Ernest Mandel

Trotsky in Exile


Programme notes for the London run of Peter Weiss’s play Trotsky in Exile. [1]
From the website of Socialist Action, Canada.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Trotsky in Exile deals with the fate of a revolutionary. This individual’s fate is inseparably linked to the historical destiny of the revolutionary in the 20th Century. The real theme of Trotsky in Exile is the forty-odd years of contemporary socialist revolution, just as the theme of Marat-Sade concerns the bourgeois revolution.

The main personae of the play are the Russian revolutionaries, and at their head Lenin and Trotsky. Their great antagonist, Stalin, hardly appears on the stage, but his dark shadow falls across a considerable part of the play. The Russian revolution is inseparably connected with the international revolution. So side by side with the Russian revolutionaries there appear foreign comrades-in-arms and other contemporaries from many countries. The action moves from Moscow to Siberia, from London to Brussels, from Petrograd to Paris, from Turkey to Zurich, from Grenoble to Norway, until it finally ends with the assassination in Cocoyan, a suburb of Mexico City.

This rapid change in the location of the action underlines both the personal fate of the revolutionary and the international character of the contemporary revolution. Lenin, Trotsky and most of their comrades spent part of their lives in exile, and if the play is titled Trotsky in Exile, it in fact embraces three banishments and three exiles of the young, the mature and the old revolutionary.

The first banishment and the first exile take Trotsky to Siberia and then to London, while he was still the little-known journalist writing under the pseudonym “the pen”. The second banishment and exile again led to Siberia and thence to western and middle Europe, this time as the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet and the creator of the Theory of Permanent Revolution. The third banishment to Siberia and the third exile take the creator of the Red Army via Alma-Ata and Prinkipo in Turkey to France, Norway and Mexico. One country after another refuses him admission: as he recounts in his autobiography, his life is now restricted to a “planet without visa”.

In the same manner as the action moves from location to location, the playwright makes much use of the technique of flash-back. From the initial moment of the action, December 1907, we are taken back to the year 1900; then follow scenes from the years 1902, 1903, 1905, 1906 and 1907. A short scene from the third emigration in Alma-Ata in the years 1928 is immediately followed by a flash-back to the years 1915 and 1917. A scene in Prinkipo in the year 1929 takes one back to the Kronstadt rising of 1921, to Lenin’s death in 1924, and finally jumps over to Trotsky’s exile in France, during 1934. At the end of the play we live through the nightmare of the Moscow trials from 1936 to 1938, and a pointed sketch of Trotsky’s life in Mexico and his murder in 1940.

By fading the present into the past the author endeavours to bring into closest relationship the flow of contemporary events with memories and historical introspection into success and failure. The historical drama of the revolution in our century similarly combines the result of theoretical controversies, often obscure to many contemporaries, with the sudden activity of masses in their millions. At the same time this method allows a particularly plastic presentation of the unity of thought and action so characteristic of the great Russian revolutionaries, even though, or perhaps just because, their personal fates all have such tragic ends.

Nevertheless, Trotsky in Exile is not a pessimistic play. Most of the chief dramatic personae suffer violent death, but surely not because they stand under any sign of historical fate or even because of personal inadequacy. The problems with which they grappled were and remain the chief and central problems of our epoch: whether and how it is possible to build a more humane, that is socialist and classless society, on the basis of an ever more effective technology.

The author makes Trotsky the spokesman of his own indestructible faith in human reason, the solidarity and the future of humanity. This massage becomes all the more impressive from an elderly and persecuted person, in the constant presence of death and apparently totally immobilised.

The lives of the old revolutionaries were dominated not by power or the will to power, not by the maxim “the end justifies the means” nor by cynicism or cold blooded renunciation of their own ideals, but by certitude in the validity of Marx’s analysis of the law of motion of societal formations and faithful allegiance to the class of wage labourers and working men. Only by grasping this simultaneously scientific and humanistic root of their actions can we learn to understand the ability of this small group of illegal revolutionaries to transform themselves into the leadership of a world party counting millions, the founders of the second industrial power in the world and archetypes of idealists who continue to inspire devotion and love in hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the entire world.

Even so, Trotsky in Exile by no means idealises the principal actors of this historical drama, nor their absent antagonist. The precise evolution of the Russian and the international revolution could not be foreseen around the beginning of the century by any intellect, however inspired, nor could such an intellect achieve a clear premonition of its own fate.

The theoretical controversies, which initiate the play – concerning the role of the peasant, the proletariat, the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie in the coming Russian revolution, the precise, future form of government and society, the organisations of revolutionaries most appropriate to a rapid success – all find at most a contradictory, incomplete or provisional validation in the actual course of history.

It was Trotsky’s prognosis that precisely backward Russia would present the world with the first example of proletarian dictatorship; but in the years 1905/1906 he could not anticipate how an unexpected isolation would bring this dictatorship to bureaucratic degeneration. Lenin was the first to recognise the imperative necessity of separate organisation of the proletarian vanguard in a revolutionary party in order to prevent the submersion of proletarian class-consciousness in the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois milieux. During his entire fight for the Bolshevik party in the first fifteen years of the century, Lenin could hardly anticipate the transformation of this same party, under unfavourable social and international conditions, into an instrument of conservative, highly remunerated party and state officials who exclude the workers from any exercise of power.

Trotsky in Exile is therefore a drama of the power and impotence of analytical reason. The play shows how an advanced historical prognosis, in confluence with a social force in a period of revolutionary high tide, can lift the world off its hinges. It shows simultaneously how even the sharpest intellect is impotent to deflect its impending fate, when isolated from broader social forces in periods of revolutionary ebb.

Emphatically underlining Marx’s thesis that, in the last instance social classes and nameless masses of people, and not great individuals and heroes, determine the flux of history, the author has inserted, at decisive moments in the action, anonymous multitudes of workers, soldiers, sailors and students. Sceptical in times of revolutionary languor, these masses press forward in stormy fashion at times of revolutionary ascent, as during the revolutionary mass scenes of 1905 and 1917. At other times the masses again decline into doubt and passivity, particularly oppressive in the scenes around the death of Lenin and the Moscow trials. In the discussions between Trotsky in his French exile and international student delegations the playwright has quite consciously anticipated later – very contemporary – questions, in order to underline the actuality and problematic in Trotsky’s views.

The characters in the play are almost all historical. As a convinced Marxist, the playwright sees in them the incorporation of societal forces and social theories – for only in virtue of such were they able to play their actual roles in the history of the 20th century. But these historical characters are not only or purely “typical” representatives of social classes and political tendencies, but simultaneously are living people with passion, human frailty and human greatness. The play brings to life again the entire personality of Trotsky, as that of Lenin and of some other comrades in arms, and not only that of a great revolutionary and advanced thinker, but of a lover, a father, a head of family who is deeply affected by the extermination of his next of kin; the personality indeed also of a man who is afflicted by doubt in the way forward at decisive moments, and later that of an older hypochondriac. The historical significance of a figure like Trotsky cannot be given currency in a realistic, historical and dramatic treatment by a prudish veil over his weaknesses; it is precisely against the background of the total personality with its unavoidable, human deficiencies that the greatness of the theoretician and practitioner of permanent revolution becomes really impressive.

Still, Trotsky in Exile is not a “trotskyist” play. Trotsky’s main endeavour in the last decade of his life, the attempt of the construction of a new revolutionary organisation, in Russia and a world scale, is hardly given expression. Hero worship, uncritical apology or black and white tincture are equally foreign to the playwright. His endeavour is to sketch the historical truth and to do justice to a historical character. This justice and this truth are ones which the mighty of the world have tried to suppress for twenty and more years – as we now see, without success – have extirpated from the pages of histories or only allowed into the light of day in an extremely distorted version. The fight for historical truth cannot be a fight against socialism, for socialism, the truth of our century, has no need of crutches built on lies.



1. Peter Weiss’s play, Trotsky in Exile, examines the Russian Revolution and rehabilitates men and ideas submerged by official history. It has been out of print for a long time, though it might be found at libraries or in used bookstores. We reprint Ernest Mandel’s programme notes which were supplied at the opening of the play in London.

Last updated on 7 August 2020