Saturday, November 7, 2009

Trotsky’s indispensability

‘England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases.’ Ah, who else but Trotsky could have written that. It’s his birthday today, or would be if he were alive and could have lived to 130. He’s famous for his Marxist theorising, revolutionary ways, and literary ability, but not for being a diarist. Nevertheless, he did very occasionally put pen to journal, especially if cooped up somewhere. Only one diary, though, has ever been published in English, and that’s been out of print for over 30 years.

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November 1879 into a Jewish family in Ukraine, then part of Russia. As a teenager, he became involved with Marxism and underground activities which led to him being arrested in 1898. He spent two years in prison, where he married fellow Marxist Aleksandra Sokolovskaya, before being tried and sent to jail in Siberia (where his two children were born). He escaped in 1902, and went to London, joining other Russian emigres, including Lenin, and became a key writer for Iskra, the official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The following year, he married Natalia Sedova.

In 1903, the Social Democrats split. While Lenin assumed leadership of the Bolshevik (minority) faction, Trotsky became a member of the Menshevik (majority) faction and developed his theory of ‘permanent revolution’. He returned to Russia during the 1905 revolution, but was arrested and sent to Siberia again. While imprisoned he wrote one of his major theoretical works - Results and Prospects. Again he escaped, and thereafter pursued his revolutionary activities while travelling in Europe and the US.

After the outbreak of revolution in Petrograd in February 1917, he made his way back to Russia. Despite the previous disagreements with Lenin, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and played a decisive role in the communist revolution. His first post in the new government was as foreign commissar, where he found himself negotiating peace terms with Germany. He was then made war commissar and in this capacity, built up the Red Army which prevailed against the White Russian forces in the civil war. When Lenin fell ill and died, Trotsky was outmanoeuvred by Stalin who, in 1927, threw him out of the party. By 1936, he had settled in Mexico but an assassin called Ramon Mercader, acting on Stalin’s orders, murdered him with an ice pick.

Trotsky never had much time for diary writing, except when he was cooped up somewhere, and this was the case in 1935, when the French government had decided to expel him, but no other country was willing to grant an entry visa. He was kept under police surveillance, without a secretary or regular mail, and not even allowed to visit Paris. Eventually he moved to Norway, where he had more freedom and less time for the diary. But, for that period in 1935, he noted down, more or less daily, various observations about politics, his companion Natalia, the fate of his family in the USSR, and so on. The notebook was found more than a decade after his death among the archives at Harvard University. It was translated by Elena Zarudnaya and published, in 1958, by the university press as Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935. A trawl of Abebooks suggests the book was last reprinted over 30 years ago in 1976.

The dust jacket flap says: ‘This diary of the exiled Trotsky is a powerfully evocative fragment of history and human personality. Of all the great figures of the Russian revolution Leon Trotsky touches our senses as the one who lived, and felt and died as other men. Understandably, we feel curiosity about and some sympathy for the man who was driven out as he had driven others, who wandered the world in danger forseeing assassination, and who was struck down by his enemies in his last sanctuary so close to us. This extremely personal record was written in France and Norway, it gives the day-to-day reflections of a fallen leader, of one who had wielded power and was now in an exceptional position to observe it in the hands of others. Finally, and until now unknown, there is his Testament, written in Mexico in February 1940 near the close of his life. Knowing that death was near, from illness if not from Stalin’s agents, he envisaged the form it might take, restated his defiance of Stalin and his imperishable confidence in the triumph of the People, and once more affirmed his love for Natasha, his second wife. At the end there is the discontinued and unexplained sentence, ‘In case we both die . . .’ ’

Here are a couple of snippets from the diary (found on quotation websites):

5 April 1935
‘Life is not an easy matter. . . You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.’

‘The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves. ‘

11 April 1935
‘England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases.’

8 May 1935
‘Old age is the most unexpected of things that can happen to a man.’

More substantial quotes can be found in two reviews of the book, first published by Fourth International in winter 1959, one by Michael Foot and the other by Pierre Frank.

Michael Foot is much impressed with the diary. He says: ‘Trotsky himself, of course, is the foremost example of his own aphorism. He is, probably in all history, the greatest man of action who was also a very great literary genius. Everything he wrote bears the individual stamp of the man; it has a pulse and urgency which is absent from the writings of those political writers, even the most perceptive, who were only spectators. This applies to the latest Trotsky ‘discovery’, the fragments of a diary he wrote during his exile in France and Norway in 1935, even though he obviously found the diary form awkward and distasteful.’

Foot quotes Trotsky writing about a trip to Lourdes: ‘What crudeness, insolence, nastiness! A shop for miracles, a business office for trafficking in Grace. The Grotto itself makes a miserable impression. That, of course, is a psychological calculation of the clerics; not to frighten the little people away by the grandeur of their commercial enterprise; little people are afraid of shop windows that are too resplendent. At the same time they are the most faithful and profitable customers. But best of all is the papal blessing broadcast to Lourdes by - radio. The paltry miracles of the Gospels side by side with the radio-telephone! And what could be more absurd and disgusting than the union of proud technology with the sorcery of the Roman chief druid. Indeed the thinking of mankind is bogged down in its own excrement.’

And Foot finds Trotsky’s portrait of his wife Natalia (Natasha) very touching: ‘Here, in the diary, he has painted an incomparable picture of his wife, Natasha. The hunt of Trotsky’s children and his friends by Stalin is surely one of the most appalling stories of sustained barbaric revenge of which history has any record. The full brunt of the horror fell on the heart of the dignified and dauntless Natasha. Quotation would mar this immortal tribute of a man to his wife. Read it for yourself.’

Finally, Pierre Frank, in his review, which is longer and much wordier, gives a more substantial quotation, which he introduces thus: ‘Many other passages give food for thought, whether it be his regret at not having had more time to devote to philosophy, or that dream in which he was talking with Lenin. But of this diary, which was not written for publication and which was forgotten by Trotsky among his papers, it is not possible to fail to reproduce this passage, where a Marxist treats of the role of personality in history, this personality being himself, with impressive objectivity.’

Here, then, is Trotsky analysing his own indispensability sometime in 1935:

‘Rakovsky was virtually my last contact with the old revolutionary generation. After his capitulation there is nobody left. Even though my correspondence with Rakovsky stopped, for reasons of censorship, at the time of my deportation, nevertheless the image of Rakovsky has remained a symbolic link with my old comrades-in-arms. Now nobody remains. For a long time now I have not been able to satisfy my need to exchange ideas and discuss problems with someone else. I am reduced to carrying on a dialogue with the newspapers, or rather through the newspapers with facts and opinions.

And still I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life - more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place - on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring - of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to overcome the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (i.e. with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the outcome would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.

Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. Then is no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. And I am in complete agreement with Lenin (or rather Turgenev) that the worst vice is to be more than 55 years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession.’

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