MOST of the biographical sketches included in this collection date from the pre-1914 and wartime years and represent part of Trotsky’s work as a brilliant political journalist. At that time he followed closely the activities of the parties of the Second International and became personally acquainted with some of their leading figures. Others he had heard speaking at meetings and conferences. He wrote about them with a lively pen and a keen eye illuminated by Marxist understanding.
Trotsky was highly critical of the conservative bureaucrat, the pompous mediocrity, the opportunist and the turncoat. There were as many of them in the workers’ parties then, as now. By the time that he penned these sketches the Second International had seen its best days. Its parties, or most of them, had become integrated into the bourgeois social order. Revolutionary Marxism lived on more in the platform oratory reserved for special occasions than in the everyday practice of parties which took pride in their parliamentary representation and their extensive apparatus.
The coming of the imperialist war in August 1914 stripped these parties bare. Most of the acknowledged leaders together with the trade union bureaucracy rushed to the support of their own bourgeoisie. There were those who had been moving towards this position for some time previously and rushed in to bray with the chorus of social-chauvinism. Others went with their heads bowed, mumbling about loyalty to their party or providing themselves with some spurious alibi – the working class supported the war, Kaiserdom was better than Tsardom – or vice versa. Some honourable few, like Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Trotsky himself, remained loyal to the traditions of revolutionary Marxism in the struggle against war.
Trotsky’s profiles should be seen against this background. He depicts leaders in a crisis which found many of them wanting. Take Plekhanov, a man who is rightly classed as the father of Russian Marxism. But, as Trotsky begins his profile “The war drew up a balance-sheet of an entire epoch of socialism and weighed up and evaluated the leaders of that epoch. Amongst them it mercilessly liquidated Plekhanov. The latter had been a great man.”
Such another was Karl Kautsky, a veritable pope of Marxist orthodoxy, respected by Lenin as a theorist. In fact he had lived on the basis of reconciling opportunism in practice with Marxism in theory. When the war came he moved rapidly to the right and became an avowed enemy of the Bolshevik revolution. Even more dramatic in its way was the evolution of Edouard Vaillant, an old Communard and an advocate of the insurrectionary methods derived from Blanqui. A popular figure with revolutionary workers in Paris he became an arch-patriot when war broke out.
Reading Trotsky’s article on Jean Jaurès who was assassinated on the eve of the First World War, one can ask whether he would have stood the test any better. Writing about him in 1909, Trotsky’s criticism sounds too lenient. He had an admiration for his skill as an orator and his ability to strike the right chord among the masses. But after his death, in 1915, Trotsky’s enthusiasm is still as great.
Trotsky’s period in Vienna gave him an opportunity to get to know the Austro-Marxists. In his biography he speaks of them with contempt: these café-haunters, living on the interest from Marx’s Capital. Victor Adler he was able to observe closely over six years after calling on his help when he first arrived in the city as a penniless émigré. It was his son Friedrich who, just after the outbreak of war, advised Trotsky to get out of Austria as quickly as possible.
It was Fritz Adler who, contrary to everything which might have been expected, shot and killed the Austrian Minister-President. Adler turned to terrorism out of weakness and despair. Austrian Social-Democracy had not prepared itself for struggle, despite the title, Kampf, of the paper he edited. Under his father’s influence the party came to be dominated by “the mediocrities, lobby politicians, routinists and careerists” who prostrated themselves before the Hapsburgs on the very first day of War.
Fritz Adler, despite his knowledge of Marxist theory, had never fought this tendency. The war caught him and his generation unawares. Not having established roots in the masses the turn to terrorism became the only form of protest which he could turn to. Not surprisingly, at the end of the war Adler returned to Austrian Social-Democracy and, as Secretary of the discredited Second International, proved himself the consummate opportunist.
Most of these pieces were written when Trotsky was a revolutionary journalist, who had, perforce to live by his pen. Despite their political as well as historical interest they cannot be rated among his great works, nor were they intended to be more than newspaper articles. That they still bear reading is, of course, a tribute not only to his undoubted brilliance as a journalist but to the fact that his observations were accurate and his judgements generally sound. Even so, they reflect a particular period both of European socialism and of Trotsky’s relationship to it. While often able to lay bare the weaknesses of pre-war Social Democracy he does not carry through his criticism to the end; his tendency at times is to be too forgiving, as is the case, notably with Jaurès.
The great virtue of these sketches is that Trotsky brings us close to his subjects and to their times. We see their faults even when Trotsky does not emphasize them and we get a better understanding of his own feelings of warmth for their positive contributions to the movement.
There is much in this book which can help educate the youth and kindle the kind of enthusiasm which Trotsky himself expressed. The movement is seen as made up of living people, by no means supermen, who, in this epoch were buffeted by historical forces even more than they shaped them. In fact, it was only Lenin and the Bolsheviks and a handful of Social Democrats of the Second International who through struggle had tempered themselves for the great test which the imperialist war imposed on the movement. And we can perhaps say, if it were from this book alone, that it was no accident that Trotsky himself found his way to Leninism when he returned to Russia in 1917.
Last updated on: 10.4.2007