Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

Vergeat, Lepetit and Lefebvre

IN SEPTEMBER last year three revolutionaries, three young Frenchmen, were drowned in the cold waters of the north en route from Russia to Norway: the civil war embraces the whole world and its tragic episodes unfold not only on dry land but on water too.

Over these years every one of us has lost many friends in battle. In all countries the number of such losses is huge and it continues to grow each day. And yet the death of Lefebvre, Lepetit and Vergeat stands out from the background of even our time by the exceptional nature of its setting and by its (if one is permitted to say it) tragic romanticism.

Of the three deceased comrades, so different one from the other and yet so fundamentally kindred, I knew Vergeat least. I had seen him only in Moscow, and fleetingly at that, and only once did I speak to him at great length. The charm of simplicity and honesty radiated from him. He had come to see with his own eyes, to find out and to fight. As far as appearances went Vergeat was not the enthusiast type. Despite his youth there could be sensed in him a calm confidence which looks about itself alertly, distinguishes the trivial from the important and the superficial from the fundamental and has no need of fervency in order to display a lofty courage at the decisive moment. The French proletariat needs such people.

I knew Lepetit back in my Paris days. A short stocky figure, an intelligent and distinctive face and an alert and suspicious expression marked him out at once. A metallic voice forced you to listen to him. This navvy had been made out of fine, fighting material! Lepetit, a vivid personality, at the same time embodied in himself the principal traits of the French and particularly the Paris proletariat. In him there lay the inborn revolutionary leader who awaited his hour to step forward. In France there have been and are a lot of talented workers who, having raised themselves up on the backs of the proletariat, became the upstarts of bourgeois parliamentarism or of lap-dog syndicalism and hand in hand with the lawyers and journalists betrayed the working class. Lepetit concentrated in himself the indignation of the deceived masses not only against the capitalist class but also against their numerous agents in the proletariat itself. Lepetit did not wish to take anything on trust. Though doubtless of an ardent inner nature he was reserved and distrustful. Too many times those whom he had represented had been deceived! He had arrived in the Soviet Republic with his stock of distrust, his sullen glance and a thirst to find out in order to act. He looked everything over two or three times, checked, once again asked a question and once again checked. Lepetit regarded himself as an anarchist. His anarchism had nothing in common with that drawing-room, priestly-intellectual, individualist claptrap which is so widespread in France. His anarchism was the expression, though theoretically incorrect, of a profound, genuinely proletarian indignation at the villainy of the capitalist world and at the baseness of those socialists and syndicalists who crawled on their knees before this world. But precisely because at the root of this anarchism there lay an indissoluble link with the masses and a readiness to fight to the end, Lepetit would have in the course of things, the course of the struggle, and the course of his own thought, inevitably arrived at the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Communist International had not the waves of the northern ocean swallowed him up on the way.

Lefebvre was an intellectual and, unless I am mistaken, came from a completely bourgeois family. He was the pure form of the revolutionary enthusiast. With him too I only became acquainted in Moscow during the Second Congress. But I observed him at close quarters as I was to work with him in the commission on Parliamentary activity. I recall incidentally how, at one of the Commission’s sessions, in a discussion with the Italian communist Bordiga, Lefebvre, after recognizing that in our era parliamentarism could not have a decisive significance, added, softly as always, and looking through his large horn-rimmed spectacles: “But all the same you can’t deny the benefit and pleasure derived from the opportunity of saying to Millerand in parliament, at only a metre’s distance from his face, ‘you are a scoundrel’.” Lefebvre always got agitated and worried during the congress that he would miss someone or something, would not manage to hear something or not say something necessary to someone. And he strove equally to absorb everything the congress could give him and at the same time to speak out his thoughts, hopes and expectations. Already on the second or third day of the congress I noticed Lefebvre in a Russian-style blouse. He strove by his external image to carry the stamp of his trust in Soviet Russia and his link with it. He did not seek verification like Lepetit. In the past he had belonged not to the class which was deceived but to that class which deceived. But he had broken from that class to the end. And he stood alongside Lepetit. True, Lepetit looked upon him a little suspiciously. But they would have come together a month sooner or later. They would have come together at the combat posts of the proletarian dictatorship had not the treacherous sea swallowed up the bark on which this threesome, Lefebvre, Lepetit and Vergeat attempted to cross the line of the imperialist blockade.

So different in origin and in personality, these three fighters will be for ever united together in the memory of the French and the international proletariat: in the end they took one and the same path to one and the same goal and perished at one and the same stage. We shall not forget them.

February 26, 1921

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Last updated on: 15.1.2007