The Trotsky Project
By LIONEL ROLFE
Back when I was in high school 50 years ago, I was called a Stalinist by my Trotskyite friend, Les Evans. Les had been a Republican because that’s what his salesman father had been up until I talked Les into a more leftist position. Les’ father was the man Arthur Miller must have had in mind when he wrote “Death of a Salesman.” Anyway, Les made the transition to being an acolyte of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s main accomplice during the Russian Revolution. Les then went on to become an officer in the Socialist Workers Party, an editor in the party’s publishing arm and the author of a scholarly book about China in the 1970s, among others.
Les told me not to keep calling him a Trotskyite–he was a Trotskyist. Only Stalinists called Trotskyists Trotskyites, he said. It’s an insulting term, like calling a Jew a Kike or an Italian a Wop. So in deference to an old friend, I learned to say Trotskyist and not Trotskyite.
I knew that Trotsky was an incredible orator, writer and organizer–it was he who created and successfully led the more than 5-million members of the Red Army, through which the Bolsheviks ruled for decades. Trotsky, of course, was done in by Stalin in Mexico City in 1940.
I didn’t regard Trotsky as a mind that spoke directly to me. I know that some felt in his fight against Stalinism and bureaucracy, which he as an old revolutionary hated, he somehow was representing a democratic impulse in Leftist politics. But not even Les believes this any longer. Worse, Les suspects that because Trotsky embraced totalitarianism over democracy, had he been the victor over Stalin, he might have ended up acting almost as bad as Stalin did.
I did feel some personal connection to Trotsky only because I knew a bit about the drama of his death in Mexico City in 1940. When I was a kid, I had a good older friend named Chandler Weston, who was the eldest of the photographer Edward Weston’s children. He used to talk endlessly about what life was like when Weston moved his family to Mexico City and lived in Diego Rivera’s house. Frieda Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, famously had an affair with Trotsky. It was a tenuous connection to be sure, but it was something.
More important, however, was the recent explosion of the Occupy Movement. That movement has been tremendously stirring to old lefties from the ‘60s.
So when two old friends, radio host and historian Suzi Weissman and Les, invited me to a party in support of a documentary in the works called “The Trotsky Project,” I was more intrigued than I normally might have been. Suzi was intimately involved in the production of the film.
Weissman was promoting Lindy Laub, who was making the documentary based on work begun more than 40 years ago by filmmaker David Weiss, an old Trotskyist.
When I moved away from the organized left, I did so with the intention of never joining any other political entity again. My own politics had moved toward a belief that the best economic system is one that merges the best of capitalism and the best of socialism, in a brew that must be democratic and not totalitarian. In Europe, this kind of politics is called “democratic socialism,” which was a term used sneeringly by communists against their enemies.
Les has also moved way on, rejecting the path of Trotsky, since like Lenin and Stalin, he made the fatal mistake of seeking liberation through totalitarianism. “Creating a police state doesn’t result in liberation, no matter the honesty of the original good intentions,” he said.
Even though Les is pretty disaffected from his Trotskyism, and me to thinking everything done by the old Bolsheviks was good, there seemed to be a reason the Occupiers were stirring such passion in us.
As we drove toward the lovely large mansion in the hills where portions of the “Trotsky Project” were to be shown, and Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkov was to speak by video phone, suddenly our trip seemed to take on the added significance of the Occupy Movement.
As it turned out, the filmmakers had held the party because they were still fundraising to finish it. The footage they showed was very good. Some of the earliest shots looked like outtakes from an Eisenstein film, or some very old newsreels. They looked like the black and white stuff of history. But in the interviews of those who had been around “the old man” you saw people with very real and intense passions. You could see these were people who had come through their travails, and those travails had strong parallels to today’s travails.
After the footage was shown, one man told the mostly gray-haired audience that although Trotsky was gone, many of the same questions remained for new generation of revolutionaries. “I think we have something to tell the Occupiers,” he said with a rising voice.
I had lots of thoughts racing as we pulled away from the house. The documentary should be finished, if for no other reason than that it was significant history.
But I asked Les if he thought Trotskyism or Trotsky had a lot to say to today.
“I don’t think so,” Les said. “I don’t think there are any messages of importance for today’s Occupiers,” he said.
At some length, he explained that Trotsky’s story had been one of great drama and interest. But don’t read meaning into that story that isn’t there. Consider, he said, that there probably was a great Huguenot leader–the Protestant warriors of France–but his story probably didn’t have much to say for today any more than Trotsky’s had.
Les regards much of his life spent in the cause of Trotsky as a fascinating experience from which he learned a great deal, but it was based on beliefs that were very damaging when carried out by anyone in power, and are now something of the past that a new generation should not repeat. Still he has many old comrades and he enjoys their company. But as to foretelling what the next revolution in this country founded in revolution will be, that is a very risky business.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Literary-LA/115509071864686?sk=wall). Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.