Trot along, Martin

Why is Martin Amis cranking up dead Cold War controversies?

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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My first job was processing pension claims, and one of my first supplicants was a T Bailey, who aroused the office’s curiosity by refusing to sign his first name. But there it was on his birth certificate: Trotzky Bailey.

Judging by the arcane spelling and his age, he was presumably named after Leon Trotsky, leader of the Soviet Army in its struggle against the Monarchist counter-revolutionaries. Were his parents supporters of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain? If so, their son’s name would have quickly proved an embarrassment, as his namesake was vilified as a traitor to the cause by the official communist movement for the following 70 years.

Long after all the principal players have died, the Trotsky-Stalin debate is to be repeated in the film Frida – as farce, of course, with Geoffrey Rush (schizo pianist in Shine) playing an elderly Trotsky chasing crippled painter Frida Kahlo (played by Salma Hayek) around the bedroom.

Marginally more serious is English novelist Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread (1), which accuses the left of flirting with Stalinism in denial of Stalin’s terror.

Amis’ literary career has run out of steam. After the initial promise of the coming-of-age novel The Rachel Papers, the bad-taste spectacular Dead Babies, Amis distilled the splenetic 1980s in Money and London Fields. But the ‘million-pound contract’ Information was a disappointment, and Night Train‘s mock American just plain embarrassing – as well as pointless.

Maybe out of a misplaced sense of the novelist’s lack of seriousness, Amis has been branching out into more serious philosophical speculations with Einstein’s Monsters (tired old CND clichés) and Time’s Arrow (a novel which put time in reverse – a good idea except that an underground comic had already done it), as well as a less-than-revelatory memoir of growing up as Lucky Jim author Kingsley Amis’ son.

Maybe it should have been ‘Kingsley the Dread’, since much of Amis’ speculation on Stalin is prompted by his father’s youthful membership of the Communist Party. Poor old Martin, still arguing with his dad.

The older Kingsley wrote a barmy novel about Britain under Soviet Rule at a time when any fool could see that the Russians were incapable of invading Afghanistan, let alone Europe. The younger Martin cringed, but now – long after any of it matters – here’s old Martin, cranking up the Cold War. It is a sign, perhaps of our own lacklustre times that we are driven into the past to look for a bit of a controversy worth getting angry about.

There is another figure in the background of Koba the Dread, Amis’ old chum, proud to be called Trotskyist, Christopher Hitchens. When he went to work with Hitchens and James Fenton on the New Statesman, Amis was happy to defer to these more serious-minded colleagues the business of working out political attitudes, all the better if they meant irritating Kingsley. But now Martin – or the unlovely Osric, as he imagined himself at the time – has turned his Oedipal irritation on to these mentors in turn.

The ‘debate’ with Hitchens looks suspiciously as if it has been manufactured to sell articles to the newspapers. There have been so many ‘open letters’ between the two that it looks like a new means of side-stepping the Royal Mail – as well as promoting both authors’ books (Hitchens has just published an apologist life of Cold War propagandist Orwell).

Of course Amis is right about the British left’s utter subservience to Stalinism. It was a mark of their weakness that they longed for a saviour from the East to lift them out of insignificance. But he ought to add that the Western ruling elite as well as the chattering classes paid homage to Stalin, for returning Russia to order by suppressing its volatile revolutionaries.

But on this point Amis’ mastery of political science is about as convincing as Trotsky’s literary criticism. He is dependent on later Russian historians like Dmitri Volkogonov, who are plainly rewriting their country’s history to legitimise the post-Soviet regime. For them, Trotsky represents a problem, since he diligently documented Stalin’s suppression of the original Bolsheviks while Russian and Western historians applauded the ‘showtrials’. The rather lame argument that ‘Trotsky is just the same as Stalin’ rests on little more evidence than that both are Russian.

Trotsky failed to build a movement that was true to the original ideals of the Russian Revolution, which is why his reputation can be so readily abused today. But his central message, that the retreat behind national boundaries is a recipe for reaction, is all too pertinent – as today’s empty debate between globalised capitalism and anti-globalisation Luddites shows.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

(1) Koba the Dread, Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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Topics Politics


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