Leon Trotsky

My Life


The October strike did not develop according to plan. It began with the printers in Moscow, and then subsided slowly. The decisive fights had been planned by the par ties for the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday (January 22). That is why I was completing my work in my Finnish refuge without haste. But an accidental strike that was already in its last gasps suddenly spread to the railways and went off at a gallop. After October 10 of that year, the strike, now with political slogans, spread from Moscow throughout the country. No such general strike had ever been seen anywhere before. In many towns there were clashes with the troops. But, taken by and large, the October events remained on the plane of a political strike and never took on the character of an armed up rising. Absolutism lost its head, however, and retreated. On October 17 [1] it announced the Constitutional Manifesto. It is true that injured Czarism retained the apparatus of power. The government policy was more than ever, to use the words of Witte, “a mixture of cowardice, blindness, treachery and stupidity.” Nevertheless, the revolution won its first victory, a victory not complete in itself, but one which promised much.

“The most important part of the Russian revolution of 1905,” the same Witte wrote later, “was, of course, in the slogan of the peasantry: ‘Give us land.’” With this one can agree. But Witte goes on to say: “I did not attribute much importance to the Soviet of Workers. Nor did it have any.” This only proves that even the most gifted of bureaucrats did not understand the significance of the events which were the last warning to the ruling classes. Witte died in time to avoid having to revise his views on the importance of the workers’ Soviets.

I arrived in St. Petersburg when the October strike was at its peak. The wave of strikes was sweeping farther and farther, but there was danger that the movement, not being controlled by a central organization, would die down without any results. I came from Finland with a plan for an elected non-party organization, with delegates who represented each a thousand workers. From a writer named Iordansky (later, the Soviet ambassador to Italy) I learned, on the day of my arrival, that the Mensheviks had already launched the slogan of an elected revolutionary organization on the basis of one delegate to five hundred men. This was the right thing to do. The part of the Bolshevik Central Committee then in St. Petersburg resolutely opposed an elected non-party organization because it was afraid of competition with the party. At the same time, the Bolshevik workers were entirely free of this fear. The sectarian attitude of the Bolshevik leaders toward the Soviet lasted until Lenin’s arrival in November.

One could write an instructive chapter on the leadership of the Leninists without Lenin. The latter towered so high above his nearest disciples that in his presence they felt that there was no need of their solving theoretical and tactical problems independently. When they happened to be separated from Lenin at a critical moment, they amazed one by their utter helplessness. This was the situation in the autumn of 1905, and again in the spring of 1917. In both instances, as in others of less importance historically, the rank-and-file of the party sensed the correct line of action much better than did their semi-leaders when the latter were thrown on their own resources. Lenin’s delay in arriving from abroad was one of the things that prevented the Bolshevik faction from gaining a leading position in the events of the first revolution.

I have already mentioned the fact that N.I. Sedova had been made prisoner during a cavalry raid on a Mayday meeting in the woods. She served about six months in prison and was then sent to live under police supervision at Tver. After the October Manifesto, she returned to St. Petersburg. Under the names of Mr. and Mrs. Vikentiyev, we rented a room in the apartment of a man who turned out to be a gambler on the stock exchange. Business in the stock-market was bad, and many a speculator had to take in roomers. Newsboys brought us all the published papers every morning. Our landlord would sometimes borrow them from my wife, read them, and gnash his teeth. His affairs were constantly getting worse. One day he burst into our room waving a newspaper wildly. “Look,” he yelled, as he pointed his finger at my newly written article Good morning, St. Petersburg janitors! “Look, they are now reaching out for the janitors! If I came across the jailbird I would shoot him with this gun!” And he pulled a gun out of his pocket and shook it in the air. He looked like a maniac. He wanted sympathy. My wife came to my office at the newspaper with this disturbing news. We felt we had to look for new quarters. But we didn’t have a free minute; so we trusted to fate. We stayed on with this despairing speculator until my arrest. Fortunately, neither he nor the police ever learned the identity of Vikentiyev. After my arrest our room was not even searched.

In the Soviet I was known by the name of Yanovsky, after the village in which I was born. In the press I wrote as Trotsky. I had to work for three newspapers. With Parvus I took over the tiny Russian Gazette and transformed it into a fighting organ for the masses. Within a few days the circulation rose from thirty thousand to one hundred thousand. A month later, it had reached the half-million mark. But our technical resources could not keep up with the growth of the paper. We were finally extricated from our difficulties by the government raid.

On November 13 (26), in alliance with the Mensheviks, we had started a big political organ, Nachalo (The Beginning). The paper’s circulation was jumping by leaps and bounds. Without Lenin, the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn (The New Life) was rather drab. The Nachalo, on the other hand, had a tremendous success. I think this paper, more than any other publication of the past half-century, resembled its classic prototype, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was published by Marx in 1848. Kamenev, one of the editors of the Novaya Zhizn, told me afterward how he watched the sale of newspapers at the stations when he was passing through by train. The St. Petersburg train was awaited by endless lines. The demand was only for revolutionary papers. “Nachalo, Nachalo, Nachalo,” came the cry of the waiting crowds. “Novaya Zhiin,” and then again, “Nachalo, Nachalo, Nachalo.” “Then I said to myself, with a feeling of resentment,” Kamenev confessed, “they do write better in the Nachalo than we do.”

Besides the Russian Gazette and Nachalo, I also wrote editorials for the Izvestia (The News), the official Soviet organ, as well as numerous appeals, manifestoes and resolutions. The fifty-two days of the existence of the first Soviet were filled to the brim with work the Soviet, the Executive Committee, endless meetings, and three newspapers. How we managed to live in this whirlpool is still not clear, even to me. But much of the past seems inconceivable because as we remember it we lose the element of activity; we look at ourselves from outside. Where as in those days we were sufficiently active. We not only whirled in the vortex, but we helped to create it. Everything was done in a hurry, but, after all, not so badly, and some things were even done very well. Our accountable editor, an old democrat, Dr. D.M. Hertzenstein, would drop in sometimes at the Nachalo offices, dressed in an immaculate Prince Albert coat. He would stand in the middle of the room and watch our chaos affectionately. A year later he had to answer in court the charges brought against him for the revolutionary fury of a newspaper over which he had not the least influence. The old man did not renounce us. On the contrary, with tears in his eyes, he told the court how, while editing the most popular pa per, we fed ourselves between work on stale “pirozhki” which the doorman brought, wrapped in paper, from the nearest bakery. The old man had to serve a year in prison for the revolution which did not succeed, for the émigré fraternity, and for stale “pirozhki.”

In his memoirs Witte wrote afterward that in 1905 “the vast majority of the people seemed to go mad.” Revolution appears to a conservative as collective madness only because it raises the “normal” insanity of social contradictions to the highest possible tension. Just as people dislike to recognize themselves in a bold caricature. And yet the entire modern development condenses, strains, and accentuates the contradictions and makes them unbearable, consequently preparing that state of mind when the great majority “goes mad.” But in such cases, the insane majority puts the straitjacket on the sane minority. Thanks to this, history keeps moving along.

A revolutionary chaos is not at all like an earthquake or a flood. In the confusion of a revolution, a new order begins to take shape instantly; men and ideas distribute themselves naturally in new channels. Revolution appears as utter madness only to those whom it sweeps aside and overthrows. To us it was different. We were in our own element, albeit a very stormy one. A time and place was found for everything. Some were even able to lead personal lives, to fall in love, to make new friends and actually to visit revolutionary theatres. Parvus, for instance, was so taken with a new satirical play that he bought fifty tickets for the next performance and invited his friends. (I must explain that the day before he had been paid for his books.) When he was arrested, the police found fifty theatre-tickets in his pockets, and for a long time racked their brains over this revolutionary puzzle. They did not know that Parvus did everything on a large scale.

The Soviet roused great masses of people. The workers supported it to a man. In the country, disturbances continued, as they did among the troops who were returning home from the Far East after the Peace of Portsmouth. But the guards and the Cossack regiments stood firm. All the elements that go to make a successful revolution were there, but they did not mature.

On October 18, the day after the promulgation of the manifesto, tens of thousands of people were standing in front of the University of St. Petersburg, aroused by the struggle and intoxicated with the joy of their first victory. I shouted to them from the balcony not to trust an incomplete victory, that the enemy was stubborn, that there were traps ahead; I tore the Czar’s manifesto into pieces and scattered them to the winds. But such political warnings only scratch the surface of the mass consciousness. The masses need the schooling of big events.

In this connection, I remember two scenes during the life of the St. Petersburg Soviet. One was on October 29, when the city was filled with rumors of pogroms being prepared by the Black Hundred. The delegates came straight from their workshops to the meeting, and showed samples of the weapons that were being made by the workers against the Black Hundred. They shook their knives, knuckles, daggers and wire whips in the air, but more in good humor than seriously, and with much jesting. They seemed to believe that their readiness to face the enemy was enough to solve the problem. Most of them did not seem to realize that it was a life-or-death struggle. But that they learned in the December days.

On the evening of December 3, the St. Petersburg Soviet was surrounded by troops. All the exits and entrances were closed. From the balcony where the Executive Committee was in session, I shouted down to the hundreds of delegates who were crowding the hall: “No resistance to be made, no arms to be surrendered.” The arms were revolvers. And then, in the meeting-hall, already surrounded on all sides by detachments of infantry, cavalry and artillery, the workers began to wreck their arms. They did it with practised hands, striking a Mauser with a Browning and a Browning with a Mauser. And this time it did not have the sound of a jest, as it had on October 29. In the clashing and creaking of twisting metal one heard the gnashing teeth of a proletariat who for the first time fully realized that a more formidable and more ruthless effort was necessary to overthrow and crush the enemy.

The partial victory of the October strike had for me a tremendous theoretical as well as political importance. It was not the opposition of the liberal bourgeoisie, not the elemental risings of the peasantry or the terrorist acts of the intelligentsia, but the strike of the workers that for the first time brought Czarism to its knees. The revolutionary leadership of the proletariat revealed itself as an incontrovertible fact. I fell that the theory of permanent revolution had withstood its first test successfully. Revolution was obviously opening up to the proletariat the prospect of seizing the power. The years of reaction which soon followed failed to make me move from this position. But from these premises I also drew my conclusions about the West. If the young proletariat of Russia could be so formidable, how mighty the revolutionary power of the proletariat of the more advanced countries would be!

Writing afterward in the inexact and slovenly manner which is peculiar to him, Lunacharsky described my revolutionary concept as follows: “Comrade Trotsky held in 1905 that the two revolutions (the bourgeois and socialist), although they do not coincide, are bound to each other in such a way that they make a permanent revolution. After they have entered upon the revolutionary period through a bourgeois political revolution, the Russian section of the world, along with the rest, will not be able to escape from this period until the Social Revolution has been completed. It cannot be denied that in formulating this view Comrade Trotsky showed great insight and vision, albeit he erred to the extent of fifteen years.”

The remark about my error of fifteen years does not become any more profound through its later repetition by Radek. All our estimates and slogans of 1905 were based on the assumption of a victorious revolution, and not of a defeat. We achieved then neither a republic nor a transfer of land, nor even an eight-hour day. Does it mean that we erred in putting these demands forward? The defeat of the revolution blanketed all prospects not merely those which I had been expounding. The question was not of the dates of revolution but of the analysis of its inner forces and of foreseeing its progress as a whole.

What were the relations between Lenin and me during the revolution of 1905? Since his death the official history has been revised, and for 1905 as well, a struggle has been established between the powers of good and evil. What were the facts? Lenin took no active part in the work of the Soviet, and he never spoke there. It goes without saying that he watched its every step intently; he influenced its policies through the representatives of the Bolshevik faction and ex pounded its work in his paper. There was not a question in which he disagreed with the Soviet policies. And yet the documents are witnesses all the decisions of the Soviet, with the exception perhaps of a few that were accidental and unimportant, were shaped by me; I submitted them first to the Executive Committee, and then, in its name, I placed them b fore the Soviet. When the federative commission was formed of representatives of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, again it was I who had to appear as its representative before the Executive Committee. And there was never a conflict in that connection.

The first president of the Soviet was elected before my arrival from Finland. He was a young lawyer, Khrustalyov, an accidental figure in the revolution, representing an intermediate stage between Gapon and the Social Democracy. Khrustalyov presided, but he had no real political leadership. After his arrest a “presidium” was elected, and I was at the head of it. Sverchkov, one of the prominent members of the Soviet, writes in his memoirs: “The intellectual leader of the Soviet was L.D. Trotsky. The president of the Soviet, Nosar-Khrustalyov, was really a screen, for he was never able to solve a single question of principle himself. A man with an exaggerated vanity which was almost an illness with him, he came to hate L.D. Trotsky because of the very necessity of referring to him for advice and direction.” Lunacharsky relates in his memoirs: “I remember somebody saying in Lenin’s presence: ‘The star of Khrustalyov is setting. To-day the strong man in the Soviet is Trotsky.’ For a moment Lenin’s expression seemed to darken; then he said, ‘Well, Trotsky has won this by his tireless and striking work.’”

The relations between the editors of the two papers were most friendly. They engaged in no polemics against each other. “The first number of the Nachalo has come out,” wrote the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn. “We welcome a comrade in the struggle. The first issue is notable for the brilliant description of the October strike written by Comrade Trotsky.” People don’t write in this way when they are fighting with each other. But there was no fighting. On the contrary, the papers defended each other against bourgeois criticism. The Novaya Zhizn, even after the arrival of Lenin, came out with a defense of my articles on the permanent revolution. Both newspapers, as well as the two factions, followed the line of the restoration of party unity. The central committee of the Bolsheviks, with Lenin participating, passed a unanimous resolution to the effect that the split was merely the result of the conditions of foreign exile, and the events of the revolution had deprived the factional struggle of any reasonable grounds. I defended the same line in the Nachalo, with only a passive resistance from Martov.

Under the pressure of the masses, the Mensheviks in the Soviet during its first period did their utmost to keep in line with the left flank. A change in their position took place only after the first blow of the reaction. In February, 1906, the leader of the Mensheviks, Martov, complained in a letter to Axelrod: “For two months now ... I have not been able to finish any of the writing I have started. It is either neurasthenia or mental fatigue but I cannot gather my thoughts together.” Martov did not know what to call his illness. But it has quite a definite name: “Menshevism.” In an epoch of revolution, opportunism means, first of all, vacillation and inability “to gather one’s thoughts.”

While the Mensheviks were beginning to repent publicly and to criticise the policy of the Soviet, I defended that policy in the Russian press, and later in the German publications, as well as in the Polish magazine edited by Rosa Luxemburg. Out of this struggle for the methods and traditions of 1905, came my book, at first entitled Russia in the Revolution, and later reprinted many times in various countries under the title of 1905. After the October revolution, this book was regarded as the official text-book of the party, not only in Russia, but among the communist parties in the West as well. Only after Lenin’s death, when a carefully prepared campaign was started against me, did this book of mine on 1905 come under fire. At first the attack was confined to a few captious remarks, which were sorry and trivial. But gradually the criticism became more daring; it grew and multiplied, became more involved and arrogant, and seemed all the noisier because it had to silence its own distress. In this way was created the legend of the struggle of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s policies during the revolution of 1905.

The revolution of 1905 made a break in the life of the country, in the life of the party, and in my own life. The break was in the direction of greater maturity. My first revolutionary work in Nikolayev was a provincial experiment gropingly carried out. The experiment did not go without leaving a trace. Never in my later life, it seems, did I come into such intimate contact with the plain workers as in Nikolayev. At that time I had no “name,” and there was nothing to stand between us. The principal types of the Russian proletariat impressed themselves on my consciousness forever. In the years that followed, I encountered almost no one who was not a variant of one of these types. In prison, I had to start my revolutionary education almost from the ABC’s. Two and a half years in prison and two years of exile in Siberia gave me the theoretical foundations for a revolutionary view of life. My first stay abroad was my school for political education. Under the guidance of distinguished Marxist revolutionaries, I was learning to understand events in a wide historical perspective and in their international connection. Toward the end of my foreign stay, I cut myself adrift from both of the leading groups, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. I came to Russia in February of 1905; the other émigré leaders did not come until October and November. Among the Russian comrades, there was not one from whom I could learn anything. On the contrary, I had to assume the position of teacher myself. The events of the stormy years were coming swiftly, one upon the heels of another. One had to occupy one’s position there on the spot. A proclamation with the ink barely dry on it went straight to the underground printers. The theoretical foundations laid in prison and in exile, the political method assimilated abroad, now for the first time found practical application in war. I was confident in the face of events. I understood their inner mechanism, or at least so I believed. I visualized their effect on the minds of the workers, and envisaged, in its main features, the next day to come. From February to October, my participation in the events was chiefly of a literary nature. In October, I plunged headlong into the gigantic whirlpool, which, in a personal sense, was the greatest test for my powers. Decisions had to be made under fire. I can’t help noting here that those decisions came to me quite obviously. I did not turn back to see what others might say, and I very seldom had opportunity to consult anybody; everything had to be done in such a hurry. Later, I observed with astonishment and a sense of estrangement how every event caught the cleverest of the Mensheviks, Martov, unawares and threw him into confusion. Without thinking about it there was too little time left for self-examination I organically felt that my years of apprenticeship were over, although not in the sense that I stopped learning. No the urge and willingness to learn I have carried through my whole life in all their first intensity. But in the years that followed I have been learning as a master learns, and not as a pupil. At the time of my second arrest I was 26. And the acknowledgment of my maturity came from old Deutsch, who, in prison, solemnly foreswore calling me “youth,” and addressed me by my full name.

In his book Silhouettes, already quoted here, and which is now under a ban, Lunacharsky gives the following estimate of the parts played by the leaders of the first revolution:

“His [Trotsky’s] popularity among the St. Petersburg proletariat was very great by the time of his arrest, and was increased still further by his strikingly effective [?] and heroic [?] behavior at the trial. I must say that Trotsky, of all the Social Democratic leaders of 1905, undoubtedly showed himself, in spite of his youth, the best prepared; and he was the least stamped by the narrow émigré outlook which, as I said before, handicapped even Lenin. He realized better than the others what a state struggle is. He came out of the revolution, too, with the greatest gains in popularity; neither Lenin nor Martov gained much. Plekhanov lost a great deal because of the semi-liberal tendencies which he revealed. But Trotsky from then on was in the front rank.”

These lines, written in 1923, are all the more expressive because to-day Lunacharsky, not very “effectively” and not very “heroically,” is writing their exact opposite.

No great work is possible without intuition that is, without that subconscious sense which, although it may be developed and enriched by theoretical and practical work, must be in grained in the very nature of the individual. Neither theoretical education nor practical routine can replace the political in sight which enables one to apprehend a situation, weigh it as a whole, and foresee the future. This gift takes on decisive importance at a time of abrupt changes and breaks the conditions of revolution. The events of 1905 revealed in me, I believe, this revolutionary intuition, and enabled me to rely on its assured support during my later life. I must add here that the errors which I have committed, however important they may have been and some of them were of extreme importance always referred to questions that were not fundamental or strategic, but dealt rather with such derivative matters as organization and policy. In all conscientiousness, I cannot, in the appreciation of the political situation as a whole and of its revolutionary perspectives, accuse myself of any serious errors of judgment.

In Russian life, the revolution of 1905 was the dress rehearsal for the revolution of 1917. That was its significance in my personal life as well. I took part in the events of 1917 with absolute resolution and confidence, because they were merely a continuation and development of the revolutionary activity which had been interrupted by the arrest of the St. Petersburg Soviet on December 3, 1905.

The arrest took place a day after we had published our so-called financial manifesto, which proclaimed that the financial bankruptcy of Czarism was inevitable, and issued a categorical warning that the debts incurred by the Romanovs would not be recognized by the victorious nation. “The autocracy never enjoyed the confidence of the people,” said the manifesto of the Soviet of Workers’ Delegates, “and was never granted any authority by the people. We have therefore decided not to allow the repayment of such loans as have been made by the Czarist government when openly engaged in a war with the entire people.”

The French Bourse answered our manifesto a few months later with a new loan of three-quarters of a million francs. The liberal and reactionary press poured sarcasm over the important threat of the Soviet against the Czar’s finances and the European bankers. In later years, the manifesto was successfully forgotten but it recalled itself to mind. The financial bankruptcy of Czarism, prepared for by its whole past history, coincided with the military debacle. And later, after the victories of the revolution, the decree of the Soviet of People’s Commissaries, issued on February 10, 1918, declared all the Czarist debts annulled. This decree remains in force even to this day. It is wrong to say, as some do, that the October revolution does not recognize any obligations: its own obligations the revolution recognizes to the full. The obligation that it took upon itself on December 2, 1905, it carried out on February 10, 1917. The revolution is fully entitled to remind the creditors of Czarism: “Gentlemen, you were warned in ample time.”

In this respect, as in others, the year 1905 was a preparation for the year 1917.


1. The date is according to the Julian calendar which was in use in Russia before the Revolution, and corresponds to October 30 in the Gregorian calendar a difference of thirteen days. Where a double date is quoted the one in parentheses represents the Gregorian calendar. – Trans.

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Last updated on: 7.2.2007