Monday, December 30, 2013

***Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky Meets Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe   

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman  

As is my wont when I get bullish on an author I have been on a Raymond Chandler tear, or rather one of my periodic Chandler tears. Most recently I read and reviewed some of the detective novelist’s late work (1958), Playback, the last in his series of Philip Marlowe stories. In that review I mentioned (as I have in several previous reviews of other books in Chandler’s Marlowe series) a number of positive attributes about Marlowe that I found appealing. And also mentioned in addition that I thought one of my political heroes, 20th century Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, would have felt a similar sentiment. I then went on to list some of those attributes. For starters: Marlowe’s sense of personal honor in a modern world (the 1930s, 40s and 50s) that was increasingly discounting that virtue as the reign of the night-takers, the reign of the long knives cast it shadow over the world, a shadow still with us, and that laughed at such old-fashioned notions; his gritty intrepidness in search of ‘rough’ justice in a messy world, the arduous task of sorting out the good guys from the bad guys (and gals, the femmes fatales in particular that he was always a little ready to give a pass to); his amazing, almost superhuman, ability to take a punch or seven for the good of the cause, a stray bullet or two, nothing fatal in a pinch (yah, yah I know that in the world of pulp fiction, the Black Mask world, that it was de riguer for the lead character to show his metal continuously in that department); and, his at least minimally class- conscious and sometimes barely hidden contempt for the traditional social hierarchy and its corrupt police authority, an insider’s contempt since he had started out as a public cop.
Not a proto-type for the “new socialist man” but not a bad start for the transition period, no bad at all. In response, I received an e-mail from a reader, an ardent young socialist-feminist fellow admirer of Leon Trotsky, who took me to task for my characterizations and argued that I had it all wrong both as to Marlowe’s virtues and to his so-called (her description) anti-authoritarian posture.

In passing, the reader deeply discounted those attributes where I put a plus, placed a sense of honor, really a code of honor, very low on the totem pole of virtues for the 21st century, saw Marlowe’s rough sense of justice, getting the bad guys,  as some kind of vigilantism or just part of his job, went apoplectic that willingness to take punches or bullets for a righteous cause was even worthy of mention (apparently “forgetting” along way that the struggle ahead, our struggle, is apt to be filled with punches, bullets. or worse), took his bleeding two-bit (her term) partisanship for the little guy mainly done over whisky shots at some gin mill (my term) as so much eye-wash, and  deplored the very idea of the possibility that a future socialist society would have room for such attributes as I had mentioned above. And to top it all off that Marlowe’s attitude toward women was ‘primitive’ (her description was rather more graphic call me old-fashioned but this is the public prints).

While one would be hard pressed, very hard-pressed, to include Marlowe, with his very quaint but decidedly macho protective attitude toward women (except those oddball femmes who fired first and asked questions later like Carmen in The Big Sleep or Velma more insidiously in Farewell, My Lovely) reflecting the mores of an earlier age, as a champion of women’s emancipation. And maybe over time, as noted in the 1950s Playback review, his sense of honor, his code, became frayed around the edges, his youthful no-nonsense common sense failed him at times, his ability to take a punch lessened and he had a hard time  laying off the low-shelf booze but the reader missed the point of my critique. Or rather she is much too dogmatic in her sense of “political correctness” as it applies to the literary front. Thus this little commentary is intended not so much to clear the air about the “future socialist person,” or in defense of what is after all a literary invention on Chandler’s part as to posit several ideas for future discussion.

I hate to invoke the name of Leon Trotsky, the intrepid Russian revolutionary, hard-working Soviet official, well-regarded political pamphleteer (George Bernard Shaw called him the “prince of pamphleteers” no small praise coming from those quarters), and astute literary critic into this discussion but in that last role I think he had some useful things to say whether he would, as I believe, have admired Marlowe.

Without a doubt Trotsky could have made his mark solely on the basis of his literary criticism, witness his Marxist masterpieces Literature and Revolution and Literature and Art. What made Trotsky’s literary analysis so compelling was not whether he was right or wrong about the merits of any particular writer. In fact, many times, as in the case of the French writer Celine and some of the Russian poets like Blok, he was, I think, wrong. But rather, that he approached literary criticism from a materialist basis rooted in what history, and that essentially meant capitalist history, gave us when he analyzed literary characters, the plausibility of various plots and the lessons to be drawn about “human nature” put forth by any given writer.

This is no mere genuflection on my part to a revolutionary leader whose work I hold in high regard (and as that e-mail writer indicated she did as well) but a recognition that capitalism has given us some much distorted concepts of what human nature is, or can be, all about. That is the core of the genius of Trotsky’s sharp pen and wit. That is why he is still very readable, for the most part, today. Moreover he made a very useful point in Chapter 8 of Literature and Revolution (available on-line at the Leon Trotsky Internet Archives website) that unless it was question of political import, active counter-revolutionary work for the class enemy, the world of culture should be left to something like a real “let one hundred schools of thought contend” by a healthy socialist society.   

That thought was no mere abstraction on Trotsky’s part but came out a polemic in the struggle inside Russia in the early 1920’s over the preferential establishment of a school of “proletarian culture” supported by the Soviet state that was then being bandied about by likes of fellow Bolsheviks Bukharin and Zinoviev. Trotsky, in any case, did not spend much time diagramming any but the most general outline of the contours of what the future socialist society, its habits, manners and morals would look like. He did, and this is central in this discussion, spend a great deal of time on what capitalism had and would bequeath a socialist state. Including both vices and virtues.

Not to belabor a point this is the link between Leon Trotsky and one fictional Philip Marlowe. Trotsky, a man of his times as well as forward thinker, accepted that personal honor had a place as a societal goal and as a matter of social hygiene. The parameters of that sense of honor naturally would be different under a socialist regime that was based on use value rather than the struggle for profit margins. Certainly Trotsky’s biography, particularly that last period in the 1930’s when he appeared to be steadfastly tilting at windmills, demonstrates that he had a high moral code that drove him to fight what was increasing a dangerous but necessary rearguard action against the Stalinist- driven Soviet variety of the night of the long knives.  

Certainly the word intrepid is not out of place here in describing Trotsky as well. Along with hardworking, hard-driving, a little bit gruff (okay, okay  maybe a lot gruff according to even the friendly memoirists), but in search of some kind of justice for the masses in this wicked old world .Those, my friend are the characteristics  that are the basic virtues of a socialist society as it first evolves out of capitalist society. As well, I might add, as individual initiative, a sense of fairness, and well-placed scorn for established authority and the time-worn clich├ęs about the limits of human nature.

Do I draw the links between the two here too closely? Perhaps. Although Marlowe has his own version of ‘tilling at windmills’ in search of some kind of rough justice and vindication for all those knocks on the head one cannot deny that he does not challenge bourgeois society except in the most oblique way. He will not rail against General Sternwood’s oil derricks. He will not lead a crusade against the old order in his search for the elusive Velma. He is if anything very Victorian in his attitude toward women, good or bad. (Chandler’s Marlowe and Trotsky are both men of another era in their personal attitudes toward women, although Trotsky was light-years ahead on the political front). Nor is Marlowe the prototype for the ‘new socialist man’. But he remains a very appealing fictional character nevertheless. Let, as it should, the discussion continue.

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