The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Under a totalitarian regime it is the apparatus that implements the dictatorship. But if my hirelings are occupying all the key posts in the apparatus, how is it that Stalin is in the Kremlin and I am in exile?
—Leon Trotsky, quoted by Dmitri Volkogonov in Stalin
After being murdered at Stalin’s orders, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), lived on for decades as the unassailable hero of aesthetically minded progressives who wished to persuade themselves that there could be a vegetarian version of communism. Trotsky could write and orate, he loved women, and he presented enough of a threat to the established Soviet power structure that it should want to track him down to his hiding place in Mexico and rub him out. It followed, or seemed to follow, that Trotsky must have embodied a more human version of the historic force that sacrificed innocent people to egalitarian principle: a version that would sacrifice fewer of them, in a nicer way. Alas, it followed only if the facts were left out.
It was true that Trotsky, in those romantic early days in Paris, was a more attractive adornment to the cafe than Lenin. In the Rotonde, where Amedeo Modigliani settled his bill with drawings and paintings when he lost at craps, Lenin could at least defend “socialist realism” against Fauvist painter Maurice de Vlaminck, whereas Trotsky couldn’t even get a job as an artist’s model (too small). But the Russian civil war that turned Trotsky into one of the century’s most effective amateur generals also unleashed his capacities as a mass murderer. The sailors at Kronstadt, proclaiming their right to opinions of their own about the Revolution, were massacred on his order. The only thing true about Trotsky’s legend as some kind of lyrical humanist was that he was indeed unrealistic enough to think that the secretarial duties could safely be left to Stalin. His intolerance of being bored undid him. But his ideas of excitement went rather beyond making love to Frida Kahlo, and at this distance, there are no excuses left for students who find him inspiring. 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. But the idea was already a dead loss before Trotsky was driven into exile in 1929. He lost the struggle against Stalin not because he was less ruthless but because he was less wily.
Trotsky was good at sarcasm. His journalism written in Mexico would have been enough reason on its own for Stalin to nominate him as a target. Pro-Soviet credulity among Western intellectuals was usually proof against logic, but Trotsky had rhetoric: a more penetrating weapon. If Stalin’s emissary had not managed to smash Trotsky’s head in, his jokes might have made the Moscow show trials sound less convincing. From that viewpoint, Trotsky’s murder was not only horrifying, it was untimely. Treachery made it possible, and the subject is still surrounded with a miasma of bad faith. Pablo Neruda was instrumental in smoothing the assassin’s path but never wrote a poem on the subject: something to remember when reading the thousands of ecstatic love poems he did write. They are full of wine and roses, but no ice ax is ever mentioned. Admirers of Neruda don’t seem to mind. The same capacity for tacit endorsement is shown by Trotsky’s admirers, who even today persist in seeing him as some sort of liberal democrat; or, if not as that, then as a true champion of the working class; or anyway, and at the very worst, as one of those large-hearted Old Bolsheviks who might have made the Soviet Union some kind of successfully egalitarian society had they prevailed. 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.
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. As things turned out, there never was a power struggle. Trotsky wasn’t interested in the hard grind of running the show: Leave that to Stalin. But—an important but—Trotsky yielded no points to Stalin in the matter of dealing with anybody who dared to contradict him. It was a trick they both inherited from Lenin. Golo Mann said it went back all the way to Marx. Marx’s Italian contemporary Giuseppe Mazzini observed that he had more anger in his heart than love, and that his whole temperament was geared to domination.
We can still see it today, even when totalitarianism is no longer a thing for states, but only for religious fanatics. It is the trick of meeting contradiction by silencing whoever offers it. Trotsky’s undoubted fluency as a polemical journalist does not mean that he wouldn’t rather have had a gun in his hand. The humanist makes a big mistake in supposing that a literary talent automatically ameliorates the aggressive instinct. Osama Bin Laden has several of Trotsky’s characteristics. According to students of Arabic, he commands his native language with vibrant fluency, giving a thrilling sense of its historic depth; he can lead a simple life and make it look enviably stylish, as if asceticism were a luxury; and above all, he can inspire the young to dedicate their lives to an ideal. If the ideals of the caliphate tend to become more elusive on close examination, so did the ideals of communism: but they needed to be incarnated for that very reason. 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.