1972 - Guest Blog by Grey Wolf
In 1972 Ted Heath was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He has been very much in the news this month, years after his passing, because the police announced that were he still alive he would have been interviewed on historical child sex abuse allegations. Some have seen this as "evidence" of his guilt, but being interviewed does not mean guilt, it means that someone has made a plausible enough case that it has to be looked into. Now, I have no idea if he was guilty, and no desire to go down the path of speculation, or of examining the potential evidence. I mention this because it cannot be ignored, and because what I have to say about 1972 is, to a large extent, about the nature of knowing.
I read this week Nicholas Mosley's book "The Assassination of Trotsky" which was published in 1972. In this, the author weaves the strands of Trotsky's life of revolutionary, leader, and exile in with the final years and months of his life in Coyoacan, Mexico City. It is not relevant to the book, but interesting none-the-less to note that Nicholas is the son of Oswald Mosley, but as far apart in politics and outlook as father and son can be.
Three central tenets emerge in the book:-
1. That in the world of intelligence, counter-intelligence, spying and the like, reality is a shadow. Everyone has aliases, and aliases of aliases, they work with different factions for varied aims, they betray sometimes who they are actively working with, and sometimes who they are supposedly working for, and sometimes both. They have lost their own original identity, assumed mere forms in its place, and struggle in a constantly changing world to define their objectives, let alone to define themselves. That this is especially so during the 1930s with Stalin's Purges reshaping "reality" and his show trials redefining the concept of the objective versus the subjective reality, is important, but it is a universal truth, not just one of its time.
2. Frank Jacson alias Jacques Mornard originally Ramon Mercader delivered the blow that was to prove fatal, though Trotsky would live more than 24 hours after the attack, the first few of which he was physically impaired but fairly lucid. Mornard, as he is generally referred to, since it was the alias he was using at the time of the attack (though alias is somewhat a loose term here since his legend was never very secure), was a veteran of a school for spies run by a Soviet general in Revolutionary Spain, a man with more names than his protege. How one became the other, who he really was, what he believed in, what exactly he thought he was doing - all of this exists only in the deep memory of the assassin, who at the time Mosley was writing was a TV repairman in Prague. or perhaps in Moscow (one gets the impression that the Iron Curtain obfuscated this). He did it, he killed Trotsky, but who he was, and why he did it, and whether he ever fully justified it to himself, one is not sure of.
3. Trotsky had his own existential angst, to use an in-vogue term. He had been certain in his youth of the inevitable victory of Marxism and that certainty lay behind his success with Lenin in carrying out the October Revolution in 1917, and in winning the Civil War, building up the Red Army and securing the existence of the Soviet Union by 1920. But after Lenin's death, Trotsky had been (or more or less, allowed himself to be) sidelined, had been exiled internally, and then externally, first to Turkey, then to France, then Norway and finally to Mexico. This was not so much a sign of weakness, as an understanding that both the idea of Perpetual Revolution, bringing socialism (Marxism) to the whole of the world, and the Worker's Utopia within one state had failed, or had failed so far. Marxism is a historical theory in that it postulates a certain inevitability but when that inevitability fails to occur, or starts to occur but goes off the tracks, that is when existential angst sets in. Stalin, in power, simply blamed everybody else - Imperialism, Nazis, Trotsky, whatever, scapegoats to the failure in the USSR which could not, from Marxist theory, come from within and this was his rationalisation of (one hesitates to say for) the Purges of the 1930s. Trotsky on the other hand had the relative leisure of opposition from outside, in that he did not actually have to deal with realities. But in being able to look at things realistically, he had to ask himself what was behind the failure, in rational terms, and what could be done about it, without of course doubting the eventual inevitability. This essential conflict was behind his writings from the late 1920s up to his death in August 1940.
Tonight, I watched John Berger's 1972 documentary, part 1 of "Ways of Seeing" looking at aspects of the history of art and painting. Again this focused me on the nature of both perception and of reality. He was very correct in that we, with our reproduction of famous art works on our walls, on our TV screens (and now on our computer or iphone screens) see them in a very different way than they were intended to be seen. Many of us probably have "detail from" on our walls, or as our wallpaper and he talks about how focusing on one detail of a painting can obscure the message of the whole. On my own wall, is a section of Renoir's The Umbrellas, not the whole, but a small part of it, a close-up if you will. He explains how what we would temporarily do with our eyes, zoom in and examine something, is made permanent by such tricks of printing, or camera-work.
He also looks at how art has several contexts - it has the context in which it was created, the context of what it shows, and the absolute context in how someone who knows nothing about either of those comes to it. The first two of these are amply demonstrated by a painting of Hal's' of the benefactors of the Almshouse he inhabited in old age. We see the academic description of the painting which is all about light and form, and we hear the story of the condition he was in when he painted it. We can also see the whole during these phases and can look at the same time upon the painting as an impressive visual show.
The know-nothing (sic) approach to a painting is fantastically summed up when John Berger takes a painting by Caravaggio and discusses it with some school children, of maybe ten years of age. They know nothing about the painting, the painter, or even the scene it displays, but bring their own understandings of reality to the artwork. It would be different today - far fewer people would consider the central figure to be Jesus, because far fewer people go to church, but it was the child's reality that was being brought fresh to the painting. A striking note was the sexual ambiguity of the central figure - the boys thought it was a man, the girls generally thought it was a woman, but one girl said it might be both. John Berger explains to us this was actually intentional on Caravaggio's part as a homosexual, and that the children have caught onto this, whereas adults bring other preconceptions to bear in looking at the painting and by and large don't notice it.
So what IS reality? These two experiences, mixed unwillingly with the unproven Ted Heath allegations, raise some interesting points.
One of these is on the nature of identity. I have often wondered what happens when John le Carre signs a book for a customer. Does that customer come away wondering who on Earth Paul Cornwell is, or is he pleased to have the signature saying John le Carre? If the latter, who are we to say that Ramon Mercador was not really Jacques Mornard, despite all evidence that Jacques Mornard invented his childhood background?
One point is that politics, ideas, philosophy is never a straightforward matter, that every individual has their own ideal summation in their head, or would do if they consciously sat down and thought about it. Every political party has factions and those factions have factions within them, that no doubt also have factions within them. Political identity is a generalisation but when this meets revolutionary ideology it can create chaos. An ideology wedded to action, that works partly in the shadows, when it meets the chaotic construct of the lack of definition becomes wayward. We see this clearly in the 1930s in various Marxist factions all rooting around for purchase, scrabbling to formulate their own truths, denouncing one another, betraying friends for ideals that differ a bare fraction, betraying ideals that barely seem to differ for the sake of a greater whole, coming together, breaking apart, and struggling for a truth which probably does not exist.
For that is Trotsky's point - that what he had presumed to be true for the future had not turned out to be the case, but that did not invalidate the fundamental argument just how it was implemented, or, more worryingly, the consequences of and reaction to the implementation. Perpetual Revolution failed. The masses proved conservative. The worker proved selfish. The bureaucrat proved authoritarian. All of this went against the ideology of historical inevitability, but did not invalidate it. After all, inevitability does not have to happen now - that was, in a way, Trotsky's eventual revelation. That the USSR might not be the end point, but the starting point, that whilst it was essential to protect what had been gained in the Soviet Union, the way forward lay in doing it differently elsewhere (the idea behind the Fourth International). History and Marxism does not make mistakes, but maybe it does have a trial run.
And appearances can be everything. Unproven allegations when you are not around to defend against them can make you seem guilty. Not fighting in his articles against Stalin would have made Trotsky seem to be accepting of the brutality, mass murders, and dictatorship of the 1930s. His work against Stalin might not have made a huge impact at the time, but he kept his name clean (in relative terms), his arguments fresh and of the exact time, and his thought processes open to change. In today's world, Trotsky as an intellectual remains relevant, whilst Stalin's legacy is only about how to take and hold power.
As John Berger shows, everything has its own context - a painting is both what it shows, and when it was painted. It is both who commissioned and displayed it, and what it says to us. Trotsky had a sense of the history of man, he wanted to be above and beyond his own time in his legacy. We can see him as the revolutionary leader standing beside Lenin, or as the War Commissar winning the Russian Civil War, things of their time, or we can see him as a thinker who grappled with the essential problem of how to explain the failure of the inevitable.
In the latter, Trotsky transcends the context of his time. He becomes like Caravaggio's painting in its sexual ambiguity - able to be seen by the unitiated. The children of 1972 did not understand the issue of sexual ambiguity, but they could see it lay at the heart of the painting, even if for most of them this would have been a consensus of the group, rather than the thoughts of an individual.
Trotsky in challenging the implementation of Marxist theory in the ever-more dystopian Soviet Union was addressing an eternal truth - how to explain, and move on from, the failure of theory when exposed to reality. He was certain that it did not invalidate the theory, but rather the implementation, or underlying assumptions, or more probably both.
We can blithely say that if the underlying assumptions are wrong then the theory is wrong, but who are we to make this judgement on history? The 1930s were a moment in time. We are a moment in time. What is real is always in flux.