Friday, December 24, 2010

What Would Trotsky Do?

There's a quaint little Canadian movie--and what Canadian movie, with its reverential references to Alice Munro or the Cowboy Junkies--isn't quaint--entitled, The Trotsky. It's a film that makes a playful attempt to reconcile the communist revolutionary tradition and contemporary, bourgeois Canadian society. The film is about a young man, 17 or 18, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. What would a real revolutionary do when confronted with contemporary social conditions? Would comfortable, wealthy, quasi-socialist Canada warrant revolutionary activity? Leon Trotsky's young avatar never doubts his calling. Notwithstanding a comfortable upbringing, he sets out to organize the workers at his father's business and then eventually attempts to organize the students at his school. His indefatigble efforts to oppose authority in the service of justice bare fruit, reminding viewers that courage, conviction, and the ability to see injustice (whether it's there or not) can have profound effects, even today.

The film has a brilliant leading man, but doesn't quite work. Is the problem that communism isn't very funny? This explanation seems implausible, as a subsequent post on communist humor and the book, Hammer and Tickle, will make clear. But certainly it's difficult to calibrate mirth with a real social message, as this film tries, heroically sometimes, to do. On the one hand, the film's protagonist is a wonderful pastiche of the historical actor, whose encounters with ordinary Canadian high school students and authority figures are often awkward, unexpected, and exceedingly funny. On the other hand, the film is ultimately about how young people can or should organize for social justice in a world of post-modern malaise. (By the way, I didn't invent that term; rather, I was accused of "post-modern malaise" by a job interviewer who thought I was being to flippant about the rhetoric of education and empowerment.)

Using the Bolshevik example in this context can seem perverted against the historical background of communist brutality and democide. The incongruity is more or less disturbing at various points in the film. Take, for example, the scene in which Trotsky's father finally acknowledges his love for his wayward son by giving him a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. It's signed, "From your favorite fascist," or words to that effect. One wants to laugh, but Mao (to say nothing of Hitler) was responsible for so much twentieth century tragedy, one doesn't.

In fact, this film makes one doubt whether the radical revolutionary tradition has anything at all to recommend it. Certainly the Trotsky's successful kidnapping of the school principal doesn't dispel any doubts one might have about this style of school reform. Even so, the film deserves some credit for sketching out a portrait of a modern radical, as opposed to the modern reformer we all know so well. It's still useful to ask questions about the role of radical opposition even after such opposition has become so endangered by parliamentarianism, financial stability, and (Canadian) socialized medicine.

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