For American readers a correlation of the events and personalities which are the subject matter of these pages will disclose in a clearer light the contribution which Trotzky makes to the secret history of the Russian revolutionary movement. It is worth while to remember that only a comparatively few men are or have been able to offer comprehensive contributions to that secret history, and one of them is Trotzky. From the nature of the steps taken in the period of agitation and plotting which preceded the overthrow of Czarism and the subsequent triumph of Bolshevism, concealment was all important, and the full purposes of the leaders were known only to a small inner circle.
Writers, speakers, plotters, shrinking into the shadows when the need of self-preservation came, moved like figures in a fog, onward toward a goal which, beyond the general purpose of uprooting the imperial régime, was still indeterminate. Their names were unknown, or scarcely known, or were changed on occasion to deceive the Czar’s secret police.
In this obscure background, what brought Lenin and Trotzky together in an association which meant so much? The author begins his book with a reminiscent account of their first meeting, which is intended to throw light primarily upon the character of Lenin, but which reveals his own aims and methods with a touch scarcely less intimate. These men, unknown to each other, markedly different in origin and early environment, had started by a common impulse along the same road and their paths happened to converge for the first time in 1902. Trotzky, born at Kherson in 1877, the son of a Jewish chemist named Bronstein, was expelled from school for the reason, it is said, that he desecrated an ikon, and he early developed irrepressible radical tendencies. At the age of 22 years he joined in a revolutionary plot at Odessa and was banished to Siberia, but escaped at the end of three years with his ardor unchilled by his stay in the frozen region of the Lena.
While in exile he read with avidity smuggled copies of Iskra (The Spark), a journal published under Lenin's direction, with its companion “theoretical” magazine, Saria (Dawn), circulated from London and Geneva. After his escape he worked secretly in Russia for a short time, eluding the carefully spread net of the police, forming circles for aiding the subversive propaganda of Iskra. In the autumn of 1902 he went to London, where he obtained a coveted place on the staff of that paper after a preliminary quizzing by the mysterious chief of the organization.
Trotzky, then but an eager fledgling in the revolutionary cause, discloses something of the awe with which he looked upon Lenin, who had already written The Development of Capitalism in Russia and was in the prime of his powers. Lenin (Vladimir Ilyitch Ulyanov) had the advantages that came from a fuller educational and social background. His father was a school superintendent at Simbirsk, where he was born, and had the bourgeois title of State Councilor. The son was reared in the Orthodox Church, studied at the Universities of Kazan and St. Petersburg, and prepared himself to become a lawyer, but his radical inclinations drew him away from that career. His brother was hanged in 1887 for taking part in a plot to murder Alexander III.
In 1895 Lenin organized a “Union for the Liberation of the Working Class” and was promptly exiled. After his term in Siberia had expired, he went abroad, embittered and resolute, to devote himself to leadership in behalf of revolution. He was absent from Russia almost continuously from that time until a month after the spring revolt in 1917 spread before him the vision which he had cherished in years of penury and wandering.
The staff of Iskra was near a break-up when Trotzky joined it. He had been associated with Lenin less than a year when the factions in the Russian Socialist Party, ever ready for controversy, girded themselves for the “split of 1903.” The party’s Congress held in Switzerland in that year definitely separated into Bolsheviki and Mensheviki, and Trotzky could bring himself at first to espouse neither side. He was for steering a middle course and formed a small party of his own, which took him away from Lenin, who considered his course opportunistic.
The revolution of 1905 brought them together again, but only for a short time. During that outbreak, the forerunner of the convulsion of 1917, Lenin edited a radical paper in St. Petersburg. Trotzky was president of the Council of Workmen in the same city and was exiled again, this time for life. He escaped in six months and abandoned his name of Bronstein, taking that of a guard named Trotzky. Fleeing abroad, he agitated in France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, writing constantly for radical papers.
Lenin, apart from Trotzky, pursued the fixed course which he had set for himself, never giving up his belief that an overturn which would facilitate his purposes was at hand. He had full confidence in his own methods and was mistrustful of men whom he suspected of a timidity which he regarded as fatal to the revolutionary cause.
At the outbreak of the World War in 1914, Lenin was in Galicia, where he had found a convenient base for fomenting discontent in Russia. He was arrested but released, and transferred his operations to Switzerland, where he continued them until 1917.
Trotzky, who was the editor of a Jewish newspaper in Berlin in 1914, was banished from Germany as a “dangerous anarchist.” He took refuge first in Vienna and then in Zurich and Paris. Expelled from France, jailed in Spain, he decided to sail for the United States, and in New York began a new career along the old lines, writing for Jewish and Russian papers and speaking at meetings of radicals. He had often tasted poverty and in the Bronx, where he lived with his wife and two sons, he was reduced to such straits that only with the help of friends was he able to sustain his family.
Then came the amazing transformation of 1917. The impoverished exile of the Bronx, writing ceaselessly and fiercely against the war, became in less than two years the negotiator of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which took Russia out of the war. He sailed from New York March 27, 1917, after about a year in America, and, though detained by the British at Halifax, he was released at the intercession of the Kerensky government, and contrived finally to reach Russia.
Meanwhile, with little loss of time, Lenin had been whirled across Germany from Switzerland with the consent of the Kaiser’s general staff, which he was willing to use (as he explained fully later) in the pursuit of his object, and in Petrograd fate again brought him in contact with the one-time neophyte of Iskra. Here was the culmination and blending of their careers. Now they were in full agreement. The ambitions dimly sensed in years of hiding, hoping, striving, came to fruition. Once more, as in their life in London, they were collaborators, but now in the realm of deeds rather than of words.
Yet for both it was allotted to taste the bitterness as well as the sweetness of the fruit for which during all those years they had been reaching. Bullets fired by Dora Kaplan, a revolutionist whom the extreme measures of the Bolsheviki had roused to fury, brought Lenin to depths of pain and weakness at the perihelion of his power. Although he recovered temporarily, the shock robbed him of some of his physical resistance and made him prey to the disease which cost his life. In the high tide of Communist experimentation which he had so ardently desired, he was forced to admit that he had gone too fast and compelled to sound his “economic retreat” – a concession to the institutions of capitalism which was defended as a measure of expediency in the shadow of famine and industrial paralysis.
When he died, and received posthumous honors as the titular leader and visible embodiment of the Communist creed, the ends for which he had striven, to bring Russia into a prosperous condition under the régime of the proletariat, and to act as leaders in a worldwide revolution, were still far short of fulfillment.
Trotzky was left, the second of the duumvirate of defiant iconoclasm and resistance to the forces of “bourgeois” society, the war minister of Soviet Russia, the man of action in a régime of theory. Was the personal tragedy of Lenin only for Lenin and was his fiery, restless associate to be spared to enjoy triumph alone? Were pæans of Communist gratitude bestowed upon Lenin dead to be continued for Trotzky living?
Only a few months passed after Lenin’s death before Trotzky, whose hand was supposed to be powerful enough to call millions in arms to assist him, felt the subtle entanglements of the intrigue and rivalry which are the inevitable accompaniments of a change of order. His prestige fell away from him and at last, deposed from office as war minister, no weapon was left to him more deadly than his pen with which to combat the multitude of enemies around him.
Trotzky may have written too much, if only his personal fortunes be considered, but not too much for history. His estimate of Lenin now given reveals frankly the course of their relations in some of the most significant periods of the Communist struggle for the remaking of Russia – indeed, for the remaking of the fabric of the civilized world of which they had both dreamed in the exuberance of a zeal which set no limit to hopes.
Beginning with their days together as writers for the old Iskra, he gives a picture of the shrewd, cautious, thoughtful Lenin, gentle in many of his personal relations, jocular at times, but sternly impatient of opposition, bent upon the attainment of his ends at any cost, even at the cost of blood. Vera Ivanovna Sasulich, one of the band in London, said to Lenin: “George (Plechanof) is a greyhound. He shakes and shakes his adversary and lets him go, but you arE a bulldog; you have a deadly bite.” Lenin liked this view of himself. He showed (on a “small scale” then) the “persistent, stubborn directness of purpose, that made use of all circumstances, stopped at no formality and was the characteristic of Lenin as a leader.” Lenin was the “political guide” of Iskra. He “forced himself into tomorrow in his thoughts,” and, of the group in London “he alone,” Trotzky writes, “represented the coming day.”
This was the younger Lenin, his traits, his intellectual scope, already marked clearly. Trotzky enlarges upon the development of these traits in Petrograd in the fateful days of October, 1917, and afterward. Lenin was for seizing power without equivocation. “Nothing was so repugnant” to him as “the slightest suspicion of sentimentality.” Yet he was impatient of hasty, ill-prepared steps, and admitted that blunders were made in the Bolshevist tactics.
He disagreed with some of his colleagues and Trotzky does not hesitate to set down these disagreements, the revelation of which has been the principal cause of the war minister’s fall. In Trotzky’s opinion, Lenin “overestimated the sagacity and resolution of the enemy” When at last power was in their hands, Lenin turned to international revolutionary action. Always he was for warfare on the existing order.
As Trotzky writes, in a style characteristically fervid, his recollections and impressions of Lenin, they thus cover four stages: first, the period of preparation for the revolution when the elements of discontent in Russia, to which the war with Japan and the World War gave unexpected growth, were nursed into proportions as truly national as anything in Russia can be; second, the time when the Bolshevist program for seizing power was being formulated and executed; third, the era of Boishevist supremacy, with its disclosure of mistakes in the estimation of eventualities, especially the mistake of counting upon a worldwide revolution; and fourth, the period of the passing of Lenin, with the view of his rôle as it appears in the long perspective to his chief lieutenant.
Trotzky may be questioned as to facts; his conclusions may be assailed; but there is no doubt of the value of his testimony as to the manner of man who dominated Russia during the first years when the repressive force of Czarism was removed from the organic structure of that strange political patchwork which until March, 1917, was called the Russian Empire.
Last updated on: 20.1.2007