Trotsky's Faith in Man
On 20 August 1940, the long arm of Joseph Stalin finally reached Trotsky in exile in Mexico City when an agent of Stalin drove an ice axe into Trotsky's skull. He died the next day.
The last days of Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky, prime mover of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, are the subject of Bertrand M. Patenaude's Trotsky: The Downfall of a Revolutionary (HarperCollins, 2009). It held my interest from the first page to the last, skillfully telling the story of Trotsky's Mexican exile, those who guarded him, and their failure ultimately to protect him from an agent of the GPU/NKVD sent by Stalin to murder him. Contrary to some accounts, it was not an ice pick that Ramon Mercader drove into Trotsky's skull, but an ice axe, a mountaineering implement far more deadly than an ice pick when used as a weapon. Here is how Trotsky ends his last testament, written in 1940, the year of his death:
For forty-three years of my conscious life I have been a revolutionary; and for forty-two I have fought under the banner of Marxism . . . I will die a proletarian revolutionary, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is no less ardent, indeed it is even stronger now than it was in the days of my youth. [. . .] Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air might enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight is everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full. (Patenaude, pp. 234-235)
No pie-in-the-sky for old Trotsky, but pie-in-the-future. Those of us who take religion seriously needn't deny that it can serve as opium for some. But if one can see that, then one should also be able to see that secular substitutes for religion can be just as narcotic. Why is utopian opium — utopium — less narcotic than the religious variety? Why is a faith in Man and his future more worthy of credence than faith in God?
I should think that it is less credible. Note first that there is no Man, only men. And we human beings are a cussedly diverse and polyglot lot, a motley assortment of ornery sons-of-bitches riven by tribalisms and untold other factors of division. The notion that we are all going to work together to create a workers' paradise or any sort of earthly paradise is a notion too absurd to swallow given what we know about human nature, and in particular, what we know of the crimes of Communism. In the 20th century, communists murdered 100 million to achieve their utopia without achieving it. They broke millions of eggs for their nonexistent omelet.
We know Man does not exist, but we do not know that God does not exist. Religious faith, therefore, has a bit more to recommend it than secular faith. You say that God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether God exists or not, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say that it doesn't and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, and having thrown overboard every moral standard, is ever ready to spill oceans of blood in pursuit of their utopian fantasies.
There may be no source of the help we need. Then the conclusion to draw is that we should get by as best we can until Night falls, rather than making things worse by drinking the Left's utopian Kool-Aid.
Trotsky, as you can see from the quotation, believed in a redemptive future. Life in this world is beautiful, he tells us, and will be cleansed by future generations of evil, oppression, and violence. But even if this fantasy future were achieved, it could not possibly redeem the countless millions who have suffered and died in the most horrible ways since time beyond memory. Marxist redemption-in-the-future would be a pseudo-redemption even if it were possible, which it isn't.
There is also the moral and practical absurdity of a social program that employs present evil, oppression, and violence in order to extirpate future evil, oppression, and violence. Once the totalitarian State is empowered to do absolutely anything in furtherance of its means-justifying ends it will turn on its own creators as it did on Trotsky. Because there is no such thing as The People, 'power to the people' is an empty and dangerous phrase and a cover for the tyranny of the vanguard or the dictator. The same goes for 'dictatorship of the proletariat.' What it comes to in practice is the dictatorship of the dictator.
The tragedy of Trotsky is that of a man of great theoretical and practical gifts who squandered his life pursuing a fata morgana. His was not the opium of the religionists but the opium of the intellectuals, to allude to a tile of Raymond Aron's. The latter species of opium aptly called utopium.
It is interesting to compare Edith Stein and Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Each renounced the present world and both set out in quest of a Not-Yet, one via contemplation, the other via revolution. Which chose the path of truth, which that of illusion? It is of course possible that both quests were illusory.
How strange the stage of this life and the characters that pass upon it, their words and gestures resounding for a time before fading away.