, republished without that contribution.) If any young scholar were now possessed of equivalent daring, a biography of the protean, scintillating revolutionary and Cold War sage Max Schachtman could be an intellectual Rosetta stone for the story of mental and moral combat in the modern American mind. Sometimes the kinship is merely an anecdotal or autobiographical one: Saul Bellow was once an admirer of Trotsky's and became close to Allan Bloom; the philosopher Martin Diamond did move from Trotskyism to Straussianism. In other instances the relationship is more paradoxical: in 1989 the Communist world was convulsed by a revolution from below, whereas "revolution from above" (Trotsky's inadequately satirical comment on Stalinism) might be a closer description of the design, at least, of the American intervention in Iraq.
Until we are done with the ironies of history (because they will never be done with us), the image of Trotsky will not dissipate. Of all his essays, the one that has stayed longest with me is "The Struggle for Cultured Speech," a little-known commentary on the vileness and obscenity of Russian cursing, full as this was of the accreted inheritance of serfdom and racism and self-hatred. Of all the descriptions we have of Trotsky, the most vivid is that furnished by Isaac Babel in his story "Line and Color," where at the close of a fatuous speech from Kerensky, Trotsky mounts the podium, twists his mouth, and confidently begins, "Comrades!..." The tenderest — if the word may be excused — is from Mary McCarthy, at the end of her account in "My Confession" of the intellectual bullying that she received as a consequence of having taken Trotsky's part more or less by accident.
His shrug before the unforeseen implies an acceptance of consequences that is a far cry from penance and prophecy. Such, it concedes, is life. Bravo, old sport, I say, even though the hall is empty.
Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist
for Vanity Fair. He is writing a biography of Thomas Jefferson for the
Eminent Lives series.
Special Atlantic Monthly
subscription price for Powell's shoppers subscribe today for only $19.95.
Atlantic Monthly places you at the leading edge of contemporary issues plus the very best in fiction, poetry, travel, food and humor. Subscribe today and get 8 issues of the magazine delivered to you for only $19.95 that's a savings of over $19 off the newsstand price.
To order at this special
Powell's price click here.