Yesterday evening (April 29, 2012), the television program Sixty Minutes has an interesting segment on the work of Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, on the effects of drug use on the brain and on why addictions are so difficult to overcome. One of Dr. Volkow's best points, I thought, was that some addictive drugs damage the part of the brain involved in exercising will. This does raise the questions of personal freedom. If we hold that some people, such as those who engage in the use of drugs, have diminished responsibility, this also means that they have diminished control over their own actions. Who, then, can exercise control over their actions, supposedly in their interest?
The oddest part of the feature came in the portrayal of Dr. Volkow's family background. The segment identified her as one of the granddaughters of Leon Trotsky and it briefly interviewed her father, who was a child living with his Russian revolutionary grandfather when a Stalinist agent brutally murdered the grandfather in 1940. Sixty Minutes portrays Dr. Volkow and her two highly accomplished sisters as carrying on in the idealistic, humanitarian tradition of Trotsky. It even suggests that Trotsky's enmity with Stalin resulted from the former's desire to move the Soviet Union in a more "democratic" direction. While the Volkow sisters do seem like admirable people, this version of their great-grandfather is a pretty questionable revision of history.
The lionization of Trotsky owes a good deal to the contrast with the man who ordered his murder. Trotsky was an enemy of Stalin, along with Mao and Hitler one of the most vicious monsters of the twentieth century. Trotsky is also an appealing figure for intellectuals because he was highly literate and articulate. His nickname among the revolutionaries was "the pen." He was certainly no advocate of democracy, though. As architect of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, he was ruthless. In 1921, he played a leading role in the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion, in which sailors rose up to demand liberalization of the Bolshevik regime. Trotsky criticized Stalin "from the left," arguing for greater state control over the economy and for making the USSR more active in spreading world revolution. Even after Stalin expelled him from the Soviet Union, Trotsky continued to urge his followers to support the totalitarian Soviet state.
If Communism was indeed, as Raymond Aron quipped, "the opium of the intellectuals," one may well wonder how much damage Dr. Volkow's great-grandfather did to the frontal lobes of those addicted to his particular brand of intoxicant.