From Socialist Review 158, November 1992, p. 26.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
I read Johnny Got his Gun by Dalton Trumbo over 50 years ago. I have never forgotten its horrifying impact.
The twenty year old soldier Joe wakes up with pains in his legs, his arms, his head. Slowly he realises ‘he has no legs and no arms and no eyes and no nose and no mouth and no tongue.’ He is a stump with a brain. The brain has to grapple with the shock of his situation and work out how to cope with staying alive.
In his dark isolated world he tries to make sense of the ‘war for democracy’ of which he was a casualty, but finds only self-interested, greedy, hypocritical warmongers who condemned millions to death.
He vows to use his mangled body to save millions. He must shout his message to the world. But how? He hits upon a means of communication – tapping his head on the pillow in Morse Code. After years of effort a nurse tumbles to the meaning of the endless tapping and brings in a senior doctor to decipher the code.
This is Joe’s one and only chance to justify his existence: ‘Let me out … Build a glass case and take me to where people are having fun ... I’m the man who made the world safe for democracy ...’
What must the cannon fodder do?
‘We will use the guns you force upon us ... to defend our very lives ... Put the guns in our hands and we will use them.’
The doctor taps back: ‘What you ask is against regulations.’ And he injects the defenceless Joe with a sedative. Dalton Trumbo was indicted by the Cold War Un-American Activities Committee and sacked from Hollywood.
The mental disturbances caused by this book had to be resolved by a broader, more general answer to the questions raised. I could do no better than go to the source of all the answers, explanations and analyses: Karl Marx’s Capital. By the time I read this book I was more sophisticated and had learnt, in search of greater productivity, to have pencil in hand when reading political literature to mark all important and quotable passages.
After reading one or two chapters I looked back and noticed that every page was marked from top to bottom. Nor was it possible to reduce the marking, as every sentence was so original, so pregnant with meaning, so profound, so memorable that I had to put pencil aside and simply wonder at Marx’s astonishing erudition, intellect, diligence and creativity.
The concrete expression of Marx’s ideas is the working class struggle to smash capitalism and introduce socialism. One of the most exciting of these is described by the Senegalese writer Sembene Ousmane in God’s Bits of Wood – which I was given to read during the miners’ strike of 1984–85. I could hardly contain my excitement at reading this marvellous description of a six month railway strike in Senegal in 1946–7 particularly as, though in a far-away African country long ago, it showed so many similarities with the British miners’ strike then taking place.
There was the total commitment and determination to pursue the justice of their cause however extreme the sacrifice (here it was cold, threatened starvation, police beatings; there it was heat, the water cut off, army beatings), the growth and crucial importance of the women’s movement, the marches and songs, the pride. As soon as I finished this book I gave it to the nearest miner (staying at my house) who also enthused over it and took it back to Yorkshire where it did the rounds of the miners and their wives and families.
And so to my last book. I started with the destruction of human personality. I end with the attempt to build it and with it a new socialist society.
No one more brilliantly expressed and worked for this endeavour than Leon Trotsky in the early 1920s after the October 1917 revolution and subsequent civil war. Out of the number of his beautiful essays dealing with culture and the development of the personalities of workers and peasants who, under class society, ‘were supposed to have no personality’ – and that development, after all, is the ultimate purpose of socialism – I would pick out Literature and Revolution. Its passion against dehumanising capitalism, its effort to raise humanity to the creation and full enjoyment of socialism, its unfailing optimism and its exciting and glorious style puts it for me in the bracket of the greatest literature of all time.
Last updated: 18.9.2013