The Books: Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, ‘The Old Man’, by Christopher Hitchens


On the essays shelf:

Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays

Isaac Deutscher wrote a three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky (which I have not read: I mean, life is short, you know? I’m sure it’s amazing). Deutscher’s history is an interesting one, and his influence was wide, especially on the radical British Left, of which Christopher Hitchens was a devout member, albeit with some contrarian quirks. Trotsky always was a bit of a cipher, or, maybe it would be more accurate to say, he was a blank screen on which people projected images/hopes/dreams/nightmares. People used his name to connote all kinds of things, he was a symbol (even when he was alive, especially when he was alive). And the character assassination (and actual assassination) was so complete that you have to go back to the original source (his own writing) to sift out the reality. He was a hell of a journalist. He was, in many ways, even scarier than Lenin (which takes some doing), his views even more radical. But he also sensed which way the wind was blowing in Russia, and (obvi) paid a huge price for not backing down, for continuing to behave as if he were free to speak out. Stalin used him and his “betrayal” as the excuse he needed (along with the murder of Kirov) to kill 20 million people, 30 million people, whatever, the numbers start to become meaningless once they reach a certain scale. Trotsky was the bogey-man in Stalinist Russia. He was the scapegoat. Anything that went wrong was blamed on sabotage, either directed by Trotsky from abroad, or done in his name. I used to joke that life would be so much easier if I “had a Trotsky”. Wouldn’t it be so convenient to have someone you could blame everything on, so that you didn’t have to take responsibility for your own actions. Trotsky was a phantom, he wasn’t just “out there”, he was everywhere.

The fights that went on in the New Left seem almost archaic now, like: what on earth were these people going on and on about? But there were factions, and coteries, and philosophical ruptures, and arguing, and an unwillingness to admit just how bad Stalinism was (in some circles), and Trotsky, as always, was at the center of it. How to interpret him? How to factor him in? What did he MEAN? Obviously, the answer depends on how you look at it. People are still arguing about Trotsky.


If you read Hitchens, you know he mentions Trotsky in almost every damn thing he writes. The follow piece was a review of Deutscher’s three-volume biography, published in The Atlantic. It has Hitchens’ typical breadth of reference, and sometimes it’s hard to even absorb the amount of information he puts into one sentence. Hitchens isn’t for beginners. If you don’t have a concept of 20th century history, or if you know only the bare bones of it, I imagine Hitchens would be tough going. Stalinism is, obviously, one of my “things”, an ongoing interest that is not surface-level. I have taken the time to go deep with it. But even I get lost sometimes, and realize, again and again, reading Hitchens’ stuff, how much I don’t know. He’s an excellent motivator to get your shit together, do more reading, and widen your context.

It is no secret that those who have a horse in this race, Lefties who feel defensive (in other words), have often upheld and defended the indefensible. Those who refused to believe the stories coming out of Russia of what Stalin was up to. Those who still persist in believing that Stalin was just a “bad apple”, as opposed to the natural end result of a system that was set up (from the very beginning) to put all power in the hands of one man. Orwell clocked that truth in 1984, that it was never about equality, that that was the Big Lie. It was always about consolidating power in the hands of the few. So the Left has not comported itself well, when it comes to this topic, and Hitchens saw much of that first-hand and would call it out when he saw it. If, in the interest of protecting your “side”, you defend the indefensible, you are the worst kind of charlatan. You make it possible for Evil to continue. Hitchens was always on the lookout for that kind of thing. You can feel an agenda underneath the so-called objective language, and Hitchens does feel it, from time to time, in Deutscher’s massive trilogy. But all in all, Hitchens finds the Trotsky biography “magnificent”.

I’ve only read Trotsky’s actual words. I have a couple of his books of journalism and his book on the French Revolution. It’s tough-going at times. Talk about an agenda! But, you know, come on: If you want to understand the 20th century, you have to at least try to understand Trotsky. And his was a brilliant mind. But I’ve never read a biography of the man. If any of you all have any recommendations along those lines, I’d love to hear it! Something that isn’t three volumes, if possible!

Here’s just a small section of Hitchens’ piece.

Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, ‘The Old Man’, by Christopher Hitchens

Thus this mighty work of reflection and engagement is to a large extent the record of great debates that apparently no longer matter to us. The split between Menshevik and Bolshevik, the dispute over collectivization and industrialization, the polemics concerning Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov and Otto Bauer – all of these have come to appear as arcade as the strife over the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. There are some haunting and visceral moments to be added to the ones I cited above: the massacre of the oppositionists in the gulag and the hunting down of Trotsky’s most distant relatives was exhaustively examined by Deutscher long before many modern historians had taken the full measure of Stalinism. And two major episodes, one of them under-represented and one of them described beautifully, repay more-intense scrutiny.

The first of these is Trotsky’s coverage of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Writing at a time when Titoism appeared secure, Deutscher devoted little space to the ethno-nationalist bloodbaths that had convulsed the region and helped to bring on the great catastrophe of the First World War. He gave a rather spare account of Trotsky’s work in the area, which was undertaken as a journalistic project for a liberal Russian newspaper at a time when Trotsky himself had not become a full-fledged Bolshevik. These dispatches from the front lines in Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria are actually among the finest war-correspondent files of all time. Trotsky was first of all most suspicious of the pan-Slavic prejudices his “own” side, and hastened to inform Russian readers of the cruelties inflicted by the people of the Orthodox cross on the people of the Turkish crescent. He lampooned Russian and Bulgarian chauvinism as it had not been lampooned since Tolstoy ridiculed it in Anna Karenina. (The great examples of Russian literature were never far from his mind, though I can’t be sure of any direct influence in this case.) But when the tide went the other way, and it was the turn of Bulgarians to suffer, he was no less trenchant and truthful. He saw that all partners in the conflict were being manipulated by the “Great” Powers in a cynical rehearsal for a larger war, and he believed that in all the contending countries there were healthy democratic and socialist elements that could rise above crudity and superstition. At the time, this was not merely a sentimental opinion. There actually were such forces. Their panic and capitulation in 1914, and the Europe-wide surrender of the Social Democrats to kings and emperors and generals, was for Trotsky the greatest imaginable tragedy, even if it did provide the opportunity for revolution.

Trotsky’s second great moral moment was to occur during a repeat performance of this capitulation, which occurred nearly two decades later. As Hitler was advancing toward power in Germany, the European left once again abandoned its nerve and its principles, and declined to make common cause. The most depraved offender was Stalin’s Communist International, which insisted that the Social Democrats were a greater enemy than the Nazis, and which implied that a victory by Hitler would merely clear the way for a Communist triumph. In a series of articles that really do vibrate with the tones of Cassandra, Trotsky inveighed against this mixture of ugly real politik and cretinous irresponsibility. The late Irving Howe once described those articles collectively as the finest polemic of all time. I am not sure that I would go so far, but it is very difficult to re-read them even today without a tingling in the scalp and a lump in the throat. Better than Freud or Reich (or Churchill), Trotsky intuited the sheer psychopathic element that underlay the mass appeal of fascism. Much of what he wrote was by analogy, and reflected his old obsession with the decay of the French Revolution (“Fascism is a caricature of Jacobinism”). But as the full seizure of power by the Nazis became imminent, and as Stalin colluded with it more and more openly, he abandoned mere class analysis, as in the following passage:

Today, not only in peasant homes but also in the city sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism … What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet; fascism has given them the banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the … course of the unhindered development of society comes out today gushing from the throat: capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

Trotsky would have scorned to stress his own Jewishness in this situation. When he wrote that “Einstein has been obliged to pitch his tent outside the boundaries of Germany,” he was alluding to the vulgar Nazi contempt for disinterested, rational scientific endeavor. But he partly understood that anti-Semitism was a harbinger, or predictive symptom, of something much worse than unchecked warfare. He had experienced the same premonitions in some of Stalin’s viler attacks on him. Now, he thought, there was a real danger of a war not of mass destruction alone but of mass extermination.

His essays from this terrifying moment are worth re-reading not just for their prescience. (When Neville Chamberlain later signed a deal with Hitler at Munich, Trotsky was the only one to predict that this would lead directly to another pact – the one between Hitler and Stalin.) They are above all a moral warning against the crass mentality of moral equivalence. He wrote, “The wiseacres who claim that they see no difference between Bruning and Hitler are in fact saying: it makes no difference whether our organizations exist or whether they are already destroyed. Beneath this pseudo-radical verbiage hides the most sordid passivity.”

Deutscher was so committed to the defense of Trotsky’s honor, in this desperate situation and in the ones that preceded and followed it, that he could never quite accept the obvious: Trotsky was so much an intellectual that in the final analysis, Marxism was not quite enough for him. He always had the Russian classics in mind, and though these did seem to invoke the committed life as the highest calling, they also supplied ample warning of defeat and disappointment, if not despair. George Steiner cites a favorite passage of mine from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. It describes one of his escapes from Siberian exile, in which he succeeded in boarding a train under his real name, Leo Davidovitch Bronstein.

In my hands, I had a copy of the Iliad in the Russian hexameter of Gneyditch; in my pocket, a passport made out in the name of Trotsky, which I wrote in it at random, without even imagining that it would become my name for the rest of my life … Throughout the journey, the entire car full of passengers drank tea and ate cheap Siberian buns. I read the hexameters and dreamed of the life abroad. The escape proved to be quite without romantic glamour; it dissolved into nothing but an endless drinking of tea.

History, too, might have endings and ironies that are simply inscrutable, or that do not yield to any known dialectic. In spite of the most appalling discouragements and reverses and persecution, Trotsky did continue almost to the end in a belief that the workers would rise again, and that Hitlerism and Stalinism and imperialism would be overthrown by a self-aware and emancipated class. It was this that led him to his only true banal or farcical initiative: the proclamation of a Fourth International to succeed the Social-Democratic and Communist ones. But at the very end of his life, cut off in Mexico and aware of his own declining health, he admitted, after the outbreak of the Second World War, that the conflict might just end without a socialist revolution. In that event the whole Marxist-Leninist project would have to be abandoned:

We would be compelled to acknowledge that [Stalinism] was rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment, but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class. Then it would be necessary to establish in retrospect that … the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal system of exploitation.

Being Trotsky, he could not admit that in the event socialism “petered out as a Utopia,” there would be nothing left worth fighting for. On the contrary, “it is self-evident that a new minimum program would be required – to defend the interest of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic system.”

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6 Responses to The Books: Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, ‘The Old Man’, by Christopher Hitchens

  1. John Vail says:

    Dear Sheila,

    Enjoying your stroll through the Hitchen’s collection although, as you say, his erudition and writing chops are inexhaustible and therefore a bit intimidating for the rest of us mere mortals (but I do miss him acutely- what he would have made about Syria, or Scottish independence, and the like). As for your question, Robert Service has a single volume biography of Trotsky, which was based on a great deal of archival work that rightly reveals far more of the nasty corners of Trotsky than Deutscher’s study (his fervent embrace of the terror and execution of prisoners in particular and his craven justifications for these actions which are a moral embarrassment) yet its not written with any real verve and seemed to me a little to keen to settle scores than depict a life. I read Deutscher 20 years ago and it is indeed a grand tragedy on a Shakespearean scale: from the great heights -as a 20 something almost leading a revolution in 1905 to his central role in 1917 (which is wonderfully portrayed in his own History of the Revolution, a book I had to (luckily) read in my first semester at the University of Chicago alongside Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon -I would be hard pressed to get my own undergraduates to read even a single of these), to the architect of the red victory in the civil war – to the lows of losing out to Stalin in the 20s and his banishment in the 30s. What Deutscher really brings to life are all the counterfactual moments, the what-ifs, when you are literally shouting as you read -you moron, why didn’t you attend Lenin’s funeral; you idiot, why were you so arrogant that you felt you were above party factions which made it all too easy for Stalin, a man with an almost intuitive genius for backroom brawls, to isolate you – to the point where his defeat seems completely understandable yet you can also see how it might have been avoided. It takes a novelist’s craft to pull off that kind of balancing act between inevitability and wishful thinking so my recommendation would be to dip into the volumes for the most momentous periods (1905, October 1917, the civil war years, 20s) and leave the rest aside for as you said life is too short and there are too many books on our shelves. Be well, John

    • sheila says:

      John –

      Wonderful and informative, I cannot thank you enough!!

      I, too, am so grateful that I had to read Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon – as tough-going as some of it was when I was in college. I went back and re-read Gibbon in 2002, I think, and had a blast with it. it just helps place almost everything in a CONTEXT. I never took a class on the Russian Revolution though – this is all just my own interest. And Hitchens certainly makes you want to widen your reading list, if only to keep up! I, too, miss him – and wonder what he would say about so many things. I miss his voice. Cantankerous and unique.

      Your thoughts on the Service biography are interesting and now, dammit, you make me think I should at least dip into the three-volume monstrosity. It’s hard to know – you want to read something with as little bias as possible – or, said better: you don’t want a biographer who feels defensive about his main subject. (I wrote a little bit about that in a post about Morton Cohen’s biography of Lewis Carroll – where he just could not reconcile the man who had written the books he loved with the guy who took weirdo pics of little girls – and instead of just accepting the contradiction, or trying to place it in a context of the time, he just sounds defensive and nervous about people judging his idol. Not a good look.)

      People have been “using” Trotsky as a prop in their own arguments ever since he first came on the scene . Bias, I suppose, is inevitable with such a controversial figure.

      // It takes a novelist’s craft to pull off that kind of balancing act between inevitability and wishful thinking //

      And now you have made me curious.

      First Victor Serge, now this!! :)

  2. John Vail says:


    Right back at ya! I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed and learned from your blog over the years whether it be your incisive takes on novels, or your wonderful insights into the acting craft and movies, the poignant, funny memoirs, your historical acumen, not to mention your extraordinary courage in sharing with us the story of your breakdown and recovery. Admittedly, I haven’t quite managed to share your obsessions for Elvis, Supernatural or Dean Stockwell but I remain in awe of your energy and dedication to the blogging craft. It’s made your site an indispensable treasure and I know that once my dad (whom I’ve been looking after for the last six months) returns back to the US, I’ll have a lot more time for the blog and my own writing so sure to see you in the virtual world soon enough. cheers, John

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much, John! I am impressed that you stuck with me during the Elvis time! I think a lot of people fled the coop then. :) I am not “done” with Elvis, but much of what I’m working on with him is offline now.

      I always still try to put up an eclectic mix of stuff – not just because I don’t want my blog to turn into some kind of Fan Page for this or that artist (although that is true, too) – but because it’s fun to mix it up, and it’s fun to write about all kinds of topics. I think it helps keep me sharp. Or I flatter myself that it does.

      You know, like writing about Trotsky in the middle of the Supernatural obsession. It’s fun!!

      Thank you again, for reading all these years, and your wonderful comments.

      If I ever get to the Deutscher biography, I will be sure to let you know.

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