Leon Trotsky


The Philistine and the Revolutionary

In one of the many books devoted to Lenin, I came upon an article by the English author Wells under the title of The Visionary of the Kremlin. There is an editorial note that explains: “Even such progressive men as Wells had not understood the proletarian revolution going on in Russia.” One would think this was not a sufficient reason to put Wells’s article in a book devoted to the leader of this revolution. But it is not worth while criticizing; I personally at least have read some pages of Wells not without interest, for which to be sure the author, as is evident from what follows, is quite innocent.

I have vividly before my eyes the time that Wells visited Moscow. It was the hungry and cold winter of 1920-21. There was a restless foreboding in the air of the difficulties that the spring was to bring. Starving Moscow lay buried deep in snow. Our policy was on the eve of a sharp change. I remember very well the impression Vladimir Ilyich carried away from his conversation with Wells. “What a bourgeois he is! He is a Philistine!” he repeated, and raised both hands above the table, laughed and sighed, as was characteristic of him when he felt a kind of inner shame for another man. “Ah, what a Philistine,” he began the conversation anew. Our conversation took place before the opening of the session of the Political Bureau and was limited essentially to this repeated short characterization of Wells. But that was quite enough. I confess that I have read little of Wells, and have never seen him. But the English drawing-room Socialist, Fabian, belles-lettrist on visionary and Utopian themes, who traveled here to see for himself the communistic experiments, – this picture I could form with sufficient clearness. And Lenin’s exclamation, especially his tone, supplied me with the rest. Wells’s article, that in some inaccountable way got into this book of Lenin, has not only brought back to my memory Lenin’s exclamation, but has filled it with vivid meaning. For if there is hardly a trace of Lenin in Wells’s article, Wells himself, just as he is, is contained in it. Let us begin with the complaint with which Wells introduces himself; he had to, just think of it, run about a long time to get an interview with Lenin, which “provoked” him (Wells) extremely. Had Lenin sent for Wells? Had he bound himself to receive him? Did Lenin have any superabundance of time? On the contrary, in those very difficult days every moment of his time was occupied; it would not have been easy to find a free hour to receive Wells. Even a foreigner should have had no difficulty in understanding that. But the whole trouble was that Wells, as a cultivated foreigner and – for all his “Socialism” – a stock conservative Englishman of imperialistic mold, was completely obsessed with the conviction that he was conferring great honor upon this barbaric land and its ruler by his visit. Wells’s article from the first to the last lines exhales this unjustifiable self-sufficiency. The characterization of Lenin begins, as one might expect, with revelation. Lenin, think of it, is “by no means a man of letters.” Who in fact could decide this question if not the professional man of letters, Wells? “Short, uncouth pamphlets that appear in Moscow with his (Lenin’s) signature, full of false ideas about the psychology of the workmen of the west ... give little expression to the actual character of Lenin’s mind.” The honorable gentleman naturally does not know that Lenin has written a number of great and fundamental books on the agrarian question, on theoretic economics, sociology, and philosophy. Wells knows only “short, uncouth pamphlets” and even here he remarks that “they only appear with Lenin’s signature,” that is, he implies that others have written them. The actual “character of Lenin’s mind” reveals itself then, not in the dozens of volumes he has written, but in that one hour’s conversation into which the extremely enlightened visitor from Great Britain deigned to enter. From Wells one might at least expect an interesting description of the outward impression of Lenin, and for the sake of a single well-observed small trait we were ready to pardon him for all his Fabian absurdities. But there is nothing of that to be found in the article. “Lenin has an agreeable brunette countenance whose expression changes constantly and a lively smile ... Lenin is not much like his photographs.” “During our conversation he gesticulated a little.” In these banalities Wells does not differ from the assistant reporter of a capitalistic newspaper. Moreover, he discovers that Lenin’s forehead reminds him of Arthur Balfour’s long, rather unsymmetrical head and, on the whole, Lenin is a “little man”; “when he sits on the edge of his chair, his feet scarcely touch the ground.” As far as Arthur Balfour’s head is concerned, we have nothing to say about this worthy object and are glad to believe it is long. But in all the rest, what shocking inaccuracy! Lenin was reddish blond; in no case can he be described as brunette. He was of medium height, perhaps a little less; but that he gave the impression of a “little man” and hardly touched the floor with his feet, that could only be the opinion of Wells, who had come with the consciousness of a civilized Gulliver into the land of the northern Communistic Lilliputians. In addition, Wells remarks that in the pauses of conversation Lenin had the habit of covering his eyes with his hand. “Perhaps that is due to some defect of sight,” says the ingenious man of letters. We know these gestures. They were in evidence when Lenin had with him a new man who was unknown to him; with his hand on his forehead like a shield, he looked through his fingers hastily at the visitor. The “defect” of Lenin’s sight was that he looked through his interviewer that way, saw his pompous self-satisfaction, his narrowness, his civilized haughtiness and hi~ civilized ignorance, and when he had taken in this picture, shook his head a long time and said: “What a Philistine! What a monstrous little bourgeois !” Comrade Rothstein was present at this conference and Wells made the discovery in passing that his presence is “characteristic of the present state of affairs in Russia.” Rothstein, by order of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, controlled Lenin on account of his extreme frankness and his fantastic imprudence. What can one say to this priceless observation? When Wells entered the Kremlin he brought with him in his consciousness the whole fog of international bourgeois information and discovered with his keen eye – that naturally had no “defect” – in Lenin’s office what he had fished out of the Times beforehand or from some other reservoir of respectable and ironed-out gossip. But what did the conversation really consist of? In regard to this we learn from Wells quite hopeless commonplaces that prove how poorly and wretchedly Lenin’s thoughts are reflected in another mind whose symmetry in other respects we have no cause to doubt. Wells had come in the belief that “he would have to dispute with a convinced Marxist doctrinaire, but nothing of the kind was the case.” That does not surprise us. We already know that the “reality” of Lenin’s mind did not reveal itself in his political and literary activity of more than thirty years, but in his conversation with the English Philistine. “I have been told,” Wells goes on, “that Lenin loves to advise, but he has not done that with me.” How can one in fact advise a gentleman who is sustained by such self-consciousness? That Lenin loved to advise is, besides, not true. It is true that Lenin understood how to speak very instructively. But he only did it when he was of the opinion that his fellow conversationalist was ready to learn something. In such cases he spared neither time nor trouble. But in the presence of the magnificent Gulliver whom the favor of fate had brought to the office of the “little man,” Lenin must have come to a firm conviction, after two or three minutes, somewhat like the inscription over the entrance into Dante’s hell: “All hope abandon!” The conversation touched upon large cities. Wells had decided the first time he was in Russia – as he declared – that the exterior of a city is determined by the trade in its shops and markets. He shared this discovery with his fellow conversationalist. Lenin “added” that a city under communism would grow considerably smaller in extent; Wells “pointed out” to Lenin that the renovation of the cities would be a gigantic task and that many of the enormous buildings of Petersburg would only retain their significance as historic monuments. Lenin also agreed with this incomparable commonplace of Wells, “I had the impression,” the latter added, “that it was agreeable to him to talk with a man who understood the inevitable consequences of collectivism which had escaped the understanding of many of his own young men.” There is the best gauge for Wells’s niveau. He considers the discovery, that under communism the present huge concentrated cities will disappear and many of the present capitalistic architectural monsters will retain their significance only as historic monuments (so far as they are spared the honor of destruction), a fruit of his extraordinary penetration. How could the poor communist (“the wearisome fanatics of the class struggle,” as Wells describes them) make such discoveries, which besides are already described in a popular commentary on the old program of German Social Democracy, without mentioning that the classical Utopians knew this already? I hope that now it will be understood why Wells “did not notice particularly,” in the course of his conversation, that laugh of Lenin of which he had heard so much. Lenin was not in a mood to laugh. I am even afraid that his jaw expressed something quite different from laughter. But his flexible and clever hand did him the necessary service, which it always understood opportunely, of concealing from his interviewer, so occupied with himself, the irritation of an impolite yawn. As we have already heard, Lenin did not advise Wells, and for reasons that we fully understand. Therefore Wells advised Lenin the more forcibly. He brought to him the quite new thought that for the success of socialism it is “necessary to reorganize not only the material side of life but also the psychology of the whole people.” He pointed out to Lenin that “the Russians are by nature individualists and traders.” He declared to him that communism was acting “too hastily” and was destroying before it could build up, etc., always in the same sense. “That brought us to the main point,” Wells says, “where our views diverged, to the difference between evolutionary collectivism and Marxism.” Under evolutionary collectivism we have the Fabian brew of liberalism, philanthropy, social legislation, and Sunday lectures about a better future. Wells himself formulates the nature of his evolutionary collectivism as follows: “I believe that by a definite system of education for all society the existing capitalistic system can be civilized and transformed into a collective one.” Wells does not explain, however, who is actually to carry out “the definite system of education” and on whom it is to be carried out: The Lords with the high foreheads on the English proletariat, or the other way round, the English proletariat on the heads of the Lords? Oh, no, everything except that. For what purpose are the enlightened Fabians there, the people of intelligence, of unselfish imagination, the gentlemen and ladies, Mr. Wells and Mrs. Snowden, if they do not civilize capitalistic society by a definite and tedious use of what lies hidden in their own craniums and transform it into a collective one by so reasonable and happy a gradation that even the royal dynasty of Great Britain notices nothing whatever? All this Wells laid down, and all this Lenin listened to. “For me,” Wells remarked graciously, “it was really a recreation (!) to talk with this unusual little man.” And for Lenin? – Oh, long suffering Ilyich! He probably permitted several very expressive and strong Russian words to pass through his mind. He did not translate them aloud in English and apparently not only because his English vocabulary would not have reached nearly so far but also for reasons of politeness. Ilyich was very polite. But finally he could no longer confine himself to this polite silence. “He was compelled,” Wells reported, “to answer me and declared that capitalism of today is incurably greedy and destructive, and that it cannot be taught.” Lenin referred to a number of facts contained in the new book of Monais: that capitalism had destroyed the English national docks, had prevented a suitable profit of the coal mines, etc. Ilyich knew the language of facts and figures. “I confess,” Wells concludes unexpectedly, “it was very difficult for me to debate with him.” What does that mean? Can this be the beginning of a capitulation of evolutionary collectivism to the logic of Marxism? No, no, “all hope abandon.” This statement, at first unexpected, is by no means accidental, but belongs to the system and consequently bears a Fabian evolutionary pedagogic character. It is intended for the English capitalists, bankers, Lords, and their ministers. Wells says to them: Look, your conduct is so bad, so destructive and selfish, that in a discussion with the visionary of the Kremlin it was very difficult for me to justify the principles of my evolutionary collectivism. Think it over, complete each day the Fabian washings, become civilized, take the road of progress. Thus Wells’s troubled admission is not the beginning of self-criticism but only the continuation of that educative work of capitalistic society that has come out of the imperialistic war and the Versailles Peace so perfected, so moralized, and so fabianized. With condescending sympathy Wells remarks, “Lenin’s faith in his cause is boundless.” There is nothing to be said against that. Lack of faith in his cause was not to be found in Lenin. What is right must remain right. This faith gave him, among other things, the patience, in those desperate months of blockade, to converse with every foreigner who even indirectly was able to connect Russia and the west. That was Lenin’s conversation with Wells. On the other hand, he talked quite, quite differently with the English workmen who came to him. With them he had active relations. Here he taught and learned. The interview with Wells, on the contrary, bore a half constrained and diplomatic character. “Our conversation ended undecidedly,” the author says. In other words: the game between evolutionary collectivism and Marxism ended this time in a draw. Wells went back to Great Britain, and Lenin remained in the Kremlin. Wells wrote a foolish series of articles for the bourgeois public, while Lenin, shaking his head, repeated, “That is a little bourgeois! Aye, aye, what a Philistine!” You may perhaps ask why now, after almost four years, I dwell on so insignificant an article of Wells. The fact that it met with a good reception in one of the books devoted to Lenin’s death is not enough. It is also not enough justification that I wrote these lines in Suchum during my convalescence. No, I have more important reasons. At the present moment Wells’s party holds the power in England with the enlightened representatives of evolutionary collectivism at the head. And I find – I believe not entirely without reason – that Wells’s lines devoted to Lenin will reveal to us, perhaps better than many other things, the soul of the leading class of the English Labor Party; in the long run Wells is not the worst among them. How terribly these men have been outdistanced under their heavy burden of bourgeois prejudices! Their arrogance, the late reflex of the great historical r6le of the English bourgeoisie, does not permit them to put themselves into the life of other peoples – in new ideas, in the historical process that goes on above their heads. As narrow routinists and empiricists along with bourgeois public opinion these gentlemen spread themselves and their prejudices over the entire world and end by noticing nothing but themselves. Lenin had lived in all Countries of Europe, he mastered foreign languages, he read, studied, went into them deeply; he compared and generalized. Even when he stood at the head of a great revolutionary country he let no opportunity pass to take advice scrupulously and attentively, to collect information and experience. He never wearied of following the life of the entire world. He spoke freely and read German, French, and English, and read Italian. In the last years of his life, overwhelmed with work, at the sessions of the Political Bureau he quietly studied Czech grammar, in order to get a direct feeling for the workmen’s movement in Czecho-Slovakia; we “caught” him at it now and then. He laughed in some embarrassment and apologized. In comparison with him Wells embodies that race of ostensibfy cdiicated, narrow bourgeois, who look but see nothing, and believe they have nothing more to learn, as they are sufficiently provided with their inherited prejudices. And Mr. Macdonald, who is a more settled and gloomy puritanical variety of the same type, calms bourgeois public opinion thus: We have fought with Moscow and conquered Moscow. Conquered Moscow? Yes, they are in reality poor “little men,” even though they have grown large. They do not know today, after all that has passed, anything about their own tomorrow. The Liberal and Conservative leaders make shori work of the “revolutionary” socialistic pedants who are in power; they compromise them and knowingly prepare their fall, their fall not only as ministers, but their political fall. At the same time they prepare – though it is less a matter of common knowledge – the seizure of power by the English Marxists. Yes, indeed, the Marxists, “the wearisome fanatics of the class struggle.” For the English social revolution, too, follows the laws that Marx has laid down. With the wit peculiar to him – heavy as a pudding – Wells once threatened to take a scissors and trim Marx’s “doctrinaire” mane and beard, to anglicize, to respectabilize and fabianize him. But nothing has come of this project. And nothing will come of it. Marx will remain Marx, as Lenin has remained Lenin, after Wells had painfully shaved him for a whole hour with a dull knife. And we have the boldness to prophesy that in a not too distant future in London, for example in Trafalgar Square, two bronze figures will be erected side by side: Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The English proletarians will say to their children: “What a good thing it was that the little men of the ‘Labor Party’ did not cut the hair and beard of these two giants.” In expectation of this day, which I strive to live to see, I close my eyes a moment and clearly see Lenin’s form on the same chair that Wells had seen him and hear, the day after this meeting – perhaps it was the very day – his words accompanied by a sigh from his heart: “He is a little bourgeois! He is a Philistine!”

April 6, 1924

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Last updated on: 14.4.2007