Saturday, February 4, 2012

Trotsky versus Trotskyism: From Real Men to Vague Villains

But there are in our country semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth Trotskyites, people who help us [Trotskyites], not knowing of the terrorist organization but sympathizing with us.
          Karl Radek, 1937, Moscow Show Trial*

Leon Trotsky while sitting at his desk in his compound in Mexico City was dispatched by an assassin wielding an alpine ax.  On this desk laid a manuscript, a nearly finished biography of Trotsky’s one-time colleague, but now Bolshevik nemesis, Joseph Stalin. The paper absorbed splashes of Trotsky’s blood that spattered from the blows to his head.  The date was August 20, 1940. Ramón Mercader was the assassin, a Soviet-trained Spaniard who had seduced an American secretary in Trotsky’s entourage to gain access to his well-guarded compound. Mercader was sent by none other than the principal subject of Trotsky’s biography, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. After twenty years in a Mexican prison Mercader was released. He made his way to Havana where he was feted by the Stalinist of the Caribbean, Fidel Castro. Then he was off to the Soviet Union where he was awarded the highest civilian decoration of the country, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, by the head of the KGB, Alexander Shelepin.  What is note-worthy is that years after Stalin’s death and the rehabilitation of many of his victims, the Soviet leadership continued with Stalin’s fiction of Trotsky’s betrayal of Bolshevism.  Stalin as a jealous and vengeful ghost still reigned over his surviving henchmen.
By the time of his murder the person, Leon Trotsky, in the Soviet Union had been transmogrified into “Trotskyism.” Many of Stalin’s high ranking Bolshevik rivals found themselves contaminated with this lethal heresy. Trotsky, however, not so far in the past was widely regarded as the Number Two Bolshevik behind Lenin and the most likely of the Communist party leaders to take his place.  He was a writer and orator of considerable talent, and his formidable organizing and military skills greatly contributed to the success of the October Revolution, the Bolshevik’s defeat of the Whites in the ensuing civil war and the ability of the regime to consolidate its power and entrench its rule.  Trotsky from an early age to the end of his life was a Communist to the core of his being.
Trotsky, however, was less adept at political intrigue and wading through the slog of inter-Party feuds. He was also exceedingly vain and arrogant. His egotistical and contumacious personality made him many enemies within the party.  He completely underestimated his principal rival, Stalin, whom he disdained and dismissed as a “colourless bureaucratic mediocrity.”* Stalin, the consummate organization man, quickly outmaneuvered him and put him against the wall.  Almost before he realized it he was first marginalized, then vilified, and finally expelled from the Party and exiled from Russia. Trotsky spent his last years running from country to country slightly ahead of Stalin’s killers, helplessly watching them murder members of his family, including his son, Sergei Sedov. 
At this point an important aspect of Stalin’s own peculiar genius came to the fore.  Trotsky, the flesh- and-blood man, through Stalinist alchemy became “Trotskyism.”  An “ism”, of course, is an abstraction, and Trotskyism turned out to be a particularly useful one for Stalin because it enabled him to syphon off any particular details of Trotsky’s life and career and any specific attributes of personality or character that might humanize him or detract from Stalin’s official version of current events. Trotskyism, like all of Stalin’s productions for public consumption was a heavily labored falsification.
            Trotskyism reduced Trotsky-the-person to a vague and predetermined set of ugly qualities that could always be cast in strong opposition to monumental achievements and noble aspirations that Stalin now completely prescribed for the Soviet Union and a reflection of his own personal greatness and genius.  Trotskyism became shorthand, a label for a treasonous fifth-columnist and was attached to almost anyone who had fallen into disfavor with the Kremlin Chief.
                Turning people into isms was part of the Stalinist methodology of slander which worked by converting the world and its complex reality into a shifting set of simple abstractions that enabled Stalin to malign and defame whomever at the moment represented in any way an obstacle to his  interests and operations. 
Tito, who was Stalin’s faithful, obedient servant in Yugoslavia during World War II, like Trotsky, asserted and proved himself as an able Communist revolutionary, successful in gaining power through his own efforts and talents.  He finally declined to make the full bow at Stalin’s altar, and his success made him, like Trotsky, a hated rival rather than an obedient underling.  Like Trotsky, Tito, the man was turned into “Titoism,” a vague abstraction of dissonance  and deviance from the monolithic Stalinism that pervaded Russia.  
Stalin’s late-life anti-Semitism was expressed by yet another “ism” of vilification – “rootless cosmopolitanism” (безродный космополит ), used to impugn the patriotism and loyalty of Soviet Jews whom Stalin now had decided were secretly pro-U.S.  Stalin’s “ism’s” were greatly to feared, tropes that could be easily conjured and appear at any time, used to turn complex human beings into simple abstractions, making them easy to loath and deserving of extermination.    

*From:  Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tzar, New York, Random House, 2003, 211, 5.

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