Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Trotsky myth

Over at A Terrible Blogger is born, blogger rmangum has a post speculating about why Leon Trotsky's reputation has been so strong among so many Western intellectuals, given the ample evidence that the idealized image of a man who would have created a humane, non-repressive communist state if only he hadn't been outmaneuvered and exiled by Stalin is pure fantasy. He attributes this to the fact that Trotsky's image was far more intellectual than that of Joseph Stalin, making him easier for Western intellectuals to identify with.

I think there's something to that. It fits in with the Western intelligentsia’s attitude toward the crimes of Stalin- the Moscow Show Trials and purges of his own Party comrades like Kamenev and Zinoviev always loom much larger than horrors like the Ukrainian terror famine, even though the latter took far more lives. The famine killed millions of nobodies, peasants, whereas the Show Trials were directed at people Western intellectuals actually identified with and felt empathy for. There’s another reason I would place more emphasis on, however.

The state always disappoints, if judged according to its own promises and propaganda, and communist states tend to do so more dramatically than most. The Western Left always seems to be looking for a left-wing despot to idolize, but as a given tyrant’s crimes become harder and harder to hide or ignore admiring him becomes increasingly awkward and a new, less tarnished idol needs to be found. Stalin gave way to Trotsky, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Min, and the like; now it's Che Guevara.
The advantage Trotsky has over most of these rivals is that – like Che Guevara- he was never a head of state, and thus offers far more open space to imagine what might have been.

The fact that he died violently- again, like Che Guevara- gives even more chance to ask, "What if?", as well as adding the sanctity of martyrdom and the romance of a life gloriously burning out instead of fading away. Death also saved him from living long enough to be associated with communism as it looked in its later days in Europe- dull, gray, crumbling, unromantic, uncool.

If we're knowledgeable of Trotsky and honest with ourselves about him and about communist regimes generally, we know that what might have been would have been horrible, but his lack of political power means that, unlike Joseph Stalin (or Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc.), there is no mountain of human corpses tied prominently, specifically, and unambiguously to him that can spoil our fantasy by forcibly directing our attention to his true nature.
Instead, communists and communist sympathizers can use him as a blank canvas to paint their own dreams.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On a recent trip to Mexico I had the opportunity to visit the house where Trotsky spent his last days. It wasn't as vibrant or well-trafficked as Frida Kahlo's house around the corner, but the tour guides spoke of him all the more reverently. Everything had been preserved, from the full bookshelves in front of bricked-up windows to the rabbit hutches in the garden--to emphasize that he was not only bookish, but a compassionate animal-loving guy, I suppose.