Adolf Joffe

Letter to Leon Trotsky[1]

Written: 16th November, 1927
Source: "The Letter of A. Joffe" in International Press Correspondence, January 19, 1928, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 81-83.
Online Version: Marxist Internet Archive 2020
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski, 2020

My dear Leo Davidovitch,
I have all my life maintained that a politician, or any person occupying a public position, must understand when to retire from life, and that it is better to do so too soon than too late. When, long ago, the suicide of Paul Lafargue and his wife Laura Marx created a great stir in the various Socialist parties I, inexperienced youth as I then was, emphatically championed the rightness in principle of their standpoint, and, as I still remember, I very vehemently replied to August Bebel, who was greatly incensed at the suicide, that even though there might be objections to the age limit set by Lafargue and his wife, since it was here not a question of years but of the possible usefullness of a politician, the principle could by no means be attacked of the retirement of a politician from life as soon as ever he was convinced that he could be of no further use to the cause to which he had devoted all his efforts.

More than thirty years ago I acquired the philosophy that human life is only of value to us so long as and in so far as it serves that infinity which mankind represents to our mind. Seeing that all else is finite, work in its service is senseless; whereas humanity, though possibly not absolutely infinite, is yet not likely to meet with its end for such long ages to come that it may be looked upon as an infinity. And he who believes in progress as I believe in it, can very well picture to himself that, even if our own planet perishes, mankind will by that time know the means of removing to other, younger planets.

Mankind will thus continue to exist, and consequently everything done in its service in our time will also leave its traces in those distant epochs of the future, thus imparting to existence its sole possible sense and purpose. Herein and herein only can I recognise the sense of my own life. And if I now look back on my past life, 27 years of which I have passed in the ranks of our Party, I have in my opinion the right to say that throughout my conscious life I have been true to my philosophy, that is to say that I have lived my life purposefully, because I have lived it in fighting for the good of mankind.

Even the years of imprisonment and penal servitude, during which a man is separated from the immediate participation in the fight and work for humanity, cannot be deducted from the number of purposeful years of his existence, since they served, as years of self-cultivation and self-education, for the improvement of later work, so that they too can be counted to the years of work in the service of mankind, i.e. to the purposefully spent years of a man's life. In this sense of the word, I believe I can safely affirm that I have not spent a single day of my life purposelessly.

Now, however, the moment is obviously approaching in which my life will lose its sense and in which I shall consequently be faced with the duty of retiring therefrom, that is to say of ending my existence.

Already for some years past, the present leaders of our Party — in keeping with their general policy of not giving the members of the Opposition any work — have refrained from employing me on any work, either in the Party or on the Soviets, of such a character or extent as would enable me to exploit my abilities to their maximum degree of utility. For the last twelvemonth, as you know, the Political Bureau has removed me, as an Oppositionalist, from all Party or Soviet activity.

On the other hand, partly perhaps as a result of my illness and partly for reasons that you will know better than I do, I have for the past year taken hardly any part in the practical oppositional struggle or in the work of the Opposition.

After great struggles with myself and with extreme reluctance I turned to that realm of work, to which I had hoped to have recourse only when completely invalided, and devoted myself wholly and entirely to scientific, pedagogic, and literary matters. Hard as I found this at first, I gradually penetrated deeper into this work and began to hope that even in this connection my life would find that necessary inner usefulness of which I spoke above and which, according to my standpoint, can alone justify my life.

But my state of health grew worse and worse.

Around the 20th of September I was, for reasons unbeknown to me, invited by the Medical Commission of the Central Committee to a consultation of specialists. The Commission diagnosed an active tuberculous process of both lungs, myocarditis (inflammation of the cardiac muscles), chronic inflammation of the bladder, chronic inflammation of the intestines and appendix, and chronic polyneuritis. The examining professors told me categorically that my condition was much worse than I had imagined, and that I could not even hope to resume my courses at the high-schools (I. Moscow State University and Institute for Oriental Research), indeed that it would be much more reasonable to give up all such activity.

Furthermore, I was to remain no longer at Moscow and ought not to delay a single hour in getting treatment, but should go abroad at once to a suitable sanatorium. Since, however, such a journey could not be effected in the space of one or two days, a certain treatment in the polyclinic of the Kremlin was prescribed for me in the interim. In answer to my direct question as to what prospects of recovery I had abroad and whether I could possibly be cured in Russia without giving up my activity as a teacher, the Medical Commission declared, in the presence of the Chief Physician of the Central Committee, of another Communist doctor, and of A. J. Konnely, Chief Physician of the Kremlin Hospital, that the Russian sanatoria could by no means help me, but that I could hope to be cured abroad, seeing that hitherto I had never been treated abroad for more than two or three months at a time, whereas now they must insist on a hospital treatment of at least half a year, without prescribing any maximum duration thereof; in such circumstances they did not doubt that, if not definitely cured, I could at least hope to be restored to sufficient health to be able to work again for a considerable time.

Some two months after this consultation, the Medical Commission of the Central Committee, which had itself invited me to the said discussion, had not yet undertaken a single step, either in regard to my journey abroad or in connection with my treatment here. On the contrary, the Kremlin pharmacy, which had been wont to make up my prescriptions for me, had been forbidden to do so any further, so that I was deprived of the gratuitous medicaments I had been accustomed to use and was forced to provide myself at my own expense with medicines from the city apothecaries. Obviously the leading group in our Party had about this time begun to fulfil their threat of "hitting the Opposition a blow in the stomach", a threat also applying to the other members of the Opposition.

As long as I was still healthy enough to work, I did not trouble much about this. But as I grew worse and worse, my wife commenced to take steps with a view to having me sent abroad, and applied not only to the Medical Commission of the Central Committee but also to N. A. Semashko in person, who had always been loud in advocating the principle of "preserving the Old Guard". The question, however, was shelved again and again and the only thing my wife could attain was that she was given the medical diagnosis in writing. This diagnosis enumerated my chronic diseases and pointed out that the council of doctors insisted on my going abroad "to a sanatorium of the type of Professor Friedländer’s, for a stay of about one year".

In the meantime I have now been for about nine days in bed, since all my chronic ailments have aggravated and increased, as I suppose is only natural, and, worse than all else, my old inflammation of the nerves has entered upon an acute stage, so that I suffer excruciating pain and can no longer walk.

As a matter of fact I have during these last nine days been without any medical assistance, and the question of my going abroad is being discussed. Of the doctors of the Central Committee not a single one has been to see me. Professor Davodenko and Dr. Levin, who visited me, prescribed some trifles which were naturally of no avail, but themselves confessed that they "could do nothing" and that it was essential that I should go abroad without delay. Dr. Levin explained to my wife that the matter was presumably being delayed in the Medical Commission for the reason that the latter was under the impression that my wife would accompany me and that "would naturally cost very much". If non-oppositional comrades fall ill, they, and sometimes also their wives, are sent abroad, accompanied by our doctors or professors; I myself know many such cases and must also admit that when I first contracted my nervous disease I myself was sent abroad together with my wife and child accompanied by Dr. Kannabich. But at that time these newly-introduced usages were unknown in the Party.

My wife replied that, however serious my condition might be, she by no means claimed that either she or any other of my relatives should be sent along with me, whereupon Dr. Levin assured here that in such a case the matter could be far more speedily settled.

My condition is going from bad to worse, and the pains grew so atrocious that finally I was obliged to ask the doctors for relief of some kind. To-day Dr. Levin was here and repeated that they could do nothing and that the only salvation for me lay in a speedy departure abroad.

In the evening my wife heard from Comrade Potemkin, the doctor of the Central Committee, that the medical council of the Central Committee had resolved not to send me abroad but rather to cure me in Russia, seeing that the specialists insisted on a more protracted treatment and considered a short treatment useless. On the other hand, the Central Committee was prepared to spend about $1000 (2000 roubles!) for this purpose; more than that could not be granted.

As you well know, I have in the past more than once given our Party 1000 roubles and certainly more than I have cost the Party since I was deprived by the Revolution of my fortune and I could no longer pay for my own treatment.

Anglo-American publishers have frequently suggested to me that I should publish extracts from my memoirs, at my own discretion and with the sole condition that the period of the Brest negotiations be included. This for a sum of about $20,000. The Political Bureau knows very well that I am too experienced a diplomat and journalist to publish anything that might harm our Party or our State. I have frequently acted as censor, both for the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and for the Chief Concessionary Committee, and as a political representative I had to censor all Russian press matter appearing in the respective countries. A few years ago I applied for permission to publish some such memoirs with the engagement to hand over the entire proceeds to the Party, since I was loth to take money from the Party for my treatment.

In reply I received a direct resolution on the part of the Political Bureau to the effect that "diplomats or comrades engaged in diplomatic work are expressly forbidden to publish abroad their memoirs, or selections therefrom, without a previous examination of the M. S. on the part of the Collegium of the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and the Political Bureau of the Central Committee". I know how such a double censorship can be protracted and how vague it can be rendered, so that no arrangements can be made with publishers abroad, and therefore I refused the said offer in 1924.

Subsequently, when I was again abroad, another such offer was made me, accompanied by a guarantee of an honorarium to the amount of $20,000. But as I know that the history of the Revolution and the history of our Party are now being forged and I would not lend my hand to such forgeries, I do not consider it possible to publish my memoirs abroad without directly infringing on the prohibition issued by the Political Bureau. At the same time, I have no doubt that the entire censorship of the Political Bureau consists in not permitting any true characterisation either of the one side or of the other, that is to say neither of the actual revolutionary leaders nor of the so-called leaders who have also been harnessed to the sledge, whereas it is just on the personal characteristics of the persons mentioned in the memoirs that the foreign publishers insist. I therefore see no possibility of undergoing medical treatment, since I receive no money from the Central Committee, which after twenty-seven years of revolutionary work on my part does not value my life and my health at more than 2000 roubles.

In the state in which I am at present it is naturally impossible for me to do any work. Even if I were strong enough to continue my lectures in spite of the violent pain I suffer, I should require considerable assistance. I should have to be taken about in a Bath-chair and should require help to get the necessary books and materials in the library and from the files. When I was ill in former times, the entire staff of the Embassy was at my disposal. Now, however, since my rank is no higher than that of a simple "secretary", I am no longer entitled to such assistance; indeed, in view of the inattention paid of late to all my ailments (as in the present case, when I have remained nine days with practically no medical assistance and have not even received the electrical bed-warmer prescribed me by Dr. Davidovitch), I can not even hope for such trifles as the loan of a Bath-chair.

And even if I were treated and sent for the requisite length of time abroad, my position would remain highly precarious. On the last occasion that I contracted an inflammation of the nerves, I lay for two weeks immovable, though at that time I had no other illness besides the nervous complaint. Now I have half a dozen others. And even if I could devote so much time to my health as would be necessary, I should hardly have the right to expect to be really well even for quite a short space of time after this cure.

Now that it is not thought possible for me to be actually cured (for a treatment in Russia is hopeless in the opinion of the doctors, and even a longer treatment abroad would be hardly more efficacious), my life has lost all sense. Even were I not to start from the philosophical standpoint mentioned above, a person who is condemned to lie immovable, without the possibility of doing any work, could hardly be expected to want to live.

I therefore repeat that the moment has come to put an end to this life. I know the adverse attitude of the Party in regard to suicide, but I hardly think that any one who considers my position in the present circumstances will seriously blame me.

Besides this, Professor Davidenko assumes that the reason of my relapse into my former serious nervous state is to be found in the excitement experienced in recent times. If I were healthy I should find sufficient strength and energy to struggle against the position which has developed within the Party. But in my present condition this state of affairs in the Party is insupportable to me, seeing that your exclusion from the Party is passed over in complete silence, though I do not in the least doubt that sooner or later there will be a revulsion in the Party which will force it to shake off those who have led it into this shameful act. In this sense my death will be the protest of a fighter, who is not in a position to respond to this shameful act in any other way.

If I may be permitted to compare a small thing with a big one, I should like to say that the great significance of the historical fact of the exclusion from the Party of yourself and Zinoviev, which must inevitably be looked upon as the beginning of the Thermidorian period of our revolution, and the circumstance that after twenty-seven years of revolutionary activity in responsible Party positions I have been placed in a position which leaves me no choice but to put a bullet through my head — that these two facts are manifestations of one and the same party policy; and most probably these two facts, the small one and the great one alike, will prove to be destined to give the Party that impulse which is required to hold it back from the path of Thermidorian error. I should be happy could I persuade myself of the fact that things will develop thus, for then I should know that I should not have died in vain. But though I am firmly convinced that the moment will come when the Party's eyes will be opened, I cannot persuade myself that moment is near at hand. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that my death will now be more useful than a continuation of my life could be.

With you, my dear Leo Davidovitch, I am connected by decades of common work and, I venture to hope, personal friendship. This gives me the right to tell you in parting what faults I find in you.

I have never doubted that the way pointed out by you was the right way, and you know that I have been going the same way as you for more than twenty years, since the beginning of the "permanent revolution".

But I have always been of opinion that you lack the inflexibility and firmness of Lenin, that determination to stick to the path recognised as right, even if wholly isolated, trusting in a future majority and a future recognition of the entire rectitude of your way.

Politically you have always been right, ever since 1905. And I have repeatedly told you that I heard with my own ears how Lenin admitted that you and not he was right in 1905. In the face of death men do not lie; and I repeat the same again. But you have often renounced your own truth in favour of an agreement, a compromise which you over-estimated. That was a mistake. I repeat, politically you were right. And now more than ever. Once the Party will come to recognise this, and history will appreciate it as it deserves. Therefore fear nothing if many turn from you at present, and still less so if there are not many that turn to you now as quickly as we all wished. You are in the right. But the guarantee of the victory of your truth lies in a great firmness, in strict adherence to the line of action, in the repudiation of all compromise, just as this was always the secret of the victory of Lenin.

I have often wished to tell you this, but it is only now, in taking leave of you, that I could make up my mind to do so.

Still a few words of a personal character. I leave behind me a wife who is unused to independence, a small boy, and a sick daughter. I know you can do nothing for them at present, and from the present Party leaders I expect absolutely nothing in this regard. But I do not doubt that the moment is not so far distant when you will again resume the position in the Party which is yours by right. Do not then forget my wife and my children.

I wish you no smaller degree of energy, and courage than you have demonstrated up to the present, and a speedy victory. I embrace you. Farewell.

Your A. Joffe.
Moscow, November 16th, 1927

This letter I wrote in the night from the 15th to the 16th. To-day Maria Michailovna went to the Medical Commission, to ask for me to be sent abroad, if only for one or two months. She was again told that in the opinion of the specialists a sojourn abroad for a short time was altogether useless and that the Medical Commission of the Central Committee had determined to have me transported at once to the Kremlin hospital. Thus even a short journey abroad for my health was denied me; though at the same time my doctors themselves admitted that my treatment in Russia was senseless and could lead to no result.

My dear Leo Davidovitch, I greatly regret that I could not see you again. Not that I doubt the rightness of my resolution and hoped you might persuade me otherwise. No. I do not in the lent doubt that this is the most correct and most reasonable of all resolutions I could possibly arrive at. But I have some misgivings as to this letter of mine, for such a letter cannot but be subjective. And in view of such subjectivism the criterion of objectivity may be lost sight of. And any wrongly expressed phrase might distort the whole impression of the letter. Meanwhile I naturally hope you will make full use of this letter, since it is only thus that the step I am about to take can be efficacious.

I therefore not only give you complete authority to revise my letter, but also request you most urgently to omit from it anything that appears superfluous to you and to add anything you consider essential.

Forgive me, my dear friend. Be strong. You have still plenty of strength and energy at your disposal. And remember me without bitterness.

Note of the editor

1. The letter of A. Joffe was reproduced by the bourgeois and Social Democratic press of foreign countries partly in a mutilated and partly in a garbled form. We therefore publish below the full text of the letter and an article by Comrade Yaroslaysky, entitled "The Philosophy of Decadence" and dealing with the statements made in the letter.

Adolf Joffe Archive