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Karl Mayer

Lev Davidovich

(August 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. II No. 7, August 1941, pp. 207–209.
Also in Fourth International, No. 7, Autumn 1959, pp. 27–29 (as Jan van Heijenoort). [1]
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan (March 2015).
This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

When Engels, revered patriarch of international social democracy passed away peacefully in London, burdened with years, the end of the century was approaching which separated the revolutions of the bourgeoisie from those of the proletariat, Jacobinism from Bolshevism. The transformation of the world, announced by Marx, was to become the immediate task, and revolutionists were to know unparallelled vicissitudes. And in fact the heads of the three greatest revolutionary leaders since Engels sustained the blows of reaction. The historian of the future will not fail to see in this one of the characteristic marks of our epoch. Nor should he fail to note the source of these blows. Lenin’s head was pierced by a bullet from the “Socialist Revolutionary” Fanny Kaplan. Rosa Luxemburg’s head was shattered by the butt-ends of the guns of the “Social Democrat” Noske’s soldiery. Trotsky’s head was laid open by the pick-axe of one of the “Communist” Stalin’s mercenaries.

Our epoch of crisis, with its abrupt jumps and feverish tempo, devours men and parties more and more rapidly. Those who only yesterday represented the revolution become the instruments of the darkest reaction. This struggle between the head of the historic process and its leaden, dragging rump assumed its most dramatic form in the duel between Trotsky and Stalin, precisely because this struggle unfolded against the background of a workers’ state already established. Trotsky, borne to the summits of power by the revolutionary explosion of the masses, persecuted and harassed when the defeats of the proletariat succeeded each other, became the very incarnation of the revolution.

He was aided by an astonishing physique. What struck you first was his forehead – phenomenally lofty, vertical, and not heightened by baldness. After that his eyes, blue and deep, with a gaze powerful and sure of its power. During his stay in France Lev Davidovich very often had to travel incognito in order to simplify the problem of guarding him. Then he would shave off his goatee and brush his hair to one side dividing it by a part. But when it came to his leaving the house and mingling with the public I was always worried: “No, it’s really impossible ... the first one to pass by will recognize him, he can’t change that gaze of his ...” Then, when Lev Davidowich began to speak, what attracted attention was his mouth. Whether he spoke in Russian or a foreign language his lips constrained themselves to shape words distinctly. He was irritated at hearing confused and precipitate speech from others, and always compelled himself to enunciate with complete distinctness. It was only in addressing Natalia Ivanovna in Russian that on occasion his enunciation became more hurried and less articulate, descending sometimes into a whisper. In conversations with visitors in his study his hands, resting on the edge of his work-table at first, would soon begin moving with large, firm gestures, as though aiding his lips in molding the expression of his thought. His face with its halo of hair, the set of his head, and the whole carriage of his body were always proud and stately. His stature was above medium, with a powerful chest and a broad, stalwart back, and in comparison his legs appeared somewhat slender. It is undoubtedly easier for someone who paid him one visit to say what he saw in Trotsky’s face than for one who was at his side for many years in the most variegated circumstances.

The one thing I never saw was the faintest expression of vulgarity. Nor was there any greater likelihood of finding what is called bonhomie. But a certain sweetness was not lacking, which no doubt originated in the formidable intelligence of whose readiness to understand everything you were always aware. What you usually saw was a youthful enthusiasm which joyously undertook everything, and at the same time was strong enough to induce others to cooperate in the undertaking. When it was a question of cudgeling an opponent this sort of gaiety swiftly changed into irony, biting and malicious, alternating with an expression of contempt, and when the enemy was particularly swinish, you would, for a moment, almost find a hint of malevolence. But his vivacity returned quickly. “We’ll fix ’em!” he would say then with animation. In the isolation of exile the most dramatic circumstances where I could see Lev Davidovich were his conflicts with the police, or incidents with adversaries of bad faith. At these times his face would harden, and his eyes would flash, as though in them had suddenly been concentrated that vast will-power which ordinarily could be measured only by the labors of his entire life. Then it was obvious to everyone that nothing, nothing in the world could make him budge an inch.

How Trotsky Worked

In daily life this will-power expended itself in strictly organized labor. Any unmotivated disturbance irritated him extremely: he hated pointless conversations, unannounced visits, disappointments or delays in keeping engagements. To be sure there was nothing pedantic in any of this. If an important question turned up he would not hesitate a moment in upsetting all his plans, but it had to be worth it. If it had the slightest interest for the movement he would heedlessly give his time and energy, but he showed himself all the more miserly of them when the carelessness, lightmindedness, or bad organization of others threatened to waste them. He hoarded the smallest particles of time, the most precious material of which life is made. His whole personal life was rigidly organized by the quality called singleness of purpose. He set up a hierarchy of duties, and brought to a conclusion whatever he undertook.

As a rule he did not work less than twelve hours a day, and sometimes, when it was necessary, much more. He remained at table as briefly as possible, and after sharing his meals for many years I could not say that I ever noticed on his face any mark of enjoyment for what he ate or drank. “Eating, dressing, all these miserable little things that have to be repeated every day ...” he once said to me.

He could find his only diversion in great physical activity. Merely walking was scarcely a relaxation. He walked actively and in silence, and you could see that his mind was always at work. Now and then he would ask a question: “When did you answer that letter?” “Can you find me that quotation?” Only violent exercise gave him repose. In Turkey this consisted of hunting, and especially fishing, deep-sea fishing, complicated and agitated, where the body had to spend itself recklessly. When the fishing had been good, that is, very fatiguing, he began work on his return with redoubled enthusiasm. In Mexico, where fishing was impossible, he invented the gathering of cacti, of enormous weight, under a blazing sun.

Of course the necessity for security created certain obligations. During the eleven and a half years of his third emigration it was only for a few months, at certain times during his stay in France and in Norway, that Lev Davidovich could walk about freely, that is, unguarded, in the countryside around his house. As a rule each one of his excursions constituted a minor military operation. It was necessary to make all arrangements in advance, and fix his route carefully. “You treat me as though I were an object,” he sometimes said, jokingly dissimulating whatever impatience there might have been in this remark.

He demanded the same methodical spirit he observed in his own work from the comrades who assisted him. The closer they were to him, the more did he demand of them and the less did he trouble himself with formalities. He desired precision in everthing: an undated letter, an unsigned document always irritated him, as did in general anything easygoing, slipshod, or happy-go-lucky. Do whatever you’re doing well, and do it till you finish. And in this rule he made no distinction between petty day-to-day chores and intellectual work: conduct your thoughts to their conclusion, is an expression that often sprang from his pen. He always displayed great solicitude for the health of those around him. Health is revolutionary capital that must not be wasted. He grew angry at seeing someone read in a bad light. It’s necessary to risk your life for the revolution without hesitating, but why ruin your eyes when you can read comfortably and intelligently?

Trotsky’s Conversations

In conversations with Lev Davidovich what visitors were struck by chiefly was his capacity to find his bearings in a novel situation. He was able to integrate it in his general perspective, and at the same time always give immediate and concrete advice. During his third emigration he often had the opportunity of conversing with visitors from countries he was not acquainted with directly, perhaps from the Balkans or Latin America. He did not always know the language, did not follow their press and had never had any particular interest in their specific problems. First of all he would allow his interrogator to speak, occasionally jotting down a few brief notes on a slip of paper in front of him, sometimes asking for a few details: “How many members has this party?” “Isn’t this politician a lawyer?”

Then he would speak, and the mass of information that had been given him would be organized. Soon one could distinguish the movements of different classes and of different layers within these classes, and then, bound up with these movements, there would be revealed the play of parties, groups and organizations, and then the place and the activities of various political figures, down to their profession and personal traits, would be logically fitted into the picture. The French naturalist Cuvier used to boast of his ability to reconstruct an entire animal from a single bone. With his vast knowledge of social and political realities Trotsky could devote himself to a similar work. His interrogator was always astounded at seeing how deeply he had been able to penetrate the reality of the particular problem, and would leave Trotsky’s study knowing his own country a little better.

At every moment you felt in Trotsky a huge fund of experience, not merely engraved in his memory but organized and reflected on lengthily and profoundly. You could also see that the organization of this experience had taken place around indestructible principles. Though Lev Davidovich hated routine, though he was always anxious to discover new trends, the least attempt at innovation in the realm of principles made him prick up his ears. “Trimming Marx’s beard,” was his expression for all these attempts to put Marxism in line with the current fashion, and he did not dissimulate his contempt for them.

Trotsky’s Style and Writing Methods

Trotsky’s style is universally admired. It is undoubtedly to be best compared with that of Marx. However, Trotsky’s sentences are less spacious than those of Marx, in whom one is aware of a wealth of scholarly resources, especially in the youthful works. Trotsky’s style achieves its effects by extremely simple means. His vocabulary, especially in his more properly political writings, is always rather limited. The sentences are short, with few subordinate clauses. Their power arises from a sturdy articulation, most often with strongly marked but always well balanced oppositions. This temperance of means gives his style a great freshness and, one might say, youthfulness. In his writing Trotsky is considerably more youthful than Marx.

Trotsky knew how to take advantage of that Russian syntax whose inflections permit the word-order within a sentence to be upset, giving the expression of the thought a force and emphasis difficult to attain with the limited means of modem western languages. And also difficult to translate. Lev Davidovich demanded a mathematical fidelity from his translators, and at the same time kicked against the rules of grammar in the foreign language which forbade a similarly concise and direct rendition of his thought. Compared to that of Lenin, Trotsky’s style is superior, by a large margin, in its lucidity and elegance, without any loss of power. Lenin’s sentences occasionally become cumbrous, too heavy, disorganized. It seems as though the thought sometimes cripples its expression. Trotsky once said that in Lenin you could discover a Russian mushik, but one raised to the level of genius.

Even though Lenin’s father was a provincial functionary and Trotsky’s a farmer, it is Trotsky who is the city-dweller, as opposed to Lenin, doubtless because of his race. This may be seen at once in the difference of styles, without any attempt being made here to uncover this opposition in other aspects of these two giant personalities.

When Trotsky was deported to Turkey, the passport the Soviet authorities gave him put down his profession as writer. And in truth he was a great, an exceedingly great writer. If the bureaucrats’s inscription causes a smile it is because Trotsky was so much more than a writer. He wrote with ease, being able to dictate several hours at a sitting. But then he would go over the manuscript and correct it carefully. For some of these great writings, such as the History of the Russian Revolution, there are two successive drafts behind the definitive text, but in the majority of cases there is only one. His enormous literary production, in which are to be found books, pamphlets, innumerable articles, letters, hurried statements to the press, and notes of all sorts is, needless to say, uneven. Some parts are more worked over than others, but not a sentence in any of them has been neglected. You can take any five lines in this ponderous accumulation of writing and you will always recognize the inimitable Trotsky.

Their volume is also impressive, and would alone bear testimony to a very rare will and capacity for labor. Thirty volumes of Lenin’s complete works have been collected, in addition to thirty-five volumes of correspondence and odd notes. Trotsky lived seven years longer than Lenin, but his writings, from his long books to his brief, personal notes, would undoubtedly come to triple that amount. In the eleven and a half years of his third emigration he amassed a labor which would honorably fill an entire lifetime. It may be said that the pen never abandoned his hand, and what a hand it was!

He Lives in His Books

Trotsky has put all of himself into his books. Personal contact with the man himself did not modify the portrait that emerged from a reading of his works, but deepened it and made it more precise: passion and reason, intelligence and will, all carried to an extreme degree, but at the same time blending into one another. In everything Lev Davidovich did one had the feeling that he had given his whole being. He often repeated Hegel’s words: Nothing great is done in this world without passion; and he had nothing but contempt for the philistines who object to the “fanaticism” of the revolutionaries. But intelligence was always present, in miraculous harmony with the fire. Nor could one dream of discovering a conflict: the will was indomitable because the mind saw very far. Hegel would have to be quoted once again: Der Wille ist eine besondere Weise des Denkens. Will is a specific function of thought.

Footnote by ETOL

1. The 1959 reprint of this article was introduced by the following note:

Jan van Heijenoort, as a devoted and fervent Trotskyist, left his native France in 1932, when still very young, to join Leon Trotsky on the island of Prinkipo. He became Trotsky’s principal secretary, and was with him until a few months before the assassination. Van Heijenoort later left the movement.

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