Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter IX:
Lenin and Trotsky

AFTER two happy months in Paris Trotsky went on with his pilgrimage to Lenin. He has himself described, in a little book about "Lenin and the Early 'Iskra,' " how they first met. I will quote from that book, as it is the most authentic account of this period of Trotsky's life.

But to make the picture that it gives complete the reader must know that Lenin loved Trotsky. He took him wholly into his heart with that union of revolutionary admiration and personal affection which was the romantic motive in his life. He recognized Trotsky's magnificent powers instantly, and with such confidence that he was only prevented by Plechanov from making him one of the editors of "Iskra."

I arrived in London [Trotsky writes] in the autumn of 1902—it must have been October—-early in the morning. A cab, engaged by the method of gesticulation, delivered me at an address written on a slip of paper, my ultimate destination. That was the apartment of Vladimir Ilych. I had already learned—it must have been in Zurich—to knock the proper number of times at the door.

The door was opened, as I remember, by Nadiezhda Konstantinovna, whom I suppose I had roused out of bed with my knocking. The hour was early, and any experienced person, anyone accustomed, as you might say, to civilized social life, would have sat still at the station for a couple of hours instead of knocking before dawn at a strange door. But I was still loaded full of my successful escape from Verkholensk. In practically the same way I had routed up the household of Axelrod in Zurich, only not at dawn, but in the middle of the night.

Vladimir Ilych was still in bed, and the welcome in his face was mingled with a legitimate perplexity. In those circumstances occurred our first meeting and our first conversation. Both Vladimir Ilych and Nadiezhda Konstantinovna knew about me already from the letter of Krizhanovsky, who had officially enrolled me in the organization of "Iskra" under the nickname of "Piero." So I was met this way:

"Well, Piero has come."

... They poured me some tea in the kitchen-dining-room. And meanwhile Vladimir Ilych dressed himself. I told about my escape and complained of the bad condition of the "Iskra" frontier; it was in the hands of a high-school student, a Social-Revolutionary who looked upon the Iskrovtsi, thanks to the cruel polemic blazing up between them, with small sympathy; moreover the smugglers held me up cruelly, raising all tariffs and established standards. To Nadiezhda Konstantinovna I gave my modest baggage of names and addresses, exact information as to the necessity of abandoning certain useless addresses.

I don't remember whether it was the same day or the next morning that Vladimir Ilych and I took along walk through London. He showed me Westminster Abbey (from the outside) and certain other eminent buildings. I don't remember what he said, but the shading of it was:

"That's a fine Westminster of theirs."

Of theirs meant, of course, not of the English, but of the enemy. That shading, not in the least emphasized, deeply organic, expressed mostly in the timbre of his voice, was always noticeable in Vladimir Ilych when he spoke of some treasures of culture or some new achievement—of the structure of the British Museum, of the wealth of information in the "Times"—or many years after, of the German artillery or French aviation; they can or they ken, they have made or achieved—but what enemies! The invisible shadow of the exploiting class rested in his eyes upon all human culture, and he perceived that shadow always, and with the same indubitability as the light of day.

As far as I remember, I bestowed at that time upon London architecture a minimum of attention. Tossed all at once from Verkholensk beyond the border, where I was arriving for the first time, I took in Vienna, Paris, London, only in the most summary fashion. I had no time for "details" such as the Westminster Cathedral. Yes, and it was not for this that Vladimir Ilych had invited me on that long walk. His object was to get acquainted, to give me an examination. And the examination was indeed "on the whole course...."

As to my further work the conversation was at that time of course very general. I wanted first of all to get acquainted with the literature which had already appeared, and afterward I assumed that I would return illegally into Russia. It was decided that I ought in the first place to "look around a bit."

For lodging Nadiezhda Konstantinovna led me several blocks away to a house where lived Zassulitch and Martov and Blumenfield, who managed the typographical side of "Iskra." There was a free room there for me. That apartment was arranged, according to the customary English style, not horizontally but vertically. In the lowest room lived the landlady and then, one above the other, the tenants. There was one free sitting room which Plechanov christened the "den." In that room, thanks largely to Vera Ivanovna Zassulitch, but not without the cooperation of Martov, there reigned an enormous disorder. Here we drank coffee, smoked, came together for conversation.

Here began the short London period of my life. I devoured greedily the numbers of "Iskra" which had already appeared, and the little magazine "Zaria." At that time I began my contributions to "Iskra." For the two hundredth anniversary of the Schlusselburg Fortress I wrote a small article, my first work, it seems, for "Iskra." My article ended with Homer's words, or rather the words of Homer's translator Gniedich, referring to the "hands unvanquished" which the revolution will lay on czarism. (I had been reading the Iliad in the train on my way from Siberia.) Lenin liked my article, but as to the "hands unvanquished" he felt a legitimate doubt and expressed it to me with a good- natured smile.

"Yes, that is a line from Homer," I justified myself.

But I willingly agreed that a classic quotation was not obligatory. You can find my small article in "Iskra," but without the "hands unvanquished."

At that time also I made my first speech in White-chapel, where I came into conflict with the "old man" Chaikovsky—he was even then an old man—and with the anarchist Cherekiesov, also not young. I was sincerely astonished that eminent, gray-bearded emigrants could talk such obvious nonsense. ...

During my stay in London Plechanov came for a short visit, and I went to see him the first evening. In the little room, besides Plechanov, sat a fairly well-known German writer, a Social-Democrat, Baer, and the Englishman Askew. Not knowing where to put me, since there were no more chairs, Plechanov—not without hesitation—proposed that I should sit on the bed. I considered this to be in the usual order of things, not guessing that Plechanov—a European to his finger-tips—could only in the most extreme circumstances decide upon such an extraordinary measure. The conversation was conducted in the German language, with which Plechanov was insufficiently acquainted, and therefore it was limited to monosyllabic remarks.

Baer and Askew soon departed. George Valentinovitch, with ample justification, expected that I would depart with them, since the hour was late and we ought not to disturb the landlady with conversation. I, on the contrary, considered that the real thing was only just beginning.

"Baer said some interesting things," I remarked.

"Yes, as to English politics interesting, but as to philosophy nonsense," answered Plechanov.

Seeing that I did not intend to withdraw, he offered me a neighborly glass of beer. He put me a few idle questions, was agreeable enough; but in his agreeableness there was a shade of hidden impatience. I felt that his attention wandered. It is possible that he was merely tired after the day. But feeling of dissatisfaction and hurt....

One Sunday Vladimir Ilych and Nadiezhda Konstantinovna and I went to a Socialistic church in London, where a Social-Democratic meeting alternated with the singing of revolutionary-pious psalms. The orator was a typesetter who had returned to his native land, it seems, from Australia. Vladimir Ilych translated his speech to us in a whisper, and it seemed revolutionary enough, at least for those times. Afterward everybody stood up and sang: "Almighty God, do something so there will not be any more kings and rich people!" or something of that kind.

It is needless to say that Vladimir Ilych lived more than modestly with Nadiezhda Konstantinovna and her mother. Returning from the Social-Democratic church, we dined in the little kitchen-dining-room of their two-room apartment. I remember, as though it were now, the slices of fried meat served in a frying-pan. We drank tea and joked as always about the question whether I would be able to find my way home alone....

After my "trial speech," as you might call it, at Whitechapel, they sent me for a tour on the Continent—to Brussels, Liege, Paris. My speech was on the subject: "What Is Historic Materialism, and How Do the Social-Revolutionaries Understand It?" Vladimir Ilych was much interested in the theme. I gave him a detailed outline to look over, with citations and so forth. He advised me to work up the speech in the form of an article for the coming number of "Zaria," but I lacked the courage.

From Paris they summoned me quickly back to London by telegram. It was a question of sending me illegally into Russia—Vladimir Ilych's idea. There were complaints from Russia about arrests, a lack of workers, and it seems Krizhanovsky had asked for my return. But before I had time to reach London the plan was changed. A. G. Deich, who was living then in London, and was very kindly disposed to me, told me subsequently how he "interceded" for me, arguing that "the youth" (he never spoke of me otherwise) needed to live a little abroad and educate himself, and how Lenin after a certain amount of opposition had agreed to this. I was allured by the idea of working in the Russian organization of "Iskra," but I nevertheless willingly stayed for a certain time abroad.

In the London period, as also later in Geneva, I was with Zassulitch and Martov far oftener than with Lenin. Living in London in the same apartment, and in Geneva lunching and dining in the same restaurants, Martov and Zassulitch and I met several times a day, whereas with Lenin, who took his meals at home, each meeting outside the official conferences was already something of a little event....

Before the great convention of the party, which was held in London in the summer of 1903, the office of "Iskra" was transferred to Geneva, and all the preparations for the convention, and the preliminary conferences of the delegates, were conducted there. Trotsky was "sent to Paris" on his way to Geneva—he succeeded in being sent to Paris, it seems, every once in a while—and he and Natalia Ivanovna went to Geneva together. Of the days in Geneva he relates some further things that belong as much to his own biography as to Lenin's:

The sharpest question for Lenin [he says] was how to organize for the future the central organ of the party, which was going to be practically also the Central Committee. Lenin considered it impossible to preserve the old group of six. Zassulitch and Axelrod upon a disputed question almost invariably took the side of Plechanov, and thus at the best you had a deadlock of three against three. Neither group would agree to remove someone from the Collegium. There remained the opposite course, to enlarge the Collegium. Lenin wanted to introduce me as a seventh member, with the idea that from the seven as a broad editorial board he would separate out a narrower editorial group consisting of Lenin, Plechanov and Martov. Lenin made me acquainted with this plan gradually and without saying a word of the fact that it was I he had proposed as a seventh member of the editorial board and that this proposition had been accepted by all except Plechanov, in whose person the whole plan encountered a decisive resistance. The very inclusion of a seventh member meant in the eyes of Plechanov a retirement of his group; it meant four "young ones" against three "old."

I think that this plan was the most important cause of George Valentinovitch's very unfavorable attitude to me. But to increase it there were other little open conflicts of ours before the delegates. These began, it seems, upon the question of a popular journal. Certain delegates insisted on the necessity of establishing alongside of "Iskra" a popular organ—so far as such a thing was possible in Russia....

Lenin was decidedly opposed to this plan. His reasons were various, but the principal one was the danger of a special grouping which might form itself upon the basis of a popular simplification of the ideas of the social democracy before the fundamental nucleus of the party had become sufficiently strong. Plechanov spoke decisively for the formation of the popular organ, opposing Lenin and clearly seeking support among the delegates. I supported Lenin. In one of the conferences I developed the idea—rightly or wrongly, it does not matter now—that what we needed was not a popular organ, but a series of propaganda brochures and leaflets which would help the advanced workers to raise themselves to the level of "Iskra"; that a popular journal would supplant "Iskra" and blur the political physiognomy of the party, reducing it to Economism, etc. Plechanov objected.

"Why blur it?" he said. "Obviously in a popular organ we cannot say everything. We will advance demands there, slogans, and not occupy ourselves with questions of tactics. We will say to the workers that it is necessary to struggle with capitalism, but we will not, of course, theorize as to how to struggle with capitalism."

I seized upon that argument.

"But the Economists and Social-Revolutionaries say that it is necessary to struggle with capitalism! The difference between us begins exactly there—how to struggle. If in a popular organ we do not answer that question we ipso facto blur the distinction between us and the Social-Revolutionaries !"

My answer had a very triumphant look. Plechanov found nothing to say. Obviously this episode did not improve his attitude to me....

Trotsky describes another of these conflicts in which Lenin supported him against Plechanov, and he continues:

In both these instances the sympathy of Vladimir Ilych was, as we see, upon my side. But at the same time he observed with alarm how my relations with Plechanov were becoming spoiled—a thing which threatened final destruction to his plan for reorganizing the editorship. In one of the next conferences with newly arrived delegates Lenin, leading me aside, said to me:

"On the question about a popular organ, better let Martov answer Plechanov. Martov will lubricate the thing, but you will start chopping. Better let him lubricate !"

Those expressions chop and lubricate I clearly remember.

Trotsky may well remember those expressions, for they point to the one thing which prevents him from being a great political leader. Lenin called it "excessive self-confidence," but Trotsky's self-confidence is not greater than that of Lenin. What Trotsky lacks is a sense of the feelings of the other man—an immediate sense that is not a matter of reflection and that would guide him unconsciously to those words and gestures which center the attention upon objective issues and not upon personal relations. When Trotsky triumphs, it always has a "triumphant look." When Lenin triumphs, it is just the truth, and nobody is disturbed. Trotsky is too full of himself—not in a vain way, although many people mistakenly think so—but he is too full of his own will and his own passion to orient himself tactfully in a group. For that reason, while he is great as a commander and inspirer—and also as a thinker—he is not great as a leader of men.