Bellow and Trotsky
by Judie Newman
The later Bellow’s reputation as a neoconservative has obscured the centrality of his early enthusiasm for Trotskyism to his life and writings. The 2010 publication of a selection of his letters opens with Saul Bellow aged 17 writing to Yetta Barshevsky, a fellow high school student who introduced him to Trotskyism, and for whom he wrote a eulogy more than sixty years later. Bellow was still thinking about Trotsky in the 1990s as his correspondence with Albert Glotzer, his lifelong friend and (at one point Trotsky’s secretary) indicates. Bellow’s involvement in radical left-wing politics (at Tuley High School and at university) produced his first publications, which were political pieces in left-wing journals The Beacon and Soapbox, and his first published short story, “The Hell It Can’t”, 1936, an antifascist and pacifist fable.
As part of the Partisan Review group, during that journal’s Trotskyist phase, Bellow wrote stories responsive to the political specificities of the time: “Two Morning Monologues” (1941) contrasting different reactions to what appeared to be the imminent defeat of capitalism, and “The Mexican General” (1942), based on Bellow’s visit to Trotsky in Mexico, where he arrived within hours of the assassination.
Although Bellow went on to eulogise Trotsky in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the 1942 story reveals his first doubts, focussing on Trotsky’s overestimation of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, and the difficulties of translating ideas, however inspiring, into effective action. Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) each in their different ways engage with Bellow’s doubts concerning Trotsky’s “defensist” position, refusing to dissociate himself from Stalin’s invasion of Finland, in the belief that a workers’ state however degenerate could not wage an imperialist war; a belief which the later Bellow, confronted with the Holocaust, viewed with horror:
“Not only did I feel that my Jewish Marxist friends were wrong in theory, but I was horrified by the positions they – we – had taken.” (It All Adds Up p310).
By 1955 he was dissociating himself from Partisan Review. As Richard O’Brien’s analysis of the Glotzer correspondence (unavailable to Bellow’s biographers until recently) indicates, Bellow’s politics evolved away from Trotskyism and Partisan Review towards those of the Independent Socialist League and the more socially democratic position of Maz Shachtman (Barshevsky’s husband), rejecting party and national politics in favour of the creation of an internationalist third force on the democratic left. As a result, the original activist Augie March, who was running a social network rather like Dwight Macdonald’s “Europe-America Groups” or Shachtman’s “Third force”, became the comic and essentially apolitical hero of the revised novel.
Though his Trotskyite phase was over, Bellow remained deeply marked by his engagement with left-wing politics and thinking, traces of which surface in his later novels. Bellow’s last fictional word on his political past is “Mosby’s Memoirs”, written on his return to Mexico in 1968. In “Mosby’s Memoirs” Bellow ascribes his own political errors satirically to Lustgarten, and allows him to expiate them. Importantly Jewish Lustgarten suffers from the same political naivety as the younger Bellow, the same recondite examinations of the same issues, displaying an agonised ability to split hairs over the issue of Finland.
After the war, he gives Trotskyism one more chance, in the internationalist belief in the theory of permanent revolution, and sets off for Yugoslavia, for what he assumes is a “V.I.P. deal” as a foreign observer, declaring:
“I really believe Tito may redeem Marxism by actually transforming the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
He returns emaciated, sun-blackened, and embittered from what has turned out to be a forced labour brigade. As a member of a chain gang in Dalmatia, Lustgarten has been thoroughly punished for his political errors. But the right, in the shape of his chronicler, Mosby comes off worse. For all his clever political-historical pronouncements, Mosby has no connection to society at all. Unmarried, friendless, childless, Mosby has suppressed all human ties – unlike Lustgarten, a keen father and uxorious husband. Mosby and Lustgarten are alter egos, doubles, the one conservative and the other socialist, allowing Bellow to satirise both sides of the political spectrum, but in the end the socialist still comes off best in the comparison. As Bellow said in 1993:
“What you invest your energy and enthusiasm in when you are young you can never bring yourself to give up altogether.”
About the Author:
Judie Newman is Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham. She is the recipient of the Arthur Miller Prize, a former Chair of the British Association for American Studies and a founding Fellow of the English Association. Her publications include Saul Bellow and History, 1984; John Updike, 1988; Nadine Gordimer, 1988; The Ballistic Bard : Postcolonial Fictions, 1995; Alison Lurie ,2000; Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter: A Casebook, 2003; Fictions of America: Narratives of Global Empire, 2007; and some 100 scholarly essays. Her newest publication is Saul Bellow in Historical context, 2011.