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Trotsky in Tijuana: An interview with Dan La Botz

C. D. Hardy and Desmund Hui

Platypus Review 157 | June 2023

On January 21, 2023, Platypus Affiliated Society members C. D. Hardy and Desmund Hui interviewed Dan La Botz regarding his counter-historical novel Trotsky in Tijuana (2020), in which Leon Trotsky survives the assassination attempt in August 1940. An edited transcript follows.

Desmund Hui: Could you give a brief explanation of your background in Trotskyism and what motivated you to write this novel?

Dan La Botz: A few years ago, maybe even ten years ago, I was in Paris and I picked up Victor Serge’s Notebooks. I read them for a long time. I carried them around with me. It’s a big fat book. It’s his notebooks of the 1930s and 40s, and it’s quite an interesting book because of the way he looks at Trotsky.

I have always viewed Trotsky as a great intellectual, a Marxist intellectual. He obviously was an impressive leader in his time in many ways: as the president of the first soviet back in 1905, later as the founder of the Red Army, and even before that, one of the architects of the Russian Revolution together with Lenin. He was a person who could take on, it seemed, almost any kind of task. But then when I read Serge’s Notebooks, it was interesting how Trotsky seemed to be ––– as somebody else had written ––– out of his time, that in the late 30s and 1940 he seemed to show bad judgement about certain things. Obviously his writings on fascism in Germany, on the problem of the Third Period Communists, of the split between the Socialist and Communist parties — all of those writings are a great account and brilliant critique of what was happening in the Left in Germany. But when we get to the later 30s, we see his rejection of attempting to found a Fourth International that would have been broader than his own closest co-thinkers. Here was an opportunity, a need for a new revolutionary movement in Europe, and he did not want to work with these larger groups, some of which surely did not have people who shared all of his ideas and some of whom no doubt had reformist currents or whatever, but many of them had brilliant independent Leftist leaders who’d been around for years, who had worked in various countries, and were committed revolutionaries. It seemed to me he did not want to build a party that would have been broader than his own most narrow chosen followers. That was a tremendous mistake.

In Spain people from the far Left of the Communist movement — and what people called the Right of the Communist movement — had formed the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM).[1] Here we had this party that was a quasi-mass party, very much involved with the anarchist Left and with the socialist Left, and Trotsky rejected a working relationship with that group, which is part of the same issue of not being able to work with other independent Marxist thinkers. Instead, he had a tiny party, some people said it had two members in Spain. That’s probably a nasty remark and an exaggeration, but in any case he had a group of followers in Spain who could have no impact even in terms of propaganda. Yet many people in the POUM liked him, respected him, wished to work with him, but wanted to be treated on a respectful basis and treated as other equal socialists in a democratic group or a democratic movement. That struck me as a problem too. It was reading those notebooks and seeing Serge’s critical account of Trotsky that motivated me to write the book.

I should say one more fundamental political mistake, which is Trotsky’s views of the Soviet Union. Here we have the Soviet Union in his own lifetime completely transformed, and he has what strikes me as a very wooden metaphor. He thinks of the Soviet Union as a trade union run by a bureaucracy, which doesn’t work at all. This is a nation that has a one-party ruling class that controls the entire economy and runs it and where workers have nothing to do with it. There are no soviets anymore; there are no trade unions that are independent; there are no independent workers’ organizations; there are no workers’ reading groups, study groups, study circles, the kind of things that he knew as a young man in Tsarist Russia — none of that is permitted in Soviet Russia. How could he so fail to understand the complete — not simply degeneration — but complete transformation of the Soviet Union into a new form of class society run by a bureaucratic class that was neither socialist nor capitalist? That’s a big question that I ask in the book, and I show him, toward the end of the book, trying to grapple with that and not changing his mind but not coming up with any better ideas as his wife Natalia Sedova and Serge do.

I should include in this the very way he treated Serge. Serge loved Trotsky; he was a close friend that really cared for Trotsky. He was a person who fundamentally agreed with many or most of Trotsky’s ideas. He was also someone who was working all the time, conscientiously translating Trotsky’s work, and Trotsky was constantly criticizing and attacking Serge, though Serge continued to be a loyal friend and translator. That made me wonder — not just in the political but in the psychological sense — what’s going on with this guy? He can’t appreciate and respect a man who wants to be a good friend but has his own views? Those are the principal things that made me want to look into Trotsky and his life, to think about who he was.

I was looking at the book again recently, and I realized, in the sources that I listed, that I had left out one of the primary sources, which is Jean van Heijenoort’s memoir of his years as Trotsky’s bodyguard and secretary.[2] We know from that memoir that Trotsky had this affair with Frida Kahlo, which caused enormous pain to his wife. Van Heijenoort also recalls Trotsky running into another woman’s house when they were living in Coyoacán. So that’s part of his personality, and that’s a complicated issue. Love affairs and personal relationships, marriages — those are all complicated. But I wondered then, what was going on with that, where did that fit in in his life, his need for other people with whom he could have an intimate relationship?

Two last things. One of them is, I am now 77 years old myself, older than Trotsky lived to be, and have macular degeneration, a disease which gradually causes you to lose your eyesight. I thought it would be interesting to think of what happens to Trotsky if he were to live and get older: what would happen to him? He’s a human being, and as people age, after they get to the age of 70 or 80, they have certain infirmities. How would Trotsky handle that?

Finally, the book really came to me as a title, which is a strange thing to say, but with all that in the back of my head I thought to myself, “Trotsky in Tijuana.” I grew up right by the border of Tijuana. From my mother’s house, where I was a high school student, if I looked out the front door, I could see the hills of Tijuana. I could have walked to Tijuana in an hour on the beach. I could have driven there in 15 minutes in a car. It made me think, what happens if we have Trotsky and he doesn’t get killed but he lives on and he gets sent to what would be the Siberia of Mexico? At that time you could not even get to Tijuana by roads from Mexico. If you wanted to go to Tijuana in the 30s you would have to go up the coast by boat or you went through the U.S. A lot of people came down from Los Angeles because Tijuana was really an appendage of San Diego and Los Angeles. That’s what made me think of the book: who was this man Trotsky? Why did he make these mistakes?

DH: In your novel, the last book Trotsky writes — obviously fictional — is Capitalism, Socialism, and the Cold War, and he says the Soviet Union is still going through a “twilight era.” But just to go back a bit, you mentioned how you were motivated to write this book based on reading Victor Serge, but Serge was of course describing what Trotsky was doing while he was still alive, in the 30s. What prompted you to write an alternative history, imagining what Trotsky would do post-assassination? What do you think was the political value of that?

DLB: The political value was that it allowed me to do something that, as far as I know, no one else has done. There’s a bunch of novels about Trotsky, some of them I’ve read, some of them I couldn’t bear to read. The most wonderful one is Leonardo Pardura’s El hombre que amaba a los perros (2009).[3] That is a fantastic novel.

I think it was the idea that I could then push Trotsky further on this Russian question, let him continue to see Russia and the war and so on, and really see the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe. I brought it up in a pithy, contemporary kind of question. In my novel, he meets this wonderful woman, Rachel Silberstein, my character that I created. Trotsky tells her, “You know the workers and peasants are rising up in these various places,” and she is quite correctly not impressed, and she says, “Yes, and the Red Army is raping its way across Europe.” We know that that was true. We know that the Russian army is doing that today, and no doubt there’s some continuity of history — that it’s raping its way across Ukraine. It’s one of the war crimes attributed to the Russians then and now. I thought putting that in her mouth, that little sentence, if nothing else, forces us to look at this Russian question another way. By extending his life into the early 1950s, we’re able to see him go through all of WWII and having to grapple with what’s really happening in the Soviet Union. What’s happening in Eastern Europe? What is this brave new world that hath such creatures in it?

C. D. Hardy: One of the things that’s so interesting about this project is the counterfactual you pose. It’s something that people, or at least people who are into this kind of thing, discuss. What if Trotsky had survived? The other one related to Trotsky is, what if Trotsky had won out over Stalin in the 1920s? I think it’s Max Eastman who tells Trotsky that he should have just used the Red Army and taken control of the state.

What makes Trotsky a man out of his time? Imagining Trotsky living into the 1950s and coexisting with Howdy Doody or the Eisenhower presidency is really interesting, and it’s hard to imagine the way that it’s not with some other contemporary figures. It’s not hard to imagine James Cannon or Max Shachtman living until the 1980s — you can kind of telegraph where they would wind up — but with Trotsky he’s a product of a specific moment in Marxism.

DLB: That’s right. Two things that I think about: if you haven’t read it before, you can read van Heijenoort’s “A Century’s Balance Sheet” (1948),[4] in which he describes 100 years of the working class, 1848 to 1948. Van Heijenoort had been Trotsky’s most beloved secretary. Trotsky valued him and thought highly of him, put him in charge of reorganizing the International, which for Trotsky would be the top job. In the essay, van Heijenoort writes, “this working class can do great things, but it can’t rule and it’s never going to be able to rule, and I’m out.” He leaves the Trotskyist movement, and I don’t think he’s an activist after that. I imagine in his head he would have been a supporter of democratic, social democratic, or democratic socialist things.

Another way to think about this is Andre Gorz’s book Farewell to the Working Class (1980). When I first read it I was shocked and didn’t agree with it, but then I reread it recently. He wrote that book and then wrote a few other books that are quite interesting. Gorz argues that the working class can no longer be a revolutionary class. But what if we project backwards from what Gorz is looking at? Gorz says one could conceive of the workers as a revolutionary class in the age of steel mills, more or less. If you’ve read David Montgomery’s book The Fall of the House of Labor (1988), where he takes you by the hand through steel mills, you would know that in the steel mills in the 19th century the workers are the only ones who know how to do everything; the bosses had not yet got it all figured out. The workers would come in, and the bosses would hire teams of workers, for example, for crucial processes in the middle, like making or running the steel. They were complicated, sensitive tasks. Trotsky was a man of the age of iron and steel. All his metaphors are railroad metaphors: somebody’s got to rush to the locomotive and grab the controls from Stalin and drive the train! Other times when mistakes are made he says, the train of history moves and some people fall off the train! He’s a man of the age of steel and iron, coal mines, and railroads. That is a way of thinking about industry and the incredibly important role of workers in that period — workers who could understand the whole factory.

I worked in a steel mill in Gary, Indiana. I worked at Gary Works which at one time had 40,000 workers. When I worked there, I think it had 20,000 workers. It was an enormous steel mill: 10 miles long, a mile wide. You’ve probably driven by and seen the various colors of smoke belching out of various parts of the mill. Even in a mill that big, like the Putilov works in Petrograd that he and others write about, workers knew every corner of that. They knew how everything was done, and so you could imagine them actually running it. As the great American labor leader Big Bill Haywood said, “the boss’s brains are under the workman’s cap.” But the bosses figure that out. We have Harry Braverman’s book Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), where he talks about what happened to labor when the bosses came in, took off the cap, went into the worker’s brain, and got all that information. They did that through all the time-study stuff that came out of Frederick W. Taylor.

In Taylor’s time studies he would sit right next to a guy running a machine and time everything he did, watch how he did it, and make diagrams, make notes, and keep timetables. We have the famous occasion where Taylor tells him, “run this piece of steel to this speed,” and the worker will run it 50,000 RPM or whatever it is, and the worker will tell the guy, “it’s going to break at 90,000.” Taylor would say, “I don’t care. Run the steel anyway. I want to see where it will break.” The worker would just say, “okay.” Maybe it broke where the worker thought it would, but if it broke at 100,000 then Taylor makes a note. He wanted to know where the steel broke, and he also wanted to know where the workers broke. Taylor wanted to know the moment in work where workers could no longer go faster; he wanted to push them to that limit. Trotsky lived in that era, of those factories before everything had gone into files, had gone to headquarters in New York or Chicago, and all that information was in those places. Once that happened, the workers no longer had the personal knowledge or even the collective knowledge in the factory to run that place.

This is the point that Gorz argues: production today is no longer in the workplace, in the hands of workers. It is in the hands of not just the supervisors but the technicians. Today we would say it’s in the hands of the high-tech workers and in their computers. Now we can say that these are also workers, but it means that the coordination of a working-class movement would have to involve them in a central way, because they actually know where everything is, they have the power to stop it, etc.

That’s one thing — the change in the economy. But maybe also the change in world power dynamics, i.e., the Soviet Union that he knew as a besieged workers’ fortress had become the powerful base for the expansion of a new bureaucratic class. Trotsky continued to think of the Soviet Union as being besieged when in fact Stalin had figured out, at the cost of millions of lives, how to industrialize it, how to turn it into at least a new European power. The Soviet Union became a new imperial power that could move west and could simultaneously, weirdly, carry out this “liberation” and then conquest of Eastern Europe. Trotsky didn’t grasp the new political dynamics. This is a presumptuous thing of me to say about the guy who was one of the best heads for grasping international political dynamics, but he missed it. On the other hand, we should note in 1924 in a speech to the meeting of the Third Congress of the Communist International, he says it’s very clear, the writing is on the wall: you can see that a war is coming between the U.S. and Great Britain! So Trotsky didn’t always get it right, and he didn’t get it right about the late 40s or even the mid 40s. He didn’t get it right, for example, in the late 30s when the invasion of Finland took place! He couldn’t deal with a giant nation attacking a little nation. I thought we socialists say we stand for democratic self-determination, the right of peoples to defend themselves, etc. He couldn’t deal with that. Or see the Hitler-Stalin pact, the division of Poland between Hitler and Stalin: Trotsky didn’t come out on the right side of these questions; he couldn’t understand how to deal with them. Pushing that into the future allows us to try to work it out a little further.

DH: On Trotsky being a man out of his time, you said it was because of how the working class was organized at that time. But of course Trotsky himself wasn’t working class; he came from wealthy landowners. One of the things that stuck with me after reading your book was your portrayal of what it meant to be a revolutionary, what it meant to be Trotsky. He’s sitting at a table and there’s a hundred different journals from all around the world, and he has three people who are translating what he’s saying and what he’s writing into three different languages. I’ll push back on that: was it just the fact that the working class had more knowledge at that time that made Trotsky who he was? It seems like Trotsky wasn’t just working class; he was a political revolutionary. What allowed Trotsky to be a political revolutionary?

DLB: What’s the relationship between his class background and his politics?

DH: It’s not just his class background. He was a professional revolutionary; it didn’t matter that he came from a certain background. In terms of what he was, he was distinct from the working class.

DLB: In that Bolshevik milieu that Trotsky and others were in, there were people with bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, working-class, or peasant backgrounds; some were technical workers; some of them also assumed the same kind of jobs that Trotsky had. Look at Stalin: Stalin comes from a terrible family, a poor working-class father who was an abusive alcoholic. He takes the only road open for a poor person and goes to the seminary. Stalin becomes a reader; he loves books. If you read the biographies of Stalin — and I’ve read a bunch of them — he comes to love an intellectual life; he loves poetry. Then Stalin comes into the workers’ movement, which becomes a vehicle for a person with intellectual as well as political aspirations. This was also true in the U.S. — all over the world too — for immigrants. Immigrants came from other countries trying to figure out the U.S. If you got involved in the Communist Party or Trotsky’s Communist League or Socialist Workers Party of that era, it became a vehicle for you to learn to understand the country, to read, to write, to be around intelligent people, to have intellectually stimulating discussions, to develop strategic ideas, and to figure out how to come to power. It’s not just that he was from a well-off family; being from that kind of family no doubt helped; it gave him a certain leg-up, but it was also being near Odessa, being near a big city with its stimulating life. We also have the example of Mao Zedong who came from a peasant background — better-off peasants but in a very backward country — and Mao finds himself in Shanghai and he’s able to become a revolutionary.

There are various things that make people revolutionaries. I was in Indonesia for a while, and I wrote a book on Indonesia, but I got some things wrong in it, so I’m somewhat embarrassed about it. In researching that book, I talked to an Indonesian revolutionary who was in the Partai Rakyat Demokratik,[5] and he said when people come to the big city, the women for the first time have some money in their pockets; they have some independence. These are Muslim women not under the thumb of their father, and there’s no husband around. The men there can suddenly go watch pornography; that is, there are many things in the big city that break you from your past and allow you to become something else. Especially considering that 90% of the people in the world were peasants when Trotsky started, maybe 80% when he finished — it was still 80% not long ago.

I did write about Stalin in that book. What does Stalin do? He gets up in the morning, he goes to his desk, he reads his papers. He didn’t have the facility with languages but he could employ plenty of people to translate everything and send him the reports of everything, but it’s just like the executive of a corporation. The corporate executive has his secretaries, his translators, and all the resources at his disposal to run a big organization. Running a big organization means you have a lot to handle, a lot of moving parts. Being a revolutionary is also trying to run a national organization.

I was involved in a small socialist group in the 1970s called the International Socialists. I don’t think it ever surpassed 300 members, but with our few hundred members we started to think about building a national presence in different labor unions. Having that experience expands your mind: you’re now trying to think about the whole country in a practical way. Students of history, political science, or sociology sit down and read a book and think about big things like this, but they’re not usually also trying to simultaneously do something in the world about those things.

CH: What you said, following Gorz and Braverman to an extent, is that there’s a changed relationship of dependency between the workers and the bosses that happens, and that Trotsky might not be fully aware of or have the political tools to respond to that.

DLB: It’s interesting that a lot of the people who were in and around the Trotskyist movement, some of whom became adversaries of Trotsky’s, were thinking about this question: what’s the relationship between the capitalist class and the managerial class? This whole theory about the managerial class — James Burnham was in the Trotskyist movement and then goes off and becomes the famous sociologist of this. It’s interesting that they are trying to explore that. Trotsky’s idea is that the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy is like the trade-union bureaucracy, but when they’re trying to think about what is happening with this bureaucratic development in every level throughout the world, maybe in certain ways they’re getting closer than he is. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that question. That belongs in the next novel.

CH: Farrell Dobbs put it well, and he’s someone who had a lot of experience with trade-union bureaucracy, even if the form that it took under International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader Dan Tobin was primitive compared to what would come later. But for him the principal objective of socialist participation in unions was educational. It was that through these struggles the working class would have to confront the fundamental question of state power; they would realize that there isn’t a purely economic solution to their issues. Trotsky’s last essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940) shows that for him this bureaucratic drift and specialization pose the same question, but maybe more acutely.

DLB: That’s an important essay. It’s quite a brilliant one and it raises interesting questions because it’s about the tendency towards the stratification of unions, of state intervention into unions. I spent a lot of my intellectual career writing about Mexico, and one of the things I learned in Mexico, studying workers in unions, is that they have a completely different labor-union system. Our U.S. labor-union system was based on the capitalists capturing the labor bureaucracy in their industry. If the steel corporations go to testify in Congress about the need for steel protection, all the union officers go with them. They’re partners, and they could be partners in productions — the team concept of the 1980s–2000s in the auto industry and others — whereas in Mexico the labor bureaucracy is loyal to the state. Perhaps not anymore; a lot has changed since the first PAN[6] government in 2000. Before that, the labor unions were completely dependent on the state. Now, the state wanted them to get along with the capitalist class, but if push came to shove, they would be with the government.

DH: In your book you bring up Serge and a few, let’s say, anti-Stalinist socialists, dissidents, like Shachtman, who came up with the bureaucratic collectivism thesis, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, who writes a fictional note to Trotsky asking for an alliance. You said earlier that you thought Trotsky was too sectarian, but what do you make of the fact that these projects actually did not end up leading to a successful world revolution? Neither Shachtman nor Serge nor Sartre led a proletarian revolution, or even built an international.

DLB: I’m very interested in Sartre’s Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (RDR).[7] I think that was a very great experiment. It was the right thing to do, and he did it with two of the leading Trotskyist Leftists. The RDR was an important opportunity; it wanted to become the political expression of the Resistance. Here’s a time at the end of WWII where there’s a huge hope for a socialist world by an enormous part of the working class — not all of it, but certainly France and Italy. Stalinism controls too much of it, so here come Sartre and these other people with a project to try to attract workers in the Stalinist parties and bring them into a new socialist movement opposed to capitalism and Stalinism. What a great idea! Even if that also failed. I believe that Trotsky would have written exactly the letter I have him write rejecting the alliance, except maybe even more contemptuous and venomous than the letter I wrote for him.

So why did all these efforts fail? They failed because the working class had been so devastated. WWI and WWII succeeded in wiping out almost the entire working class that Trotsky had known. Those generations of workers, created since about 1870 that had been growing into maturity in the 1880s–1910s, who had been able to put forward revolutionary projects in a half-dozen countries with serious possibilities — Russia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, these are countries where there were chances — that revolutionary working class was wiped out.

In the post-World War world, the new working classes that were created were different. We should first say that the American working class became contained by the prosperity of the U.S. “The American working class” — I sound like Herbert Marcuse here, but I think that’s sort of right. The wealth and power of the U.S. made it difficult for American workers to see the necessity or possibility of a revolutionary movement. They didn’t see the necessity by and large. They weren’t all happy. My mother was a grocery checker. My family fell through into a couple of years of real poverty when my mother divorced as a young woman. There were many millions of especially black and Latino workers who were living in poverty, but they did not feel the necessity of revolution. Later some blacks maybe do, but the whole country is not moving in that direction the way things had been going in Europe before the wars.

On the reconstitution of the European classes, they are reconstituted in nations where capitalism is reestablished on a new basis. As we all know, because of the war’s destruction, there were green-fields where you could build factories in Germany or in Japan that could be completely modern. In the steel mill I worked in, you first made the steel, then you poured an ingot, then you brought the ingot back and you reheated it, and ran the ingot on a roller line. But in the Japanese factories, you poured the steel, and it just began the whole process and ended up coming off as rolled steel at the end of the line. They got rid of all those stages and steps. Some of these countries are quite rich: Japan, Germany. South Korea becomes quite rich. All the European nations in general have a very high standard of living. In Asia, the radical transformation of peasant societies, but above all in China of course, meant that the working class was being reconstituted, reborn, rebuilt, and that process has maybe never ended. Are we still in the reconstitution of the post-WWII working class? I don’t know. On a world scale, I guess we are.

DH: To elaborate on my question, what purpose do you see in emphasizing these roads that Trotsky could have taken if it seems that in reality these roads were not successful?

DLB: Let’s imagine Trotsky woke up one morning and said, “What an idiot I was! I should have built the Fourth International as people suggested, with elements of these small mass parties that existed then, and Sartre’s giving us another chance, and I should throw my intellectual and moral weight into this project.” Might that have made that possible? Of course that’s only in the fictional world because in the real world it didn’t happen. So why mention them in fiction when in the real world they didn’t work? Partly it’s because you have to mention things if you think they are morally superior. You have an obligation to say this would have led to a more moral, better world, and we should affirm that, if only as a possible guide to future thinking about what we are looking for and how we can get there from here. What kind of a coalition do we need? It seems Sartre is closer than Trotsky to that question in that time, and Sartre was closer to that in the mid-1940s than Trotsky was in the late 30s. That’s the importance. It’s to say, we should try to preserve whatever might be useful out of the past, either as a strategy or as a possible vision for the future. You need both visions and strategies.

CH: The implication from the story seems to be that Trotsky living doesn’t mean that Trotskyism lives, and that Trotskyism in its own way is a stillborn project. It raises interesting questions about what Trotsky represents for us. There’s a term we use in some of the education within Platypus, that Trotsky represents the last man standing of the radicalism of Second International Marxism. What’s compelling about this story is having him stand a bit longer, although it doesn’t amount to a radical change of how the 20th century turns out.

DLB: I try to show in my novel that there are problems with Trotskyism. I take the reader to France and look at the French section of the Trotskyists, and it’s quite sad. You have these two or three brilliant people, one is a great intellectual, Pierre Naville. Another is a great popular leader, Raymond Molinier. You have these various competing people and they can’t really pull together a party. There’s something about the Trotskyist experience that turns them into wonderful spinners of theories and experimental ideas, but they’re unable to cohere a group. Who knows exactly why that is?

And Trotsky’s authoritarianism — the fact that he has to come and intervene in everything that’s happening is a problem. You say, “the last man standing.” I guess that if Rosa Luxemburg had lived, she would be the last woman standing. The question is, what is it that generated these Trotskyist groups? Trotsky became authoritarian himself. I put this in the beginning of the book. I was reading his diaries in the 30s, and he has this quote at the beginning of the novel where he says, “there is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with a revolutionary method.” It’s just incredibly arrogant. Yes, he had a lot of experience; he was a smart guy. There were also a lot of other people out there: the Dutch guy called Maring (Henk Sneevliet), the two Spaniards, Joaquín Maurín and Andreu Nin — there were lots of other smart people. Maybe he was the smartest, who knows? Certainly he had the most experience in a revolutionary movement that briefly took power for a few years in Russia, but it’s an extremely arrogant point of view.

Trotsky intervened constantly. It’s not very helpful if you have an organization that’s full of young people and you, as the older person, always come in and tell them what to do. That does not lead them to maturity. And if they fear that they can never stand up to you and tell you you’re wrong, that they have a different idea and say that in the next meeting they will vote for their program against yours, that’s a very problematic situation and that’s what Trotsky created around the world in all of his sections. He had to have the deciding voice. It’s interesting to imagine what would have happened with his staff. I don’t think it would have been much different if he had survived. You would still have an Ernest Mandel, a Michel Pablo; you would still have important figures who would arise. They would also show, whatever you think of Pablo or Mandel, that there are smart revolutionaries out there that will also come along and can propose new theories.

DH: On that note, do you think Trotskyism was a stillborn project? Would you consider it doomed to fail?

DLB: The Fourth International was a stillborn project, sort of, but you did have periods of revival later. I don’t admire the Fourth International in its period of being a Castroist, Fidelista, Guevarista project of supporting the armed guerrillas of Latin America, but it did have an upsurge there. You do have the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste,[8] created by the Trotskyists of the Fourth International in the 2000s. The Fourth International today has many people who have tried to comprehend a new world in a new way, and I have an admiration for them attempting to do that. So on the one hand Trotsky’s project was definitely stillborn; it did not become a mass revolutionary party. On the other hand some of the genetic material was harvested for future revolutionary developments, we might say.

CH: One thing that occurs to me about the last few years of Trotsky’s life and the movement around him is that with the Transitional Program (1938),[9] but also with some of their other initiatives, they’re looking for a new milieu, where to intervene. One thing that comes to mind is that in 1940, Trotsky recommended to the Socialist Workers Party that they should campaign for the Communist Party presidential candidate, which I think was Browder.

DLB: There was a loser, huh? Browder didn’t even get any votes by himself, and the Trotskyists simply would have gone down with him. The Communists weren’t even serious about Browder; they were supporting the Democrats, really.

CH: They said, “vote against the Republicans.”

DLB: Just to give an example of failed alternate projects.

CH: This is a case where the Socialist Workers Party told him, “no, we’re not going to go do that.”

DLB: Good for them.

CH: I don’t think it was simply him calling the tune in terms of those sorts of matters. Obviously, yes, there were bigger disputes.

DLB: I would say it happened in general.I will agree that in some cases people did decide to defy him openly or do other things. I wrote an article on Laurent Schwarz.[10] He was a loyal Trotskyist in the 1930s in the anti-Nazi, underground movement. He says, “I never agreed with him on this and that, but I was afraid to speak out because the movement was so dominated by Trotsky and then by the local leaders.” It’s not really democratic if you don’t feel you can just say what’s on your mind.

DH: What lesson do you hope people will take away from your novel? Did you intend to write this novel as a tragedy? The tragedy of Trotsky? The tragedy of Trotskyism?

DLB: Isaac Deutscher wrote the three-volume tragedy of Trotskyism.[11] I wasn’t trying to write it as a tragedy, and I hope it has some comic moments in it, which I think it does. I was trying to explore the questions, who was this man, what were his ideas, and why did he become a man out of his time?

One of the lessons is that in every period you must rethink the nature of the period you’re in. We are right now in a period in which the dominant question is the environment question, the question of the future of humanity. That is the number one question, and it has to be done in certain time limits. Do we think the working class can actually run into the locomotive and seize the controls, as Trotsky would have said? It probably doesn’t matter, because, like the metro, it doesn’t even have a guy there at the controls; it’s somebody else in an office faraway. But, what are we going to do about the environment question? Does that require reaching some compromise with the bourgeoisie, forcing the bourgeoisie to handle this because they have the power? Does this require some democratic alliance on the planet? Do we think that the working class, as it is right now — Marx says the working class will take five, ten, fifty years to become prepared to rule — is this working class going to become prepared to rule in twenty years or whatever the hell it takes to stop the glaciers from disappearing? We have to be thinking about that today.

And we still have to think about the other questions that are more like WWII or WWI, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing COVID plague that has beset us, which is like thinking of questions from the 14th century. How are we going to be able to tackle these? We have to have a broad analysis of the state of the world. Trotsky was really good at that in his time, when he was operating in the time he best understood as a young man. But what are we going to do? I guess that’s the question I’d like people to leave with and say, “Hmmm, that’s interesting, Trotsky proved to be wrong.”

My character Ralph Bucek at the beginning of the book says, “my children are growing up in the 1960s in a totally different world than I did. I think there’s revolutionary possibilities in the 1960s, but they’re not like ours were, I don’t know what they are.” Let’s listen to Ralph. |P

[1] Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification.

[2] Jean van Heijenoort, With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacán (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

[3] The Man Who Loved Dogs.

[4] Partisan Review 15, no. 3 (March 1948): 288–96, available online at <>.

[5] People’s Democratic Party.

[6] Partido AcciĂłn Nacional (National Action Party).

[7] Revolutionary Democratic Assembly.

[8] New Anticapitalist Party.

[9] Also known as The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International: The Mobilization of the Masses around Transitional Demands to Prepare the Conquest of Power.

[10] Dan La Botz, “Laurent Schwartz: The Vicissitudes of an Internationalist,” New Politics, August 22, 2022, available online at <>.

[11] The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879–1921 (1954), The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921–1929 (1959), and The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929–1940 (1963).