ON THE AVENUES: “Trotsky,” by Robert Service.
A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.
During the tadpole stage of his murderous career, temporarily employed as a robber of banks and trains for the greater good of Bolshevism, the man who eventually came to be known as Joe Stalin paused momentarily for a cigarette and a tumbler of Georgian Gold.
Reflecting on the vagaries of life, he concluded that when his number as dictatorial kingpin was called, he’d not make the same mistake as the Tsars by being unduly soft on dissenters just like himself.
Students of history are too well aware of the consequences of Koba’s smoke break revelation. There’d be no country-club internal exile under Uncle Joe -- not as when Tsarist police would arrest, try and convict agitators, and then ship them thousands of miles to Siberia, their reading collections largely intact, mail only lightly censored, and sometimes with entire families in tow. Yes, Siberian winters are brutal, but the Tsars permitted touchy-feely amenities such as stoves and food – astounding luxuries during the horrific Gulag era to come.
We know there are numerous factors helping to explain why the centuries-old Romanov dynasty was successfully overthrown in 1917 by an otherwise motley crew of ragtag Marxists. The Russian Empire was making baby steps toward economic viability, but was rotten to the core when it came to the ability of its ruling class. Like a celiac loose in a bakery, Nicholas II rushed into the one situation guaranteed to irreparably weaken his grip: Total war, in the form of the World War I, a mind-numbing conflagration that exposed every socio-economic fault line in Russia and created whole new opportunities for cultural collapse.
Furthermore, precisely because the Tsar did not customarily murder his opponents – although occasionally, selected conspirators were executed as a warning, including VI Lenin’s beloved brother – revolutionaries were able to continue plotting and scheming against the established regime from afar in Siberian huts, Viennese housing blocks and even American dockyards, maintaining forward momentum in spite of their own incessant bickering, which regularly reached unfathomable extremes of hair-splitting and factionalism not witnessed since the heyday of medieval theology.
Significantly, despite this state of congenital disorganization, these scattered cadres loosely arrayed against the Tsar possessed certain individuals of undeniable talent and skill. Our post-Bin Laden world as yet remembers Lenin and his eventual successor, Stalin. There were others now seldom recalled (Bukharin, Radek, Kamenev, Zinoviev) who found themselves in just the right place, and at precisely the right time, to grab an opportunity to alter history.
These and other Bolsheviks were capable of “capitalizing” on the Tsarist regime’s terminal weakness, and among them was a truly indispensable figure, whose tireless work as an intellectual prepared the conceptual grounds for revolution, but also rising to occasions of physical action and personal courage during two critical periods: First against the Provisional Government that followed the Tsar’s abdication, and then during the bloody Russian Civil War following the war in Europe’s end.
He was Lev Bronstein, known to us as Leon Trotsky, son of a reasonably well-to-do Jewish farmer, and bitten by the Marxist bug while still in school, becoming transformed almost overnight into a tireless writer, master orator, monomaniacal polemicist and later, presumed heir to Lenin’s chair of leadership.
It was not to be. For all of Trotsky’s brilliance, he abhorred the gritty realities of a politician’s life. Stalin reveled in them, and after isolating his only true rival, he removed him – first from the fledgling USSR, and in due time, from the ranks of the living.
The prolific British writer Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky recently passed across my nightstand, and it is a generally useful corrective to previous hagiographies.
Today Trotsky is remembered primarily for the exotic locale and grisly method of his passing in 1940: In Mexico City – exiled, marginalized and in decline – Trotsky was assassinated by a wily operative of Stalin’s, who penetrated the aging revolutionary’s heavily armed compound by wooing a pining spinster within the entourage, and did the deed with an axe, up close and personal.
I believe that history always still matters, but specifically, the life of Trotsky remains relevant to us largely because the manner by which he was discarded by the figure arising from the revolution he spearheaded. It has been suggested by many observers that if only Trotsky had “won” his fight with Stalin for control of the party, the world would have been spared the subsequent horrors of the latter’s sociopathic regime.
Service makes clear that this point of view is mistaken. It is true that Trotsky and Stalin famously differed on the parameters of the revolution; true believer Leon viewed it as “permanent,” with the victorious Soviet vanguard obliged to spread the contagion world wide, while Joe, ever pragmatic and self-serving, saw no issues with first consolidating control within the confines of the USSR, especially if this facilitated his position as supreme overlord.
However, the two did not ever substantively disagree as to the violent methods required to negate resistance to the party’s control. For that matter, neither did the sainted Lenin, whose early death (from natural causes) prompted the tussle for succession. Possibly those “parasites” opposed to the historically inevitable victory of the workers’ state would not have been exterminated in quite as great numbers had Trotsky ascended to the apex, but this is a difference only in degree. Like Stalin, Trotsky probably would not have been troubled by the additional zeroes.
Service’s biography provides a broad overview of Trostky’s existence apart from his life’s mission of revolution, although the central question of the man’s remains unanswered: Exactly how did this child of a Jewish kulak in the countryside acquire his taste for the interests of the urban proletariat? Was it ethnicity, embarrassment or excitement?
Or, was it purely evangelical?
While no original thought on my part, it is remarkable the extent to which the total commitment and relentless fanaticism of Trotsky’s generation of Marxists resembles institutional religious belief before and since, in turn inspiring similar-hued reactions; think about the Spanish Civil War’s intensity of horrific violence in a death clash between competing “–isms”. In polarization, whether economic, racial, political or religious, doesn’t there always exist a tragic potential for this degree of single-minded, all-or-nothing rage?
By the way, did you know that this is an election year in L’America?