As resistance to the public service cuts grows, and the labour movement reconstitutes, it will have to relearn the lessons of the past. This is no easy task given that much of history of 20th century is written by the anti-working class forces that crushed and defeated our movement — on the one hand the bourgeoisie, on the other the Stalinists.
The legacy of Stalinism — the lies, distortions and terror — have been a cancer on working-class struggle for the past 80 years. We will need to restore the reputation of Leon Trotsky as one of the greatest working-class militants of the twentieth century. This task will be made easier by Barbara Kingsolver’s book, which presents a de-Stalinised portrait of Trotsky.
The Lacuna is a memoir of a fictional character, Harrison Shepherd, who works in the house of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and later with Trotsky. After Trotsky’s assassination Shepherd moves to the US, where he lives a quiet life until faced with Cold war-era McCarthyism. Kingsolver writes a refreshingly truthful account of a much falsified chapter of our history. Her fiction makes no claims to historical accuracy, yet it is far from the pernicious fictions of the Stalinists or the “howlers” in the bourgeois press.
Kingsolver paints a very human picture of Trotsky, reflecting the man we get a sense of in his “last testament”. Despite his exile and persecution, despite the murder of all his closest comrades and family, Trotsky remains doggedly optimistic to the end. This optimism is both personal and political. Even when he is finally exiled in the barren Mexican desert, Trotsky finds joy in collecting cacti and feeding the chickens. As war engulfs Europe and anti-Stalinist socialist forces are weak, Trotsky is writing theory and corresponding with comrades all over the world, occupying the time of a whole retinue of staff in a tireless battle with Stalin.
Trotsky’s optimism is based in a faith that the web of lies and falsification will eventually give way to truth. At some point in the future, when people are less cowed and terrorised, the truth will emerge and, importantly, people will have a desire to hear it. At this point that the working class will “cleanse [life] of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full”.
Shepherd holds to a belief that “God speaks for the silent man.” “God” here is not some omnipotent interventionist being. Nor is Shepherd advising silence or inaction in the hope that God will do his thing — Trotsky, Shepherd, Kingsolver are all very verbal. Rather it is a belief that the truth will finally out, even against powerful adversaries who dominate the media outlets and write the official histories. This belief is an act of revolutionary faith in times of falsehood and darkness. It is a faith that the people of the future will right the injustices of the past.
The title of the book, The Lacuna, refers to a geological feature found on Isla Pixol off the coast of Mexico. It is a sea cave, accessible only at times of high tide, leading to a saltwater lake in the jungle. Kingsolver also describes the Lacuna as the “hole in the story” — it’s the key to understanding. The dictionary definition is “a missing gap in text”, “amnesia about specific events” or a “lexical gap in language”.
The story of Trotsky and the Trotskyist account of the Russian Revolution is the “hole in the story” for the movement of today. As the tide of class struggle rises, the movement needs this “lacuna”, an unfalsified, un-Stalinised history of our class, a channel to lead it back to working-class, Marxist politics.
The AWL is such a “lacuna”, a small band of revolutionaries who attempt to be a living memory of the class, throughout all the defeats, set-backs and falsifications of the past 80-odd years.
Kingsolver’s book points towards a final tragedy of Trotsky’s life: the Trotskyist organisations since Trotsky’s death. Post-Trotsky Trotskyism is largely a story of political degeneration, sectarianism and insanity. We only need look to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party selling the names of Iraqi Communists to Saddam Hussein or the Socialist Workers Party forging links with militant Islamism to see how far these “Trotskyisms” have sunk from the high optimism and breadth of vision of their originator.
Kingsolver’s book does a greater service to the memory of Trotsky than many of these sects. It will hopefully allow people to look at Trotskyism in a fresh light, and encourage a new interest in the revolutionary organisations that remain true to his tradition.