The first time I watched The Trotsky (dir. Jacob Tierney) I was nineteen years old and had just finished participating in my local Occupy. Huddled underneath a blanket awkwardly wrapped around my body, there I sat in my unheated bedroom, a fierce winter wind howling just metres from my small cinema; though I was cold on the outside, my insides were warm with laughter because I had delighted myself with the spectacular cinematic experience that had been The Trotsky, one of the official selections for the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
What can be said about The Trotsky is that it is not the kind of film you typically see get made.
Why? Well, for starters, how many films do you know which feature an energetic student believing himself the reincarnation of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky? Not many, I presume. And, of course, this is to say nothing of the film’s strong empowerment of youth via a pro-social justice message, connected to strident anti-austerity themes about community organising. In short, what we could say about The Trotsky is that it is the filmic opposite of neoliberal artistic-practices: whereas most films make peace with legitimating the ruling elite’s lesser evils, The Trotsky eschewed such sentimental defeatism in favour of radical upheaval.
But more than any of that The Trotsky is a landmark for progressive youth. It is not a condescending film. It does not belittle or talk down to the struggles of young people. Rather, it is a movie made in the form of a loving grandfather: it listens, suggests, and then allows you to go on your merry little way. I experienced a living example of this recently, when I had the opportunity to talk with a youth who said that he became politically active after seeing The Trotsky. It seems there is something about it which spurs people to action; a facet of the film manages to transcend mere entertainment—how?
To answer this, we need to take a step back and examine the youth I encountered: what struck me when I interacted with this young person was his political nature. At the time, he was a self-described revolutionary on the complete opposite side of where the historical Trotsky situated himself. Said again, this young man was an “Anti-Revisionist Marxist-Leninist” and was about as anti-Trotsky as they came; they were to Trotsky and his intellectual movement what contemporary Meninists are to Feminists. So, how did this movie, this film which glorifies Leon Trotsky and upholds our proverbial feminism, inspire our anti-Trotsky proverbial Meninist? This is what we will find out.
Although as a movie The Trotsky has many laudable messages—from social justice to community organising and beyond—its primary message is that of anti-identity-reductionism. Now, this is a fairy loaded term but for the sake of argument, and length, since we do not want this piece to turn into a polemic of activism, we can call identity-reductionism the tendency of political movements to focus wholly on the identity, not the root cause which plagues the identity (to return to our previous example: feminism is the identity but patriarchy is the root cause). Identity-reductionism posits nothing but the identity and only the identity as the means of salvation for oppressed and marginalised groups; to reference from a television series which bears no relation to Jacob Tierney’s film, identity-reductionism is the narcissistic Sheldon Cooper of the political realm—always there but rarely by invitation.
The movements of The Trotsky reject identity-reductionism in favour of organising. More accurately, organising is disciplined and driven by motivation. It is organising which has a focus, direction, and goal. But this only becomes apparent once we understand the plot; thankfully, the plot is simple: protagonist Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) attempts to organise his public school by revitalising the decrepit ‘Student Union,’ after his forced ‘exile’ from his private school. Believing himself to be the reincarnation of legendary communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Bronstein has charted out his life exactly as he believes it will unfold as a reincarnated Bolshevik: unsurprisingly, it follows the events of the historical Trotsky’s life tantum et tale (‘thus and such’)—meet Lenin, marry an older woman named Alexandra, get exiled, revolution, get exiled again, assassination. Hardly the most uplifting of life goals, but hey, they could be far worse goals as well.
Everywhere he looks, Bronstein sees injustice in his new school—educators wantonly punishing students, youth facing verbal abuse and regulatory discipline by an uncaring administration, all accompanied by a general lack of respect for the students themselves. Such injustice gives a fiery air to Bronstein’s mantra of “fascist!” Because the native youth are so disempowered and disorganised, slighted by their phoney student union which lacks any actual legislative power, he takes it upon himself to help empower them; after all, the repeated motif posed in the movie—“boredom or apathy?”— is time and time again shown to be boredom, not a lack of desire to see real change.
But organising for real change among relatively privileged strata is easier said than done. Though Bronstein succeeds in nudging the school dance to embrace Social Justice as its theme, this garners but a few new supporters to his cause. What he needed was something bigger, more militant: so he organises, through great struggle, a protest walk-out. Unfortunately, once the students are outside, they socialise and quickly abandon, or more aptly, forget about the so-called struggle. Leon may have a heart of fire but he needs something more if he is going to reach these students.
The key moment comes late in the film as Bronstein and his activist hero, Professor Frank McGovern, a down-and-out former revolutionary from decades past, have a holiday dinner. They discuss activism and the mistakes that Bronstein made during the walk-out. Frank remarks that “it’s not ‘real’ until it stops being fun.” He insists that the students lacked direction and that it was up to Bronstein to give it to them; the students, moreover, needed to be as committed as Bronstein was to the cause (or, not as committed as Bronstein since he is a bit delusional about his identity, but you get the idea). So, Bronstein does what any enterprising youth would do in his position, he plans a new direct action.
How is this anti-identity-reductionism? It needs to be seen in context.
During the school dance every attendee is dressed in various costumes honouring Leftist movements (Black Panthers, Maoists, Zapitstas, etc.). They own an identity, not a politics and it is represented masterfully—a bunch of kids pretend to be figures of economic emancipation while frivolously dancing. Of course, in this setting, these same kids would decide to instantly socialise instead of continuing with the political aspect of the walk-out. In each situation they are thinking only of themselves, of their own identity (adopted or otherwise), and of their own needs; Bronstein has never bothered to educate them on the finer points of their demonstration or to engage them with the practicality of their actions; unconsciously, he believes that spoon-feeding them the fervour of activity is enough to galvanise a support base. A very foolish position indeed!
So, obviously, it is not until Bronstein launches his “coup” and he kidnaps his school’s principal, all while his Student Union friends ‘paint the town red’ while educating, agitating, and organising, that the youth themselves—responding to Bronstein’s daring act of adventurism— start to connect Bronstein’s goal to their own self-interests as students and actually mobilise.
When the question is posed “Should school suck?” the students, engaged by the impromptu educational Student Union squad, shout a resplendent ‘no!’ They begin to piece together what Bronstein wants to achieve and that if they want more power in their school, that place where they spend almost every day for years, for hours at a time while subjected to uncaring administrators, then they need to participate in the actual democratic process—Bronstein’s activism—and do something to make the school better; Bronstein’s activism must be made their own activism. They cannot sit on the side-lines, complain, and expect the system to move for them—they have to make it move themselves!
All of which, needless to say, required an overcoming of identity-reductionism. The students could no longer swim in the fetid pool of identity politics, of them yammering on about what sucks about their site of learning without being proactive about it. They learned that activism was not simply walking out of school or playing dress up. Activism was not a mere declaration of who you are but a practice, a system, or praxis, where you create a web of social interaction and co-habitation with your fellow exploited persons under a common ideological banner.
So, to return to our original point, this was why the youth I talked with had been so inspired by The Trotsky’s message, even though he later went on to espouse vehemently anti-Trotskyist messages—he was reacting to not merely the empowerment and the positive depiction of youth activism, but he was reacting to the surmounting of a postmodern identity. Instead of the usual platitudes pandered by the ruling filmmakers about the supposed role and function of young people, those highly condescending comedy films about dysfunction and hijinks, what we see is the reverse: a movie which spoke to young people on their own terms, a film which did not use youth as a scapegoat or a repeated joke, but rather, a film about them discovering their identity not merely as young people capable of effecting real change, but as future workers who understand the necessity of organising.