Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2014

The Obedient Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014

John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”

Killing Trotsky


Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/28/killing-trotsky/


  1. Great article Louis but Stalin understood that in reality Trotsky was much more than just an intellectual. He was a commading Orator & General with the ability to rabble rouse a disciplined enough Red Army able to vanquish not only the White Terror but also the 2 dozen or so interventionist Armies the Imperialists send in to crush the revolution in a countryside speaking over 100 lanquages spanning 12 time zones so devastated by WWI that about the only working machinery left was a military train and a captured British tank.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 28, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  2. Karl, I agree with you but by 1940 he was as Deutscher described him, the prophet unarmed. Furthermore, it his political analysis that will stand the test of time rather than his military feats. That is probably one of the reasons novelists and filmmakers continue to use him as a subject rather than human garbage like Stalin. He is a symbol of uncompromising resistance to capitalism. Despite all my criticisms of Trotskyism, I remain committed to Trotsky.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 28, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

  3. Yes. I think deutscher really “got” trotsky, despite all the crap shoveled onto deutscher by Trotsky’s would be followers.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — February 28, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

  4. Agreed Mike & Lou. Some die hard friend’s of my late father’s from the SWP days were hostile to Deutscher’s Trilogy treatment but I found it to be almost like a nail-biting thriller that was historically honest.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 28, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

  5. Lou, the Padura book,THE MAN WHO LOVED DOGS, is not a description of a writer living in Cuba under a reign of terror. I rather liked the Cuban part of Padura’s story. It is a story of sadeness and regret. My objection to his book is that his “nail-biting thriller” story of Trotsky is drawn too closely from Deutscher’s account. As for his history of Ramon Mercader, his mother, and the communist networks in Spain and Mexico, it sure sounds convincing to me. I look foreward to reading Davidson’s book.

    Comment by Paul Mueller — February 28, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

  6. To Louis Proyect:

    Hi Louis,

    Thank you so much for the unforgettable riposte of James Cannon’s (who stopped being a Trotskyist and instead became an ossified bureaucrat only towards the end of his life) to the bank robbers he ran into in the prison-yard: “Why bother with small change, we’re after the whole thing”!

    However, you do start and end your article “Killing Trotsky” with unwarranted ultra-pessimism:
    ” Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is …”
    “… and the once-proud movement I belonged to is in tatters everywhere.”

    In the USA, such political pessimism can be refuted in just 2 or 3 words:
    Socialist Alternative
    Kshama Sawant Seattle

    And in South Africa, it can be refuted in 3 or 4 words:
    Democratic Socialist Movement
    Workers and Socialist Party

    With socialist greetings!

    Comment by Fal — March 3, 2014 @ 12:21 am

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