Seventy-three years ago, on August 21, 1940, the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky died after an undercover NKVD agent attacked him with an ice axe. In this 1933 essay, Edmund Wilson discusses Trotsky's literary tendencies and his historical ambitions.
Trotsky seems a unique figure. There has perhaps never been another statesman who played so important a role in history, who had at the same time so vivid a consciousness of the historical significance of his role and who has been able to write so brilliant a record of the events in which he figured.
Trotsky is, of course, primarily not a politician, but a master of words. “A well-written book,” he says, “in which one can find new ideas, and a good pen with which to communicate one's own ideas to others, for me have always been and are today the most valuable and intimate products of culture. The desire for study has never left me, and many times in my life I felt that the revolution was interfering with my systematic work.” And elsewhere he speaks of the pleasure that a newly printed book gives him.
"In my eyes," he writes of himself as a schoolboy, "authors, journalists and artists always stood for a world which was more attractive than any other, one open only to the elect." In the second grade at Odessa, he started a magazine with a friend and later did extra work tutoring to earn money to go to the theatre. But the nineties in Russia—Trotsky was born in 1879—were a period of reawakening revolutionary activity after the disillusion of the eighties: Tolstoyanism was giving place to Marxism. When, at seventeen, Trotsky wrote a play in collaboration with another young intellectual, the heroine, in spite of the fact that both of them thought themselves dubious about Marxism, turned out to be a Marxist. The dead hand of the Tsardom pressed everywhere where the mind tried to move and grow; their school-teachers committed suicide; they felt the future as revolution. "I swallowed books," says Trotsky, "fearful that my entire life would not be enough to prepare me for action." By the time he was eighteen, he had been arrested for circulating illegal literature and he spent the next three years in jail: here he heard for the first time of Lenin and read his newly published book on Russian capitalism. By the beginning of the new century he had been banished to Siberia, where he read Marx, brushing the cockroaches off the page. Thereafter, Trotsky's career was that of a professional revolutionist.
In Siberia he wrote literary criticism, discussed Ibsen, Hauptmann, Maupassant, Nietzsche. But his mastery of language was now to be directed by the requirements of the revolutionist. He learned to excel both as pamphleteer and as orator: his comrades called him "Pero," "Pen." He knew how to analyze and convince, to appeal to the imagination and arouse; to handle the grim Marxist logic with a freer, more sweeping hand than Marx so as to make of it a compelling instrument of popular exposition and to turn to account the Marxist irony as perhaps only another Jew could have done (remember Heine's debt to Marx!), flaying his opponents alive and turning their skins inside out to show the ignominious carcasses inside their arguments; to raise a laugh with a proverb or fable from the south Russian countryside of his youth, aptly applied to some political contingency, to fix a point with a sudden glancing epigram, to open the horizons of the mind to a vision of the dignity and beauty of a world in which socialism should have guaranteed the domination of the barbarous greeds of man by the disinterested work of the intellect and the creative imagination.
It is this vision that is noble in Trotsky, this passion for cultural improvement—not, as in the case of Lenin, the immediate fellow feeling with others which sets him immediately to work to lift the yoke from their necks—that feeling which, Clara Zetkin remembers, sometimes made his face seem to shrink with the furrows of "unspoken, unspeakable suffering" as if he were "burdened, pierced, oppressed with all the pain of the Russian working people." In analyzing the social protest of his youth, Trotsky tells us that "indignation over injustice" was perhaps more important in it than "sympathy for the downtrodden." He had seen peasants flogged on his father's farm, and they had inspired him with revolt rather than pity. "Beginning with my earliest childhood, in all the impressions of my daily life, human inequality stood out in exceptionally coarse and stark forms. Injustice often assumed the character of impudent license; human dignity was under heel at every step." He found himself a gifted boy in "perhaps the most police-ridden city in police-ridden Russia and a Jew with his way to make in a world even more hostile to Jews than to other gifted young men. The youth who came to Lenin and Krupskaya heralded as a "young eagle" by their fellow revolutionists in Samara, had brought to the vindication of human dignity a pride which had something of Lucifer's. At nothing was he more successful than lashing his audiences into fury.
Lunacharsky, who first met him in 1905, describes him as arrogant and handsome, rather offensively elegantly dressed for a revolutionist exile and with none of Lenin's human charm; he either would not or could not do anything to win other people's confidence and friendship and he seemed "condemned to a certain loneliness." It was always in his own imagination as the protagonist of Marxism that Trotsky lived. Where Lenin never "glanced in the mirror of history, never even thought what posterity would say of him—simply did his work," Trotsky "looked at himself often, treasured his historic role" and would have been willing to sacrifice anything, not excepting his life, so that he might play this part heroically. The ordinary kind of ambition he despised. "What contemptible ambitiousness!" he exclaimed of a social revolutionary leader who had accepted a place in the coalition government before the October revolution, "to abandon his historic position for a portfolio!" With Lenin, we feel that his personality had become completely identified with his purpose. Clara Zetkin tells of one occasion after Lenin had become master of Russia and leader of the Communist International when, in receiving a delegation of German Communists, he kept his appointment so punctually, entered the room so unobtrusively and talked with them so simply and easily, that the Germans, who were used to the frock-coated public-office-inflated Marxists of the Reichstag, did not even guess who he was. One cannot imagine Trotsky's entering a room without making people feel that a personality had arrived. Playing a historic role in Trotsky's case implied an audience. But what a magnificent actor!
He was not merely a spokesman for ideas; the Idea for Trotsky was something which had to be made practically and visibly to triumph. Trotsky as a man of action is a singular, a startling figure. As a military leader he seems absolutely sui generis. Though orderly and efficient to the last degree, he is as far removed as possible from the professional military man. His attitude toward professional military men is amusingly shown in his history of the Revolution: "Brussilov and Admiral Kolchak," he writes with condescension from his loftier plane, "a little excelled the others in culture, if you will, out in nothing else. Denikin was not without character, but for the rest, a perfectly ordinary army general who had read five or six books."
Nobody but a Jewish intellectual would criticize generals from that point of view, but it is hard to imagine a regular military man dealing with those generals as Trotsky did. "Show me another man," Gorky reports Lenin as saying, "who could organize almost a model army in a single year, and even win the respect of military experts!" Trotsky, the intellectual, set great store by the military experts, though Stalin, the politician, was suspicious of them on account of their training under the old regime. In spite of Stalin's opposition and Lenin's own doubts, Trotsky organized them and made them work for him. Then he leaped into his armored train and sped from front to front in it so fast, talked to the soldiers so much and so passionately, telegraphed so promptly for supplies, wrote and sent out so many impassioned press stories, caught and shot so many disaffected officers, that the sixteen Soviet armies, feeling this demon of energy and will behind them, held their fronts against the Kolchaks and the Denikins and saved the Revolution.
Take his exploit in defending Petrograd against the army of Yudenitch. A regimental commander had given the men the order to fall back and the troops were running away; but when they reached division headquarters, Trotsky took the situation in hand. He mounted the first horse he could find and, chasing one soldier after another with his orderly behind him waving a pistol and shouting, "Courage, boys. Comrade Trotsky is leading you!" compelled the whole regiment to turn back and recover the positions it had abandoned. The commander appeared at the most dangerous points and was wounded in both legs. Trotsky came back in a truck. He was accused by the papers of publicity-seeking, but the truth is that Trotsky's sensationalism is almost always redeemed from theatricality by the Idea which inspires and directs it. When Trotsky chases back the retreating regiment, it is the Idea standing its ground. And so even in Trotsky's political brawls with Stalin it is the Idea which, seasonably or unseasonably is fighting to hold the helm. Take even the incident in the railroad station when Trotsky, at Stalin's orders, was being forcibly carried to the train by the agents of the G.P.U. He had obliged them to remove him forcibly so that it should not be possible to represent his departure as a voluntary act, and he made a point of shouting to the railroad workers in the station: "Comrades, see how they are carrying Comrade Trotsky away!"
One cannot imagine Lenin behaving like this, but then Lenin had already died, avoiding such a possibility. He had seen the dictatorship challenged by the rebellion of the Kronstadt sailors and the peasants, and had been obliged to announce the compromises of the New Economic Policy; and he had felt the political machine getting out of his hands. The time had come when the high imagination and morality which had led the Revolution had to give way to the practical political manipulation by which even revolutionary peoples at the present stage of human development lapse naturally into being guided. Krupskaya is reported to have said that, if Lenin had lived any longer, Stalin would have had him in jail. He had had a nervous collapse in 1903 as a result of the strain of the crucial London Congress at which he had forced the split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and now he had a series of paralytic strokes. His abilities, will, personality had, as I have said, been completely identified with the cause of the Revolution. To be caught in a serious conflict of purpose arising in connection with that cause, to find himself unable to dominate it, to feel himself helpless in face of what seemed to him the degradation of the Revolution, perhaps its eventual failure—must have been like his own annihilation, could mean for him only death.
But Trotsky had always that inner mirror in which he saw himself; he was always to himself a figure, was well insulated against other people's opinions; he could not be torn by conflicting developments, no amount of repudiation could break him (Lenin had died repudiating Stalin). Yet when he calls out to the railroad workers to see how they are carrying him away, he does not appear fatuous or absurd. If Lenin had identified himself with the cause of the Revolution, Trotsky had done the converse: identified the cause with himself. When the G.P.U. put him out, he believes it is the Revolution they are banishing; and the loss of dignity to the individual is saved by the dignity of the Idea. It is the Idea they are expelling.
This was the first of the two articles on Trotsky by Mr. Wilson in The New Republic in January 1933.