Thursday, June 11, 2009

"The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky"

"Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky" by Bertrand M. Patenaude .

Bertrand Patenaude is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a lecturer in history and international relations at Stanford University. He has ransacked the Trotsky archives to compile this detailed account of Trotsky’s last days in Mexico City. Trotsky is a virtual prisoner, surrounded by armed guards, besieged by Stalinist hit squads and subjected to the corrosive vitriol of the Soviet regime, ably echoed by the Stalinist left in Mexico. Most people know that the Russian secret police, the GPU, inserted a covert assassin into Trotsky’s household – Ramon Mercader – who finally and ineptly dealt the fatal blow on August 20th 1940 with an ice pick. Trotsky survived just a few more days.

This book offers many insights. Trotsky is supported both financially and with ‘muscle’ by the American Socialist Workers Party. The proletarian ‘toughs’ (Hansen, Cannon) back Trotsky’s views all the way while barely understanding them, while the intellectuals (Shachtman, Burnham) have increasing difficulties with Trotsky’s defence of the Stalinist regime against the capitalist powers and eventually split the SWP.

Trotsky’s personality is also scrutinised. He comes across as incredibly smart, arrogant and brusque: like Marx, a man of cruel humour incapable of long-term human relationships. In fact his only sustained friendship seems to have been his wife Natalia Sedova, and even here he was not adverse to having an affair with his protector Diego Rivera’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo.

The author takes Trotsky to task for his apparently obsessional defence of dialectical materialism in the vicious faction fight within the SWP which led to the split. He takes this to be typical of Trotsky’s arrogance and incompetent managerial skills. As a member of the Fourth International in the early seventies I must defend the ‘Old Man’ here: American pragmatism and the resulting inability to understand how mutable human activities underlie and ‘implement’ all ‘social structures’ have been the bane of Marxist thought in that country. Trotsky was right to try to educate the comrades, although sadly with little success.

Was Trotsky a world-historic figure or merely a man of extreme intellectual talents who ended up espousing a failed ideology? Both can be true. Perhaps humanity needed to try Marxism in its most conceptually-sophisticated form in order to understand the true nature of its failure as a political strategy of liberation. Its Achilles’ heel is not dialectics but its 19th century utopian view of human nature.

Patenaude has done a great service to the truth in this book, but has also constructed a thrilling historical account of a great but flawed man brought down by a truly evil empire. Poignant and gripping throughout.