Saturday, September 17, 2016

With Trotsky in Mexico: A Brief Note on the Life of Lillian Pollak

Lillian Pollak interviewed at home in June, 2016.
Lillian Pollak, who died on August 10, was probably the last person on earth – excepting Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkov – with living memories of Leon Trotsky.  Up until the stroke that felled her earlier this summer, Lillian who was 101 years old, was an amazingly vital person whose mind was as sharp as an 18 year old.  I had the privilege of interviewing Lillian at her apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan just a few weeks before her passing.   I will be presenting some excerpts from that interview subsequently but for now I just want to record a few thoughts about this remarkable woman.

Lillian developed a deep aversion to the status quo from the time she was 10 years old and heard about the pending execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. [Sacco and Vanzetti were finally executed in 1927 despite massive protests around the globe.] Like many other children of poor Jewish immigrants of her generation growing up in New York, she joined the youth movement of the Communist Party, the Young Communist League while still in high school.  A few years later Lillian became disillusioned with the CP after hearing the Trotskyist critique of Stalin’s policies from a follower of James P. Cannon. She was won over to Trotskyism.  Lillian joined the Trotskyist movement in the early 1930’s, shortly after it was launched by Cannon after he broke from the Communist Party in 1928. This was a time before the group of American Trotskyists evolved into the Socialist Workers Party, before they merged with the followers of A.J. Muste and before its members briefly joined the then leftward moving Socialist Party (the so-called “French turn”.)  She was probably the last living person whose roots go back to these earliest years of the American Trotskyist movement.  In later years Lillian had a professional career as a beloved public school teacher and camp counselor, and she earned her master's degree in family counseling when she was 73.

There have already been a number of tributes to Lillian’s remarkable life.  Many of those tributes praise her continuing radicalism and activism at the age of 101.  And it is true that unlike many people with a past in the revolutionary movement, Lillian was not satisfied with sitting on her laurels and recounting the “good old days” to a younger generation.  And she never did reconcile herself to the status quo, the capitalist system and the repressive state apparatus that could send two innocent immigrants to a horrific and senseless death in the electric chair.  Her intransigence and refusal to capitulate to the comforts of retirement cost  her the friendship of many former comrades and friends who were not able to withstand those pressures.

She remained active till the end, participating in marches and demonstrations against war, racism and social injustice.  However, some of the tributes to Lillian miss what was essential to her being – that she was a Trotskyist to the end.  I don’t say that because she belonged to any group or adhered to a “correct” ideological position. [At the time of her death Lillian was active in several organizations fighting against imperialism and social injustice, including the Raging Grannies, the Granny Peace Brigade, and Women in Black.] Lillian maintained her conviction to the end that the only genuine revolutionary current of the last century was the one fought for by Leon Trotsky and his followers.  She always tried to act on the basis of the principles of that tradition as she understood them. And Lillian was also very conscious of the fact she was one of the last living representatives of the early history of that tradition.

In that regard, I think that even more impressive than her activism in the last years of her life was the book she published when she was 93 years old, “The Sweetest Dream: Love Lies and Assassination”. The book is a semi-autobiographical historical novel that recounts the life of its heroine, named “Miriam” in the book, as she grows up in the slums of upper Manhattan in the 1920’s through to the Great Depression and the beginning of the Second World War.  The novel traces Miriam’s revulsion at a very young age, at the injustices she sees around her.  It traces her growing radicalism and attraction to the Communist Party youth movement.  This was followed by her disillusionment with Stalinism thanks to the education she received by one of the original members of the Trotskyist group in New York.  She then joined the Trotskyist movement at a very early age. It follows her experiences during the Depression in New York as an organizer who was also trying to become a dancer while holding down a menial job to make ends meet. The book also recounts the romantic entanglements and conflicts Miriam faced as a young lady.

Parallel to the story of Miriam, the book recounts the chronology of Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy and his efforts to build the Fourth International. The parallel stories finally come together when Miriam arrives in Coyoacan Mexico and meets Trotsky.  [The real Lillian had in fact made two trips to Coyoacan in the 1930s.] The book ends with the assassination of Trotsky and its immediate aftermath in Mexico and in the U.S.

[Although Lillian was not present in Coyoacan at the time of the assassination, she knew the principals involved intimately. Lillian was a good friend of Sylvia Ageloff, the woman who unknowingly introduced her lover, the assassin, then known as Jacques Mornard, into the Trotsky household. Lillian had met Sylvia with her lover “Mornard” on several occasions.  She told me during our interview that she had an instinctive dislike for this person the first time she met him and thought it was very strange that her friend Sylvia could be attracted to him. She even burst out into the song “Strange Romance” at one point to express her feelings.]

Among other things, Lillian’s book is remarkable for painting a portrait of the selfless activity that the rank and file of the Communist Party were capable of in its early years. She recounts the CP’s work in organizing the unemployed, in fighting against racism in Harlem, in the organization of rent parties against evictions, etc. Nor does she forget that even years later, when the Communist Party became a tool of Stalin’s counterrevolutionary foreign policy, its rank and file members were for the most part dedicated to the cause of the Russian Revolution even as they were seriously misguided and betrayed by their leadership. Lillian’s book also captures the struggles and difficulties facing the Trotskyists who were far more isolated than the CP’ers and were hounded and persecuted not only by the government but by the Stalinists. Part of her book deals with the Spanish Civil War where the Stalinists murdered many sympathizers of Trotsky.  

As if these historical portraits were not enough, Lillian’s book is very well written. It does not have the feel of many amateur memoirs.  She manages to maintain the reader’s interest in the protagonists and their stories, all the while keeping in mind that many of those stories are dramatizations of real life events and people, including those of Lillian herself.  Lillian captured the spirit of Trotsky in a remarkable passage toward the end of her book. Here she is depicting Miriam’s account of the funeral of Trotsky as his coffin was being transported through the streets of Mexico City.  More than 50,000 spectators lined the streets, the great majority of them poor Mexican workers and peasants.  And this is what Miriam – the narrator – is thinking:

These people know Trotsky although they have not met him. They know his story, because Mexico’s past is full of revolutionary martyrs. Trotsky is the brave revolutionist who fought for the dispossessed, the oppressed. They know him as a man with simple tastes who gathered cactus in the countryside and tended rabbits in his garden. They have heard he was a world-famous leader, a great orator, a fine writer, who fought for truth and humanity with his pen and they know that although he made errors in his lifetime, he never swerved in his fight for truth, for humanity, for socialism and for that, he was killed.

I feel very honored to have known Lillian. 


Maria said...

Thank you, Alex, for eloquently describing Lillian's life and her book. Her death is a huge loss. ~Maria

Anonymous said...

Ditto, Maria.
-one of Lillian's grandsons