The Planet Without a Visa

The Planet Without a Visa

By Leon Trotsky. Excerpt of the Chapter XLV of his autobiography, My Life (1930). Copied from

I must admit that the roll-call of the western European democracies on the question of the right of asylum has given me, aside from other things, more than a few merry minutes. At times, it seemed as if I were attending a “pan-European” performance of a one-act comedy on the theme of principles of democracy. Its text might have been written by Bernard Shaw if the Fabian fluid that runs in his veins had been strengthened by even so much as five per cent of Jonathan Swift’s blood. But whoever may have written the text, the play remains very instructive: Europe without a Visa. There is no need to mention America. The United States is not only the strongest, but also the most terrified country. Hoover recently explained his passion for fishing by pointing out the democratic nature of this pastime. If this be so – although I doubt it – it is at all events one of the few survivals of democracy still existing in the United States. There the right of asylum has been absent for a long time. Europe and America without a visa. But these two continents own the other three. This means – The planet without a visa.

On many sides it has been explained to me that my disbelief in democracy is my greatest sin. How many articles and even books have been written about this! But when I ask to be given a brief object-lesson in democracy, there are no volunteers. The planet proves to be without a visa. Why should I believe that the much more important question – the trial between the rich and poor – will be decided with strict observance of the forms and rituals of democracy?

And has the revolutionary dictatorship produced the results expected of it? – I hear a question. It would be possible to answer it only by taking a reckoning of the experience of the October Revolution and trying to indicate its future prospects. An autobiography is no place for this, and I will try to answer the question in a special book on which I had already begun to work during my stay in Central Asia. But I cannot end the story of my life without explaining, if only in a few lines, why I adhere so completely to my old path.

That which has happened in the memory of my generation, already mature or approaching old age, can be described schematically as follows: During several decades – the end of the last century and the beginning of the present – the European population was being severely disciplined by industry. All phases of social education were dominated by the principle of the productivity of labor. This yielded stupendous results and seemed to open up new possibilities to people. But actually it only led to war. It is true that through the war humanity has been able to convince itself, in the face of the crowings of aruemic philosophy, that it is not degenerating after all; on the contrary, it is full of life, strength, bravery, enterprise. Through the same war, it realized its technical power with unprecedented force. It was as if a man, to prove that his pipes for breathing and swallowing were in order, had begun to cut his throat with a razor in front of a mirror.

After the end of the operations of 1914-18, it was declared that from now on the highest moral duty was to care for the wounds which it had been the highest moral duty to inflict during the preceding four years. Industry and thrift were not only restored to their rights, but were put into the steel corsets of rationalization. The so-called “reconstruction” is directed by those same classes, parties, and even individuals who guided the destruction. Where a change of political régime has taken place, as in Germany, the men who play the leading rôles in the direction of reconstruction are those who played second and third rôles in guiding the destruction. That, strictly speaking, is the only change.

The war has swept away an entire generation, as if to create a break in the memory of peoples and to prevent the new generation from noticing too closely that it is actually engaged in repeating what has been done before, only on a higher historical rung, which implies more menacing consequences.

The working class of Russia, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, made an attempt to effect a reconstruction of life that would exclude the possibility of humanity’s going through these periodical fits of sheer insanity, and would lay the foundations of a higher culture. That was the sense of the October Revolution. To be sure, the problem it has set itself has not yet been solved. But in its very essence, this problem demands many decades. Moreover, the October Revolution should be considered as the starting-point of the newest history of humanity as a whole.

Toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the German Reformation must have appeared the work of men who had broken out of a lunatic asylum. To a certain extent, it really was: European humanity broken out of the medieval monastery. Modern Germany, England, the United States and the modern world in general would never have been possible without the Reformation with its countless victims. If victims are generally to be permitted – but whose permission could one ask? – it is certainly victims that move humanity forward.

The same can be said of the French Revolution. That narrow-minded, reactionary pedant, Taine, imagined that he was making a most profound discovery when he established the fact that a few years after the execution of Louis XVI, the French people were poorer and more unhappy than under the old régime. But the whole point of the matter is that such events as the great French Revolution cannot be viewed on the scale of “a few years.” Without the great revolution, the entire new France would never have been possible, and Taine himself would still have been a clerk in the service of some contractor of the old régime instead of being able to blacken the revolution that opened a new career to him.

A still greater historical perspective is necessary to view the October revolution. Only hopeless dullards can quote as evidence against it the fact that in twelve years it has not yet created general peace and prosperity. If one adopts the scale of the German Reformation and the French Revolution, representing two different stages in the evolution of bourgeois society, separated from each other by almost three centuries, one must express amazement at the fact that a backward and isolated Russia twelve years after the revolution has been able to insure for the masses of the people a standard of living that is not lower than that existing on the eve of the war. That alone is a miracle of its kind. But of course the significance of the October Revolution does not lie in that. The revolution is an experiment in a new social régime, an experiment that will undergo many changes and will probably be remade anew from its very foundations. It will assume an entirely different character on the basis of the newest technical achievements. But after a few decades and centuries, the new social order will look back on the October Revolution as the bourgeois order does on the German Reformation or the French Revolution. This is so clear, so incontestably clear, that even the professors of history will understand it, though only after many years.

And what of your personal fate? – I hear a question, in which curiosity is mixed with irony. Here I can add but little to what I have said in this book. I do not measure the historical process by the yardstick of one’s personal fate. On the contrary, I appraise my fate objectively and live it subjectively, only as it is inextricably bound up with the course of social development.

Since my exile, I have more than once read musings in the newspapers on the subject of the “tragedy” that has befallen me. I know no personal tragedy. I know the change of two chapters of the revolution. One American paper which published an article of mine accompanied it with a profound note to the effect that in spite of the blows the author had suffered, he had, as evidenced by his article, preserved his clarity of reason. I can only express my astonishment at the philistine attempt to establish a connection between the power of reasoning and a government post, between mental balance and the present situation. I do not know, and I never have, of any such connection. In prison, with a book or a pen in my hand, I experienced the same sense of deep satisfaction that I did at the mass-meetings of the revolution. I felt the mechanics of power as an inescapable burden, rather than as a spiritual satisfaction. But it would perhaps be briefer to quote the good words of someone else.

On January 26, 1917, Rosa Luxemburg wrote to a woman friend from prison:

“This losing oneself completely in the banalities of daily life is something that I generally cannot understand or endure. See, for example, how Goethe rose above material things with a calm superiority. Just think of what he had to live through: the great French Revolution, which at near range must have seemed a bloody and utterly aimless farce, and then from 1793 to 1815, a continuous sequence of wars. I do not demand that you write poetry as Goethe did, but his view of life, the universality of his interests, the inner harmony of the man, every one can create for himself or at least strive for. And should you say that Goethe was not a political fighter, I maintain that it is precisely the fighter who must try to be above things, or else he will get his nose stuck in all sorts of rubbish – of course, in this case, I am thinking of a fighter in the grand style …”

Brave words. I read them for the first time the other day, and they immediately brought the figure of Rosa Luxemburg closer and made her dearer to me than ever before.

In his views, his character, his world outlook, Proudhon, that Robinson Crusoe of socialism, is alien to me. But Proudhon had the nature of a fighter, a spiritual disinterestedness, a capacity for despising official public opinion, and finally, the fire of a many-sided curiosity never extinguished. This enabled him to rise above his own life, with its ups and downs, as he did above all contemporaneous reality.

On April 26, 1852, Proudhon wrote to a friend from prison:

“The movement is no doubt irregular and crooked, but the tendency is constant. What every government does in turn in favor of revolution becomes inviolable; what is attempted against it passes over like a cloud: I enjoy watching this spectacle, in which I understand every single picture; I observe these changes in the life of the world as if I had received their explanation from above; what oppresses others, elevates me more and more, inspires and fortifies me; how can you want me then to accuse destiny, to complain about people and curse them? Destiny – I laugh at it; and as for men, they are too ignorant, too enslaved for me to feel annoyed at them.”

Despite their slight savor of ecclesiastical eloquence, those are fine words. I subscribe to them.