Reading Trotsky in Tahrir

Protesters and soldiers celebrate in Cairo, February 2011.
Protesters and soldiers celebrate in Cairo, February 2011.

Bibliomancy—the ancient practice of opening a sacred text to any page, then mining a random line for prophecy and advice—is not one of my standard journalistic research methods. But for those who write about the Middle East, 2011 has been an exceptionally demanding year. With autocracies toppling and teetering decades ahead of schedule, untold shelves of books on Arab politics now need revision (or pulping). Could the methods of yore be any worse? The medieval bibliomancers liked to consult Virgil, and the ancient Chinese—along with plenty of hippies—preferred the wisdom of the I Ching. Back home after covering the Egyptian revolution and the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, I tried both. I hoped the Aeneid would yield something apropos about Carthage, but instead I landed on a verse about naval architecture; my random page in the I Ching was “Ta Kuo” through “Wei Tzu” in the index. Any relevance to Arab revolution was opaque.

But I am happy to report that bibliomancy of a more recent vintage has held some promise. It is a special book whose every page offers a thrill, an insight, an expertly deployed phrase. In this season, more than in most, Leon Trotsky’s energetic and embittered The History of the Russian Revolution is ripe for bibliomancy, and capable on any page of furnishing an aperçu uncannily relevant to the Arab world today. It is also among the most thrilling works of history ever written. Trotsky wrote “a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” which should in itself sound similar to much of the masters-of-our-fate liberation rhetoric in common currency in revolutionary Arabia. In its characters, but even more so in its depiction of the eddies and microcurrents of collective action during the crucial February Revolution, it is riveting and intelligent, capable of nourishing any reader who wants to know what the Arab Spring feels like from inside.

History, it is said, is written by the victors. That may be so, but often the losers have more time on their hands, as well as axes to grind that make their prose, too, all the sharper. In 1929, five years after the death of Lenin, Stalin exiled Trotsky, and the former head of the Red Army lived for four years on an island in the Sea of Marmara. There, to make money and ensure that the world remembered his version of events instead of Stalin’s, Trotsky set to work on his magisterial thousand-page history, which he finished in about a year, and which his acolyte Max Eastman translated into English soon after. The Saturday Evening Post paid forty-five thousand dollars for serial rights, and Trotsky succeeded in drafting history to match his grudges.

What he left behind is still the essential text on the revolution—violently biased to erase Stalin and valorize his own contributions and Lenin’s, but nonetheless so compelling that it is Trotsky’s version that survives to tell the tale. The American historian Richard Pipes, a conservative cold warrior and author of The Russian Revolution (1990), denigrated Trotsky’s book in the most flattering possible way, calling it “partly literature”—an acknowledgment that the book was art, even if conservatives and jilted Communists might quarrel over whether it was also fact. Many objected to Trotsky’s omissions and biases. But Trotsky himself, ever the dialectician, replied acidly, saying that those who seek “impartiality” will receive “a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom.”

Sure enough, his history has the staying power and iconic value of a great novel, with characters and figures so strongly portrayed that one finds them rising off the page and claiming their modern-day descendants in person. There is a temptation to read Trotsky’s book not as a record of its own time, but as a sort of universal revolutionary play in three acts, starting with the unexpectedly quick fall of the autocrat (Czar Nicholas in February 1917, Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali just a little faster in 2011), proceeding to the creaky misrule of the impotent caretaker government, and ending—at least in the Russian original-cast production—with the triumph of the Bolsheviks. “You will not find another such sharp turn in history.”

Each figure has its analogue, some clearer than others. In act 1, Nicholas totters on the throne, a comical figure presiding over a gruesomely mismanaged state. Trotsky excerpts the diary of the czar himself, a “depressing record of spiritual emptiness” that shows devastatingly how remote from the affairs of his country the monarch’s mind had wandered. The entries read as if one had transcribed the thoughts of the remote and impassive Mubarak. “‘Walked long and killed two crows,’” Trotsky quotes the czar. This series of painfully banal records is not a log of thoughts or political schemes, but of witless play and feeding—almost, Trotsky says, “on the borderline of physiology.”

The czar and his state, like Mubarak and his, fail utterly to grasp the extent of its rot. In Russia, the mismanagement was most acutely foreign: The Russian military had led bloody misadventures in the Great War and the Russo-Japanese War. “The one thing the Russian generals did with a flourish was to drag human meat out of the country,” writes Trotsky. “Beef and pork are handled with infinitely more economy.” In Egypt, the mismanagement had much the same demoralizing effect—but turned inward, with a secret-police force that consisted of one in forty adults—and, similarly, brought only misery to the country’s people. Trotsky writes that the czar’s state could have tried to reform, but “on the contrary, it withdrew into itself. Its spirit of medievalism thickened under the pressure of hostility and fear, until it acquired the character of a disgusting nightmare overhanging the country.”

A nightmare such as this could not last long in 1917 or 2011, and in each case regime change arrived with remarkable speed, and in remarkably similar ways. The workers of 1917 rioted in Petrograd; the democracy protesters of 2011 rioted in Cairo. The governments tried to block off the bridges over the Neva and the Nile: each time to no avail. And ultimately, the regimes perished because their soldiers couldn’t be depended on to shoot. Trotsky says the workers and soldiers were “conduct[ing] themselves with demonstrative friendliness. . . . The Secret Police more than once noticed this fact.” In Tahrir Square, soldiers ate with protesters, posed for their photographs, and chatted with them across the barrels of their tanks’ guns. It is Trotsky who points out that protesters nearly always have the morale edge on soldiers, because protesters who don’t feel like protesting will just stay home. “The soldiers are told off daily into first and second files, but how are they to be divided into rebellious and obedient?”

The protesters in Tahrir chanted appreciation to the Egyptian Army for not opening fire, although they surely wondered in the early days whether Tahrir would be this decade’s Tiananmen. In Petrograd, someone in the crowd notices a subtle sign from one of the low-prestige Cossack guards who gallop by—a portentous wink that the observer takes as a promise that the Cossacks won’t kill. The message of the wink spreads virally among the protestors, and with it comfort and courage. “This was a new stage,” writes Trotsky, and “such a stage is inevitable in every revolution. But it always seems new, and does in fact occur differently every time: those who have read and written about it do not recognize the thing when they see it.” The remaining policemen, unable to be won to the workers’ side by sweet words, needed to be disarmed, beaten, or killed; the crowds, Trotsky says, called these policemen “Pharaohs.”

When act 2 debuts, the toppled czar is under arrest. Trotsky describes a remarkable hand-off of power, no more or less bizarre and unworkable than the one that eased Mubarak from office in February. In Russia, the provisional caretaker government took power in March, led by Alexander Kerensky, who Trotsky said was “not a revolutionist; he merely hung around the revolution”—but who represented the bourgeoisie, which was the only interest capable of taking over from the czar until the Bolsheviks found their way to power. Kerensky suspected that the old regime would fight back in time and that “the monarchist reaction was hiding in the cracks.” In Egypt, astonishingly, it was a similarly weak government that was handed power and that limps along still today, following a schedule that should mean elections this fall and, if the Arabs remain on script, some version of a Bolshevik rise to power immediately thereafter.

In this crude analogy, the question of the identity of the Bolsheviks is a fraught one. Trotsky points out that the Bolsheviks arrived in power with whiplash speed, so fast that they were still officially indicted for treason. Trotsky himself was not even present for February, “still simmering in the depths of the revolution” and waiting to be allowed back into Russia to claim his place among the revolutionaries. Some might suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, who like the Bolsheviks were previously banned, kept a low profile during February and now seem to be among the few alternatives to the monarchist (read: military dictatorship) reaction Trotsky feared.

These historical echoes have reverberated in other places and in other eras; the Arab revolution is not the only one to shake out along these lines, nor would it be the first to deviate from the script, in either a beautiful or an awful way. Why these historical echoes and rhymes occur so often is a question Trotsky himself, with typical boldness, tries to answer. In comparing the czar to Louis XVI, he notes that in calm times, historical figures act idiosyncratically, but in extreme situations, the demands of history smooth those quirks out, leaving predictable and often rotten behavior—in these cases, by the king and the czar in different eras. “To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red-hot iron, alike.” The creepy thought is that we might have felt so far only the tickle, with the red-hot iron still a few months away.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.