Thursday, April 28, 2016

Politics then and now

One of the advantages of public libraries is the opportunity to read books that you would never could justify buying. Currently, I am reading a book of the speeches of Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Speaks published by Path Finder Press, 1972). On the one hand, it rather dated material, covering the period between the 1905 revolution through the October revolution and Russian Civil War all the way to his exile. Yet, on the other hand, the speeches provide a fascinating contrast to the current US election, more than a century later.

Reading the written text, it is not hard to hear the fervent tone beyond the words. Trotsky honestly, albeit naively, believed that the proletariat would create a better world and that human relations were essentially class relations. His speeches have much less hate and are much more positive than those of Lenin.  He is out to persuade people to do the right thing (in his eyes) and was quite successful in doing so. He believed that, however bad the current situation is, the science of Marx and Engels and good sense of the workers will eventually overcome all problems. The latter cannot be said for later communist leaders, such as Brezhnev and those following him.  Thus, Trotsky’s words leave you with a sense of hope, even more than 100 years later.

In 2016, the world is watching the presidential campaign of the US Democrats and Republicans with fascination. They are providing a variety of visions, each so different from that of Trotsky and reflecting the post 20th century lack of faith in any ideology.  On the Republican side, you have a modern anarchist. Trump basically says the system should be destroyed and people should be allowed to do what they want to do. On the other extreme, Cruz wants a “return” to world that never existed, based on the Bible as the source of all laws and actions. Like many Islamic visionaries, they are implying that in the absence of a modern vision of a better of the future, we should use implement policy based on an “already proven” model, even if no such state has actually existed. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is the extreme realist, explicitly rejecting radical change and defining politics as the art of the possible. While practical, it does inspire great hope for those less fortunate. On her left, Sanders wants to clean up the villains in America without trying to get rid of the figurative baby. As is the case of many socialists, economics is not his strong side.

Regardless of their differences, none of the candidates offers much hope for today’s working poor, Trotsky’s proletariat. Nobody can create the belief, be that an illusion, that in five, ten or fifteen years their world will be much better. There are many factors for the low voter turnout in the US in recent decades but, in my opinion, one of them is fatalism, the lack of faith that any ideology can fundamentally affect their reality. I would not vote for Trotsky but feel nostalgic for the days when people believed that a man and his ideology could make a major difference. That is the difference between politics then and now.

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