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James T Farrell

A Memoir on Leon Trotsky

I met Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1937. He seemed different from what might have been expected. He gave the impression of extraordinary simplicity. Alice Ruhl – wife of Otto Ruhl, one time left wing Socialist member of the German Reichstag and biographer of Karl Marx – said of Trotsky that he had changed from his younger days: he had, she said, become more simple, more like Lenin. Many who knew him earlier said that he was cold. He did not seem so in Mexico. He was easy to talk to and one felt less distance between him and oneself than is sometimes the case when one meets a man prominent in political life. But this comparison is perhaps not a good one. Trotsky was then a defeated leader, and a man in exile. He was seeking to rebuild a political movement and was engaged in the most dramatic fight of his life. Accused of betraying the revolution he helped to lead and the society he did so much in helping to found, he was defending his revolutionary honor. He lived behind guarded walls, and followers and secretaries of his carried guns inside his home. He was preparing to answer the charges Stalin launched against him in the Moscow trials.

Elsewhere I have described the Coyoacan Hearings held by the Commission of Inquiry of which Dr. John Dewey was chairman. [1] I shall not repeat this here, but shall merely offer a few personal impressions and anecdotes about him.

One could not separate Trotsky the man from Trotsky the historical figure. When you saw him and spoke with him, you were aware that he was the man who organized the practical details of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and also that he was the organizer of the Red Army. You were aware that you were speaking with one of the greatest revolutionaries in history. He himself had a deep sense of history and of his own historic role. The intense drama of his life was known to me. There he was in that home on Avenida Londres in Coyoacan, pitting his brain against an empire. It was because he was Trotsky that his simplicity was so striking when he was gray and living like a hunted man in Mexico. His followers spoke of him in worshipful tones. For them, he made life more important. He permitted them to believe that they, too, were entering history. They called him “the Old Man,” and they acted like disciples. Constantly, they would pose questions to ascertain what one thought of him, and when John Dewey remarked on Trotsky’s brilliance, they immediately began thinking and hoping that Trotsky would convert Dewey to Trotskyism.

There was an exactness about Trotsky. Even in English, his choice of words revealed this. He seemed to know how far he wanted to go with each person, and his choice of words conveyed or suggested this. There was not, however, much spontaneity in him – or, rather, his spontaneity was kept in check. He, himself, had given his life to an Idea. This Idea – the Revolution – and his personality were as though fused together. A brave man, he was always ready to make any sacrifice to the Idea, and he dealt with people in terms of their relationship to and their acceptance of the Idea. What use would they be to this Idea, this cause? He was working for and living for the cause.

Thus, while he was easy to talk. to, it yet remained that there was a distance between him and others. You did not come into contact with his full personality as you did with, say, John Dewey. This seemed most clear to me the last time I spoke with him. We sat by the long table on which he worked in the home of the painter, Diego Rivera, on Avenida Londres in Coyoacan. He asked me what I was going to do when I returned to America. “I’m going to write novels.” He said he knew that, but again asked me what I was going to do. The service to the cause was more important to him than your personality. Max Eastman, who knew him much better than I did, has often said that he was cold. This I believe is what Eastman means, this seeing individuals as servants to an aim and an idea rather than as personalities in their own right. And this was a trait in his character which marked him off as so different from John Dewey.

He was a witty, graceful, and gallant man. There was something deeply touching and inspiring in his relationship with his wife, Natalia. She was very small and elegant. One could see that she had once been a beautiful woman. The tragedies of her life, the loss of her children in particular, had saddened her. Hers was one of the saddest faces I have ever seen, and she is one of the bravest and noblest of women. Whenever you saw them together, you could not but sense how there was a current of tenderness between them. A gentleness and depth of feeling was apparent in the way he looked at her or touched her hand.

We went on a picnic with him after the ending of the Coyoacan Hearings. Waiting to leave and standing on the porch of the patio of the Rivera home, there was Trotsky bustling about, making sure that there was enough food for everyone, that there was beer for me, that nothing would be forgotten or overlooked. My wife said to me teasingly that Trotsky took an interest in his home and that if he could, why couldn’t I. He came up to me a moment later. I remarked: “L.D., you have ruined my life.”

I explained what I meant and told him what my wife had said.

“It is very simple,” he answered, speaking with a strong accent. “Once (pronouncing it like vunce) I had to feed five million men. It is a little more complicated than feeding five.” Often there was a point, a political reference, a moral in his wit.

We left for a nearby woods in two cars. My wife and I got into the back seat of a roadster. All was in readiness for our departure. Suddenly, Trotsky appeared at the side of the car and said: “Jim, I will (the w pronounced like a v) ride in the open car, and Hortense will ride in the closed car.”

There was gallantry here. For Trotsky to ride in an open car meant a possible risk to his life. Along with his gallantry, there was in his nature a deep respect for women. I have met many Europeans of the Left and of the Revolution, and I have read much of their lives and been told many anecdotes about them. Many of these men, without being quite aware of it, have given the best years of their lives to an effort to emancipate mankind. But with a good proportion of them, emancipation stops at the door of their own homes. Their wives are not completely included in this emancipation; they do all of the housework and serve their revolutionary husbands, sometimes slavishly. In one place in his recent biography The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921, Isaac Deutscher mentions how Trotsky, busy as he was, would in a very un-European fashion, help Natalia with the housework and the care of the children. Trotsky’s gallantry was, I believe, real, and it was based on a sense of the dignity of women and of respect for them.

At the picnic, Trotsky and Natalia went off to walk in the woods in opposite directions. This was undoubtedly a solace to him. He lived a guarded life of confinement with little freedom of movement. His secretaries constantly guarded him, with guns on holsters at their side. A contingent of Mexican police stood outside the Rivera home to protect him. He fretted and balked in this confinement, and he was fatalistic about the danger of his being assassinated. He believed that when Stalin wanted really and finally to have him murdered, Stalin would undoubtedly succeed. And as is known, this happened.

After taking the walk, he returned to the group. One of the Americans present was building a fire. He was an ex-follower of Trotsky’s who had left the Trotsky movement, but who had come to Coyoacan to help the work of the Dewey hearings. Trotsky watched him for a moment and became impatient. He didn’t like the way the American friend was going about making the fire. He took over and made his own fire, accompanying it with raillery that was friendly but also sharp. And there was political point to this. Trotsky was teasing a one-time follower for having broken ideologically with the Trotskyite Movement. Trotsky always liked to tease Americans, especially about so-called American efficiency, and he also teased his American ex-follower in this vein.

We ate and talked and sang. One of Trotsky’s police guards was a tall, young, and good looking Mexican cop. Trotsky liked and trusted him. This policeman sang El Rancho Grande, and everyone liked it so much that he was asked to sing it again. After Trotsky was murdered, I was told that this policeman had been bought by enemies of Trotsky’s.

I had several talks with him. Having been an American in the twenties and having read my H.L. Mencken, I sometimes took a relish in telling stories which recounted stupidity. I told a story of this kind. The subject was a famous European writer with whom Trotsky had had controversies. This writer is not stupid, but he appeared this way because he had been evading questions concerning Stalin that would have pinned him down. Trotsky became quickly impatient and didn’t want to hear the end of the story. It bored him. He interrupted and said: “X should learn how to write better novels.”

He asked questions about American literature and spoke of having read Babbitt, but his admiration for Lewis’ book was qualified. The character of Babbitt seemed unintelligent to him. I spoke of Dreiser whom I praised as a great writer but whose philosophical and general ideas I thought sometimes banal. Trotsky asked how could a man be a great writer if his ideas were stupid. “What American writers need,” he said, “is a new perspective.”

He meant a Marxian perspective. He believed that America would one , day have a great Marxist renaissance. Actually he hadn’t read enough of American literature to know whether American writers did or did not need a new perspective. His statement was a consequence of the confidence of faith. Marxism was a science to him, and it permitted him to predict in faith.

Speaking of how Americans viewed him, I said that many saw him as a romantic figure, in fact as a romantic hero. He said that he knew this and disliked being so regarded. He wasn’t interested in my explanation of how it happened that he seemed to some Americans a romantic figure.

Just before the beginning of the first of the hearings of the Dewey Commission, Trotsky was standing on the porch outside his work room. The divorced wife of a famous American writer crashed the gate, and, inside the home, she went up to Trotsky. She told him that he didn’t know who she was and then identified herself by giving her former husband’s name.

“I am sure,” responded Trotsky, “that if I did know, I should be most impressed.”

Another time, I asked him if he thought that Stalin and Hitler would get together. This was in 1937, and some of us who had engaged in the bitter fight against the Moscow trials had come to believe that a Nazi-Soviet alliance was going to be made. Trotsky answered by remarking that if this happened, it would be a great catastrophe. Around that time, he predicted the Stalin-Hitler pact.

My publisher, James Henle, an old newspaper man, had worked on the New York World in 1917. He had been sent to interview Trotsky, then in New York, and they had met in a bakery on the East Side. Trotsky had struck Henle as an intelligent man. He had predicted the Russian Revolution. But as Henle tells the story, he heard endless predictions in those days. A month later, the February Revolution in Russia happened. Trotsky did not remember this interview.

The last time I saw him, I went to his home on the day before I left Mexico. When I arrived he was talking with Otto Ruhl in his office. Ruhl had stood with Karl Liebnecht during the first World War. When the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded, Ruhl had characterized it as a “pacifist putsch.” He and Trotsky had almost never agreed, it seemed. There they were, two old revolutionaries in exile in Mexico. They still disagreed, and speaking in German, their voices rose. I heard Trotsky talking loudly, in fact shouting. I couldn’t understand a word of German, but I could guess what they were arguing about. Ruhl was still, in Mexico, determined to press his disagreement, with the Bolsheviks of 1917. I was told that soon after this Otto Ruhl and Trotsky stopped seeing each other.

The lunch was simple, but less so than normal. Trotsky was a most gracious host. There was not much talk and then we said good-by. He went to take an afternoon siesta.

His was one of the fastest working minds I have ever encountered. And just to see and talk to him, one had a sense of a great will. His body, his habit were bent to that will. in many ways he was Spartan. There were times in fact during his days of power when he spoke like a man of a modern Sparta, and Isaac Deutscher uses the word Spartan in reference to Trotsky at one point in his biography.

This memoir is passing and random. It does not treat of Trotsky’s theories and ideas. This I shall try to discuss on another occasion. Here, I merely wished to set down passing impressions of Trotsky. His personality was not only strong but highly attractive. He was very gracious. There was a mocking look in his bright eyes, and I had the feeling that he looked out on life with a kind of mockery and irrepressible sense of irony. He had committed himself to an idea, and he had risen to heights of power that few men know. And then, there he was, back in exile. Most of his life was spent in exile. In Siberia, Turkey, England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, he had been an exile – writing, talking, urging, serving a burning idea with total conviction.

He was strikingly different from many exiles. Revolutionary exiles frequently decay and disintegrate. Trotsky didn’t. No man could have known a defeat more total than he. It was amazing how little it damaged him. Writing, fighting the same battle, he didn’t seem like an embittered or unhappy man. I thought of this, and how different are the stories of Napoleon’s exile. Trotsky was a man who might be compared to Napoleon. But in exile, Napoleon bore the strains and the isolation less well than Trotsky. With Napoleon, power was all. To Trotsky, power was the means of making his ideas possible. It was the means whereby man achieved his historic destiny. Power was the arm of a faith. That faith served him in exile.

I was in the hospital, weak and worn, following an operation for a carbuncle. It was night. A radio was on at the head of my bed. I was not listening to it. There was a news broadcast. About half of the words penetrated my mind. Leon Trotsky ... assassin ... not expected to live.

I was shocked. I couldn’t sleep and was given a pill. The next morning, I woke up with a feeling of guilt. I had had some dream. Then the news vendor came, and there was the story of the murder. His life was like a Greek tragedy. He was a great hero and a great martyr. But the tragic character of Trotsky’s death only focuses on the great and terrible tragedy of our century. Such burning conviction, such brilliance, such Spartan sacrifice as his – and it went to create a state that evolved into the most terrible tyranny in history. Today, the state which he helped to create stands threatening the freedom of all of us. The values we cherish, the hopes of man for a more decent world, these are now threatened by that powerful state. Trotsky and Lenin were among the great men of this century. But has it ever been that the work, the life of two great men has ended in such brutal and inhuman tyranny? The ironies of their stories are written in blood and suffering. It is now almost thirty-seven years since they were the leaders of the October Revolution. And as we can look back, it, seems from this particular vantage point that we could be no worse off if their work and their achievement had never been. The horrors of Tsardom are as nothing to those which succeeded it.

Trotsky walked in his garden. The sun was shining. The afternoon was at the point of beginning to wane. He went into his work room and sat down with the manuscript his assassin had brought him. The Alpine stock was driven into his brain. His blood fell on a page of the manuscript of his biography of Stalin. The last words he had written were “the idea.” His own blood spilled on that page.



[1] John Dewey in Mexico, in my book, Reflections At Fifty and Other Essays, New York 1954.


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Last updated on 27.12.2002