Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter X:
The Birth of Bolshevism

AS YOU See, Lenin was clearly aware long before the convention of a line dividing him from his older associates. He had long ceased to try to regard himself as a pupil of Plechanov. He must have seen almost immediately the lack of dynamic force in that man. And he was beginning to see the same thing in Martov. He was already forming in his mind that division between the "hard" and the "soft," between the "workers" and "gabblers," the "fighters" and "reasoners"—between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks—which was his great fundamental contribution to the science of revolution.

It was in the last analysis a psychological contribution. For although it is an economic fact that makes Mensheviks dangerous to the revolution—the fact that they express in their mental attitude the equivocal economic interests of the petit-bourgeois class and the aristocracy of labor—it is not class interest that makes them Mensheviks. They belong with the Bolsheviks to the class of the intelligentsia, the revolutionary idealists, and what makes them Mensheviks is their attitude toward ideas.

It is impossible to understand Trotsky's life, or indeed the political life of our times, without clearly defining this distinction between two different types of intellectuals, which Lenin's policies have forced into the consciousness and the language of mankind. It is not a distinction merely among Marxists or the advocates of a proletarian revolution; it is a distinction that can be made wherever human beings gather together upon the basis of belief in an idea.

The belief in ideas has two contrary functions in our emotional life, and those in whom it fulfills one function will inevitably divide at the moment of action with those in whom it fulfills the other. We erect an idea in our minds because we are ill at ease or at pain in the circumstances of reality. The original function of the idea was to guide us in an effort to change the reality fundamentally and so get relief. But in order to fulfill this function the idea itself must have for us a certain reality. We must be able to love it, linger upon it, adhere to it in social groups, sacrifice our time and money, and even our respectability, to its cultivation. And in this process we often manage to alleviate the pain of the reality without changing it fundamentally. We do this with the greater ease if we are "intellectual" and ideas are very real to us. They become a kind of daily companion and redeemer of our world, consoling us with an extreme "belief" about its future and yet leaving us free to patch it up in little ways less disturbing and more ready to our hand.

It is obvious that while employing an idea in this latter fashion, we shall resent any attempt to rob that idea of its purity, which is essentially its mentality. we shall resent with equal violence an attempt to prove that the idea is incapable of realization and an attempt actually to realize it—because either of these attempts, if successful, will destroy its value as an object of devout attention, a love and consolation in the pain and ugliness of what is real.

Plato, the first Communist, was an intellectual of this static type. But he was conscious of the fact, and boldly declared that ideas were more interesting and more real to him than things. He had no method, and he had no need of a method, for realizing his Ideal Republic. The modern Menshevik is not conscious of his character. He has not the bold mysticism of Plato, and he has a method for realizing his ideal. The method as well as the ideal enters into the substance of his belief. It is a belief about a real future.

And when that method begins to be actually applied, when that future begins to show its harsh substance in the present, this unconscious Platonist finds himself in a very embarrassing position. He has solved his problem of life by believing in an idea. He has perhaps made it his profession to believe in that idea. And he is compelled in defense of his vital equilibrium, in defense of his very personality—for the belief is deep and sincere—to resist those who undertake to put the idea into action. He is compelled to play the part of hypocrite. But he is not a hypocrite; he is something far more complex and pitiable than that. He is a Menshevik.

It was his sense of this psychological truth, and the marvelous accuracy with which he could drive a line between these two types of intellectuals, that made Lenin's actions so startling during and immediately after this first gathering of leaders for the Russian revolution. He had already annihilated Economism and united a big majority around the banner of "Iskra." But he did not hesitate to go ahead and split this majority again upon the question—essentially—of the relation of intellectuals to the party organization.

Shall idealistic-minded people who give merely money and formal adherence—not disciplined service, risk, personal sacrifice—be considered members of the party? That was the issue upon which the convention split and upon which Lenin in the long run was willing to break with his best political friends, the five other editors of "Iskra," including his great theoretical supporter, Plechanov. For these editors, being of the Menshevik type, instinctively defended the rights of that type in the party constitution. Lenin threw them off, broke with them personally as well as politically—for politics was his life—and went on without their authority, building up that body of dynamic intellectuals whom history has christened with the name of Bolsheviks.

And what became of our altogether dynamic youth, Trotsky, in this startling turn of events? If I have told the reader anything in this book, I have told him that Trotsky is a Bolshevik. Trotsky means action down to the last letter of every word that comes out of his mouth. And Lenin knew that. He considered Trotsky, as we have seen, one of his men, one of the inevitable leaders of the Russian revolution. The relation between them in the first sessions of the convention is indicated in the fact that Trotsky received the nickname among the delegates of "Lenin's Big Stick."

But Trotsky was innocent as a child of the sharpening division which existed among the editors of "Iskra." He thought that they were a perfect and harmonious intellectual family. His first speech,at the convention, which was greeted with storms of applause, was a defense of the proposal to "confirm" this journal as the central organ of the new party. It was a brilliant summing up of the revolutionary history of the preceding decade, a demonstration of the achievement of "Iskra" and a warm, glowing, youthful, wholesale tribute to it and to its editors without distinction.

"It is not only the name that we confirm today," he cried, "it is the banner, the banner around which in actual fact our party united!"

That was the mood in which Trotsky attended the convention—a mood of ardent and indiscriminating admiration for this sacred group, who were assembling the real Marxians—the scientific fighters, as he thought—who would go ahead and achieve the Russian revolution: Plechanov, the great, sharp-minded scholar and father of Russian Marxism; Vera Zassulitch, the heroine of the Terror, who had shot the czar's prime minister for having her comrades flogged and yet afterward had become a Marxist; Martov, the most fluent and capable revolutionary journalist in Russia; Axelrod, for whose "sincere and simple" hospitality Trotsky still has a word of appreciation in his little book about those times; and Lenin, who was already the dominant figure in the group. It is no wonder that Trotsky was carried away with admiration for this galaxy and unable to consider the possibility of a serious discord among them.

"I swallowed 'Iskra' whole," he says, "and it was alien to me, and even a kind of inwardly hostile thought, to seek in it, or its editors, any different tendencies, shades, influences.

"I remember I noticed that certain leading articles and feuilletons in 'Iskra,' although they were not signed, employed the pronoun 'I':'In such a number I said'; 'I already spoke of this in such and such a number,' etc. I asked whose these articles were. They proved to be all Lenin's. In conversation with him I remarked that in my opinion it was awkward from a literary standpoint to use the pronoun 'I' in unsigned articles.

" 'Why awkward?' he asked with interest, supposing perhaps that I was not expressing my own or a casual opinion.

"'Oh, it just seems so,' I answered vaguely, for I had no clearly defined thoughts on the matter.

"'I don't find it so,' Lenin said, and smiled in a kind of enigmatic way.... The signalizing of his articles, although they were not signed, was a measure of insurance for his line of thought, due to a lack of confidence in that of his closest colleagues."

Now, if you will add to this mood of Trotsky —the wholesale devotion to a solidarity which did not exist—the fact that he lived with Martov and Zassulitch, and all his unconscious growth was under their influence, while his meetings with Vladimir Ilych were "something of a little event," you will begin to understand imaginatively why he sided with the Mensheviks at the beginning of that split. His own character was wholly Bolshevik, and he had faith in his friends. He had faith in people that seemed to be like him—in the general run of bourgeois intellectuals who become "sincere Marxists.'!

He was, and is, a bad psychologist in so far as psychology means a penetrating sensitiveness to the dispositions of others. He felt in the first place that Lenin was making a great to-do about a matter of no vital consequence. He opposed Lenin on the floor of the convention in this spirit, and with a very poor speech. And then afterward, when Lenin's break with Martov took a personal form, he was personally incensed. He saw that sacred solidarity of "Iskra" breaking down, and he saw Lenin, in what seemed a wantonly dictatorial spirit, breaking it down.

Maxim Litvinov told me that Trotsky~ came to him in Geneva during the period after the convention, seeking to win him over to the position of the Mensheviks, and the principal burden of his argument was that "Lenin had insulted Martov." Trotsky was young then; he was only twenty-four. And proud people who are full of self-confidence grow up very slowly. A humble man might have been older at twenty.

The split arose specifically upon the adoption of the first paragraph of the constitution of the party; The paragraph offered by Lenin proposed that only those should be considered members of the party who "recognize the program and support the party, not only financially, but by personal participation in one of its organizations." Martov wanted to substitute for "personal participation" the "more elastic" idea of "regular cooperation with" the party, "under the control" of one of its organizations. Trotsky regarded this distinction, just as the uninitiated reader doubtless will, as a matter of no great importance, and he took the side of Martov.

"I am far from giving the constitution a mystic significance," he said. "Lenin ... wants to make it a constricting noose for those politically corrupt and corrupting denizens of the 'cultured circles' who call themselves Social-Democrats in order to assemble the youth and turn them over to Peter Struve. Believe me, comrades, I would be the first to grasp any formula which would be a noose for these ladies and gentlemen.... But what is to prevent them from entering into any broad party organization? ... And what is the sense, I say, in restricting the rights of those solitary intellectuals who stand on the principles of the party program and do service in solitude under the guidance of the organization?"

That was the character of Trotsky's first opposition to Lenin. His enemies like to quote this remark about "solitary intellectuals" and declare that it reveals a "knightly anarchism" which is organically unable to reconcile itself to the narrow frame of organization and party discipline. The real psychology of Trotsky's reaction was exactly opposite to that. His arguments in this speech were simply careless and entirely beside the point, and they show no reason for his subsequent emotional and dogged opposition to Lenin. The reason for that was his passionate and loyal devotion to the solidarity of "Iskra." If he had not had that feeling, which was essentially a feeling for organization and not an individualistic feeling, he would never have been carried out of his course—the course indicated by his own previous speeches and articles in "Iskra"—by the mere accident of personal association. And if he had not had in his mind, all through the years of his political isolation, his notorious "standing alone," the idea and the belief that the true party consisted of the sincere revolutionists in both these groups, he would not have stood alone. His position was one of stubborn loyalty to the true party as he erroneously but realistically conceived it—the party which would actually unite and actually lead the revolution.

It is noticeable that more than once at this convention Lenin spoke immediately after Trotsky, and although he had older and weightier authorities to deal with he gave his best arguments in answer to this youth. And he always answered him gently, too, and very teachingly.

Indeed, I don't know any better way in which to teach the reader what he ought to know about the origin of Bolshevism than by quoting a passage from one of Lenin's answers to Trotsky:

"Coming now to the essence of the matter, I will say that Comrade Trotsky ... missed the nub of the whole question. He talked of the intelligentsia and the workers, the class point of view and the mass movement, but failed to consider one fundamental point: Does my formula broaden or narrow the conception of a party member? If he had put himself that question, he might easily have seen that my formula narrows the conception, and Martov's broadens it, being distinguished (as Martov himself truly said) by 'elasticity.' Now it is exactly 'elasticity,' in such a period of party life as this we are living through, which opens the door for all kinds of dispersing, wavering and opportunistic elements. ...

"The root mistake of those who stand for the formula of Comrade Martov consists in their ignoring one of the prime evils of our party life, and not only ignoring but glorifying it. That evil consists in this: That in an atmosphere of almost universal political dissatisfaction and under conditions of complete secrecy in our work, the concentration of the greater part of our activity in narrow underground circles and even personal conversations, it is to the last degree difficult and well-nigh impossible to distinguish the gabblers from the workers. ... Better that ten workers should not call themselves members of the party (real workers are not so eager for position) than that one gabbler should have the right and the opportunity to be a party member. There is the principle which seems to me irrefutable, and which compels me to fight against Martov..."

Lenin was forming a party of leaders, the vanguard of a revolutionary class, and he knew by some natural miracle of wisdom that more than half of those who offered themselves for membership would be waging war against him when the day of action came. He knew moreover that Trotsky would not. That was why he concentrated such a wealth of fatherly-spoken counsel upon him in the convention. And that was why, when Trotsky went for some months into the camp of the Mensheviks, Lenin never lost confidence in him, never broke with him, as he did with everyone who he believed had realty gone over, consciously or unconsciously, to the side of the enemy.

And through all the long years when Trotsky stood between the two "factions," trying boldly and foolishly to unite them and saying many injurious and erroneous things about Lenin's policy, Lenin never responded to him in a way that would seriously injure his prestige. He never ceased to believe in him. He never ceased to love him with the confident admiration of a comrade in arms. Trotsky received a letter from Lenin's wife the week after Lenin died, which testifies to the personal side of this assertion.

"And I want to tell you this," she said, "the relation which was formed between Vladimir Ilych and you, when you came to us in London from Siberia, never changed with him to the day of his death."

That the political accord between Lenin and Trotsky was also as close at the end as it was at the beginning of their friendship, is known to everybody who has access to political information in Moscow. Lenin offered to Trotsky, when he first fell sick, the position of acting head of the government, which was subsequently given—because of Trotsky's own decision—to Rykov. Three times during his illness Lenin appealed to Trotsky to defend his policies in the party executive in opposition to an opposing group. Once he appealed to him to compel the party organ, "Pravda," to publish an article of his which they withheld because it fiercely criticised one of the institutions organized by this group—an article that has since become a guiding document for the party. And in the weeks preceding his last serious illness Lenin wrote a letter to the party convention, shrewdly characterizing the different party leaders and expressly designating Trotsky as the man in whom he had the most confidence when faced with the prospect of his own death.