Before Che, there was Leon

Slate features a great essay on Leon Trotsky by British critic Clive James, excerpted from his volume, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. James provides a context in which Trotsky’s name becomes practically interchangeable with that of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, history’s most fashionable mass murderer. Trotsky, as is well known, was assassinated by icepick on orders from a paranoid Stalin, who could count on the assistance of a literary figure who remains revered today. Yet, as James rightly notes, such treachery doesn’t render Trotsky sympathetic.

Trotsky’s murder was not only horrifying, it was untimely. Treachery made it possible…[Chilean poet and renowned communist] Pablo Neruda was instrumental in smoothing the assassin’s path but never wrote a poem on the subject: something to remember when reading the thousands of ecstatic love poems he did write. They are full of wine and roses, but no ice ax is ever mentioned. Admirers of Neruda don’t seem to mind. The same capacity for tacit endorsement is shown by Trotsky’s admirers, who even today persist in seeing him as some sort of liberal democrat; or, if not as that, then as a true champion of the working class; or anyway, and at the very worst, as one of those large-hearted Old Bolsheviks who might have made the Soviet Union some kind of successfully egalitarian society had they prevailed. But when it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was not sufficiently “militarized.” He meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.

In similar fashion as Stalin, Fidel Castro got rid of troublesome comrades whom he feared could one day challenge his power, including the equally loathsome and bloodthirsty Che. And, just as Stalin had Neruda, Castro has had Colombian literature Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez for a shill.

Stalin ordering Trotsky rubbed out doesn’t make Trotsky any less of a monster. And Che dying a violent death doesn’t make him a victim. Still, the appeal of these thugs persists, which, as Clive James notes, shouldn’t be surprising. “Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution will always be attractive to the kind of romantic who believes that he is being oppressed by global capitalism when he maxes out his credit card” — probably from buying too much Che Guevara merchandise.