The Old Man

Even for educated readers, Leon Trotsky survives as part kitsch and part caricature. But the reissue of a majestic biography reveals him as he always was—a prophetic moralist
Two images have been with me throughout the writing of this essay. Between them they seem to show the alternative paths for the intellectual. The one is of J. M. Keynes, the other of Leon Trotsky. Both were obviously men of attractive personality and great natural gifts. The one the intellectual guardian of the established order, providing new policies and theories of manipulation to keep our society in what he took to be economic trim, and making a personal fortune in the process. The other, outcast as a revolutionary from Russia both under the Tsar and under Stalin, providing throughout his life a defense of human activity, of the powers of conscious and rational human effort. I think of them at the end, Keynes with his peerage, Trotsky with an icepick in his skull. They are the twin lives between which intellectual choice in our society lies.

—Alasdair MacIntyre, "Breaking the Chains of Reason," in Out of Apathy (1960)

Yet, precisely like a personage in classical tragedy, Trotsky did not act to arrest, to defeat, the dangers he foresaw. Clairvoyance and policy drew apart, as if doom, seen as a historical process, had its irresistible fascination. He stumbled on, majestic. One thinks of Eteocles going clear-sighted to the death gate in the Seven Against Thebes, refusing the plea of the chorus for evasion or liberty of action:
We are already past the care of gods.
For them our death is the
admirable offering.
Why then delay, fawning upon
our doom.

—George Steiner, "Trotsky and the Tragic Imagination" (1966)

Alasdair MacIntyre and George Steiner—the authors, respectively, of After Virtue and Antigones—have both evolved a good deal since they wrote those lines. But if either of them was again to need a figure to represent dissent and defiance, or the fusion of the man of ideas with the man of action, or the wandering internationalist, he might be drawn once more to the character of Trotsky. Of no other participant in the Bolshevik-Marxist battles of the twentieth century could this really be said to be the case. Lenin is stranded in time and place, as are Mao and Ho Chi Minh. Stalin is annexed to the general study of pathological dictatorship. Combative and brilliant intellectuals such as Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, and Nikolai Bukharin are for specialists, and were localized before they were defeated. Fidel Castro has at least made it into the twenty-first century, but at the price of becoming a bloated and theatrical caricature. Only Che Guevara retains a hint of charisma, and he made no contribution whatsoever to the battle of theories and ideas.

The three succeeding portraits on the covers of this trilogy (which originally appeared volume by volume in 1954, 1959, and 1963) show the ardent young radical journalist and activist, the more mature Soviet tactician and commander of the Red Army, and the snowy-headed exiled sage. To have had a part in two revolutions, wrote Thomas Paine, was to have lived to some purpose. Trotsky took a leading part in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and also in many other political and military upheavals, from the Balkans to China, and was perhaps the most prescient writer of his day in warning of the true menace of National Socialism. Yet his most enduring and tenacious battle was against the monstrous regime that had resulted from his earlier exertions.

It is this, combined with the revolutionary credentials that he possessed, that helps explain the large footprint of Trotsky and Trotskyism among intellectuals. To start with a few American examples, Trotsky makes a magnetizing appearance in Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. He caused Mary McCarthy to write one of her most penetrating essays ("My Confession"), about herd behavior in the radical smart set. Clement Greenberg partly founded his seminal article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" on a passage from Trotsky's Literature and Revolution. Norman Mailer acknowledges as his own political inspiration a Trotskisant maverick named Jean Malaquais. Shift the scene a little, and we have no difficulty deciphering the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, or in recognizing the secret "book within a book" in that novel (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism), as a derivative of Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed. Nearer the present time, the hero of Milan Kundera's The Joke has only to write "Long Live Trotsky!" on a postcard in order to find out precisely how, why, and when a "joke" under communism has gone too far.

Nor was this the only nervous establishment that found him a specter difficult to exorcise. Winston Churchill, in an acidulated portrait in Great Contemporaries, depicted Trotsky even in impotent exile as having been the "ogre" of international subversion. (He perhaps could not forgive one of the two men to have outgeneraled him in the field, the other being Kemal Atatürk.) A.J.P. Taylor tells the story of how an Austro-Hungarian minister, upon being warned by a nervous colleague that a too-precipitate war with Russia in 1914 might mean revolution, demanded to know who would lead this revolution: "Herr Trotsky of the Café Centrale?" (Trotsky's time in the cafés of Vienna was not wasted.) In late 1939 the French ambassador Robert Coulondre had his last meeting with Hitler before the coming of war. The Führer was in a boastful mood, Coulondre recalled in his memoir, having just concluded a pact with Stalin, and spoke of the inevitability of further triumphs. The ambassador sought to sober him by warning of the unintended consequences of conflict. "You are thinking of yourself as victor," Coulondre said, "but have you given thought to another possibility—that the victor may be Trotsky?" Hitler leaped to his feet, as if "he had been hit in the pit of the stomach," and yelled that this threat was reason enough in itself for Britain and France to capitulate at once. It would be amusing to know if Churchill ever learned of this conversation.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. He is writing a biography of Thomas Jefferson for the Eminent Lives series. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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