Saturday, May 20, 2017

Trotsky explains Donald Trump to you: Our idiot president is a “substitute” who represents America’s mass ignorance and bottomless narcissism

How Trump's ludicrous rise mirrors the process that brought Stalin to power — and, mercifully, how it doesn't

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There’s a useful concept in understanding how societies deteriorate into dictatorship that was most famously developed by Leon Trotsky, although it reaches a lot further back in history. This notion of “substitutionism” — I promise the idea is sexier than the name — might help us understand the current occupant of the White House a little better, if only in a negative sense. If Donald Trump presents himself, as he does in every public speech, as a representative or “substitute” for some large group of voiceless and powerless people, then what group is being represented and how did this substitution occur?
Whatever you make of Trotsky’s role as a leader of the Russian Revolution — and his level of responsibility for what became of it in later years — he deserves more recognition than he gets as one of the 20th century’s shrewdest observers of politics, as well as a first-rate journalist who never allowed his personal ideology to dictate his perceptions. I would love to teleport him forward in time and give him an MSNBC show: “Breaking Eggs with Leon Trotsky,” on which he converses jovially with Republican legislators and think-tank neocons — displaying his superior knowledge of French brandy and art history — before promising to fertilize the fields of the future with their bleached bones.
Substitutionism, as understood and refined by Trotsky (he may have coined the term, but didn’t invent the idea), works like this: In a large, sprawling nation where the political situation is murky and chaotic and the mass of the population is sunk in apathy and ignorance, small groups of educated people in the metropolitan centers nominate themselves to speak for the whole. Trotsky was thinking of the Russian Empire at the turn of the last century, where well-meaning intellectuals in St. Petersburg and Moscow often claimed to represent the interests of the millions upon millions of illiterate, superstitious peasants spread out across the vast heartland. Just spitballing here, but I’m thinking we could come up with more recent examples that are at least somewhat analogous.
Trotsky and his fellow Bolshevik revolutionaries ruthlessly mocked the pretentious, French-speaking twits who thought they knew what was best for some family of nine who literally slept with pigs in a hut 2,000 miles away, had never seen a book that wasn’t the local priest’s illustrated Bible and weren’t quite sure whether the Tsar was a human or divine being. But as Trotsky himself soon came to appreciate, the Russian tradition of substitutionism played out on a grand and ironic scale during and after the revolution he helped make.
Some of this is well understood in retrospect, although all of it remains controversial. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky — who were in fact just one faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, after a bitter ideological split — shocked the world by staging a successful revolution in the name of the industrial working class, a social entity that can barely be said to have existed in the Russia of 1917. Some Bolsheviks certainly came from the working class (although neither of those guys did), but historians are never likely to agree about how much of the Russian proletariat actually supported the October Revolution, or how enthusiastically or for how long.
So a minority political movement — a “vanguard party,” to use Leninist terminology — seized power in the name of a minority social class, because that class was perceived as the protagonist of history that would bring an end to all oppression and suffering, etc. Without getting lured into endless debate about the moral dimensions of the Russian Revolution and when exactly it began to go south — that way lies madness! — I think it’s fair to say that Lenin and Trotsky did not intend or envision a despotic one-party state that would crush all forms of opposition and endure for decades as a regime of lies, brutality and murder.
Whether that nightmarish outcome was the inevitable consequence of the Bolsheviks’ initial substitutions — substituting the industrial working class that only half-existed for a vast nation that largely had no idea what was happening, and then substituting a few thousand committed revolutionaries for that class — is an enormous historical unanswerable. It’s not as if the leaders of the October Revolution were unaware of this paradox, or the dangers it presented. In fact it was Trotsky who famously laid out almost exactly what would happen, in an essay written 13 years before the revolution — not as an attack on his future nemesis, Joseph Stalin, but an attack on Lenin’s conception of a centralized, disciplined party bureaucracy:
In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead … to the Party organization “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organization, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee …
It took Stalin the better part of a decade after Lenin’s death to consolidate his power through this gradual process of substitution, which went much further than Trotsky had imagined possible in 1904. At least in theory, the Bolsheviks were OK with open political debate both inside and outside the party, although they certainly reserved the right to crack down on “counterrevolutionary” activity when the workers’ state confronted a state of emergency — a state which, like our own War on Terror, effectively never ended. Even Lenin never suggested that the Communist Party and the Soviet state should be the same thing, and he repeatedly made clear that the bureaucracy could not be trusted to act in the interests of the working class just because it said it was doing so.

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