Trotsky's Imagery

In The Poetics, Aristotle’s treatise on the art of literature, he says: “…most important by far is it to have a command of metaphor. This is the one thing the poet cannot learn from others. It is the mark of genius; for to coin good metaphors involves an insight into the resemblances between objects…(p. 74 ).”

Another classic of literary criticism, Katherine Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery, examines this command of metaphor in Shakespeare’s plays. The author explains: “…I believe we can draw from the material of a poet’s images definite information about his personality…a poet will…naturally tend to draw the large proportion of his images from the objects he knows best, or thinks most about…each writer has a certain range of images which are characteristic of him…with Shakespeare, nature…animals …and what we may call (the)every day and domestic…easily come first…(p. 12, 13).”

In this essay I will apply Spurgeon’s method to Trotsky’s, History of the Russian Revolution.  Not only is it the greatest history with which I am familiar, but it is also a major work of literature, and for numerous reasons.  It is guided by the most advanced social theory, Marxism; written by one of history’s supreme masters of that theory and practice; and inspired by his gift for incandescent prose.  I will concentrate on one virtue of that work, its imagery.

Already, in the Preface, the author introduces his boldest and most original image. A major theme of the History is the psychology of classes:

The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the general comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis…Only by a study of political processes in the masses themselves can we understand the role of parties and leaders. ..They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam (p. xvi).  

Trotsky likens the masses (i.e. the working class and petit-bourgeoisie) to the steam that drives the engine of a locomotive; and the party to the piston box, which focuses that steam to propel the pistons. It is the masses who provide the real source of power; but they require a party to concentrate and leaders to focus that force. Trotsky’s choice of metaphor assumes our knowledge that the steam engine was the crucial source of power for the industrial revolution, and the railroads were the most important form of transportation that spread it across vast continents. But what is it about this metaphor that impresses itself so deeply on our imagination? Firstly, it is the reduction of social forces to a single mechanism: a small black box in which pistons propel steam to drive a huge iron horse. A locomotive dynamo of wheels, rods and gears — its huff and puff, the blasting screech of its whistle — and smoke pouring in black plumes behind it. (One is reminded of J.M.W. Turner’s late masterpiece, the painting “Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway”.)

In a second metaphor, the party is likened to a laboratory, whose influence is transmitted through other organizations:

[T]he party is a complicated laboratory in which these slogans have been worked out on the basis of collective experience…There are over 20 million people represented by the soviets. The party, which had on the very eve of the October Revolution only 240,000 members, was more and more confidently leading these millions, through the medium of the trade unions, the factory and shop committees, and the soviets…  (p. 564).

The morale of the Russian army in French territory is also likened to a laboratory experiment, in which the army’s revolt is the outcome:

[A]n experiment in the “resurrection” of the Russian armies was carried out on a laboratory scale (p. 556)…This dramatic episode at La Courtine is significant; it was a kind of consciously arranged ideal experiment, almost as though under a bell-glass, for testing out those inner processes in the Russian army (p. 558).

Another stunning pair of images is used to illustrate how extreme causes have similar effects on different individuals:

To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red hot iron, alike. As a steam hammer converts a sphere and a cube alike into sheet metal, so under the blow of too great and inexorable events resistances are smashed and the boundaries of “individuality” lost (p. 70).

In this case it is the psychological with is reduced to a mechanism, a steam hammer. This powerful machine crushes both spheres and cubes of steel in to metal sheets. Similarly, the royal pairs at the head of the French and Russian Revolutions were robbed of their individuality by the crush of historic events.

Trotsky’s satiric description of the Czar and Czarina (and comparison with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), continues with another metaphor: “…great historical forces are refracted through a personality (p. 70).”

Here we have the process of history likened to the image of light filtered by a crystal. Nevetheless:

The scripts for the roles of Romanov and Capet were prescribed by the general development of the historic drama; only the nuances of interpretation fell to the lot of the actors… (p. 71)

Once again, these royal nonentities are limited by the historic story line to the inflections of their feeble voices and gestures.

One of the highlights of Trotsky’s History is his description of the meeting of the Erikson workers and Cossacks on the Sampsonievsky Prospect, and its crowning metaphor:

The workers at the Erikson, one of the foremost mills in the Vyborg District, after a morning meeting came out on the Sampsonieevsky Prospect, a whole mass, 2,500 of them, and in a narrow place ran into the Cossacks. Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. “Some of them smiled,” Kayurov recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink.” This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it…In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams… standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from “diving” under their horses. The revolution does not choose its paths: it made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse (p. 77, 78).

The events of the revolution – meetings, demonstrations, strikes – separate the hesitant and tired from the daring, the vanguard of the proletariat. Once again, the social process is reduced to the physical, the flow of water through a sieve:  “Here a revolutionary selection takes place of itself; people are sifted through the sieve of events (p. 89).”

The workers rushing into the barracks send the soldiers out into the streets. These social streams unite to  destroy the social structure:

The revolutionary pressure of the workers on the barracks fell in with the existing revolutionary movement of the soldiers to the streets. During the day, these two mighty currents united to wash out  clean and carry away the walls, the roof, and later the whole groundwork of the old structure (p. 92).

What appears chaos in the streets of Petrograd is really workers, soldiers and students developing a hatred of the regime and their will to fight back; so that when new troops arrive, they are instantly infected by their mood.  Social psychology is reduced to the image of an industrial forge melting raw ore into metal:

After the February Days, the atmosphere of Petrograd becomes so red hot that every hostile military detachment arriving in that mighty forge, or even coming near to it, scorched by its breath, is transformed, loses confidence, becomes paralyzed, and throws itself upon the mercy of the victor without a struggle (p.96).

The thought processes of those in factories, companies and villages gradually approaches the actual structure of events and enables the masses to shape those events:

In every factory, in each guild, in each company…the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress…Their class instinct was refined by a political criterion… Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created…an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process… Thoughts are scientific if they correspond to an objective process and make it possible to influence that process and guide it (p 110, 111).

Much of Trotsky’s imagery needs no explanation or paraphrase:

But bloody acts of retribution were as inevitable as the recoil of a gun (p. 185) …

But nevertheless the army was like a system of communicating vessels, and the political mood of the soldiers and sailors gravitated toward a single level (p.186) …

To keep up the war hypnosis and the mood of chauvinism was the only possible way the bourgeoisie could maintain their hold upon the masses – especially upon the army (p. 195) …

The chief function of the Compromisers was to short-circuit the revolutionary energy of the masses into patriotic wires (p. 199) …

It is clear that the arriving soldier played the part of the first crystal in a saturate solution (p. 272) …

The response of the masses to the action of the anarchists sometimes served the Bolsheviks as a gauge of the steam pressure of the revolution (p. 307) …

[T]he troops deployed against Petrograd by Kornilov were defeated without a fight, capitulated without an encounter, went up in vapor like a drop falling on a hot stove lid (p. 331) …

Trotsky returns to dramatic scene painting when he depicts a terrifying demonstration of war victims:

On April 17 there took place in Petrograd the patriotic nightmare demonstration of the war invalids. An enormous number of wounded from the hospitals of the capital, legless, armless, bandaged, advanced upon the Tauride Palace. Those who could not walk were carried in automobiles. The banners read: “War to the end.” That was a demonstration of despair from the human stumps of the imperialist war, wishing that the revolution should not acknowledge that their sacrifice had been in vain… (p. 245).

Later, he describes the climax of the demonstration:

These wounded, shell-shocked, mutilated people stood like two walls, one facing the other. Crippled soldiers against crippled officers, the majority against the minority, crutches against crutches. That nightmare scene in the amphitheater foreshadowed the ferocity of the civil war (p. 245).

Trotsky’s admiration for Lenin (lion in Russian) is evident in his many descriptions of his hero: “Lenin was raging in his Zurich cage, seeking a way out (p. 211).”

The role of individuals in history is likened to links in a chain of events:

Lenin was not a demiurge of the revolutionary process,  that he merely entered into a chain of objective historic forces. But he was a great link in that chain…It is necessary only to understand that role correctly, taking personality as a link in the historic chain (p. 238).

The psychology of classes – earlier described as molecular motion or currents in a river — is here likened to the swings of a pendulum:

What lies underneath the dramatic events of a revolution? Shifts in the correlation of class forces. What causes these shifts? For the most part oscillations of the intermediary classes, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the army. There is a gigantic amplitude of oscillation between Kadet imperialism and Bolshevism…Our task is still for the time being to “patiently explain” – to prepare the next swing of the masses to our side… (p. 257).

The concept of Bonapartism, a regime balancing itself between two classes, is likened to a childish device made up of a cork and two forks:

This idea of a master of destiny rising above all classes, is nothing but Bonapartism. If you stick two forks into a cork symmetrically, it will, under very great oscillations from side to side, keep its balance even on a pin point: that is the mechanical model of the Bonapartist superarbiter. The degree of solidity of such a power, setting aside international conditions, is determined by the stability of equilibrium of the two antagonistic classes within the country (p. 469).

The conspiratorial relationship between leaders of the bourgeois regime – Kerensky, Savinkov and Kornilov — against the masses, is described as a mathematical formula: “Such was that peculiar equation with three unknown quantities. (p. 503).”

The author reduces social forces to the physical science of fluids:

These receding waves in the flood of the revolution developed an overwhelming force. It seemed as though they were obeying the fundamental laws of social hydrodynamics. You cannot conquer such a wave head on – it is necessary to give way to it, not let it swamp you (p. 547) …

The mood of the front was leveling out in one direction, but in that colossal political flood which took the trenches for its channels there occurred many whirlpools and backwashes, and there was no little turbidity.(p. 565).

And, where he earlier described the dissolution of the army as an experiment in an historical laboratory, he now likens their demoralization to an infectious disease:

But in just a few weeks the second brigade which had bombarded the first was seized with the same disease…The Russian soldiers had carried this dreadful infection with them across the sea in their canvas knapsacks, in the linings of their coats, in the secret places of their hearts (p. 557. 558).

The polar classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – are likened to actors entering and exiting a revolving stage:

The bourgeois classes had expected barricades, flaming conflagrations, looting, rivers of blood. In reality a silence reigned more terrible than all the thunders of the world. The social ground shifted noiselessly like a revolving stage, bringing forward the popular masses, carrying away to limbo the rulers of yesterday (p. 788).

We arrive at the conclusion of Trotsky’s History.   And, as he opened the Preface with the extraordinary metaphor of the steam engine, so he closes it with the equally compelling one of the clockwork:

The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels – a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme – you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses – omitting the medium-sized wheel of the soviets – would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion (p.825).

The clockwork image is extended to the party and its Military Revolutionary Committee:

However, the task of the revolution still remained unachieved. The spring and the whole mechanism of the watch were in the hands of the Military Revolutionary Committee, but it lacked the hands and face.

And finally the metaphor serves to conclude the argument: “A revolutionary conception without a revolutionary will is like a watch with a broken spring (p. 209).”

* * *

Let us summarize our discussion of Trotsky’s imagery by contrasting it with Shakespeare’s. Unlike the latter — whose imagery is of nature, animals, the everyday and domestic — Trotsky’s consists of the world of the scientific laboratory, the machinery of industry and the physical processes of nature. This imagery is used to depict the development of the revolution, its conflicting classes and their respective organizations. Refraction of light, crystallization in a solution, a vapor drop on a stove, and the fluid dynamics of rivers represent the natural processes. The oscillation of a pendulum, the crushing of metal by a steam hammer or its melting in a forge, the mechanics of clocks, the recoil of a rifle, a gage of steam pressure, and the sifting of water through a sieve represent mechanical or industrial processes. And there is a miscellany of more general scientific terms: the spread of infectious disease; the war hypnosis of the ruling class over the army; equations, statistical curves, molecular movements, and electrical currents running through circuits. But what does this tell us about Trotsky’s personality, about what he knew best or thought most about?

Trotsky’s entire life was devoted to the working class. It was itself the heroic protagonist of his History. To experience the world of the working class, learn from it, and help them organize to fight was his destiny. Naturally he would write with the imagery of the factory, incorporate the industrial processes of that world, and the science that explained it. A lifetime’s experience of the theory and practice of Marxism went into the making of his masterpiece, History of the Russian Revolution. And in that History is distilled Trotsky’s genius for metaphor.

Mark Dickman is a socialist, writer and playwright living in Chicago.