Fictionally Comprehending Trotsky

Paul LeBlanc

Trotsky in Tijuana
By Dan La Botz
St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Press, BookLocker.com, Inc, 2020, 470 pages,
$20 paperback, Kindle $4.99.

THIS IS A curious work coming from the author of a dozen left-wing volumes on history, politics and social struggles — where statements of fact reign supreme.

On the copyright page, the book announces itself as “a counterfactual historical novel,” with its premise that Leon Trotsky, in Mexican exile, was not killed by a Stalinist assassin in 1940. Instead he lives on for a dozen more years, moving from the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán to the far-western town of Tijuana.

By page 90, I felt an involuntary elation: “Thank God! He wasn’t killed after all!”

Of course a counter-factual novel is a work of fiction, just a story. And to say that someone is “telling stories” is sometimes a colloquialism meaning the person is telling lies. Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn say that Mr. Twain wrote “a true book with some stretchers” — and, here again, a “stretcher” is a lie.

Like any work of art, Trotsky in Tijuana is inflected with inventions — some plausible and others more dubious. Artists bend and shape realities in order to express their understanding of what most effectively communicates their vision. No one reading a novel should get bent out of shape when confronted with what seem to elements on the imagination or “stretchers.”

Even a book filled with reactionary distortions can get at vibrant elements of truth: for example, Dostoyevsky’s relentlessly anti-revolutionary novel The Possessed reveals, perhaps with some exaggeration, the malignant psychology that can overtake even idealists. The question is: To what extent can we find an informative and compelling vision in one or another work of fiction?

According to the disclaimer on the copyright page: “Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.” That, of course, is a “stretcher,” as the author himself confesses in his about-the-author composition at the end of the book: “This novel is an attempt to understand and come to grips with Leon Trotsky and his legacy.”

In the book’s preface another artistic fiction is told — one of the characters in the novel, “Ralph Bucek,” claims that he (not Dan La Botz) wrote the book. This fictional author tells us:

“Leon Trotsky was to me a father figure and, as the reader will discover, I felt the ambivalence toward him that most sons feel toward their fathers. As boys, we think of our fathers as strong and always right, and then later we discover that they can be weak and are sometimes wrong. When we mature, we still love them, but also see them as people like ourselves, as the fathers we have in turn become.” (10)

This seems to me to capture a critical insight that unfolds in the novel. It remains here to consider several aspects of the novel’s attempt to use fiction and the imagination to express original and forceful insights — in regard to the actualities of history, as well as the quality of its artistry and its portrait of Trotsky.

As History

As history, Trotsky in Tijuana has some of its greatest strengths — although there are also some surprising weaknesses. The book is peppered with capably written mini-essays on the history of Tijuana, the Second World War, the Cold War, and various actual and interesting historical figures, including some associated with the revolutionary and socialist movements. There is an occasional error or an interpretive bias, but overall these aspects of the novel are nicely done.

On the other hand, given what the novel is about, a surprising weakness in its historical component involves what I find is missing: any serious sense of the U.S. Trotskyists and their movement (those close to Max Shachtman as well as those close to James P. Cannon). They were central to Trotsky’s life and concerns in this period, but the book’s references to them are incredibly sketchy, fragmentary, disjointed, peripheral.

The only actual character in the book from this milieu is a guard at Trotsky’s compound, the fictional author Ralph Bucek. In addition to Ralph, who are the other guards in Trotsky’s compound? They have neither personalities nor even names. I see this is an artistic deficiency, although I realize that this is not every reader’s concern.*

Yet I would further argue that it is an analytical barrier. The community described by others who were there as guards and secretaries — Joseph Hansen, Rae Spiegel (Raya Dunayevskaya), in an earlier period Sara Weber, and others — is absent from the novel, a failure of verisimilitude. This relates to the novel’s literary qualities: too many people are abstractions or cyphers or not there at all.

The community and interplay of actual human beings, the human and political collectivity of the movement of which Trotsky was a part — embedded in and profoundly connected to the larger social realities and struggles of his time — doesn’t come through here. The vibrant collectivity is missing.

As Literature

Trotsky has been a focal point of a growing number of fiction portrayals and in some ways it feels unfair to compare what the author has done with creations from those professional novelists whose lives have been dedicated to the literary craft.

For example, when Meghan Delahunt’s In the Casa Azul came out in 2001, it was aptly praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “a mesmerizing first novel” resembling “nothing less than one of [Diego] Rivera’s famous murals — human activity everywhere, each figure burning for attention.”

One cannot say the same for Trotsky in Tijuana, nor does it compare favorably with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009), not to mention Leonardo Padura’s wondrous contribution to world literature El hombre que hamba a los perros (2009), translated in English as The Man Who Loved Dogs (2014).

Yet La Botz arguably takes on a more difficult task than the novels by Kingsolver and Padura, since they are not focused on exploring Trotsky the human being. Rather, they engage with him as a symbol of revolutionary hope in relation to the realities of their own countries. Their primary characters are people other than Trotsky — which considerably lightens their load in portraying the great Russian revolutionary.

Bernard Wolfe comes closer to what Dan is reaching for. Wolfe’s The Great Prince Died (1959) brings to mind the pretended author of Trotsky in Tijuana, who like Wolfe was a former Trotskyist and had been a guard at Trotsky’s Mexico compound.

Wolfe has a better feel for the way Trotsky talked and carried himself, but both novels are intent on providing a somber judgment about the meaning of Trotsky’s life. Yet Wolfe’s skill at characterization and dialogue are missing here. Trotsky in Tijuana is full of interesting characters (or ideas for characters) that never quite come alive. They seem moved along by the author, not their own inner dynamics. This might work if the novel were a satire — but it is not.

Of course, the book is not entirely without humor. Colonel de la Fuente, fictional aide to Mexico’s revolutionary-nationalist President Lázaro Cárdenas, shows Trotsky around Tijuana, and Dan has the Colonel delivering a lecture on the area’s history, making reference to the theory of uneven and combined development. “It’s a nice application of the theory,” Trotsky tells him “once again admiring de la Fuente’s mind.” (One imagines the chuckling author’s wink at us.)

There are also nice turns of phrase: when Trotsky engages with a new lover, fictional stand-up comedienne Rachel Silberstein, “they came out of their clothes as easily as bananas out of their skins.” Silberstein is one of the more interesting characters in the novel, but a lengthy account of her raunchy stand-up routine didn’t strike me as all that funny — although we are told the audience “roared with laughter and applauded loudly.”

Another potentially interesting creation is Dr. David Bergman, an associate of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm before fleeing the Nazis to practice psychoanalysis in the United States. He is engaged by Trotsky’s life partner Natalia Sedova, who is hopeful that Trotsky — having suffered so many great personal blows and agonizing stresses — might benefit from therapy.

Unfortunately, this hardly goes anywhere. Bergman seems more a plot device than a person. There are multiple missed opportunities in this book for one who might want to understand Trotsky.

The are other characters who might have been fleshed out to more effectively create the milieu of the Trotsky family and those with whom he associated in Mexican exile. The story of Trotsky’s daughter Zinaida, whose mental breakdown and suicide in 1933 eventually resulted in her son Sieva becoming part of the Trotsky household, is minimized and set aside, as is the life of Sieva himself.

The great artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who had once been so important in Trotsky’s life before the rupture of relations, are mostly absent — the significance of their journey from Trotskyism to Stalinism neither explored nor even mentioned. Also missing, but quite relevant to issues with which Dan seems concerned, was Trotsky’s friendship with Otto Rühle and Alice Rühle-Gerstel, left-communists and devotees of the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who both committed suicide in 1943.

In my view, the highpoint of the novel is the attention given to Trotsky’s companion Natalia Sedova, whose life as a revolutionary is described with great respect. We are told that her intellectual engagement contributed significantly to Trotsky’s own thinking. Her qualities certainly come through in Trotsky’s 1935 diary, and particularly in her splendid book co-authored in 1946-47 with Victor Serge, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky.

Many see her as inseparable from Trotsky, a faded person consigned to the background. In fact, Dan shows Natalia Sedova as very much a person in her own right. We know that she came close to leaving Trotsky over his 1938 affair with Frida Kahlo.

Natalia was central to his life and he worked hard to repair the terrible damage he had done to their relationship. Yet in the novel she finally leaves Trotsky in the late 1940s, over the fictional second love affair, in the process becoming his political opponent. Sedova might have been gratified by well-deserved recognition accorded her, though one can imagine indignation over the way Dan does it. Yet he sees it differently: “Natalia had awakened to her own life.” (364)

A Portrait of Trotsky

The Trotsky who emerges in this novel is “the dominant figure who took command of a living room, a mass meeting, or an army with equal ease.” He was, of course, “a great revolutionary and fighter for freedom and progress,” who may inspire “a new movement for socialism coming from below.” Yet there were terrible weaknesses entwined with the strengths.

Natalia considers the strengths and weaknesses: “His intellectual genius, and his arrogance. His ability to inspire, and his inability to form warm relations with others. His political insight, and at the same time his surprising blind spots. Now with age, the liabilities seemed to be greater than his assets.” (362)

In fact, Trotsky’s thinking is stuck in 1917 or 1923 or 1936 — with limited relevance to the here-and-now: “He is a hero lost in time.” But he is “attached to old formulas,” finding it “difficult to give them up.” By the late 1940s, we are told, his “old theory of permanent revolution explained none” of the new developments (including revolutions in China, Indochina, and Indonesia, not to mention the forced inclusion of Eastern Europe into Stalin’s Communist Bloc).

The mass of Trotsky’s old writings of the 1930s about the turbulent developments in France still had value — they could make “a good door-stop.” Natalia feels compelled to tell him: “You have clung to your old views and your followers in France and New York have made them into a dogma. They surround you and reinforce your views, and no one among them will challenge you.” (373)

In fact, the headquarters of the Trotskyist movement, the Fourth International, “was located in his head,” and he scoffed at the idea of the Fourth International going on without him. Not only had Trotsky come to represent “a Bolshevism characterized by authoritarianism and intolerance,” but he had become “a megalomaniac” who was “at war with everyone.” He was increasingly a man alone, and obsessed: “I am the only one today who can lead the movement and arm a new generation. … Everything depends on me. The fate of the world …”

Obviously, the novel suggests, in the interest of freedom and progress and socialism from below, that one must reject the weaknesses in Trotsky that increasingly overwhelmed the strengths.

There is no doubt in my mind that some weaknesses identified in Trotsky in Tijuana were part of Trotsky’s makeup — although I do not think, for example, that he was a megalomaniac.

It seems to me that the strengths — in the person he was, in his political practice, and in his theoretical contributions — were in a different and far more positive political balance than Dan’s counterfactual novel allows.

The balance that Trotsky in Tijuana presents corresponds, it seems to me, to limitations of this novel as fully-realized literature. There is a failure to connect both Trotsky and his ideas to an essential quality in the movement of which he was part — its collectivity, the multi-dimensional reality of human beings interacting and in motion.

If we place anyone — if we place ourselves — in the actual context of our interactions with all the other human beings (each with our own complex mix of strengths and weaknesses) there is a different chemical balance than would otherwise exist if the others become abstractions or cyphers.

To the extent that we abstract ourselves from the vibrant humanity of others, the living collectivity of which we are a part, it becomes more difficult to comprehend who and what we actually are.

*For two very different assessments of the novel, see: https://newpol.org/counter-historical-revolutionary-dan-la-botzs-trotsky-in-tijuana/ and https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article6874

May-June 2021, ATC 212

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