Saturday, January 23, 2021

No Trotsky on the Potomac

Retired and nearly a thousand miles from the Washington, DC, that I called home for much of my professional life, I am now a bystander to events taking place there.  When I first moved to DC in 1978, it was no longer the sleepy southern city of pre-Kennedy days, but it had not yet become the metropolitan capital that it is today.  The downtown area near the White House felt abandoned, not yet recovered from the aftermath of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

At the same time, Washington was a wonderful walking city.  One could approach quite near to the White House on the Ellipse side, and on the other side Pennsylvania Avenue was still a traffic thoroughfare.  Every time I had a visitor from out of town, we would go to the Capitol, walking up the steps on the east side directly into the Rotunda.  There were no metal detectors or barriers of any kind. 

How times have changed.  The barriers began going up after the Kansas City bombing in 199x and accelerated after 9/11.  Each time I came back from overseas after 2004, I could feel the government buildings slipping ever further away, ever more distant from city residents and visitors. 

When a riotous mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, I thought back to my early DC days that now seem naively distant. Watching news coverage, I thought of another city that has played a major role in my life: St. Petersburg, Russia.  Whereas pundits compared the January 6 mob with the mass events associated with the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 30s, I thought of something different:  the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd on November 7, 1917. 

The genius of the Bolshevik coup that overthrew the Provisional Government is that its professional revolutionary core understood how to present itself as leading a populist cause.  Since the abdication of Tsar Nicholas in March 1917, successive Provisional Government cabinets had remained true to Russia's commitments in World War I, putting off major reforms until elections could be held for a Constituent Assembly.  The Provisional Government saw itself as a steward that would see the country through until that elected Assembly could take over. 

Lenin would have none of it.  When he returned to Russia in the famed sealed train from Germany, he announced his April theses that emphasized an end to the war and agrarian reform.  The Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, land, and bread" fell like rain on the fertile soil of Russia's working and peasant classes and on the common soldiers who had done most of the dying for the Russian Empire.  The masses could not care less about the Marxist dialectic or the differences between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries, but peace, land, and bread?  "Why yes, we're for that!" 

With continued battlefield disasters and attempted counter-revolutions in the summer of 1917, more and more of army melted away as the Bolsheviks gathered the disaffected under its banners.  Trotsky led when the time came in November.  Brilliant, ruthless, and a military genius, he melded together a small, armed Red Guard with the broader masses.  Trotsky commanded, the Red Guard led, and the masses followed.  Presented in Soviet history as a heroic storming, the occupation of the Winter Palace on November 7 was an anarchic but more or less peaceful affair in which the mob wandered the halls while the Red Guard searched for the room where ministers of the Provisional Government were meeting. When they found the room, they took the ministers prisoner.  The Provisional Government was no more. 

Still, it wasn't quite over.  The one thing the Provisional Government has managed to do during its eight months was to organize the elections for the Constituent Assembly.  The elections took place, and the Assembly met on January 18-19, 2018. The Bolsheviks did not have a majority.  By this time, however, it was a simple matter for Trotsky to command the Red Guard into the meeting hall and disband the Assembly.  

From this time forward, it was All Power to the Soviets!, to the councils controlled by the Bolsheviks who soon declared all other political parties illegal. In short order true power was exercised not by the soviets but by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and by its Politburo.  With a growing bureaucracy of its own creation, the Politburo needed a General Secretary who could handle the minutiae of running a government.  Stalin, the grayest, least eloquent of the original Bolsheviks stepped forward to take up this thankless task.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

Ironically, in the reign of collectivization, industrialization, and terror that Stalin unleashed in the 1930s, he remained wildly popular among the mass population that saw him as more like themselves, less elite than the Trotskys, Bukharins, and Zinovievs whom Stalin eliminated one by one.  When Stalin died in 1953, the country wept while more than a hundred mourners in Moscow died of suffocation in the thronging crowds. 

Have I taken the parallel between Washington and Petrograd too far?  Perhaps.   Undoubtedly. If there is one lesson I take from this parallel that gives me hope, it's that there was no Trotsky in the Washington of 2021.  The mob that stormed the Capitol remained a mob.  When it succeeded in breaking into the hallways of power, it seemed lost at what to do beyond taking videos and selfies.  Leaderless, the mob melted away.  May it stay that way, and may Trotsky remain a figure of history.

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