Clive James wrote a piece called “Don’t idealize Leon Trotsky” on Slate back in 2007. In general, I would extend it further to say, don’t idealize anyone. However, James makes a common claim that Trotsky was a mass murderer. I wonder what revolutionary figure would not deserve such a label. Was George Washington a mass murderer when he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, or had his own troops executed for desertion?
Anarchist Emma Goldman criticized Trotsky for his role suppressing sailors in the Kronstadt Rebellion. Shouldn’t some consideration be paid to the devastation brought by the first World War, followed by the Russian Civil War where Western countries backed the White Army to restore the Tsar?
Trotsky’s life ended in exiled where he was assassinated via a pick of an ice axe that was driven into his skull. He died more than a day later from the brain damage he suffered. To James, this implies the fundamental disagreement between Stalin and Trotsky was that Trotsky was complaining that Stalin wasn’t killing people fast enough.
But when it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was not sufficiently “militarized.” He meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.
Is that the only explanation? Isn’t possible that Trotsky thought that the collectivization was too disorderly and causing needless deaths?
According to James’ argument, Iraq war critics who argued for more troops only did so because they weren’t satisfied with the rate of Iraqi casualties and wanted more civilians to be killed faster.
As James concedes:
We can dignify Trotsky’s ruthlessness with the name of realism if we like, but the question abides of just how realistic his ruthlessness would have been if he had won a power struggle against Stalin and stayed on to rule the Soviet Union.
We will never know. However, I don’t see why one would prefer one particular answer over another. There are a couple different historical threads in socialism. One is where socialism is achieved by democratic means. The government usually found itself undermined in some fashion, such was the case in Iran and Chile. Others used socialism as a brand to overthrow the existing power structure and establish a dictatorship, as was the case in Nazi Germany, Iraq and I would argue Stalinist Russia.
In this respect, I think Marx got it wrong. The story of history is not between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but rather the history of the rulers and the ruled. Permanent revolution, if it means anything, is a willingness of ruled classes to replace their rulers. The American system of government has the capacity for permanent revolution in theory, although it has not worked that way in practice. The ideal of social democracy is to establish and maintain an egalitarian equilibrium where the rulers are never too far above those they rule.
Trotsky deserves to criticized along the lines of Goldman’s argument. The failure of the Bolsheviks to establish democratic governance with individual rights is a legitimate one. Whether or not that could have been done at the time of Kronstadt Rebellion is, again, arguable.
The fact that James has to slander Marx, Lenin and Trotsky based on a contempary’s observation hardly speaks well for his argument. Although, James’ contempt for people who he feels might “idealize” Trotsky is hardly concealed:
Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution will always be attractive to the kind of romantic who believes that he is being oppressed by global capitalism when he maxes out his credit card.
All I ask is that we apply the same standard to figures in history. It is necessary to look at history through the eyes of its victims, but we cannot do so selectively. When we complain of usurption of power, it behooves us to look at how that power was actually used and whether it was ever relinquished. In one respect, we could criticize Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus but to ignore the reality of a full-scale insurrection is hardly fair.
Trotsky lived on after Stalin, and to some extent is still alive today, not because young people want the world he wanted: a phantasm that not even he could define. What they want is to be him.
Anyone who finds something admirable about Leon Trotsky actually wants to be a mass murderer. Should we say the same about people who idealize Lincoln or Washington? There is much to criticize Trotsky for, but resorting to slander is unnecessary.