Leaders and Levelers
THE purveyors of biography in their search for likely candidates have this spring, by an amusing coincidence, hit upon three men whose pronounced opinions and whose leadership of the Left make them Gt subjects for pen and ink. I refer to Debs, Briand, and Trotsky.
JUST under three centuries ago, it was said of the new sect of the Levelers, ‘They intend to sett all things straight’ by establishing parity and community. Evidently the trio of conspicuous men whose lives are the subject of these three books belong by spiritual heredity to this sect. All three are so much of the fibre of contemporary history, their doings and sayings so well known, that there is no need to retell their stories. That much we may take for granted.
First there is Eugene V. Debs, by McAlister Coleman (Greenberg, $3.50). The followers of Debs have agreed to call him an idealist. Even more fitting is the tag which a witty Frenchwoman gave to one of the imagist poets — marchand. de nuayes, ‘cloud merchant, ‘mist merchant.’ This Hoosier of Alsatian parentage was always sweetly and furiously in earnest. He set himself with tremendous energy to organize the railroad men, beginning at the city that Riley called ‘Terry Hut’ and working outward with zeal and with success. Then he conceived the notion that salvation was to be attained, not along that line, but through state ownership of the railroads: through full-blown Socialism. He thus entered a bypath that led him away from the main current. The clouds in which he invested his life energies concealed from him the outlines of reality. He became the statuesque figurehead of a waning cause. Aristide Hriand, as we see him in life and in Briatid, by Valentine Thomson (Covici-Friede, $5.00), was also furiously and eloquently in earnest. He also, as did Lvov Davidovitcli Hrousteiu. better known as I rotsky, began his career by organizing the working class, in the narrowest sense of that phrase. Hriand at one time advocated the ‘general strike’ as the prologue to Paradise, and, in supporting Alexandre Millerand, used phrases that were interpreted as an exhortation to violence. The satirical sequel came when be was confronted by a railroad strike that threatened to become universal. Hriand, who is nothing if not a strategist, invoked the mobilization law, turned the strikers into French soldiers, and set them to suppress their own strike.
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That remarkable volte-face is equaled, if it be not excelled, by another, duly recorded by his admiring biographer. Hriand vigorously criticized the Armistice: ‘Germany has been vanquished,’ he said, ‘but psychologically that was not made apparent to the people of Germany. . . . If the coercive measures taken had been strong enough, they would at least have realized that something had changed since the war of 1871. . . An admirably sound judgment, it would seem, let the satirical bookbinder a few pages later inserts a picture of Hriand conferring with Stresemann, in pursuance of the policy he had so strongly condemned — making things as soft as possible for the Germans, so that they might the sooner forget any salutary lessons they had begun to study in the weeks before the Armistice.
In the two events we have touched upon, there is too much of the spirit of the weathercock to inspire confidence in the statesmanship of Vristide Briand. But the book of winch he is the central figure is by far the most attractive of the three, save for one shortcoming. In the life of a Premier of France, by the daughter of his colleague, one is entitled to expect that the names of men so well known as Jules Guesde, James, Lamennais, Kouvier, shall not he misspelt ; nor is it correct to write of ‘ Lord’ Grey in 1914, while the index entry ’Sir Haig’ can only be forgiven because it is so funny.
So we come to Leon Trotsky, and the impression he makes by his essay in autobiography, My Life (Scribner, $5.00). The book is at once immensely interesting and extremely dry reading. ’Fake the early chapters. Trotsky is treading the classic soil of Gogol; many of his characters might have come from Chekhov; the episode of the wheat field recalls a notable scene in Anna Karénina. Yet - the breath of life which these three great Russians instill into their persons and scenes is wholly absent from the narrative of Trotsky. His people are cut out of cardboard; they do not come alive, even his mother and father and his boyhood friends. After accompanying Trotsky through page after page packed with authentic facts that have everything but the breath of life, one divines the reason for this aridity; Trotsky is all along supremely interested in Trotsky. He so self-centred that he cannot go out of himself imaginatively to impart the stirrings of life to the people he quite faithfully depicts Chekhov loses himself in his writing, or, rather, his creative imagining; so does Tolstoi: so does Gogol. Trotsky’s main interest is in himself. So we have the fall of the Romanoffs, as it affects Trotsky; the two revolutions of 1917, as they have a bearing upon Trotsky; the later history of tyranny-ridden Russia as a struggle between Trotskyism and anti-Trotskyism. No wonder it all makes dry reading, in spite of the inherent drama of the events depicted. One may hazard the surmise that Trotsky owes his downfall to this same self-centredness.