Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter IV:
Love and Marxism

Trotsky consented to visit his father "as a guest" during the summer after his graduation. It was the summer of 1896. And during this stormy visit the forces of common sense made their last stand. Trotsky was alone in the field, and his father moved up his reserves in the shape of a prosperous but "liberal" uncle from Odessa. Here was a man who could "sympathize with the aspirations of the working man," but had made his own way, in spite of this sympathy, to the head of a good-sized boiler factory. He was the kind of man who is chosen to "represent the public" on an arbitration board, and his function here seems to have been to "see Leon's point of view" and then lead him by gentle steps back into the path of tradition.

What he did see was that Leon's instinct for revolt against tyranny, born in a baby's protest against this father, could never be conquered or lulled to sleep on the original battlefield.

"Get the boy out of the house and stop arguing with him," was his advice. "The more you insist, the more determined he is."

And so it was arranged between them—at least Trotsky believes it was arranged—that his uncle should stumble in upon one of the daily scenes of battle and offer a practical suggestion along this line.

Trotsky had just announced "again and for the last time": "Very well, I will live my own life!" And he stood there beating off the fiftieth assault of the old man's intemperate will.

"Is it really necessary," said his uncle, "to settle this question all at once? Suppose you come with me to Odessa. My wife will be staying on here for a while, and we can live together in my apartment. There is a mathematical faculty at the university, and you can attend some lectures there—or not, just as you wish—and take your time making up your mind."

Trotsky accepted this proposition—not without a mental note to the effect that they were clever, but he could be as clever as they. He wanted to get out of the house, too. He wanted to get into the world where he would be free to consider a problem more engrossing to him than the problem of his personal career. He might study mathematics or not; but what was to be the future course of the Russian revolution? That was the state of mind in which he left home again, during that August or September, to go and live in Odessa with his uncle.

Trotsky did attend some lectures at the mathematical faculty. His gifts in this direction were enough to tempt him. An engineer in Petrograd, the Technical Director of the Baltic Shipyards, who went to school with Trotsky, described to me the superiority of those gifts. He is a friend of the revolution and proud of his playmate, but he could not keep back a sigh of regret that such an engineer had been lost to the profession. A lightning aptitude for mathematics, a restless constructive imagination, a commanding personality—and then a father with plenty of land, plenty of money, and a monumental ambition to build—it is indeed a miracle that Trotsky did not become an engineer. And in order to understand the unique thing that he did become, it is well to bear in mind this original propensity.

Trotsky even went to call one evening upon the professor of mathematics and open the question of a career in that science for himself. He was cordially welcomed, and the idea enthusiastically endorsed, and he came down the steps thinking :

"How pleasant, and what a pity to waste his time!"

He was wasting his uncle's time, too—talking all evening about Napoleon and about Tolstoi and about Julius Caesar and about whether the value in his uncle's goods was all created by the workers-a metaphysical question which for some reason people think they have to settle before they can decide whether to revolutionize this world or not. He was supporting here the view of Karl Marx, although perhaps he did not know it, and his uncle was supporting the view of the head of a boiler factory. And behind this view there was also another relative—at least a relative of his uncle—a more cocksure philistine who had amassed a little fortune in the vicinity of Minsk.

"Oh, we all had these ideas in our youth," he said. "Just wait ten years. I'll bet you a kopek that in ten years you will be laughing at all these ideas."

"I don't care to bring my ideas into relation with your kopeks!" Trotsky said.

I wonder how many revolutions will be required before grown-up people learn not to say to children, "I had those same ideas when I was your age." What made it so shameless for Trotsky to waste his uncle's time in these ideological arguments, was that he was employing his own time in organizing revolutionary "circles" among the workers in his uncle's factory. His uncle knew this, but he never said anything about it. He had taken the job of being a "liberal," and he held to it—until, by the grace of God, his wife came back for the winter, when of course Trotsky moved out.

He went to stay again for a while with the Spencers, earning his living as a teacher, studying a little at the university, playing a good deal and very jovially with his friends and cousins in the evening, but satisfying both the practical and the romantic sides of his nature in the illegal organization of those revolutionary circles.

They were the most amateur organizations you can imagine. Five, seven, or ten persons would come together secretly in somebody's apartment, and they would talk. They would talk about the pressing necessity of overthrowing the czar, establishing a republic, securing freedom of speech, press and assemblage, and calling a strike.

In particular they would talk about the necessity of calling a strike—for some instinct told them that those other necessities, although so pressing, were somewhat old-fashioned. They must call a strike; there was no question about that. But just what to do with the strike after it came, or what relation it might bear to a revolution of the Russian peasantry against the tyranny of the czar and the landlords—upon these points they were not at all clear. They had a "program," however. Somebody showed it a little later to Plechanov in Switzerland, and he laughed.

"They must be children," he said.

They were children, and the most childlike among them in some ways was their leader, around whose radiance they moved as energetically and aimlessly as planets. There never was a more beautiful, there never was a more obviously powerful and startling youth. Trotsky was not yet troubled with any modesty of demeanor. His incomparable ability and his arrant force of character were continually in view.

And so also were his revolutionary intentions. A good policeman would have arrested him on sight. The big shock of uncombed curly black hair, the shirt unbuttoned at the neck, the suit a little ostentatiously old and the shoes ostentatiously dusty, but the person delicately clean, the carriage arrogant, and the tongue as cultivated as it was bold and full of the brag of its extreme opinions—he was too obviously the rich man's son going wrong.

And he was intolerant of opposition, too, and used his terrible charm and facility not only to attract followers but to beat off rivals. He had to be the center of every circle and the source of knowledge, even though he had never read a revolutionary book and his mind was a mere glittering resume of radical magazine articles. To critical eyes, even within those circles of admiration, it seemed doubtful if there was anything more stable here than extreme youth and a romantic taste for outlawry and idealistic venture.

Trotsky sacrificed a great deal to that adventure. He abandoned his studies at the university. He gave all the money he could earn above a simple living. He sat up all night at those meetings, fervently debating, fervently teaching what he knew nothing about. In consequence he came so often late to the school where he earned his living that he was called before the directors, and a series of conditions were laid down to him, concluding with the suggestion that he should cut his hair and trim himself up like a gentleman. This last condition touched the heart of his "adventure," and he gave up the job.

It was not "serious revolutionary activity," to be sure. It was growth rather than activity. But it was serious enough to attract the attention of the police, or at least so his more cautious comrades assured him. He remains unconvinced of this, but after long disputation, yielding to their urgent advice, he decided to move. On the last boat that sailed down the coast that winter, breaking its way through the December ice, he went back to Nikolaev. He took an izvostchik from the port out through the cold to Svigofsky's garden, and he borrowed the money when he got there to pay for it.

Just what Trotsky was going to do here in Nikolaev, aside from earning his meager living as a tutor, was uncertain. He was still valiantly resisting the Marxian theory. He was still defending his "individuality" and the divine importance of "critical thought," and, as a logical although somewhat remote corollary, the divine right of the Russian peasant to conduct the Russian revolution. But he had not taken the trouble to look in the eyes of a peasant, and he had in fact been already at work as an agitator among the industrial workers.

His practical intuitions were in advance of his intellectual philosophy. He was a Narodnik in theory and in the moral emotions which controlled his speech, but as a general and a born man of action he had already placed himself where the great forces were to be deployed.

Perhaps it was doubt which led him to Nikolaev, a desire to consult again the friends who had first introduced him to the revolution. Perhaps he had already some dim idea of creating an organization among the workers in the factories of Nikolaev. Perhaps that passionate antagonism between him and Alexandra Lvovna played a part in his going. At any rate the first notable thing that he did upon his arrival was not to organize the workers in the factories, but to organize a new onslaught upon this lonely d implacable Marxist.

It was one of those elaborate and not usually very humorous things which we call "practical jokes." And it was operated in the following fashion: Not long after Trotsky's arrival in Nikolaev, and before Alexandra Lvovna had seen him, Svigofsky arrived at her house to congratulate her.

"Did you know," he said, "that Leon Davidovitch has become a Marxist?"

"Oh, don't tell me that," she replied, laughing. "If you want to fool me tell me something I can believe."

"No, it is true," he answered. "He has been doing a lot of reading in Odessa, and he has turned round completely."

Alexandra Lvovna was suspicious, but as she met other members of the group and they all confirmed this joyful piece of news she began more than half to believe it. She believed it in so far at least as to accept the invitation to a New Year's party at Svigofsky's garden, and that was all that was necessary for the purpose of this historic joke.

She found that the gloominess had all disappeared from Leon Davidovitch's bearing, and the sarcasm too. He was glad and friendly in his greeting, and to her question, "What is this they are saying about you?" he replied, "Yes, yes—absolutely—you don't believe it?"

She did believe it then. But she felt a certain levity in the group, such as usually accompanied their opposition to her more serious nature, and she was not comfortable.

At midnight they all took their seats at the table. A little wine had been provided for this exceptional occasion, and as the clock struck twelve Trotsky arose with his glass and proposed:

"A curse upon all Marxists, and upon those who want to bring dryness and hardness into all the relations of life."

There was more of that speech, but Alexandra Lvovna did not hear it. She pushed back her chair and walked out of the room.

Svigofsky came running after her, begging her pardon and urging her not to be angry.

"You know it was only a little joke!" he pleaded as she was putting on her things.

"I know you would sell your friend and your father for a joke," she said. "There are some things too important to joke about. And you can tell Bronstein that he needn't speak to me again. I don't want to have anything more to do with him."

It was a threat which she made good for several weeks, trying in the meanwhile to gather money to go to St. Petersburg, where she could escape from this magnetic tormentor and work among people who shared her beliefs.

The next thing that Trotsky organized in Nikolaev was a "series of lectures." There is some disagreement about the extent of this series. Some think there was only one lecture, and others think there were two. But at any rate the prospectus was very generous. Each of the dwellers in the garden was to take a certain sphere of "Universal Knowledge" and illuminate it with a discourse, to which the general public would be invited, and which would be followed by an open debate.

Trotsky very generously offered to take as his sphere both "Sociology" and the "Philosophy of History," two subjects about which he knew absolutely nothing at all. He also graciously offered to deliver the first discourse, and he took pains to invite to his discourse the most learned people in the town, including several who did know something about sociology and the philosophy of history.

Now Trotsky had, like all richly intellectual people who can think rapidly, a wonderful gift of bluff. He could catch so quickly the drift of an opponent's thought, with all its mental implications, that it was very difficult to overwhelm him with mere knowledge. He seemed to have the knowledge himself, and a little more too in the same line, before you could get it out of your mouth.

He was not unaware of this gift. Once at a mutiny in Odessa he gave quite an extended report of an article which he had merely heard about; he was persuaded afterward to read the article, and said, "Well, I see he agrees with me !"

What Trotsky was not aware of was the enormous difference between conversation and a lecture. He had no idea what it would be to stand up there all alone in Universal Knowledge with nobody to start him off, nobody to keep him going, nobody to stop him—not a word from anybody but himself.

There is no record of what Trotsky said in this first lecture. No one could possibly have made a record of it. He quoted Gumplowitz and he quoted John Stuart Mill—that much is remembered—and he got himself so terribly wound up in a sliding network of unintelligible big words and receding hopes of ideas that his audience sat there bathed in sympathetic perspiration, wondering if there was any way under the sun they could help him to stop. When he finally did stop and the subject was opened for general debate nobody said a word. Nobody knew what the subject was!

Trotsky walked across the room and threw himself face down in the pillow on the divan. He was soaking with sweat, and his shoulders heaved with shame, and everybody loved him. That was a very important moment in his life. He was born with too much self-confidence, not with too little.

Being delayed in Nikolaev by the lack of funds, Alexandra Lvovna could not very web help falling again into the hands of this indefatigable organizer. This time it was a revolution in the public library that was under consideration. It seems that the directors of the library were elected by the members, who had to pay six rubles each for a membership card; and the mere readers, the general democratic public who came there to use the books, had no voice. The books and magazines were becoming more and more exclusive and aristocratic, and Trotsky decided that nothing but a complete overthrow and seizure of power by the general reader would answer the demands of social justice.

For this purpose it was necessary to arm the general reader with six rubles, and a meeting must be called to collect these rubles. Well, the best collector in town, as also the best and most intelligent lieutenant engineer in any sort of conspiratorial undertaking, was Alexandra Lvovna. We must hold the meeting at her house!

So Alexandra Lvovna was informed that the public library was about to be overturned and that the conspirators would assemble around her stove on a certain evening.

"I will be very glad," she said earnestly, "to do all that I can."

"It is only fair to tell you," continued the committee, "that Leon Davidovitch is one of us."

"Naturally," she said. "But this I consider a matter of public interest."

And so out of consideration for the public—who were to receive as rude a shock as they ever received in their lives—this private quarrel was again a little prorogued or suspended. To tell the truth Leon Davidovitch himself was not very proud of the New Year's party when he got ahead and looked back at it. He greeted Alexandra Lvovna with an apology, and Marx and Michaelofsky joined hands most cordially in kicking the "nice people of Nikolaev" out of control of the public library. A large fund was collected—more than half of it Trotsky's re-doubled earnings as a private tutor.

The annual meeting of the members was called, and the astonished directors, accustomed to a routine endorsement from a sleepy half-dozen, found themselves in the presence of a large and lively-whispering assembly. They listened to a proud, gay and presumptuous denunciation from a very young man in a blue workman's blouse and found themselves voted out without further ceremony. Svigofsky was elected director of the library, and various more or less "unsavory" personalities—such as Osipovitch, a Russian novelist who had done his time in Siberia—were elected to the board of trustees.

The kind of bouquets that grew in this garden of Svigofsky's was becoming more and more obvious. It was becoming a matter of public comment and moreover people were drifting in there who did not really seem to "belong." An ignorant, narrow-faced young "engineer" named Shrenzel arrived in town, a man with an amazing faculty for revealing his ignorance about everything that interested him. He decided that he was a disciple of Svigofsky. He sat there listeniing with stupid intensity like a surprised rat while Trotsky made that midnight speech about Marxism, but he liked it very much and became a great and boresome friend of the orator.

Another indication of their notoriety was the attitude of the two men employed by Svigofsky to work in the garden. One day Trotsky, who was always educating when he was not organizing, put his hand on the shoulder of one of these men, asking whether he knew how to read and write. The man drew back foolishly and made a strange noise as though he were half-witted. Subsequently he recovered his wits and asked Trotsky:

"What is a Terrorist?"

Trotsky explained to him the ideas of the Terrorists—sympathetically, although he himself never believed in their methods.

Another day the younger boy asked Trotsky: "What is a Terrorist?"

And this older man answered explosively, as though he could not contain himself:

"A Terrorist is a brigand!"

A suspicion crossed Trotsky's mind that these men might be spies, but he forgot it again.

It was just at this inauspicious time—in the spring of 1897—that Trotsky decided to undertake the illegal organization of the workers in the factories of Nikolaev. Gregory, the younger of the Sokolofsky brothers, was the one who proposed it. The fruit trees in Svigofsky's garden were showing the first green-tinted buds, and the Rind was coming wet and soft out of the south. The exhilarating miracle of regeneration was all around them while they talked, and they talked with a new sense of the reality of the great event to come.

A new excitement, a new force, was perceptible in the journals that they read. It had been a year of revolutionary awakening, the year of the enormous strikes of the textile workers in St. Petersburg, conducted by the "Union of Struggle," which acknowledged the leadership of Marx and Plechanov. Similar unions had arisen in Kiev, in Moscow, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav. It was the year when Lenin, at the head of the Petrograd union, first won the confidence of the Russian workers and was shipped off to Siberia by the czar.

It was not a year when a born commander of men, who believed in the liberation of Russia from all her oppressors, could be content to play the game of personality, to organize lectures and intellectual parties, to distribute little innocuous books of culture or even to go off secretly and write a great revolutionary drama, as he and Ilia Sokolovsky had been doing. It was a year for action. All the years thereafter would be-all the minutes of the years—for action. "Faith without works is death"—that was the motto which Trotsky chose for himself in these decisive days.

His good friend Spencer saw him and asked him if it would not be a good idea to finish his education first and then take up the work of agitation.

"There isn't time," he said.

The Marxian propaganda that was finally searching the workers in these days had been born in Russia four years after Trotsky was born. In the year of Trotsky's birth, 1879, Plechanov's philosophic opposition split the old Narodnik organization, "Land and Liberty," into two groups—the Narodnaia Volia, which consecrated itself to a campaign of individual terrorism, and the Tchorny Perediel, which still rested its hopes more or less upon "the People." The Terrorists carried off all the honors of this split, rising thereafter to the height of their power, and becoming upon the assassination of the Czar Alexander in 1881 the most famous revolutionary organization in the world.

But the reaction was swift and terrible. Hanged, exiled and murdered at hard labor by the government of Alexander the Third, the leaders disappeared. The followers lost faith, and Russia entered into one of her blackest periods of political reaction and literary mysticism or despair. It is the period epitomized in Tchekov's writings—a period of the dead hopes of a most heroic movement.

In the mold of these dead hopes the Marxian seed was planted. Plechanov had been driven abroad by the czar's police, and in exile he had studied scientific Socialism. In 1883 he founded in Switzerland a little group called "The Emancipation of Labor," and they began pouring a thin stream of Marxian literature into Russia. In 1885 they issued a "Prospectus of a Program for the Russian Social Democracy," demanding that the workers, winning the sympathy of the poorer peasants, should seize the political power and establish a "temporary rulership of the working class." This still seemed a preposterous suggestion, and might indeed have remained so, had not history taken the pains to prove it.

But factories were building by thousands in Russia in the years that followed; strikes were multiplying; the czar's Cossacks were herding the workers hack to their tools, driving in with the thongs of their whips the truths that Plechanov was telling. It was inevitable that the Russian revolution should revive. It was inevitable that Marxians should play in that revival the leading role that had been played by the champions of personality and the peasant in the '70's. It was inevitable that a man born in Russia with the birth of the Marxian movement, having the intellectual equipment of an engineer and turning from the mechanical to the social field of engineering, should turn to Marxism.

Trotsky could get no support from Svigofsky in what he had decided to do. Svigofsky had discovered that the elder of the two workmen employed in his garden was to be seen on the other side of the town dressed in the uniform of a policeman decorated for service. He told hem that they would succeed in nothing but attracting a provocateur and landing themselves in jail. He criticized their opinions and advised against their plans.

Trotsky had only his young friend Sokolofsky with him. He had need of maturity; he had need of a counselor, clear-minded as well as courageous. He knew all along where she was to be found.

"What do you say we go seriously to work," he said, "organizing the men in the factories?"

Alexandra Lvovna agreed. She did not say anything about the change in his theoretical position.

"I thought I would let him find that out for himself," she says.

A long time afterward when they were living together in Siberia she asked him how "a person so sympathetic and sensitive in all the relations of life, could play such a crude trick as he had played on that New Year's day." He told her that he had come back from Odessa with certain doubts in his mind about Marxism, and when he expressed these doubts Svigofsky, instead of criticizing or counseling, had ridiculed him and taunted him with her influence. Then they had cooked up together this heroic last effort to save his soul from the truth.