Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

10. Wasted years: 1906-1914

TROTSKY NOW STARTED an exile that was to last a decade – until May 1917. 1907-10 were years of dreadful reaction. The retreat of the labour movement can be measured by the catastrophic decline in the strike movement after the peak year of 1905:


Number on strike

Percentage of
all workers






















‘In 1908, and even more 1909, the number of strikers was far smaller even than the average of the ten years prior to the revolution,’ wrote Lenin. [1] The decline in political strikes was especially marked. The figures for these [2] were:



















The decline of the revolution left the initiative completely in the hands of the Tsarist government and mass White terror took over. During the dictatorship of Stolypin more than 5,000 death sentences were passed and more than 3,500 people were actually executed – this was at least three times as many as during the whole period of the mass movement (and this did not include shootings without trial, after the suppression of the armed insurrection). [3]

Once the revolutionary movement was on the decline, and the Tsarist government had regained its confidence, the disintegration of the labour movement proceeded rapidly, till it was in complete disarray. For instance in the summer of 1905 the Moscow district of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party had 1,435 members. [4] This rose in mid-May 1906 to 5,320. [5] But by mid-1908 it had dropped to 250, and six months later it was 150. In 1910 the organisation ceased to exist when the district secretary’s job fell into the hands of one Kukushkin, an agent of the Okhrana, the secret police. [6] Zinoviev was later to write: ‘At this unhappy period the party as a whole ceased to exist.’ [7]

Trotsky and the Austrian socialist leaders

From 1907 to 1914, Trotsky lived in Vienna. Belonging to no party or organisation in Russia, he found the time and inclination to participate in the Austrian Social Democratic movement. In this he differed fundamentally from Lenin. Lenin was so engrossed in the task of building the Russian party that he did not participate in any local labour movement until the outbreak of the war. Only then did he begin to participate in the Swiss socialist movement, trying to forge a group of revolutionary internationalists and split them from the Socialist Party – and he did succeed in organising a faction within the Swiss Socialist Party which eventually became the seed-bed of the Communist Party of Switzerland. [8]

Trotsky was a member of the Austrian Social Democracy, attended their meetings, took part in their demonstrations, contributed to their publications, and sometimes made short speeches in German. [9] He also met, and was in close touch with, the leaders of Austrian Social Democracy. He warmly admired Victor Adler, the founder of the party, and repeatedly wrote with love and enthusiasm about him. Thus in 1913 he wrote: ‘Austria has given the workers’ movement two remarkable leaders ... Victor Adler and Karl Kautsky’. Victor Adler, said Trotsky, had a ‘powerful analytical mind’: ‘he is one of the most remarkable orators in Europe’. ‘He developed his rich political intuition to perfection, cultivated an excellent political vision, and made tactical improvisation a principal guarantee of political success’. Trotsky ends his article on Victor Adler with the following words:

During my six-year stay in Vienna I not infrequently come to observe Adler from close-up, as a politician and as party leader, as parliamentarian, people’s orator and conversationalist. And out of all impressions one basic one stands out: the inexhaustible generosity of his nature. [10]

Trotsky also had very warm feelings towards Victor Adler’s son, Fritz, secretary of the Austrian Social Democracy and editor of the party’s theoretical journal, Kampf, who during the First World War, in an act of desperation, was to assassinate the Austrian prime minister, Baron Stürgkh. [11] [1*]

Trotsky also associated with Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Bauer, Max Adler and Karl Renner. He quickly became convinced that they were not really revolutionaries. As he described many years later in his autobiography:

They were well-educated people whose knowledge of various subjects was superior to mine. I listened with intense and, one might almost say, respectful interest to their conversation in the ‘Central’ cafe. But very soon I grew puzzled. These people were not revolutionaries. Moreover, they represented the type that was farthest from that of the revolutionary. This expressed itself in everything – in their approach to subjects, in their political remarks and psychological appreciations, in their self-satisfaction – not self-assurance, but self-satisfaction. I even thought I sensed philistinism in the quality of their voices. [12]

Many intellectuals ‘entered the party with a farm conviction that an approximate familiarity with Roman law grants a man the inalienable right to direct the fate of the working class.’ [13] These ‘Marxists’ were really commentators on events, who completely separated theory and practice. They always adapted themselves to the social and political status quo.

It was Trotsky’s close friendship with leaders of Austrian Social Democracy, as well as with Kautsky, Bebel and other leaders of German Social Democracy, that made it possible for him to be invited frequently to appear as spokesman of Russian Socialism before the congresses of the German and Austrian parties. He also became a familiar figure at the congresses of the International.

Liquidators and Ultra-Leftists

The disintegration of the Russian labour movement led to two deviations: among the Mensheviks a move to the right, expressed in reluctance to resume the clandestine struggle, and in keeping activity within the limits the Tsarist regime allowed. These Lenin called Liquidators; they wished to liquidate’ the illegal party. Among the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, the deviation was ultra-leftist: a refusal to adjust at all to the triumphant counter-revolution, desperate efforts to continue the war-to-the-end while boycotting the few social and political institutions which existed precariously in the open.

Trotsky, like Lenin, was against both deviations. Both saw that it was necessary to rebuild the underground party, which should control every legal institution from the Duma to the trade unions. Trotsky, however, being a conciliator, was inconsistent in fighting the two deviations, and in fact collaborated with the representatives of both.

The Mensheviks move to the right

During 1905 people such as Axelrod, Plekhanov and Martov had been lone voices arguing that the Social Democrats should show ‘tact’ towards the liberals. Now, during the period of reaction, an alliance with the liberal party, the Cadets, became the main tactic of Menshevism. One of the spokesmen of Menshevism, Rakhmetov, put the following argument for this coalition:

It is much easier for the Cadets to twist and turn when they are surrounded by a solid wall of hostility than it would be if they were approached with an offer of a political coalition ... Much more can be achieved by the pressure of public opinion on the Cadets (by sending to the Duma resolutions, instruction, petitions and demands, organising protest meetings, negotiations between the Workers’ Group and the Cadets) than by senseless, and therefore useless, rowdyism, to put it strongly. [14]

Dan, a proponent of permanent revolution in 1905, wrote a year later:

However timid, cowardly, and blind the bourgeois parties, like the Cadets, are, they are propped up on classes that are thrust by the real historical background, and by real interests, on to a path not of reconciliation with the old order, but of sharp struggle against it ... Until the destruction of the autocracy the majority of the bourgeois classes must be fellow- travellers of the proletariat; and hence also the progressive bourgeois parties must also be fellow-travellers of the Social- Democracy. [15]

Axelrod told the Fourth Party Congress of April-May 1906:

Social relations in Russia have not matured beyond the point of bourgeois revolution: history impels workers and revolutionaries more and more strongly towards bourgeois revolutionism, making them involuntary political servants of the bourgeoisie, rather than in the direction of genuine socialist revolutionism and the tactical and organizational preparation of the proletariat for political rule. [16]

In the same spirit Axelrod argued that should conflict develop between the ‘special tasks of social democracy’ and the general democratic demands of bourgeois progress, the ‘party would have to renounce ... its tasks.’ [17]

In October 1906 Axelrod entered into discussions with Professor Vladimir Gessen, the leading Cadet, about collaboration between the two parties, the Social Democrats and Cadets, in the elections to the second Duma.

... the evidence indicates that in some districts Mensheviks and liberals entered into informal coalitions for the elections to the Second Duma ... After the elections to the Second Duma in February 1907, moreover, Lenin accused the Mensheviks of deliberately having formed coalitions with the liberals in St Petersburg, thereby splitting the local Social Democratic vote in exchange for concessions for their candidates. [18]

Martov went some way towards Liquidationism with his call for equality of rights between the legal and illegal party organisations. According to him the illegal organisation ought to serve mainly as a support for the legal party:

... a more or less defined and to a certain extent centralised conspiratorial organisation now makes sense (and great sense) only in so far as it takes part in the construction of a Social Democratic party, which by necessity is less defined and has its main points of support in open workers’ organisations. [19]

Lenin commented on this idea that it

... leads in fact to the party being subordinated to the liquidators, for the legalist who sets himself against the illegal party, considering himself on a par with it, is nothing but a Liquidator. The ‘equality’ between an illegal Social Democrat who is persecuted by the police and the legalist who is safeguarded by his legality and his divorce from the party is in fact the ‘equality’ between the worker and the capitalist is the illegal organisations that must judge whether the legalists are in actual fact pro-party, i.e. [we] specifically reject the ‘theory of equality’! [20]

For Martov the underground was to be a mere skeleton apparatus, held in reserve for use in the event of a forced relapse into complete illegality. For Lenin, on the other hand, the legal activities were the skeleton apparatus, whose purpose was to broaden the sphere of operations of the underground party. The political consequences of turning one’s back on the underground were bound to be far-reaching. It was, of course, impossible to advocate the overthrow of Tsarism in publications that were meant to be passed by the censor. Therefore to confine the party to legal forms of action meant virtually to abandon the republican principle. This was the first step towards advocating the gradual transformation of the Tsarist regime into a constitutional monarchy, a desire cherished by the Cadets.

One way of liquidating the underground party was to replace it with a broad Workers’ Congress. This was the brainchild of Axelrod:

... the workers’ congress will play the role of a proletarian constituent assembly, which will liquidate our old party system and initiate a new party regime in the ranks of Social Democracy and the advanced strata of the proletariat. Such a congress would be the greatest triumph for our party. [21]

Larin, the enfant terrible of Menshevism, advocated the same idea in a pamphlet called A Broad Labour Party and a Labour Congress. [22] A broad labour party, as conceived by Larin, should embrace something like 900,000 of the nine million-strong Russian proletariat. The ‘signboard’ had to come down – the party must not be Social Democratic. The Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries must merge; the new organisation must be a ‘non-partisan party’. The Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries must play the role of propaganda bodies within the broad party. [23]

Another Menshevik, N. Rozhkov, suggested the establishment of an open, peaceful, labour organisation – ‘a political association for the protection of the interests of the working class’:

There is no advocacy of any violence in this; there is not a word, not a thought about a violent revolution being necessary, because in reality, too, no such necessity may ever arise. If anyone, blinded by such reactionary frenzy, took it into his head to accuse the members of such an ‘association’ of striving for violent revolution, the whole burden of an absurd, unfounded and juridically flimsy accusation of this sort would fall upon the head of the accuser! [24]

Agitation for the workers’ congress was particularly strong over the summer of 1906, when the first Duma had been dissolved and preparations for the second Duma were already under way. As the biographer of Axelrod writes: ‘ late 1906 the Mensheviks generally supported the workers’ congress, though there were differences of emphasis among them.’ [25]

Trotsky took an equivocal position regarding the workers’ congress. He supported the idea, but rejected the factional attitude of the Mensheviks on the issue. In a long, private letter to Axelrod on 2 September 1906, he argued that before any step be taken to organise the workers’ congress,

... the party must move toward an agreement binding on both sections ... The unity of the party on the basis of the unity of the class struggle, unity at all costs! I stand on this position, I cannot do otherwise ... ‘Long live the party!’ And I am firmly convinced that the hand of our teacher P.B.A. [Axelrod] will be the first stretched out to this banner.

Trotsky did not doubt that Axelrod would take charge of the organisation of the workers’ congress, for this

... requires the ability to disregard small and petty considerations of a formal revolutionary or formal party character in the name of a broad formulation of the genuine revolutionary and party tasks. [26]

The Bolsheviks moved a resolution at the Fifth Congress of the party in 1907 which, while affirming the right of party members to discuss the issue of the workers’ congress in the party press, prohibited individual members or organisations of the party from engaging in agitational and organisational work among the working masses for the purpose of preparing a congress. This enraged Trotsky, who launched a sharp attack on the Bolsheviks. [27]

In 1907 the Menshevik organisation disintegrated. As Martov wrote: ‘At this point the fortes of the party collapsed like a house of cards.’ [28] In December 1907 Dan wrote to Axelrod: ‘There are no money, no people, no [interest in party] work ... Menshevism as an organisation simply does not now exist in Russia.’ [29]

Trotsky ‘above the factions’

Between 1907 and 1914 Trotsky took a supra-factional stand. He berated both sides, now one now the other. His tiny ‘non-faction’ faction sided with the Mensheviks when organisational issues were discussed, with the Bolsheviks when political perspectives were debated.

In October 1908 he started to edit a paper called Pravda. For lack of money it was published very irregularly. Only five issues appeared during his first year of editorship. Its aim, according to Trotsky, was to unite the Social Democrats by rejecting the ‘dictatorship of the committee men’:

... under the burial shroud of the old party, a new one is being formed. And, our task, the task of all the living healthy elements of Social Democracy, is to put all our forces to this end, to facilitate the birth and growth of the Social Democratic party on this new, healthy, proletarian base. [30]

Menshevik centrists as well as ultra-left Vperyodists – people Lenin had expelled from the Bolshevik party – collaborated in Pravda. Trotsky ‘intended to address himself to “plain workers” rather than to politically-minded party men, and to “serve not to lead his readers.’ [31]

Deutscher comments on this statement that under Trotsky’s editorship,

Pravda’s plain language and the fact that it preached the unity of the party secured to it a certain popularity but no lasting political influence. Those who stated the case for a faction or group usually involved themselves in more or less complicated argument and addressed the upper and medium layers of their movement rather than the rank and file. Those who say, on the other hand, that, regardless of any differences, the party ought to close its ranks have, as Trotsky had, a simple case, easy to explain and sure of appeal. But more often than not this appeal is superficial. Their opponents who win the cadres of a party for their more involved argument are likely eventually to obtain the hearing of the rank and file as well; the cadres carry their argument, in simplified form, deeper down. Trotsky’s calls for the solidarity of all socialists were for the moment applauded by many ... But the same people who now applauded the call were eventually to disregard it, to follow the one or the other faction, and to leave the preacher of unity isolated. Apart from this there was in Trotsky’s popular posture, in his emphasis on plain talk and his promise to ‘serve not to lead’, more than a touch of demagogy, for the politician, especially the revolutionary, best serves those who listen to him by leading them. [32]

Trotsky’s Pravda was written almost entirely by a tiny group of brilliant journalists – Trotsky, Adolphe Ioffe, David Riazanov and others. As Lenin wrote: ‘Trotsky’s workers’ journal is Trotsky’s journal for the workers, as there is not a trace in it of either workers’ initiative, or any connection with working-class organisations.’ [33]

Trotsky was far from the only conciliator in Russian Social Democracy. As the party was in tatters, many of its members were calling simply for unity, a conciliation between Bolshevism and Menshevism and an end to all factionalism. Lenin was beginning to lose support within his own faction, as many leading Bolsheviks supported the call for a united party. The conciliators included several who had been elected as members or candidates of the central committee at the Fifth Congress, notably A.I. Rykov, V.P. Nogin, I.F. Dubrovinsky, S.A. Lozovsky and G.Y. Sokolnikov. [34]

In these circumstances the Menshevik leaders were able to call together a plenum of the central committee in Paris at the beginning of January 1910. Lenin, who was opposed to the meeting, was on this occasion in a minority, not only in the party as a whole, but within his own faction. The only prominent Bolshevik supporting him against conciliation was Zinoviev. (From that time on Zinoviev was Lenin’s closest associate, completely trusted, until the events of 1917 put him to a severe test.)

For three long weeks Lenin was badly hammered. He was forced to agree to liquidate his faction’s paper, Proletary, and to the publication of a common paper with the Mensheviks – Sotsialdemokrat – with two Bolshevik, Lenin and Zinoviev, joining the Mensheviks Martov and Dan and a representative of Polish Social Democracy, Varsky, on the editorial board. Trotsky’s Vienna paper, Pravda, was declared an official party organ (Kamenev was dispatched to assist him in editing it) and the central committee was instructed to give it financial support. To add insult to injury, while the plenum condemned the liquidators in words, at the same time it invited them to participate in the life of the party, and to name three of their number for membership of the underground central committee.

Trotsky went so far as to hail the results of the Paris plenum as ‘the greatest event in the history of Russian Social Democracy’. [35]

However the ‘unity’ never became operational, not so much because of Bolshevik intransigence, but because the Mensheviks were not ready to carry out their part of the bargain. The January 1910 plenum committed the Bolsheviks to have no dealings with the boycottists and the Mensheviks to sever their connections with the liquidators. Lenin was easily able to carry out his part of the instruction, as he had already expelled Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and the other boycottists from the Bolshevik camp. However, the Mensheviks found it impossible to fulfil their obligation. The liquidators’ attitude was far too prevalent in their ranks. If the Mensheviks had expelled them this would have completely destroyed the group and would have helped the Bolsheviks towards victory in the movement. Martov made it clear a little later that he had never intended to carry out this commitment and that he had agreed to the ‘unity’ in the plenum only because the Mensheviks were too weak to risk an immediate break. [36]

The final blow was dealt to the scheme when the three liquidators nominated to join the central committee – P.A. Garvi, I.A. Isuv and K.M. Ermolaev – flatly refused to have anything to do with the underground organisation; they were hostile to the very concept of a central committee. When the Bolshevik ‘conciliators’, who were in a majority in Russia, proposed further negotiations with other liquidator leaders, Lenin ignored them. When Martov and Dan tried to put their views to Sotsialdemokrat, the paper they were supposed to be editing jointly with Lenin and Zinoviev, they were prevented from doing so. (Varsky voted with Lenin and Zinoviev on the editorial board).

In August 1910 Kamenev resigned his job as central committee representative on Pravda. Thus Pravda remained the paper of the conciliators, the Vpered group and a number of Mensheviks.

Trotsky’s conciliationism made him a prisoner of the Mensheviks. Martov on one occasion wrote in a letter to Axelrod:

I have answered him [Trotsky] with a more ironical than angry letter, although I admit that I have not spared his amour propre. I have written him that he can escape nowhere from the Liquidators and ourselves, because it is not his magnanimity that compels him to defend the right of the liquidators to remain in the party ... but the correct calculation that Lenin wants to devour all independent people, including Trotsky, as well as the liquidators. [37]

‘The logic of things,’ wrote Martov on another occasion,

... compels Trotsky to follow the Menshevik road, despite all reasoned pleas for some ‘synthesis’ of Menshevism and Bolshevism ... He has not only found himself in the camp of the liquidators, but he is compelled to take up their most pugnacious attitude towards Lenin. [38]

So the Menshevik leaders were as determined as Lenin to carry the party’s schism to the end, although tactically they found it useful to pretend otherwise publicly. Lenin openly called for a split from the Mensheviks. Trotsky’s conciliation only played into the hands of the Menshevik leaders, who wanted to place the responsibility for the split on Lenin. Trotsky’s thunder was directed practically solely at Lenin, because he, unlike the Mensheviks, frantically opposed the idea of the unity of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

On 26 November 1910 Trotsky produced a leaflet calling for unity of all the factions of the RSDRP. He called for:

... harmonious work carried on jointly by all sections of the Party – the ‘Lolos’, ‘Plekhanov’, ‘Leninist’, and ‘Vperyod’ groups, and the non-factionalists. The party has already spiritually outgrown the period of its infancy, and it is time that all its members felt and acted as revolutionary Social Democrats, as patriots of their party and not as members of factions. This co-operation must take place within the framework of the party as a whole, not around factional bodies. [39]

‘Our historic factions, Bolshevism and Menshevism, are purely intellectual formations in origin,’ Trotsky wrote in the Menshevik paper Luch. [40] Unlike Lenin, who saw the factional struggle inside the RSDRP as reflecting class pressures, Trotsky saw it only as the struggle of the intelligentsia ‘for influence over the immature proletariat’. Lenin argued that even ‘if there had been no intelligentsia, the workers could not have evaded the issue of whether they should follow the liberals or lead the peasantry against the liberals.’ [41]

In January 1912 Lenin convened a party conference in Prague, and so at last formally split the party by refusing to invite the Mensheviks to attend. In reply, Trotsky persuaded the Mensheviks associated with the organisation committee to convene a conference of all Social Democrats in Vienna in August 1912. The Bolsheviks refused to participate. The Mensheviks, the Vperyodists, the Jewish Sund and Trotsky’s group came together and founded a confederation known as the August Bloc.

Trotsky expected that the rise of the revolutionary temper then taking place in Russia would, as in 1905, push the Mensheviks to the left, and this would make conciliation with Bolshevism possible. However the cleavage between Bolshevism and Menshevism was very wide in 1912. The Bolsheviks had been steeled during the period of reaction, while the Mensheviks became a loose coalition of disparate groups. The Menshevik leaders participated in the August Bloc without illusions of unity with the Bolsheviks. They joined it as a ruse to put the responsibility for the split on the Bolsheviks.

The August Bloc began to fall apart almost as soon as it came together. Riazanov, Trotsky’s collaborator on Pravda, who stood outside both the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, explained to Kautsky: Only personal hatred for the scoundrel Lenin keep together most of the Mensheviks, Bundists, and Trotsky.’ That was hardly enough to sustain a political coalition of such diverse groups. By February 1913 Trotsky was denouncing Luch, the paper that the August Bloc had agreed to publish in St Petersburg. Instead of representing all the constituents of the bloc, he claimed, Luch was promoting an unadulterated liquidationist line. He further charged that the paper had refused to publish his articles and had not even bothered to answer his letters of protest. He pleaded with Axelrod to use his influence with the liquidators in St Petersburg to mend their ways. Otherwise he would be forted to split with those who ‘usurped the August conference’. It would pain him not to be in the same camp as Axelrod, ‘but I cannot reproach myself in any way with disloyalty toward my allies.’ [42]

By mid-1913 the August Bloc had in effect completely disintegrated.

The rise of the Bolsheviks 1912-1914

The year 1911 saw the workers of Russia gradually moving to the offensive. Their movement received a tremendous impetus from the terrible massacre of gold miners in Lena on 4 September 1912. Six thousand workers were on on strike in the Lena goldfields, which were situated in a region of taiga forests almost 2,000 kilometres from the Siberian railway. An officer ordered the gendarmerie to fire on the unarmed crowd, and 500 people were either killed or wounded. From then onwards waves of strikes spread throughout the country. The revival of the working class movement went on until the outbreak of the 1914 war.

The Bolsheviks flourished in these circumstances. They defeated the Mensheviks in several important elections in the legal working-class organisations. On 21 April 1913 in elections to the executive of the St Petersburg Metal Workers’ Union ten of the fourteen members elected were from the Pravda list, that is, were Bolshevik supporters. On 22 August 1913, a meeting to re-election the executive of this same union was attended by about 3,000 metal-workers. The Bolshevik list was adopted by an overwhelming majority, only some 150 casting their votes for the list sponsored by the Mensheviks.

In June 1914 Lenin could report that of eighteen trade unions in St Petersburg the Bolsheviks controlled fourteen, the Mensheviks three, and in one both parties had an equal number of supporters. Of the thirteen unions in Moscow, ten were Bolshevik and three indefinite, although close to the Bolsheviks. There was not a single liquidationist or Narodnik union in Moscow. [43]

In the 1912 elections to the fourth Duma the Bolsheviks got six deputies elected to the Mensheviks’ seven, but all the Bolshevik deputies were elected in the workers’ curias, whereas most of the Mensheviks came from middle-class constituencies. In the seven gubernias which returned Menshevik deputies, there were altogether 136,000 industrial workers, while in the six which returned Bolshevik deputies there were 1,144,000; in other words the Menshevik deputies could claim 11.8 per cent of the workers’ electors, and the Bolsheviks 88.2 per cent. [44]

The Bolshevik press also got far more support from workers than the Menshevik. On 22 April 1912 a Bolshevik daily paper called Pravda started publication in Petersburg. Trotsky denounced the ‘theft’ and ‘usurpation’ of the name committed by ‘the circle whose interests are in conflict with the vital needs of the party, the circle which lives and thrives only through chaos and confusion.’ [45] Lenin did not budge.

Lenin’s Pravda got far more support from workers than the Menshevik Luch, and reached an impressive circulation of between 40,000 and 60,000 copies. During 1913 Pravda received 2,181 money contributions from workers’ groups while the Mensheviks received 661.

The Mensheviks, who had neglected the underground, found themselves lagging far behind the Bolsheviks, who were now riding the crest of the labour movement wave and dominating the legal organisations. The Mensheviks were beaten in their own favoured area of activity. In demoting the illegal organisations, the Mensheviks had handed the Bolsheviks a clear advantage in waging propaganda and in recruiting supporters among the workers who were looking for clear cut, sharp, revolutionary policies.

War Correspondent

Finding himself isolated in the Russian socialist movement, Trotsky accepted an offer from Kievskaia Mysl, a liberal paper, to go in September 1912 as their military correspondent to the Balkans where the outbreak of war seemed imminent. Trotsky writes in his autobiography:

The proposal was all the more timely because the August conference had already proved to be abortive. I felt that I must break away, if only for a short time, from the interests of the Russian émigrés. The few months that I spent in the Balkans were the months of the war, and they taught me much. [46]

Early in October Trotsky left Vienna just as the first Balkan war broke out, in which Serbians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins and Greeks fought the Turkish empire. In a campaign of six weeks the Turks were pushed back virtually to the gates of Constantinople.

Trotsky opposed chauvinism in all its forms; he denounced the atrocities committed by the Bulgars against the Turks. As early as 3 January 1909 he had written about the situation in the Balkans:

The machinations of the capitalist powers are interwoven with the bloody intrigues of the Balkan dynasties. If these conditions continue, the Balkan Peninsula will go on being a Pandora’s box ...

Only a single state of all the Balkan nationalities, with a democratic, federal basis, on the pattern of Switzerland or the USA, can bring internal peace to the Balkans and create the conditions for a mighty development of productive forces. [47]

But such a federation could not be brought about by the bourgeoisie, explained Trotsky in the Vienna Pravda:

State unity of the Balkan Peninsula can be achieved in two ways: either from above, by expanding one Balkan state, whichever proves strongest, at the expense of the weaker ones – this is the road of wars of extermination and oppression of weak nations, a road that consolidates monarchism and militarism; or from below, through the peoples themselves coming together – this is the road of revolution, the road that means overthrowing the Balkan dynasties and unfurling the banner of a Balkan federal republic ...

Here Trotsky applied his theory of permanent revolution to the Balkans:

The Balkan bourgeoisie, as in all countries that have come late to the road of capitalist development, is politically sterile, cowardly, talentless, and rotten through and through with chauvinism. It is utterly beyond its power to take on the unification of the Balkans. The peasant masses are too scattered, ignorant, and indifferent to politics for any political initiative to be looked for from them. Accordingly, the task of creating normal conditions of national and state existence in the Balkans falls with all its historical weight upon the shoulders of the Balkan proletariat. [48]

Now the Pandora’s box opened and the horrors of war appeared to Trotsky in all their starkness. He describes his first impression of the war: ‘... a feeling ... of helplessness in the face of the historical fate ... and ... anguish for all those hordes of men who are being led to destruction.’ [49]

That’s how all this looks when you see it close up. Meat is rotting, human flesh as well as the flesh of oxen; villages have become pillars of fire; men are exterminating ‘persons not under twelve years of age’; everyone is being brutalised, losing their human aspect. War is revealed as, first and foremost, a vile thing if you just lift up even one edge of the curtain that hangs in front of deeds of military prowess. [50]

Barbarism lurked behind the façade of civilisation:

... the chaotic mass of material acquisitions, habits, customs, and prejudices that we call civilisation hypnotises us all, inspiring the false confidence that the main thing in human progress has already been achieved – and then war comes, and reveals that we have not yet crept out on all fours from the barbaric period of our history. [51]

This sense of tragedy dominates all Trotsky’s Balkan correspondence. Each item is a considerable essay, remarkable for its solid information, vivid impressions and colourful writing – and the social conflicts taking place in the nations involved in the war are the heart of these articles. To give just a sample chosen at random:

It has been written that the Bulgarian people wanted war, and demanded it. Especially insistent on this were certain Russian journalists who obtained their information about the people’s feelings from the general staff, if not from the staff of the Octobrist Party. It was not true. The people did not want war and could not have wanted it. The peasant whose cattle, stocks of food, and carts were requisitioned and who was sent to attack Odrin; his wife, left with their children in the deserted hut – they did not want war. They would have been glad if there had been a peaceful settlement of the issue ... Quite a different picture is offered by the upper stratum of the Bulgarian officer corps. Bulgaria had not waged war for twenty-seven years. In this period the ‘heroes’ of the Bulgaro-Serbian war had managed to adjust themselves well enough to circumstances of peace, prosperity, and profit. The country’s wealth increased, banks were founded, the budget grew, supplies for the army increased, extensive opportunities for enrichment opened up. The majors and colonels of 1885 were transformed into generals – mostly into generals of the supply services, involved in commerce and finance. The cult of the army was transformed for them into, first and foremost, a cult of gain for themselves. Their god had long been not Mars but Hermes – Hermes, as was shown at the trial of the Stambulovist ministers, in his dual calling as god of business and god of thieving. [52]

Then Trotsky describes life in a fashionable district of Bucharest, the Rumanian capital where wealth and poverty lived side by side:

Yesterday evening, sitting in an open-air café on the Calea Victoriei, I watched two young gypsy women making their way through the crowds in the street. It was an after dinner crowd, and so at its freest, idlest, noisiest, most eager for amusement. The gypsies were quite young, shy girls of between seventeen and nineteen, but already mothers; they both had their children with them, tiny creatures wrapped tightly in rags so that they looked like little sacks. The gypsies were barefooted and dressed in pieces of cotton print roughly sewn together to make short skirts and half-open blouses. In build they were quite young girls, but the faces of each bore the concentrated expression of a young mother who is protecting her child. Military automobiles grunted (the warning-signals of military automobiles here are given, apparently so as to be impressive, the voices of exasperated pigs), wide-haunched skoptsi urged their black horses onward, elegant coquettes waggled their hips, patriotic old men minced along, officers jingled their spurs, bands played in the open-air cafés, everything was noisy, curious, and entertaining, but the two timid, barefooted mothers with their swaddled babies in their arms at once dispersed this atmosphere of idle enjoyment, as though driving a splinter into one’s heart. How many young mothers in this peninsula cursed by fate, with babies in their arms or in their wombs, are vainly waiting for their husbands to come back? How many old mothers are waiting in vain for the return of their sons? [53]

What a heart-rending description! And again he writes:

On the one hand, the ladies of Bucharest are dressed too elegantly for the street, and the ritual boot-polishing is obviously Oriental in character. And on the other – the major part of the population go barefoot, among the magnificent, lacquered officers and the splendid ladies all of one size and shape, skinny, ragged, dirty peasants’ children rush about, selling fresh nuts and plums, or half-naked lice-ridden gypsy children stretch out their hands for alms. Sunburned peasants in white shirts that reach to their heels tread the asphalt diffidently with their bare feet; they are carrying cabbages, or ducks, and when you encounter these white-clad figures on the threshold of your hotel, they humbly doff their caps to you. This silent bow speaks of centuries of hunger, degradation, and hopeless slavery. [54]

Trotsky’s experience as war correspondent in the Balkans was very important for his future. As he put it in his autobiography: ‘The years 1912-13 gave me a close acquaintance with Serbia, Roumania – and with war. In many respects, this was an important preparation not only for 1914, but for 1917 as well.’ [55] It was also useful for Trotsky in the founding and leading of the Red Army.

As a journalist Trotsky was extremely thorough. His articles on the Balkans were brilliant. The unusual combination of background material with flashes of colourful reportage and vignettes of people was alive, each article a vivid essay.

However Trotsky’s engagement as a military correspondent in the Balkans for a radical liberal paper reflected the weakness of his roots in the Russian labour movement at the time. It was precisely during this period that there was a massive revival of the revolutionary movement. During 1912 and 1913 Trotsky wrote 73 articles on the Balkan war, the majority for Kievskaia Mysl. In the years 1912 to 1914 Lenin wrote 261 articles for Pravda; these were not as colourful as Trotsky’s, but they fitted the needs of the party he was building and leading:

Lenin knew how to write very popular, short articles for Pravda. They were always factual, and every article centred on just one idea, which was argued out. He might repeat one theme again and again, but always used different angles, a different example, different stories ... His style was simple and direct. He was simply a man who wanted to convince. He was indifferent to literary form. His writing is plain, hard-hitting and repetitive. [56]

Lenin writing for Pravda had a clear party audience, while Trotsky’s audience in Kievskaia Mysl was diffuse and the purpose of his writing was not clear at all. For all their journalistic merit, Trotsky’s articles had no serious ties with bodies of opinion or organisations that mattered in the real struggle. As against this, every one of Lenin’s activities was dominated by a single purpose, and his relation with the working class was through the revolutionary party. The question of the party – the weakest link in Trotsky’s armoury – affected every aspect of his activity.

Conclusion: Trotsky’s basic error

Nobody was clearer about the error of conciliation than Trotsky after he joined the Bolsheviks in 1917. Thus he wrote in 1929:

My inner-party stand was a conciliationist one, and when at certain moments I strove for the formation of groupings, then it was precisely on this basis. My conciliationism flowed from a sort of social- revolutionary fatalism. I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party ...

By striving for unity at all costs, I involuntarily and unavoidably idealised centrist tendencies in Menshevism. Despite my thrice-repeated episodic attempts, I arrived at no common task with the Mensheviks, and I could not arrive at it. Simultaneously, however, the conciliationist line brought me into still sharper conflict with Bolshevism, since Lenin, in contrast to the Mensheviks, relentlessly rejected conciliationism, and could not but do this. It is obvious that no faction could be created on the platform of conciliationism.

Hence the lesson: It is impermissible and fatal to break or weaken a political line for purposes of vulgar conciliationism; it is impermissible to paint up centrism when it zig-zags to the left; it is impermissible, in the hunt after the will-o’-the-wisps of centrism, to exaggerate and inflate differences of opinion with genuine revolutionary co-thinkers. These are the real lessons of Trotsky’s real mistakes. [57]

For Lenin the years 1907-1914 were years of forging a Bolshevik party, of selecting cadres, educating them and steeling them. For Trotsky they were seven long wasted years.


1*. In 1919 Lenin and Trotsky nominated Fritz Adler honorary secretary of the Third International, and were very disappointed when he turned his back on them. Later he became secretary of the Second International.


1. Lenin, Works, volume 16, pages 395-6.

2. Lenin, Works, volume 16, page 406.

3. Pokrovsky, volume 2, page 284.

4. D. Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism (Assen 1969) page 104.

5. Martov, Geschichte der Russischen Sozialdemokratie (Berlin 1926) page 195.

6. Trotsky, Stalin, page 95.

7. Zinoviev, page 241.

8. Cliff, Lenin, volume 2, page 17.

9. Trotsky, My Life, page 209.

10. Kievskaya Mysl, 13 July 1913, reproduced in Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 8, page 16.

11. Kievskaya Mysl, 13 July 1913, reproduced in Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 8, pages 33-6.

12. Trotsky, My Life, page 207.

13. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 8 pages 12-13.

14. Quoted in Lenin, Works, volume 11, pages 57-8 (italics added).

15. Quoted in Dan, page 380.

16. Chetvertii (obedinitelii) sezd RSDRP (Moscow 1959), page 248.

17. Tovarishch, 31 December 1906, reproduced in Ascher (editor) The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, page 16.

18. Ascher, Pavel Axelrod, pages 251-3 and 261.

19. Martov, On Liquidationism, in Golos sotsialdemokrata, August-September 1909; Getzler, Martov, page 125.

20. Lenin, Works, volume 16, page 158.

21. Quoted in Ascher, Pavel Axelrod, page 237.

22. Larin, A Broad Labour Party and a Labour Congress (Moscow 1906).

23. Lenin, Works, volume 12, page 390.

24. N. Rozhkov, The present situation in Russia and the main tasks of the working-class movement at the present moment, in Nasha Zariia, numbers 9-10; quoted in Lenin, Works, volume 17, pages 322-3.

25. Ascher, Pavel Axelrod, page 257.

26. Quoted in Ascher, Pavel Axelrod, pages 258-9.

27. Piatii (Londonskii) sezd RSDRP, pages 555-6.

28. Martov, Geschichte der Russischen Sozialdemokratie, page 231.

29. Quoted in Ascher, Pavel Axelrod, page 273.

30. Trotsky, Our Party and its tasks, in Pravda (Vienna), number 4, 2 June 1909, quoted in G. Swain, Russian Social Democracy and the Legal Labour Movement 1906-14 (London 1983), page 89.

31. Pravda (Vienna), number 1.

32. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pages 193-4.

33. Lenin, Works, volume 20, page 328.

34. Zinoviev, page 162.

35. Pravda (Vienna), 12 February 1910; Getzler, Martov, page 132.

36. Martov, Spasitelii iii uprazdnitelii? (Paris 1911), page 16.

37. Pisma Akselroda i Martova, page 230.

38. Pisma Akselroda i Martova, page 233.

39. Quoted in Lenin, Works, volume 17, page 32.

40. Quoted in Lenin, Works, volume 18, page 554.

41. Quoted in Lenin, Works, volume 18, page 554.

42. Quoted in Ascher, Pavel Axelrod, pages 295-6.

43. Lenin, Works, volume 20, page 387.

44. Lenin, Works, volume 19, page 462.

45. Pravda (Vienna), number 25.

46. Trotsky, My Life, page 226.

47. Kievskaya Mysl, 9 January 1909; Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913 (New York 1980), page 12.

48. Pravda (Vienna), 1 August 1910; Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 40.

49. Kievskaya Mysl, 3 October 1912; Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, pages 65-6.

50. Kievskaya Mysl, 23 December 1912; Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 272.

51. Kievskaya Mysl, 14 October 1912; Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 148.

52. Kievskaya Mysl, 6 December 1912; Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 262.

53. Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 359.

54. Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 361.

55. Trotsky, My Life, page 227.

56. Cliff, Lenin, volume 1, pages 343 and 345.

57. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pages 49-50.

Last updated on 19 July 2009