Halis Yildirim spoke with literary critic Warren Montag about the Netflix TV show ‘Trotsky’.
HY: You signed the letter of protest condemning the Netflix series ‘Trotsky’. Why did you feel that such a statement was necessary? An important point is emphasized in the statement: ‘Trotsky’ was clearly produced and distributed in response to the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that the series portrays as a national tragedy. But why the focus on Trotsky, instead of Lenin, or even Stalin? In part, as is only too obvious, centering the series on Trotsky allows it to appeal to popular anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe today. In this way, Stalin, for all his faults, is seen as having saved Russia from Jewish influence, if not domination, through his purges of Jewish Bolsheviks and by ordering the assassination of Trotsky. Is there a link between the antisemitism in ‘Trotsky’ and its negative representation of socialism and communism?
Warren Montag: In approaching the Netflix series “Trotsky,” so widely condemned as an expression of the Putin government’s political orientation, it is useful to recall Louis Althusser’s dictum that “neither amnesia, nor disgust, nor irony produce even the shadow of a critique.”1 This is not to suggest that a critique allows us to avoid or transcend the disgust and outrage many of us felt when watching the series. On the contrary, these affects indicate the visual and discursive properties of “Trotsky”: Above all, the anti-Semitism in which it revels (ostentatiously working into as many scenes as possible some variant of the word “zhid”), and the anticommunism it stages in the form of an allegory so crude and improbable that Trotsky’s assassin, “Jacson,” emerges as the moral center of the series. It would be a mistake, however, to denounce “Trotsky” and then forget it, especially on the grounds that its anti-Semitism and anticommunism are reducible to previous historical forms, as if they were simply iterations of already existing, and thus well-known, ideological formations. On the contrary, it is imperative, both politically and theoretically, to understand what is irreducible to the past, how “Trotsky” satirizes a mutation in or, more precisely, a recombination of, the notions of Jew and Communist, a recombination that reveals the extent of their unification through the mediation of a third term: the masses. The changes to these ideological formations are strategically and tactically necessary responses to the risks, threats and opportunities internal to the present historical conjuncture. To combat the anti-Semitism and anticommunism of the present, we have to understand how they have changed and determine the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of their current forms. We must also determine the effectiveness of our own strategy and tactics, discursive and otherwise.
You may be interested in Nancy Fraser, Fredric Jameson and More Join Trotsky’s Grandson in Repudiating Netflix’s “Trotsky”
To the extent that the series draws on earlier fascist notions of Judeo-Bolshevism, it also develops and transforms them. “Trotsky,” at every narrative turn, adds something to the construction of the Jew/Communist as enemy of family, church and nation, and does so as if what it adds was in fact initially hidden or unnoticed and then discovered; moreover, it perhaps surprisingly seeks to establish the reciprocal relations between anti-Semitism and the essential characteristics of the Jew. The violent and crude versions of anti-Semitism that the series repeatedly displays, sometimes with a vague gesture of disapproval, gradually come to be understood as the “little people’s” response to aspects of the culture and conduct of the series’ imaginary Jews. And how could such Jews not be hated? Some are pawnbrokers, conspiring with their supposed competitors, it is suggested, to cheat their desperate Christian customers. Others are arrogant intellectuals who pride themselves on their ability to offer irrefutable criticisms of Christian ideals. Still others are political leaders who use flattery and appeals to equality and justice to gain mastery over the masses, who thereby become instruments that the Jews use to destroy the traditional society to which they will never belong. The little people are right to hate them, and if their hatred leads to regrettable acts, the fault belongs to the Jews who have inspired this hatred. Worse, the Jews who populate the series are driven above all by envy and an implacable hatred of those who hate them, meaning that the greater the popular hatred toward them, the greater the evil with which the Jews will repay this hatred. The series places the antagonism between Jew and anti-Semite at the center of the political world; it becomes the motor force of an ever-widening spiral of conflict. This line of argumentation has proved remarkably effective; the far-right Alternative for Germany party, for example, has adapted it to its own Islamophobic agitation simply by replacing “Jew” with “Muslim.”
The Jew (that is, every Jewish male character in the series—the women and children of Trotsky’s family are his victims) in this way is led to commit ever more maleficent acts against the non-Jewish world. At first, these acts take petty forms: a culture of small businesses and moneylending operations that allow Jews to cheat the others, or perhaps merely the expressions of contempt, like that uttered in little more than a whisper by Trotsky’s father among peasants in the town marketplace. But soon it becomes clear that Jews (such as Marx, Luxemburg and Trotsky) invent socialism and communism to enable them to infiltrate political life by gaining the trust and admiration of the non-Jewish masses, thereby both neutralizing their aggression by preaching equality and using them for the purpose of wanton, apocalyptic destruction.
But here the series encounters a kind of impasse, as the contradictions internal to the imaginary Jew it has constructed, and of which Trotsky is the incarnation, become insurmountable. Does the Jew really believe the communist doctrines he has invented and continues to preach? In this case, he would represent a fusion of Pharisee and Zealot, intellectually overdeveloped and convinced of his own superiority, but at the same time singularly driven by a commitment to a notion of justice that demands nothing less than the destruction of the economic and social order. The Jews, having rejected Jesus as the Messiah, have become a nation of would-be messiahs, each having convinced himself that he has been chosen, like a light unto the nations, to lead all humanity to a new world. They are dangerous in that they would rather die than accept the truth of the Christian order that only their self-imposed blindness prevents them from seeing. If, like Trotsky, the Jew can win the masses to his vision and lead them to abandon the cause of the Russian nation in favor of proletarian internationalism and world revolution, the result would be the end of civilization. The series even suggests in one scene that that the well-known absence of patriotism and national feeling among Jews is the result of a secret Jewish international for which the Third International, with its cabal of Jewish revolutionary leaders (Bela Kun, Luxemburg, Jogiches, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek) serves as a cover. A single righteous man, however—a Jacson, for example—can prevent the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world, like the “katechon” of the New Testament as understood by Carl Schmitt.
At the same time, the series presents us with another, in certain ways less dangerous, figure of the Jew. This is the Jew as rational actor and utility maximizer who, while contemptible, is predictable and therefore manageable. Parvus is the embodiment of this type. He looks and acts the part of a gentleman and is at ease among other gentlemen. He is active in the socialist movement less from conviction than because he sees in it financial opportunity. His aim, the series suggests, is not simply to ruin Russia by creating the appearance of the banks’ insolvency and provoking a panic, but also to neutralize the revolutionary movement itself by using money to create competition rather than cooperation among its different factions. However distasteful he is, he is at worst a parasite, and not the Angel of Death represented by the armed prophet.
The difference between the two types of Jew can be seen in a motif that is not as trivial or petty as it might appear. The series exhibits an obsessional interest in names, pseudonyms and name changes. Non-Jewish characters take delight in addressing Jews by the Jewish last names they have exchanged for Russian names, or in simply imitating the Yiddish pronunciation of their “real” names. The prison commander whose name Trotsky adopts as his own, goes so far as to translate “Lev” to “Leyba” and pronounces “Bronstein,” as one does in Yiddish, as “Bronshtayn.” The series suggests that Trotsky’s later adoption of his tormentor’s name is the result of an identification with the aggressor and an acknowledgment that the Christian Trotsky has seen him as he really is, without illusions. At the same time, Trotsky’s decision to change his name is motivated by more than the need to avoid detection. In part, it is also a gesture of solidarity by which he divests himself of what sets him apart from the masses he wishes to lead, that is, it is an act of assimilation. In the series, however, Jews can only pretend or appear to assimilate: They do so, like Trotsky, to gain access to the masses, who would reject them if they were known to be Jews or, like Parvus (whose real name is Gelfand, as his non-Jewish friend insists on reminding him), to mingle undetected with the wealthy and powerful. The Jew can only appear to be like the others; in reality he has adopted a disguise to reach the masses and use them for purposes foreign to their interests. Needless to say, the series renders unthinkable the notion that a revolutionary mass movement might actively mobilize, if not to end anti-Semitism and all the other forms of national oppression and racism, then at least to greatly reduce their power. To admit such a possibility would be to deprive the ruling class of its claim that the closed circuit by which popular anti-Semitism creates Jewish envy and hatred, which further inflames anti-Semitism can only be interrupted by the subjection of both the masses and the Jews by Russia’s natural rulers. Trotsky noted with contempt that Stalin began to use the birth names of the Jewish Bolsheviks (above all, the “troika”: Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev) in place of the Russian party names by which alone they were known, after they were arrested and charged with various conspiracies, both appealing to and fortifying the popular anti-Semitism that had been waning since the revolution, precisely to mobilize mass support for the liquidation of the old Bolsheviks.2 In the same way, Winston Churchill, who had already expressed his conviction that Jews—not all Jews of course (he approved of the Zionists), but the malign Jewish masses whose envy and hatred had sent them in droves into the socialist and communist movements—exhibited a fanaticism clearly rooted in their Jewishness. The perfect specimen of this type was none other than “the ogre of Europe,” identified by Churchill as “Leon Trotsky, alias Bronstein.”3
This does not mean that the series, through its denials and evasions, does not also point to some of the most important contributions of Trotsky’s own “History of the Russian Revolution,” although without directly identifying them. These are precisely the elements that most threaten not simply the series’ often bizarre account of the revolution itself, but just as importantly the norms that its eight episodes seek to inscribe in the historical present.
One of the most important lessons that Trotsky drew from the experience of 1917 and its aftermath, that is, from the two revolutions and the task of creating a new, unprecedented social order, concerned the power of the masses. When I refer to “power” in this context, I mean not simply the density and consistency that allowed them to overcome the forces of reaction in the streets and on the battlefield, but just as importantly, the collective intelligence immanent in this power (which the series works very hard to render unthinkable). He argued that one of the major differences, in practice and in theory, between the Bolsheviks and Social Democracy, was the ability of the former to “learn from the masses”: Social Democrats were
burning with a desire to teach the masses of the people, to be their guardian and benefactor, but completely incapable of listening to them, understanding them, and learning from them. And without learning from the masses there can be no revolutionary statesmanship.4
The ideas produced by their daily actions and in their acts of the struggle and resistance have made them “far more effective” than the most effective official party orator. Trotsky notes
the molecular agitation carried on by nameless workers, sailors, soldiers, winning converts one by one, breaking down the last doubts, overcoming the last hesitations. Those months of feverish political life had created innumerable cadres in the lower ranks, had educated hundreds and thousands of rough diamonds, who were accustomed to look on politics from below and not above, and for that very reason estimated facts and people with a keenness not always accessible to orators of the academic type.5
There could be no greater mistake than
to imagine that the mass is blind and credulous. Where it is touched to the quick, it gathers facts and conjectures with a thousand eyes and ears, tests rumors by its own experience, selects some and rejects others. Where versions touching a mass movement are contradictory, those appropriated by the mass itself are nearest to the truth.
The successes and victories of the Bolsheviks and the shifts and transformations of theory that accompanied them, and made them intelligible and repeatable, grew out of their confidence in “the initiative and independence of the masses.”6
Further, Trotsky, like Lenin, was a fierce critic of Russian chauvinism (i.e., its racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments), especially when this chauvinism masqueraded as internationalism or universalism: “The desire of a ruling nation to maintain the status quo frequently dresses up as a superiority to ‘nationalism,’ just as the desire of a victorious nation to hang on to its booty easily takes the form of pacifism. Thus MacDonald in the face of Gandhi feels as though he were an internationalist.”7 Even after the February Revolution, the first soviets to emerge in areas heavily populated with non-Russian minorities “would frequently wage a struggle against the defensive nationalism of Ukrainians or Muslims, supplying a screen for” Russian oppression.8 Trotsky recognized that Russia “was not a national state but a state made up of nationalities,” whose languages, religions and cultures were suppressed and marginalized in favor of those of Russia.9 Any weakening of the state bureaucracy gave rise to revolt against the subjection of nations. Lenin and Trotsky recognized, against the proponents of abstract antinationalism based a historicist conception of the nation-form as belonging to the capitalist epoch, that the Bolshevik party was obliged
to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression, including the forcible retention of this or that nationality within the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities.10
To ask the latter to postpone or put aside their demands for national liberation or accept merely “formal equality” would demoralize and demobilize an enormous segment of the population, because “a revolution is a revolution for the very reason that it is not satisfied either with doles or deferred payments.”11 When the oppressed nationalities saw the revolution as a Russian affair that had little to do with the forms of exploitation and oppression they faced, support for it was weak. As soon as it became clear that the national antagonisms were closely linked to class contradictions, support for the revolution increased dramatically. Trotsky was not satisfied to counterpose universalism to particularism; instead, he drew a line of demarcation within universalism itself. On the one side, a universalism that is threatened by national and cultural diversity and that obliges oppressed peoples to stop fighting their specific oppression. On the other, a universalism that fights every step of the way alongside those who have been denied the ability to express and develop their national cultures and for which national liberation is an essential part of the socialist revolution.
We often think of Trotsky in exile, the prophet crying in the wilderness of defeat and counterrevolution, in near solitude, abandoned and ignored. But “Trotsky,” the absurd melodrama meant to bury him and the memory of 1917, by that fact, summons what Isaac Deutscher so aptly called the armed prophet. This is the Trotsky whose apparently diabolical power, as even the series is constrained to show, is not really his own: He is nothing without the insurgent masses. He does not lead them but is carried along by them, lifted up by their every word and cry, by every change of mood, by their hopes and fears. He hears them as no one but Lenin could, and when he seems to speak to them, the words he speaks are theirs, not his, as if he were their interpreter or, perhaps more accurately, a scribe who reads back to them the propositions and exhortations, the cheers of affirmation and the angry shouts of opposition that emerged from countless meetings, debates and demonstrations without any single author or point of origin. It is for this reason that Trotsky (or Trotsky, alias Bronstein) must be exhumed and reanimated in order to be killed and buried again, as if killing him once were not sufficient: The fear of Trotsky is a fear of the masses.
1 Louis Althusser, “For Marx” (London: Penguin, 1969), 139.
2 Leon Trotsky, “Thermidor and Anti-Semitism,” New International 3, no. 4 (whole no. 53), May 1941.
3 Winston Churchill, “Zionism versus Bolshevism,” llustrated Sunday Herald (London), February 8, 1920, p. 5; Churchill, “The Ogre of Europe,” Great Contemporaries (London: Odhams Press, 1947), 152–58.
4 Leon Trotsky, “The History of the Russian Revolution” (HRR), vol. 1 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1932), 231.
5 Trotsky, HRR, vol. 3, 75.
6 Trotsky, HRR, vol. 1,125.
7 Trotsky, HRR, vol. 3, 45.
8 Ibid., 46.
9 Ibid., 36.
10 Ibid., 38.
11 Ibid., 39.
Halis Yildirim is a philosopher graduated from LMU Munich. His fields of research are the conception of history in Hegel, Gramsci and Benjamin, and the Armenian genocide.