Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter V:
The work and the Danger

Trotsky was a shining example of that atrocious creature, familiar to all readers of American editorials, the "Outside Agitator." That is to say, he was a man with an extreme social ideal and enough mechanical instinct to know that the only force capable of achieving such an ideal is the organized self-interest of the oppressed classes. He himself possessed no thread of connection with those classes. Sitting there in a garden fragrant with peach blossoms and the memories of high conversation about justice, he was as much puzzled as Plato would have been to find his way to the facts.

Ilia Sokolovsky had once known a worker, a watchman in the public garden, who belonged to a radical religious sect. He might perhaps be radical practically too. Trotsky waited impatiently while Ilia Lvovitch went off in search of this worker. The man had gone away and nobody knew where, but Ilia Sokolovsky brought back the address of some friends of his with whom they might safely open a conversation.

Together they visited these friends, found them in a mood of intelligent revolt against the autocracy, and arrived very quickly at the cause of it—Ivan Andreyevitch Mukhin. Mukhin was a keen-witted mechanic with a sly way of wrinkling up his left eye when he talked, a man of high honesty and authority among the workers. He became the most important member, besides Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna, of the organization that they formed, and he became one of Trotsky's best friends.

Together they gathered a handful of workmen around a table in the Cafe Russia, where a mechanical piano kept up enough noise to shield their conversation. They ordered an infinite quantity of tea and began to talk. It was not easy at first—Trotsky felt constrained. But Mukhin knew how to do it. He told them a story like this:

A man pulled a handful of seeds out of his pocket and set one on the table.

"That's the czar," he said.

Around that he placed some other seeds and said:

"Those are his ministers."

Around them some others:

"Those are the generals."

Then came the nobility, the great merchants, and finally the workers and peasants. When it was all arranged another man reached out his hand and mussed up the lot.

"Now tell which one is the czar," he said, "and which the nobility, and which the worker."

Everybody liked that story. It established a community of feeling among them and enabled Trotsky to talk. He was very moderate at first, not saying all that he thought; but the workers themselves were always pushing him forward. Before many evenings they were occupying all the tables in one wing of the restaurant, and one day when Trotsky came early the waiter met him with the words:

"Your folks are not here yet."

That suggested the necessity for a "conspirative apartment"; and this was secured and fitted up by Mukhin himself with a set of electric signals, making it possible in case of alarm to get away by the back door. Here Trotsky drew up a constitution, and this rapidly growing conversational group became the South Russian Workers' Union.

The organization consisted of "circles," which divided and multiplied very much in the manner of the cells which compose the tissues of organic life. The nucleus of the first circle was Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna, and its growth was almost miraculously rapid. When it reached the prescribed limit of twenty-five members, it divided into two circles, Trotsky going with one and Alexandra Lvovna with the other in the capacity of nucleus—or, as the constitution says, "organizer."

In the new circle they would each attract to themselves another person capable of leadership, so that when another division took place there would be a nucleus in each circle. In this manner eight or nine circles were formed in the course of the spring and summer; and in a city which contained not more than ten thousand workingmen, over two hundred of them had become: dues-paying members of this conspiracy, all of them knew of it, and the majority read its proclamations, either with sympathy or excited antagonism.

These proclamations are extremely persuasive and extremely simple. They speak always about some concrete thing that just happened in the factory, the thing that the workers are talking about as they walk home at night. They speak in the tone of one who is walking along with them.

"You all know about the recent visit to the shipyards of the captain of the port, Fedotov, and you are all doubtless aroused by the ugly conduct of the rude old man; because a few of the workmen did not bow to the captain they were on the order of 'his excellency' immediately listed for discharge...."

Thus he opens a conversation with the workers in the shipyards.

An engineer in the employ of the bosses has called a meeting to denounce one of his proclamations, and he makes that the occasion of another:

"Neyman climbed up to the top story of the electric-dynamo shop, assembled the workers and made a speech in which there were more lies than words; It was not Neyman but his salary that made the speech. 'You are a mere handful,' cried the salary of Neyman,'and you dare to revolt against a terrible power!' Ask Neyman, comrades, whether he reads the papers and knows what is happening in this world. Does he know that 46,000 workers in St. Petersburg alone, by means of two strikes, compelled that same terrible power to give them the law of July 2d concerning the length of the working day?... 'You will suffer in prison,' said this engineer, 'and your wives and children will die of hunger and cold.' You understand how he is worried about your welfare? About you and about your wives and children? Answer Neyman, who knows no other joy but a fat meal and a luxurious dwelling, that there is a joy both higher and more glorious—a struggle for the great cause of freedom and justice."

There is no cant in these proclamations, none of that sarcastic propaganda singsong, which destroys the force of so much Socialist writing in America. They speak directly and warmly, and indeed almost with a feminine tenderness, about the problems of the workers and the beautiful future toward which they may move if they will but stand together in courage and friendship. There was still enough of the child in Trotsky to reveal naively the quality of the emotion that led him into this life of danger and sacrifice. You can read his heart here in these simple documents, the exquisite little letters printed with his own pen and then mimeographed—patient, artistic, clean, holding out the highest hopes to the lowest class.

"During the past year," he writes on New Year's day, "many of the workers of Nikolaev joined together in a union and prepared to begin the fight with the bosses; but we shall be able to fight only when you all, comrades, join with us and we unite in one fraternal union. Let us begin a new life with the new year—a life of men battling with their enemies. ... We do not want to rob or kill; we strive only to make our lives better and better, and to live as men should live.

"Do not believe anyone who says that we are some kind of dangerous persons, some students desiring only to stir up the people. No, comrades, we are workers just like all other workers. Only we want once for all to get out of our poverty and live a human life. We want this not for ourselves only, but for all the workers.... Let our first commandment be 'All for one and one for all.' Then we will soon win our right to assemble in the square and openly discuss the workers' cause. Comrades, for our sacred cause we are ready to lay down our lives...."

It is a different Trotsky distributing this serious and humble New Year's resolution throughout the working-class district of Nikolaev, from the brilliant midnight scoffer at Marxism. It has been a long year. Everybody seems to have noticed a change in him. His friends in Odessa, when he came back there to coordinate the work in the two cities, had no more question about the stability of his enthusiasm. If there had been a little of the young rooster in his radicalism before, it was gone now. If they had felt a fear that pride would take the place of purpose—that he would fall, as so many leaders fall, because he could not bear to see other big men beside him—that too was an error.

There will always be something a little arrent about him—always a little of the volcano. That is, he will be a smiling, disciplined, very reasonable and cooperative person; but if something arouses his indignation and he starts to spitting fire, why he will spit fire without any modesty or any regard for the size of the landscape. Trotsky's sense of right and wrong is as arrogant as Christ's, and it is not tempered with a strong love for his enemies. But for those with whom he works and lives, and for the working masses of this world, his will, though so reckless in its force, is altogether a giving and not a grasping one.

As you see in these proclamations, he has completely identified himself, as though he were a poet, with the workingmen for whom he writes. But he is not a poet, and that exercise of imagination must find its sanction in the actions of his life. It will find its sanction in a perfect loyalty.

"He can be very tender and sympathetic," said Alexandra Lvovna, "and he can be very assertive and arrogant; but in one thing he never changes—that is his devotion to the revolution. In all my revolutionary experience I have never met any other person so completely consecrated."

Trotsky had not yet yielded his theory of personality to Marxism; but his personality had yielded to this slender and beautiful Marxist, to her wisdom. He loved her passionately, and he had turned away from every other goal of devotion but her and the revolution. She was altogether different from him, glowing with the seriousness of her faith instead of flashing with its glory, instinctively respecting every other personality, not flooding over with the force of her own. Poised and warm-eyed and practical, gifted with every gift of gentleness, she was a young and well-loved mother to all the workers in their organization. One of them, a very youthful poet named Leikin, wrote verses in her praise:

She is not the goddess nor the saint
Who brought forth Jesus to the earth,
But our organizer is divine,
And she is holy,
Who rescues lost brotherhood
From the ruinous dark.

Hail to her courage!
Hail to her strength!
Hail to her priceless love for us !

It was an organization more like a band of early Christians perhaps than a modern labor union. There was more affection and more old-fashioned goodness in it, and less science and less business sophistication, than we are accustomed to associate with the colossal idea of organized revolution.

They published in the fall a little magazine entitled "Our Cause," and this magazine, like the proclamations, Trotsky himself printed with his pen. It is a monument of genius and devotion—clean, delicate-lettered, executed with the patient concentration of a Chinese artist-saint, and yet in every sentence hot and young and calling for world-wide action.

Trotsky smiles a little at the "pedantry" with which he used to perfect this journal, bent over his table all night long like a diamond cutter over his jewels. He had spent the day perhaps running from one end of the town to the other collecting three rubles to buy the ink and paper. He had conducted a meeting of his circle in the evening. The day before he had been on his weekly trip to Odessa, helping in the organization there, making speeches, establishing a bond of union between the workers of the two cities. He had gathered a package of illegal literature, and with that for a pillow had dropped for his night's sleep on the third-class deck of the little steamer traveling back to Nikolaev. On Sunday he had assembled a general meeting of the union in the woods with speeches, recitations, greetings brought by a delegate from the workers of Odessa. On Monday he had met the organizers of the separate circles, explaining the organization, settling all disputes, arranging the most minute details of the work. In the meantime he had written the major part of his journal, gathering information about the movement in other cities, in other countries, making up an economic interpretation of Russian history, composing poetry, writing editorials, manufacturing cartoons by cutting out, and combining the figures from different pictures. He had earned his vague living in the odd moments that he could find. And now he would sit up until sunrise night after night, printing this journal with his pen and ink, making each copy clear and exquisite as a prayer-book with his mimeograph machine.

In all this unresting labor in the shadow of danger, nothing was difficult for Trotsky except the "exhibition of his talents." He had not yet learned the three arts of the orator—how to begin, how to keep going and how to stop. The transition from those free-and-easy conversations in the Cafe Russia to the formal meetings in a conspirative apartment was a thing of dread. And still more the general assemblages in the woods or on the shore of the river, where, like John the Baptist, he would stand in the grass preaching a thing he knew nothing about but felt sure of, to people twice as old as he was. He would read and "interpret" some learned pamphlet that he had got hold of, or he would recite a revolutionary poem or call for their questions and boldly attempt to answer them. What he wanted to do was bolt and run.

One Sunday one of the disciples arrived half full of vodka and wanted to participate in everything that was said. He was led away under the bushes to sleep it off, but he slept only long enough for Trotsky to get a good start and then suddenly poked his head out of the brush and demanded an explanation of Darwin's theory of evolution. He was willing to concede, he said, that men were descended from monkeys, but what he wanted to know, and what he wanted to know before any further discussion, was, what was the first animal born from. He expressed this problem in a language more frank than scientific and almost broke up the meeting, for Trotsky knew practically nothing either about Darwin or about how to get out of an embarrassing situation.

Trotsky knew that he knew nothing. That was what made the situation so embarrassing and so full of infinite promise. There is no rest in Trotsky's sense of himself. The thought of all the things that he does not know is a perpetual exhilarating distress. He has now collected on his desk a little pile of books containing the theories of Einstein and is fretting against the duties that will not let him sit down to master them. He understands the theory in the same vague way that you and I do, the same way that he understood the science of the revolution in Nikolaev. But that is not enough. Trotsky has a mind of the highest quality—a mind, that is to say, which perceives precisely the division between that which it knows and that which it does not know—and this, combined with a perfectly dominating desire to excel, makes him an everlastingly young man, a man who can not stop growing.

As is well known, the czar had established a kind of disciplinary free education for young men of this singular promise, with a revolutionary university in Siberia. And Trotsky was heading for this course of education with all the reckless impetuosity of his nature. One day he came back from his weekly trip to Odessa with the news that Shrenzel, the stupid little stranger who hung around the garden, had met him on the boat, and in the course of their conversation had asked why there was not a revolutionary organization among the workers of Nikolaev.

"I wonder if we couldn't use that fellow in some way," Trotsky said. Alexandra Lvovna was more prudent, and she disliked Shrenzel.

"He is absolutely without political intelligence," she said, "and we don't know anything about him. I think you would better leave him alone."

Trotsky consulted Mukhin, and he too advised him to ignore Shrenzel. But Shrenzel met him again the next week, and his enthusiasm had grown.

"Let's start a movement among the workers of Nikolaev!" he said.

Trotsky put him off with some noncommittal suggestion and forgot about him—or tried to. But Shrenzel was always turning up. One day he called at the garden with the news that a worker whom he knew in Kiev had arrived in town, having lost all his documents on the way. There had been a letter of introduction to somebody named "Sophia Michaelovna," but he could not remember the last name.

"Who could that be—Sophia Michaelovna?" said Shrenzel, watching Trotsky's face.

Sophia Michaelovna was the pseudonym of Alexandra Lvovna in their organization.

"I don't know anybody of that name," said Trotsky. "Maybe Alexandra Lvovna does."

She was in the next room, and in order to warn her, he called out: "Do you know anybody of the name of Sophia Michaelovna? Shrenzel wants to know."

Alexandra Lvovna came into the room. "What's her last name?" she said. And as Shrenzel explained that he did not know, she laughed at the little half bald-headed man whom she detested.

"How do you expect to find a person in a town of this size without her last name?" she asked sharply.

And so Shrenzel went away again without getting what he was after.

In his effort to form bonds of union with the movement,in other parts of Russia Trotsky had brought an organizer named Albert Polak from Kiev with a message of greeting from the workers of that city. And in a conversation with Polak he happened to mention this incident.

"Shrenzel" said Polak. "Why, that's the provocateur that disappeared from Kiev! He betrayed one of our comrades to the police!"

Trotsky asked the name of that comrade, and a little later he had Shrenzel in to drink tea with him in Mukhin's apartment. He waited until the man had established himself in his gallantly confidential way beside them at the table and then remarked to Mukhin:

"By the way, did you know that comrade X is coming from Kiev?"

"Comrade X!" Shrevel exclaimed quickly. "Why, that's one of my best friends!"

"Yes," said Trotsky, still talking to Mukhin, "and do you know what happened to him a little while ago? One of his best friends, one who used to sit often with him at the same table, just as we are siting now"—and he indicated Shrenzel—"denounced him to the police, and they arrested him and ruined his whole life."

Mukhin jumped from his seat.

"Contemptible rascal!" he cried. "I would kill a man like that!"

"Well, there he is!" Trotsky shouted, turning; ferociously on the little man, whose lips were white with terror.

Shrenzel testified afterward that Trotsky drew a revolver, and it must have seemed to him like that. He was ordered to get out of the town on pain of death. But it is doubtful if Trotsky knew how to draw a revolver; and it is certain that Shrenzel remained in town and lived to tell the tale in high places.

The police, however, were not depending upon Shrenzel. They had another and more reliable source of information, as Trotsky might have found out one day if he had not been too busy to think. He was busy on his New Year's proclamation. This he was rolling off "the press" in enormous numbers, intending to shower it on Nikolaev like rain. He wanted every worker in town to know about his organization, and in that ambition he was entirely successful.

There were several specially trusted members who helped him in the work of distribution; and the most trusted of all, after Mukhin, was Anani Nesterenko, Alexandra Lvovna's coworker in circle number two. Nesterenko was very versatile—he could write sublime revolutionary poetry and at the same time keep the accounts accurately.

Trotsky had made an appointment to meet him in a lonely lot on the out-of-town side of the cemetery and deliver a large paper tube full of these proclamations. Nesterenko came a little late, and as Trotsky stood there waiting, a strange man rose out of the dusk by the cemetery wall and walked past him very close, staring at him. In a moment Nesterenko appeared from the same direction. Trotsky asked him who that man was, and he answered with just a noticeable confusion that he did not know.

Trotsky did not give any attention to this incident, but he could hardly fail to realize that the police were actively in search of the source of those proclamations—and not only the police, but a good part of the town besides. All of his prudent friends warned him. Svigofsky had long since abandoned the Utopian garden and hired out to a big landlord in the country; but he came back to his wild brood, attended a meeting and urged them to disband before the whole organization was arrested.

It was clear enough that their work was nearing an end. The ever-bubbling poet, Leikin, meeting an open-minded soldier, had decided that he was worthy to be numbered among the blest and explained to him in full detail just what a, proletarian is and what the proletariat intends to do with the world. The soldier went and had a talk with his officer—his mind was open in both directions—and the result was that Leikin was arrested and lodged in the city prison. From Leikin the trail led straight into the heart of their organization. It was only a question of days.

They finally decided to suspend all meetings for a time and disperse. They would allow the trails to cool a little, they thought, and then return and begin again more prudently. But Trotsky knew nothing about prudence. He "dispersed" as far as his father's house, where anybody could find him, and prepared to go to work on the next number of his magazine.