Joseph Hansen

Trotsky “Psychoanalyzed”

(Summer 1959)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.3, Summer 1959, pp.67-71, 95.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

THE following item in the February 2 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, a trade journal, may have tipped off quite a few book dealers to get their orders in without further delay:

“SCRIBNER has mailed to some 2500 molders of opinion – statesmen, book reviewers, newspapermen, college professors, etc., a reprint of Bernard Wolfe’s author’s notes for The Great Prince Died [1*], the novel based on the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which will be published on March 30.

“Mr. Wolfe spent eight months as a member of Trotsky’s secretarial staff in Mexico in 1937, three years before his murder. In his author’s notes he explains in detail why he chose to write a novel instead of non-fiction and the departures from strict historical fact he has permitted himself. (‘Torment has to be doled out in novels much more sparingly than it often is in real life’). He has, he says, based his picture of the revolutionary-in-exile on an ‘informed guess’ that Trotsky was haunted by the part he played in suppressing the Soviet sailors’ revolt at Kronstadt. Mr. Wolfe believes ‘there are certainly grounds for suspecting that something was operating in Trotsky that interfered with his will to live ... He was lonely – and he was also a trapped and haunted man opening wide his arms to death’.”

Scribner’s direct mail solicitation of 2,500 molders of opinion seems to have paid off not too badly. Despite the intimation about “departures from strict historical fact,” reviewers praised the imaginative author for his factual accuracy. “The ring of authenticity in the pages of his book is unmistakable,” Ernest S. Pisko declared in the Christian Science Monitor. William Henry Chamberlin told the readers of the Chicago Sunday Tribune that the book “is largely true history.” Bertram D. Wolfe, reviewing the novel in the New York Herald Tribune, held that “as a readable historical account of a somber and illuminating event, the present work is of prime importance and deserves wide attention.”

For Wolfe’s political message likewise, the publisher’s promotion department seems to have found a fairly live mailing list. In the New Leader Raymond Rosenthal was impressed by the “power of Bernard Wolfe’s fantasia, his existential comic tragedy of the political life we have lived and will continue to live for an indefinite period.” In the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Joseph Thibault was struck by the “graphic and terrifying picture of what happens to people when they become so obsessed with political dogma, so caught up in a rigid ideology, that they become less than human.” Selden Rodman felt inspired enough in the New York Times to contribute a strikingly apt and original observation: “Its message is one the free world will ignore at its peril.”

A sales campaign off to such a flying start would indicate that some overtime could be expected in Scribner’s shipping department. Yet most of the reviewers, despite their recognition of how vital it is to broadcast Wolfe’s political message, indicated a certain embarrassment about the book as a novel.

Bertram D. Wolfe felt compelled to admit that

“... when it comes to Trotsky’s thought and feelings, and those of his admiring guards, Mr. Wolfe’s own disillusionment, his own political thesis, and his psychoanalytical technique, stand in the way of his making his characters live, think and talk in a fashion that compels belief.”

Thibault in composing his encomium gave way a bit to the temptation to tell the truth, indicating that it takes “hardihood to complete the book ...” Pisko gagged a little at the “awkward stylistic mannerisms and unnecessary coarseness of expression ...”

Orville Prescott of the New York Times dutifully praised the book’s message but regretted that it could not have been packaged in “a better novel.” Something about the book apparently reminded him of the “wretchedly bad novels” previously turned out by the author. In this one, the attempt to explore the “darker recesses of the Communist mind ... is tiresome.” The “rearrangements of facts for fictional purposes” make the book “very confusing.” Wolfe’s Trotsky is “abstract and stiff.”

“Was Trotsky really like Rostov? Are these doubts, pangs of guilt and remorse really true to Trotsky’s character?”

In Prescott’s opinion,

“This is a curiously uneven work, intermittently interesting, frequently dull. It is crowded with tedious conversations on the nature of revolutions and of revolutionists. Much of its dialogue is stiffly rhetorical. It is stained by several scenes of loathsome depravity.”

Dawn Powell felt unhappy enough over the artistic side of the book to venture even further in the New York Post:

“The psychological interlacing of motives and past records among the principals offered unlimited field for speculation. In fact, the task of transferring all this rich material into a novel must have seemed like a piece of cake. The trouble with the resulting book is that Mr. Wolfe’s cake is almost indigestible, both for him and for the reader ...

“Wolfe appends extensive notes documenting the historical basis for his novel. Such and such a character is taken from life, such and such details were invented.

“It is a device Houdini would use to inspire confidence. Here are the handcuffs and rope with which he binds himself and here is the trap from which he magically escapes. Having tied and hamstrung himself with the facts, Mr. Wolfe recklessly jumps into his self-selected trap.

“Unlike Houdini, though, he cannot unshackle himself; author and reader both flounder hopelessly. If this isn’t fact, then it must be fiction, but it isn’t fiction because here are the documents being waved before us.

“In his sincere desire to clean up once and for all a dark page in revolutionary history, Mr. Wolfe has only stirred up the dust.”

THE readiness of the reviewers to hail the political virtues of the novel, while remaining cautious about assessing its artistic merit, indicates how sensitive they are to the needs of the cold war. How differently they would have received such crude conversion of a tendentious political tract into a morality tale had it been done by a Soviet hack! The unhappy consequences of forcing art into a political strait jacket would have given us a year’s supply of edifying sermons.

However, in the case of a “free world” grub, who converts a hackneyed theme of Social Democratic and capitalist propaganda into intolerably dull and wretched fiction, the exacting norms of bourgeois art aren’t available for application. They haven’t come back yet from the Bureau of Standards where the State Department sent them to be redesigned for compatibility with nuclear weapons.

Wolfe has got it right about Trotsky being murdered by an agent of Stalin’s secret political police. He places the scene correctly in Mexico. Scattered details are almost accurate – when the author does not fix up the facts with such ingratiating touches as the rabbit he has “Rostov” patting at his work desk while he reads the manuscript which the assassin brought him the afternoon of August 20, 1940. There the coincidence with truth ends.

When Shakespeare stated the norm that came to be accepted by the modern artist, “To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature,” he was not addressing cynics such as Wolfe. Wolfe’s purpose is to depict in pulp comic-book style a dishonest piece of propaganda: that Stalinism is the logical continuation of Leninism, a variety of “centralism,” which is inherently bad in general. The bombastic and egoistic Trotsky, as “psychoanalyst” Wolfe pictures him, got a guilt complex because his acceptance of Lenin’s position on the need for centralized leadership in a revolution led to his participation in the Kronstadt affair. This in turn brought him such mental anguish that in the end he welcomed assassination.

Analogously, with just as much reason, Wolfe could use Lincoln’s assassination to prove that the President’s acceptance of the need for centralized leadership of the North in the Civil War, which led to his participation in putting down the draft riots in New York in 1863, gave the bombastic and egoistic author of the Gettysburg address a guilt complex – such neurotic anxiety that in the end he welcomed the assassin’s bullet as he was patting a pet chicken in Ford’s theater.

The dogma of the professional Kronstadters inspires an odd pile of architecture. “Rostov,” a founder of the Soviet Union exiled by Stalin, now maliciously intent on needling the “Georgian mud worm” with a biography, has run into a writer’s block. That crucial chapter stops him, the one about – Kronstadt. He needs quotes and they can’t be found! His guards are not very helpful. In fact, the pair display symptoms of a chronic moral dysentery, an unlovely group obsession about – Kronstadt. “Paul Teleki,” head guard, protects the chief victim of the Moscow frame-up trials to engage him in daily bickering about – Kronstadt. “David Justin,” an adolescent intellectual, who, like the author, became a guard through someone’s error, with equal persistence nags the former head of the Red Army about – Kronstadt. The sole Mexican official permitted by Wolfe to visit the world-famous exile, has no choice but to assail him about – Kronstadt. After the pickaxe has been driven into Rostov’s brain, the dying man’s images are about – Kronstadt. At the death bed his wife, too, gets thinking about – Kronstadt. Finally, if you want to skip the novel, Wolfe boils his message down to an appendix entitled, David Justin’s Glosses on Kronstadt. Still unconvinced? Wolfe drops the mask of novelist and gives it to you with sectarian directness, Author’s Notes about – Kronstadt. Get it? The subtle artist is suggesting that there’s a lesson the free world cannot afford to ignore about – Kronstadt.

Pedagogues, priests and Madison Avenue pitchmen know that nothing beats repetition to imprint a formula, drive home a moral lesson or sell a cure for tired blood. But it can get monotonous. Psychologist Wolfe is especially sensitive to this hazard, and so he offers as enticement to the persevering reader a choice variety of sexy pictures.

For example, what sends Teleki more than anything else is a whore painted like a barber pole, while Rostov’s girl secretary, a masochistic nymphomaniac, finds a touch of rape excellent to overcome frigidity. Even Rostov is served up with a dash of tabasco. He suffers from “voyeurism.” Unable, like Teleki, to get down to a burlesque show where, according to our telescopic-eyed novelist, the grind begins bare, he expresses his illness by widening the crevice between two sandbags in the window of his study to stare down the resulting hole – at the street. His punishment is a stiff neck.

Thus dry-as-dust dogma generates its opposite, strident sensationalism. The principal characters are driven like zombies by sadism, masochism, murderous impulses, suicidal wishes, unresolved oedipus complexes and voyeurism. Why the author didn’t think to add a werewolf is hard to fathom.

If we dismiss the playing around with sexual images, torture and bloodshed, which may have served a useful function in releasing some of the author’s inner tensions, we are left with a picture of Trotsky that is curiously unoriginal. An egomaniac unable to work in a group, cursed with neurotic over-evaluation of the power of words yet a brilliant manipulator of language, a poseur revelling in press conferences and similar stage appearances, suffering from venomous hatred of Stalin – what does this caricature resemble if not the stock figure to be found in the productions of Stalin’s secret political police?

That a Stalinophobe like Wolfe should find himself using lurid poster colors on the guide lines provided by the GPU is not as paradoxical as may seem. He begins with the same political dogma as the GPU: that Stalinism is the continuation of Leninism. Like those who preceded him down this well-traveled highway, he accomplishes no more than to erase the Stalinist plus signs and replace them with Social Democratic minuses. Our pamphleteer novelist, bound by the logic of his meager formula, produces nothing but fresh proof – as if it were needed! – of the essential identity in the Stalinist and Social Democratic concepts of Leninism.

To both Stalinists and Social Democrats, the Leninist type of party structure is authoritarian; the one considers it benevolent, the other malevolent. The Social Democrats deny in theory that Leninism has any connection with democracy; the Stalinists deny it in practice.

Wolfe’s fantasy is that Trotsky was the unconscious victim of “Leninism” as defined by the Social Democrats, and that Trotsky’s self-punishment for denying the true character of this “Leninism” was to welcome its exercise in the shape of a pickaxe.

The logic of Wolfe’s dogma is that Trotsky provoked the attack. As “Ortega,” Wolfe’s concocted Mexican official conceives it: “The sandbags were a provocation, the words coming from the typewriter were provocations, to make, no doubt, insulting headlines for tomorrow.” If these were “provocations” then they were objectively unnecessary. Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism is thus seen as not being thought out correctly; he does not understand the real reasons driving him; his anti-Stalinism is really just the manifestation of an unconscious suicidal tendency. Ortega tells Teleki: “... he did not have to undertake a total struggle with Stalin!” In short, Wolfe falls into a pro-Stalinist position. A dialectic miracle! But one that occurs whenever Social Democrats unite with Stalinists in “People’s Fronts” to shore up a capitalist position. The miracle has been performed, too, by capitalist statesmen when they thought the Kremlin was in position to deliver something of interest, especially the heads of revolutionaries.

To follow Wolfe a step further: Bringing the ingredients of his characters together according to the prescription needed to alert the free world to the dangers of “centralism” – as practiced by revolutionary socialists – he is forced to perpetrate a frame-up. He has his novelistic Trotsky offer “evidence” that the real-life Trotsky was guilty of a crime at Kronstadt. He continues logically down this course far enough to torture out of his Trotsky a “confession” of “guilt” (guilt-laden conscience, rationalizing arguments, actions seeking atonement through self-punishment). Isn’t such character assassination quite in the tradition of those who organized the actual murder?

If we now appeal to psychoanalysis to help us uncover the reasons for the author’s fixation on Kronstadtian dogmas, what do we find but unconscious sympathy for Trotsky’s murderer? This is the one level in the novel that has the ring of conviction. The material placed before us reveals, like a tape recording from the psychoanalytic couch, depreciation and hatred of Trotsky, and an unconscious urge to participate in executing him. The assassin is Wolfe’s tragic hero.

I HAPPENED to be with Trotsky in Mexico when the attempt to revive Kronstadt was at its height. As one of the real members of the household – not a Kronstadtian projection of Wolfe’s mind – I can offer my personal observation of the reaction of Trotsky, his guards and secretaries to the campaign.

First let me indicate Trotsky’s actual main interests. His primary concern was the fate of mankind. His acceptance of Marxism put him in politics, and not as an observer but as an active participant. His chief interest at the time was thus naturally in the movement of capitalism toward another world war and in what could be done to hinder it and to find points of support to speed the advancement of socialism.

As the world’s leading spokesman for revolutionary socialism he was the focus of attack from reaction of all kinds. If he singled out Stalinism, as he did, for special consideration it was solely because it represented the most formidable obstacle in the path of working-class mobilization against capitalism. I do not think he enjoyed the unpleasant chore of battling Stalinism. The downfall of the great revolutionary figures of Lenin’s generation at the hands of the Kremlin moved him profoundly.

Of genuine personal satisfaction to him, however, was the work of constructing the Fourth International. This was his political love. The development of the Socialist Workers Party just across the border absorbed him, as did everything about America where he foresaw that the fate of mankind would finally be forged. He took a leading part in working out problems of leadership in the Fourth International, participating in the internal discussions with some of his most searching contributions to socialist thought and theory.

Although committed not to intervene in domestic affairs, he was fascinated by Mexico’s politics, as he was of the country as a whole. On every hand illustrations leaped out of the operation of the laws of uneven and combined development which he had done so much in earlier years to call attention to. For instance, a capitalist government expropriated the imperialist oil holdings and turned them over to workers management! From Mexico City, cultural capital of Latin America, he saw shadings of the class struggle in semi-colonial countries he had not previously noted.

He was working on a biography of Lenin, a work that really appealed to him. (The Stalin biography was distasteful, but the publishers insisted they weren’t in the market for anything else; and his collaborators urged him to take it as an assignment in which he could really deal with a lot more than Stalin.) He planned a book on current world politics, his specialty. He projected a short work on logic. If he could be permitted to visit the United States, he thought of doing a comparative study of the American and Russian civil wars after touring the battlefields.

Friends visited him in increasing numbers due to the generosity of the Cardenas government which, with typical Mexican hospitality, made the conditions of political asylum easy for the persecuted exile. Latin-American followers reached Coyoacan from time to time. Socialist Workers Party leaders arrived periodically for sessions that gave Trotsky the greatest satisfaction. Artists exchanged views with him on esthetics and the place of the artist in politics. Andre Breton came from France to see him. Trotsky hoped that Andre Gide could make the trip, too. Prominent public figures, not to mention top reporters sought his opinion on crucial world developments. As part of their studies, the guards and secretaries arranged lively discussions in which he participated. In the evenings classical music came over the Telefunken radio. Hegel’s Wissenschaft der Logik was on a convenient shelf along with the works of Lenin, Engels and Marx. From the city’s excellent bookstores someone was always bringing the latest novel from France, or something of unusual interest such as the final version of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. The Old Man’s English was improving so much that he could enjoy Jack London’s The Iron Heel in the original. His youthful guards, a cross section of the international revolutionary socialist movement, were continually stirring up something, the American contingent even inveigling him into outdoor hobbies to replace his pacing back and forth as daily exercise. Occasional excursions were organized into primitive back country.

A big victory was scored when the Dewey commission dealt the decisive blow to the Moscow frame-up trials. On this, as other festive occasions, telegrams and letters came from all over the world and delegations of Mexican friends and sympathetic unionists showed up to celebrate. Each new publication of the Fourth International, each book and pamphlet in a new language, came as a heartening success. Correspondence from collaborators on every continent brought him the latest news, the difficulties and achievements, the thinking and proposals of the new generation of revolutionary socialist leaders in which Trotsky’s keenest interest centered.

Despite such tragic blows as the murder of his oldest son, Leon Sedov, by the GPU, the world was really interesting from the view in Coyoacan.

(None of this is in Wolfe’s book. The novelist makes Trotsky a neurotic, gnawing at his own mind, and replaces the vigorous staff of revolutionary socialists with two dreary windbags out of the Kronstadt album. This displacement of the truth by complete falsification was inevitable, since, as Wolfe well knows, the end determines the means, even if it doesn’t always justify them.) [1]

Trotsky followed the savage civil war in Spain with close attention, for it offered fresh current tests of major tendencies and their policies. Hitler and Mussolini were using the Spanish struggle as a testing ground for the coming imperialist conflict, and the Kremlin furnished for the instruction of the working class another colossal instance of the truly suicidal policy that was paving the way for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Stalinists, bourgeois democrats, Social Democrats, anarchists, came under Trotsky’s fire. Their policies, he contended, spelled doom for the Spanish working class, ensured Franco’s victory, would speed the outbreak of World War II. A socialist victory was fully possible, he maintained, given policies such as the Bolsheviks had applied. A success like the Russian October could reverse the current trend toward deepening reaction, undermine both Italian and German fascism, strengthen the defenses of the Soviet Union and bring socialism to all of Europe. The tragedy of Spain, as he saw it, was that the great opportunity for victory was being systematically destroyed by ignorance, incompetence, and conscious policies of betrayal among the tendencies holding leadership of the revolution.

His criticisms especially irked the anarchist champions of Kronstadt, who – contrary to all their avowed principles – helped succor the capitalist state in Spain when it could have been laid in its grave.

The rise of Spanish fascism had its repercussions in America. Roosevelt turned toward preparing the country’s entry into the looming imperialist conflict. This affected an entire layer of intellectuals who had been attracted previously to revolutionary socialism. They began to worry about the “amoralism” of Leninism and to look to the possibilities of spiritual salvation in Roosevelt’s war camp. “Trotskyism and Stalinism are one and the same,” they argued. Seeking “evidence” of this, they explored the political mud buckets used by the anarchists and Social Democrats during the Russian Civil War. They found an item which they thought could be thrown by way of counteroffensive to Trotsky’s criticisms: “What about Kronstadt!”

Wendelin Thomas, a member of the committee headed by John Dewey that was investigating the Moscow frame-up trials, demanded directly of Trotsky whether basic identity between Bolshevism and Stalinism wasn’t indicated by Lenin’s attitude toward opponents like the Mensheviks, the Kronstadt insurgents and the independent bands headed by Makhno in the Ukraine.

From Trotsky’s reply to Thomas, the following paragraph may be of interest for what it reveals of the former Red Army commander’s attitude on the question. It is relevant since it was written July 6, 1937, when Wolfe was presumably still in Coyoacan.

“Your evaluation of the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, is basically incorrect. The best, most sacrificing sailors were completely withdrawn from Kronstadt and played an important role at the fronts and in the local Soviets throughout the country. What remained was the gray mass with big pretensions (‘We are from Kronstadt’), but without political education and unprepared for revolutionary sacrifice. The country was starving. The Kronstadters demanded privileges. The uprising was dictated by a desire to get privileged food rations. The sailors had cannon and battleships. All the reactionary elements in Russia as well as abroad, immediately seized upon this uprising. The white emigres demanded aid for the insurrectionists. The victory of this uprising could bring nothing but a victory of counter-revolution, entirely independent of the ideas the sailors had in their heads. But the ideas themselves were deeply reactionary. They reflected the hostility of the backward peasantry to the worker, the conceit of the soldier or sailor in relation to the ‘civilian’ Petersburg, the hatred of the pety bourgeois for revolutionary discipline. The movement therefore had a counter-revolutionary character and since the insurgents took possession of the arms in the forts they could only be crushed with the aid of arms.”

Trotsky understood very well that the Fourth International was not immune to the heavy pressures already mounting with the approach of World War II. What interest he took in the debate over Kronstadt was motivated to large extent by concern to block weak elements like Wolfe from utilizing Kronstadt as a rationalization to abandon the struggle for socialism.

John G. Wright, a close political collaborator, wrote a factual account of Kronstadt which Trotsky recommended. [2] (In his novel, Wolfe calls it a “particularly mindless attempt.”) And in Hue and Cry over Kronstadt, Trotsky analyzed with Marxist precision the class forces involved in the struggle. [3] (Wolfe lists this among “Trotsky’s meager and impatient reflections on Kronstadt.”)

The subject came up in no prominent way at all in Coyoacan. It could not because everyone there recognized it for what it was, a diversionary move by opponents who wished to avoid discussing such subjects as certain political crimes in Spain and the real meaning of Roosevelt’s war preparations.

The only occasion I can recall where Kronstadt figured significantly was on a trip to Patzcuaro. Several schoolteachers made a neighborly call on Trotsky. Such visits were relatively frequent, sometimes including quite a few people, for Trotsky was a sympathetic figure to most Mexicans, rightly proud of their own revolutionary tradition.

Like other discussions of the kind, it was amiable and stimulating, for all Trotsky ever asked in return for his time was genuine interest, and his own inclinations were to share experiences. He enjoyed meeting ordinary honest people with their often fresh insights. One of the teachers brought up Kronstadt, not to bait Mexico’s distinguished guest, but to learn first hand about the issue, and Trotsky repeated pretty much the explanation he had given Wendelin Thomas.

This led to a question about Trotsky’s personal responsibility. The answer made an impression on me, for I learned what to me was an extremely important general lesson in principled politics.

Trotsky said that he was not involved at all personally.

“Why then,” asked the teacher with some surprise, “did you accept responsibility?”

Trotsky explained the difference between personal and political responsibility. Zinoviev was the leader of the new forces at Kronstadt. Zinoviev, backed by these replacements at the famous fortress, was in vigorous opposition to Trotsky. Because of this factional situation, it became Zinoviev’s responsibility to handle the rebellion. He was in best position to head it off. Trotsky stayed away from Kronstadt. (Wolfe has him crossing the ice to participate with his own hands in the assault that recovered the fortress.)

Moreover, Trotsky had personally advocated policies a year earlier that might have avoided such dangerous episodes. He had proposed a general easing of tension through some means such as the New Economic Policy that was subsequently adopted. But Lenin erroneously opposed Trotsky’s proposal. One of the consequences of Lenin’s error was the explosive situation not only at Kronstadt but many other places. Both Czarist and world reaction sought to turn these difficulties to their own advantage. In face of the grave possible consequences, Trotsky felt that the correct political policy for a member of government was to share responsibility for whatever measures the government was compelled to take in its self-defense.

This was illuminating to me, for I could see that the alternative would have been a struggle against the regime. Under the circumstances this could only have aided the counter-revolution. The principle, too, had wide application in politics, much wider than this particular case might indicate.

Later I asked Trotsky why he had not included this explanation in his article Hue and Cry over Kronstadt.

His response was that he did not want to provide any grounds whatsoever for the charge that he was seeking to evade the responsibility his position in the government carried with it.

I urged two reasons for modification of his policy after the passage of so much time. (1) The facts were important and should be made part of the record. (2) The Kronstadters were not making any distinction between political and personal responsibility but were accusing him of personal responsibility. They could make unjustified gains in this way among politically backward circles.

I could have added as a third point that it would be helpful when my Coyoacan predecessor, Bernard Wolfe, got around to writing The Great Prince Died, but I didn’t think of it.

Perhaps we discussed it again although I rather doubt it, since Trotsky, the most receptive person I ever met, was usually quick to take suggestions of the kind. In any case within a few days he wrote the half dozen paragraphs I thought would prove useful for in-fighting with the Kronstadters. This was published as More on the Suppression of Kronstadt. [4] (Wolfe is well aware of this item, so devastating to his “informed guess” on Trotsky’s feelings about Kronstadt, for he lists it among Trotsky’s “meager and impatient reflections.”)

This I hope is sufficient to establish as an objective, verifiable fact that the doubts, pangs of guilt and remorse over Kronstadt were not “self-harryings,” as Wolfe puts it, but political harryings from palpable foes who aimed them at Trotsky. The record is quite emphatic on how effectively Trotsky turned these into counterthrusts, which he followed up in Their Morals and Ours [5] by raising the fundamental questions involved – the class basis of ethics and morals and the ultimate decisiveness of logical method in reaching scientifically grounded answers.

Trotsky’s moves proved so crushing, in fact, that a Kron-stadter like Wolfe, after scouting for more than twenty years, could find no better way of dealing with them than to insinuate his own position into Trotsky’s household. The logic of this was to eliminate completely the counterposing position which the entire household actually held. Wolfe does not permit a single member of Trotsky’s household, not one, to represent the genuine Trotskyist view on Kronstadt and the thesis that Stalinism is the continuation of Leninism. As for the morality of putting his own position – if watered down to “just” suicidal guilt – into Trotsky’s skull, is that so far removed from the morality of driving an axe into it?

DAWN Powell, it will be recalled, said in reviewing The Great Prince Died,

“If this isn’t fact, then it must be fiction, but it isn’t fiction because here are the documents being waved before us.”

How dependable are the “documents” that Wolfe waves at us? He has guard “David Justin” engage in diligent research for “quotes” that “Rostov” must have, but can’t find, to prove that the insurgents were counter-revolutionary. Everything that Justin digs up speaks against Rostov. So, says Justin, he “will have to make up his own quotes.”

“One pertinent quote does exist,” continues the pseudo-guard. “From a memoir written by V.R. after the event.” The “pertinent” quote is:

“Simply because it had been guilty of a political error, simply because some of its less polished representatives may have blundered in dealing with the sailors, should the proletarian revolution really have committed suicide to punish itself?

Then Justin’s comment:

“One of the most fantastic statements in the history of political struggle. There is a quote, if V.R. has such need of quotes. Apparently certain guilts can’t be kept permanently under cover, even in such a brilliantly organized and disciplined ideologue as V.R. ... I don’t think he’ll use this telltale quote that slipped out of his own depths. No man wants to confess twice ...”

In a soap-opera sequence that truly stuns us, Teleki corners Rostov near a rabbit pen and declaims Justin’s notes page after page at the former commander of the armed forces of the Soviet Union, who takes this rhetoric in guilty silence. At the words “confess twice,” as the scene opens, Teleki closes the manuscript. The guard, his breath “coming in audible jerks” over discovery of the dread secret, says, “Now I’m through.”

Rostov, “examining the head of lettuce in his hand” (Wolfe’s rabbits sure have expensive tastes!), responds, “Definitively, irrevocably through. When will you be leaving my house?”

The scene is crucial in Wolfe’s plot: the best guard quitting socialism on the day of the assassination (later to become a normal serape salesman); Rostov’s suicidal impulse activated – all because of the fatal Kronstadtian quote echoing from the past.

Where did the quotation come from? Some “memoir” that by accident escaped being “expunged from the record,” to be found by Wolfe after long painful years of sneezing among disintegrating Russian newspapers? The priceless discovery came easier than that. Wolfe found it in Hue and Cry over Kronstadt, published, as we have just noted, in the April 1938 New International. Here is the paragraph from which it was lifted:

“In 1921 Lenin more than once openly acknowledged that the party’s obstinate defense of the methods of military communism had become a great mistake. But does this change matters? Whatever the immediate or remote causes of the Kronstadt rebellion, it was in its very essence a mortal danger to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Simply because it had been guilty of a political error, should the proletarian revolution really have committed suicide to punish itself?” (Note Wolfe’s artistic embellishment.)

Why did Wolfe tear this sentence, referring to Lenin not Trotsky, out of the context of Trotsky’s 1938 article and put it in the context of his own falsified version of Kronstadt?

Well, it’s a kind of documentation, isn’t it? Besides the word “suicide” is needed to kick off that suicidal impulse which Wolfe requires in Trotsky to arouse the free world about the peril of ignoring Kronstadt. The original article indicates no suicidal impulse? So what? Have the Kronstadters got anything that fits better? Besides, how many readers of The Great Prince Died will ever check the references? Didn’t The Great Conspiracy, a book circulated by the Communist party in the millions as a kind of bible justifying the Moscow trials, even include references to works by Trotsky and his followers exposing the frame-ups? How many readers of that book checked those references? [6]

FUTURE generations will, I imagine, find Trotsky a most attractive figure among the heroes who helped lead mankind in the painful struggle out of class society into the socialist order. What was he really like? Fortunately, they will not have to depend on novels like this miserable pot-boiler to form an opinion. Among Trotsky’s own writings sufficient material is available to indicate a great deal.

A prime example is his Diary in Exile – 1935 recently published by Harvard University Press. A review of this book, which appeared in the spring 1959 issue of Dissent, is of more than ordinary interest since the author is the well-known Erich Fromm.

I doubt that the former disciple of Sigmund Freud ever met Trotsky or that he has read much of his writings. In world outlook Fromm is closer to the Utopians than the Marxists; but many of his observations are remarkably acute. Here is his judgment after reading the Diary:

“The general habit of considering Stalinism and present-day Communism as identical with, or at least as a continuation of revolutionary Marxism, has also led to an increasing misunderstanding of the personalities of the great revolutionary figures: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Just as their theories are seen as related to those of Stalin and Khrushchev, the picture of the ‘revolutionary fanatic’ is applied to them as it is to the vengeful killer Stalin and to the opportunistic conservative Khrushchev. This distortion is a real loss for the present and the future. In whatever way one may disagree with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, there can be no doubt that as persons they represent a flowering of Western humanity.

“They were men with an uncompromising sense of truth, penetrating to the very essence of reality, and never taken in by the deceptive surface; of an unquenchable courage-and integrity; of deep concern and devotion to man and his future; unselfish and with little vanity or lust for power. They were always stimulating, always alive, always themselves, and whatever they touched became alive. They represented the Western tradition in its best features: its faith in reason and in the progress of man. Their errors and mistakes are the very ones which also follow from Western thinking; rationalism and the Western over-estimation of the efficacy of force which underlies the great middle-class revolutions of the last few centuries.”

Fromm notes that we know little of the personal lives of these men. “They did not take themselves as important; they did not write about themselves, nor speculate about their motivations.” Thus the unusual value of Trotsky’s diary.

“No doubt Trotsky as an individual was as different. from Marx, Engels and Lenin as they were among themselves and yet in being permitted to have an intimate glimpse of the personal life of Trotsky, one is struck by all that he has in common with these productive personalities. Whether he writes about political events, or Emma Goldman’s autobiography, or Edgar Wallace’s detective stories, his reaction goes to the roots, is penetrating, alive and productive. Whether he writes about his barber, the French police officials or Mr. Henri Spaak, his judgment is profound and to the point ... In the midst of insecure exile, illness, cruel Stalinist persecution of his family, there is-never a note of self-pity or even despair. There is objectivity and courage and humility. This is a modest manp proud of his cause, proud of the truth he discovers, but not vain or self-centered. The words of admiration and concern in which he expresses himself about his wife are deeply-moving. Just as was the case with Marx, here was the concern, understanding and sharing of a deeply loving man, which shines through Trotsky’s diary. He loved life and its-beauty. One version of his testament he ends with the following words: ‘I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future-generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and vileness, and enjoy it to the full’.”

In the rest of the review, Fromm defends Trotsky from Harvard’s advertisements which claim, that the diary reveals the author’s anguish, loneliness, “underlying fanaticism and selfishness ...” Fromm, protesting, holds that “The only thing it lays bare is exactly the opposite.”

Fromm’s remarks were not offered in praise of Trotsky but as an estimate of his basic character. Such expert testimony, one must believe, will make its way. He spoke on the side of truth, and truth has a way of catching up.


Editor’s Note

1*. The Great Prince Died, by Bernard Wolfe. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1959. 398 pp. $4.50.



1. Among the mass of departures from “strict historical fact,” Wolfe appoints “Emma,” the girl friend of the assassin, to be Trotsky’s personal secretary, although the real girl involved was never more than a visitor. How Wolfe’s Chicago beauty solved the problem of getting Trotsky’s Russian down in shorthand is not indicated. To further facilitate Kronstadtian political needs, Wolfe has Trotsky invite the assassin to become a full member of the household, serving as a “translator” of the press releases dictated to Emma. In contrast to this invitation, Wolfe has Trotsky fight “New York” suicidally on organizing a competent staff. As additional weakening of the defenses, he has Trotsky offering gratuitous insults to the Mexican head of police in charge of protecting him. Wolfe even maligns the Mexican police detail as a comic squad given, while on duty, to guzzling, guitar strumming, whoring, and squeezing the household for “cognac.” A poverty-stricken neighbor, Wolfe’s epitome of the peasantry in general and the revolutionary Mexican campesinos in particular, is pictured as an Australoid “not used to thinking in numbers larger than ten.”

2. New International, February 1938.

3. New International, April 1938.

4. New International, August 1938.

5. Available from Pioneer Publishers.

6. Any student interested in seeing how the Stalinist school of falsification operates will find it enlightening to compare the quotations in Chapter I of The Great Conspiracy, which are ascribed to Raymond Robins with the original source in Raymond Robins’ Own Story. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920.)


Last updated on: 5.3.2006