Sunday, September 17, 2017
Trotsky in New York
Trotsky in New York
When I picked up Ackerman’s book, Trotsky in New York, I feared that it would be tremendously boring. As a Russophile, I never relish the idea of spending too much time and attention on American history, even if that history deals with international socialism. I thought in particular that Ackerman’s account of Trotsky’s six-month sojourn in New York would get mired in very technical and parochial details of New York politics. Notwithstanding my fears, Ackerman’s book is anything but boring. The excitement of this book stems in part from Ackerman’s exceptional writing abilities. The book crackles with excitement, intrigue, controversy, and fascinating research. As a writer, and as an expert in modern American history, Ackerman’s book commands the reader’s attention.
But Trotsky in New York is also an important book. Its description of Trotsky on the edge of victory in Russia helps to put the Revolution its proper global context. For Trotsky’s six-month stay in America demonstrate that the Russian revolutionary movement was firmly tethered to American history. Thus, when Trotsky arrived from Spain in New York City, Ackerman reminds his reader that he was already famous as the hero of the 1905 Russian Revolution. With such fame, Trotsky was able to make a serious challenge for hegemony in America’s Socialist Party even without the ability to communicate effectively in the English language. Trotsky’s approach to American politics was, not surprisingly, unrelentingly radical. That is to say, Trotsky proclaimed himself to be a radical not only in terms of mainstream American politics, but also in terms of the American socialist and labor traditions.
Although Trotsky had previously criticized the Bolsheviks for their refusal to seek common ground with broader socialist political trends, once in America Trotsky made a bold attempt to force the American Socialist Party to advocate illegal actions against America’s effort to join Britain, France, and Old Regime Russia in the First World War. Trotsky’s radicalism in America tells us a great deal about the man who would, along with Lenin, lead the Bolsheviks in their takeover as well as in the Civil War that followed. Trotsky’s refusal to compromise with bourgeois Western society was precisely the type of ideological commitment that would lead to triumph in October and terror thereafter. Trotsky’s popularity in New York, especially within the Jewish socialist circles that had been established in the wake of late nineteenth century tsarist pogroms Russia, tells us a great deal about global politics in 1917.
The thinking behind Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” may not have been characteristic of a majority of Russians in 1917, but he did represent an important strain of thinking in Russia, as well as New York City. In other words, if Trotsky made sense to men and women in New York City, an urban center far from the front lines of World War I, how much more seriously would Russians, who had already lost millions of men in battle, have taken him? Ackerman’s book is therefore both biography and history. Reading Trotsky in New York, one understands Trotsky’s many gifts. In New York, Trotsky wrote constantly, agitated perpetually, and generally demonstrated intelligence, perseverance, fearlessness, and a talent for publicity. He may also have demonstrated an inability to compromise or even moderate his pre-formed opinions.
If Revolution made sense in Russia, it also made sense in America. But Trotsky’s New York is also treated biographically in Ackerman’s book. And Trotsky’s New York, despite its relative removal from the storm and stress of World War I, was ripe for change, new ideas, and extremism. Even without the influence of European radicals, America’s working class thinkers were already fairly open to viewing the world in terms of class conflict.