Leon Trotsky

My Life


I arrived in London from Zurich by way of Paris, in the autumn of 1902. I think it was in October, early in the morning, when a cab, engaged after I had resorted to all sorts of pantomime, drove me to the address written on a slip of paper. My destination was Lenin’s house. I had been instructed before I left Zurich to knock on the door three times. The door was opened by Nadyezhda Konstantinovna, who had probably been wakened by my knocking. It was early, and any one used to civilized ways would have waited quietly at the station for an hour or two, instead of knocking at the door of a strange house at such an unearthly hour. But I was still impelled by the force that had set me off on my journey from Verkholensk. I had disturbed Axelrod in Zurich in the same barbarous way, although that was in the middle of the night, instead of at dawn. Lenin was still in bed, and the kindly expression of his face was tinged with a justifiable amazement. Such was the setting for our first meeting and conversation. Both Vladimir Ilyich [1] and Nadyezhda Konstantinovna already knew of me from Kler’s letter, and had been waiting for me.

I was greeted with: “The Pero has arrived!” At once I unloaded my modest list of impressions of Russia: the connections in the South are bad, the secret Iskra address in Kharkov is wrong, the editors of the Southern Worker oppose amalgamation, the crossing at the Austrian frontier is in the hands of a student at the gymnasium who refuses help to followers of the Iskra. The facts in themselves were not of a sort to fill one with much hope, but there was faith enough to make up for it, and to spare.

Either the same or the next morning, Vladimir Ilyich and I went for a long walk around London. From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but what he con veyed was: “This is their famous Westminster,” and “their” referred of course not to the English but to the ruling classes. This implication, which was not in the least emphasized, but coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man, and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum, of the information of the larger European newspapers, or, years later, of German artillery or French aviation. They know this or they have that, they have made this or achieved that – but what enemies they are! To his eyes, the invisible shadow of the ruling classes always overlay the whole of human culture – a shadow that was as real to him as daylight.

The architecture of London scarcely attracted my attention at that time. Transferred bodily from Verkholensk to countries beyond the Russian border which I was seeing for the first time, I absorbed Vienna, Paris and London in a most summary fashion, and details like the Westminster Palace seemed quite superfluous. It wasn’t for that, of course, that Lenin had taken me out for this long walk. His object was to become acquainted with me, and to question me. His examination, it must be admitted, was very thorough indeed.

I told him all about our Siberian discussions, especially on the question of a centralized organization; about my essay on the subject; about the violent encounters I had had with the old Populists in Irkutsk, where I had stayed for a few weeks; about the three essays by Makhaysky, and so forth. Lenin knew how to listen.

“And how did you fare in questions of theory?”

I told him how we, as a group, had studied his book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in the transfer-prison in Moscow, and how in exile we had worked on Marx’s Capital, but had stopped at the second volume. We had studied the controversy between Bernstein and Kautsky intently, using the original sources. There were no followers of Bernstein among us. In philosophy, we had been much impressed by Bogdanov’s book, which combined Marxism with the theory of knowledge put forward by Mach and Avenarius. Lenin also thought, at the time, that Bogdanov’s theories were right. “I am not a philosopher,” he said, with a slightly timorous expression, “but Plekhanov denounces Bogdanov’s philosophy as a disguised sort of idealism.” A few years later, Lenin dedicated a big volume to the discussion of Mach and Avenarius; his criticism of their theories was fundamentally identical with that voiced by Plekhanov.

I mentioned, during our conversation, that the Siberian exiles had been greatly impressed by the enormous amount of statistical data analyzed in Lenin’s book on Russian capitalism. “Well, it was not done all at once, you know,” he answered, as if somewhat embarrassed. He was apparently greatly pleased that the younger comrades appreciated the tremendous amount of work he had put into his principal opus on economics. My own future work was discussed then only in a very general way. We assumed that I would stay abroad for a time, get acquainted with current literature, look around, and the rest would be discussed afterward. At any event, I intended to return illegally to Russia for revolutionary work some time later.

Nadyezhda Konstantinovna took me to a house a few blocks away, where lived Vera Zasulitch, Martov, and Blumenfeld, the Iskra printing-press manager, and where they found a room for me. According to the English custom, the rooms were arranged vertically, and not on the same floor, as in Russia: the lowest room was occupied by the landlady, and the lodgers had rooms one above another. There was also a common room in which we drank coffee, smoked, and engaged in endless discussions. This room, thanks chiefly to Zasulitch, but not without help from Martov, was always in a state of rank disorder. Plekhanov, after his first visit to the room, described it as a “den.”

That was the beginning of my brief London episode. I took to studying the published issues of the Iskra, and the review of Zarya, which came from the same offices. These were brilliant periodicals, combining scientific profundity with revolutionary passion. I actually fell in love with the Iskra, and was so ashamed of my ignorance that I strained every nerve in my effort to overcome it. Soon I began to write for the Iskra. At first it was only short notes, but a little later I wrote political articles and even editorials.

At that time, too, I gave a public lecture in Whitechapel, when I had a passage-at-arms with the patriarch of the Russian émigrés, Tchaikovsky, and with the anarchist Tcherkezov, also a man of advanced years. I was honestly amazed at the infantile arguments with which these worthy elders were trying to crush Marxism. I returned home, I remember, as if I were walking on air. In my contacts with Whitechapel, and with the outside world in general, my go-between was an old Londoner, Alexeyev, an émigré Marxist who was closely allied with the editors of the Iskra. He initiated me into the mysteries of English life, and in general was my source of information on all sorts of things. Of Lenin, Alexeyev spoke with very great respect. “I believe,” he said to me once, “that Lenin is more important for the revolution than Plekhanov.” I did not mention this to Lenin, of course, but I did to Martov. Martov made no comment.

One Sunday I went with Lenin and Krupskaya to a Social Democratic meeting in a church, where speeches alternated with the singing of hymns. The principal speaker was a compositor who had just returned from Australia. He spoke of the Social revolution. Then everybody rose and sang: “Lord Almighty, let there be no more kings or rich men!” I could scarcely believe my eyes or ears. When we came out of the church, Lenin said: “There are many revolutionary and socialistic elements among the English proletariat, but they are mixed up with conservatism, religion, and prejudices, and can’t somehow break through to the surface and unite.”

After attending the Social Democratic church, we had dinner in the tiny kitchen of a two-room apartment. My friends jested as usual about my finding my way home. I was very bad at making my way about the streets and, with my usual penchant for systematic thinking, called this defect “a topographic cretinism.” Later I did better in this respect, but my improvement was not won without a great deal of effort.

My modest knowledge of English acquired in the prison at Odessa was increased very little by my stay in London. I was too much absorbed in Russian affairs. British Marxism was not interesting. The intellectual centre of the Social Democracy at that time was Germany, and we watched intently the struggle then going on between the “orthodox” Marxists and the “revisionists.”

In London, as well as later on in Geneva, I met Zasulitch and Martov much more often than Lenin. Since we lived in the same house in London, and in Geneva usually had our meals in the same restaurants, I was with Martov and Zasulitch several times a day, whereas Lenin led the life of a family man, and every meeting with him, aside from the official meetings, was a small event. The Bohemian habits and tastes which weighed so heavily with Martov were utterly alien to Lenin. He knew that time, be it ever so relative, was the most absolute of gifts. He spent a great deal of time in the library of the British Museum, where he carried on his theoretical studies, and where he usually wrote his newspaper articles. With his assistance, I obtained admission to that sanctuary too. I was insatiable, and simply gorged myself on the super abundance of books there. Soon, however, I had to leave for the continent.

After my “test” public appearance in Whitechapel, I was sent on a lecture tour of Brussels, Liège and Paris. My lecture was devoted to the defense of historical materialism against the criticisms of the so-called “Russian subjective school.” Lenin was very much interested in my subject. I gave him my detailed synopsis to look over, and he advised me to revise the lecture so that it could be published in an article in the next issue of the Zarya. But I didn’t have the courage to appear by the side of Plekhanov and the others with a strictly theoretical essay.

From Paris, I was soon summoned by cable to London. They were planning to smuggle me over to Russia again, as reports from there complained about wholesale arrests and the shortage of men, and demanded my return. But I had hardly set foot in London when the plan was changed. Deutsch, who lived in London then and treated me very kindly, told me afterward how he had stood up for me, urging that the “youth” (he had no other name for me) needed a stay abroad for a while to improve his education, and how Lenin had agreed with him. The prospect of working in the Russian organization of the Iskra was tempting, but nevertheless I was very glad to be able to stay abroad a little longer.

I returned to Paris, where, unlike London, the Russian stu dent colony was very large. The revolutionary parties were fighting each other bitterly to win over the mass of the students. Here is an excerpt from the recollections of that period by N.I. Sedova:

“The autumn of 1902 was marked by frequent lectures in the Russian colony in Paris. The Iskra group, to which I be longed, saw first Martov, and then Lenin. A war was being fought against the ‘Economists’ and the Socialist-Revolutionists. In our group there was some talk about the arrival of a young comrade who had escaped from Siberia. He called at the house of E.M. Alexandrova, formerly one of the Narodovoltsi, who had joined the Iskra. We of the younger generation were very fond of Ekaterina Mikhailovna, listened to her talks with great interest, and were much under her influence. When the young contributor to the Iskra made his appearance in Paris, Ekaterina Mikhailovna bade me find out if there was a vacant room near by. There happened to be one in the house where I lived. The rent for it was 12 francs a month, but the room was small, dark and narrow, just like a prison cell. When I began describing the room to her, Ekaterina Mikhailovna cut me short with: ‘That’s enough describing – it will do. Let him take it.’

“After the young comrade (whose name was not revealed to us) established himself in the room, Ekaterina Mikhailovna asked me: ‘Is he preparing for his lecture?’

“‘I don’t know, I suppose so,’ I answered. ‘Last night as I was coming up-stairs I heard him whistling in his room.’

“‘Then tell him to work hard and not whistle.’ She was very anxious that ‘he’ should be successful. But her anxiety was uncalled for. The lecture went off very well and the colony was delighted, as the young follower of the Iskra exceeded all expectations.”

I was much more interested in learning about Paris than I had been about London. This was because of the influence of N.I. Sedova. I was born and brought up in the country, but it was in Paris that I began to draw close to nature. And there, too, I came face to face with real art. I learned to appreciate painting, as well as nature, with great difficulty. One of Se dova s later entries says: “He expressed his general impression of Paris in this way: ‘Resembles Odessa, but Odessa is better.’ This absurd conclusion can be explained by the fact that L.D. was utterly absorbed in political life, and could see something else only when it forced itself upon him. He reacted to it as if it were a bother, something unavoidable. I did not agree with him in his estimate of Paris, and twitted him a little for this.”

Yes, it was just like that. I was entering the atmosphere of a world centre with an obstinate and antagonistic attitude. At first, I “denied” Paris, and even tried to ignore it. Rightly considered, it was the case of a barbarian struggling for self-preservation. I felt that in order to get close to Paris and understand it fully, I would have to spend a great deal of mental energy. But I had my own world of revolution, and this was very exacting and brooked no rival interests. With difficulty, and by degrees, I was getting closer to art. I resisted the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the exhibitions. Rubens seemed to me too well-fed and self-satisfied, Puvis de Chavannes too ascetic and faded, Carrière’s portraits irritated me with their twilight ambiguousness. The same applied to sculpture and architecture. In point of fact, I was resisting art as I had resisted revolution earlier in life, and later, Marxism; as I had resisted, for several years, Lenin and his methods. The revolution of 1905 soon interrupted the progress of my communings with Europe and its culture. It was only during my second exile from Russia that I came closer to art – saw things, read, and even wrote a little about it. I never went beyond the stage of pure dilettantism, however.

In Paris, I heard Jaurès. It was at a time when Waldeck Rousseau was at the head of the government, with Millerand as the minister of the Posts, and General Galiffet as the minister of war. I took part in a street demonstration of the Guesdists and shouted diligently, with the rest, all sorts of unpleasant things against Millerand. Jaurès did not make any great impression on me then. I felt too intensely that he was an enemy. Only several years later did I learn to appreciate that magnificent figure, even if my attitude toward Jaurèsism remained as hostile as before.

Pressed by the Marxist section of the students, Lenin agreed to give three lectures on the agrarian question at the Higher School organized in Paris by professors expelled from Russian universities. The liberal professors asked the undesirable lecturer to refrain from polemics as far as possible. But Lenin made no promise on this score, and began his first lecture with the statement that Marxism is a revolutionary theory, and therefore fundamentally polemical. I remember that Vladimir Ilyich was considerably excited before his first lecture, but as soon as he was on the platform he completely mastered himself, at least to all outward appearances. Professor Gambarov, who came to hear him speak, gave his impression to Deutsch in these words: “A perfect professor.” He obviously thought this the highest praise.

Once we decided to take Lenin to the opera. All arrangements were instrusted to Sedova. Lenin went to the Opera Comique with the same briefcase that accompanied him to his lectures. We sat in a group in the top gallery. Besides Lenin, Sedova, and myself, I believe the company included also Martov. An utterly unmusical reminiscence is always associated in my mind with this visit to the opera. In Paris Lenin had bought himself a pair of shoes that had turned out to be too tight. As fate would have it, I badly needed a new pair of shoes just then. I was given Lenin’s, and at first I thought they fitted me perfectly. The trip to the opera was all right. But in the theatre I began to have pains. On the way home I suffered agonies, while Lenin twitted me all the more mercilessly because he had gone through the same thing for several hours in those very shoes.

From Paris, I went on a lecture tour of the Russian student colonies in Brussels, Liege, in Switzerland, and in some German towns. In Heidelberg, I listened to old Kuno Fischer, but I wasn’t tempted by his Kantian teaching. The normative philosophy was foreign to my whole being. How could one prefer dry hay when next to it there was soft, juicy grass? Heidelberg had the name of being the centre of philosophical idealism among Russian students. One of their number was Avksentiev, the future minister of the Interior under the Kerensky government. I broke more than one lance there in my hot defense of materialist dialectics.


1. Lenin’s full original name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Nikolay Lenin being his party- and pen-name. Since the revolution it has become customary to refer to him as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and more familiarly as Ilyich. His wife’s maiden name is Nadyezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya. – Trans.

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Last updated on: 7.2.2007