According to Christopher Hitchens, of course (The Old Man). A sage whose morals rested upon one rule: what is good for the world revolution, or the world proletariat, is moral. We’re supposed to forget that Trotsky, along with Lenin and a few other Bolshevik leaders, is responsible for most of the blood shed during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922, with its Red Terror, summary executions and concentration camps.
Trotsky stayed true to his principles, that’s right. Stalin, it seems, enjoyed destroying individuals he disliked or envied. For Trotsky, it was nothing personal: class enemies had to go. He might have become a more or less bloody dictator that Joe, but under him, Russia’s Bolshevik experiment would have been purer.
Stalin wasn’t really much of a Communist. He spewed Commie rhetoric but couldn’t care less about the world’s oppressed. A sort of an Oriental tyrant in a half-European country. Lenin and Trotsky weren’t classical Marxists either–Russia’s capitalism was still unripe for a revolution. On the other hand, Trotsky exemplified what was Communism in the 1920s. When Stalin needed to do away with a group of old Bolsheviks, he denounced them as enemies of the people and beat teary confessions out of them. Trotsky would have simply said: “It is in the interest of the Revolution that you perish, comrades. Thank you for your heroic service. The proletariat will not forget you. Now board the buses, the firing squad is waiting.”
Which is to say, after Trotsky’s rule, the Cristopher Hitchenses of the world would have been satisfied that Communism was, er, evil.
Hitchens’ book review begins with an epigraph that contrasts the lives of Keynes and Trotsky as “alternative paths for the intellectual.” I did not know “intellectual” was such a broad word. Keynes started out as a public servant, and Trotsky as a conspirator. After two decades as a career intellectual, Keynes rejoined public service; after two decades as a propagandist, agitator, member of a bloody junta, Bolshevik war minister, Trotsky found himself an intellectual out of necessity. Stalin and Mao wrote poems; how about “Nabokov and Mao: two poets in search of the Yellow Pagoda?”
Of all his essays, the one that has stayed longest with me is “The Struggle for Cultured Speech,” a little-known commentary on the vileness and obscenity of Russian cursing, full as this was of the accreted inheritance of serfdom and racism and self-hatred.
I happen to know something about Russian cursing; perhaps–just perhaps, for Serbian cursing is similar while Serbs have a very different past–serfdom and self-hatred have to do with it, but racism? Please.
Of all the descriptions we have of Trotsky, the most vivid is that furnished by Isaac Babel in his story “Line and Color,” where at the close of a fatuous speech from Kerensky, Trotsky mounts the podium, twists his mouth, and confidently begins, “Comrades! …
OK, Babel was a disproportionally talented opportunist, but he didn’t imply the fatuity. Here’s how he put it:
Alexander Fyodorovich made a speech about Russia–Mother and Wife. [“Oh my Rus! My wife!” is a famous line from an amazing poem by Alexander Blok.] The crowd was choking him with the sheepskins of its passions. What did he see in the bristling sheepskins, he–the only spectator without a binocular? [Most of the short story is devoted to Kerensky’s short-sightedness.] I don’t know….
But after him, Trotsky ascended the platform, twisted his mouth and said in a voice that left no hope:
–Comrades and brothers…
Exactly: it left no hope. “Even today a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man,” says Christopher H., no tongue in cheek. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Indeed.
No, I don’t deny there is something terribly attractive about the “Old Man.” I only thought a paradigm-breaking intellectual should know better.
(By the way, I wonder if Hitchens purposedly periphrased Justice Douglas, who–perhaps rightly–derived a right to privacy from “penumbras and emanations” of some articles of the American Constitution. Saints’ heads are supposed to emanate light, while penumbra is a shaded area, albeit not complete darkness.)
The books under Hitchens’ review were three Trotsky bios by Isaac Deutscher.