Is Leon Trotsky relevant today? There is a continuing fascination with American “cultural Trotskyism” , a kind of aesthetic elitism in contradiction with the masses of “unwashed” it is to lead. Almost a pathological hatred toward the peasant and an almost messianic view that true socialism could not come into being in Russia until the whole world was socialist…
Trotsky was an unabashed militarist, a bureaucratic martinet, a fanatic believer in the virtues of industrialization, and a staunch upholder of Western cultural tradition. He preached and practiced the revolutionary virtues of clean appearance, clean living, and clean language:
…And how could one create day by day, if only by little bits, a new life based on mutual consideration, on selfrespect, on the real equality of women, looked upon as fellow-workers, on the efficient care of the children—in an atmosphere poisoned with the roaring, rolling, ringing, and resounding swearing of masters and slaves, that swearing which spares no one and stops at nothing? The struggle against “bad language” is a condition of intellectual culture, just as the fight against filth and vermin is a condition of physical culture.Read More:http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/women/life/23_05_16.htm
In his rare leisure moments Trotsky was a keen outdoorsman, a kind of Marxist Teddy Roosevelt, whose greatest passions after revolution and literature were hunting and fishing.
Though some who admire Trotsky as some sort of hip icon, brand-name political clothing, they seem to be blissfully ignorant of the “square” and authoritarian elements in their idol’s teachings. It does not seem too farfetched to suggest that a larger number are positively attracted by these elements and are therefore unconsciously revolting against the permissiveness of Western society rather than against its imagined repressiveness. There is a similar but even stronger case for thinking that the unavowed, sometimes inverted, romanticism of Trotsky’s life and character accounts for much of his appeal to a certain type of contemporary “rebel”.
Trotsky was often accused of being a romantic Marxist; there is no doubt that to the end of his days he remained a Marxist romantic.
Revolutionaries commonly grow up in families that are either harshly exploited or else overprivileged, and romantics spring more often from a decadent or dispossessed elite than from an ascendent social milieu. Trotsky- Lev Davidovich Bronstein- was born on a farm in the southern Ukraine of parents who had started poor but were making it, by their own efforts. They were Jews, but they lived as independent, landowning peasants, a rare thing among Russian Jews at that time, and were largely free from both the trammels of custom that Jewish society imposed upon itself and from the restrictions or vexations that the czarist state imposed upon Russian Jewry.
There was a basic di
omy in Trotsky’s nature. There were to be occasions in his career as an adult revolutionary when the Marxist zealot or windy theorizer would seem, in fact, to have forgotten his native humanity, not to mention his common sense. For example, he denounced the “wretched and miserable liberal prejudice” that forced labor was always unproductive.
More often perhaps, Trotsky’s Marxism would serve as a focusing lens to the somewhat diffuse ardor of his temperament, magnifying both his virtues and his faults to a heroic intensity, ultimately enabling him to personify better than any other figure in modern history the twentieth-century myth of revolution.
Greenberg wrote for the Partisan Review, a left magazine which apparently Trotsky believed was concerned far too much with culture and not enough with mobilising the Revolution. Another of America’s distinguished art critics, Donald Kuspit, was a friend of Greenberg’s, and was his biographer. Donald’s talking to me from our New York studio.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, I think it’s important to see the essay ‘Avant Garde and the Kitsch’ in the context of its time, 1939. In the thirties the dominant mode of American art was so-called social realism or American scene painting, regionalism… It was from Greenberg’s point of view a provincial, narrow art. It was also an art which was meant to have popular appeal. And he saw what was happening in Europe. He thought this was ‘more advanced’ art—that is, the development of abstraction in all its permutations. And he became an advocate for that abstraction. And ‘avant garde’ means abstract art, for him. He sets up this sharp dichotomy between avant garde and kitsch where kitsch is essentially mass-produced for a collective public with very little differentiation or individuation in it; in contrast to a profounder, more individualistic art such as avant garde art. …Read More:http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/exhibita/stories/s1341092.htm
…Greenberg at bottom had an elitist notion that art was for the happy few, as it were, who have the perception and understanding to truly appreciate it and evaluate it. And he was trying to create a sort of realm or space for the development of this art apart from public space, as it were, and from the mass audience. He felt that the very idea of thinking of art in terms of appeal to a mass audience was beside the point of what was significant in art….
…Julie Copeland: Pretty unusual for an American art critic at that time to have been a Trotskyite, wouldn’t it be? He would have been very isolated.
Donald Kuspit: Extremely unusual. But he also did believe that capitalism was in decline. He uses that term. Of course it’s been in decline for a long time and that was a conventional communist belief, which had been around at least since the 19th century. And the question is, how art could survive during this capitalist decline. It’s very interesting to think that the narrowing of the focus of art to its medium can be understood as a sort of defensive position within the venture that capitalism made possible for art. He does acknowledge that avant garde art is a late capitalist phenomenon. That’s one side of his argument, the social side. The other side of his argument, it’s been inevitable in art all along, the tendency to purification of the medium, articulating the medium for its own pure sake, as it were, we’ve been there all along….Read More:http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/exhibita/stories/s1341092.htm
Julie Copeland: And elite. There is a paradox there, isn’t there…very contradictory…
Donald Kuspit: Very elite, yes, there is a paradox…
Julie Copeland: …in the essay called ‘Plight of Culture’, which I think you were referring to there, Donald.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, you’re absolutely correct. There is a contradiction there which I’m not sure that Greenberg ever resolved. He on the one side was interested in an art that resonated as, let’s call it, in the society. But only kitsch did that, and so he in some sense gave up on the possibility of having a high art that would resonate in society and simply, as you say, pursuing art for the sake of art.Read More:http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/exhibita/stories/s1341092.htm