Leon Trotsky Archive

A Visit With Trotsky

Source: Gérard Rosenthal, Avocat de Trotsky. Paris, Robert Laffont, 1975;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2012

On the tiny gilded island, peaceful and quiet, a few fishermen and a few farmers. The house occupied by Leon Trotsky was at the outer edge of the village, almost outside the town. The simple, ordinary country house looked like the houses you see in the suburbs of Paris, not at all disagreeable, with a stairway and a canopy. In order to reach it you had to cross an untended garden. In front of the villa you went down a steep slope to the sea. The Sea of Marmora, calm and beautiful, with its deep blue waters, sparkling in the sun, where dolphins play, is crossed by paddlewheel boats that connect the island to Constantinople.

Two months after his expulsion from the Russian Communist Party, in January 1928, Trotsky had been brutally deported, along with Natalia and his son Leon Sedov to Alma-Ata, In Central Asia, south of Lake Baikal in the heart of Kirghiz country. For a year, with the assistance of his son, he maintained political contact with the main opposition figures stripped of office, arrested or imprisoned in solitary confinement. In January 1929 Stalin banished him outside Soviet borders for “anti-Soviet activities and creation of an illegal anti-Soviet party preparing armed struggle.” Stalin thought that his presence in the capitalist West would disqualify him in the eyes of the Soviets, or at least that his accusing voice wouldn’t cross the borders. He hadn’t foreseen that he would complicate his executioner’s task.

His friends had found Leon Trotsky this sufficiently isolated house on the Isle of Princes. It is there that “The Old Man” lived with his wife and son, since we had transferred the name that the reverence and affection of revolutionaries had attributed to Lenin.

We had gone to see Leon Trotsky on Prinkipo during the summer, Pierre Naville, Denise Naville and myself. The boat had taken us from Marseille to Istanbul. We traveled in the lowest class section. Denise was separated from the men.

We enter. We go past the little hut where the two Turkish policeman are talking , who nonchantly are on guard duty. We're received by the bearded old gardener, kind and deaf as can be. He always throws himself at Trotsky to kiss his hand, who pulls away with horror. We enter the house. The interior hasn’t preserved any of its past splendors, if it ever had any. No furniture. Nothing that represents comfort. We greet Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova, who discreetly takes her leave.

Trotsky comes towards us. He is wearing an immaculate white jacket. His direct and cordial reception radiates the natural authority that emanates from his person. He had been informed of our efforts. The discussion took up where it had been left off two years earlier.

Isolated, placed in a hostile world, cast from his creations and his entourage, detached from his environment and activities, preyed upon by the weightiest political problems, he remains himself. The objective facts of the class struggle are still present. History and the fight continue.

We will be expected every day. Trotsky receives us in his office on the second floor. The windows are open onto the trees and the sea. The middle of the room is occupied by a large worktable, overflowing with books, newspapers, and pencils. From time to time Trotsky gets up to adjust the blinds when the sun bothers us.

Every day he will give us a detailed analysis of the great problems of the crisis, the relations of the Russian proletariat with the peasantry, the constituting of the bureaucracy and the stifling of the Party, the great deviations of the International’s policies, undermining the international struggle of the proletariat and illustrating the harmful doctrine of “socialism in one country.”

We studiously take notes. One doesn’t smoke in front of Trotsky. Rakovsky, he says with disapproval, always had a cigarette in his mouth and scattered ashes all over the place.

After these well-organized classes, the discussion takes a less orderly path. Leon Trotsky reveals some of his traits. When Denise comes to get us he jokes with her that he is making her an ally in his fight against our resistance. Denise kindly feigns embarrassment.

The constant preoccupation of Trotsky is the human quality of the revolutionaries: “You can only make a revolution, you can only win it with men dedicated to this combat to their marrow. For the Russian revolutionaries private life was strictly subordinated to the needs of the political struggle.”

Contacts with western militants disappointed him: “It is pointless to think of a leading a revolution with men for whom first comes their professional lives, then their families, and finally the revolution. And what are the sacrifices they are capable of making on questions of money? When I was in Vienna a militant, a militant completely from the base, came knocking at my door. He had arrived from Crimea. He'd received an inheritance. He had crossed Europe to bring it to the Party. He blushed at having to take from it the costs of the trip.”

I heard him later, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, discussing with a leader of a Spanish communist group who was putting forth the political line of his formation. Trotsky abruptly cut him off:

“How many of your comrades have fallen in combat?”

The interlocutor was disconcerted, and his gestures and expression clearly said, “Up until now, none.” The dialogue was weighty with meaning.

Trotsky stressed the value, the sense of major responsibilities and energy that he though necessary to expect in a revolutionary leader.

“In 1923 the possibility of a victorious revolution was stronger than ever in Germany. The occupation of the Ruhr disorganized the bosses and the state. Every day the mark reached more fantastic levels. Unemployment ravaged the proletariat and ruin grabbed hold of the petit-bourgeoisie. The Communist Party was more powerful and active than it had ever been. Strikes became generalized. But Brandler, the leader of the party, instead of guiding it and leading the working class toward insurrection, brought together a conference of factory delegates in Chemnitz and waited for them to decide. Naturally, a consultation with each of them, in the presence of the show of lack of resolution of the chiefs, saw each of them give free rein to his worries in the face of his responsibilities. The moment for a victorious revolution had passed. The occasion was never to present itself again for Germany. Men like Brandler don’t have a place at the head of a communist organization. With Brandlers we'll never make a revolution.”

But for Trotsky this requirement that a revolutionary be dedicated to the revolution from head to toe is indissolubly tied to the serious knowledge and exact analysis, whose sincerity and objectivity he insists on, of the true situation of the proletariat and the relation of social forces. The appeal to men doesn’t include the playing with facts. It is when strong in these two powers that he engages in action.

In our discussions I remind Trotsky, against the rigorous forms of organization of the Bolshevik Party, of the doctrine of Rosa Luxemburg – founder with Karl Liebknecht at the end of WW I of the German communist movement the Spartakists: the process of organization that is reinforced and develops with and through the obtaining of awareness on the part of the masses.

“Yes,” he said,” but Spartakus was crushed and Rosa Luxemburg assassinated. And the worst thing is that these methods foreordained the failure of the German revolution.”

The discussion becomes more animated, often gayer and more sarcastic. We criticize in front of him the policy of the French Communist Party in Alsace, which we judged aberrant. The Party supported the Alsatian autonomists who called for national independence. Leon Trotsky isn’t in agreement:

“If we are not in the end partisans of independence when the revolution has been made, we must nevertheless – without hiding our position – support the spontaneous action of the population in the manifestations of its wishes insofar as they shake the authority of the power structure and the regime. “

He takes Naville by the shoulders:

“If you would have maintained your theories during the Civil War I would have had you executed Comrade Naville, I would have had you executed.”

He pronounced it “essecuted,” and laughed at his own words.

In demonstrating his ideas, his imagery was sometimes familiar and yet pertinent:

“Society resembles a school class in school. In normal times the teacher teaches from his lectern. The class listens to him and follows his teachings. In the last rows a few bad students or troublemakers are neglected. But a time might come when the bad students drag the class along, cover the teacher with their outbursts, and isolate him with their noise. The professor is the state. It is this transfer of authority which the revolutionary minority must realize in society and in relation to the state.”

And in the relaxed atmosphere of the late morning lighter things were evoked:

“In the fall of 1922 the cordon sanitaire that isolated us was showing its scratches. The future president Edouard Herrriot came to our revolutionary city for the first steps in the renewing of diplomatic relations. Lenin and I received him in an office that looked down on the façade of the Winter Palace. We spoke a great deal of the reimbursement of Russian loans. The discussion got bogged down. I saw Lenin looking frequently at the clock. Suddenly, as noon sounded, we heard the muffled hammering of the boots of the elite regiment that was assuming the guard. When the battalions entered under the vault there suddenly broke out, with a blast of brass and drums, the tones of The Marseillaise, played by the marching band. President Henriot had tears in his eyes. Lenin imperceptibly wrinkled his eyes in my direction.”

We openly expressed our apprehensions to Trotsky:

“We witnessed the degradation of the national sections by the International, which manipulated the leadership and imposed programs. We fear that these methods continue to exist in the Opposition. Have you yourself not exposed the Opposition to methods that are hardly different?”

“These methods that contaminated the International fortunately cannot be practiced in the Opposition. The International was able to put at its service the material means and resources of a state. No one in the Opposition disposes of such means. This is the material guarantee of democracy in our ranks.”

“But don’t you think that after the disastrous experience of national parties subject to and disfigured by an international leadership of deviators, that it would be best in a new period to allow each party to translate the revolutionary aspirations of the masses in accordance with its own experience, recognizing for it a distinct and independent capacity for elaboration? The international leadership will then naturally come forth as the elaborated expression of these manifestations and gains freely arrived at by each party in its actual movement.”

He answered us:

“The internationalism of the proletariat can’t be compared to a roof that we can only think of putting in place after the walls have been built. Internationalism is the essential patrimony of the revolutionary proletariat. It is the principal support of these struggles. It stands in opposition to the contradictions that divided the capitalism and imperialism whose national character is their essence. Depriving the revolutionary struggle of an international leadership because the Communist International has betrayed its mission would mean aggravating a thousand fold the damage already caused by its errors. In a world where the contradictions as well as the community of interests of imperialism create political and social situations on a world-wide scale which the proletariat must confront, depriving it of a leadership capable of understanding these situations or analyzing them, drawing from this analysis general directives aiding in orienting, in accordance with their particular application to this or that country, the development of struggles, means surrendering and blinding it. The mastery of the international conjuncture is necessary. To be sure, no national section is predestined to impose the correctness of its own analysis. Yesterday it was Moscow; tomorrow it could be the tiny party in Tierra del Fuego. Bravo for the Fuegians! It is of little importance to know which national section Marx would have chosen, but the international leadership lights the way of the proletariat like a lighthouse and a guide.”

Our stay reached its end.

“You know,” Trotsky said at the conclusion of our discussions,” you should write me a letter.”

In the sunny garden, under the Old Man’s windows, we wrote the letter that Naville signed. Trotsky answered in a long message that appeared in “La Lutte des Classes” under the title, “A Step forward.”

Trotsky had led our discussions to a concrete conclusion:

“As I can see from the letter of Comrade Naville and my discussions with him and Comrade Gerard, you are disposed to recognize the urgency and importance of the weekly; this is the first step forward, and it is very important.”