Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

1. Youth

ON 26 OCTOBER 1879 (or 7 November according to the Western calendar) [1*] a boy was born into the family of a rich Jewish farmer, David Leontievich Bronstein. The child was named after his grandfather, Lev or Leon. By a trick of fate the date on which the boy was born was the very same on which 38 years later, as Leon Trotsky, he was to lead the Bolshevik insurrection in Petrograd.

Lyova (the diminutive of Lev) spent his first nine years on the farm at Yanovka in the province of Kherson in the Ukraine. The farm was 25 kilometres from the nearest post office and more than 35 from the nearest railroad.

It was a long way again to the Government offices, to the stores and to a civic centre, and still farther to the world with its great events. Life at Yanovka was regulated entirely by the rhythm of the toil on the farm. Nothing else mattered, nothing but the price of grain in the world market. We never saw any magazines or newspapers in the country in those days. [1]

He was seven when his parents sent him to a kheder, a private Jewish religious school at Gromolky, a Jewish-German colony a couple of miles away from Yanovka. Here he was taught to read the Bible and translate it from Hebrew into Russian. The curriculum also included some reading in Russian and arithmetic. Knowing no Yiddish, Lev could neither understand the teacher nor get on with his schoolmates. Despite the obstacles, he did learn to read and write Russian. However, being very unhappy at school, he was taken away a few months later. On his return to Yanovka he tirelessly copied verses and prose passages from books at hand, and even wrote some verse himself.

In the autumn of 1888 Lyova was sent to Odessa, the Black Sea harbour town, to stay with his mother’s nephew, Moissey Philipovich Schpentzer, so as to be able to study at the St Paul’s Realschule. No Greek or Latin was taught there, but a good grounding was given in science, mathematics and modern languages – German and French. The teaching was done in Russian.

Lyova stayed in Odessa until 1896. An incident occurred at the Realschule that is worth recording. It showed his urge to fight injustice and his readiness to lead his peers. The French teacher again and again picked on the German pupils. One day he was especially vicious towards one German boy, Bakker. The pupils, with Lyova at their head, decided to organise a ‘concert’ for the teacher. To give a concert meant to accompany the steps of the teacher when he left the classroom with a howling sound made with a closed mouth, so that one could not tell who was actually doing it. When the school authorities took measures to discipline the troublemakers, panic reigned in the classroom. The majority of the boys closed ranks and said nothing, some of those punished told tales, accusing Bronstein of being the ringleader, and Lyova was expelled from the school. Some three decades later he summed up this experience:

Such, one might say, was the first political test I underwent. These were the groups that resulted from that episode: the tale-bearers and the envious at one pole, the frank, courageous boys at the other, and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. These three groups never quite disappeared even during the years that followed. I met them again and again in my life, in the most varied circumstances. [2]

Realschule normally had seven forms, but St Paul’s had only six; so Lev had to attend a similar school in Nikolaev in order to matriculate. The year at Nikolaev was a turning point in Lev’s life. He was lodging with a family whose sons had already been influenced by socialist ideas, and they introduced him to a circle of socialists. With one exception – Alexandra Sokolovskaya, Lev’s future wife – these were Narodniks. The Narodniks saw the peasants, not the industrial workers – the proletariat, as the agents of revolution and the future society.

During the 1880s and early 1890s the revolutionary movement was at a very low ebb. The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 by the Populists of Narodnaya Volya did not lead to a nationwide upheaval as they had expected. It did lead, however, to the death of Narodnaya Volya. A new awakening began in the mid-1890s, this time very much influenced by Russian Marxists, by Social Democrats.

The first generation of Russian Social Democracy, headed by Plekhanov, started its propaganda activity at the beginning of the 1880s. The numbers involved were in single figures, later in tens. The second generation, led by Lenin (fourteen years younger than Plekhanov), entered the political arena at the beginning of the 1890s. Now the Social Democrats reached the hundreds. The third generation, of people some ten years younger than Lenin, joined the ranks at the turn of the century. To that generation, now numbering thousands, belonged Trotsky, as well as Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other future Bolshevik leaders.

In 1896 news reached Nikolaev of the first mass strike in Russian history, which involved 30,000 textile workers and was influenced by the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, recently founded by Lenin, Martov and Potresov. Student movements arose in Moscow and Kiev. In the summer, at Christmas and at Easter, dozens of students came to Nikolaev, bringing tales of the upheavals. Some of them had been expelled from the universities. In February 1897 a woman student, Vetrova, burnt herself to death in St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress. This caused disturbances in university cities; arrests and banishment became more frequent. Lev came into contact with several former Narodnik exiles who were under police surveillance. Through his co-lodgers he met a Franz Shvigovsky, a Czech gardener who rented an orchard on the outskirts of the town. In his hut he held a small discussion group for radical students and working men. As Trotsky remembers:

He was the first working-man I had known who subscribed to newspapers, read German, knew the classics, and participated freely in the arguments between the Marxists and the populists. His one-room cabin in the garden was the meeting-place for visiting students, former exiles and the local youths. One could obtain a forbidden book through Shvigovsky. The conversations of the exiles were punctuated with the names of the populists, Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Figner, who were treated not as legendary heroes but as real people with whom the older friends of these exiles – if not they themselves – were familiar. I had a feeling that I was joining a great chain as a tiny link. [3]

Revolutionary agitator and organiser

The members of the Shvigovsky circle called themselves Narodniks. Only Alexandra Lvovna Sokolovskaya, herself the daughter of a Narodnik, was a Marxist. When Lev joined he found himself in the midst of a fierce controversy. He was pressed to make a choice, and at once labelled himself a Narodnik. A few months later, however, he became a Marxist. The transition from Populism to Marxism was quite common: Plekhanov, Lenin and others started as Populists and then turned Marxist – the working class was so young and the appeal of Populism so strong. The personal influence of Alexandra must also have been great, as Lev soon after married her.

To be able to do active propaganda work, Lev adopted the pseudonym Lvov. He and a student friend decided to make the acquaintance of workers. The first one they met up with was a socialist, an electrician called Ivan Andreyevich Mukhin, who made a big impression on young Lev. Many years later Trotsky remembers: Mukhin explained very graphically how he described to other workers the meaning of the socialist revolution:

‘It’s very simple. I put a bean on the table and say, “This is the Tsar.” Around it, I place more beans. “These are ministers, bishops, generals, and over there the gentry and merchants. And in this other heap, the plain people.” Now, I ask, “Where is the Tsar?” They point to the centre. “Where are the ministers?” They point to those around. Just as I have told them, they answer. Now, wait,’ and at this point Mukhin completely closed his left eye and paused. ‘Then I scramble all the beans together,’ he went on. ‘I say, “Now tell me where is the Tsar? the Ministers?” And they answer me, “Who can tell? You can’t spot them now” ... “Just what I say. You can’t spot them now”. And so I say, “All beans should be scrambled”.’

I was so thrilled at this story that I was all in a sweat. This was the real thing, whereas we had only been guessing and waiting and subtilising ... Mukhin’s navy-beans, destroying the mechanics of the class system, were the revolutionary propaganda.

‘Only how to scramble them, damn them, that’s the problem,’ Mukhin said, in a different tone, and looked sternly at me with both eyes. ‘That’s not navy-beans, is it?’ And this time he waited for my answer. [4]

Twenty-three years later Trotsky again met Mukhin, now a leading Bolshevik, at the conference of the Ukrainian Communist Party in Kharkov.

In 1897 the number of workers in Nikolaev factories numbered 8,000. The Shvigovsky circle now started to agitate amongst them:

The workers streamed toward us as if they had been waiting for this. They all brought friends; some come with their wives, and a few older men joined the groups with their sons. We never sought them out; they looked for us. Young and inexperienced leaders that we were, we were soon overwhelmed by the movement we had started. Every word of ours met with a response. As many as twenty and twenty-five or more of the workers gathered at our secret readings and discussions, held in houses, in the woods, or on the river. The predominating element was composed of highly skilled workers who earned fairly good wages. They already had an eight-hour day. [5]

The organisation circulated leaflets and a sheet called Nashe Delo (Our Cause). Each edition was printed in 200 copies. The leaflets dealt with conditions in the factories and shipyards and abuses by employers and officials. Trotsky wrote later:

The amazing effectiveness of our work fairly intoxicated us. From revolutionary tales, we knew that the workers won over by propaganda were usually to be counted in single numbers. A revolutionary who converted two or three men to socialism thought he had done a good piece of work, whereas, with us, the number of workers who joined or wanted to join the groups seemed practically unlimited. The only shortage was in the matter of instructors and in literature ...

I wrote proclamations and articles, and printed them all out in longhand for the hectograph. At that time we didn’t even know of the existence of typewriters. I printed the letters with the utmost care, considering it a point of honour to make them clear enough so that even the less literate could read our proclamations without any trouble. It took me about two hours to a page. Sometimes I didn’t even unbend my back for a week, cutting my work short only for meetings and study in the groups. But what a satisfied feeling I had when I received the information from milis and workshops that the workers read voraciously the mysterious sheets printed in purple ink, passing them about from hand to hand as they discussed them! [6]

The proclamations Lev wrote were simple and persuasive. They dealt concretely with some event that had just taken place in the factory, and that the workers were talking about:

‘You all know about the recent visit to the shipyards of the captain of the port, Fedotov, and you are all doubtless aroused by the ugly conduct of the rude old man; because a few of the workmen did not bow to the captain they were on the order of “his excellency” immediately listed for discharge ...’

Thus he opens a conversation with the workers in the shipyards.

An engineer in the employ of the bosses has called a meeting to denounce one of his proclamations, and he makes that the occasion of another conversation:

‘Neyman climbed up to the top storey of the electric- dynamo shop, assembled the workers and made a speech in which there were more lies than words. It was not Neyman but his salary that made the speech. “You are a mere handful,” cried the salary of Neyman, “and you dare to revolt against a terrible power!” Ask Neyman, comrades, whether he reads the papers and knows what is happening in this world. Does he know that 46,000 workers in St Petersburg alone, by means of two strikes, compelled that same terrible power to give them the law of July 2nd concerning the length of the working day? ... “You will suffer in prison,” said this engineer, “and your wives and children will die of hunger and cold.” You understand how he is worried about your welfare? About you and about your wives and children? Answer Neyman, who knows no other joy but a fat meal and a luxurious dwelling, that there is a joy both higher and more glorious – a struggle for the great cause of freedom and justice.’ [7]

Trotsky himself remembers:

If it had been possible for any one to look at all this with a ‘sober’ eye, at this group of young people scurrying about in the half-darkness around a miserable hectograph, what a sorry, fantastic thing it would have seemed to imagine that they could, in this way, overthrow a mighty state that was centuries old! And yet this sorry fantasy became a reality within a single generation; and only eight years separated those nights from 1905, and not quite twenty from 1917. [8]

The group managed to produce three issues of Nashe Delo. Its organisation was called The South Russian Workers’ Union, and intended to include workers from other towns. It was made up of eight or nine circles, including over 200 workers. This was very impressive, as the number of workers in the town was not more than 10,000.

As the Shvigovsky circle was made up largely of people who called themselves Narodniks, while a minority of them were Marxists, the propaganda of the South Russian Workers’ Union avoided political issues, and limited itself to bread and butter issues. Like many other groups in Russia at the time, it could be labelled ‘economist’. (As we shall see, at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903, the Nikolaev delegate supported the ‘economist’ paper Rabocheye Delo).

It was in this period of his life that Lev identified himself completely with the working class and the revolution. His first wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, years later told Max Eastman:

He can be very tender and sympathetic, and he can be very assertive and arrogant; but in one thing he never changes – that is his devotion to the revolution. In all my revolutionary experience I have never met any other person so completely consecrated. [9]

In Prison and Siberia

On 28 January 1898 there were mass arrests in Nikolaev. Altogether more than 200 people were taken, among them Lev. Nikolaev prison was the first out of some twenty he was destined to be incarcerated in. From here he was transferred to the prison at Kherson, where he was kept for several months. Then he was transferred to a prison in Odessa, in which he was to remain a year and a half, until the end of 1899. Practically throughout he was kept in solitary confinement. He used the time to improve his knowledge of languages. The prison library contained only religious literature and Church periodicals. So he read the Bible in German, French, English and Italian. It was during this period in prison that he made great strides in understanding Marxist historical materialism. He was greatly helped in this by the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola, which arrived in the prison in a French translation. But to assimilate the theory, Lev needed to involve himself in independent research, so for several months he studied the history of freemasonry. He writes:

As the prison rules demanded that a prisoner give up his old exercise-book when he was given a new one, I got for my studies on freemasonry an exercise-book with a thousand numbered pages, and entered in it, in tiny characters, excerpts from many books, interspersed with my own reflections on freemasonry, as well as on the materialist conception of history. This took up the better part of a year. I edited each chapter carefully, copied it into a note-book which had been smuggled in to me, and then sent that out to friends in other cells to read. For contriving this, we had a complicated system which we called the ‘telephone’. The person for whom the package was intended – that is, if his cell was not too far away – would attach a weight to a piece of string, and then, holding his hand as far as he could out of the window, would swing the weight in a circle. As previously arranged through tapping, I would stick my broom out so that the weight could swing around it. Then I would draw the broom in and tie the manuscript to the string. When the person to whom I wanted to send it was too far away, we managed it by a series of stages, which of course made things more complicated.

... I did not absorb historical materialism at once, dogmatically. The dialectic method revealed itself to me for the first time not as abstract definitions but as a living spring which I had found in the historical process as I tried to understand it. [10]

At the end of the second year in prison, a verdict was reached in the case of the South Russian Workers’ Union was announced: the four principal defendants received an administrative verdict – a verdict without trial – to be exiled to Eastern Siberia for four years. After the verdict the prisoners were kept in the Moscow transfer prison for six months.

Then for the first time I heard of Lenin, and studied his book on the development of Russian capitalism, which had just appeared, from cover to cover. [11]

During his spell in the Moscow prison Lev married Alexandra Sokolovskaya. They had two daughters in Siberia.

Lev stayed two years in Siberia. There he started a prolific correspondence in Vostochnoye obozreniye (The Eastern Review), an Irkutsk newspaper, using the pseudonym of Antid Oto. He wrote on public issues and also on literature. [12] He wrote essays on Russian classics: on Andreev, Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Gogol. He dealt with all the revolutionary thinkers: Herzen, Mikhailovsky, and the famous Narodnik author Gleb Uspensky. He wrote about Pushkin and Gorky, on Ibsen, Hauptmann, Nietzsche, de Maupassant, Emile Zola, Arthur Schnitzler and John Ruskin. [13] His catholic interests were astonishing.

In Siberia he gave lectures and wrote leaflets for the newly established Siberian Social Democratic Union. At the second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party he represented the Siberian Union.

Summer 1901 saw strikes in the factories and big demonstrations in the universities. New Social Democratic organisations mushroomed throughout the country. From 1899 onwards Lenin was arguing again and again that the need was to move away from the fragmented economic struggle in order to build a centralist national political party. These ideas were crucial to establishing Iskra in 1900. Before the first issue of Iskra reached Lev in Siberia he wrote an essay widely circulated in mimeographed form which became a source of lively controversy among Social Democrats in Siberia. Parts of this unpublished essay were quoted by Trotsky in an appendix to his Report of the Siberian Delegation to the Second Congress of the RSDRP, in Geneva in 1903. [14] This is especially worth quoting in light of the fact that in 1903 he swung over to denouncing Lenin’s centralism:

The starting point of this document is the following: ‘We have found ourselves, to use the comparison once more, in the situation of the sorcerers’ apprentices who, by repeating complete formulae, aroused an enormous force, and who when it was necessary to dominate it, found themselves completely incapable of it.’ There was only one way forward: a common organisation for the whole party, with a central committee at its head.

If one of the local organisations, [the document says], refuses to recognise the full powers of the central committee, the CC will have the strength (NB) and the right not to recognise this organisation. It will cut it off from the revolutionary world by breaking its links with it; it will stop sending it literature and other working material; it will despatch into the field of its activity a team of its own and, having supplied it with all the necessary means for action, declare it to be the local committee. [15]

It is important to quote this as it formulates the idea of party centralism in a way identical to that of Lenin, an idea that was about to become the hallmark of Bolshevism.


1*. Dates given in this volume are according to the Julian calendar then operating in Russia; this was twelve days behind the Western Gregorian calendar in the nineteenth century, and thirteen days behind in the twentieth century.


1. Trotsky, My Life, page 16.

2. Trotsky, My Life, page 72.

3. Trotsky, My Life, page 99.

4. Trotsky, My Life, page 105.

5. Trotsky, My Life, page 106.

6. Trotsky, My Life, page 109.

7. Max Eastman, Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth (London 1926), pages 93-4.

8. Trotsky, My Life, page 110.

9. Eastman, page 97.

10. Trotsky, My Life, pages 121-2.

11. Trotsky, My Life, page 123.

12. Trotsky, My Life, page 127.

13. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 20, pages 32-40.

14. Trotsky, Vtoroi Sezd RSDRP: Otchet Sibirskoi Delegatsii, reprinted in English as Report of the Siberian Delegation 1903 (London, no date). The RSDRP – the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party – is sometimes referred to by its English initials, RSDLP.

15. Trotsky, Report of the Siberian Delegation 1903, page 40.

Last updated on 19 July 2009