Monday, 28 December 2020

Pandemic: A Century of Capitalism and Complacency


Women wearing face masks against the 1918 flu pandemic

It is a well-hackneyed, over-used nostrum that those who do not learn from history are bound to relive it; yet it is as relevant as ever in 2020 as the world reels from the impact of the first truly global pandemic since the 1918 to 1919 H1N1 “Spanish influenza”.

Covid-19 and H1N1 are both viruses that likely have their origin in poor animal husbandry, and both posed strikingly similar challenges to governments. The rapid onset of a new disease combined with gross economic inequality, ever faster modes of mass transit and increasingly diverse sources of information are also notably similar.

Influenza is a long-recognised disease recorded as far back as Hippocrates and Livy in classical times, but its pathology remained a mystery. By 1500 its range of symptoms, normally involving increased body temperature, sweats and nausea, were attributed by Italian doctors to the influence or “influenza” of either the cold or the stars. From the Enlightenment onwards, mass outbreaks were studied more scientifically and after the 1891 Russian flu epidemic doctors had formed the view that it was caused by a germ - anything from bad water to smog was seen as a potential breeding ground for what one medical professor referred to as “very clever little beasts”.

Influenza isn’t a germ, but rather a virus – Latin for poison – a tiny, non-cellular agent that is not alive but replicates inside the living cells of a host organism. They are sub-microscopic – 100,000 would just cover a fingernail. In 1918, before the invention of electron microscopes, this meant scientists were finding germ cultures that caused secondary infections rather than the primary viral source. Consequently, although some of the precautionary measures that were implemented were effective for both types of threat, there was a significant lack of understanding about how flu was transmitted.

The pandemic originated in the mid-West of the USA where in January, an unusually aggressive strain of flu emerged among livestock farmers in rural Haskell County in Kansas. The outbreak disappeared after 7 weeks, but one local farmer, Albert Gitchel, was shortly after drafted into the army ahead of deployment to the Great War front in Europe. He worked at Fort Riley as a cook before falling ill on 11 March. By the end of the month, 1126 of his comrades had joined him and 46 had died.

The disease was far more virulent than previous influenzas – tingling fingers led rapidly to high temperatures and severe vomiting. While many recovered quickly, the symptoms were more persistent in others and after 5 or 6 days developed into fatal respiratory infections. Although some medical scientists and doctors like William Welch urged quarantine measures, the US Army continued deploying infected regiments across the Atlantic Ocean on cramped troop ships where the virus spread exponentially.

In this way, the flu reached Europe. Army bases such as the British at Etaples became centres of infection as men moved to and from the cramped conditions of the trenches to equally packed barracks before embarking on crowded trains and ships back to England for leave. By July, Manchester recorded its first cases, while the German army delayed its final major offensive as the virus decimated its’ ranks.

The virus reached neutral Madrid and the King of Spain succumbed. Ironically, his death and the uncensored debate about it in the Spanish press led to the unwarranted moniker of the “Spanish flu” (resulting in hostility to Hispanic people back in the USA where the “Spanish Lady”, a skeleton in a black flamenco dress, became an icon of both the disease and naked racism).

Dr James Niven took the initiative in Manchester
The British Government censored anything they felt might damage wartime morale –  Arthur Newsome, the closest equivalent to a Chief Medical Officer, decreed it important to “keep calm and carry on.” Concerned to maintain munitions production, the government took few steps to counter the disease, even when Prime Minister Lloyd George nearly died from it – he was secretly treated in Manchester City Hall for several weeks after attending a crowded war bond rally.

Yet it was a Scots-born Manchester doctor, James Niven, who from the outset identified that this flu was far more aggressive and needed a proactive response. He lobbied to close schools, distributed at his own expense over half a million posters urging personal protective measures and presented the first public health films with a character called Dr Wise advising on social distancing and masks. The city’s death rate was possibly as low as one eighth of the norm, though it didn’t spare Niven from eventual suicide.

After a summer lull, an even more virulent strain emerged in September. Victims were much more prone to fatal secondary infections, many dying with a characteristic deep blue skin tone resulting from pus-filled lungs starving the body of oxygen.

Cities like Sheffield and mining communities across Yorkshire were particularly badly affected owing to the close working and badly ventilated conditions in heavy industry and mines, as well as often cramped housing. The illness led some to desperation – Joseph Meek, a Normanton miner, in a curious harbinger of 2020, drank carbolic disinfectant not to cure but to kill himself, while some parents facing their own deaths killed their children for fear of no one being left to care for them.

Yet the government continued with its complacency, advising treatments such as rest – impossible for people scraping by in a time with no sick pay – consuming Bovril and opium, or even inhaling potash. Trains and trams ran unaffected and shops, pubs and theatres stayed open. Where local authorities did take measures, these were half-hearted – in York, for example, American soldiers were banned from cinemas, but locals were free to attend.

Other countries similarly had at best disparate and inconsistent responses: in the USA, municipalities often took responsibility for public health and were often at odds with the preferences of state governors. While some areas had draconian rules on, for example, mask wearing, others were much more lax and in several cities demonstrations were held to complain about measures viewed as affronts to American individualism. All the same, the Federal government passed the Defense of the Realm Act to censor any stories in the press that it deemed could spread “fear or dismay” – a bizarre line of reasoning not unknown to the President of the USA in 2020’s pandemic.

Nevertheless, the USA reeled from the disease. Cities became ghost towns as it spread and mass graves became commonplace. In all some 550,000 US citizens were to die of the flu – 40% of all the US military casualties in the Great War succumbed to it rather than German guns. And the end of the conflict brought little lasting relief - armistice celebrations in November led to a further round of infections, unwittingly causing many more deaths around the world.

By the turn of the year however, the virus had largely run its course in Europe and North America. A final wave in Spring 1919 was much milder as the virus had by then infected most of those it could – cleverly, they know not to completely destroy their hosts, although in June one of its final victims was Yorkshireman Mark Sykes, of Levantine Sykes-Picaud infamy. (He was dug up in 2008 to recover viral remains to help treat the Swine flu outbreak, a variant of H1N1.)

Of course, alongside France and the USA, Britain was an imperial power and trade and military activities carried it round the planet to their colonies. India, where British military railways injected the virus across the sub-continent, was to endure over 17 million casualties, while one in fifty Africans – one in ten in Tanzania – perished. China and Russia were also badly affected, though civil wars in both countries meant only estimates are possible.

Notably, Australia quarantined itself, banning all entrants – like its New Zealand neighbour now, it consequently avoided the devastation wreaked elsewhere. At home, working class civilians and troops were by far the worst affected. Over 30,000 British troops had succumbed, while in the UK itself around 200,000 people died, with many others facing long-term problems.

In all one in three of the global population was infected and between 2.5% and 10% of those died – btween 100 million and as many as 200 million people, depending on the estimate. The normal flu death rate was about 0.1% by comparison.

Angela Friedman survived both pandemics  

Today, there are parallels with 1918 but differences too. Covid emerged suddenly. The UK Government was more focussed an international crisis than on public health and social media has spawned a range of debate from the highly intellectual to the dangerously ill-informed. 

However, viruses are much better understood and treated infintely more effectively by modern medicine, leading to a significantly lower death rate. Parallel to this, the implementation of social distancing, protective face masks, and proper quarantines - rather than the confused, partial ones in the UK - clearly make a significant difference. 

This is borne out in many places, but perhaps most poignantly by Sweden's ultimately awful death totals following its decision to avoid large-scale lockdowns. Per capita, with 36 covid deaths per million, Sweden stands between the UK (35  deaths pm) and USA (43 deaths pm) in having a high level of deaths - in contrast, its more precautionary neighbours in Norway (6 deaths pm) and Denmark 10 deaths pm) have very substantially lower mortality rates. (Source - Statista)

One heartening personal story of how things have changed is that of Angela Friedman, who was born on a migrant ship from Italy to New York during the 1918 pandemic. Aged 101, she survived contracting covid-19 earlier this year - in spite of previously suffering cancer, sepsis, internal beleeding and several miscarriages. Angela may have superhuman genes, as her daughter proudly declared, but even with these her chances of survival were doubtlessly much better this year than when she was born.

While the current pandemic is dreadful, having taken over a million lives and blighted millions more, and has been badly managed by many governments, the death rate is much lower than 1918-1919: a year which now stands as a striking example of what happens when almost nothing is done at all. It is a lesson right-wing politicians in the UK, USA, Brazil and India would have done well to have learned rather than indulging conspiracy theories about Big Pharma or secret Chinese biological warfare - both with striking antecedants in 1918 when either asprin manufacturers or the Kaiser were blamed for the flu.

Fortunately, most countries have taken a more collective and interventionist approach to the current public health emergency, otherwise there is no doubt the death toll would be much, much higher. Strong public health systems have proven their efficacy: such as the one in socalist Cuba, the South Korean track and trace process and the remarkable achievements of the west African country Senegal which, with few medical resources, has achieved the second lowest death rate on the planet by drawing on its long experience of fighting infectious diseases such as ebola and dengue fever.

Yet so too remain the true causes of our maladies – the exploitation of our environment and animals; the inequality of our health, housing and welfare systems; and politicians who advocate for profit over people and planet. We live in a world where, in the middle of this pandemic, water, that most natural and life-essential substance, has become a tradable commodity on the Futures market - this means people are now speculating on its availability to profit from its anticipated (and from investors' perspective, its preferred) scarcity. 

This is the same world where an invisible dot with some nasty prongs has almost brought our system to its knees in a matter of weeks, so you might be forgiven for hoping we would have learned to treat our habitat with greater respect and vow to pursue new ways of living in harmony with each other and our environment. Yet so far, such a change is, to put it mildly, elusive. 

Covid is not so much an existential biological threat to our species as a piercing wake up call we ignore perhaps literally at our peril. The next pandemic may well be much worse, and much sooner than we imagine, as we continue to degrade our world and tangle and tear and transform the very threads of existence. All for cash.

Capitalism remains the true virus - and socialism the only effective vaccine.


Below: from the British Film Institute; a colourised version of the 1918 public health film Dr Wise

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Biden and Business As Usual - Liberal Delusion Number 119

 One week out from the US Presidential election and, not entirely unlike last time, the so-called progressive wing of the Establishment, the liberals and social democrats, their sponsors and media mates, have perhaps a little more cautiously than last time more or less called it for Joe Biden. Trump is toast, disintegrating faster than bone spurs in an X-ray machine.

Yet, while yesterday's Rasmussen national poll giving the incumbent Trump a 1% lead is still something of an outlier, most other polls, while giving Biden a lead of around 7% on average all show things tightening. With the impact of the efforts by Republican governors to effectively disenfranchise poor and black voters over the last two years, a tack seen on balance as favouring Trump, and the robust efforts to impair voting by mail in this virus-ridden poll, the result may yet be much, much closer than the broad left, and some traditional conservatives, might like to wish. 

Certainly, it is far too soon to call the result – especially once you factor in the massive pile up of Democrat votes in relatively few big states set against the need to balance that with wins in smaller states to tilt the winner-takes-all maths of the Electoral College (the body that actually elects the President). As we know from 2016, the President does not need a majority of votes cast to carry the college. He just needs to come close and come ahead in the right places.

Taking a hunch, Biden on balance may probably win; and yet his victory will be a truly hollow one; less the routing of far right, neofascism and rather more the temporary stopgap Hindenburg provided against Hitler’s Nazis in their 1932 contest. That even now the outcome is actually still in question with Trump averaging the support of around 9 in 20 voters demonstrates that this vote will not conclude anything in spite of all the pious hopes of liberals for the USA to return to being “a normal country” and of their counterparts everywhere for “politics as usual”, a resumption of the comfortable spin of two sides of the same capitalist coin taking buggins turn at squandering people’s hopes and dreams and our planet’s resources and biosphere alike.

Biden’s legacy is toxic – from his active  backing of crime legislation that has incarcerated almost 3 million predominantly black people to work for free on behalf of the military and big corporations in a form of modern slavery under Bill Clinton to fostering the continent-wide fracking rolled out under Obama. Like many liberals his stance is that of a chameleon, from cold blue to hot red and back again depending on circumstances. And, in Biden’s case, it seems to also be who he listened to last - Bernie or Barack, Kamala or Hillary.

Trump has made much play of Biden’s memory issues. Some have seen this as a 74 year old man trying to disingenuously portray a 78 year od man as “past it”. But in truth Joe’s memory lapses extend far back in time to much younger days: this is a man who in his first run for President, way back in 1988, forgot to credit Bobby Kennedy when he used his words to invoke patriotism, forgot to mention he was quoting UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock when he asked why his wife was the first in her family to go to college and who somehow forgot that rather than topping his law class, came 74th out of 86 and, in a strikingly Trumpian outburst, told a questioner he almost certainly had the higher IQ.

Biden’s 1988 primary candidacy collapsed with his hubris and lies, but this year it seems the Democratic National Committee was so fearful of a truly transformational candidacy in the shape of Bernie Sanders that they set aside everything. From Joe’s economy with actualite through his son’s unquestionably dodgy dealings in Ukraine to the outstanding, un-investigated claim of sexual assault by him on a young female intern working in his office in the 1990s, it doesn't matter - all that does is that he isn't Trump.

And it shows.

Biden was credited as the winner of the final debate last week: most polls found him to have stood up to Trump, though relatively few were enthused by him. The debate was seen as treading water and unlikely to shift more than a handful of voters. And yet a throw away comment by Biden in the closing moments may yet prove to be disastrous.

Asked about climate change, Biden seemingly boldly announced he would close down the oil industry. Unsurprisingly, Trump suggested this was the big news of the night, leaving Biden stumbling to correct himself that this would be done “over time.”

It is true we need to shut down oil, but the fact is Joe Biden has no particular interest in doing so. Nor does he have much understanding of what might replace it. Where Bernie Sanders (or the Green Party Presidential candidate Howie Hawkins) might have talked about transitioning jobs in oil into renewables, Biden betrayed his lack of knowledge and even belief in the need to change by having little to nothing to say. It was after all, under the Obama-Biden Administration that the plug was effectively pulled on the previously burgeoning US renewables industry in favour of opening up the country to fracking - so much so that his now running mate, Kamala Harris, sued them unsuccessfully in her capacity as Attorney-General of California to stop them drilling off the seismically sensitive Pacific coast.

In the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania, once a Democratic bastion but in many counties now with a registered Republican majority, Biden’s confusion and slipperiness may be his undoing. For this is where liberal managerialism comes unstuck – it was precisely its detached elitism, foisting fracking on poor communities and now after they have made some modest economic gain from it in spite of their environmental catastrophes deciding to shut it down, that turned voters away from the likes of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. 

Biden had established a narrow lead with the prospect of winning the state's vital Electoral College votes back, but on the ground Trump’s campaign by all accounts is reaping a swift dividend from Sleepy Joe’s apparent wish to now shut down the very industry he and Barak Obama imposed on the state. The very latest Pennsylvania statewide poll, out tonight, gives a 2% advantage to the President.

Donald Trump is an appalling, nasty, greedy, sociopathic narcissist. It is truly difficult to find any redeeming features in the man at all. Yet like Hitler, he has fed on genuine grievance and directed it to his advantage, however dissembling and disingenuously. Unlike Hitler, he has no ideology and is not as well organised, but that is not to say that, once he is gone, someone more coherent won’t emerge at the head of his huge and still very much intact base vote and the armed militias he has told to “stand by”. 

That the Democrats have singularly failed to destroy him and his creed is proof enough that they have yet again failed to even begin to understand the forces that created him in the first place – because they and the corrupt elitism they represent and buttress are perhaps the primary force. They, like New Labour under Blair in the UK,  saw so many working class Democrats as having nowhere else to go and so eminently betrayable to the corporate interests that have bought the Dems lock, stock and barrel – so much so that a movement like Sanders’ socialist one was seen as a threat rather than the once-in-a-generation transformational opportunity that it was.

And if in the end Joe Biden just squeaks in, with a half-baked programme, a promise simply to not-be-Trump and a Supreme Court soaked in Tea Party bigotry, the next four years are already lost and the next forty seriously at risk.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Lest We Forget - No, poppies aren't banned

Every year, it seems to come a bit earlier as the nights start to draw in, the birds head south and we scour the forest floors for firewood...

Yes, you know what I mean. The invidious social media posts telling us the British Legion aren't selling poppies in "certain areas" (never your own of course, somewhere else) because they are "offensive to some minorities" (unstated which, but Muslims and non-white people are clearly in with a shout). British people (as long as they're white) need to "stand up and take back" our (Belgian) poppies.

And yet again the British Legion will explain this is not true. As it has had to do since at least 2016 if not earlier.

Remembrance hijab

Remembrance Day and poppies commemorate all the fallen. Contrary to the "Britain stood alone" (apart from a posh white Canadian and a jokey, similarly pale Aussie) narrative of the movies and the media, in fact the British were never alone.

Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs, Africans, Chinese and Afro-Carribean people fought alongside white British soldiers in huge numbers and were frequently decisive in turning defeat into victory.

The British Indian Army (recruited from what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) contributed 2,500,000 soldiers to the British wartime army, about a quarter of the total - twice the numbers from Australia, Canada and New Zealand combined - and the largest volunteer force in history. Half a million of them followed the Islamic faith.

As well as being a decisive factor in the war against Japan, Indian and Pakistani troops fought in nearly ever major engagement elsewhere, including El Alamein and critically at Monte Cassino, as well as D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Meantime, nearly 6,000 African-Carribean volunteers (including many women) served in the RAF and hundreds of thousands of troops from Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Burma, Malaysia, and a range of other non-white states came forward to serve as allies. Tens of thousands of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others died fighting fascism, even as the British government diverted food from imperial colonies, contibuting heavily to several million deaths from famine in Bengal in 1943.

The people who routinely plaster this annual lie on social media betray not only their racism, but their ignorance of history and lack of awareness of who is remembered each year. You can always find some hate speaker saying anything you like, but "some minorities" have never demanded that poppies be banned. Indeed, had it not been for the service of men and women from "some minorities", Britain would almost certainly have lost the war against the Nazis in 1941, just as the Wermacht was pouring into the Soviet Union and before the US entry to the war.

But, of course, in spite of their faux claims of patriotism, the fact is that at least some of these fake poppy ban posters might perhaps have been happier if the war against fascism had produced a very different outcome. Rather than the strain of two minutes silence, they might have preferred instead to join in some throaty, full-throttle "sieg heils" and then listen enraptured to the click, click, clickety-click of jackboots on the Mall.

Lest we forget.

Friday, 21 August 2020

The Love of Leon Trotsky


Eighty years ago today, Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, better known as the Communist revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, died in a hospital in Mexico City from fatal head wounds sustained the day before when a Stalinist agent, Ramon Mercader, attacked him in his study with an ice pick. Trotsky's guards had almost beaten his assailant to death, but while still conscious, he ordered them to stop and after a spell in jail Mercader was to end up spending many years in idle retirement in Cuba at the expense of the USSR.

It was the end of an eventful life. Born to relatively affluent farming parents in the southern Ukrainian Jewish community, Trotsky grew up observing the gross inequalities and violence of Imperial Russia. He became interested in the radical socialist ideas sweeping Russia at the time at university and quickly got into trouble with the Czarist authorities. He was jailed and exiled twice to Siberia, escaping both times and adopting the name of one of his jailers firstly to aid his flight and later to be his revolutionary codename (just as Vladimir Ulyanov became Lenin).

In 1901, anticipating the century ahead from his readings of Marx and Engels, he foresaw better times and devoted himself to struggle for them:

As long as I breathe I hope. As long as I breathe I shall fight for the future, that radiant future, in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizons of beauty, joy and happiness!

Trotsky's odyssey took him from the Russian forests to Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Belgium, France,  and the USA in pre-revolutionary exile. He first returned to Russia in 1905 where at the age of just 26 he latterly headed the first St Petersburg Soviet (revolutionary council) during the revolutionary insurrections that nearly toppled the Czar that year. Previously a member of the Russian Social Democrats, a Marxist party, he had stepped back following the split in 1903 between the Bolsheviks under Lenin, who pushed for a highly centralised party to prepare to act as a revolutionary vanguard, and the Menshevik wing headed by Martov, which argued for a more decentralised organisational structure and a more gradualist approach to change. 

For all that Trotsky was committed to socialist revolution, he was at least initially one of the more pragmatic members of the movement, working to reconcile the two wings and maintaining a degree of independence almost right up to the Communist October revolution. He joined the Bolsheviks in spring 1917 when the Russian Empire had collapsed and the liberal regime that had replaced it was veering between repression and chaos. With a reactionary coup narrowly defeated by armed workers, Trotsky headed the Military Revolutionary Committee that co-ordinated the seizure of the Winter Palace and dissolution of the Provisional Government of Kerensky (a bombastic character, much misrepresented in the West in subsequent decades as some tragic democrat as opposed to a would-be Bonapartist dictator-in-waiting).

In the subsequent Russian Civil War, when a range of foreign powers and domestic opponents sought to overthrow the Soviet government, Trotsky was instrumental in creating the Red Army and as Commissar for War directing much of its ultimately successful strategy, fighting a four-front struggle. Traversing Russia in an armed train numerous times, unlike most other leaders on all sides he frequently risked his personal safety to direct and encourage the frontline troops.  

Trotsky speaks on top of his armed train

Once it was over, he initially sought to return to his first love - writing on political theory and practice and history, including producing a four volume history of the revolution - but was persuaded to stay on in government by Lenin. With the country in ruins, Trotsky maintained a militarised approach to reconstruction and while the new socialist regime struggled for some time, his hard tactics began to work and industrial production began to rise again. He worked with Lenin to both nationalise and revitalise the economy, including backing the controversial New Economic Policy which briefly reintroduced small scale market economics while not veering from the aims of a socialised society.

Perhaps though one of the biggest tragedies of both the Revolution and in some ways the whole 20th century was that, following an attempted assassination attempt in 1919, Lenin became chronically and progressively ill, dying in 1924 - possibly hurried along during a visit from Stalin, his ultimate successor and an avowed opponent of Trotsky. 

Stalin had started out as a sort of Bolshevik enforcer - he organised gangs of agitators and fundraised for the Party by carrying out bank robberies (NB - this was one of the few criminal activities Lenin sanctioned). He had always been in the background, almost invisibly so during the revolutions of 1917 but by 1923 had risen to be General Secretary of the Communist Party, a key role overseeing how it ran. 

In the ensuing struggle for power within the party, Trotsky was repeatedly outmanoevred by the rising Georgian sociopath, first being expelled from the Communist Party along with several prominent supporters, then sent on internal exile to Central Asia and finally deported with his wife Natalia Sedova to Turkey in 1929.

In his final, prolonged exile, Trotsky first set up in Prinkipio, an island in the Sea of Marmora just off Istanbul, before subsequently having to move on to France, Norway and then to Mexico as government after government either objected to or feared his activities in the ferment that was 1930s Europe. He worked with relatively small groups of international revolutionaries to develop a counterforce within communism to the increasingly totalitarian Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. 

This he devastatingly critiqued in his work Revolution Betrayed, a searing indictment of the bureaucratization of the country, which he had repeatedly warned about in the earliest days of the revolution. A new class had arisen - one of administrators and managers, serving themselves rather than the People, and accountable only to itself. The democratic promise of the early Soviet days had all but evaporated and while he conceded that there were material gains for many ordinary people, these were both impeded and stolen by the new Masters.

Trotsky initially sought to avoid any split in the Communist movement. His stated aim was to restore workers' democracy rather than divide the party, but after Stalin ordered the German Communists to decline any Popular Front with the Social Democrats against the rise of the Nazis, in 1933 he agreed to create a new socialist movement, the Fourth International. This sought to promote a different path to a genuinely communist state, one where power was more firmly in the hands of the masses - though Trotsky's approach remained decidedly centralised, a conundrum in his thinking he never resolved. In any case, the Soviet system as it had evolved to be was to be dismantled and forged again. 

In addition, while Stalin had reconciled with capitalist states, Trotsky argued that Communists should forever press for global revolution - given the state of the world, full revolution in one country was not possible; however challenging, permanent revolution had to be the objective of all communists until world revolution was achieved.

Brooking no opposition, Stalin consolidated his position as supreme authority within the Party and state in the early to mid-thirties before unleashing his Great Terror against his remaining opponents, real and imagined, in the purges of 1937. By the end of the year, virtually all the original revolutionary leaders had been eliminated within the USSR and, condemned in absentia,  Trotsky was to be no exception. Spending his final days in a well-fortified house, Avenida Viena on the outskirts of the Mexican capital, he seems to have sensed his coming end, either from high blood pressure or at the hands of an assassin and while he resisted Mercader, in his reported final words, he seems to have been unsurprised by his pending demise at the behest of his one-time rival.

Volumes have been filled about Trotsky, a good number of them eloquently and passionately by the man himself - Trotsky's writings are rarely not an enthusiastically good read. Yet in spite of this, in many ways he remains one of the most enigmatic characters in revolutionay history. Loved and loathed by socialists of different hues, a genius to some while demonised, literally, by others, his stamp on one of the seminal events of modern history is unquestionable. While communists will argue that historical forces brought about the 1917 revolutions, as Trotsky himself wrote, while such forces are supra-personal, they nevertheless operate through people. 

Trotsky, Lenin and Kamenev in 1918
Without Trostky, Lenin would not have carried the Politburo in favour of the October revolution. Without Trotsky, the Red Army would potentially not have even been created let alone have won the civil war. Without Trotsky, the Soviet Union would have died in its cradle.

Here of course is where everything else moves to the what ifs of alternate history. What if Lenin had lived? What if Trotsky's struggle against Stalin had had a different outcome? What if the Soviet Union had developed along the more proletarian, democratic path he advocated? After the years of War Communism and central direction, how different from the totalitarian Stalinist state or the later Brezhnevite bureaucracy might the Soviet Union have ended up being, or not?

Trotsky, like any human, was of course full of contradictions. He fulminated against Stalin's banning of his Left Opposition faction within the party, but had previously supported Lenin in banning the Workers' Opposition and other factions opposing their strand of thinking. He denounced Stalinist totalitarianism, but had successfully opposed Lenin, a relatively unusual stance, in banning independent trade unions, arguing that such things were no longer necessary in a workers' state.

His own opponents often claim he butchered thousands of people in the civil war, in putting down the Kronstadt rebellion and in suppressing opposition parties in the early 1920s. Yet all this needs some context.

The civil war was a bloody affair. That is the nature of civil wars. All norms of behaviour are destroyed. Distrust rules and outcomes are rarely gentle. The Russian civil war began when Social Revolutionaries, Kadets and other so-called liberal parties decamped from Moscow and Petrograd to Samara in central Russia and set up the Komuch, a rival government, in June 1918. Co-operating with hardline White Russian Czarist generals and soldiers, as well as the Czech Legion, they launched a violent attack on the Soviets, with the avowed aim of liquidating the Bolsheviks who were then ruling in coalition with a faction of Left Social Revolutionaries. 

Over the following three years, the Komuch largely ate itself - the rival liberal and socialist parties turned violently on each other and then, sponsored by the British Empire, the White "People's Army" turned on them and installed Admiral Kolchak as effective dictator. To portray their bloodthirsty campaigns and pogroms, armed and aided by a range of foreign states including the UK, France, the USA and Japan, as some sort of crusade for democracy and freedom is at best misplaced.

It is true that in reaction to the Komuch, the Bolsheviks suppressed, though did not initially ban, the remnants of these parties in their areas and after the Left SRs attempted to assassinate Lenin and carry out a coup d'etat in late 1918, the Soviet Government ruthlessly carried out a wave of often extra-judicial arrests, torture and executions. Even so, this should still be viewed as a response to the nature of the threat they faced, as was the continuation of oppression in the immediate period after the civil war ended. 

Russia was grossly under-developed compared to most of the rest of Europe - it was the last place that Marxists had anticipated a socialist revolution. Initially favourable developments elsewhere in Europe, with Germany in revolution in late 1918 and early 1919, Hungary briefly declared a Soviet Republic, Italy going through a range of Red Uprisings and Leftist movements growing in France and Britain, gave hope for international revolution to follow the Soviet example. However, one by one these were suppressed and snuffed out, often with great violence, but the ruling class's hostility towards the New Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was undiminished. 

With virtually the entire world ranged against the nascent workers' state and more than willing to use everything from economic embargoes to military intervention to overthrow it, the conditions sadly did not lend themselves to generosity towards rivals with murderous intent. 

And yet, in the USSR, women gained marital equality and the right to divorce; it became the first country in the world to legalise homosexuality; the land was collectivised and the economy was taken into state hands. Ultimately, albeit not entirely by the means Trotsky himself advocated, in less than a generation and in spite of the worst war in history and the appalling carnage of the Stalin regime, the Soviets achieved free education for all, built houses for tens of millions, provided free healthcare and were the first country into outer space. Under communism, a peasant state had become a superpower in barely three decades.

Trotsky devoted his life to change: that he miscalculated on occasions, sometimes on a grand scale, does not diminish either his effort or achivements. He was flawed - even allies like Max Eastman, an American supporter, reported that while he observed every protocol of politeness and seemed to have little vanity, his global view of everything made him a detached, in some ways cold character often quite incapable of the diplomacy and sociability required of a successful politician. Typical of his bearing is the story that when Stalin attempted to make a joke to him about a relationship Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent female Bolshevik, was rumoured to be having, Trotsky angrily rebuked him and never spoke to him again in any personal way.

Lenin with Stalin

Yet with his sociopathic charm and crude bonhomie, Stalin was able to build coalitions that literally overwhelmed Trotsky and his earnest comrades in the Left Opposition. 

And while his earlier exiles in Czarist Russia had been times of rising intrigue, his final exile in the 1930s was marked by years of impotent frustration, ranting to his small coterie of followers and staff. While damning Stalin for the rise of Hitler and his unwillingness to compromise with the German SPD, Trotsky was equally to be found blocking and condemning any co-operation between his own Fourth Internationalists and groups like the Spanish POUM, a temporarily highly successful anarcho-syndicalist force in the Spanish civil war.  A reading of his deteriorating and increasingly irate correspondance with his fellow exile, the writer Victor Serge, is a striking example of how banishment did nothing to soften Trotsky and how his intransigence frequently isolated those who, somehow, continued to respect him from afar.

Trostky's son, Lev Sedov, commented that "I think that all Dad's deficiencies have not diminished as he has grown older, but under the influence of his isolation, very difficult, unprecedentedly difficult, got worse. His lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy have increased. It is not personal, it is a method and hardly good in organisation of work."

It is something much ruminated on - the revolutionary who loves The People, but not people. To Eastman, Trotsky saw the masses but not the personal; all was great forces in action with little regard for individuals who were the parts that made up the sum. And so he was allegedly capable of summarily ordering a roomful of revolutionary officers to be taken outside and shot in the belief that they had failed to carry out their tasks well enough, while at the same time issuing proclamations urging revolutionary soldiers to show mercy to any White combatants who surrendered so that they could be won over to the cause.

Yet while some revolutionaries like Gramsci wondered if having never experienced personal love diminished their capacity as a revolutionary, Trotsky was certainly capable of personal love. Contrary to appalling biographies that try to portray him as an unfeeling psychopath, he cared deeply for his children and risked his life to protect his grandson during one attempted assassination. His brief but passionate love affair with Frieda Kahlo aside, he was devoted to his wife Natalia (whom he also referred to as Natasha) for decades and one of his last pieces of writing offer up a moving tribute to her and what she meant to him, as well as his hopes for a future he by then knew he would not see. It is as beautiful a paean to a revolutionary life as could be penned and in itself is perhaps the best testament to the contradiction of love and zeal, of pragmatism and ideology that was Leon Trotsky:

I thank warmly the friends who remained loyal to me through the most difficult hours of my life. I do not name anyone in particular because I cannot name them all. However, I consider myself justified in making an exception in the case of my companion, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova.

In addition to the happiness of being a fighter for the cause of socialism, fate gave me the happiness of being her husband. During the almost forty years of our life together she remained an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity, and tenderness. She underwent great sufferings, especially in the last period of our lives. But I find some comfort in the fact that she also knew days of happiness. 

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. 

Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

Mexican exile: Natalia Sedova and Lev Davidovitch