trotsky between kitsch and killing

Is Leon Trotsky relevant today? There is a continuing fascination with American “cultural Trotskyism” , a kind of aesthetic elitism in contradiction with the masses of “unwashed” it is to lead. Almost a pathological hatred toward the peasant and an almost messianic view that true socialism could not come into being in Russia until the whole world was socialist…

Trotsky was an unabashed militarist, a bureaucratic martinet, a fanatic believer in the virtues of industrialization, and a staunch upholder of Western cultural tradition. He preached and practiced the revolutionary virtues of clean appearance, clean living, and clean language:

Diego Rivera. 1933. Man, Controller of the Universe. Trotsky, New York, 1917:During those months America was busily getting ready for war. As ever, the greatest help came from the pacifists. Their vulgar speeches about the advantages of peace as opposed to war invariably ended in a promise to support war if it became “necessary.” This was the spirit of the Bryan campaign. The socialists sang in tune with the pacifists. It is a well-known axiom that pacifists think of war as an enemy only in time of peace. After the Germans came out for unrestricted submarine warfare, mountains of military supplies blocked the railways and filled all the eastern stations and ports. Prices instantly soared, and I saw thousands of women – mothers, in the wealthiest city of the world – come out into the streets, upset the stalls, and break into shops. What will it be like in the rest of the world after the war? I asked myself. On February 3 came the long-awaited break in diplomatic relations with Germany. The volume of the chauvinistic music was increasing daily. The tenor of the pacifists and the falsetto of the socialists did not disrupt the general harmony. But I had seen the same thing in Europe, and the mobilization of American patriotism was simply a repetition of what I had seen before. I noted the stages of the process in my Russian paper, and meditated on the stupidity of men who were so slow to learn their lessons. Read More:

…And how could one create day by day, if only by little bits, a new life based on mutual consideration, on selfrespect, on the real equality of women, looked upon as fellow-workers, on the efficient care of the children—in an atmosphere poisoned with the roaring, rolling, ringing, and resounding swearing of masters and slaves, that swearing which spares no one and stops at nothing? The struggle against “bad language” is a condition of intellectual culture, just as the fight against filth and vermin is a condition of physical culture.Read More:

In his rare leisure moments Trotsky was a keen outdoorsman, a kind of Marxist Teddy Roosevelt, whose greatest passions after revolution and literature were hunting and fishing.

Ted Grant:The ‘liberal’ face of capitalism in the West has come to the fore in the last few decades, with the ‘enlightened’ control by big business of freedom of speech, of the press and of organisation. Democracy in the advanced capitalist countries, Trotsky explained, rested on the “spoliation of the colonies,” in the same way that “ancient democracy was based on slavery.” Democracy is undoubtedly the most convenient and flexible method of domination by the capitalists. But inevitably, once the revolt of the masses takes place, big business will change its tactics, as they did in the epoch between the wars. It is entirely superficial to imagine that democracy on a capitalist basis can be maintained. Read More: image:

Though some who admire Trotsky as some sort of hip icon, brand-name political clothing, they seem to be blissfully ignorant of the “square” and authoritarian elements in their idol’s teachings. It does not seem too farfetched to suggest that a larger number are positively attracted by these elements and are therefore unconsciously revolting against the permissiveness of Western society rather than against its imagined repressiveness. There is a similar but even stronger case for thinking that the unavowed, sometimes inverted, romanticism of Trotsky’s life and character accounts for much of his appeal to a certain type of contemporary “rebel”.

Trotsky was often accused of being a romantic Marxist; there is no doubt that to the end of his days he remained a Marxist romantic.

---Taaffe:But with the victory of Hitler, the consolidation of the bureaucracy as a conservative strata (with interests separate and apart from the mass of the working class in the USSR and internationally) developed apace. From a wish to see the revolution succeed internationally, by the time of the Spanish revolution of 1936 the ruling strata had developed an obsessive and mortal fear of the triumph of revolution anywhere. The bureaucracy understood that the victory of the social revolution in the West would trigger an uprising of the masses in the Soviet Union, not against the gains of the revolution, the planned economy, but against the usurping privileged elite represented by Stalin. Therefore, a one-sided civil war was carried out in the form of the purge trials. This has been graphically described in the books of the late Vadim Rogovin, particularly in 1937, Stalin's Year of Terror. Read More: image:

Revolutionaries commonly grow up in families that are either harshly exploited or else overprivileged, and romantics spring more often from a decadent or dispossessed elite than from an ascendent social milieu. Trotsky- Lev Davidovich Bronstein- was born on a farm in the southern Ukraine of parents who had started poor but were making it, by their own efforts. They were Jews, but they lived as independent, landowning peasants, a rare thing among Russian Jews at that time, and were largely free from both the trammels of custom that Jewish society imposed upon itself and from the restrictions or vexations that the czarist state imposed upon Russian Jewry.

There was a basic dichotomy in

tsky’s nature. There were to be occasions in his career as an adult revolutionary when the Marxist zealot or windy theorizer would seem, in fact, to have forgotten his native humanity, not to mention his common sense. For example, he denounced the “wretched and miserable liberal prejudice” that forced labor was always unproductive.

Taaffe:He then writes: "The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture". Forty-four years later, in an almost chemically pure form, is this not what happened as a result of the collapse of Stalinism? Read More:He then writes: "The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture". Forty-four years later, in an almost chemically pure form, is this not what happened as a result of the collapse of Stalinism?

More often perhaps, Trotsky’s Marxism would serve as a focusing lens to the somewhat diffuse ardor of his temperament, magnifying both his virtues and his faults to a heroic intensity, ultimately enabling him to personify better than any other figure in modern history the twentieth-century myth of revolution.


Greenberg wrote for the Partisan Review, a left magazine which apparently Trotsky believed was concerned far too much with culture and not enough with mobilising the Revolution. Another of America’s distinguished art critics, Donald Kuspit, was a friend of Greenberg’s, and was his biographer. Donald’s talking to me from our New York studio.

Donald Kuspit: Yes, I think it’s important to see the essay ‘Avant Garde and the Kitsch’ in the context of its time, 1939. In the thirties the dominant mode of American art was so-called social realism or American scene painting, regionalism… It was from Greenberg’s point of view a provincial, narrow art. It was also an art which was meant to have popular appeal. And he saw what was happening in Europe. He thought this was ‘more advanced’ art—that is, the development of abstraction in all its permutations. And he became an advocate for that abstraction. And ‘avant garde’ means abstract art, for him. He sets up this sharp dichotomy between avant garde and kitsch where kitsch is essentially mass-produced for a collective public with very little differentiation or individuation in it; in contrast to a profounder, more individualistic art such as avant garde art. …Read More:

…Greenberg at bottom had an elitist notion that art was for the happy few, as it were, who have the perception and understanding to truly appreciate it and evaluate it. And he was trying to create a sort of realm or space for the development of this art apart from public space, as it were, and from the mass audience. He felt that the very idea of thinking of art in terms of appeal to a mass audience was beside the point of what was significant in art….

…Julie Copeland: Pretty unusual for an American art critic at that time to have been a Trotskyite, wouldn’t it be? He would have been very isolated.

Donald Kuspit: Extremely unusual. But he also did believe that capitalism was in decline. He uses that term. Of course it’s been in decline for a long time and that was a conventional communist belief, which had been around at least since the 19th century. And the question is, how art could survive during this capitalist decline. It’s very interesting to think that the narrowing of the focus of art to its medium can be understood as a sort of defensive position within the venture that capitalism made possible for art. He does acknowledge that avant garde art is a late capitalist phenomenon. That’s one side of his argument, the social side. The other side of his argument, it’s been inevitable in art all along, the tendency to purification of the medium, articulating the medium for its own pure sake, as it were, we’ve been there all along….Read More:

Julie Copeland: And elite. There is a paradox there, isn’t there…very contradictory…

Donald Kuspit: Very elite, yes, there is a paradox…

Julie Copeland: …in the essay called ‘Plight of Culture’, which I think you were referring to there, Donald.

Donald Kuspit: Yes, you’re absolutely correct. There is a contradiction there which I’m not sure that Greenberg ever resolved. He on the one side was interested in an art that resonated as, let’s call it, in the society. But only kitsch did that, and so he in some sense gave up on the possibility of having a high art that would resonate in society and simply, as you say, pursuing art for the sake of art.Read More:


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