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Pierre Frank

Book Reviews

Trotsky’s Diary in Exile – 1935

(Winter 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 5, Winter 1959, pp. 62–64.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Trotsky’s Diary in Exile – 1935
Translated from the Russian by Elena Zarudnaya.
218 pages, Cambridge (Harvard University Press), 1958, $4

As a revolutionary militant, Trotsky did not usually resort to the literary device of a diary; but at certain periods of his life, when he found himself in a sort of captivity, he set down notes on paper. This was the case in 1935 at a moment when – the French government having just notified him of a new expulsion order, and there being no country that would grant an entry visa – Trotsky was forced to live in a village in the Dauphinois, under a police surveillance that deprived him of normal conditions for work, without a secretary, and receiving his mail only at rare intervals. He noted down, more or less daily, remarks and observations, both on political events and on his reading, on the incidents of his life and that of his companion Natalia, the fate of his family in the USSR, etc. Soon after his arrival in Norway, he again found normal conditions for work, and ... forgot this “diary,” which was rediscovered in the archives deposited at Harvard University.

Before going on to this unpublished document of Trotsky, one cannot refrain from smiling at the preface by the university dons who edited it. Imbued with bookish knowledge, these gentry express an unusual incomprehension of men, events, and ideas. For them, the turn from the reform of the Third International to the struggle for the Fourth International is “the abstract political level of Trotsky’s crisis in exile”; the general character of the man is that of the “revolutionary intellectual in politics, the ‘outsider’ with his ideologies.” These Harvard gentlemen see politics only at the level of US bourgeois parties. Astonished to find in Trotsky a man of a deep sensitivity, they cannot understand that in this diary there are to be found “no ideological doubts or even soul-searching.” We can imagine into what a laugh Trotsky would have exploded on reading such lines about himself.

But let us leave these distinguished university scholars, and come to Trotsky’s diary itself.

On all the purely political part there is no need to insist. The notes here relate above all to the events that were then occuring in France, between the reactionary coup de force of 6 February 1934 and the rise of the Popular Front: they have been worked up, in a much more finished form, in articles which the Fourth International reprinted a few months ago in French. [1]

The interest of this diary lies in the fact that it gives an insight into the Trotsky of the last exile, of the Trotsky who, after having created and led the Red Army in the first years of the revolution, had been exiled and harried by Stalinism. In the literature about Trotsky, there are many remarkable pages written during the extraordinary years of the Russian revolution, describing either the pre-1917 militant, or “the sword of the Revolution” (Radek); but up till now it is at best only episodically that anything has been written on the last period of his life, from 1928 to 1940, on years such as none of the great revolutionaries ever experienced. After he had twice in his life been at the head of a revolutionary movement, after he had held second place in the leadership that removed one-sixth of the globe from capitalist domination, the state thus created had turned its forces against him, had driven him out, and had forced him to live a life alien to his temperament : he was everywhere under observation, he could not mix freely with people, his activity was inevitably limited to a small number of persons. He was cut off from his companions-in-arms, who were to be broken by Stalinist terror. Still more, in the workers’ movement outside the USSR, he no longer had any comrade of his own generation; those who joined him were young people – of whom many turned out to be migratory birds incapable of resisting the rigors of the climate caused by the parallel rises of fascism and Stalinism – young people with whom, in spite of everything, he could not have as close relationships as with men of his own age. And lastly, though no great revolutionary has escaped the infamies and calumnies of those whose existence and petty interests he disturbed, nobody – not even Blanqui – experienced such an avalanche, such a downpour of muck and lies, backed by the authority of the first workers’ state. And they are still far from having been wholly swept away.

Trotsky, whose personal life and revolutionary activity were one and the same, gave many details about himself in his autobiography; but that ended practically at the beginning of the third exile. In addition, there were depths in his being that could be glimpsed by living close to him or by reading his works, but which he did not reveal: he was not “soul-searching,” to use the expression of the Harvard university scholars, but his deep inner life can perhaps be appreciated, more than in any other of his writings, in the “diary” that has just been published.


There are, in this diary, as one might expect, abundant reflections about literature and art. Though in many other fields there have not been lacking Marxists of uneven value, in the field of aesthetics on the contrary, those who contributed something, can be counted singly. Marx, Engels, and Lenin, in this field, did not go beyond a few remarks, though these were worthy of their genius. Mehring and Plekhanov were the first to work in this field. Trotsky has, without any doubt, made a most considerable and eminent contribution. But at the very moment when “destalinization” has affected Communist intellectual circles, they not only do not dare look Trotsky’s way in the matter of the analysis of Stalinism and the economic and political problems of transitional regimes (that would run the risk of leading them to revolutionary conclusions), but they are also unaware of Trotsky’s work as a Marxist literary critic. Among the causes of this state of things, there is evidently the difficulty, the impossibility, of disassociating the two fields in an absolute way, but there is also the fact that Trotsky, showing himself to be an incomparable master, stimulating the thought of his readers in whatever field he treats, never resorts to the fashion of the professors, never pontificates, and his thought always concerns itself with the immediate present, yet without losing historical perspective. What has not been said of late about Soviet literature ? In any case, nothing as concise and profound as this note made in the diary under the date of 9 March 1935:

Aleksey Tolstoy’s novel, Peter I, is a work remarkable for the immediacy of its feeling for the remote Russian past. Of course this is not “proletarian literature” : as a writer A. Tolstoy has his roots in old Russian literature – and world literature as well, naturally. But undoubtedly it was the Revolution – by the law of contrast – that gave him (and not him alone) an especially keen feeling for the peculiar nature of Russian antiquity – immobile, wild and unwashed. It taught him something more: to look beneath the ideological conceptions, fantasies and superstitions for the simple vital interests of the various social groups and of the individuals belonging to them. With great artistic penetration A. Tolstoy lays bare the hidden material underpinnings of the ideological conflicts in Peter’s Russia. In this way individual psychological realism is elevated to social realism. This is undoubtedly an achievement of the Revolution as an immediate experience and of Marxism as a general doctrine.

Mauriac, a French novelist whom I do not know, an Academician (which is a poor recommendation), wrote or said recently: we shall recognize the USSR when it produces a new novel of the calibre of Tolstoy or Dostoievsky. Mauriac was apparently making a distinction between this artistic, idealistic criterion and a Marxist, materialist one, based on relations of production. Actually, there is no contradiction here. In the preface to my book Literature and Revolution I wrote about twelve years ago:

“But even a successful solution of the elementary problems of food, clothing, shelter, and even of literacy, would in no way signify a complete victory of the new historic principle, that is, of Socialism. Only a movement of scientific thought on a national scale and the development of a new art would signify that the historic seed has not only grown into a plant, but has even flowered. In this sense, the development of Art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.”

However, it is impossible in any sense to represent the novel of A. Tolstoy as a “flower” of the new epoch. It has already been stated why this is true. And the novels which are officially regarded as “proletarian art” (in a period of complete liquidation of classes!) are as yet totally lacking in artistic significance. Of course, there is nothing “alarming” in this. It takes some time for a complete overturn of social foundations, customs and assumptions to produce an artistic crystalization along new axes. How much time? One cannot say off-hand, but a long time. Art is always carried in the baggage train of a new epoch, and great art – the novel: – is an especially heavy load. That there has been no great new art so far is quite natural and, as I have said, should not and cannot alarm anyone. What can be alarming, though, are the revolting imitations of a new art written on the order of the bureaucracy. The incongruities, falsity and ignorance of the present “Soviet” Bonapartism attempting to establish unlimited control over art – these things make impossible any artistic creativity whatsoever, the first condition for which is sincerity. An old engineer can perhaps build a turbine reluctantly; it would not be first-rate, because it had been built reluctantly, but it would serve its purpose. But one cannot, however, write a poem reluctantly.

It is not by accident that Aleksey Tolstoy retreated to the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth in order to gain the freedom essential to the artist.

In addition to general observations like the foregoing, how many remarks about a book or an author! In 1935, Jules Romains, the first volumes of whose Hommes de bonne volonté had appeared, was setting out in politics. In a few lines Trotsky judges him as both politician and writer:

As a writer (and even more as a politician) he is evidently lacking in character. He is a spectator, not a participant. But only a participant can be a profound spectator. [...] A spectator like Romains can be a remarkable writer, but he cannot be a great writer.

One day chance caused Trotsky to read Frapié’s La Maternelle, a winner of the Goncourt Prize in a period when this distinction made less fuss. About the work of this author, of whom he knew nothing, Trotsky wrote:

[...] He shows very courageously the back yard – and the darkest corner of the back yard – of French civilisation, of Paris. The cruelty and meanness of life strike hardest at the children, at the smallest ones. Frapié, then, set himself a problem of looking at present-day civilisation through the frightened eyes of the hungry maltreated children with hereditary vices in their blood. The narrative is not sustained artistically; there are breakdowns and failures; the heroine’s arguments are at times naive and even mannered; but the author succeeds in creating the necessary impression. He knows of no way out and does not even seem to be looking for one. The book is charged with hopelessness. But this hopelessness is immeasurably higher than the smug and cheap recipes of Victor Margueritte.

The same acuteness of observation, joined with the same superior ability to deduce general ideas and social conclusions, is to be found again when, leaving the field of literature, he notes the contacts he was having with people, inevitably forced contacts with various “authorities” and official figures, or inevitably brief and scarcely developed contacts with people who, more often than not, did not know who he was. Prosecuting attorneys, policemen, clerks of court, prefects, hotel or pension proprietors, barbers, etc. Little touches, graphic and full of irony, toward officials anxious not to get on his account into any trouble that might impede their careers. And these words that cannot be read without their evoking so many miserable memories:

There is no creature more disgusting than a petty bourgeois engaged in primary accumulation. I have never had the opportunity to observe this type as closely as I do now.

Always extremely sensitive to the contrasts between human progress and knowledge and superstition and prejudices, and the combinations that result therefrom: the radio on the one hand, and, on the other, the manifestations at Lourdes or a royal ceremony in England. On the plane of intelligence, Trotsky does not fail to conclude:

There is a much greater distance between Baldwin and Lenin, as intellectual types, than between the Celtic druids and Baldwin.

He is on the level of Marx, Engels, and Lenin; with them he breathes the fresh air of the mountains, which clears out lungs full of pettiness and insolence, obsequiousness and ignorance. From the pages of this diary, let us excerpt a few all-too-brief lines on Engels, “one of the finest, best integrated, and noblest personalities in the gallery of great men”:

Alongside the Olympian Marx, Engels is more “human,” more approachable. How well they complement one another! Or rather, how consciously Engels endeavors to complement Marx; all his life he uses himself up in this task. He regards it as his mission and finds in it his gratification. And this without a shadow of self-sacrifice – always himself, always full of life, always superior to his environment and his age, with immense intellectual interests, with a true fire of genius always blazing in the forge of thought. Against the background of their everyday lives, Engels gains tremendously in stature by comparison with Marx – though of course Marx’s stature is not in the least diminished by this. I remember that after reading the Marx-Engels correspondence on my military train, I spoke to Lenin of my admiration for the figure of Engels. My point was just this, that when viewed in his relationship with the titan Marx, faithful Fred gains – rather than diminishes – in stature. Lenin expressed his approval of this idea with alacrity, even with delight. He loved Engels very deeply, and particularly for his wholeness of character and all-round humanity. I remember how we examined a portrait of Engels as a young man, discovering in it the traits which became so prominent in his later life.


At the moment that Trotsky was writing his diary, the Stalinist repression, which had already hit heavily at the oppositionals, was about to pass on to a new stage by striking at their families and friends: only, a year later the first big “Moscow Trial” began. Trotsky, who had already been hit by Stalin through several members of his family, saw several others threatened. Trotsky and his companion Natalia were going to be painfully affected already in 1935 by the arrest of their youngest son, Sergei, who, having in his childhood turned away from politics, had become a teacher in an institute of technology and was devoting himself entirely to his technical work.

Anyone who was close to Trotsky and Natalia in these years of exile when they were to learn of the suicide of Zina, the disappearance of Sergei, and the death of Liova, cannot read many pages of this diary without reliving painful hours and without making the striking rediscovery of the incomparable example of these two beings, suffering deeply but showing to the entire world, to the few friends, and to powerful and shameless enemies, a firmness of character of the highest inspiration for young revolutionaries.

In this diary one learns of Trotsky’s and Natalia’s worry about the way that their son Sergei, lacking in political interest, would stand up to his executioners, inspired by an insatiable hatred. Some months ago an unimpeachable witness came to us to bring an account of a chance encounter in 1937, between a communist militant and Sergei, in a prison of the GPU; Sergei, he informed us, behaved in a way full of the dignity and courage whose example he had had before him in his parents.

Among the very moving lines in this diary, perhaps the most touching of all are those that Trotsky devotes to Natalia: they must be read; any commentary would be too poor.


In this diary, Trotsky appears also to be concerned with the idea of death – purely as a revolutionary conscious of the tasks he is accomplishing – and seems to have felt certain premonitory signs in himself:

My high (and still rising) blood pressure is deceiving those near me about my actual condition. I am active and able to work but the outcome is evidently near.

What he feared was not sudden death but prolonged invalidism, and, in that case, he declared flatly that he intended a “suicide” like that of the Lafargues. But at the same time he could not fail to think that, under the conditions of the fierce slanders of the Stalinists against him, this would run the risk of giving rise to erroneous and malevolent interpretations; and so he considered it indispensable to reaffirm in a few lines his unshakable conviction in communism and in the future of humanity, in case he should have been led to take such a decision.

Many other passages give food for thought, whether it be his regret at not having had more time to devote to philosophy, or that dream in which he was talking with Lenin. But of this diary, which was not written for publication and which was forgotten by Trotsky among his papers, it is not possible to fail to reproduce this passage, where a Marxist treats of the role of personality in history, this personality being himself, with impressive objectivity:

Rakovsky was virtually my last contact with the old revolutionary generation. After his capitulation there is nobody left. Even though my correspondence with Rakovsky stopped, for reasons of censorship, at the time of my deportation, nevertheless the image of Rakovsky has remained a symbolic link with my old comrades-in-arms. Now nobody remains. For a long time now I have not been able to satisfy my need to exchange ideas and discuss problems with someone else. I am reduced to carrying on a dialogue with the newspapers, or rather through the newspapers with facts and opinions.

And still I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life – more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to overcome the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with “Trotskyism” (i.e. with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the outcome would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.

Thus I cannot speak of the “indispensability” of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is “indispensable” in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. And I am in complete agreement with Lenin (or rather Turgenev) that the worst vice is to be more than 55 years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession.

To conclude these few reflections on this brief diary which evokes so many things in us, we cannot do better than to apply to Trotsky the diary’s words on Engels, that fit Trotsky himself so well:

Engels’ prognoses are always optimistic. Not infrequently they run ahead of the actual course of events, But is it possible in general to make historical predictions which – to use a French expression – would not burn some of the intermediate stages?

In the last analysis E. is always right. What he says in his letter to Mme Wischnewetsky about the development of England and the United States was fully confirmed only in the postwar epoch, forty or fifty years later. But it certainly was confirmed! Who among the great bourgeois statesmen had even an inkling of the present situation of the Anglo-Saxon powers? The Lloyd Georges, the Baldwins, the Roosevelts, not to mention the MacDonalds, seem even today (in fact, today even more than yesterday) like blind puppies alongside the far-sighted old Engels.


1. For details, see advertisement, p. 72.

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