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Albert Gates

How the “Old Man” Wrote the History

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Many persons have had the opportunity to visit with and observe the habits of Leon Trotsky, the extraordinary hero and genius of the internationalist socialist movement. Those meetings and associations have been described, though not extensively. A biography of Trotsky has yet to be written, and those fragments which have been recorded of his life since his exile from Russia in 1929 will serve as source material for such biographical purposes.

What is written here is but one of those fragments of his life which left a vivid picture in my memory filled with many lasting impressions of Trotsky.

At the end of the year 1931, the latter part of October, November and part of December, I visited Trotsky in Turkey for what was to be a two-week stay. That it lasted longer was due to the circumstances which governed the life of Trotsky, his wife, Natalia, and the household at that time. A fire made his home on Prinkipo Island uninhabitable and brought him to an old paint-peeling frame house set in a large garden on the outskirts of the town of Kadikoy at the eastern shores of a cove-like extremity of the Marmora Sea. Across the water, several miles distant, lay Istanbul on the European side of the Bosphorus.

Work on the History

I had apparently arrived at a “very bad moment.” Trotsky was occupied with what is undoubtedly his greatest historical and literary work, the History of the Russian Revolution. I had already been told by others what a prodigious worker he was. But now I was actually to see that it was so.

I was soon to observe how completely absorbed Trotsky was in the writing of this monumental work. His main attention and energies were devoted to its writing. Yet at the same time he was to do some of his greatest political pamphleteering (the most prominent work was Germany: The Key to the International Situation) and to assist with advice his numerous co-thinkers in other countries, as well as to maintain an immense correspondence with many people on diverse subjects.

As I recall, Trotsky followed an undeviating schedule of work, the monotony of which was broken by one hunting trip during my visit, and frequent fishing trips in his 12-foot rowboat. He arose about seven in the morning and prepared his work for the day. Breakfast was served about eight in the morning. Thereafter, he returned to his second-story workroom to begin his work in earnest. This was broken by noon-day lunch. After dinner, he would read and prepare his material for the next day’s work.

His writing on the History was intense since, as he told me, the publishers were pressing him to complete the book. But he always needed “a few weeks more time.” You could hear him pacing the thin- planked floor dictating in his ringing metallic voice to a Russian stenographer seated at a typewriter. His hands held a sheaf of notes prepared earlier and there followed the steady outpouring of words and a rhythmic beat of the typewriter.

At times there would be a very abrupt halt in the work. Trotsky would appear downstairs on his way out to the garden. There he walked rapidly back and forth – ten, twenty, thirty minutes and suddenly he would disappear from the garden and you could hear again the sound of his voice and the beat of the typewriter. The garden walks served as a form of relaxation and an opportunity to think through problems which arose in the writing of the history of the Revolution. At other times it seemed that he dictated days without end.

A Scrupulous Historian

He was a most scrupulous historian. This is evidenced by the fact that the work he wrote has never yet been challenged even in its minutest details.

Intellectual life in Turkey was not highly advanced. The most serious lack of all was a library which could be utilized by Trotsky in his writings. And yet he would permit no data to go unchecked, no assertions to pass unverified. Quotations were checked and rechecked from different sources. He had constantly to send elsewhere for material: a library book from Paris to check an analogy with the French Revolution; old Communist International material from Germany; Russian material from other places in Europe. The reader can readily understand the difficulties this created. Yet, Trotsky was never long delayed by such irritating hindrances.

On a table in his. study workroom lay a number of topographical card maps of Petrograd (so named before the Russian Revolution) joined together like a completed jig-saw puzzle. These joined maps formed a picture of the city showing streets, buildings, alleys, squares and bridges. On the maps lay a magnifying glass which Trotsky used to determine the accuracy of the most minute geographical references to the street fighting at the capital, as well as other details.

When dictation for a section of the book was completed, he would take the manuscript, now a long roll of pasted typewriter pages, and begin a careful reading, editing and revision. Sections of the History were rewritten many times, until the precise and desired story was told.

Despite his intense interest in and occupation with the political events of the day and the life of the movement which arose to fight for his ideas, Trotsky concentrated on this historical work until it was finished. It is true that he never did meet the publisher’s dateline, but then Trotsky never hastened a work to meet the needs of an enterprise whose love for books is usually secondary to schedule, advertising and profits. But if he did not adhere to these demands of the book publishing business, the world is richer for it. It has the definitive story of how the Russian workers took power!

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