Fritz Sternberg

Conversations with Trotsky

Source: Survey, no 47, April 1963. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Fritz Sternberg (1895-1963) was born in Breslau, was active in left-wing Jewish youth groups prior to the First World War, and was a member of Poale Zion until 1922. During the 1920s, he moved away from Zionism, helped form a Marxist discussion group in Breslau, and was in contact with radical intellectuals such as Bertholt Brecht, who considered Sternberg as his ‘first teacher’, Lion Feuchtwanger and George Grosz. He visited the Soviet Union twice in 1930, which reinforced his critical attitude towards Stalinism. He was a founding member of the Sozialistischen Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD – Socialist Workers Party) in 1931, and went into exile shortly after Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, living in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, France and the USA, where he spent the Second World War. He became a US citizen in 1948 and, whilst remaining a US citizen, returned to Germany in the 1950s and was active on the left wing of the Social-Democratic Party. Sternberg was a prolific writer, and his books include Der Imperialismus (Berlin, 1926); Der Imperialismus und seine Kritiker (Berlin, 1929); Eine Umwälzung der Wissenschaft? Kritik des Buches von Henryk Großmann: Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems. Zugleich eine positive Analyse des Imperialismus (Berlin, 1930); Der Niedergang des deutschen Kapitalismus (Berlin, 1932); Living with the Crisis: The Battle Against Depression and War (New York, 1949); Capitalism and Socialism on Trial (New York, 1951); The End of a Revolution: Soviet Russia: From Revolution to Reaction (New York, 1953); Marx und die Gegenwart. Entwicklungstendenzen in der zweiten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (Cologne, 1955); Die militärische und die industrielle Revolution (Berlin/Frankfurt am Main, 1959); Wer beherrscht die zweite Hälfte des 20 Jahrhunderts? (Cologne/Berlin, 1961); Der Dichter und die Ratio. Erinnerungen an Bertolt Brecht (Göttingen, 1963); Anmerkungen zu Marx – heute (Frankfurt am Main, 1965).

I must first give some explanation of how I came to spend about a week with Trotsky in France in 1934.

My first major book, Der Imperialismus, had appeared in Berlin in 1926. This work, which had little to do with current politics, was in essence a critique both of German Social-Democracy and of the German Communist Party. As opposed to the communists, it analysed the reasons why the entire working classes of England, Western Europe and America had, for longish periods, enjoyed a rise in wages; and, as opposed to social-democratic views, it sought to indicate why, although economic crises had been diminishing in the past, we were now entering a period in which such crises must necessarily become more acute and in which growing unemployment and declining wages would produce revolutionary situations.

The book aroused widespread attention. The official press of the German and Russian Communist Parties naturally repudiated it because it contradicted many of their dogmas. A large number of social-democratic papers rejected it because, with German inflation eliminated only a few years before, people were counting on a boom of long duration. Thus an analysis which sought to prove that there were more crises ahead – and crises which would far surpass their predecessors in violence and intensity – did not fit in with prevailing social-democratic policy. It did, however, win the enthusiastic approval of left-wing newspapers within the social-democratic fold and on the communist fringe.

In this way I came into contact with many groups which saw eye to eye neither with the Social-Democratic Party of the day nor with the German Communist Party. (I myself never belonged to either.)

In 1929 I published a shorter book, entitled Der Imperialismus und seine Kritiker, in which I developed certain lines of thought broached in Imperialismus and at the same time came to terms with some of those who had criticised my views. In 1932, by which time the Nazis had become the strongest party in Germany, a further book appeared: Der Niedergang des deutschen Kapitalismus.

Niedergang demonstrated that many social-democratic publications were attempting to minimise and belittle the extent of the present crisis; that the social-democrats possessed no policy adequate to cope with a crisis of such dimensions; and that the German communists, on the other hand, who were attacking the social-democrats for being ‘social-fascists’, had by their policy during these years forfeited all claims upon the confidence of the workers.

Meanwhile, I had joined the recently formed SAP or Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (Socialist Labour Party). The SAP gained no political successes. When speaking at meetings in towns all over Germany I frequently encountered agreement with my analysis of the political situation but was told that it was wrong or, at all events, too late for a new group to found a new party. Either the social-democrats (SPD) and communists (KPD) must combine, ran the argument, or a Nazi victory would be inevitable.

I was often approached during this period by individual German Trotskyists. The Trotskyists had no political influence but they were extremely outspoken on many political matters, raised problems for discussion, and devoted particular thought to questions on which Trotsky had not as yet committed himself. I was also visited by Trotsky’s son, Sedov. He revered his father, but this had not turned him into a neurotic – as so often happens with the sons of brilliant and celebrated fathers – mainly because he felt personally identified with the same cause. When Sedov first came to see me in Berlin, Trotsky had already been deported from Russia and was living at Prinkipo. I told Sedov that I should very much like to meet his father, and some time later he brought me word that Trotsky would be glad to see me.

Trotsky had gone to Denmark on a brief visit (to deliver a lecture in Copenhagen, I believe), and Sedov called several times at my Berlin flat to discuss arrangements. Nothing came of it, however. Trotsky had so much to do during this trip that the most I could hope for was a single interview lasting an hour or two. In the belief that little of positive value would be gained, I did not go. I remember Sedov’s visits clearly and always noted them in my diary. It was once alleged during Stalin’s many campaigns of lies against Trotsky that Sedov had been in Copenhagen at a particular hour on a particular day, making preparations for a meeting between Ribbentrop and his father. On that day and at that hour Trotsky’s son was, in fact, with me in my Berlin flat.

I arranged to go to Prinkipo at a later date, but that visit did not materialise either.

Then the Nazis came to power, and in March 1933 I emigrated. Trotsky left Prinkipo and in 1934 went to France, a country which I often visited although I lived mainly in Switzerland.

The Nazi victory and the total and unresisting collapse of the German labour movement were naturally fraught with consequences at every level. The KPD tried to lie its way out of total defeat, and there were fierce altercations among the social-democrats. Because the two major German workers’ parties had failed so completely, there was a brief resurgence in the power of attraction of groups which had criticised those parties before the débâcle of 1933. This applied both to the SAP and the Trotskyists. In addition, there existed outside Germany isolated parties and groups which belonged neither to the Second nor the Third International. These included the Norwegian Labour Party, which covered the overwhelming majority of Norwegian workers, the British ILP, a Dutch group which had broken away from the erstwhile Dutch Social-Democratic Party, Trotskyists of many nationalities, and the German SAP.

In 1934 these assorted parties and groups – I may have omitted to mention a few – held a conference in Paris at which the Trotskyists introduced a resolution calling for the founding of a new, Fourth International. I attended this conference as one of the representatives of the SAP, which, like most of the other groups, rejected the Trotskyist proposal as being utterly utopian.

Some weeks after this conference, the groups represented at it – Norwegians, English and Dutch, as well as a representative of the SAP – went to see Trotsky separately. After discussing the matter with several Trotskyists, I decided that it would be better if I visited Trotsky alone, mainly because I was a little afraid that he would otherwise concentrate the discussion entirely on his pet project, the founding of a Fourth International.

One day I left Paris for an unknown destination. Trotsky’s place of residence was kept strictly secret because of persistent threats to murder him, French communists and the extreme right-wing having bitterly opposed his being granted asylum. A young man belonging to the Trotskyist group met me at my hotel and took me to the station. It was not until my ticket was bought that I discovered where I was going. After making the long journey to the coast I was met by another young Trotskyist who took me to a hotel not far from the sea. Trotsky was not staying there, however. The young man told me what bus to catch to the house where Trotsky lived. On future occasions I was to make the trip alone.

Although Trotsky’s safety had been guaranteed at Prinkipo by the permanent presence of Turkish police, his French retreat was not under police surveillance. I think his wife was living there with him, though I never saw her, and his other companions included Sedov and several young Trotskyists who performed secretarial duties. There were also two trained Alsatian watch-dogs.

On the first occasion my visit was limited to half an hour and devoted to discussing the agenda for the following day.

Trotsky’s study was a large room with an unusually wide desk. After he had welcomed me we sat down facing each other across it to talk. I had never seen Trotsky before, but I should have recognised his head anywhere. He was not exactly as I had imagined him, however, being taller and broader than I expected. The day was comparatively warm, I remember, and he was wearing a cream-coloured suit.

We had scarcely exchanged a few words of greeting when he began: ‘You SAP people voted against the founding of the Fourth International in Paris.’

I tried to steer him off the subject, but he insisted on knowing whether I had merely toed my party’s line or was personally opposed to the creation of a Fourth International. I replied that on this point I was in agreement with the SAP and opposed the founding of a Fourth International at this juncture, adding that I could only explain my position by giving him a really exhaustive analysis of several problems which had only been touched on superficially during the debate on the founding of a Fourth International but which, in my opinion, had been analysed either insufficiently or not at all. Trotsky then asked: ‘Do you also espouse the view that the Second and Third Internationals have failed over the German question and therefore share responsibility for the Nazi victory in Germany?’

I replied that, in my view, there was no such thing as a Second or Third International, that the Russian Bolshevik Party under Stalin’s leadership bore the brunt of the responsibility for the defeat of the German working class, and that the Second International had done no more than pass resolutions and show a very academic interest in the matter.

‘Would you be prepared’, Trotsky then asked me, ‘to discuss and draft, here and now, a memorandum on the failure of the Second and Third Internationals in the German question, a failure which is decisively affecting the entire labour movement in every country?’

I replied that I should be only too happy to work out such a memorandum but felt that, since my visit was scheduled to last a bare week, it would be a pretty stiff task.

Trotsky smiled. (I have a particularly vivid recollection of this because his expression almost invariably remained grave during our discussions.) ‘I should like to tell you a story from the time of the Civil War’, he said. ‘Not only did we have to defeat our enemy physically, but we also had to send off innumerable manifestos and despatches to the Russians and the whole of the rest of the world, which was still at war when the revolution began. We also had to draft a large number of resolutions to serve as a guide to our own party. We often sat round in a small circle in those days – not at a big comfortable table like this one, but often a small one or none at all, and not sitting in comfortable chairs but often on packing-cases or barrels. When Lenin or I detailed a comrade to draft a memorandum or a decree or an analysis of a particular situation we were often told, in the early days, that the job would take weeks. Lenin’s reply was: “We haven’t got weeks, only hours at the most. Everyone knows the conditions we're working under, so you can head the paper ‘written on my knee’.” That phrase – “written on my knee” – applied to the whole of the revolutionary period.’

‘And now’, Trotsky went on, ‘I don’t insist on your bringing the memorandum with you tomorrow but I think it should be done during your present stay, and even if you are not entirely satisfied with some of the phrasing, always remember “written on my knee.”’

That concluded our first talk, though we settled a few technical details before I left. Trotsky told me that he rose early but preferred to reserve the morning for his own work. He suggested that I should spend the time working on the memorandum or thinking over the questions to be discussed in the afternoon, though preferably questions concerned with the memorandum. After supper we might have time for wider discussion. I said goodbye and took the bus back to the village where I was staying.

Next afternoon I called on Trotsky at the appointed hour. As far as I can remember, he never kept me waiting. Although he was a tireless worker he had a profound awareness of time. I had made up my mind to discuss three main themes: first, the question of the so-called workers’ aristocracy; second, economic crises; and, third, the question of the Second and Third Internationals. I opened with the first.

I began with Marx’s assertion that the working class was subject to a law of absolute impoverishment and that this law would be modified by manifold circumstances in the course of its realisation. Marx’s formula, I submitted, had become totally inadequate. We were now living in 1934, and in the sixty or more years since Marx published Das Kapital no absolute impoverishment had occurred. On the contrary, the industrial centres of the world had witnessed a marked rise in wages. It was significant, I continued, that even in the later editions of Das Kapital Marx had omitted to give any analysis of wage developments since the eighteen-fifties.

The Bolshevik Party programme prior to the First World War had carefully evaded this point. I considered that Engels’ expositions of this question were both faulty and inadequate. In his first work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, which appeared before the Communist Manifesto, Engels had deduced from the impoverishment of the English working class during the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century that there would be a socialist revolution in England. But he had assumed that certain combinations of factors which were symptomatic of the first Industrial Revolution – in particular the growth of unemployment and the creation of permanent reserves of labour – were a permanent and essential characteristic of the capitalist mode of production and could not be eliminated within that framework.

In a new introduction to this work, published after Marx’s death, Engels admitted some of his earlier errors and declared that in England, a country which exploited the whole world, a workers’ aristocracy had grown up. However, although sections of the English working class occasionally received a share of the profits, the vast majority of English workers was in a bad way, and the English workers’ aristocracy would disappear when England lost her world-power status because English workers would then be forced down to the standards prevailing in continental Europe.

These statements I regarded as equally erroneous. Not only had English workers’ wages not fallen, but English, German and French wages – not to mention those of American workers – had risen still further.

I now came to Lenin, and Trotsky, who had been listening to me, though rather as one would to an academic lecture, assumed an unusually attentive expression. Writing thirty years after Engels, Lenin had embodied the same fundamental errors in his Imperialism. He had introduced many statistics into his book, I went on, but he omitted to give a single figure on the development of real wages in England, France, Germany or the United States, and spoke of a workers’ aristocracy whose living conditions had so much improved under imperialism that it voted for war credits in the countries involved in the World War. According to Lenin, therefore, the communist objective should be to separate the broad mass of workers, which represented the majority of the working class, from the semi-bourgeois workers’ aristocracy.

Against this I argued that, although there were and had always been marked differences in workers’ living standards, and that it might be valid to speak of a workers’ aristocracy, such an aristocracy could grow up under conditions of declining, stable or rising wages. It was characteristic of the decades before the World War that the wages of the whole working class had risen considerably – and not in individual years but over decades and generations. That was why Lenin’s views on the imminence of revolution on a world scale were illusory and why the October Revolution had remained an isolated phenomenon.

Trotsky then put a series of concrete questions on the movement of wages, all of which I was able to answer with speed and precision because I had devoted many years to just that subject. When I quoted a number of books and smaller publications, he remarked: ‘I have a lot of lost ground to make up in this field. I was familiar with most of the literature on the subject until the beginning of 1917, but I never managed to do any systematic reading after that. First of all I had to help Lenin organise the Revolution and defend it during the Civil War. Then came years of reconstruction under the most arduous conditions, then the struggle with Stalin, banishment to Siberia and deportation to Turkey. In Prinkipo my time was fully occupied with writing three large books [his autobiography and the books on the February and October Revolutions – FS], but now I must catch up and read what has come out since 1917.’

Trotsky then asked me if I thought that revolution had ever stood a chance in Germany. He wanted to know the membership of the Spartakus Bund, and whether I had any information about it beyond what was generally known. I replied that in my native Breslau, which then had half a million inhabitants and was represented in the Reichstag by two social-democratic deputies, I had only once seen a Spartakist pamphlet even though I had been keeping my eyes open for anything that appeared. I went on to say that Rosa Luxemburg was intellectually far superior to Ebert and Scheidemann. If the German social-democratic leaders really were the representatives of a workers’ aristocracy and not of the broad mass of socialists, why had the great majority of the workers supported them, and why had Luxemburg and Liebknecht not managed to rally any substantial section of the working class to their side?

We discussed the workers’ aristocracy question for some days. At times I felt that if I had not convinced Trotsky I had at least given him food for thought, but one day, when we were discussing Russian problems, he said: ‘Stalin and the Stalinists are always trying to brand me as an anti-Leninist. It’s a dirty slander, of course. I had profound differences of opinion with Lenin before, during and after the Revolution, but during the Revolution itself and in the vital Civil War years agreement always predominated between us.’

Pursuing this theme, Trotsky declared that he had no wish to present his opponents in Russia with a new weapon by adopting a stand against Lenin’s views on the workers’ aristocracy. Once he had made it clear that, if only for tactical reasons, he did not wish to attack Lenin’s position on this question, we abandoned the subject and moved on to the question of economic crises.

I opened by saying that Marx had not dealt systematically with the problem of crises in the first volume of Das Kapital, and that the volumes published after his death had only touched on isolated aspects of it. Yet, if his theory of the absolute impoverishment of the worker were correct, it must follow that he had counted not only on crises but on crises of ever-increasing severity. Engels had several times stressed that Marx and he were expecting the next crisis to breed new revolutionary movements, yet this crisis had not materialised during their lifetime. I further emphasised that Lenin’s celebrated article on Marx for the Encyclopaedia had not explored this question any more fully; all he had done was to write of the ‘crises of over-production which periodically break out in capitalist countries, at first every ten years on average and then at intervals of varying duration’. [1]

When Trotsky asked for my assessment of the situation before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, I replied that – paradoxical as it might sound – the situation had been marked by a relaxation of economic tension coupled with a heightening of political tension. The decades in question, I continued, were characterised by brief economic crises which represented merely a temporary check to immense overall economic growth. Workers in the industrialised countries of Europe before the World War had not only enjoyed substantial wage increases, but had formed trade union bodies which had been little affected by economic fluctuations. The conclusion I drew from this was that the spokesmen-theorists of the working class had three questions to answer:

First, why were the crises of the first half of the nineteenth century so severe? (They left a lifelong and indelible impression on Marx and Engels.) Second, why did crises wane rather than gain in severity from then onwards, so that the great industrial nations went to war without prior economic upheavals of extreme violence? Third, why was the crisis of 1929 so profound that in Germany, which was more affected by it than any other European country, it rendered possible the victory of a reactionary, counter-revolutionary movement like National Socialism?

Trotsky next asked me about the influence of the Second and Third Internationals. I, in my turn, asked Trotsky whether the Second and Third Internationals had existed at all before the Nazis seized power in Germany. We agreed that until that juncture they had not, but I did not think this went far enough. The Second International had been enormously overrated in the pamphlets and books published by Lenin during and after the 1914-18 war; it was never more than a loose alliance between various European social-democratic parties. I was unaware of any instance where it had passed a resolution aimed against one of the national parties and compelled that national party to implement it according to the principles of international socialism. Thus it was wrong, in my opinion, to ascribe the collapse of the Second International to the vote in favour of war credits. All that collapsed were the illusions which had been cherished about the Second International in many quarters, illusions which its career before the War did nothing to substantiate.

Trotsky did not entirely agree. He believed that these illusions had been an important factor and had to be destroyed – as Lenin had destroyed them – to pave the way for a Third International.

I replied that this would be correct provided that a Third International had ever existed, but that it, too, was equally non-existent. The Russian Bolshevik Party, as the repository of power in Russia, dominated the Third International so completely that this so-called International and its constituent national parties became no more than a tool in Russian hands – a process which gained increasing momentum once Stalin had cemented his control over Russia. Its influence on the German Communist Party and on the German labour movement had been considerable at times but, in my view, entirely negative.

Here Trotsky interrupted me: ‘You know that we are in agreement here, but I was not in Germany during the period in question and you were. Perhaps you can give me a few concrete examples of where the negative effects of Russian influence on the KPD and the German labour movement have been particularly noticeable.’

I replied that under Stalin the leadership of the KPD was being constantly remoulded according to the requirements of his own factional struggles. This meant that all the really independent minds either deserted the Communist Party or were excluded from it. It also meant, in the long run, that the only people who retained power within it were Stalin’s errand-boys, nothing more. Finally, it meant that the Russians were being deceived – and inevitably so – as to the true state of affairs in Germany, since the KPD leaders had to disguise the real progress of the National Socialist counter-revolution as a communist advance.

I recalled how, when I was spending two months in Russia in 1930 at the time of the Reichstag elections (in which the Nazis gained huge successes and, with more than six million votes, first became a significant force), the Russian and the German communist press painted the elections as a communist victory because the communists had gained some ground at the expense of the social-democrats. I was in Tiflis at the time, and when I spoke to some Russian communists about the German situation they asked me what I thought of the Communist Party’s victory. My comment that the Communist Party had not gained any victory and that the elections amounted to an overwhelming victory for the National Socialists was greeted with startled incredulity. At the time I took it for granted that the Russian provinces were out of touch with events, but I encountered the same attitude in Moscow. When I discussed the subject with other people whom I took to be better informed, they admitted that they did not believe German communist sources could provide a genuine report because every German communist official would be afraid of losing his job.

I summed up my views by saying that, while the Second International had made no impact on developments in Germany, Stalin’s policy had proved of direct assistance to National Socialism. In many circles, I told Trotsky, people were even saying that Hitler’s victory would have been impossible had it not been for Stalin’s policy.

Trotsky terminated the discussion with a few remarks to the effect that, although we held conflicting views on a number of not unimportant points, so much common ground existed that he believed we could agree on a memorandum dealing with the German defeat and the failure of the Second and Third Internationals. He suggested that I should now draft the document.

This I duly did during my stay, and when I submitted the draft to Trotsky there were only a few minor points to be ironed out. The memorandum analysed the mistakes of the German Social-Democratic and Communist Parties from the time of the world economic crisis until the Nazis’ accession to power. It also drew particular attention to the entirely negative role played in Germany by the Bolshevik Party under Stalin’s leadership throughout this period.

Although the memorandum was, therefore, expressly directed against the Third International, it contained no recommendation as to the founding of a Fourth International. Trotsky made repeated attempts to convince me on this point, declaring, among other things, that there would at first be only small groups in various countries which would, after the failure of the Second and Third Internationals, lay stress on the formation of a Fourth International. These small could not be burdened with the task of vindicating the past mistakes of the major parties and must be enabled to give an uninhibited account of them so as to lay the foundations for a rebirth of the international labour movement. Employing these and similar arguments, he tried to impress upon me not only that the creation of a Fourth International was necessary, but that preparations for it should begin in the very near future.

I questioned the validity of his reasoning, arguing that a distinction had to be drawn between two types of groups within the labour movement: that which existed in countries such as Italy and Germany, where political work could only be carried on illegally, and intellectual and political development had to be partially supported by groups of exiles; and that which existed in countries like France or England, where the working class was enrolled in mass organisations. I told Trotsky that I knew something of the relationship between German émigrés and proscribed groups inside Germany, and said that I did not believe their work would be made any easier if a few groups of exiles proclaimed a Fourth International. It was essential to combat Stalinism among the political groups operating illegally inside Germany, but a Fourth International was not a prerequisite of this.

Turning to the countries where the working class still had mass political parties, I said that the idea of a Fourth International struck me as utterly utopian at the present time. In England or the Scandinavian countries, for instance, the communist defeat in Germany was not regarded as having any vital connection with either of the two Internationals. I could well imagine that if the working class gained and maintained power in some country other than Russia, such a development would have an effect on the international situation, and that the country in question might well become the centre of a labour movement extending beyond its own borders – especially if it did not use clumsy Stalinist methods in a bid to gain control over the working classes of other countries. That, however, was something from which concrete conclusions could be drawn only when it had actually happened. Trotsky’s views on the question diverged so sharply from my own that we never attempted to bridge this particular gulf.

It was only natural that during our hours of daily discussion we should return repeatedly to the subject of the Soviet Union. I was anxious to glean as much information from him as possible, particularly about the October Revolution and the ensuing years. He described historic incidents just as he had experienced them, and took great pains to avoid judging them from the standpoint of world history. Indeed, he sometimes admitted that events which played a decisive part in the Revolution and the history of the world struck him, who not only witnessed but played an active part in them, as far from important at the time. To hear Trotsky describe the years during which he and Lenin were the nerve-centre of the Revolution was a momentous experience, but when we moved on to the immediate past, the years 1929-33, my faith in his judgement diminished. What began as a sneaking suspicion became a growing conviction that he saw things in a false light.

Trotsky showed me the utmost courtesy during these discussions. He hardly ever interrupted me, and then chiefly when he wanted me to explain or clarify a sentence. We conversed in German, in which he was thoroughly proficient. If he was ever at a loss for a word, which was very seldom, he supplied the deficiency with French, so he had scarcely any difficulty in understanding me and rarely asked the meaning of an individual word. The only time he cut me short in mid-sentence was when I began: ‘Stalin was right, up to a point...’ I never completed the sentence, for Trotsky growled, ‘Stalin is never right!’ – and I promptly abandoned the subject, and asked him instead for his views on developments inside Russia in the past few years.

Trotsky was incapable of systematic analysis on this point. All his views and interpretations were coloured by his certainty that the Stalinist regime was destined to collapse. I raised objections to this theory from time to time, but abandoned the struggle as soon as I realised that for Trotsky it was a question of personal survival, life or death. He was only fifty-five at this time, but we now know from entries made in his diary a year later, in 1935, that he was already suffering from spells of enforced inactivity and profound depression. He evidently believed that he had not long to live.

For Trotsky, recent events in Russia were no longer to be analysed objectively but had become components in a personal equation designed to answer the question: shall I, Trotsky, return to Russia as I did in 1905 and 1917, and shall I become the leader of a new, anti-Stalinist revolution? This personal equation underlay everything he said, even though he never, of course, expressed it in so many words. It did, however, lead him to classify all that he heard about Russia – and he had numerous sources of information – according to its bearing on the likelihood of an anti-Stalinist revolutionary upheaval within the Soviet Union. This, in turn, prompted him to see the economic and general internal condition of Russia in an increasingly gloomy light. His assessment was therefore over-subtle and one-sided, even though he could often be extremely clear-sighted and objective about past events, as one example will show.

Trotsky told me that one of the many subjects on which he and Stalin had differed was policy towards China in the crucial years 1926-27. The Chinese Communist Party joined Chiang Kai-shek on his victorious march from the south of China, only to be betrayed by him once the so-called war-lords of the north had been defeated. Many communist cadres were then wiped out. While there was no doubt that the Chinese communists were taken unawares by Chiang Kai-shek’s treachery, it was extremely doubtful whether it was necessary for them to fall into his trap.

Trotsky repeatedly stressed during our conversation that, in opposition to Stalin, he had demanded that the Russians put the Chinese communists on their guard against Chiang Kai-shek and urge them to form their own independent organisations so as to be better prepared for all eventualities once victory in the north had been won. Subsequent developments in China had proved him absolutely right, Trotsky continued. He had received numerous letters from his supporters congratulating him on his correct assessment of the Chinese situation, and many people had assured him in writing or by word of mouth that his political position vis-à-vis Stalin, whom history had so patently repudiated, would improve as a result.

Trotsky told me that he had by no means shared this optimistic view of his personal position. On the contrary, he tried to impress upon his supporters that as a consequence of events in China his position vis-à-vis Stalin had worsened considerably. By that time, all hope of imminent revolution in Germany had been abandoned, and now the hope of an early Chinese communist victory was dashed.

The result of the communist setback in China, for which Stalinist policy was, in Trotsky’s view, partially responsible, was that Stalin’s general policy enjoyed even greater acceptance among the Russian masses than before because it proceeded on the assumption that no major revolutionary movement could be looked for outside Russia in the foreseeable future, and that Russia’s domestic policy must be adapted accordingly. Thus Stalin would become even more powerful in Russia, especially as the communist defeat in China meant that his policy was better attuned to the world situation than before.

What did it matter, Trotsky had asked his friends and supporters, if a few hundred or, at best, a thousand or two officials within the Bolshevik Party rallied to him? What did it matter that he had demonstrated his greater ability to foresee the course of events and prescribe the appropriate course of action? Those who rallied to him would not, in any case, be very numerous. Stalin’s party machine was already so powerful that anyone who defected to Trotsky would be running a personal risk, so the majority of those who regarded Stalin’s Chinese policy as wrong or disastrous would still remain loyal to Stalin. The end product of this would be a Russian people which, once it had been presented with the Stalinist version and interpretation of events in China, would regard Stalin’s policy as correct. The party might lose a few hundred of its members – perhaps the best of them – to the Trotskyist opposition, but on balance Stalin’s position would be strengthened, and his own undermined.

I mention Trotsky’s summing up of the Chinese question because it shows that, when speaking of the past, he was quite capable of analysing a crucial combination of circumstances objectively, even when it had operated in Stalin’s favour and to his own detriment. When analysing recent developments in Russia, its present situation and immediate future, however, Trotsky went completely astray. He was guided by a single consideration: how to regain power and lead Russia once more along the path of revolution. This obsession had created a system of mental blocks which precluded any objective analysis of present-day Russia. It was also the thing that prompted him to focus all his energies on the formation of a Fourth International – which never, in fact, represented more than a very loose alliance between Trotskyists from various countries.

As our discussions proceeded, it became increasingly clear to me how greatly Trotsky underestimated his own achievements in the past and overestimated his activities while in exile. His disarming frankness on this point emerges from his diaries for the following year, in which he describes his part in the October Revolution and his preparatory work for the International:

And still I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life – more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other. For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to overcome the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders... Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work even in the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve... There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals.

Trotsky’s words scarcely need amplification. He saw his mission as the continued leadership of the permanent revolution as he understood it. For this the Third International had to be superseded, and in order to believe that this was not only possible but likely to happen within his own lifetime he had to judge all developments in Russia during the 1930s on the assumption that Stalin’s regime was being shaken by severe internal convulsions. Hence, no genuine discussion of the Russian situation or the question of the Fourth International was possible.

I never heard Trotsky address a meeting, but sometimes when we were alone together I caught a glimpse of the great orator, the tribune of the people, the man who could restore order to a confused situation with one brief sentence.

The house in which he was living was not guarded by police, although threatening letters were always arriving from right-wing extremists of the Action Française. As I have mentioned, he had two trained Alsatians, and he and his son and secretaries all possessed fire-arms. The weather being warm, I asked him if he went out much, but he told me that his outings were limited to the garden and that he felt his health was suffering.

When I enquired about Prinkipo, he replied: ‘Oh, things were a hundred times better there. I had Turkish policemen in the house for my protection and we often went fishing – not with rods but with boats and big nets. We caught so many fish that there were not only enough for me and my family and the policemen, but plenty left over for the policemen to sell at a good price in town.’ Trotsky went on to say that it was the healthy air in Prinkipo which had enhanced his capacity for work and enabled him to write three large books in such a comparatively short time.

‘But weren’t you imprisoned in Turkey?’ I asked him. ‘Didn’t Stalin request it when he had you deported?’

‘Oh yes, Stalin requested it’, Trotsky answered, ‘but Kemal Pasha refused to comply.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘When Turkey was fighting Greece in the war I helped him with the Red Army. Fellow-soldiers don’t forget such things. That was why Kemal Pasha didn’t lock me up in spite of pressure from Stalin.’

It gave me a strange feeling to hear these words. There stood Trotsky beside me in his white suit and open-necked shirt. A few hours earlier we had been discussing whether, after the severe international economic crisis that had begun in 1929, another economic crisis could be expected in the near future. The same man was now telling me, almost casually, that Mustapha Kemal did not lock him up because he had once supported him militarily against the Greeks. This extraordinarily rare combination of economic and social analysis and political and military action was characteristic of his whole existence.

Trotsky had an unusually keen eye for his contemporaries’ weaknesses and criticised them unmercifully. Whether he had as keen a sense of humour in earlier years I cannot say, but his gift for satirical characterisation makes it highly probable.

I should like, finally, to recall an incident which occurred shortly before my departure.

Trotsky used to feed his two Alsatians in person, mostly on raw meat and often between the end of our afternoon session and supper. We generally parted until the gong sounded for the evening meal, which it normally did at about 6.30pm. I usually spent the time indoors reading newspapers and periodicals. On one occasion seven o'clock came and went without the expected summons. When the clock struck seven I thought I must have missed the gong and went out into the garden. For some reason Trotsky was later than usual, and was still feeding his dogs when I emerged. As soon as they saw me they went for me, but Trotsky held them back by the scruff of their necks, saying with a smile: ‘You mustn’t do anything to Sternberg yet. He hasn’t finished the memorandum!’


1. VI Lenin, ‘ Karl Marx’, Collected Works, Volume 21.