In Conversation With Kenneth D. Ackerman Author of Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of the Revolution
Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.
He has been reviewing books for the past fifteen years when he retired from the legal profession.
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Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Kenneth D. Ackerman. Ken, a Washington D.C. writer and attorney, has authored five major books, the most recent being Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution.
As a day job, Ken practices law in D.C. specializing in all things agriculture. Before that, he served as legal counsel to two committees of the United States Senate: Governmental Affairs (1975-1981) under then-Senator Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), and Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry (1988-1993) under its then-Chairmen Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
During the administration of President Bill Clinton, he headed the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (1993-2001). Earlier, he held various legal positions at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Ken has testified before dozens of Congressional hearings, investigated issues ranging from the 1979-80 silver corner to the 1987 stock crash, and developed legislation on topics from budget reconciliation to farm policy to electronic eavesdropping to civil service reform to financial market oversight. He has appeared often before Congress, the media, farmers in over twenty states, and government officials in London, Warsaw, Vienna, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah, PNA.
Norm: Good day Ken and thanks for participating in our interview.
Why did you choose to write Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution? What were your intentions in this book, and do you feel you achieved them? Whom do you believe will benefit from your book and why?
Ken: Thanks for having me, Norm. The Trotsky in New York story first attracted me because it came as a real surprise. Who would have thought that Leon Trotsky, the notorious Bolshevik, would have spent the pivotal ten weeks leading up to the famous 1917 Revolution not in Russia but across the ocean in New York City.
It seemed so out of context: Trotsky, the radical troublemaker, living among comfortable, Americanized New Yorkers. And New York City itself in 1917, so alive and free back enjoying a golden age of Broadway, music, arts and politics, with no censorship, no CIA, no NSA, no Homeland Security Department and the rest – things that would change abruptly with the country’s entry into the World War -- was an irresistible subject.
Norm: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book and what were some of the references that you used while researching this book?
Ken: Researching the story transported me both into the world of underground radical politics and, at the same time, into the thick of New York’s immigrant ghettos of a century ago. Best sources for the radicals were intelligence files: Britain’s MI-6, the America War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID), French and Canadian intelligence, and so on.
And for the immediate raw feel of immigrant life, the best by far was newspapers: not the big English-language papers like the New York World, the Times, or the American, but rather the small, backstreet, ethnic tabloids. Smeary old microfilms of Trotsky’s own Novy Mir, the Yiddish Forward, and the German New Yorker Volkzeitung, gave me an instant feel for time and place. Of the English-language dailies, the best for my purposes was the New York Call, mouthpiece for the local Socialist Party but worldly into its scope and outlook.
One of my favorite resources for understanding old New York City was one of the most simple: YouTube. YouTube is loaded with original videos, historic footage of New York and other cities from the 1900-1920 period. Here’s ONE of my favorites, from 1928, featuring none less that Harold Lloyd and Babe Ruth.
Norm: What is the most important thing that people don't know about your subject that they need to know?
Ken: First was Trotsky himself. Trotsky was a wonderful subject to write about, full of spunk and personality, a doer, an actor, never a victim. As a writer, I am always drawn to larger-than-life figures with clay feet and human flaws, be it Boss Tweed or J. Edgar Hoover.
Trotsky’s life was riddled with contradictions. He was a tireless idealist hoping to create a workers’ state, but instead helped produce one of the most brutal dictatorships of the Twentieth Century. Then he became its chief critic, and ultimately its most ironic victim. All this made him oddly sympathetic, despite a bevy of flaws.
The other key discovery to me was how New York City was such a different place in 1917, where even an outspoken radical like Trotsky could fit right in.
New York in 1917 had vast neighborhoods and smelled and sounded like foreign countries, the result of vast waves of immigration since the mid-1800s. By 1917, the city had such a large foreign-language population that it could support six daily newspapers in Yiddish, four in Russian, three in German, among others. And a radical like Trotsky could play this major role without speaking English or even being noticed by the rest of the country.
Also, by keeping itself out of the World war, America had remained the freest country on earth in early 1917: no secret police, no internal spies, no censorship.
Many New York immigrants openly backed Germany in the war and nobody doubted their loyalty. Socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and free thinkers of every kind could be heard any night in lecture halls or on street corners. All that would change abruptly in April once America entered the war.
Norm: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?
Ken: One of the biggest obstacles was the language barrier. Though fluent in Russian, German, and French, Trotsky spoke virtually no English during his time in America, and much of the best source material was in the foreign-language press.
Though several of Trotsky’s articles and speeches from the era have been translated, most have not. As a result, with my own language skills quite limited, I had to seek out translators at almost every turn.
Also, since the Russian and Yiddish languages themselves have changed dramatically since 1917, many modern speakers of these languages trying to help me struggled at trying to decipher the “street talk” reflected in old newspapers. The Acknowledgements section of the book lists many of the friends who came to my rescue on this front.
Norm: How important was the role Trotsky played in radicalizing some young activists that would have an influence on reshaping the American left in the next fifty years?
Ken: Trotsky left his biggest mark in New York on the people he got to know best, the leaders of America socialism. By his rabble-rousing and radicalism, Trotsky helped reshape the American left for the next generation.
When he first reached the city in early 1917, Trotsky found an American Socialist Party that had become mainstream. Democratic rather than revolutionary, its four-time presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, had received almost a million popular votes for president in 1912 (six percent of the total), two Socialists has sat in the U.S. Congress, 56 has served as mayors, 30 held seats in state legislatures, and a socialist Senator or Governor seemed the next likely achievement.
The Party had 150 affiliated newspapers and pressed a platform including reforms that are now staples of American life – our social safety net, financial regulation, social security, child labor laws, progressive income taxes, and the rest.
Within three years after Trotsky left the country, the Party would be shattered, and Trotsky, by his radicalism, had played a major role in its demise. The circle of young radicals Trotsky took under his wing would form the nucleus of the American communist movement, wrecking the old Socialist Party in their wake.
Norm: If Trotsky came
back to the USA today how would he view the two Presidential
nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and their respective
political agendas? As a follow up, how would you compare some of his
social positions to that of Bernie Sanders?
Ken: Trotsky would have no trouble dismissing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as capitalist sell-outs. “A pox on both your houses” would be his easy answer.
But Bernie Sanders raises a more interesting question. Socialism has deep roots in America (see question above), and Sanders, as a “democratic socialist,” can trace his roots to the moderate American socialism of the pre-World War I era, based on winning elections and enacting social reforms.
Trotsky opposed these moderate socialists back in 1917; they weren’t nearly revolutionary enough for him. His enemies in New York included establishment socialist figures like party leader Morris Hillquit and Forward editor Abraham Cahan -- who confronted Trotsky personally and would later remain consistently anti-Communist.
Bernie Sanders in 2016 has done much to rehabilitate socialism, removing the stigma of Communist abuse and the Cold War. Trotsky in later years became the leading critic of Stalinist Communism. But the chasm between a true revolutionary like Trotsky and a moderate “democratic socialist,” as I see it, would still be too bar for either to bridge.
Norm: How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
Ken: For more information, visit my WEB PAGE
Norm: What is next for Kenneth D. Ackerman?
Ken:This summer, I have immersed myself in books about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Call it research, or call it just a summer obsession, but a friend got me started with the new Larry Tye biography Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, and since then I have devoured, in rapid succession, the 1964 report of the Warren Commission, the 1976 reports of the House Special Committee on Assassinations and the Church Committee on abuses of the CIA, and classics like Edward Jay Epstein ‘s Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth (1966), Dan Moldea’s The Hoffa Wars, and Ronald Goldfarb’s Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy’s War against Organized Crime.
Where this is going, I’m still not sure. But the Kennedy era remains a fantastic story, a moment I remember well from my own life fifty-three years ago, and well worth the literally-hundreds of books already written covering on the topic. Is there a unique angle left worth writing about? Stay tuned.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors