After a lifetime of pretty well ignoring the history of revolutionary communism except for fascinating family anecdotes — one represented by a photograph of Leon Trotsky taken by my Uncle Lou in 1936 or so; it hangs on my wall among my family photos — I’ve been reading biographies of Trotsky.
Why? Or rather, why oh why?
Because they have been there, sitting on my shelves for decades.
I don’t know where one of them came from. The other, Trotsky: A Memoir & Critique, by Albert Glotzer, was hand-delivered by the author to my father’s home right after Dad died. (Glotzer had been a friend/comrade or some such of my father, presumably when he was a young Trotskyist.)
There they were, on my highest shelf, resting under the sort of dust coat which is one of my personal decorative features (it softens harsh colors, blurs edges and titles I have decided not to pay attention to for a while). I am a lover of impressionism.
Yet they were there and the nightmare of the past four years pushed me toward them.
The biography, The Life and Death of Trotsky, by Robert Payne, was a good, absorbing read, once I learned to blink past the remarkable number of times Payne called Trotsky “brilliant.” I was struggling to understand what the hell Trotsky and his fellow revolutionaries were proposing, and arguing about. It began to seem that “brilliant” was applied whenever an idea was particularly impenetrable.
In fact, that’s the problem I’ve always had with Marxists, Maoists, Leninists — the whole band of revolutionary Ists and their acolytes, each of whom wound up disagreeing with some aspect of the Inassaultable Ideal (no, I don’t have a clue), being kicked out of the main group and, thus exiled, heading up his own splinter group. (At least one of my father’s friends was a splinter group leader.) Actually, it was the lucky intellectuals who got to form splinter groups; the unlucky ones were executed.
The best thing about that Payne biography was the worst thing about the Glotzer memoir. Payne managed to get through the intensively minute ideological debates among all the Ists and Splinter-Ists without causing me to scream. And he gave names to the two German shepherds Trotsky is playing with in my photograph of him, during his lifetime mobile exile, then in Norway. (Bruno and Bella: the dogs.)
Glotzer, on the other hand, did what I was most fearing: he laid out every single bitter miniscule differentiation among every single communist leader. Every single one, for pages and pages and pages of word-for-word transcriptions of every single council or Internationale gathering, with long excerpts from the manifestos produced by these gatherings. About which, really, I do not give a fuck.
I came to think of all these revolutionaries and their groups as arguing over the veins in one leaf from one tree, unaware they were sitting in a massive forest.
(By the way, Trotskyists refer to Trotsky as “Lev Davidovitch,” not as Trotsky or the Old Man, which is what Trotsky’s contemporaries called him. Trotsky was 60 when he was assassinated in 1940; not so very Old.)
All in all, after two books, I found myself roundly disappointed with Trotsky. He and all his fellow revolutionaries (that’s what he stipulated as his career: “revolutionary”) were awful people who held anyone who was not one of them — on top of the leadership pile — in contempt, and killed off anyone in leadership who threatened them. And anyone threatened them. Murder was rife, justified by the revolution.
Monsters. They were monsters.
Years ago, when a Marxist boyfriend was raving about Castro, my father said, “But why doesn’t he hold open elections?” Boyfriend said, “He doesn’t need to. The Cuban people love him.” Dad replied, “If they do, he can prove that by opening elections to other candidates and running against them.”
Dad established a law for me: there must be open elections. You don’t get to hail yourself as a leader if you weren’t supported by the majority of the people you want to lead. And you do not get to use the word “freedom” without open elections.
Given my distaste for Russian revolutionaries, I was surprised to see, in the Glotzer book, an excerpt of a letter, a sharp warning letter Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Lenin shortly after the Russian Revolution. I had only a vague notion about Luxemburg which attached her to some revolutionary cause, so looked her up.
She wrote this letter from a Berlin prison. She was summarily executed in 1919 by the new Weimar Republic.
Freedom for the supporters of the government alone, freedom only for the members of one party–that is no freedom at all … All that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic … With the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the Soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life will die out in every public institution … Public life gradually falls asleep. A few dozen leaders … direct and rule … An elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders and approve resolutions unanimously…not the dictatorship of the proletariat but a handful of politicians, a clique…Such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc.