Leon Trotsky- The History of the Russian Revolution
Part IV- Things Are Not As Simple As They Seem
Detroit, December 1996- We had just finished the yearly meeting of the Party where both locals got together to discuss the work that was being done, usually union or campus work. We had ended by singing the Internationale, so everyone was a bit riled up:
Arise, you prisoners of starvation!
Arise, you wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world's in birth!
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!
'Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international working class
Shall be the human race
'Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international working class
Shall be the human race.
So you can see, it was time to do some agitating.
This was at the height of the Detroit newspaper strike, and our comrades already had a reputation as leftists agitators. We all piled in cars and went down to one of their picket lines. We parked close and got out of the cars. There were about forty of us, and we all began walking towards the striking workers as one clump of angry Trotskyists. All we wanted to do, of course, was talk. We wanted to tell the workers that they had to move to the left of the union bureaucratic leadership that was selling them out and letting the "scabs" go through and take their jobs.
When this picket of about a hundred workers saw us coming, however, they were taken off guard. The union leadership decided to have some of them form a human barricade with a banner in order to stop us from mixing with the crowd. We stopped at the barricade, and decided just to plead our case with the workers holding the banner. It was a cold sunny day in Detroit, and just another episode in my young life as a student Trotskyist activist. This scene was repeated dozens of times over the course of three and a half years. Part prophet, part pariah, part poet, part showman, people would often listen to you reluctantly or even sympathetically. Some knew who you really were, some didn't. There were always suprises, though. Such is the dynamic of the class struggle.
Trotskyism, since its foundation in the late 1920's, has had a checkered history. Many, like myself, just became petit-bourgeois reactionary intellectuals after a youthful stint on the picket lines. Many have become impotent commentators on world events who are thankful everyday that they don't have to soil their principles by actually participating in class struggle. They are a small group, divided amongst themselves, a losing cause within a losing cause at least to the eyes of outsiders.
Such a movement does not do justice to the man for which it is named. Leon Trotsky was probably the most underestimated mind of the 20th century. Not only was he an expert agitator and orator, he was a literary giant in modern prose, art critic, historical theorist, and military general. (He basically conjured up an army up from scratch and defeated attacks from within and from without Soviet Russia during its fledgling years.) If the movement he started is a cultish joke, his gravitas is the only thing that gives it an inkling of credibility. No one book personifies Trotsky more than his History of the Russian Revolution. This is the book in which Trotsky combines all of these qualities into a massive tome of historical and literary genius.
What I learned from Trotsky can be summarized in four categories:
1. Audacity: The main problem with the Marxists who came after Marx is that they were waiting for the revolution to happen. Lenin and Trotsky realized that you have to make it happen. And for that, you need audacity, and lots of it:
De l'audace, toujours de l'audace, encore de l'audace.
That's not just revolutions. That's just life. We can never be so encaged in supposed determinisms that we can say that something is not possible. Make it possible.
2. Combined and uneven development: This is the key to Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. In classic Marxist theory, history has to go through one stage before it can advance to the next stage. So in order to proceed to socialism, a society has to go through capitalism first. This was a problem in nineteenth century Russia, that was still primarily feudal. The revolutionaries there had to ask whether they were pushing for capitalism and bourgeois rule, or something else. Trotsky responded by saying that history is not that neat: sometimes stages are accelerated or even lept over. This is why for Trotsky the Russian Revolution was primarily a proletarian revolution that was supported by the peasantry, even if the workers constituted a small part of the population. Instead of bowing to the traditional theory of revolution, Trotsky examined the actual conditions of his situation and theorized from there.
This of course is a product of a classically formed mind that does not just look in books for answers, but takes first the reality of the situation and the goal desired and works from there. This system excludes all sloganeering and opportunism and gets to the brass tacks of what needs to get done. And that's why the Bolsheviks won the day in 1917.
3. A Bad Institution Is Not All Bad: The last phase of Trotsky's life was spent fighting Stalinism in the midst of a world that would not listen to him. Trotsky saw the reins of power taken away from him and his own exile from the Soviet Republic. But he did not give in to his rhetorical passions and say that the Soviet Union was evil. Even if he was considered its Number One enemy, Trotsky still regarded the Soviet Union as the key to the fight for human liberation. True, he did want to overthrow Stalin in a political revolution that restored workers' democracy, but he saw the cause he was passionate about (the freedom of all mankind) above his own personal failures and losses.
If only many Christians would show such impartiality in how they think.
4. Committed Art Does Not Have to Be a Slave to the "Cause": Trotsky as an art critic was a far cry from the Stalinist censors who proceeded him. For Trotsky, human progress meant artistic progress, and unlike the very "let's get down to business" Lenin, he spent much of his time reading French novels and keeping up with developments in the literary world. It was during his tenure that such avant-garde Soviet posters as the one shown above flourished, and he took an active interest in the creation of the Russian cinema and education. Unlike many totalitarians of the left and right, Trotsky did not see human nature and creativity as enemies to be feared, and revolutionary and committed art did not have to dumb itself down in order to remain committed.
Growing up in a predominantly Mexican-American community, I suffered through all of the poor excuses for literature that the New Left "Chicano" movement produced. Although these works were supposed to represent the struggles of "my people", all they were for me were examples of ersatz Bertolt Brecht in fifth grade prose. ("Spanglish" should only be spoken by your confused Mexican mother when she is calling you for dinner and can't remember where she put the comal in order to warm up the tortillas.) Coming from poverty and "oppression", all I really wanted in terms of art was what people of means had: access to literature, classical music, and culture in general. Does that make me a sell-out, a Eurocentric self-hating person of color, or a "coconut" (brown on the outside, white on the inside)? No, no more than if I wanted to exchange my "barrio-fabulous" life for a home in the suburbs, or my Ford Pinto for a Lexus. I would argue that the former is more valuable than the latter. When I had a little bit of money, I got culture first, since it was something to be more coveted. Being committed or even left wing does not mean settling for the lowest common denominator, it means giving access to our collective cultural legacy to all people. That's what Trotsky wanted to do.
Because of these valuable lessons, I will always be an "agent-provocateur Trot" on some level. People go through their lives thinking in slogans, respecting institutions that need to be questioned, and settling for things becaused they are too scared to fight for something better. Thanks to my good Jewish friend from Ukraine who became a major figure in history, I have learned that pushing the envelope is something that is very necessary much of the time, and you can have lots of fun doing it too.