Leon Trotsky


Lenin on the Platform

AFTER the October revolution photographers and cinema-operators took Lenin more than once. His voice is recorded on phonograph discs. His speeches were reported and printed. Thus all the elements of Vladimir Ilyich are in existence. But only the elements. The living personality consists in their inimitable and steadily dynamic combination.

When I try mentally with fresh eye and fresh ear to see and hear Lenin on the platform, as I did the first time, I see a strong and supple figure of medium height, and hear a smooth, rapid, uninterrupted voice, rather striking, almost without pauses, and at first without special emphasis.

The first sentences are usually general, the tone is a test one, the whole figure has not yet found its balance, the gestures are incomplete. The gaze is turned inward; the face is sullen and even vexed. His mind is seeking an approach to the audience. This introductory period lasts a long or short time according to the audience, the theme, and the mood of the speaker. But all at once he reaches the kernel of the matter. The theme becomes clear. The speaker bends the upper part of his body, and sticks his middle finger in the edge of his vest. As a result of this double movement his head and hands stand out. The head in itself does not seem large on the small but sturdy body, well formed and rhythmical. But his brow and the bare, arched forehead are powerful. His arms are very active but without exaggeration and nervousness. The hand is broad, short-fingered, “plebeian,” strong. It has the same traits of confidence and virile good nature as the whole figure. One sees that best when the speaker is stirred on feeling an opponent’s strategem, or has successfully set a trap for him. Then Lenin’s eyes look forth from their deep-set sockets as they are represented significantly in an excellent photograph taken in 1919. Even the indifferent listener is startled when he catches this look and waits to see what will happen. The edges of his cheek bones glow and soften in these moments of intense mental concentration, back of which one detects keen knowledge of people, relations, and situations. The lower part of the face with its reddish gray beard is almost in shadow. The voice loses its hardness, becomes flexible and soft, and in many moments astutely insinuating.

But now the speaker introduces an adversary’s possible objection or a malicious quotation from an enemy’s article. Before he states the hostile idea he makes it clear that the objection is unfounded, superficial, Or false. He takes his fingers from his vest, throws his body back gently, and takes a few steps backward as though to clear a space for the attack, shrugs his sturdy shoulders half ironically, half in pretended despair, and stretches his hands with his fingers wide spread. Condemnation, ridicule, or confusion of his adversary, according to the adversary and the event – always precede his refutation. The listener knows in advance, as it were, what proofs to expect and what tone his mental attitude will assume. Then begins his logical attack. The left hand is either thrust into his vest anew, or more often in his trousers pocket; the right accompanies the logic of his thought and gives it its rhythm. Where it is necessary the left helps. The speaker leans toward his audience, goes to the edge of the platform, bends forward and elaborates with rounded motions his own word material. That means that he has reached the central thought, the main point of the whole speech.

If there are adversaries in the audience, critical or hostile cries arise from time to time. In nine out of ten cases they are unanswered. The speaker says what he considers necessary, he speaks to those for whom what is said is necessary, and says it as he considers it necessary. He does not like to be interrupted by casual objections. Adroit readiness to fight does not suit his concentration. After hostile objections his voice becomes harder, his speech more compact and impressive, his train of thought sharper, his gestures harsher. He only notices a hostile call in case this responds to the general course of his thoughts and helps him to come to the necessary conclusion more quickly. But then his answers are apt to be quite unexpected in their deadly simplicity. He reveals the situation unmercifully exactly where they had expected that he would veil it. The Mensheviki had that experience more than once in the early periods of the revolution when the accusations of the harm to democracy had all their freshness.

“Our newspapers are shut down.”

“Naturally! But unfortunately not yet all. Soon they will be shut down entirely.” (Stormy applause) “The dictatorship of the proletariat will put a complete end to this disgraceful sale of bourgeois opium.” (Stormy applause)

The speaker draws himself up. Both hands are in his pockets. Here is not a trace of pose, the voice shows no rhetorical modulation, the whole figure, the position of his head with his lips pressed together, the cheek bones, and the slightly hoarse tone of his voice, express firm confidence in his justice and truth. “If you wish to strike, well, we will take good care of it.”

When the speaker attacks some one of his own people and not an enemy, one detects it in both his bearing and tone. Even the most violent attacks will in the main only bring one “to reason.” Now and then the speaker’s voice breaks on a high note; that happens when, in his zeal, he convinces one of his own people, disconcerts him, and proves that the opponent of this question had given it no thought and that the grounds for his objections were futile. While making these protestations his voice occasionally reaches the falsetto and breaks off, by which even the most angry tirade assumes a tinge of good nature.

The speaker has thought out his whole train of thought to the end, to the last practical result, but only the train, not the presentation and form, with the exception at the most of some particularly terse, pertinent, forcible expressions and catch phrases which then become the “loose change” of the political life of the party and the country. The phraseology is generally unpliant, one phrase above another or inverted and joined to another. Such a construction is a heavy affliction for stenographers, and later for the editors. But through these unpliant sentences the intense powerful thought forces its way.

But is the speaker really a Marxist of broad training, a theoretician of administration, and a man of enormous learning? Does it not seem, at least at some moments, as though an extraordinary auto-dictator were speaking, one who had reached all these results by his own thinking, who had first created it all in his own brain, in his own way, without scientific apparatus, without scientific terminology, and who now presents it in his way? What is the reason for this? Because the speaker has pondered over his thought not for himself alone, but also for the mass, has filtered his train of thought in their experience, in order to free his statement from all the theoretical tools he himself had used when he first took up the question.

Now and then, moreover, the speaker raises the ladder of his thoughts too hastily and jumps up two or three steps at once; this is the case if the conclusion seems to him very clear and practically close at hand, and he wants to bring his hearers to it as quickly as possible. But he detects at once that the audience is not with him, that the connection with his hearers is broken off. Then he constrains himself at once, springs down at one bound and begins the ascent anew, but with a calm and more moderate step. Even his voice is different, freed from all superfluous effort, therefore with the compelling force of conviction. The construction of his speech naturally suffers from this backward leap. But is the speech made for its construction? Is any other logic of value in a speech but that which compels to action?

And when the speaker has reached his conclusion the second time and takes his bearers with him without exception, one detects in the hail the grateful pleasure that comes from the satisfied exertion of collective thinking. Now it only remains to nail the conclusion two or three times so that it holds well, and to give it a simple, clear, and picturesque expression so that it may more easily be impressed on the memory, and then one can give oneself and the others a breathing space, can joke and laugh, so that during this time the collective thinking can better absorb its new acquisition.

Lenin’s oratorical humor was as simple as his other artifices, if one can speak of artifices at all here. There are no self-satisfied attempts to be witty, nor even puns, in Lenin’s speeches. But energetic joking, intelligible to the masses, popular in the true sense of the word. If the political situation is not too alarming, if the majority of the listeners are “his own,” then the speaker is not above making a joke. The audience accepts gratefully the crafty, naïve, witty remark, a good-natured, merciless characterization, because it sees that here it is not merely a question of fine words but that there is something back of it, that all serves for one and the same goal.

When the speaker makes a joke, the lower part of his face projects more strongly, especially the mouth, which can laugh contagiously. The lines of his forehead and head grow softer, the eyes no longer glitter, but beam cheerfully, the strain of his bold mind is relieved by happiness and friendliness.

The leading feature in Lenin’s speeches, as in his whole work, is his directness of purpose. He does not build up his speech but guides it to a definite, substantial conclusion. He approaches his listeners in different ways: he explains, convinces, disconcerts, jokes, convinces again, and explains again. What holds his speech together is not a formal plan, but a clear aim formed for today, that pierces the consciousness of his listeners like a splinter. His humor, too, is subordinated to that. His joking is utilitarian. A drastic catch phrase has its practical significance: some it incites, others it curbs. Hence come dozens of winged words, that have long been common property of the country. [1] However, before the speaker uses such a catch phrase, he describes some curves, in order to find just the right point. When he has found it, he applies his nail, measures it with his eye, strikes a mighty blow with his hammer on the head of the nail, once, twice, ten times, until the nail is firm, so that it could be very hard to draw it out if it were no longer needed. Then Lenin again strikes the nail with a witty remark from left and right to loosen it, until he has drawn it out and thrown it in the old iron of the archives – to the great sorrow of all who had become accustomed to the nail.

And now the speech approaches its end. The separate points are established, the conclusions firmly drawn. The speaker looks like an exhausted workman who has finished his work. From time to time he passes his hand over his bald head with its drops of perspiration. His voice has sunk as a camp fire dies away. He is about to close. But one looks in vain for an ascending finale to crown the speech and without which ostensibly one cannot leave the platform. Others cannot, but Lenin can. There is no rhetorical winding up with him: he finishes the work and makes a point. “If we understand this, if we act thus, then we shall surely conquer” is a not unusual concluding sentence. Or: “One must strive for that, not in words, but in deeds.” Or now and then more simple: “that is all that I wanted to say to you,” nothing more. And this conclusion, which entirely corresponds to the nature of Lenin’s eloquence and the nature of Lenin himself, by no means cools his audience. On the contrary, after just such a conclusion, “without effect,” “pale,” the listeners grasp once more, as if with a single blaze of consciousness, all that Lenin had given them in his speech, and the audience breaks out into stormy, grateful, enthusiastic applause.

But Lenin has already gathered up his papers and quickly leaves the speaker’s desk in order to escape the inevitable. His bead drawn to his shoulders, his chin down, his eyes concealed by his brows, his mustache bristles angrily on the upper lip puckered in annoyance. The roaring hand-clapping grows, and hurls wave upon wave.

“Long live ... Lenin ... Leader ... Ilyich There in the glare of the electric lights the unique head stands Out, surrounded on all sides by enormous waves of enthusiasm. And when it seems that the storm has reached its height, all at once, through the confusion, tumult and clapping, like a siren in a storm, a youthful voice, strained and enthusiastic, calls out: “Long live Ilyich!” And from the inmost quivering depths of solidarity, love and enthusiasm, rises the general cry, making the arches ring, “Long live Lenin !”


1. Trotzky introduces here a number of Lenin’s word coinages that can scarcely be translated. Such as: “Peredychka,” the pauses in breathing assigned as a cause in signing the peace of Brest; “Smytchka,” the union of state and land; ‘Komtschvantavo,’ the conceitedness of individual communists, etc. – Translator

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Last updated on: 14.4.2007