Trotsky in the night
I’d almost forgotten he was there, in my home. Then came the global economic crisis with its visions of apocalypse, and he caught my eye again, this fiery orator, this ruthless revolutionary killer, the scourge of global capitalism.
His is the first face — hornrimmed glasses, goatee beard — guests might see as I usher them into my living room. My treasured, framed photograph of Lev Davidovich Trotsky
posing like some uneasy tourist, cap in hand, before a spreading palm tree in Sochi, commands pride of place. Not that I admire the man.
It was more the circumstances that delivered him to me.
I was working in Moscow, the Soviet Union was collapsing around me. The High and Mighty, Politburo members, so long distant, mysterious figures, were suddenly skittled from power and revealed in once undreamt-of meetings as the banalities most were. While the flesh was discredited, dusty old documents and photographs that had slept disregarded in secret Soviet archives took on a throbbing vitality as archive doors opened to me.
Yellowed paper, tragic, hand-annotated testimonies of men about to be slaughtered, the cruel scribbled jests of their executioners, came alive in my hands; then there was Lev Davidovich’s holiday snap, taken months before he was driven into exile and then bludgeoned to death with an ice axe by one of Stalin’s henchmen. Documents can have a strange power.
Those were the heady days when it was easy to declare the death of socialism, the final triumph of capitalism. New free market economies were set up with a missionary zeal throughout the old Soviet Empire and beyond, from Prague to Beijing. Throughout the world, capitalism was being honed, refined, its brutal bears and wild bulls tamed. A new kind of capitalism.
Finance houses found new ways to handle credit, raise money and spread risk. Markets melded together in the revolutionary global movement my Russian lodger had sought a century ago to make his own.
Now, Trotsky would have known nothing of derivatives, leveraging, swap spreads, abusive shorting or securitisation — the whole scaffold of advanced instruments mounted with such faith by those kings of finance. That stony visage, staring into the camera, would have broken into a smile though at the very notion of capitalism uniting the world and then collapsing, as he would see it, under the weight of own contradictions.
The American government takes over (the word ‘nationalise’ is pointedly not uttered) mighty finance houses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, bails out a huge insurance company, and offers loans in return for equity. Most recently the Bush administration has sent Congress a $700-billion plan to purchase bad mortgage debt from financial institutions. One by one the heads roll, the state stake billows. Criticism abounds.
“The failure of each large institution set off a search for who might be the next target,” wrote Harold James, on Sept 17, in the Financial Times.
At stake of course is not just the American economy but the global system itself. True, these are not the expropriations in the name of the proletariat that the bloody Red Army chief promoted as he criss-crossed Russia on his red-flag-bedecked armoured train.
But he had always said the world communist revolution could triumph only if it once succeeded among the advanced capitalist countries — and it had to be global.
Lev Davidovich Trotsky, hanging there patiently over the jardiniere, might be hoping for too much, if he expects a global collapse to stir a worldwide uprising in the name of communism.
But there is a new glint in his eye.
The fear in recent days has been palpable in the business area of London’s Canary Wharf where I now work — far from the old home of world socialism.
“Bankers, like everyone else, like to suck on a comfort blanket. In the middle of any episode of banking weakness or financial turmoil their oft-repeated claim is that they have learnt the right lessons from the Great Depression,” James wrote. “It became an article of faith that a catastrophe of that magnitude could not occur again.”
It is for the architects of modern economic capitalism to design the failsafe structure that keeps the dogs of chaos at bay.
In the meantime, I glance occasionally at Lev Davidovich, standing before that palm tree in his collarless tunic and leather jackboots. The very suggestion of chaos will make any parent think anxiously of the world his children will grow up in. Lev Davidovich has the look of a man ready to wait.
“I know well enough, from my own experience, the historical ebb and flow,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Mere impatience will not expedite their change.”