“History does nothing, possesses no enormous wealth, fights no battles. It is rather man, the real, living man, who does everything, possesses, fights. It is not ‘History’ as if she was a person apart, who uses man as a means to work out her purposes, but history itself is nothing but the activity of men pursuing their purposes” Karl Marx
The endeavor to write a commemorative piece on Trotsky has proven to be more taxing that one could imagine. What words have not been written about the Old Man whom some love and many detest? Countless biographies have been produced. Few seek to tell the truth and the rest are the not uncommon heaps of rubbish that Trotsky himself was familiar with later in his life.
There is always that feeling of inadequacy in retelling the story – even a mere episode of it – of a man whose life has penetrated the course of history and stirred the course of it. However, on this occasion, the 70th year of his assassination, one feels obliged to set aside the routines of political activity and embark on the defense of his legacy from the filth constantly thrown at the man and his ideas.
The man died but his many enemies never seem to feel satisfied. Even Time in its eulogy could not resist the temptation to deliver petty personal jibes at the Old Man:
“All his life he had lived in a shadowy world of conspiracy and revolution. But now the great revolutionary’s life had become singularly peaceful. His following had dwindled to a handful of devoted, inconsequential disciples. His written work was esteemed less for its revolutionary content than for its masterly prose.
“At 60 Leon Trotsky was a successful author with an adoring wife, a house in the suburbs and enough money to live in smug comfort. A lifetime devoted to the destruction of the middle class had made him one of its members.” (Death of a Revolutionary, Time, September 2nd 1940)
However, this so-called “handful of devoted, inconsequential disciples” is still here 70 years after their “master” had been sent to the grave. Like the handful of Bolsheviks of Lenin’s time that the world dismissed as a sect before the Russian Revolution, the followers of Trotsky’s ideas keep burrowing away in the labour movement like a “mole”, hated so much by the social democratic leaders and equally despised by the Stalinists all over the world. Mere mention of Trotsky brings disgust to their face, reflecting a morbid fear that his ideas are still as relevant today as they were then.
His theory of Permanent Revolution is an ever present reminder to those leaders of the labour movement who long ago abandoned any hope for socialism. But what irritates his enemies more than anything else is his determination and dedication to the cause of the working class. He was a man who followed his chosen path to the end without ever faltering, a solid rock but with rough defects that make him more human all the more so. Mediocre personalities lash out violently at him, fearing that a comparison will draw out their own inadequacies.
Personal jibes litter many article and books on Trotsky. Portrayed in Time’s eulogy was an old man cast out and living peacefully in his “middle-class” suburban house with “smug comfort”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trotsky hated this suburban house, which was more of a prison with its guard towers, electrically controlled steel-encased double door, and strict security protocol that would not let him talk with anyone alone in his study. He felt confined. The capitalist moral that denies hundreds of millions of people the comfort of life also tries to deny him this so-called “smug comfort” of a loving wife and hearty meals from his own garden.
The latest assault has come from two well known historians, Professor Robert Service of the University of Oxford with his Trotsky: A Biography and Professor Bertrand M. Patenaude of Stanford University with his Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary. Both, in a strange but not surprising coincidence, are research fellows of the Hoover Institution – a well-known anti-communist think-thank that has and had amongst its ranks figures like Condoleezza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, and Michael Boskin. Both published their books in the same year, 2009, the year when the world was in a serious recession. Economically speaking, 2009 was not the best year to publish a book, let alone two books on the same subject. Robert would have definitely known that Bertrand, his comrade-in-arms, was writing a biography on the same figure, and likewise for Bertrand. Maybe both of them recognized the failure of Ramon Mercader who only managed to deliver one blow – though fatal – and let Trotsky escaped to the embrace of his wife and gave him the chance to live long enough to utter to his life-long companion “Natasha, I love you”. This time such privilege cannot be afforded any more. Two blows ought to be enough to do the job now.
In this new period that has opened up, history seeks a political forceed that can fill the vacuum long left by the social democrats, the reformists, the ex-Stalinists, who abandon the ship when it is being tossed violently by events. While these so-called leaders are content to be “captains” of boats drifting aimlessly in the open sea of history without rudders, some are even taken in by the other side and serve as deck hands for the enemy, Trotsky and the few who truly followed his footstep never abandoned the ship.
The bourgeoisie never felt satisfied even after Trotsky had been killed. Every now and then they feel the need to drive another ice pick deeper into the skull. Like Stalin, they are obsessed with Trotsky, with killing him over and over again, because he is never quite dead. In the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, the ruling class was suddenly alarmed by the revival of Trotskyism. Consequently, from 1975 to 1979, three biographical assassinations on Trotsky were published for an obvious reason.
Now we are entering a new period. For the first time since the fall of Soviet Union, there is a leader of a country, Hugo Chavez – with the ability to captivate the ‘apathetic’ youth – who speaks favourably about Leon Trotsky. The shock waves of the recession – and more importantly its aftermath – awake many minds who have been in deep slumber. Robert Service worries that many youth will rally to Trotsky’s ideas without “the desire to read what he had written and done” because Trotsky “was never quite what he said he was or what others said about him” (p. 497) Professor Service feels he has to save the unsuspecting impressionable youth from Trotskyism.
Professor Service has to belittle Trotsky and the movement that he founded. Unable to intelligently dissect and dismantle Trotsky’s ideas, other than a petty assertion that communism stifles personal initiative, Professor Service can only resort to character assassination and a dose of outright lies. Trotsky was “arrogant”, “egocentric”, “untrustworthy”, “lacked tactical finesse”, “self-absorbed”, “ignored the needs of his children”, “treated his first wife shabbily”. This fine characterization of Trotsky’s personality can be found in just one page. The 500 pages of Trotsky are littered with such snide little remarks. Many of them are so contradictory with the other statements Robert Service makes about Trotsky, so out of place, that one wonders whether he inserted them at regular intervals to fulfill a certain character-assassination quota of jibes that the Hoover Institution requires from their fellow researchers.
Take this for example. He wrote that Trotsky “inspired his entourage to feats of sacrifice” (p. 3). A page later he is declared as “untrustworthy”. Unless his entourages are foolish baboons – which they were not, as many of Trotsky’s comrades were capable people – then one might wonder how a person can inspire such sacrifice while being untrustworthy.
Then again, “He disdained the need to fight dirty even though he was far from the cleanest of political figures. The insurmountable hurdle for him in the race for the Lenin succession was the fact that he lacked the overwhelming desire to become the leader. He felt better as a battered contender than as a fighter consumed by ambition to be champion. He did not want paramount authority badly enough.” (p. 498) The first sentence itself is already a contradiction. Trotsky hated to fight dirty and that is why he lost to Stalin – an assertion wrong on so many levels in and of itself – but he was also not a “clean” politician. Trotsky had “lust for dictatorship” (p. 4) but “he did not want paramount authority”.
Robert Service is also quite disingenuous when he says that “a brief re-ascent [of Trotskyism] occurred during 1968 during the students’ disturbances in Europe and North America, but it barely outlasted the year” (p. 2) There is no way that Professor Service could have missed the Trotskyist “mole” in the British labour movement that built such a powerful position and caused serious concern to Britain’s political order in the two decades of the 1970s and 80s. That was the Militant Tendency, which had three MPs, dominated Liverpool council, and was the favourite target of the media. Robert Service would have been in his mid 30s at the height of the Militant in Britain. He cannot plead ignorance on this.
One will not find lengthy quotations from Trotsky’s works on his major ideas: Permanent Revolution, the theory of the degeneration of Soviet Union, Transitional Programme, United Front, etc. But Professor Service is not interested in answering Trotsky’s ideas in the first place. For any person with a penchant desire for knowledge, Professor Service’s work is not a scholarly work that shines any new light on Trotsky’s life despite his claim to have dug out “the buried life” of Trotsky. It is not a work of an honest historian. It is a tabloid-style biography of the lowest quality, cheaply constructed, reflecting the decadence of bourgeois scholarship.
The hatred of the bourgeoisie toward Trotsky’s life is succinctly expressed by Robert Service in his online interview when he said that “he [Trotsky] wasn’t a good thing for anybody at any time.” This is because the ruling class cannot accept that there is still a figure from the October Revolution who still stands for genuine communism while Stalin, to their convenience, had discredited and butchered the Revolution. They wish Trotsky had taken the road of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, and many of his comrades-in-arms who bent before the tremendous pressure of the Stalinist bureaucracy. His greatest contribution to humankind is to have upheld the clean banner of Marxism when others had deserted it. This the ruling class cannot forgive.
However, apart from this heap of rubbish that Robert Service and Bertrand Patenaude have written, there are good works on Trotsky that have come out around the same time: Jacob Tierney’s comical movie The Trotsky and Rick Geary’s graphic novel Trotsky: A Graphic Biography. Jacob was inspired by Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom when he wrote the script of his movie, although they cannot be compared at all. The movie says nothing about the idea of Trotsky. It is a parody at best, but one that actually ridicules society more than it does the life of Trotsky. Rick Geary’s work is not a biography in a standard sense. It is a work of art, but more honest in its defects and limitations. Artists can sometimes reflect the world more honestly than the “objective pen” of academic scholars.
Seventy years have passed since the assassination of Trotsky. Yet his ideas still persist from decade to decade, carried by innumerable genuine class fighters who seek to liberate humanity from the fetters of capitalism. None in the movement have suffered so much as the supporters of Trotsky’s ideas. Many too have deserted our ranks, seeking so-called “new ideas” that have never materialized. They complain that we are clinging to old ideas and methods, that we “sound like a broken record”. But the old tunes of capitalist oppression are still playing, and even louder. Robert Service and his colleagues know this very well and they try to disguise it.
One might think that Trotsky’s greatest contribution was leading the October Revolution and building the Red Army from the exhausted masses whose body and will had been smashed completely by the Great War. The picture of him addressing tens of thousands of cheering workers and soldiers seems to bring about some romanticism, a sense of glory, of victory. But a man’s worth is truly measured when the hard time comes.
Philistines simply mock Trotsky’s descent from a man who had yesterday been the greatest in the land of Russia to an exile, an outcast with a handful followers. But Trotsky shines even brighter during the darkest day of the Revolution, as recalled by Victor Serge:
“I have never known him greater, and I have never held him dearer than I did in the shabby Leningrad and Moscow tenements where, on several occasions, I heard him speak for hours to win over a handful of factory workers, and this well after he had become one of the two unchallenged leaders of the victorious Revolution. He was still a member of the Politburo but he knew he was about to fall from power and also, very likely, to lose his life. He thought the time had come to win hearts and consciences one by one – as had been done before, during the Tsar’s rule. Thirty or forty poor people’s faces would turn towards him, listening, and I remember a woman sitting on the floor asking him questions and weighing up his answers. This was in 1927. We knew we stood a greater chance of losing than of winning. But, still, our struggle was worth-while: if we had not fought and gone under bravely, the defeat of the Revolution would have been a hundred times more disastrous” (Victor Serge, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky)
This grueling work of winning the hearts of the ones and twos, in small meetings with a handful of people, through newspapers that might only be read by dozens, this we have continued doing the past 70 years. Those small minds who seek glory in politics can never understand this. If the ideas of Trotsky were so irrelevant, why are there so many books and articles dedicated to proving that they are dead? Surely this is an indication that the bourgeois deep down in their hearts know that in the period we have entered, one of severe crisis of capitalism, the ideas of Marxism, defended by the Old Man, are the only ones that can offer working people a way out of the nightmare of poverty, unemployment, wars and crises.