The Rousing Call of Democracy: A Review of The Trotsky
The Montréal Review, February 2011
We sometimes hear about there being two competing visions of how democracy works. The first of these is an elite-driven model. Politicians are in the driver's seat here, with ordinary citizens only being required to give a nod to the right candidate at election time. The fact that this "nod" is the prime safeguard against creeping despotism makes it far from insignificant. But it remains that this model stands in fairly sharp contrast with a second, more participative one, which involves greater commitment on the part of ordinary men and women - a commitment to read up on things, to join a local association or party, or even a wider social movement.
When filmmaker Jacob Tierney came out last summer with an upbeat comedy about a democratic uprising in a Montreal high school, a good opportunity presented itself to talk about the state of Canadian democracy. Unfortunately I have yet to read a review that took this opportunity seriously. This lack of attentiveness is particularly unfortunate given that the film not only offers us an encouraging story about democratic engagement but also brings to light the
of another social ideal, this one having to do with self-development and personal authenticity, or, what Tierney himself refers to as the passionate pursuit of one's "romantic destiny".
The basic plot of the film is about a young Montrealer by the name of Leon Bronstein whose dream is to reincarnate the life of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (whose last name was in actual fact 'Bronstein'). At seventeen years old, the film's Leon follows the original Trotsky in pursuing a woman ten years his age and in seeking to find an associate named Lenin - by sitting down and calling all of the Lenins in the phonebook no less. What his "reincarnation" actually means, however, is that Leon is determined to step in and fight social injustices at every turn and, just as importantly, to waken the passions of his fellow comrades, so that they can join forces to "change the world".
Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel)
The story begins with Leon trying to unionize his dad's packaging firm. Feeling betrayed by his son's confrontational attitude, his dad decides to cut Leon's private school funds, forcing him to go to public school instead. Leon remains relatively unphased by this, thanks in part to his sister's unwavering moral support (who perhaps secretly knows this to be Leon's calling). And, as it turns out, Leon finds his feet pretty quick amidst the reigning climate of oppression at Montreal West High School. Indeed, the heavy handed belligerence of Principle Berkhoff and his "demonic concubine" Vice-Principal Davis spark an immediate reaction out of Leon. In a show of solidarity with victimized students such as Skip, who had the misfortune of being found with mud on his shoes, Leon decides to sit-in on detention with him and the others, thereby sending Miss Davis into a fit of irritation.
Leon also manages to befriend Tony and Caroline, two well-intentioned, if confused members of the rudderless student society. After bringing Skip along to the next meeting of the group, Leon succeeds in persuading the others into holding the school dance on the theme of social justice (- although he does lock horns with Dwight, a third member of the student society, to whom he delivers the memorable line "Are you my Stalin, Dwight?"). The cast of characters that show up to grind it out at the social justice dance span a whole range of historical figures, from the Black Panthers to Gandhi and René Levesque. Encouraged by the event's success, but flustered by Berkhoff's refusal to grant the student society the legislative powers of a regular student union, our crew begins to plot a student walkout in protest. Timed to perfection, the walkout looks like it might actually work, except that when the students get outside, they don't know how to organize themselves. To Berkhoff's great delight, the crowd simply ends up dissipating into anonymity.
Leon and his comrades are bummed out. But this doesn't stop them from bouncing back to plan another mobilization. As they stock the school grounds in the morning sun, they decide that what is needed this time is a full-out political coup. After breaking into school and taking Berkhoff hostage, Leon demands to speak to the school board commissioner, Madame Archambault, whom he previously found to be somewhat receptive to student concerns. Meanwhile, the others take off to rabble rouse among their classmates. Tony discovers a hidden talent for speechmaking as he defends the need to take action. After all, he says, doesn't everyone agree that school "sucks" right now? So why not do something about it? In the end, Leon ends up getting dragged off the school rooftop by the cops and banished from attending school in Québec. But not before his allies manage to mobilize a sea of students to occupy the front school yard, chanting "we want a union, we want a union!!"
The Trotsky is a film about democracy in the sense that it illustrates the importance of utopian social engagement, that is, the freedom to engage in changing society for the better. It helps to consider what's going on abroad, in places like Tunisia and Egypt, to appreciate the value of this freedom. But Canadians sitting down and watching a film like The Trotsky also helps. That Tierney chose to make a comedy with this film is pertinent in this regard. Indeed, the hopeful glimmer of possibilities that is an inherent feature of this ancient genre may in fact be precisely what the doctor ordered. For, while Canada is no slouch in terms of democracies, it is not immune to the climate of cynicism and despair that has crippled civic ambition among many citizens of rich Western democracies.
It's worth emphasizing here that, in a democratic regime, where good governance and a rich social life depend on people's willingness to participate, "despair" is in fact a political emotion. Too much of it, as occasionally perceptible in the "secret melancholy" of ordinary Canadians, can undermine the system's vitality and long term sustainability. As such, what Tierney's film offers is a step of political encouragement, one that holds the potential of generating the energy, spontaneity and enthusiasm needed to prompt melancholy men and women into acting on their complaints by seeking out a brighter day.
This optimism, it should be noted, is an important for personal growth as it is for democratic organizing. If the scene where Tony and Caroline are leading a crowd of students to the standoff with Commissioner Archambault (Malajube's Montreal à -40 cheering them on) can be taken as a symbol of democratic enthusiasm, Leon's optimistic determination and ability to grow through social encounters is another of the film's important themes. Think, for example, of his first encounter with Archambault at the school board council meeting, where he and the others fail miserably in getting their point across. The lesson here, presumably, is about the gratuitous "insolence" that Leon could sometimes indulge in.
Further, if we consider the whole premise of the film's key artistic device, that is, its protagonist being the reincarnation of some distant revolutionary figure, we see that the film can nicely be read as a critique of conformity (- who would go so far out on a limb as to claim to be reincarnating the life of Leon Trotsky!). We should however avoid reading the film as an all-out attack on conformity, for clearly Tierney's film does not reject the importance of a common political community. Rather, we might read it as a critique of those among the comfortable classes who have given up on acquiring the self-knowledge needed to understand what they specifically are meant to do, or to be. We are conformists in the bad sense when we forego our deeper instincts and hastily adapt our existence to whatever is fashionable.
It's not irrelevant in this regard that the film is set in high school. Because it's here, in the transition from youth to adulthood, that soul searching first begins. It's at this time, as one well known philosopher puts it, that the matter of finding "something undone that it is mine to do, that fits my hands" first becomes salient. Leon reminds us that it's important not to get off on the wrong foot in this regard - not to set oneself in a mould of living apathetically, so as ultimately to sleep life out. The fact that the film is relevant to youth does not, however, mean that it is irrelevant to adults. For, indeed, while the quest for personal authenticity is itself a lifelong project, it becomes more difficult to stay true to oneself as the conventions and responsibilities of adulthood set in.
By introducing us to the character of Frank McGovern, an old 1960s protestor turned sedated university professor, the film reminds us that we must resist the lull of disenchantment. Despite being thoroughly jaded at the beginning of the film, Leon's looking up to him in his search for "legal guidance" has the effect of reigniting Frank's youthful ambitions. His reawakening illustrates the importance of never abandoning the quest toward building a more coherent and admirable self. This is an ideal that should be held high at all times, but perhaps this is especially true once "the obligations and compromises of adulthood begin to obscure the promise and dreams of youth and the rift between public demands and private desires seems unbridgeable."
Now, the reader may be wondering at this point what all this has to do with democracy. I spoke above about there being two competing accounts of democracy, one which is elite-driven and the other which is much more participatory in nature. Proponents of the former "elite pluralist" model claim that their account is a much better description of how existing democracies actually function. They are no doubt right about this: people are, for the most part, too caught up in their family and working lives to become experts in one facet or another of public affairs. They would prefer to let business and political elites run the show, as long as they're able to choose between various parties and to pull the plug when necessary, thereby balancing off the entrenchment of one group of elites with another.
Yet surely this endorsement of the status quo does not give enough dues to the second model, which C.B. Macpherson once described as "developmental democracy". The idea here rests on a vision of democracy as a deeply rooted way of life, one that emphasizes the improvement of humankind and the creation of a society free and equal not yet achieved. The existence of a functioning democratic state such as Canada is itself the fruit of human improvement. But it is also the means toward further improvement. One way in which this happens is by citizens using the self-knowledge derived from social and political engagement as a kind of "indicator" for the development, exertion and enjoyment of their own unique capacities as both individuals and associative beings.
The arrival of democratic self-government is just a beginning in this regard. Universal franchise provides people with a direct interest in public affairs - something that is, of course, highly discouraged in other types of regimes. This "direct interest" in turn holds the potential of serving as a social springboard, transforming stationary individuals into active and energetic ones, more intimately in touch with their all-round capacities. Ultimately, it's this prospect, nicely captured by Leon's commitment to "live out his pre-ordained destiny to the fullest and change the world" that holds the key to strengthening the developmental vision of democracy. For, democracy, here, becomes a vehicle for the "self-increasing advancement of citizens in moral, intellectual and active worth, every bit of participation giving an ability and an appetite for more."
This is not to suggest that we should all become fully engaged political activists. People will have other callings. But it would already be good if ordinary folks got a little more involved in some local association or another, be it to defend a green space from urban sprawl or simply to share in a common taste for microbrewed beers. Citizens would therefore be a little more acquainted with one another and with the modalities of civic association. Thus when a Berkhoff shows up on the horizon, ordinary men and women would already have the networks and skills required for coordinated democratic action. These larger battles, even when they are not won, are useful for infusing democratic life with a sense of possibility. Take Leon and his chums, for example. They may not have won their union, but they showed that you could get people to "give a shit". Leon's triumph was that he got his fellow students to think and act together. And in the end, as Tierney puts it, Leon just wants "people to do stuff, and that's what the film wants, and so do I."
Andrew Gibson is a postdoctoral student at the UNAM in Mexico City. He has been
researching the democratic transition in Mexico within the framework of a study on the
role of social critics in international politics. His doctoral dissertation examined the
Canadian social criticism of philosopher Charles Taylor. He has recently been involved
in setting up an internship for young Canadians focusing on sustainable development in