William F. Warde

The Living Trotsky

(Winter 1964)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.1, Winter 1964, pp.28-29.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Trotsky Vivant
by Pierre Naville
Juillard, Paris, 1962. 198 pp. 10.20 NF.

This is an informative and perceptive volume of reminiscences about Trotsky. Naville was one of the earliest and youngest recruits of the Communist Left Opposition in France who participated in the leadership of the Trotskyist movement there until shortly before the Second World War. He has since acquired merited reputation as one of the most qualified Marxist scholars in France, best known for his studies of the sociology and psychology of labor.

Naville tells of his experiences and discussions with Trotsky in Moscow, Prinkipo, Paris, Copenhagen and other places from 1927 to 1940. He first met Trotsky at Moscow in November 1927 on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution when the internal conflict between the Stalin-Bukharin majority and the combined Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev bloc had reached the breaking point.

Naville saw Trotsky at the office of the Committee on Concessions the day after he had been expelled from the Russian CP. He was to lose that post a few days later. Their conversation revolved around the perspectives of the work of the Opposition. Trotsky urged the young French revolutionist to publicize the platform of the Communist Opposition abroad, arm himself and his co-thinkers for a prolonged struggle, prepare themselves for sudden turns, not to lose hope in the party but never to place affiliation above faithfulness to principles.

Naville brings out the extraordinary drama of that tense turning point in Soviet history. There he observed the leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s closest colleagues, the organizer and commanders of the Red Army, the foremost figures of Soviet diplomacy and economic reconstruction as they were cast out of the Bolshevik party. They faced the necessity, a decade after the 1917 victory, of coping with the degeneration of the first workers’ state. This compelled them to think through all the problems afresh, and work out new positions and perspectives under unprecedented difficulties. And there was Naville, an inexperienced young man, called upon to shoulder the responsibilities of contending against the authority of the Kremlin soon after he had joined the Communist movement.

Trotsky’s expulsion from the party had not changed either his determination or his outlook one iota, comments Naville. What impressed him in this first contact was that, although Trotsky lived in the USSR, he did not cease thinking and acting as though the whole world was his province. He paid as much attention to the preparatory stirrings of revolution in other parts of the globe as to the economic and political development of the Soviet Union.

“Socialism had not become for him merely a state policy, and still less that of an isolated state. His questions unceasingly directed us to the only point that was decisive in his eyes: how are things going with you? What’s happening in France? What can we expect from the European workers? What is determining the development of the British or American workers? He expected only one kind of effective aid for the Russian Left Opposition: that of the international revolution.”

His stay in Moscow coincided with the 15th Congress of the Russian CP. Naville, as a member of the French delegation, met with the Central Committee of the Party to hear a report by Bukharin condemning the Opposition. He attended the funeral of A.A. Joffe, the opposition leader who committed suicide in protest against his mistreatment by the regime. He talked with the workers in the factories; met a sympathetic reception from the poet Mayakovsky; conferred with many of the opposition leaders; and attended their meetings which had to be held secretly in apartments and out in the woods.

Naville describes the cynical scepticism of Radek and the melancholy of Zinoviev which foreshadowed their subsequent capitulations to Stalin. In the room of Preobrazhensky, the Soviet economist, he again encountered the amiable and intelligent Rakovsky, who was, next to Trotsky, the ablest opponent of the bureaucracy. Until some weeks before, Rakovsky had been Soviet Ambassador to France and was instrumental in getting Naville to the Congress against the wishes of the secretariat of the French CP.

The ex-diplomat wore a Russian blouse with a good-looking Western jacket which stood out amid the bareness of the small room. Rakovsky smilingly told them this was the sole relic of his ambassadorship. Upon returning it was the government’s custom to take from the envoys everything they had acquired during their service except their clothes.

“I would have preferred a room,” Rakovsky said, “but they expelled me from the Soviet Foreign Trade Commission with a jacket. The French chucked me out of Paris for having signed a declaration of the Opposition. Stalin chucked me out of the Trade Commission for having signed the same declaration. But, in both cases, they left me my jacket.”

Two years later Naville in Paris received lengthy documents from the exiled Rakovsky on the transformations in the Soviet power written on tiny cards. These made the passage in the lining of a fur coat. “That was also in a way a diplomatic pouch ...”

* * *

One of the most rewarding segments of these memoirs takes up the problem of the relation between individuals and their environment in connection with the decline of the Russian Revolution.

“More than one biographer and historian of the Russian Revolution, dealing with this subject, has been satisfied with attributing the continued defeat of Trotsky in the USSR after 1923 to his ‘errors,’ refusing to understand the kind of deliberate sacrifice he made of the present for the future, if not his personal future, at least that of a new generation,” remarks Naville. “If he had died, as Lenin did, at the moment when a conservative period in the Russian Revolution was emerging, coinciding with successive setbacks of the socialist revolution in Europe, doubtless the historians would have ascribed the decline of Bolshevism after 1923-1925 to this double disappearance. But since he lived and carried on the struggle – in conditions of an implacable reaction, unprecedented in working class history – without success coming to crown it, the historians, fascinated by the accomplished fact, heap it all upon him under the artificial argument of his errors and shortcomings.”

Trotsky replied to such superficial critics on many occasions. But never so profoundly as in a letter written in 1938 which is cited by Naville. Since, to my knowledge, it has never before appeared in English, the passage he quotes is worth giving in full. Here is what Trotsky wrote on this controversial issue.

“I have come to the necessity of clarifying a theoretical question which also has a great political importance. It essentially involves the relation between the political or historical personality and the ‘milieu.’ To go straight to the heart of the problem, I would like to mention Souvarine’s book on Stalin, where the author accuses the heads of the Left Opposition, myself included, of various errors, omissions, blunders, etc., beginning with 1923.

“I do not at all wish to deny that there were not many mistakes, unskillful acts, and even stupidities. Nevertheless, what is important, from the theoretical as well as the political viewpoint, is the relation, or rather the disproportion between these ‘errors’ and their consequences. It is precisely in this disproportion that the reactionary character of the new historical stage expressed itself.

“We made not a few mistakes in 1917 and in the following years. But the sweep of the revolution filled up these gaps and repaired the errors, often with our aid, sometimes even without our direct participation. But for this period the historians, including Souvarine, are indulgent because the struggle ended in victory. During the second half of 1917 and the following years, it was the turn of the liberals and Mensheviks to commit errors, omissions, blunders, etc.

“I would like to illustrate this historical ‘law’ once again with the example of the great French revolution where, thanks to the remoteness in time, the relations between the actors and their milieus appear much more clear-cut and crystallized.

“At a certain moment in the revolution the Girondin leaders entirely lost their sense of direction. Despite their popularity, their intelligence, they could commit nothing but errors and inept acts. They seemed to participate actively in their own downfall. Later it was the turn of Danton and his friends. Historians and biographers never stop wondering at the confused, passive and puerile attitude of Danton in the last months of his life. The same thing for Robespierre and his associates: disorientation, passivity and incoherence at the most critical moment.

“The explanation is obvious. Each of these groupings had at a given moment exhausted its political possibilities and could no longer move forward against the overpowering reality: internal economic conditions, international pressure, the new currents which these generated among the masses, etc. In these conditions, each step began to produce results contrary to those that were hoped for.

“But political abstention was hardly more favorable. The stages of the revolution and counter-revolution succeeded one another at an accelerated pace, the contradictions between the protagonists of a certain program and the changed situation acquired an unexpected and extremely acute character. That gives the historian the possibility of displaying his retrospective wisdom by enumerating and cataloguing the mistakes, omissions, ineptness. But, unfortunately, these historians abstain from indicating the right road which would have been able to lead a moderate to victory in a period of revolutionary upswing, or on the contrary to indicate a reasonable and triumphant revolutionary policy in a thermidorean period.”


Last updated on: 11.2.2006