Source: The New International, Vol. VI, No. 8 (Whole No. 45), September 1940, pp. 151–167;
Transcribed: Damon Maxwell.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (July 2013).
THE bourgeoisie, perforce lacking historical method and suborning all aspects of life to the maintenance of power, has not only confused the proletariat but has confused itself in the estimation of what constitutes greatness in contemporary men. Woodrow Wilson, Poincaré, Stanley Baldwin and similar mediocrities have all been crowned with the laurel, not excluding Nicholas Murray Butler, on the score presumably that he had dined often with the others. So often and so conspicuously have the bourgeois theorists blundered that in the face of a sceptical world they confess bankruptcy; always to their biographies and obituary notices they add a saving clause, that posterity alone can tell.
No such tendentiousness, hesitancy, hit or miss judgments have discredited the estimates of those who use the method of historical materialism. Marx and Engels judged heir contemporaries, Darwin, Proudhon, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon III, Balzac and Dickens, Palmerston, Gladstone, Thiers, Bismarck, Shaw, with incisiveness and precision, and their judgments have stood the test of time. The most famous of all their pronouncements on persons, Engels’ judgment on Marx, “mankind is shorter by a head, and the greatest head of our time at that.” would have seemed presumptuous to many, the usual exaggeration of a friend, collaborator and a Communist fanatic. Today that judgment might be questioned by some but with caution and respect. Marx’s name rings incessantly in the ears of all, capitalists and workers alike. His book, Capital, is high on the sales-list of popular classics. Stanley Baldwin, the English Prime Minister, on his retirement, indicated what he considered the main characteristics of his period: In the year that I was born two events occurred which were the beginnings of the two forces competing in the world today; the one was Disraeli’s Reform Bill with its doctrine of expanding freedom and the other the publication of Capital, with its doctrine of economic determinism. Thus Marx had at last arrived, being recognized as a world force by a Conservative Prime Minister only fifty years after his death. Trotsky is easier to recognize immediately. All men, Marxist or otherwise, will agree that between 1917 and 1923 he played a great role in the history of our times. Before that his life had made no exceptional impression on the general consciousness. During his last decade he was an exile, apparently powerless. During those same ten years, Stalin, his rival, assumed power such as no man in Europe since Napoleon has wielded. Hitler has shaken the world and bids fair to bestride it like a colossus while he lasts. Roosevelt is the most powerful President who has ever ruled America, and America today is the most powerful nation in the world. Yet the Marxist judgment of Trotsky is as confident as Engels’ judgment of Marx. Before his period of power, during it, and after his fall, Trotsky stood second only to Lenin among contemporary men, and after Lenin died in 1924, was the greatest head of our times. That judgment we leave to history.
Trotsky’s first claim to the attention of mankind is his theory of the permanent revolution, and if he had fallen dead after correcting the last proof over thirty years ago, his place in political thought was safe. Marx and Engels for fifty years had made their profound and brilliant predictions of the future disintegration of capitalist society. Engels in 1887 had predicted the 1914 war, the revolution in Russia first, the revolutions in Europe and crowns rolling with no one to pick them up, the formation of the Third International. In 1889 Plekhanov declared that the coming revolution in Russia would be a revolution of the working class and could be no other. But in 1905 Trotsky, then 26 years old, in an essay of a few thousand words, unfolded the course which history was to follow.
Let us consider the mental climate of that period. Previous to that time, 1905, Europe and America had seen no revolutions of any importance since the Civil War of 1861 and the Commune of 1870. The Civil War was not then recognized for what was, and what Charles Beard has since called it, the Second American Revolution. The Commune, except to the Marxists (and the French bourgeoisie), had seemed an unpleasant episode growing out of the war. In 1905 the spectre of Communism was not haunting Europe. And the bourgeois writers and statesmen of those days, Viscount Bryce, the expert on democracy, Maximilian Herden, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, for whom Socialism would come if you just kept her inching along, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Lloyd George, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Benedetto Croce, Anatole France, Miliukov, the Manchester Guardian, the New York Times, the London Times, the Corriere del Sierra, all the finest bourgeois thinkers, and the distinguished organs of bourgeois thought, what a monumental pile of rubbish and nonsense they, reactionaries and progressives, were producing in this very 1905 about the world and its future. They and their successors are a little more sensible today, though to do them justice they lie more. From those bourgeois who took notice of it, the theory met with derision. Miliukov, the Russian savant, gave it a name and thus “Trotskyism” was born.
Despite all the evidence piled up under his eyes, the bourgeois of today cannot accept the theory; tar less the bourgeois of 1905. Capitalism, said this theory, was approaching its end and society was ripe tor the socialist revolution. This view Trotsky held in common apparently, but only apparently, with all Marxists. But, and here he broke sharply with all of them, Lenin included, Russia, the most backward of the great European states, would be the scene of the first socialist revolution. Where all the great European Marxists looked upon the coming Russian Revolution as one which would give Russia a bourgeois republic, Trotsky stated that this was impossible. A revolution in Russia, to be successful, would have to be a socialist revolution. True, Russia, a backward country with a hundred million peasants, was not ready for socialism. Left to itself the Russian Revolution would certainly collapse. But the Russian Revolution would unloose proletarian revolutions in Europe which would come to the assistance of the Russian. It would initiate the era of permanent social revolution until the establishment of worldwide socialism. Either this, or the collapse of capitalist civilization into barbarism.
In analytical power and imaginative audacity the theory is one of the most astounding productions of the modern mind. The bourgeoisie makes a great to-do about de Tocqueville who foresaw that America would one day free itself from England, Goethe, who recognized the significance of Valmy, and of Seward, who foretold “the irrepressible conflict.” How pitiable these are besides the work of Trotsky who foretold the future of a world. Except in the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin there is no comparable piece of political prophecy anywhere. After Marx’s discoveries political thinkers were limited to the use of his method. It has never been better used. As for the bourgeoisie, its writings of 1905 remind us of the days when all the young men were for Racine, so remote are they from the terrible modern reality.
What is more important for us than the limitations of the bourgeoisie is the limitations of the Marxists. They wrote and taught the socialist revolution but we know today that in reality Kautsky, for instance, did not believe in any such thing. Trotsky himself relates the deadly politeness of Austro-Marxism when, an exile in Vienna, he ventured to suggest to them the coming collapse of the world they knew. Such was 1905. In the genuinely revolutionary wing of socialism the theory met with fierce opposition. Lenin never ceased to deride it. As late as November 1915 he was slashing at Trotsky “who repeats his original 1905 treaty without stopping to think why life during a whole decade has passed by this beautiful theory ... amusing example ... incorrect ... To what limits Trotsky’s confusion goes ...” Lenin believed that the revolution in Russia would be a democratic revolution, though he as confidently as Trotsky expected that it would unloose the socialist revolution in Europe, without which, he stated over and over again, the Russian democratic revolution would collapse. Trotsky refused to concede an inch. To the Mensheviks who preached that the Russian bourgeoisie would lead the revolution he said that the counter-revolutionary character of their ideas would show itself before the revolution. To the Bolsheviks who taught that the proletariat would destroy Tsarism but install the bourgeoisie in power he said that the counter-revolutionary character of their theory would appear after the revolution. The years have justified him. The Russian Revolution followed his road. After it came the post-war revolutions in Germany, Austria and Hungary, in Turkey and Italy, in Egypt and India, in China, in Spain. The Russian and other proletarian and nationalist revolutions have shaken the structure of capitalism. Two-by-four political thinkers attribute all to “the war.” As if the war fell from the sky and was not itself a product of capitalist disintegration; as if Lenin, long before 1914, had not watched the growing industrialization of India and China and predicted the coming proletarian struggles in those countries. But for these upheavals the socialist revolution in Russia would have been annihilated. True the socialist cause has suffered a succession of defeats. But the struggle is not over. In every chancellery in the world, Stalin’s included, the spectre of Communism, grown to Arabian Nights proportions, sits at every conference. Read the bourgeois press carefully. Always between the lines and sometimes in them snarls the fear that the coming years will see the consummation of the audacious theory put forward by the young Marxist thirty-five years ago.
The theory of the permanent revolution was no isolated spurt of inspiration. In abstract creative imagination and range of thought Trotsky excelled Lenin. Today we accept the idea of the single economic plan as an indispensable part of the socialist reorganization of society. Trotsky first put it forward in his little history of the Russian Revolution written during spare moments at Brest-Litovsk. Lenin at first opposed it as he opposed the theory of the permanent revolution. But that most realistic of men, though often wrong, was never wrong for long in the face of reality, and soon he recognized the value of the single economic plan as opportunely as he had accepted the permanent revolution in April 1917.
Besides the theory with which his name will always be associated, the outstanding example of Trotsky’s analytic and creative power was the New Course, the outgrowth and flowering of the single plan proposal. It is characteristic of him that, immersed in his work, he never saw the dangerous growth of bureaucracy until Lenin, with an agonized urgency, pointed it out to him and asked for help. Lenin’s immediate preoccupation was to take the political and practical steps necessary to break up Stalin and his clique. Here Trotsky failed completely – we shall deal with that later – but in the course of a few months he outlined a course of action which is one of the most profound and masterly plans of reconstruction ever laid before the rulers of a state in crisis.
A succession of good harvests was dangerously increasing the weight of the peasantry and capitalism. Unless checked this would lead inevitably to the overwhelming of the proletariat and the Soviet power. The last great turn Lenin had given to the party had been towards the appeasement of the peasantry. But the retreat had gone far enough. It was necessary to embark on a bold plan of industrialization, using part of the wealth accumulated by the rich peasants. Collectivization, in proportion to the strength of the industrialization, should be the aim. Inseparably intertwined with the industrial was the political reorganization. He analyzed the dangers of bureaucracy, its causes and consequences, the relation of the youth to the older party comrades, the role of the masses in maintaining the revolutionary morale and integrity of the party. He called for a systematic education of the peasantry in the aims of the Soviet power. He set the whole against the background of the struggle for world socialism under the leadership of the Communist International. It is one of the classic documents of socialist literature. Socialism in a single country is impossible but Victor Serge, who knew Russia well, has drawn attention to what would have been the result of such a program not only in Russia but among the peasant millions of Central Europe. With Lenin’s authority and the political skill which Trotsky so sadly lacked such a plan would have altered the whole history of Russia and the world. Trotsky fought for it for five years, and it received its final and most perfect expression in the Platform of the Left Opposition. It was only in 1929 that Stalin, having brought Soviet Russia to the brink of disaster, adopted some parts of it and carried them out with the brutality and exaggerations of the Third Period. Today the Russian Five-Year plans, the New Deal (Roosevelt’s New Course), the Goering Four-Year Plan, Petain’s Three-Year Plan, all are the misshapen offspring, conscious and unconscious, of the ideas contained in the New Course. But in the multifarious writings which expound these experiments, nowhere appears a hint of the comprehensive grasp of society as a whole, the political penetration, the breadth and humanity that are contained within the pages of that slender volume which is concerned more with the political approach than the actual economic plan. What Is To Be Done, The State and Revolution, and Imperialism are Lenin’s greatest books, all analytical, all, profound as they are, compact of determination for immediate action. Trotsky’s Results and Perspectives, in which is contained the theory of the permanent revolution, and his New Course, though written in the heat of action, broaden out, the first on an international and the second on a national scale, into the perspectives of the future. Here he was excelled by only two men in history, Marx and Engels, and by them only because they covered so much ground that they had limited the range of all successors.
With the death of Lenin, the prime responsibility for Marxist analysis of contemporary events devolved upon Trotsky. He tells us himself that he had learnt from Lenin and the evidence is clear in his work. To his faculty for synthesis, of seeing history from a height, he had by now added a closer coordination between the general line of development and the immediate practical conclusions to be drawn at the different stages, though he never attained Lenin’s superb mastery in this field. How deeply he had absorbed the lessons of the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s method, is visible in his analysis of the Chinese Revolution, not so much in the Problems as in the essays in The Third International After Lenin. There is, as always, the same wide sweep and comprehensive generalization, but there is also a precision, a definiteness and a certainty in the handling of the specific problems which are absent from the pre-October work. The chief weakness in the presentation of the theory of the permanent revolution, the slurring over of the bourgeois-democratic stage, is brilliantly created.
We do not propose to give here any connected or complete account of Trotsky’s work. Trotsky wrote on all the great issues of the day, turned them inside out, so that students of his writings have cinematic x-rays into the physiology and anatomy of twentieth-century society. But some example of his maturer method must be given in any evaluation of his place in history. The first that springs to mind his analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy. Despite the differences which developed between Trotsky and the Workers Party in the very last year of his life, despite unceasing criticism of his methods and his conclusions from all quarters, the fact remains that over the years, there is simply no analysis of the Soviet Union worth bothering about except his own. It is a lesson in Marxism to read not only Trotsky, but also “educated opinion” on the Soviet Union from 1917 to the present day. The howls of coming disaster at the N.E.P.; the struggle of the Left Opposition – when Trotsky was exiled to Turkey the London Times said that Stalin had sent him there to organize a revolt in the Near East; the colossal sneers at the Platform and Trotsky’s plans for industrialization, to be followed by bulging eyes and hyperbole at Stalin’s fabricated statistics; Sidney and Beatrice Webb on Russia in 1923 and then in 1933; Louis Fischer and Vincent Sheean; the thousands of “trained observers” who went to Moscow and saw for themselves through Stalin’s spectacles; Barbusse and Remain Rolland; the bourgeois intellectuals on the Moscow Trials – those clumsy, brazen, incredibly impudent falsifications which were exceeded in stupidity only by the comments of the intelligentsia; as one looks back at Trotsky’s writings on the one hand and the rows of dustbins on the other, one realizes what it is to be a Marxist in these days. But there are Marxists and Marxists. In the revolutionary Marxist movement his writings on Russia stand alone, for we are still without (perhaps shall be forever) the work of Rakovsky, Sosnovsky and others persecuted by Stalin. Outside of Russia there is nothing. Many people opposed what Trotsky wrote. They had a brief importance only through opposition to him. This one opposes Trotsky in 1934 on this point, another opposes him in 1936 on that. But a connected body of comprehensive thought in opposition? It does not exist. This, the strongest part of his theoretical work, is, however, so closely intertwined with the struggle for the Fourth International, that it can be treated adequately only in a special article or rather series of articles. It is more convenient and more opportune to illustrate Trotsky’s role after his expulsion from Russia by his analysis of the rise and victory of German Fascism. To read those half-dozen slender volumes today is to wonder how a voice so strong and so clear should have cried in the wilderness.
He did not start from scratch. The first four Congresses of the Comintern, in which he took so preponderant a part, laid the foundation for all future analysis of the economics and politics of our age. The Platform of the Communist International (1919) in its second paragraph repeated the by then familiar thesis of Lenin. “Monopoly supplants free competition. The isolated capitalist is transformed into a member of a capitalist association. Organization replaces wild anarchy.” From the First Congress there is an insistent reiteration of the tendency to complete statification of all aspects of society by the imperialist state. The Manifesto of the Congress laid down the line. “If the absolute subjection of political power to finance-capital has led humanity to the imperialist butchery, this butchery has given finance-capital the chance not only to militarize the state completely, but to militarize itself in such a manner, that it can continue to fulfill its economic functions only by fire and blood.” The military state, what Lenin called “the vast state-capitalist military trust and syndicate” was the ultimate to which capitalism was moving. These states would inevitably seek “wholesale military decisions of a violent nature.” It was from there that Lenin and Trotsky began, while all the democrats carolled about parliamentary democracy and the League of Nations. Of German parliamentary democracy, specifically, the Second Congress (1920), said that “it is merely a gap between two dictatorships.” It would be no parliamentary dictatorship. The Second Congress, using its eyes, pointed out that besides the capitalist state, “other counterrevolutionary organizations of a private character formed under its aegis and placed at its disposal, work to put a violent end to strikes, to commit provocations, to bear false witness, to destroy revolutionary organizations, to do away with communist institutions, to massacre and to set afire and take other measures to defend private property and democracy.” The personnel of these bandits consisted of “the sons of the big proprietors, big bourgeois, petty bourgeois who do not know what to do with themselves and, in general, declassed elements ... the twenty thousand officers of the Hohenzollern army.” These counter-revolutionaries would be destroyed only by “the smashing hammer of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” This was in 1920. In that year the great masses were following the Communist Party. But by 1921 the revolutionary wave had subsided and in 1921, at the Third Congress, came the theses on the united front. In 1922 Italian fascism took power and at the Fourth Congress, in 1923, a section in the resolution on tactics analysed the danger of Fascism. “Legal methods of constraint no longer are sufficient for the bourgeoisie ... the fascists are not only fighting organizations, mainly counter-revolutionary and armed to the teeth, but they try by means of social demagogy to create for themselves a base among the masses in the peasantry, in the petty bourgeoisie and even in certain parts of the proletariat, utilizing adroitly for their own counter-revolutionary ends the disillusionment provoked by so-called democracy.” It can’t happen here and could only happen there? Lenin and Trotsky knew that barring the socialist revolution it is going to happen everywhere. The Fourth Congress stated that there was a danger of Fascism among other countries beside Italy. In Germany; and “under one form or another fascism is no longer impossible in countries like France and England.” Such was the leadership that the great Bolsheviks gave to the international proletariat. Today one has to listen to solemn and presumptuous idiots who will tell you that Marxism has failed or is lacking in understanding of the modern world. We may pass them by. Lenin stopped work in March 1923. One year afterward, Stalin, having seized the power, informed the world that Social-Democracy and Fascism were twins. One can therefore appreciate the motives of those who, using the name of Marx, complacently ask, “What difference would it have made to Russia if Trotsky had won in the struggle with Stalin?” We shall soon see what difference it would have made to the German proletariat. Behind the sham determination of their determinism, these enemies of Bolshevism conceal a genuine determination to defend bourgeois society.
Such was the basic analysis. Therefore when at the September 1930 elections in Germany, Hitler’s vote jumped from 800,000 in 1928 to 6 million, Trotsky, an exile in Turkey, was immediately on the alert. He knew at once what millions are now learning in blood and suffering and death. We do not propose to spend time here on the Stalinist crimes and responsibilities of that period. What we want to recall is the Marxist method in the hands of a great master applied to a social crisis which has since grown so that it dominates the world.
Writing after the September elections, Trotsky indicated the menace which Hitler represented and called upon the Communists to stop their attacks on the Social Democracy as the twin of Fascism and to struggle for the united front. But in the course of the following months Stalin held the Communist Party of Germany to its course and in August 1931 forced it, against its own wishes, to form an alliance with the fascists against the Social Democrats. The Social Democracy, in its turn, preached an abiding faith in one God, democracy, with Bruening as its prophet. Later they would exchange Bruening for Hindenburg. More than any other living being Trotsky saw the whole frightful catastrophe which loomed, and in November 1931 he finished his first great document on Fascism: Germany, the Key to the International Situation. He calls it “hastily sketched reflections.” There was no false modesty here. He merely wrote down what seemed to him the crying obviousness of the situation.
He begins with the Spanish revolution which was then eight months old. How the pseudo-Marxists and the liberal democrats beat the air when Hitler and Mussolini intervened in Spain! Trotsky begins his essay on Germany with Spain where he sees the struggle as likely to be of a more or less protracted character. England also shows the possibility of years of partial ebbs and flows. France occupies a secondary role in world economics, with immense privileges and pretensions in world politics. This contradiction will heap dangers upon dangers and upset the internal stability of France. In America the economic crisis has laid bare frightful social contradictions. At the first sign of a rise in economic depression, the trade union movement will acutely feel the necessity of tearing itself loose from the of the despicable A.F. of L. bureaucracy. (Here is the C.I.O predicted.) American capitalism itself will enter an epoch of monstrous imperialism, uninterrupted growth of armaments, of intervention in the affairs of the entire world, of military conflicts and convulsions. Japan’s adventure in China can lead to revolution in Japan for the Chinese, despite their weakness, will always improvise new armies. This is the background on which stands out in bold relief the situation in Germany. On the solution of the German crisis hangs the fate not only of Germany but of Europe and the entire world. Socialist construction in the USSR, the revolution in Spain, the fate of France and Britain, China and India, the development of the working class movement in America, all this rests “directly and immediately” on who will be victorious in Germany, Fascism or Communism.  The Communist Party, said Trotsky, must announce the danger, must unite the working class by a struggle for the united front with the social-democratic leaders. It must let the international proletariat and the Red Army know in advance, “Fascism can come into power only after a merciless, annihilatory civil war to the bitter end.” The German Communist Party had at one period over 300,000 members.
It was more than enough. But instead of seeking the united front, Stalin’s minions declared every minute of the day that the Social-Democracy, not Hitler, was the main enemy. They were counseling a retreat. Let Hitler come to power. After will be our turn. They got that from Stalin who did not want to be bothered with any German revolution. It was in response to this that Trotsky uttered a warning which is the most poignant in all the historic literature of our times and day by days tolls louder in our ears.
“14. The coining into power of the German “National Socialists” would mean above all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the disruption of its organizations, the extirpation of its belief in itself and its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian Fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists.
“Retreat, you say, you who were yesterday the prophets of the “third period”? Leaders and institutions can retreat. Individual persons can hide. But the working class will have no place to retreat to in the face of Fascism, and no place where to hide. If one were really to assume the monstrous and improbable to happen: that the party will actually evade the struggle and thus deliver the proletariat to the mercy of its mortal enemy, this would signify only one thing: the gruesome battles would unfold not before the seizure of power by the Fascists but after it, that is: under conditions ten times more favorable for Fascism than those of today. The struggle of the proletariat, taken unawares, disorientated, disappointed and betrayed by its own leadership, against the Fascist regime would be transformed into a series of frightful, bloody and futile convulsions. Ten proletarian insurrections, ten defeats, one on top of the other could not debilitate and enfeeble the German working class as much as a retreat before Fascism would weaken it at the given moment, when the decision is still impending as to the question of who is to become master in the German household.” (Germany, the Key to the International Situation)
The Fascists consisted of the petty-bourgeoisie, and the new middle class, artisans, shopkeepers, the technical personnel, the intelligentsia, the impoverished peasantry. One thousand Fascist votes equalled one thousand Communist votes on the scale of election statistics. But on the scales of revolutionary struggle, a thousand workers in one big factory represent a force a thousand times greater than a thousand petty officials, clerks, their wives and their mothers-in-law. “The great bulk of the Fascists consist of human rubbish.”
Away from the centre of things, dependent upon newspapers days old, and unable to feel the pulse of the masses, as he complained, he followed events as best he could and in the next twelve months produced a succession of articles which were like a series of powerful searchlights in the prevailing darkness. Never for one moment did Trotsky falter on the supposed division between different sections of the bourgeoisie and the possibility of Bruening crushing Hitler or controlling him. He based himself on the crisis of German capitalism which demanded that the bourgeoisie get rid of the workers’ organizations altogether. Capitalism at a certain stage has to “smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the social democracy and the trade unions.” German capitalism had reached that stage. Since 1918 he and Lenin had been awaiting it and only the proletarian revolution could stop it. (Look and learn if you can while there is still time, Messrs. Democrats of 1940, look and learn.) Trotsky wasted no breath in shouting imprecations on Fascist brutality and sadism, or making psycho-analytic researches into Hitler’s ambition. He knew what German capitalist economy imperatively needed in order to survive. It would be overthrown by a socialist revolution or it would smash everything before it. In Germany and out-side Germany, before Hitler and after Hitler, the fools and the wise men, some very exalted statesmen indeed, besides the usual riff-raff of bourgeois intellectuals, speculated on the control that would be exercised over Hitler, on the pressure from the left, the balance of the center, the restraint of the right. Trotsky kicked this out of the way almost without looking at it. “What relationships would develop in the early days between Hitler, Schleicher and the Center leaders, is more important for them than it is for the German people. Politically, all the conceivable combinations with Hitler signify the dissolution of bureaucracy, courts, police and army into Fascism.”
It would take too long to detail how, article by article, he foresaw move after move, and prescribed the course of action necessary to unite the Stalinist and the social-democratic workers in common struggle against the fascist bands. Together these workers had forty per cent of the votes. In actual struggle they were overwhelmingly the strongest section of the country. They controlled transport, production and distribution. The transport workers could paralyze the small Reichswehr. Millions of workers were trained for war by their experiences in 1914–1918.
On the international scale he was as usual at his best. A special conference of the Communist International to place the crisis before the revolutionary workers everywhere; a joint plan for coordination of Soviet and German industry to be worked out by German and Soviet engineers with the participation of the German working class movement; a declaration by Stalin that in view of the repeated expressions of hostility to the USSR by Hitler, the Soviet government would consider Hitler’s accession to power as a threat to its future existence and would mobilize the Red Army on the borders of Poland. Trotsky had done the same thing under similar circumstances in 1923. In 1932, the economic crisis had every country by the throat, none more so than the “new society” of Italian Fascism. A fierce bitterness against the imperialist governments burned in the hearts of millions of workers in every country. The revolution crackled in Spain, ready to blaze, a tremendous revolutionary ferment was shaking India. Never at any time was there less fear of capitalist intervention in a revolutionary Germany. Of the success of a Communist Germany the bourgeoisie had no doubt. Doubt it left to the intellectuals. Lloyd George said, after Hitlers coming to power, that it was just as well, for these Germans would know how to manage their communism.
Trotsky made some mistakes e.g., in Germany, the Key to the International Situation, he thought that in the first period of its rule if victorious, German Fascism would be the tool of France. But this – and nearly all his other mistakes – flowed from a constant incapacity to acknowledge perhaps even to himself, the full depravity of Stalinism. He did not think it possible that the Stalinists in Germany would capitulate so completely as they did. Who else thought so? About the social-democratic bureaucrats he had no illusions. He knew and said in advance that their upper layer preferred the victory of Fascism to the socialist revolution. When Wels, Liepart and Co., offered their services to Hitler it was no surprise to him. Knowing the future that awaited Europe he had to sit and watch the catastrophe unroll itself before him.
He wrote rarely on bourgeois foreign policy. Every line in What Next? and The Only Road, the two brochures in which were collected the articles which followed Germany, the Key to the International Situation, is addressed, like ninety-nine per cent of his writings, to the workers. They could stop Fascism, nobody else could. But some months after Hitler came to power he completed his analysis in a pamphlet. What Hitler Wants. Hitler had astonished the world by a most pacific speech, which, following on a bellicose piece of rhodomontade by Von Papen, fell like a soothing lotion on Europe’s troubled ears. Trotsky, with mathematical precision, itemized Hitler’s foreign policy. The inevitability of the new conflict between Germany and France; his immediate aim: to restore the military power of Germany; the use of Italy, “but with the Italian crutch alone German imperialism will not rise to its feet”; the splitting of England from France by the coming German departure from the League of Nations; England to be bribed by Hitler taking upon himself “the protection of European civilization, of the Christian religion, of the British colonies, and other moral and material values, against Bolshevik barbarism ... Hitler is convinced that on the scales of Great Britain the danger of German Fascism to Western Europe weighs less than the danger of the Bolshevik Soviets in the East. This evaluation constitutes the most important key to the whole foreign policy of Hitler”; Hitler would strive to unite the vanquished nations only the more pitilessly to crush them after; and, rearmament being accomplished, should the East be difficult, the explosion might take place along a different direction. “For if it is still possible to discuss to what degree offensive means are distinguished from defensive means, it is already beyond dispute that the military means suitable for the East are equally suitable for the West.” The essay ended with another warning. Europe needs a new organization. But woe betide it if this work falls into the hands of Fascism. The historians of the Twenty-first Century would then have to write that the war of 1914, called the “war for democracy” soon led to the triumph of Fascism which became the instrument of the destruction of Europe’s economic and cultural organizations. He hoped that the old continent still had enough vital strength to open for itself a different historical road. This is the man who three years afterwards was accused by Stalin and Browder of being in alliance with Hitler. And the intellectuals read and shook their heads and said “It is possible.” He made only one serious error. He laughed to scorn the idea of an alliance between Hitler and Stalin and that is a question that demands detailed treatment. Enough for the moment that Trotsky was writing in the summer of 1933 He knew then that Stalin had openly asked for the alliance in March. And Hitler had refused. The Soviet Union of 1933 was not the Soviet Union of 1939.
Idiots and bourgeois scoundrels always emphasize Trotsky’s personal brilliance whereby they seek to disparage Trotsky’s method. The two are inseparable. His natural gifts were trained and developed by Marxism and he could probe these depths of understanding and ascend to these peaks of foresight because he based himself on the Marxian theory of the class struggle and the revolutionary and predominant role of the proletariat in the crisis of bourgeois society. The choice is still yours, Messrs. Democrats, the choice between Fascism and socialism. And if you say that instead you choose democracy, then the lesson of the rise of German fascism is still lost upon you, though you know very detail of German history since 1933 and can point out the absurdities of Mein Kampf.
It is difficult, it is impossible to write about the career and achievements of this extraordinary man without the instant use of superlatives, and yet they are rigidly and soberly applicable. Marx and Engels were the guiding spirits of the First International but their work was largely literary – the exposition of ideas. In that field Lenin and Trotsky continued and developed on foundations which had been well and truly laid. But history prevented Marx and Engels from being men of action on the grand scale. Trotsky, his theoretical writings apart, belongs to that small company of human beings who have been instruments in assisting new worlds to be born. We have no need to retail here the leadership of the revolution which earned him the title of the Man of October, or his organization of the Red Army. What we have to do in order to get an approximate evaluation of his historical significance is to compare his role with that of other great political figures at similar historical rises.
The Russian Revolution is the greatest revolution in history and among the political events which have been decisive in altering the course of human society, come what lay, it takes a high place. As we look back over the history of Western civilization, we can see the high spots, the German Reformation, the Thirty Years War which ruined Germany and laid the basis of modern Europe, the English Revolution, the First American Revolution, the French Revolution, Bolivar’s liberation of Latin America, the American Civil War. There are others, and there is scope for argument, but it is incontestable that each of these marks the beginning of a new epoch in human relations. The dynastic wars of the eighteenth century, even such a war as the Franco-Prussian War, shrink into insignificance as times marches on. It did not extensively matter to the world who conquered India, the British or the French, but it was matter of life and death to Western civilization whether the North conquered the South or vice versa: it is not spleen that makes Hitler foam at the mouth when he speaks of the Northern victory. The success of the Russian Revolution ushered in a period of crisis for Western civilization such as never existed before since the third century of the Roman Empire. And this time not only Western civilization but the fate of the world is at stake. Among the men who played the decisive parts at these historic climaxes Trotsky easily takes his place as one of the foremost.
He is not in the very first rank. Cromwell and Lenin stand towering above all others. Lenin organized the Bolshevik Party, was the strategist of October, and again and again saved the revolution. Cromwell was indispensable, statesman and soldier as well. But Marat was a journalist and agitator of genius and that was all he did; Robespierre as a politician; Danton was a politician but his chief contribution was his tactical leadership of the revolution. Washington was a soldier and much of the politics of the revolution was in other and more capable hands. Lincoln ad the enormous advantage of always being in control of the state-power. He had neither to overthrow nor rebuild. Trotsky on the other hand was second in command of those who planned the greatest overthrow of the existing order recorded in history. During the crucial months the tactical decisions on which depended success or failure were entirely in his hands. War and revolution are the two greatest social crises. At this business of leading a revolution he showed himself a great master, all the more because twelve years before he had correctly disentangled the main motive forces and direction of the revolution: he masters tactics best who has most profoundly mastered strategy. And as if that were not enough he proceeded almost overnight to show himself one of the greatest war ministers in history. Any historical study or analysis of war and armies must of necessity give a high, in some respects a unique place, to Carnot the “organizer of victory.” But Carnot was no politician. He was a trained army officer. Trotsky, previous to the revolution, having done his share of the work done by Rousseau, Voltaire and Mably, then turned to the revolution to do the work of Danton, immediately dropping that to do the work of Carnot, all this on a scale infinitely surpassing the limitations of eighteenth century France, at the helm of a revolution which directly changed the lives of over a hundred and fifty million people and administered a shock to society the echoes of which are still reverberating in its remotest corners. Prickly and poisonous as are such analogies to handle, yet they are indispensable in arriving at any conclusion as to the historical stature of any great actor on the human stage. But by these or any other standards one conclusion emerges. Trotsky was one of the most powerful agents of social dynamics who has lived in this or any other time. 
Here is a list of achievements which can challenge comparison with that of most men in history, without our taking into account the History of the Russian Revolution. There is no need to dilate on his intellectual and physical endowment, his iron self-discipline, his devotion. And yet this superbly gifted theoretician, executive, and leader of men on the grand scale, who achieved so much in the realm of politics, was a very defective politician. We do not refer to the fact that he had built no organization of importance before 1905. There was no room for a second Bolshevik Party in Russia. Lenin might be wrong on the imminence of the socialist revolution in Russia. But his party was the proletarian party and Trotsky, who repudiated the Menshevik doctrine and the Bolshevik practice, was of necessity left in a no man’s land of small dimensions: two Bolshevik parties in any country at the same time is impossible. Nor do we refer to the weakness of the Fourth International to which he devoted his last years. It is possible to differ with Trotsky on some of the organizational conflicts of the Fourth International during the last period, and yet it is easy to recognize for what they are, those who place the responsibility for the smallness of our forces on him and his “methods” and his weaknesses. They are for the most part disgruntled backsliders or people looking for excuses to get out of the movement. But recognition of his genius does not preclude the obvious fact that 1905 found him outside of an organization; 1917 found him again without an effective organization in which to function; in 1923, at the greatest crisis of his career, though he was, after Lenin the most famous and popular leader of Russia in the party, among the proletariat, and among the peasantry, Trotsky found himself pushed out of power as if he were a fourth-rate bureaucrat. It was Trotsky’s reputation with the great masses of the people that Stalin and his friends of the moment feared and systematically destroyed. Actual power Trotsky had none. Second-raters like Zinoviev and Kamenev were rooted, the one in the Leningrad Soviet, the other in the Moscow Soviet. Stalin had to do a deal of digging to get them out. Trotsky was rooted nowhere, not even in the army he had built from the ground up. No sooner was Lenin ill than Trotsky’s power in the party was seen for what it was – a glittering shell. Such failures were not due to superficial characteristics. If they were, a man of his devotion and his will would have conquered them. They were organic and his work is not fully comprehensible without seeing them as an essential part of the man he was and the things he did. The weakness was not all on the debit side.
Let us look at his style, for words were his greatest weapons as a man of action. He expressed himself always amply, completely and with care, writing and re-writing and re-writing. Man of action though he was, the whole of him is contained in his books. The false way in which the chairman of a Soviet district committee approaches the kulak is only a small link in the chain whose largest links are constituted by the attitude of the Red trade unions towards the General Council or of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. towards Chiang Kai-Shek and Purcell.
How magnificent it is. Range and precision, but above all range. These and similar superb generalizations are scattered all over his works. He could bring the whole world situation to bear upon the single point he was discussing. Here is a longer example.
“Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes – in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defense of the privileged. The Stalin regime, rising above a politically atomized society, resting upon a police and officers’ corps, and allowing of no control whatever, is obviously a variation of Bonapartism – a Bonapartism of a new type not before seen in history.
“Caesarism arose upon the basis of a slave society shaken by inward strife. Bonapartism is one of the political weapons of the capitalist regime in its critical period. Stalinism is a variety of the same system, but upon the basis of a workers’ state torn by the antagonism between an organized and armed soviet aristocracy and the unarmed toiling masses.
“As history testifies, Bonapartism gets along admirably with a universal, and even a secret, ballot. The democratic ritual of Bonapartism is the plebiscite. From time to time, the question is presented to the citizens: for or against the leader? And the voter feels the barrel of the revolver between his shoulders. Since the time of Napoleon III, who now seems a provincial dilettante, this technique has received an extraordinary development. The new Soviet constitution which establishes Bonapartism on a plebiscite basis is the veritable crown of the system.
“In the last analysis. Soviet Bonapartism owes its birth to the belatedness of the world revolution. But in the capitalist countries the same cause gave rise to fascism. We thus arrive at the conclusion, unexpected at first glance, but in reality inevitable, that the crushing of Soviet democracy by an all-powerful bureaucracy and the extermination of bourgeois democracy by fascism were produced by one and the same cause: the dilatoriness of the world proletariat in solving the problems set for it by history. Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity. A victorious revolutionary movement in Europe would immediately shake not only fascism, but Soviet Bonapartism. In turning its back to the international revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy was, from its own point of view, right. It was merely obeying the voice of self-preservation.” (The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 277–279)
One writer alone of modern times had the same range – Spengler.  A horizon separated him from Trotsky in precision. We who know his work may perhaps be a little dulled by familiarity. That page, however, is the summary of two thousand years of history ending in judgments of the two major phenomena in modern society, which are as startling as a picture suddenly flashed on a screen and as precise and incontrovertible as a proof in geometry. Trotsky, man of action, was therefore, above all, an intellectual, a man of theory. Thus he was a man for whom ideas had far more reality than people. Vulgar minds like Louis Fischer say that he had his head in the clouds. There is just a germ of truth in it. But he was never dreaming or admiring himself. He was always conscious of the panorama of history, not as an antiquarian but in its bearing on the problem in hand. He said so. He deplored his weak memory for faces but admitted to his memory for ideas. That sentence in his autobiography tells as much. He has made still more revealing confessions. He says openly that for him power was an inescapable burden. “In prison with a book or a pen in my hand, I experienced the same sense of deep satisfaction that I did at the mass-meetings of the revolution.” Such a spirit is absolutely foreign to the genuine homo politicus. He even goes so far as to say that he found prison a perfect place for writing: “It was so quiet there, so eventless, so perfect for intellectual work;” it was the one place where he was certain not to be arrested. It is a joke but a joke perfectly in harmony with his general approach to life. In the midst of one of the most difficult periods of the revolution he had on his desk some of the latest books on science and chafed that he could find no time to read them. (Joseph Stalin, we may be sure, was not worried at his ignorance of Einstein’s theory.) After the October Revolution, when Lenin asked him what position he wanted, he had never thought of it because he had always wanted to be a writer. That was his trend of mind. In a different age he would not have been a politician at all. Compare Lenin who never finished The State and Revolution because, as he gayly writes in the introduction, it was far more enjoyable to be going through a revolution than to be writing about it. Lenin, it is known, loved conventions, conflicts over resolutions, the wear and tear and hurly-burly of political strife. Trotsky, it is clear, hated them. He would have preferred to be elsewhere, at his desk. His political work was a duty. He saw the moving forces of history and played his part. Conscious that it was a great part, he was glad to be able to give so much in a struggle where gifted men are so few. He could throw his cloak about his shoulder in superb style as when, at a difficult moment in the History he remarks: it seems easier at times to have captured Petrograd in 1917 than to write the history of the event. (How his small bright blue eyes would have gleamed just before he said it.) But in this consciousness of himself there was not the slightest meanness nor conceit. His writings against Stalin are evidence. There is rage and indignation at the degradation of the Russian Revolution, but there is not one line, not a comma, of personal bitterness. The confinement irked him but he was as happy at his desk in Coyoacan as he was in the Kremlin. It was true, too true. He loved learning, knowledge, theory for their own sake, whereas Lenin, more learned and more profound than Trotsky, loved them for the sake of the revolution. He could not resist a theoretical disquisition. “What constitutes the essence of a dual power? We must pause upon this question, for an illumination of it has never appeared in historic literature.” Follows a rather lengthy digression in the History and, feeling guilty, he is at pains to assure the reader at the end to have patience, it will be worth it. “It may seem as though this theoretical inquiry has led us away from the events of 1917. In reality it leads us right into the heart of them ... Only from a theoretical height is it possible to observe it fully and correctly understand it.” At the tensest moments of revolution and war he way always looking at events from a theoretical height. Stalin, his rival, never ascended to any theoretical height. He was always crawling about down below. And to be successful, politicians must learn to grub.
That is one key to Trotsky’s character and his work. Another was his attitude to the masses. He had a passionate faith in them and no great work for socialism, theoretical or practical, can be done without it. On one occasion he spoke of them with an unsurpassable dignity and restraint. “Mr. Attorney,” he told Finerty during the sessions of the Dewey Commission, “France and Great Britain are not my allies. They can be the allies of the Soviet state. My allies are the workers of all countries, and the only allies I recognize are the workers of all the other countries. My politics are established not for the purpose of diplomatic conventions, but for the development of the international revolutionary movement of the working-class. I cannot put hopes in the allies of the Soviet Union, in France and England. They can betray one another. They can separate from one another. But I am sure that the workers who understand very well the situation – they will be free and they will win one hundred workers, and the hundred workers a thousand soldiers. They will be victorious at the end of the war. It seems to me very simple, but I believe it is a good idea.” But though he had no illusions about them his general attitude was one of explosive indignation at their oppression and sufferings. “Workers to the shops! Such is the iron-clad egotism of the educated classes, liberals and socialists alike. These people believed that millions of workers and soldiers lifted to the heights of insurrection by the inconquerable pressure of discontent and hope, would after their victory tamely submit to the old conditions of life.” More than once the History refers to the freedom from drudgery of the domestic servants. Of many passionate outbursts in the History one of the most remarkable is the description of the horny hands and hoarse voices of the Paris workers intruding themselves on the political stage where the silken gentlemen are settling the fate of the nation. His chapters on the revolution in the autobiography are instinct with a hot sympathy for humanity in the mass. It is often a characteristic of the gifted intellectual, and particularly of men who are somewhat aloof from their fellows. It is the chief ingredient in the complex of psychological traits which make the great mass orator. You can feel it in every page of Burke and Demosthenes. But neither of these were great politicians in the small sense of that word. Most young men have it.
Trotsky never lost it. The possessor of it can usually lead men to accomplish the impossible, but a certain tendency to rashness goes with it. With all his self-discipline Trotsky’s feelings could outrun his discretion. To demonstrate by contrast, read Lenin’s writings. There is the same passion but it is controlled. Rage at Mensheviks and petty-bourgeois radicals? Yes. But outbursts of moral indignation, of outraged sympathy are singularly few. But if he was never the orator that Trotsky was, he was never the man to be swept off his feet. He lost his head once only, and that in a personal question.
And finally, quite in keeping with Trotsky’s passion for ideas, his generous indignation at injustice, was his sense of personal rectitude, his idealistic approach to life. All who knew him intimately even when he was one of the rulers of Russia speak of it. Max Eastman and also Souvarine, who, a fierce opponent of Trotsky’s politics, has said of him that there was nothing “mesquin” in his character, not a trace of rascality. It is a noticeable characteristic of many great writers and philosophers, but a fatal weakness in a politician. You can see it in all his writings. Was any other politician of similar eminence capable of saying at a public investigation, “I can say that never in my life did I take the interest take the contrary of the truth. If you will, in plain words, a lie. I believe, in our society, which is very contradictory, that the conventional rules of conduct in family, society, or corporation – everybody from time to time is obliged not to say the truth. I committed it sometimes. I believe the question can be decided only by comparison of the lies I was obliged to give, and the truth. I believe that in the balance my truths are more heavy than the lies. It seems to me so in the more important questions, the decisive questions, in the questions upon which depend the actions of many people, of friends, of their fate – it seems to me that I never committed such crimes.” Trotsky had been through much, but the fundamental honesty of his character, his inner sensitiveness, as he quite unconsciously expresses them here, are very moving, but very revealing also. He was a materialist but none of the great idealist philosophers ever surpassed the conclusion of his address to the Dewey commission. “Esteemed Commissioners! The experience of my life, in which there has been no lack either of successes or of failures, has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, has given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, at the age of eighteen I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolaiev – this faith I have preserved fully and completely. It has become more mature, but not less ardent. In the very fact of your Commission’s formation ... in this fact I see a new and truly magnificent reinforcement of the revolutionary optimism which constitutes the fundamental element of my life.” Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, men of deeds, his place is among them. But he was not one of them really. By nature and inclination he would have preferred the company of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Goethe. History was not unkind to him personally. He got his chance before he died and took it with both hands. Men make history and to understand history we must understand men.
With an understanding of Trotsky as that type of person we can now better understand his successes and his failures. After the 1905 revolution, he met Lenin in Finland. They discussed politics and found themselves in general agreement against the Mensheviks on the political issues of the day. Lenin, always suiting the action to the word, taunted Trotsky with refusing to join the Bolsheviks. Trotsky preferred to wander around for twelve years between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. He remained untaught by his experience of 1905 when the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks divided between them the leadership of the proletariat. Especially after 1905 a man intent on political power, on political influence, which is the first business of any politician, would have joined one or the other of these parties. Trotsky could not. And his reasons were essentially the reasons of a man repelled by Lenin’s toughness and what seemed to him the unscrupulousness of the Bolsheviks. How bitterly he complains! “During the last three to four years of intense party frictions, the life of very many committees has consisted of a series of coups d’état in the spirit of our court revolutions of the eighteenth century. Somewhere way up on top somebody is incarcerating, replacing, choking somebody else, somebody proclaims himself something-and as a result, the top of the committee house is adorned by a flag with the inscription, ‘Orthodoxy, centralism, political struggle’.” He accused the central apparatus itself of starting a new discussion every month, “the apparatus supplies the topic for it, feeds it by false materials, draws its summary, dispenses justice, postpones congress for a year, and is now preparing a congress from among its own apparatus workers previously appointed, who are to authoritate the people on top to continue this work in the future as well.”
Thus 1917 found him in an insignificant organization. But for the Bolshevik Party, created by Lenin, he would have been helpless, and his grasp of the situation and his gifts would have run to waste. Trotsky has stated emphatically that without Lenin there would have been no October Revolution. He was fully capable of leading a revolution alone, but all the evidence points to the fact that without Lenin he would not have been able to handle the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky never minimized the personal weakness which kept him out of the Bolshevik Party till 1917. Lenin mitigated its consequences while he lived. When he died Trotsky paid heavily.
Trotsky rendered inestimable services to Russia but twice his enthusiasm, his love of the idea, nearly wrecked the Russian Revolution. Despite his somewhat ingenuous explanation of Brest-Litovsk in My Life, the fact remains that he made a terrible error in 1918. That Russia would be saved by the international revolution Lenin knew as well as he. Lenin knew as well as he also that the October Revolution had to hold itself free of any stain of imperialist dealing. But Lenin said, “Peace now, for we cannot fight.” Trotsky persisted in chasing a mirage of his own imagination and his obstinacy cost Russia dearly. Had he voted with Lenin earlier the peace would have been signed weeks before. He tries in places to balance Lenin’s mistakes in urging the attack on Poland in 1920 with his own in 1918. The comparison is quite false. Soviet Russia could afford a gamble in 1920. The whole point of 1918 was that the country was on the edge and could not take the slightest chance. In 1920 during the dispute on the Trade Union question, oblivious to the reality, he let his imagination run away with him again. He did not want to militarize labor as the Stalinist liars report, but he wanted to fuse the trade unions with the state administration. His basic argument was that Russia was a workers’ state and therefore the trade unions, as the workers’ organizations, could administer the state. Lenin’s reply was devastating. “Comrade Trotsky says that Russia is a workers’ state. Excuse me, that is an abstraction.” Had Trotsky had his way he would have placed the Soviet state in mortal peril.
Lenin saved Russia from the political consequences of such a blunder. He could not save the party from the organizational consequences. Trotsky had taken up the cause with his usual enthusiasm, single-mindedness and the emotional drive which had swept everything before it in 1905, 1917 and in the formation of the Red Army. For a moment Lenin was in a minority. But Trotsky had to be stopped, and Lenin fell back on Zinoviev, Stalin and others who had long been waiting their chance to discredit Trotsky. The falseness of Trotsky’s position, the recklessness with which he advocated it, Lenin’s political generalship soon put an end to Trotsky’s adventure. But Lenin, though recognizing Trotsky’s invaluable qualities, sought to guard against any more of these volcanic eruptions. There was a reorganization of party functionaries. Krestinsky, Preobrajensky and others of Trotsky’s supporters, able and powerful men, were “distributed.” Less than two years afterwards Lenin fell ill and at the crisis which followed his incapacitation, Trotsky, never concerned with his strength in the party organization, found himself isolated. The whole episode is one of the most instructive in the history of the Bolshevik Party, and in the political biography of Trotsky. He brought it on himself not only in the political error – during the debates Lenin carefully pointed out that they all of them made theoretical errors – but in the way he behaved.
Finally, in the crisis of 1923, Trotsky conducted himself like a philosopher who had spent his life in a study and had suddenly been asked to take charge of a policy at a party conference. We do not wish here to raise the question of whether this policy by Trotsky or that could have succeeded or had better results than the one he followed. He himself, and, for the immediate political aim, very rightly, always insisted on the economic and social factors at work, minimizing the personal factors. But his political naiveté and the idealism of his character are almost incredible but for his own unsuspecting documentation. Trotsky tells us how, over forty, with his head packed with history and a lifetime of political struggle behind him, he hesitated to make a bid for power because he did not want people to think that he was too anxious to step into Lenin’s shoes. The rest of his strategy is no less amazing. In the hands of Kamenev and Stalin he was a child. Exaggeration? Then characterize these two incidents. Lenin sent him a private letter dealing with an urgent political question in which Stalin and his clique of the moment were intensely interested. Trotsky immediately proposed to show the letter to Kamenev and would have done so but that Lenin stopped him, pointing out that Kamenev would show the letter to Stalin who would inevitably deceive them. All who knew Stalin knew him for what he was. Trotsky knew that Stalin had attempted to poison Lenin’s mind against him. He knew all the intrigues that were going on even before Lenin had the final stroke. Yet read his autobiography. He himself reports not one single action of his own to counter Stalin’s intrigues. Instead he sent the following message to Stalin by Kamenev. “I am against removing Stalin ... But there must be an immediate and radical change. Let (Stalin) not overreach himself. There should be no more intrigues, but honest co-operation.” Never was the leopard more sincerely asked to change his spots.
This is not being wise after the event. Lenin saw to the ultimate end what Stalin stood for. His last writings show it without possibility of argument and it is only within recent years that we have been able to understand their full urgency. Trotsky, warned and warned and warned again, wandered about like a child in a forest of wild beasts. An embittered American anti-Trotskyite  gives meaning to his life by ceaseless attacks on Trotsky as having entered into a pact with Stalin to deceive the Russian people. Undoubtedly owing to the political situation Trotsky, rightly or wrongly, submitted to the suppression of Lenin’s testament, and assisted Stalin to get out of the hole he was in on the National Question. But such compromises, though there can be arguments and differences of opinion about them, are inevitable in the most principled party in the world, and no political party was ever more concerned with principle than the Bolshevik Party in its heroic days. What this critic fails to see is that whatever policy Trotsky was following, whatever tactical compromises he found it necessary to make, he himself, being the man he was, was bound to fail. That he was able to use his magnificent gifts in the way he did was due to the fact that Lenin had created the Bolshevik Party. Who does not understand that does not understand the letter B in Bolshevism.
The last of his blunders which may be conveniently dealt with here was his political position on the Russian invasion of Poland and, particularly, of Finland. As in 1920, pursuing an idea to the end, he repeated his formula: Russia is a workers’ state and therefore it must be defended. Unfortunately for his followers he did not stop there. He condemned the invasion and perhaps for the only time in his long career found himself in an insoluble intellectual contradiction. For if Finland was an outpost of imperialism and Stalin was justified in crushing it then Trotsky’s condemnation of the invasion was a mere gesture to the widespread disapproval and dismay of the workers. But sharp as were the differences between the present Workers’ Party which was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party, a split was not necessary on this question alone. Trotsky knew that, but despite his unwillingness he was cunningly maneuvered into a position in which his authority and energy were unscrupulously used for an aim he did not have in mind. When he recognized what was happening, it was too late. To the end he remained what he was, a man incapable of leaving his main work and concentrating his powerful intellect on the tricks and dodges which are inseparable from politics. Unscrupulous men not fit to clean his pen could gain his confidence and get the better of him. Not the least significant was the tragic circumstances of his death. He had been warned against his murderer but this GPU agent earned his favor by an exaggerated devotion to Trotsky’s political position. For six months he discussed politics with the greatest living master of politics and Trotsky never detected a false note, apparently set no trap for him. We can be certain that whoever else might have been deceived by an imposter, Mr. Joseph Stalin would not have been. In the end the idea expressed was more important and interesting to Trotsky than the person expressing it. It was his strength, the cause of some of his greatest triumphs, but it was his weakness, the cause of some of his greatest failures. We must have him as he was. If you agree with this interpretation of his political character, then you will agree that the power of will and self-discipline with which he devoted himself to a type of work for which he so often expressed a personal distaste is, like so much about him, probably unsurpassed by any other figure of similar stature.
What we are trying to do here is to make an historical evaluation of Trotsky and his work. Nowhere is it so necessary and fruitful as in a consideration of the History. The bourgeoisie, particularly, in this age, lives from hand to mouth. Philosophy it has none – Mussolini’s writings on Fascism enjoy a merited obscurity. Mein Kampf is no more than the political card-sharping of Machiavelli, adapted to the age of mass production, finance-capital and imperialism. No bourgeois critic can properly evaluate Trotsky’s book. For any kind of historical evaluation you need an end – for example, socialism; a material force – the revolutionary proletariat and the colonial peoples; a political method – Bolshevism. This is ours, it is from there that we begin: others may have their own and are welcome to it. But having nothing the bourgeoisie is at a loss not only with politics but with writing of all kinds. Today the Fascists are making history and the Stalinists with them. Why have they not had anything very important or interesting to say? Molotov’s “Fascism is a question of taste” is at least original. Even that cannot be said of Stalin’s also solitary contribution to recent literature: the brilliant phrase that Russia would not pull anybody’s chestnuts out of the fire. Against this and similar curiosities set the body of Trotsky’s writings. On the one hand brutality, hypocrisy, lies and cunning, clumsily and coarsely expressed; on the other strength, honesty, high aspiration and a sparkling intelligence, dynamic power, all portrayed through the medium of a style whose miracles we know even in translation.  The bourgeois critic will explain it in terms of personal ability. A patent and far-reaching error. The style is the man, and men like Hitler and Trotsky speak for a social order. An age, a class, a political system expresses itself through its great books. The Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are two of the greatest pieces of writing in any language. Beside them Winston Churchill’s rhetoric is shoddy. Yet Churchill is a greater master of language than either Jefferson or Lincoln and wants to win his war as much as they wanted to win theirs. His weakness lies in his historical circumstances. They had enormous historical confidence. Churchill has none. He is doubtful of the past, fearful of the future. It is historically that we must approach Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. We do not only take it as our own and judge it by its own standards. We compare it to other literary and political writings of this and other ages. We make a genuinely historical comparison. We shall find that in the same way as Marx and Engels stand above all who have concerned themselves with the analysis of society, as Lenin and Trotsky rank with the greatest of those who have helped to alter the lives of large masses of human beings, so Trotsky’s History is far more than a brilliant history of a great event. It is the greatest history book ever written and one of the most stupendous and significant pieces of literature ever produced in any language.
We do not intend merely to assert. We shall demonstrate. But we must not be short-sighted about these things. These tremendous achievements were the achievements of men, but these men could do the things they did because they represented something – a method, a system of ideas, they could do them because they were the advance guard of something infinitely greater than their individual selves – a new society. At a time when our forces are small we need to maintain the Marxist tradition ready for the day. The best way to maintain it is to understand it and one sure way to understand is through the History.
But your pseudo-Marxist will certainly ask: What use is it that Trotsky wrote so well and Hitler and Stalin write so badly? What does it prove? It proves a hundred times over the historic significance of the ideas which Trotsky stood for. Great books do not drop from the sky. Messrs. pessimists are soused to the marrow in the vinegar of bourgeois empiricism and trained from childhood to worship the established fact. That is why to the greatest problem of the present day, the future of Marxism, they come armed with the scientific weapon of primitive man: the philosophy of simple addition. The Marxists have six hundred members here, eighty here and twenty there. And on the other side look at Hitler’s thousands of airplanes and millions of men. Obviously, oh, how obviously, the Fourth International is doomed to failure. Trotsky, looking at Marxism since 1840 and all that it had done, faced the future with confidence and looked upon the ready reckoners as a man looks upon little boys playing at marbles. They do no harm until they try to introduce their infantile accounts into the records and perspectives of mature men. We cannot judge history by its probable effect on our own tender hides. Any hill-billy in the wilds of Arkansas can do that. We must have historical perspective, look a long way back and a certain distance forward. It will not then be difficult to see what the History of the Russian Revolution represents. It is the climax of two thousand years of European writing and study of history. It is these and similar things that were in Trotsky’s mind when with his last words he said that he was confident of the victory of the Fourth International.
First a brief review of the historical hierarchy. Herodotus was the first. And he set himself to tell the history of the war between the Greeks and Persians before the material was forgotten. He was not an Athenian citizen. He was an impressionable intellectual, widely read and widely travelled, who was caught by the romance of history. He wrote down what he gathered and from that day he has been the model and inspiration, whether they know it or not, of countless historians, inside Europe, inside Asia, and inside everywhere else. But we lose sight of what is essential in him if we allow his love of the picturesque to obscure the purpose of his book – the victory of Greece over Persia. It was the defense of civilization against barbarism, the greatest peril that the Greeks had ever faced. He had a great theme, one which every civilized man on the Mediterranean coast could understand and feel. Thirty years after, Thucydides, in his very first paragraph repudiated Herodotus. With singular acerbity for so urbane a man, Thucydides in that paragraph says that before the Peloponnesian War nothing of importance had ever happened. It was as if a modern American historian watching the world situation had called upon the American people to stop reading about Columbus and to study his history of the 1914 war. Man of affairs, politician, soldier, this sober Athenian was sick of all this old tale-telling in the face of the threat to Athens. He wrote a book which to this day is not excelled for gravity, lucidity, proportion and knowledge of politics. He wrote with one aim – the glorification of Athenian democracy. “Our country is governed in the interests of the many instead of the few. That is why it is called a democracy.” How those words have echoed down the years, drowning the sighs and groans of the Athenian slaves! The great Romans, Livy and Tacitus, wrote within a few years of each other. They hated the autocracy and depravity of the Empire, and Livy, in particular, glorified the constitution of the Roman republic and the stern virtues of ancient Rome. He gives one of his best speeches to Cato denouncing a law which allowed freedom of attire to Roman women. As Rome went to pieces without any future, men clung to the past which Livy had idealized by forty years of labor. Rome fell but Latin literature remained and when the Renaissance brought back the study of the classics, all the growing forces of liberalism in Europe nourished themselves on the vivid artistry and republican sentiments of Thucydides, Livy and Plutarch and cursed tyranny in the language of Tacitus. By the end of the nineteenth century Livy had been translated some five hundred times. The Elizabethan age was famous for its translations. Amyot translated Plutarch and North translated Aniyor, giving Shakespeare rich material for plays. To all these people Livy and Plutarch were far more important than Hoinshed and Froissart. The heroes of the French Revolution conceived themselves as heroic Romans of the republican days. So did Babeuf. The finer shades of European history are a closed book without an understanding of what the classics meant to all the educated classes. For generations they learned nothing else at school. The climax came with Gibbon, who gathered together all the learning and classical consciousness of centuries in his justly celebrated book. But a hundred years ago Guizot knew that for the scientific history of Rome you had to look elsewhere than in the Decline and Fall. Gibbon’s history was the historical peak of the age of enlightenment. He was a member of that cosmopolitan society of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Catherine and the French aristocracy which flourished before the French Revolution. Even the Bourbon monarchy enjoyed this culture and Gibbon’s devastating attack on Christianity was characteristic of educated society in his day, not excluding French bishops. Aristocrat though he was, he represented progress. Voltaire was a prolific historian of the same school. Two generations after Gibbon, Michelet wrote of the French Revolution with an erratic passion that made him a French classic. Macaulay made his political reputation in the struggle for the Reform Bill of 1832 and his history so dominated bourgeois English thought for a century that it is only since October 1917 that the whig tradition has ceased to reign over all English academic writing. Yet he was so biased that his great history is fittingly called a whig pamphlet in four octavo volumes. Green was less crude, but of the same school. His Short History of the English People first made history popular among all classes. All the English prejudices of the last sixty years, their belief in English history as one long struggle for liberty culminating in the British constitution, their conception of themselves as a Germanic people born to freedom, the Magna Carta legend, the Cromwell Protestant legend, all come straight from Green. These histories are some of them good, some of them bad. Green, the most popular, is very bad. But that is not their importance. What they do is to hold not a mirror but a banner up to society. They give society or more often a class an image of itself, not as it was but as it thought it was, or as it would have liked to be. In them is written the history of an age, but not in the sense that they thought they were writing. Gibbon portrays eighteenth century Europe as well as the Roman Empire. These writers were great artists, powerful personalities, preaching a cause, and “they wrote so well because they saw so little.”  But all of them represented some powerful progressive idea, and the great classics first, and these and their satellites after, dominated the thought of the bourgeoisie for over four hundred years. Even Gibbon, aristocrat though he was, was an English aristocrat and praised the Roman constitution in which he thought he saw the model of the British. Then suddenly, with Michelet and Macaulay the line comes to a dead stop and is taken up again only with Trotsky. Why? A few dates will help us.
Michelet’s book appeared in 1847–50 and the fiery History of the French Revolution was directly inspired by the 1848 revolution, the events leading up to it and his own belief in Communism. Macaulay’s first volume of the History of England appeared in 1848. But 1848 was the year when the socialist revolution first appeared. It was the year of the Communist Manifesto. The spectre began to haunt Europe. Sharp eyes were watching, and the call for liberty vanished from bourgeois historical writing on the grand scale. Mommsen’s History of the Roman Republic appeared in 1854, six years after 1848. Not at all accidentally, he was a German. He loved parliamentary democracy but he hated the proletariat, especially after 1848. There was only one refuge for him, Bonapartism, and the climax of his learned work on Rome is his description of Caesar as “the entire, the perfect man.” Bismarck and Napoleon III did their best to emulate if not the perfection at least the entirety of Caesar. Carlyle before 1848 had been so sympathetic to the workers as to win favorable notice from Marx and Engels, but 1848 drove him into the reaction and henceforth he was the advocate of the hero, essentially Mommsen’s entire and perfect man. The domination of the world market enabled Britain to be a little more liberal and Green published in 1874. But six years after Green came Seeley’s Expansion of the British Empire, whose idiotic thesis that the British founded their empire in a fit of absence of mind, did not prevent his book from being one of the most widely read of the day. Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power in History, though not widely popular, was scarcely less influential. Mommsen, Carlyle, Bismarck, Nietzsche, Seeley, Mahan, all that they had to say of political importance was gathered into one tremendous volume – Spengler’s Decline of the West, which was completed in 1917. During the very hours that Spengler was writing finis to bourgeois civilization, Lenin was completing The State and Revolution and Imperialism in preparation for the Russian Revolution. In face of the grandiose movement of social revolution, the slow accumulation, the dramatic confrontations, statements of position, retreats and advances, battles across a world for the future of society, in the face of all this, how mean and piddling are the smug calculations of our sneering accountants, blind to the historical process as a whole and unable to rise above their own insufficiency!
It is, as Trotsky would say, from this theoretical height that we can see what the History has restored to historical writing. To Gibbon, to Macaulay, to Trotsky, liberty meant different things. Trotsky’s conception is the widest. That is not the point at issue now. What matters is that the proletariat at least calls for liberty. The bourgeoisie cannot find one great writer to do so. Marx’s claim that the future of society rests with the proletariat is demonstrated as clearly in historical writing as in economic analysis. This guarantees nothing. To show where the future of any liberty that we may look forward to lies, is no guarantee of its success. But this reactionary and cowardly sentiment, masquerading as realism, draws strength as reaction always does, from ignorance. There is something very concrete to the great historians, propagandists though they were. Not a single broad political step forward in modern European history has ever been taken in the name of tyranny. The exalted sentiment of the popular historians always related to economic expansion and political progress. Even Christianity, the ideological successor to the Roman Empire, spoke in the name of the liberty of the individual, his right to the disposition of his own soul; opposed the Roman State and slavery. The Reformation saw itself as a revolt against papal tyranny. The absolute monarchy was the first political resource of the bourgeoisie against the feudal lords. Its misconceptions of Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch and Tacitus seemed like heaven on earth to the bourgeoisie. No taxation without representation; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; liberty, equality and fraternity; government of the people, by the people and for the people, contained falsities, conscious and unconscious, but they broke monstrous and avowed tyrannies. Workers of the World Unite, aims at doing the same. But for the first time for over five centuries, a political system with a great fanfare of newness and solution to crisis, makes a political virtue out of tyranny, inequality; class, racial and national prejudice; and decries everything that European civilization has striven for, in theory at least, since the Renaissance. During Europe’s worst periods of reaction, the period of the counter-reformation and the Holy Alliance, the most reactionary writers could find something plausible to say in defense of their cause. German imperialism plunders in order to live. Fascism is the decline of the West and its protagonists know it in their souls. Their writings on all subjects except the seizure of power are nothing else but lies and nonsense, cold-blooded deliberate falsification. Not a flower blossoms on their arid heaths. There is no soil in which anything can grow. They are just a thin cover for exhausted bourgeois society. They can have nothing to say. Mommsen and Carlyle said all when the bourgeoisie still could preserve some illusions. If Trotsky’s History does not guarantee the inevitability of socialism, Mein Kampf guarantees the fraud of Fascism as a solution to the ills of capitalist society.
We have carefully avoided hitherto dealing with the scientific aspect of Trotsky’s History. It is familiar to all Marxists, and gives the final endorsement to its value as propaganda on the grand scale. For whereas the other historians in the pursuit of their aim shaped their material as an artist shapes his figures Trotsky claimed and irrefutably demonstrated that his history was scientific in that it flowed from the objective facts. He challenged anyone to question his documentation and the challenge has never been taken up. In method and presentation the book is as scientific as the Origin of Species. It may be challenged as Darwin was challenged, but on concrete not on abstract grounds. No herald of liberty and progress ever stood more firmly with both feet on the earth. And yet in pure style, this materialist, as rigid with facts as Scaliger, is exceeded in no sphere by any one of his ancestors, not by Thucydides in proportion and lucidity, nor by Tacitus in invective, nor Gibbon in dignity, nor Michelet in passion, nor by Macaulay, that great bourgeois, in efficiency. There is a profound lesson here not only in history but in aesthetics.
And finally, the book is not only a propagandist tract, the expression of an attitude to society, and a scientific thesis. It is besides, what none of the others is. It is a summons to action. It is not only a banner and a blueprint. It is a roll of drums. Through it breathes not only the spirit of this is what we aimed at, this is the way it was done, but also, this is the way to do it. Every aspect of the struggle is scientifically analyzed and expounded, and the reader is not so much rhetorically exhorted to join up, but as he sees the difficulties and feels the unbounded confidence and unshakeable will which attacks and overcomes them, the knowledge and the power, he becomes part of this wonderful adventure. Resentment at oppression smoulders in hundreds of millions of people all over the world. What they lack is confidence in their own powers. How can we fight and win? The answer is in the History. And by and large, the advance guard of this generation have been ready for that answer. In translations, for the author had no country, it has sold thousands upon thousands of copies. On the shelves of many rank and file Social-Democrats it occupies an honored place, and it has penetrated into the homes of numerous Stalinists, the only book by Trotsky since his exile to do so, despite their copious denunciation of all his writings. This is not one of its least triumphs. Had the Third International been a revolutionary organization, this book, with its knowledge, its confidence and its will, would have inspired, directly and indirectly, millions of political leaders all over the world. History has deemed otherwise, but it is another proof of what we know in so many other fields, that it is Stalinism above all which confuses the working class and keeps away from it that knowledge and understanding without which it cannot conquer. The new class is willing to listen. What it requires to know is there. An excrescence stands in the way. Powerful though it is it is still an excrescence. To see the History in perspective is to realize that it is Stalinism which is the accident and that the proletariat and its spokesman are a sequence in the movement of European life and thought as we have known them for five centuries.
Now a book could be a propaganda tract on the grand scale, an attempt at a scientific treatise, and a summons to action, could be written by a highly gifted participant in a great event, and yet be merely one of many other books. The memoirs of all who took part in the last war are there to show that these are not sufficient to write a great book. That the History is what it is due certainly to Trotsky’s power as a writer. There is no substitute for a great artist. But that for us is the least consideration.
With the Communist Manifesto began something entirely new in historical method. Specially to show how the new method should be used, Marx deliberately wrote the Eighteenth Brumaire, but afterwards he and Engels wrote specifically on history only as the occasion presented itself, and always to the point and no more. Bernstein and Kautsky wrote historical works which were illuminating but academic. The Marxist method enables you to write a scientific history. But it is not a talisman. Kautsky and Bernstein were bureaucrats, the one a concealed and the other an avowed reactionary. And Marxist method or no Marxist method only passionate conviction can write a great book. Neither Lenin nor Rosa Luxemburg wrote history. Men of action must cease being men of action to write history, which demands a certain tranquility. But during all these years, there was accumulated in books, articles and correspondence, a vast amount of thinking on history; isolated sketches, scholarly works, deductions and observations about classes, states, insurrections, mass movements, which formed the Marxist corpus. It was not collected anywhere but the students of Marxism knew it. It was in the background of Lenin’s mind always. He studied the proceedings of Cromwell’s Long Parliament and the proceedings of the Paris Commune during the French Revolution, and thus tested and amplified the principles laid down by Marx. Trotsky followed this example, only whereas Lenin seemed by nature inclined to economic and statistical studies, Trotsky’s natural instincts as we have seen drove him to history and writing. Trotsky also had met and talked with all the great European Marxists of his time. In 1905 came the theory of the permanent revolution, and from that time on, not to mention the earlier years, how the Russian Revolution would develop was the main preoccupation of the Social Democrats in Russia and of European Marxists as a whole. But whereas everyone, according to his gifts and opportunities, contributed and analyzed, no one, not even Lenin, analyzed more deeply than Trotsky. He had his theory to test and to defend and he was above all a man of theory. Thus the structure and movement of the Russian Revolution was the very structure of his mental make-up, the axis around which he lived intellectually and emotionally. Came 1917 and for seven intense months, first outside and then inside Russia, he saw and helped and guided. Thus it is safe to say that no previous writer was ever so much completely master of a great subject as Trotsky was of the Russian Revolution. Politically mankind came of age with the Russian Revolution. Caesar, Cromwell, Marat, Robespierre and other famous men had worked largely by instinct. For the first time in history, a man had foreseen the main lines of a great historical event, and then had himself been instrumental in carrying it through to a successful conclusion. Lenin had to revise his conceptions. Not Trotsky. Any writer, any artist would know the extraordinary power and confidence, the certainty of direction, that would be Trotsky’s when he sat down to write. Such was the background. The interplay of class as a whole and individual artist are fused here as nowhere else that we know in writing. But that is only half the book.
A revolution is the greatest event in the life of all those who experience it. It alters the food that you eat, the way you eat it, the clothes that you wear, even the way of a man with a maid. And never were so many people jerked so far and with such violence as were the people of Russia by the October Revolution. Thus from 1917 onward an unending stream of reminiscence, memoirs, documents, conferences, conversations, contributed unceasingly to the consciousness of the leaders of a historical event who from the beginning were as conscious of their historic selves as no other leaders in history. Politicians, diplomats, aristocrats and merchants wrote, the official historians collected, but worker-Bolsheviks, ordinary workers, ordinary peasants, ordinary soldiers, all poured their contributions in. How often Trotsky must have talked about the revolution to ordinary folks. How glad they were to talk to the man of October! Too much material can swamp. But to Trotsky who since 1905 had the main lines of the map clear, it defined, clarified, enriched, illustrated. Had he remained a ruler of Russia, the book would never have been written. But driven into exile he settled down to it. (He was at his desk at last, with a pen in his hand.)
Into the book went all the historical knowledge and understanding which Marx and Engels had started to accumulate, and which the Marxists had continued, step by step, as the proletariat and peasantry of the whole world moved slowly forward. All that Marx and Engels and Lenin had written and thought about great revolutions in the past and Trotsky’s own discoveries, Lenin’s studies of 1905 and the period in between, 1905 and 1917, all the erudition, conflicts, thoughts of the Russian Social-Democracy, the writings and analyses that followed 1917, of Lenin, of Bucharin, of Rakovsky, and scores of other gifted men, and of all the millions of the Russian people, all this Trotsky gathered together. The artist in him, suppressed for forty years by the needs of the revolution, now opened out, and with the same personal force, discipline and will which always distinguished him, he hammered this mountainous mass of facts and ideas around the theme of the class struggle into one of the most powerful, compact and beautiful pieces of literature that exists in any language, prose or poetry. Milton says that a great book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit. True. But in the History is the precious life-blood of many master spirits; and also of the Russian people, of the French proletariat, in 1848 and 1870, of Ironsides and Jacobins and sansculottes, of the abortive German revolution of 1918, of the Chinese and other nationalist revolutions. All, all are there. All had contributed their sufferings, their hopes, the wisdom that was drawn from their experiences. A hundred years of socialist thought and proletarian struggles have gone into the making of that book, the first of its kind. No one will ever be able to write like it again for generations. Historians will write, their wine will be new, but their bottles will be old. It is the first classic of socialist society and it will never be superseded. For there may come a time when Capital will be of historic interest only, when What is to be Done will be pondered over by students who will seek in vain to recapture the remote circumstances which produced Bolshevism of the imperialist age. But the History will remain the bridge between the long line which leads from the Old Testament and Homer, Greek tragedy, Dante and Cervantes, to the books which will be written when, in Marx’s famous phrase, the history of humanity begins.
With the conclusion of the History it might have seemed that Trotsky had done enough for one man. And yet, infatuated exaggeration though it may sound, his last phase is the most unprecedented of his wonderful career. He was the most powerful and celebrated exile in history. Napoleon at St. Helena was out of it. Bismarck walked down the gangway and was rowed into oblivion. Napoleon III finished like the last discord of a modern jazz composition. Kaiser Wilhelm added a beard to his moustache. These men ruled tremendous empires for many years and then sank from public affairs like stones. As for the social-democratic rubbish, the Kerenskys, the Chernovs, the Bauers, Caballeros, Negrins and Prietos, what a miserable down-at-heel assortment of discards, old curs with scarcely spirit enough to yelp at the moon – for nobody wants to hear them. All of them, kings and bureaucrats, could find a place to stay. Great organizations, sometimes great states, backed them. Yet all added together they amount to nothing. Trotsky could not rest anywhere. No country wanted him until Mexico added lustre to its history by giving him a home. He was pursued by all the resources of the Soviet state. Despite the devoted solicitude of his supporters he was often in financial straits, for though their devotion was unlimited, their numbers were few. Yet from all these difficulties he emerged as a veritable tribune of the international working class, speaking for the proletarian revolution and for socialism as no private individual ever spoke for any public cause. First was the gigantic conflict with Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy. Never did any state spend so much time, energy and resources, to blacken the reputation and silence the ideas of a single individual. His supporters were systematically murdered. Unprecedented trials were arranged for the purpose of getting rid of internal enemies and utterly discrediting him. Huge political parties all over the world carried out the orders and repeated the slanders of Moscow. Almost single-handed, Trotsky, aided only by a small and devoted band of followers (they did a great historic work), fought Stalinism to a finish and inflicted upon it a resounding defeat. Today the whole world knows that Stalin lied, that Trotsky was no enemy of the Soviet Union, that he stood for the revolution as it was originally conceived, and though they hate him for his unswerving devotion to revolution, yet his sincerity and his loyalty to the cause of socialism are not questioned. He fought for that, not on account of his personal reputation – he was always confident of the judgment of history – but because he knew that in attempting to discredit him, the Stalinists, inside and outside Russia, sought to discredit the ideas for which he stood – the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Periodically the front pages of every newspaper in the world were covered with the records of this great conflict, and Stalin, the ruler of a hundred and seventy millions and Trotsky primus inter pares of a few scattered thousands, met as equals on the arena of world public opinion. It will be said that historical events helped him to win his final victory. What infinite wisdom! As if Trotsky did not know that history was moving in a certain direction, as if all his efforts were not directed towards hastening and clarifying the process.
The Stalinists claimed that he gained all this publicity because he was an enemy of the Soviet Union and the bourgeoisie used him. It is a pitiable self-deception. At the time of the Moscow Trials, the Manchester Guardian was advocating an alliance between Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Yet it threw open its pages to him, for in the confusion all felt that only one man could help to elucidate the mystery and that man was Trotsky himself. That was the secret of his power. He could clarify the world bourgeoisie, in the confusion in which it finds itself. It learned something from him. He was prepared to speak whenever asked, because he knew the limitations of bourgeois wisdom; through their organs he spoke to the workers about every important event, not only on revolutions on which he was an authority, but on every development in the steady progress to war. Journalists came from all over the world to interview him, certain that people would read eagerly what he said. His books were literary events, simultaneously reviewed everywhere and pondered over.
To attribute it all to his personal brilliance, the vigor and incisiveness of his expression, is an absurdity we have already dealt with earlier. Trotsky represented something – represented it adequately, magnificently, with a power that was all his own, but yet he was only a representative. He represented the proletariat in the period of the decay of capitalism. The proletariat is a mighty force in the modern world. If the radical intellectuals do not know it, the bourgeoisie does. The bourgeoisie listened to Trotsky because whether it recognized this or not he represented the point of view of the world revolution. The bourgeoisie does not accept Marxism. It cannot. But it was obvious to many bourgeois thinkers that on any knotty tangle of international politics he always had something of value to say. Why had Hitler come so easily to power in Germany? What was the significance of Hitler? Why, why the Hitler-Stalin pact? How would the war end? He told them what he thought. They listened to his predictions because these turned out so often to be true. But if they were hazy as to the source of his ideas they had no illusions as to what use he intended to make of them and they carefully excluded him from their shores. When he died, in their news columns and obituary notices they recognized the greatness of the figure that had so dominated a social epoch, in their editorials they vented their spleen against the implacable enemy of their society.
For those who can understand history there is a tremendous significance in this last period of Trotsky’s life. Like some bold reconnoiterer he forced his way into the enemy’s camp, and using every trick, wile and dodge at his command, and giving away practically nothing, he carried on the battle, cleared paths, exposed dangers, charted a course, knowing that though the great armies had fallen behind and were stumbling, they were coming, slowly but inexorably they were coming. And that almost alone he could do so much was a testimony not only to his personal qualities but to the great forces which he represented. How little some of his friends knew it, and how well his enemies! Stalin, aware of the state of his regime and in what a tottering world he lived, did not count Trotsky’s meagre following and then sit back in comfort. He knew that as long as Trotsky lived and could write and speak, the Soviet bureaucracy was in mortal danger. In a conversation just before war broke out. Hitler and the French ambassador discussed the perils of plunging Europe into conflict and agreed that the winner of the second great war might be Trotsky. Winston Churchill hated him with a personal malevolence which seemed to overstep the bounds of reason. These men knew his stature, the power of what he stood for, and were never lulled by the smallness of his forces. If some of our radical intelligentsia will not learn from Marxism, perhaps they will ponder on the view of Trotsky held by Stalin, Hitler and Churchill.
And yet his work as spokesman of the revolution was not his main occupation in this period. Not at all. For him that was secondary. What interested him most was getting his ideas directly to the masses through revolutionary organizations. This work is a chapter in itself and is treated elsewhere in this memorial number. It is almost unknown to the general public. All of it is included in the words – the struggle for the Fourth International. We of the Fourth International know what was the quality and quantity of that work; the enormous labor, the knowledge and wisdom, the enthusiasm he put into it. Always he saw history from a great height. Yet a dispute between ten struggling young comrades, five thousand miles away from him, whom he had never seen or heard of until they wrote to him, would occupy his devoted attention for hours and hours at a time. People accuse Trotsky of impatience and domineering. They do not know what they are talking about. He had his opinions and fought for them. In ideological struggles he was a relentless foe. With him theories were not interesting ideas to be played with, as is the detestable habit of the bourgeois intellectuals. They were weapons in the class struggle. But to know and to appreciate his powers and his past, the enormous force of this many-sided and yet perfectly integrated personality, and to see him listening patiently to some inexperienced comrade putting forward his inexperienced ideas, to read letters in which he took up some apparently minor point and elaborated it meeting all possible objections one by one, was to have a great lesson in the difference between the superficial arrogance which often characterizes essentially sensitive men, and the ocean of strength, patience and resiliency which can come from complete devotion to a cause.
That is the secret of his life and achievement – we cannot state it too often – the fact that he was not only gifted above his fellows but that he early abandoned a bankrupt society and embraced a cause which used all that he had and placed no limits on his development. Bourgeois society limits and cramps and distorts. Winston Churchill is a man who in energy and diversity of natural gifts, courage, and spirit, executive capacity and artistic instinct, could not have been anything if at all inferior to Trotsky. Yet look at the result. His whole great British Empire has throttled instead of developing him. It has debarred him from understanding history: he has no historical method. He was at the head of the British navy in the last war and knew everything from the inside, yet his World Crisis is commonplace, and full of a windy rhetoric. His recent speeches are far above anything bourgeois democracy has produced in this crisis. He describes with clarity and style. Yet, at the conclusion of one of his best efforts, all he can tell the British people is so to bear themselves that if they lived a thousand years, men shall say this war was their finest hour. It is not a chance phrase. Men in such times as these do not use chance phrases. Perspective he has and can have none, unless, like Hitler, he turns himself definitely and consciously round and tramples upon everything that humanity has aimed at, however unsuccessfully, in thousands of years of painful effort. All the gifts in the world would not have saved Trotsky from a similar fate had he limited himself to bourgeois society. Being determines consciousness. In the struggle for socialism he strides through the world, a titan among men, excelling in every field he touched. An exile half his life, persecuted as no man has been persecuted, he lived the fullest life of any human being hitherto. The field of being which he chose developed his consciousness to a pitch reached by few men. That consciousness he did his best to pass on to us. It is ours to guard, from each according to our abilities. Let us see to it that we do our share. He himself now belongs to history and this is an historical evaluation. But his death is recent enough and each of us is personally indebted to him for too much to exclude a personal note. Motley closed his noble history of the Dutch Republic by saying of William the Silent that for thirty years he was the guiding star of a whole great nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets. Whatever the fate of our movement, whatever its successes or failures, whatever our personal lives may hold, to us who knew him and worked with him, now that he is dead, the world will never be the same again.
1. Germany, the Key to the International Situation.
2. There is a characteristic and diverting passage in My Life (p. 358) on Trotsky’s estimate of his work as War Commissar. He says that if anyone could be compared with Carnot it is his assistant, Sklyansky. Trotsky knew that the natural comparison was not Sklyansky but himself, and knowing that Carnot’s role in the French Revolution was important but confined, carefully disentangled himself by giving the role to Sklyansky. He need not have worried. But he was always careful of the verdict of history.
3. And Spengler had it not only in the history of society but in music, art and literature. It Is to be hoped that the fog of mysticism does not obscure for Marxists the colossal learning, capacity for synthesis and insight of Spengler’s book.
4. George Marlene.
5. This does not mean that this writer, for instance, is in complete agreement with everything Trotsky wrote. There are not negligible sections to which he is absolutely opposed. These will be taken up in good time. But the disagreements are family disagreements.
6. See the Introduction to the Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James.
Last updated on 10.7.2013