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Lev Davidovich Trotsky

by A. V. Lunacharsky (from Revolutionary Silhouettes)

Trotsky entered the history of our Party somewhat unexpectedly and with instant brilliance. As I have heard, he began his social-democratic activity on the school bench and he was exiled before he was eighteen.

He escaped from exile. He first caused comment when he appeared at the Second Party Congress, at which the split occurred. Trotsky evidently surprised people abroad by his eloquence, by his education, which was remarkable for a young man, and by his aplomb. An anecdote was told about him which is probably not true, but which is nevertheless characteristic, according to which Vera Ivanovna Zasulich, with her usual expansiveness, having met Trotsky, exclaimed in the presence of Plekhanov: 'That young man is undoubtedly a genius'; the story goes that as Plekhanov left the meeting he said to someone: 'I shall never forgive this of Trotsky.' It is a fact that Plekhanov did not love Trotsky, although I believe that it was not because the good Zasulich called him a genius but because Trotsky had attacked him during the 2nd Congress with unusual heat and in fairly uncomplimentary terms. Plekhanov at the time regarded himself as a figure of absolutely inviolable majesty in social-democratic circles; even outsiders who disagreed with him approached him with heads bared and such cheekiness on Trotsky's part was bound to infuriate him. The Trotsky of those days undoubtedly had a great deal of juvenile bumptiousness. If the truth be told, because of his youth nobody took him very seriously, but everybody admitted that he possessed remarkable talent as an orator and they sensed too, of course, that this was no chick but a young eagle.

I first met him at a comparatively late stage, in 1905, after the events of January. He had arrived, I forget where from, in Geneva and he and I were due to speak at a big meeting summoned as a result of this catastrophe. Trotsky then was unusually elegant, unlike the rest of us, and very handsome. This elegance and his nonchalant, condescending manner of talking to people, no matter who they were, gave me an unpleasant shock. I regarded this young dandy with extreme dislike as he crossed his legs and pencilled some notes for the impromptu speech that he was to make at the meeting. But Trotsky spoke very well indeed.

He also spoke at an international meeting, where I spoke for the first time in French and he in German; we both found foreign languages something of an obstacle, but we somehow survived the ordeal. Then, I remember, we were nominated - I by the Bolsheviks, he by the Mensheviks - to some commission on the division of joint funds and there Trotsky adopted a distinctly curt and arrogant tone.

Until we returned to Russia after the first (1905) revolution I did not see him again, nor did I see much of him during the course of the 1905 revolution. He held himself apart not only from us but from the Mensheviks too. His work was largely carried out in the Soviet of Workers' Deputies and together with Parvus he organized some kind of a separate group which published a very militant, very well-edited small and cheap newspaper.

I remember someone saying in Lenin's presence: 'Khrustalev's star is waning and now the strong man in the Soviet is Trotsky.' Lenin's face darkened for a moment, then he said: 'Well, Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work.'

Of all the Mensheviks Trotsky was then the closest to us, but I do not remember him once taking part in the fairly lengthy discussions between us and the Mensheviks on the subject of reuniting. By the Stockholm congress he had already been arrested.

His popularity among the Petersburg proletariat at the time of his arrest was tremendous and increased still more as a result of his picturesque and heroic behaviour in court. I must say that of all the social-democratic leaders of 1905-6 Trotsky undoubtedly showed himself, despite his youth, to be the best prepared. Less than any of them did he bear the stamp of a certain kind of émigré narrowness of outlook which, as I have said, even affected Lenin at that time. Trotsky understood better than all the others what it meant to conduct the political struggle on a broad, national scale. He emerged from the revolution having acquired an enormous degree of popularity, whereas neither Lenin nor Martov had effectively gained any at all. Plekhanov had lost a great deal, thanks to his display of quasi-Kadet tendencies. Trotsky stood then in the very front rank.

During the second emigration Trotsky took up residence in Vienna and in consequence my encounters with him were rare.

At the international conference in Stuttgart he behaved unassumingly and called upon us to do the same, considering that we had been knocked out of the saddle by the reaction of 1906 and were therefore incapable of commanding the respect of the congress.

Subsequently Trotsky was attracted by the conciliationist line and by the idea of the unity of the Party. More than anyone else he bent his efforts to that end at various plenary sessions and he devoted two-thirds of the work of his Vienna newspaper Pravda and of his group to the completely hopeless task of re-uniting the Party.

The only successful result which he achieved was the plenum at which he threw the 'liquidators' out of the Party, nearly expelled the 'Forwardists' end even managed for a time to stitch up the gap - though with extremely weak thread - between the Leninites and the Martovites. It was that Central Committee meeting which, among other things, dispatched comrade Kamenev as Trotsky's general watchdog (Kamenev was, incidentally, Trotsky's brother-in-law) but such a violent rift developed between Kamenev and Trotsky that Kamenev very soon returned to Paris. I must say here and now that Trotsky was extremely bad at organizing not only the Party but even a small group of it. He had practically no whole-hearted supporters at all; if he succeeded in impressing himself on the Party, it was entirely by his personality. The fact that he was quite incapable of fitting into the ranks of the Mensheviks made them react to him as though he were a kind of social-democratic anarchist and his behaviour annoyed them greatly. There was no question, at that time, of his total identification with the Bolsheviks. Trotsky seemed to be closest to the Martovites and indeed he always acted as though he were.

His colossal arrogance and an inability or unwillingness to show any human kindness or to be attentive to people, the absence of that charm which always surrounded Lenin, condemned Trotsky to a certain loneliness. One only has to recall that even a number of his personal friends (I am speaking, of course, of the political sphere) turned into his sworn enemies; this happened, for instance, in the case of his chief lieutenant, Semkovsky, and it occurred later with the man who was virtually his favourite disciple, Skobeliev.

Trotsky had little talent for working within political bodies; however, in the great ocean of political events, where such personal traits were completely unimportant, Trotsky's entirely positive gifts came to the fore.

I next came together with Trotsky at the Copenhagen Congress. On arrival Trotsky for some reason saw fit to publish an article in Vorwärts in which, having indiscriminately run down the entire Russian delegation, he declared that in effect they represented nobody but a lot of émigrés. This infuriated both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Plekhanov, who could not stand Trotsky, seized the opportunity to arraign Trotsky before a kind of court. This seemed to me unjust and I spoke up fairly energetically for Trotsky, and I was instrumental (together with Ryazanov) in ensuring that Plekhanov's plan came to nothing.... Partly for that reason, partly, perhaps more, by chance, Trotsky and I began to see more of each other during the congress: we took time off together, we talked a lot on many subjects, mainly political, and we parted on quite good terms.

Soon after the Copenhagen Congress we Forwardists organized our second party school in Bologna and invited

Trotsky to come and run our practical training in journalism and to deliver a course of lectures on, if I am not mistaken, the parliamentary tactics of the German and Austrian Social Democrats and on the history of the Social Democratic Party in Russia. Trotsky kindly agreed to this proposal and spent nearly a month in Bologna. It is true that he maintained his own political line the whole time and tried to dislodge our pupils from their extreme left viewpoint and steer them further towards a conciliatory and middle-of-the-road attitude - a position, incidentally, which he himself regarded as strongly leftist. Although this political game of his proved fruitless, our pupils greatly enjoyed his highly talented lectures and in general throughout his whole stay Trotsky was unusually cheerful; he was brilliant, he was extremely loyal towards us and he left the best possible impression of himself. He was one of the most outstanding workers at our second party school

My final meetings with Trotsky were even more prolonged and more intimate. These took place in Paris in 1915. Trotsky joined the editorial board of Our Word, which was naturally accompanied by the usual intrigues and unpleasantness: someone was frightened by his joining us, afraid that such a strong personality might take over the newspaper altogether. But this aspect of the affair was of minor importance. A much more acute matter was that of Trotsky's attitude to Martov. We sincerely wanted to bring about, on a new basis of internationalism, the complete unification of our Party front all the way from Lenin to Martov. I spoke up for this course in the most energetic fashion and was to some degree the originator of the slogan 'Down with the 'defeatists', long live the unity of all Internationalists!' Trotsky fully associated himself with this. It had long been his dream and it seemed to justify his whole past attitude.

We had no disagreements with the Bolsheviks, but with the Mensheviks things were going badly. Trotsky tried by every means to persuade Martov to break his links with the Defencists. The meetings of the editorial board turned into lengthy discussions, during which Martov, with astounding mental agility, almost with a kind of cunning sophistry, avoided a direct answer to the question whether he would break with the Defencists, and at times Trotsky attacked him extremely angrily. Matters reached the point of an almost total break between Trotsky and Martov - whom, by the way, Trotsky always respected as a political intellect - and at the same time a break between all of us left Internationalists and the Martov group.

At this period there came to be so many political points of contact between Trotsky and myself that we were, I think, at our closest; it fell to me to represent his viewpoint in all discussions with the other editors and theirs with him. He and I very often spoke on the same platform at various émigré student gatherings, we jointly edited Party proclamations; in short we were in very close alliance.

I have always regarded Trotsky as a great man. Who, indeed, can doubt it? In Paris he had grown greatly in stature in my eyes as a statesman and in the future he grew even more. I do not know whether it was because I knew him better and he was better able to demonstrate the full measure of his powers when working on a grander scale or because in fact the experience of the revolution and its problems really did mature him and enlarge the sweep of his wings.

The agitational work of spring 1917 does not fall within the scope of these memoirs but I should say that under the influence of his tremendous activity and blinding success certain people close to Trotsky were even inclined to see in him the real leader of the Russian revolution. Thus for instance the late M. S. Uritsky, whose attitude to Trotsky was one of great respect, once said to me and I think to Manuilsky: 'Now that the great revolution has come one feels that however intelligent Lenin may be he begins to fade beside the genius of Trotsky.' This estimation seemed to me incorrect, not because it exaggerated Trotsky's gifts and his force of character but because the extent of Lenin's political genius was then still not obvious. Yet it is true that during that period, after the

thunderous success of his arrival in Russia and before the July days, Lenin did keep rather in the background, not speaking often, not writing much, but largely engaged in directing organizational work in the Bolshevik camp, whilst Trotsky thundered forth at meetings in Petrograd.

Trotsky's most obvious gifts were his talents as an orator and as a writer. I regard Trotsky as probably the greatest orator of our age. In my time I have heard all the greatest parliamentarians and popular tribunes of socialism and very many famous orators of the bourgeois world and I would find it difficult to name any of them, except Jaurès (Bebel I only heard when he was an old man), whom I could put in the same class as Trotsky.

His impressive appearance, his handsome, sweeping gestures, the powerful rhythm of his speech, his loud but never fatiguing voice, the remarkable coherence and literary skill of his phrasing, the richness of imagery, scalding irony, his soaring pathos, his rigid logic, clear as polished steel - those are Trotsky's virtues as a speaker. He can speak in lapidary phrases, or throw off a few unusually well-aimed shafts and he can give a magnificent set-piece political speech of the kind that previously I had only heard from Jaurès. I have seen Trotsky speaking for two and a half to three hours in front of a totally silent, standing audience listening as though spellbound to his monumental political treatise. Most of what Trotsky had to say I knew already and naturally every politician often has to repeat the same ideas again and again in front of new crowds, yet every time Trotsky managed to clothe the same thought in a different form. I do not know whether Trotsky made so many speeches when he became War Minister of our great republic during the revolution and civil war: it is most probable that his organizational work and tireless journeying from end to end of the vast front left him little time for oratory, but even then Trotsky was above all a great political agitator. His articles and books are, as it were, frozen speech - he was literary in his oratory and an orator in literature.

It is thus obvious why Trotsky was also an outstanding publicist, although of course it frequently happened that the spell-binding quality of his actual speech was somewhat lost in his writing.

As regards his inner qualities as a leader Trotsky, as I have said, was clumsy and ill-suited to the small-scale work of Party organization. This defect was to be glaringly evident in the future, since it was above all the work in the illegal underground of such men as Lenin, Chernov and Martov which later enabled their parties to contend for hegemony in Russia and later, perhaps, all over the world. Trotsky was hampered by the very definite limitations of his own personality.

Trotsky as a man is prickly and overbearing. However, after Trotsky's merger with the Bolsheviks, it was only in his attitude to Lenin that Trotsky always showed - and continues to show - a tactful pliancy which is touching. With the modesty of all truly great men he acknowledges Lenin's primacy.

On the other hand as a man of political counsel Trotsky's gifts are equal to his rhetorical powers. It could hardly be otherwise, since however skilful an orator may be, if his speech is not illuminated by thought he is no more than a sterile virtuoso and all his oratory is as a tinkling cymbal. It may not be quite so necessary for an orator to be inspired by love, as the apostle Paul maintains, for he may be filled with hate, but it is essential for him to be a thinker. Only a great politician can be a great orator, and since Trotsky is chiefly a political orator, his speeches are naturally the expression of political thinking.

It seems to me that Trotsky is incomparably more orthodox than Lenin, although many people may find this strange. Trotsky's political career has been somewhat tortuous: he was neither a Menshevik nor a Bolshevik but sought the middle way before merging his brook in the Bolshevik river, and yet in fact Trotsky has always been guided by the precise rules of revolutionary Marxism. Lenin is both masterful and creative in the realm of political thought and has very often formulated entirely new lines of policy which subsequently proved highly effective in achieving results. Trotsky is not remarkable for such boldness of thought: he takes revolutionary Marxism and draws from it the conclusions applicable to a given situation. He is as bold as can be in opposing liberalism and semi-socialism, but he is no innovator.

At the same time Lenin is much more of an opportunist, in the profoundest sense of the word. This may again sound odd - was not Trotsky once associated with the Mensheviks, those notorious opportunists? But the Mensheviks' opportunism was simply the political flabbiness of a petty-bourgeois party. I am not referring to this sort of opportunism; I am referring to that sense of reality which leads one now and then to alter one's tactics, to that tremendous sensitivity to the demands of the time which prompts Lenin at one moment to sharpen both edges of his sword, at another to place it in its sheath.

Trotsky has less of this ability; his path to revolution has followed a straight line. These differing characteristics showed up in the famous clash between the two leaders of the great Russian revolution over the peace of Brest-Litovsk.

It is usual to say of Trotsky that he is ambitious. This, of course, is utter nonsense. I remember Trotsky making a very significant remark in connection with Chernov's acceptance of a ministerial portfolio: 'What despicable ambition - to abandon one's place in history in exchange for the untimely offer of a ministerial post.' In that, I think, lay all of Trotsky. There is not a drop of vanity in him, he is totally indifferent to any title or to the trappings of power; he is, however, boundlessly jealous of his own role in history and in that sense he is ambitious. Here he is I think as sincere as he is in his natural love of power.

Lenin is not in the least ambitious either. I do not believe that Lenin ever steps back and looks at himself, never even thinks what posterity will say about him - he simply gets on with his job. He does it through the exercise of power, not because he finds power sweet but because he is convinced of the rightness of what he is doing and cannot bear that anyone should harm his cause. His ambitiousness stems from his colossal certainty of the rectitude of his principles and too, perhaps, from an inability (a very useful trait in a politician) to see things from his opponent's point of view. Lenin never regards an argument as a mere discussion; for him an argument is always a clash between different classes or different groups, as it were a clash between different species of humanity. An argument for him is always a struggle, which under certain circumstances may develop into a fight. Lenin always welcomes the transition from a struggle to a fight.

In contrast to Lenin, Trotsky is undoubtedly often prone to step back and watch himself. Trotsky treasures his historical role and would probably be ready to make any personal sacrifice, not excluding the greatest sacrifice of all - that of his life - in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader. His ambition has the same characteristic as that of Lenin, with the difference that he is more often liable to make mistakes, lacking as he does Lenin's almost infallible instinct, and being a man of choleric temperament he is liable, although only temporarily, to be blinded by passion, whilst Lenin, always on an even keel and always in command of himself, is virtually incapable of being distracted by irritation.

It would be wrong to imagine, however, that the second great leader of the Russian revolution is inferior to his colleague in everything: there are, for instance, aspects in which Trotsky incontestably surpasses him - he is more brilliant, he is clearer, he is more active. Lenin is fitted as no one else to take the chair at the Council of Peoples' Commissars and to guide the world revolution with the touch of genius, but he could never have coped with the titanic mission which Trotsky took upon his own shoulders, with those lightning moves from place to place, those astounding speeches, those fanfares of on the spot orders, that role of being the unceasing electrifier of a weakening army, now at one spot, now at another. There is not a man on earth who could have replaced Trotsky in that respect.

Whenever a truly great revolution occurs, a great people will always find the right actor to play every part and one of the signs of greatness in our revolution is the fact that the Communist Party has produced from its own ranks or has borrowed from other parties and incorporated into its own organism sufficient outstanding personalities who were suited as no others to fulfil whatever political function was called for.

And two of the strongest of the strong, totally identified with their roles, are Lenin and Trotsky.

Note: Anatoly Lunacharsky (1873-1933) wrote the book "Revolutionary Silhouettes" in 1918. It was issued in a couple of editions until 1924, now this now that biography was cut out or put in. This text is taken from the 1923 edition. In the last edition, the profiles of Trotsky, Zinoviev and others were omitted. The book was never published again. Stalin was almost not mentioned at all in the book, which maybe was the biggest problem with it. /KET

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