The unending process of getting history online has produced vast revelations. The latest discovery to amaze me is an article by Russian communist Leon Trotsky from 1934, as printed in the publication Liberty: “If America Should Go Communist.”
Trotsky’s 1934 article exudes confidence in how communism could be realized in the United States. Trotsky, beloved then and now as the Menshevik and later Bolshevik leader, wrote this document in a period in his life in which he was massively popular among American intelligentsia. He had lived in New York for three months in 1917, and established some strong and enduring ties with communists. Following his split with Lenin, he lived in exile from 1927 to 1940, when he was assassinated in Mexico on Stalin’s personal orders.
It’s fair to say that many if not most American communists in 1934 considered themselves Trotskyites, still holding onto hope for some realization of authentic communism as opposed to the growing mess in Russia.
Trotsky’s 1934 article exudes confidence in how communism could be realized in the United States. The New Deal was starting to be implemented while the National Socialists were intensifying their total control of Germany. Everywhere, it seemed, capitalism was disgraced, to be replaced by rational economic planning. Trotsky was merely writing on the far end of the spectrum of the planning consensus.
One Big Conveyor Belt
He writes as if putting his dreams into words could create reality itself. Keep in mind that this was back when the communists actually believed that they could create more productivity than capitalism.
The American soviet government will take firm possession of the commanding heights of your business system: the banks, the key industries and the transportation and communication systems. …. Here is where the American soviets can produce real miracles. "Technocracy" can come true only under communism, when the dead hands of private property rights and private profits are lifted from your industrial system. The most daring proposals of the Hoover commission on standardization and rationalization will seem childish compared to the new possibilities let loose by American communism. National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire economic system.
The results will be stupendous. Costs of production will be cut to 20 percent, or less, of their present figure. This, in turn, would rapidly increase your farmers’ purchasing power. To be sure, the American soviets would establish their own gigantic farm enterprises, as schools of voluntary collectivization. Your farmers could easily calculate whether it was to their individual advantage to remain as isolated links or to join the public chain. … Without compulsion!
As for free speech, it would be guaranteed, he says, not by private ownership of the means of production, but rather by party control. What gets printed and what does not? “Soviet America will have to find a new solution for the question of how the power of the press is to function in a socialist regime,” he writes. “It might be done on the basis of proportional representation for the votes in each soviet election.”
That doesn’t sound very promising.
The Eugenics Question
After researching this topic now for two years, I’ve framed a rule for thinkers of this period: scratch a socialist and you will discover a eugenicist who aches to use the state to control who lives and dies. It turns out to apply to Trotsky as well.
Consider this bizarre paragraph from his 1934 essay:
While the romantic numskulls of Nazi Germany are dreaming of restoring the old race of Europe’s Dark Forest to its original purity, or rather its original filth, you Americans, after taking a firm grip on your economic machinery and your culture, will apply genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics. Within a century, out of your melting pot of races there will come a new breed of men – the first worthy of the name of Man.
To be sure, his views were no different from any other run-of-the-mill intellectual at the time. Eugenics was a widely held outlook and policy aspiration, from Madison Grant’s freak out about white genocide in 1916 all the way through Gunnar Myrdal’s advocacy of Sweden’s barbaric sterilizations in the name of purifying the race.
Was his push for eugenics driven by racial panic, as was the case with many Progressive Era intellectuals?Even so, one does wonder what Trotsky had in mind. Was his push for eugenics driven by racial panic, as was the case with many Progressive Era intellectuals? Was it merely a general desire to improve the genetic composition of the average person? Or perhaps it was actually a political motivation. Maybe the ultimate answer to the “bourgeois mind” was extermination through sterilization, exclusion, impoverishment, and death in one generation?
It’s hard to say, but this much is true. If you aspire to control the economic and cultural machinery of any society, you simply cannot leave the essential question of demographics to the “anarchy of the market.” That is to say, if any aspiring social planner has hope for getting the whole of a nation moving in the direction of his own choosing, he cannot neglect the issue of who is born, who lives a long life, and who must meet an early death. To permit choice in this area is to give up the whole project. Planning by necessity means control over life itself.
It is for this reason that so many legions of intellectuals from the late 19th century through the mid 20th century believed so strongly in state-run eugenics programs. Indeed, many of the policies that emerge from that era – not just sterilizations but also minimum wages, maximum working hours, immigration control, city zoning laws, labor union privileges, marriage licenses, and even, through a circuitous route, national parks – were influenced by eugenic considerations.
In this sense Trotsky was no different, and it makes perfect sense. After all, here was a man who ran some of the most vicious and murderous purges while head of the Red Guard, and whose aspirations for control extended all the way down to opposing chewing gum as a capitalist trick for keeping the worker occupied. Observing people chewing gum on the New York subway, he wrote in 1917:
“Capital does not like the working man to think and is afraid....It has therefore adopted measures. ... It has put up automats in each station and has filled them with disgusting candied gum. With an automatic movement of the hand the people extract from these automats pieces of sweetish gum, and they grind it with the automatic chewing of their jaws. . . . It looks like a religious rite, like some silent prayer to God-Capital."
Thus does he end his 1934 essay with a flourish. Once America has created the new communist man, through eugenics and state planning, this much is obvious: “in the 3rd year of the Soviet rule in America you will no longer chew gum!”
Sorry, Leon, we still procreate as we desire, and we still chew gum.