January 4, 1933
Seventy-three years ago, on August 21, 1940, the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky died after an undercover NKVD agent attacked him with an ice axe. In this 1933 essay, Edmund Wilson discusses Trotsky's literary tendencies and his historical ambitions.
There is something beautiful and breathtaking about watching a hero of human rights make a clean getaway. The hero may go on to other troubles, and the shadows may triumph in the end. But not yet! Meanwhile, you catch a glimpse of that fleeting thing, freedom, as it goes loping around the corner. And the soul exults. The classic text on this most up-to-date of themes was written by Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which he composed for The Atlantic Monthly in 1898 and 1899.
North Korea announced yesterday that the corpse of former dictator Kim Jong-il will be placed on permanent display in Pyongyang. This seems to be standard practice for Communist nations—after all, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao were all embalmed and set out for public display after their deaths, and Kim Jong-il’s body will be displayed in the same sprawling mausoleum as his father’s body. But how do they maintain the most famous preserved corpse of them all—the body of Lenin? A 2010 book offers some helpful information.
Why Marx Was Right By Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press, 258 pp., $25) How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism By Eric Hobsbawm (Yale University Press, 470 pp., $35) An intellectual revival of Marxism is one of the predictable consequences of the financial crisis. In the twenty years before the storm broke, the Marxisant intelligentsia was more marginal in politics and culture than it had ever been.
The old order has crumbled in the Middle East, and it will never be the same again. But what made it crumble? The experts who had been arguing that the youth in the region constituted a listless generation that did not care about freedom and democracy, that, if it was politically active at all, tended to follow the lead of the Islamists, have been proved wrong.
The massive protests that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s departure have been widely described as a revolution. And that’s fine. If there is an Internet revolution, a Reagan revolution, and even an Obama revolution, then there has certainly been an Egyptian revolution. But there is another meaning of revolution that applies specifically to events like the French, Russian, or Chinese Revolutions. In this sense of the word, Egypt has not yet had a revolution; and the success of the protests will depend ultimately on whether it does have one.
Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back.
A certain kind of liberalism familiar to readers of The New Republic has been stirring in, of all places, Germany and Austria. To be sure, it operates on the margins. And, yes, the impulse to appease, run for cover and all the rest lingers there as well. So, too, does the mixture of irritation, indifference, and even outright hostility to Israel.
Children of the Gulag By Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky (Yale University Press, 496 pp., $55) Several years ago, a friend who helped me to find my way around the Russian State Archives in Moscow asked if I would like to meet another woman who was also working there. She was not doing research for a book, and she was not a scholar. Instead, she was indulging her curiosity and her nostalgia. Forty years earlier, she had worked as a baby nurse in a children’s home inside one of Stalin’s labor camps.