Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


Politics, Logic and Love

Anita Burdman Feferman
Politics, Logic and Love: The Life of Jean Van Heijenoort
AK Peters, Wellesly 1993, pp. 415, £29.95

THIS is a book about a most complex and interesting man, who for some years played a central role in the Trotskyist movement, and yet it somehow manages to avoid the point, written as it is in the language of sub-Freudian popular psychology, in which father figures, guilt complexes and love triangles float back and forth, skilfully washing the politics off the page. Thus Trotsky was a ‘prima donna’ (p. 143) and Van Heijenoort ‘would complain with a certain bitterness that the Old Man did not care deeply about him personally’ (pp. 133–4), but when he accepts Trotsky’s arguments ‘an emptiness was filled and a father resurrected’ (p. 117). And again: ‘Although the Gaby-Van-Trotsky triangle was somewhat different from the situation between Jeanne, Lyova and Raymond, the passions and tensions surrounding their entanglements were very much the same’ (p. 115). ‘It is difficult to resist the thought that when Comrade Gaby spoke with the voice of those who differed with Trotsky, at least some part of what moved her was personal’, she writes (p. 106). It certainly is difficult for the writer to resist such thoughts, but after the reader has encountered them page after page he begins to wish that she had.

Without such self-indulgence we might have learned a little more about the man and his ideas as opposed to her own, for a mass of personal ephemera crowds in, effectively obscuring them. We are told about the soup he drank in the Collège de Clermont, but not the name of the young man who first recruited him to Trotskyism (p. 39). Less effort than we could have hoped is invested into understanding the nature of the movement to which Van Heijenoort belonged, described as ‘serious young people with Marxist-utopian ideals’ (p54), whose ‘passions ran high in the name of “isms” but bubbling and boiling beneath the surface were the ordinary human passions, the love triangles and the personality conflicts that added fuel to the fire’ (p. 117).

Certainly political analysis is not her strong point, for she believes that among ‘the dreams the Trotskyists hoped to activate’ were that ‘someone might assassinate Stalin’ (p. 86), and that Trotsky and his French supporters ‘decided to call themselves the Fourth International’ in 1933 (p. 112, a mistake repeated on pages 93 and 123). It is treated as a great revelation that when he was International Secretary Van Heijenoort used US sailors as couriers abroad (p. 189), a fact that has appeared in several books by now and has been open knowledge for many years. Quite unaware of the scope and outcome of the conflict inside the US Socialist Workers Party over the ending of the Second World War, she even takes as good coin Van Heijenoort’s alibi when leaving the movement that his first doubts about Marxism came from the flaws in Engels’ mathematics in Anti-Dühring (p. 215).

However, there are indications that this superficiality is not wholly to be blamed upon the writer, for by the time she interviewed Van Heijenoort a lifetime of mathematical logic had destroyed his grasp of the political and dialectical sort, even to the extent of his no longer understanding such kindergarten Marxist propositions as the role of the individual in history and the critique of individual terrorism. Thus, speaking of the monstrous accusations made in the Moscow Trials, Feferman notes that ‘what is most interesting in this connection is that Van faulted Trotsky and his followers for having done too little in the way of conspiracy’ (p. 142):

Why wouldn’t Trotsky, the ex-Commissar for War, have plotted a return? Why wouldn’t there have been many plots against Stalin by those who, early on, were keenly and painfully aware of his diabolical cruelty and single-mindedness?

Fifty years after the Moscow Trials, Van Heijenoort’s response to such a question was an excited and emphatic: ‘… it would have made sense to kill Stalin personally. But Trotsky always said “We are against personal terrorism.” Of course Stalin should have been eliminated.’ (p. 140)

But we must not assume from this that the book does not contain material of considerable value, some of it quite disturbing. An authentic note is struck when Feferman comments upon Van Heijenoort’s activity as Secretary of the Fourth International during the War:

His concerns were global, whereas those of the Socialist Workers [Party], in his opinion, were narrow and parochial … Since he had no financial support for his projects, he was in the demeaning position of having to swallow his anger and ask for aid from an unsympathetic boss. Describing his situation later, he said: “I would go to Cannon and plead for money to buy the stamps and stationery necessary to maintain my contacts abroad … Grudgingly, Cannon doled out small amounts of cash.” (pp. 186–7)

The disturbing material towards the end concerns his collaboration with the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the extent of which only became known when his file was declassified in 1988. It transpires that J. Edgar Hoover ordered him to be investigated as early as August 1942, and that when he was interviewed ‘by 1948’ he ‘agreed to tell them what he knew’, which ‘seems to have been one of the factors that finally opened the door to citizenship’ (pp. 230–4). Although it is implied that this full cooperation only took place after he left the movement, I for one remain unconvinced, for it is obvious that his ostensible break with the movement over Engels’ faulty mathematics conceals a rationalisation for something else.

Whatever the truth of the matter, all who take a serious interest in the history of Trotskyism must attempt an assessment of the career of this brilliant if somewhat narcissistic figure, a flawed genius if ever there was one, for which the account in this book is indispensable.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011