Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Trotsky, French Novels, and Us

Leon Trotsky, The Prophet in the biographical trilogy by Isaac Deutscher, is not someone most of us think about on a regular basis.  Since the U.S. election in November, however, he's been on my mind.  More precisely, my mind has been conjuring up a particular image, that of Trotsky reading French novels as his political life was crashing down.

Leon Trotsky (1924)
No one, least of all Trotsky, could envision that Stalin, the grey blur with the functional position of General Secretary, would destroy all opposition in the Bolshevik Party through intrigue, deft use of wedge issues and personality differences among his opponents, and outright terror.  Trotsky's reaction as the noose tightened around his political neck in 1924-27 is one that still surprises and astounds biographers and historians:  he withdrew.  As Neal Ascheson writes in his review of Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy:
This passivity remains the mystery of his life.  After that Congress [XIV Party Congress of December 1925], his fate and that of the opposition were sealed; events moved slowly towards his exclusion, his deportation to Alma Ata in 1927 and his expulsion to Istanbul in 1929.  In that crucial period of 1924-27, one of the most forceful, restless personalities in history behaved like a Hamlet.  Why?  A sort of pathological disconnection, perhaps, which distanced him from political intrigues he found revolting?  Or intellectual arrogance:  the refusal to compete against people he secretly considered his inferiors?  He was certainly arrogant; to take a comic example, he probably had no idea of the resentment he caused by reading French novels during Central Committee sessions. 
Trotsky reading French novels.  I wonder if some, perhaps most, of the U.S. electorate that voted for Donald Trump doesn't view supporters of the Democratic Party in the same way, as divorced from reality, arrogantly reading French novels that they see as having little relationship to their lives?

XIV Party Congress, December 1925
Since the election I have been forcing myself to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative talk show hosts and Fox News broadcasts.  They make for difficult, painful listening.  If Bernie Sanders and other Democratic Party politicians talk about trying to find common ground on issues such as rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, this is not what I am hearing on conservative talk shows.  Rather, elation at victory over the liberal establishment and charges that those opposed to the incoming administration are hysterical are louder than what mainstream media had led me to believe before the election.

Joseph Stalin (1920s)
If there is a lesson from the life of Trotsky, it is that those of us being charged with liberal hysteria need to put away our French novels.  As post-election maps have shown, we are a nation that is deeply split both culturally and politically.  We move in our own groups with almost no communication, almost no exposure to each other.  If I can give myself an undeserved pat on the shoulder, it's that I unwittingly find myself as a blue homesteader in a red district, having moved to rural Maine in 2009.  (I may just be the only Hillary Clinton voter in my small town.)  As such, I know the pain of small town Mainers who saw their lives upended when NAFTA resulted in closed factories and as mills closed up shop.  The median income in my town is a tad below $12,000 with jobs becoming scarcer all the time.  The cost of higher education has put it out of reach for most.  Is it any surprise that the natural beauty that attracted me to Maine belies a growing drug problem for a population that sees a life that is increasingly without hope?  Is it any surprise that my neighbors would vote for someone who promises to smash the existing Washington system?  Is it any surprise that they would view the Democratic Party or even the mainstream Republican Party as divorced from their reality?

The Democratic Party is indeed going through a time of tumult as it attempts to grasp the post-election reality that promises to sweep away much of the legacy of past eight years.  Yet the need to continue U.S. leadership in climate change remains.  So does support for human rights in all of its dimensions both within and outside the US.  And this is not a time for a dramatic shift in our alliances and relations with other major powers.  

Another lesson from the Soviet Union from the Stalin period is that Stalin was wildly popular among the common population.  In his way he may even have been a populist.  That popularity endured throughout his authoritarian rule and has never faded away despite attempts by Khrushchev and others to publicize the crimes against humanity during his rule.  Only those directly affected by Stalinist terror came to understand the nature of his rule, often only after being arrested, convicted, and sent to the Gulag or, in the case of many, just as the executioner's bullet entered their brains.  Stalin distrusted the educated elite that he viewed as a source of opposition, and this elite suffered more than many other groups as Stalinist terror rolled across the country in repeated waves.  Even at the height of the Great Terror in 1936-38, the average person likely saw the accused as rightly convicted and sentenced, in the words of prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky, to be shot "like the mad dogs they are."  To many, the removal of a Western educated specialist meant an opportunity for a worker, a Red specialist, to move up in the world.

I do not wish to imply any equivalence between the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s with the United States of today.  There is none.  Trotsky was a major player in creating the system that allowed Stalin to destroy him.  Nor do I view Trotsky as romantic or heroic.  Had he lived, he may have been more ideologically pure but just as bloody to his opponents as Stalin.  Yet as someone who has spent much of her life studying Russian and Soviet history, I believe there is a lesson to be drawn from Trotsky's downfall.  

For those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton or, during the primaries, for Bernie Sanders, it is time to work harder than ever to communicate what we believe in as core principles:  protection of human and civil rights for all both at home and abroad, saving this planet for posterity, promoting equality for all, and advancing the interests and equality of the working and middle classes.  It is a time to organize, to write letters to our elected representatives, calling on them to oppose cabinet nominations or policy changes that we consider dangerous.  It's time to donate and commit time to non-governmental organizations whose programs we support.  It's no longer sufficient for those committed to liberal principles just to vote.  

Let's not allow the November 2016 election be our equivalent of the Soviet XIV Party Congress.  We need to put away our French novels, not acquiesce to passivity, and get to work.  The consequences of not doing so are too frightful to contemplate.

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