Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Trotsky’s Duck Hunting & the Fate of the Russian Revolution

“One can foresee a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting-trip for wild ducks.” ~ Trotsky in My Life (Chapter 40, “The Conspiracy of Epigones”). What path would the history of the Soviet Union have taken if Trotsky, instead of Stalin, had won in the power struggle that ensued after the death of Lenin in 1923? Trotsky was not a man of violence, to the extent that Stalin was. He was a better ideologue. He had a better grasp of culture and economics. He might have transformed the Soviet Union into a strong nation which could have outlasted America, instead of collapsing in the 1980s.

Had he been in Moscow when Lenin died, Trotsky would have won the power struggle. In his biography, My Life, he ruefully reminisced that during Lenin’s last illness, in October 1923, he went duck hunting in a swamp in Zabolotye. There he walked in his felt boots in the cold swamp water, and caught influenza. His doctor advised him to rest. When an intense power struggle was raging in Moscow in autumn and winter, Trotsky was bedridden. Stalin took advantage of Trotsky’s absence by promoting his own supporters to key positions in the communist party and the politburo. Eventually Stalin maneuvered himself into the position of General Secretary. 

Trotsky writes: “I cannot help noting how obligingly the accidental helps the historical law. Broadly speaking, the entire historical process is a refraction of the historical law through the accidental. In the language of biology, one might say that the historical law is realized through the natural selection of accidents. On this foundation, there develops conscious human activity which subjects accidents to a process of artificial selection.”

He notes that the capture of power by Stalin’s faction was a victory of mediocrities: “…the morally unstable elements, who were being mercilessly driven out of the party during the first five years, now squared themselves by a single hostile remark against Trotsky. From the end of 1923, the same work was carried on in all the parties of the Communist International; certain leaders were dethroned and others appointed in their stead solely on the basis of their attitude toward Trotsky. A strenuous artificial selection was being effected, a selection not of the best but of the most suitable. The general policy became one of a replacement of independent and gifted men by mediocrities who owed their posts entirely to the apparatus. It was as the supreme expression of the mediocrity of the apparatus that Stalin himself rose to his position.”

From the 1930s to the 1980s, when the Soviet Union fell, several prominent American leftists and liberals were Trotskyists. The Frankfurt School which was based in America was inspired by Trotsky’s thoughts. However, the European leftists in this period—people like Wells, Shaw, and Sartre—were Stalinists. The liberal and conservative movements which have dominated the politics of the USA after the Second World War owe a debt to Trotsky’s critique of capitalism. In Europe, Trotsky became a force after the death of Stalin. With Stalin gone, the European intellectuals and celebrities found the courage to acknowledge their intellectual debt to Trotsky.

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