Original publication: marxists.org

Revolutionary Silhouettes: Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky (1919)

93 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

Various versions of Lunacharsky’s Revolutionary Silhouettes were published from 1919 to 1965. From the first publication, each “silhouette” was intended by Lunacharsky — a diplomatic and charismatic character who met just about everyone, and survived all the tumults of the Soviet revolution, dying en route to serve as ambassador to Spain in 1933 — as a “character-sketch” and “simply a contribution to the body of literature.” Between 5 and 10 revolutionaries were included with each edition, with inclusions and exclusions suiting the political expediencies of the time (Trotsky was not included in 1965, for example).

Despite the avowedly subjective and frankly rosy character of most of these sketches, I decided to select just three portraits to encourage readers to get through them in full. Practice and theory are of course more important than anecdotal storytelling about “Great Men.” That said, these recollections bring the era to life — presenting towering historical figures as somewhat eccentric regular humans, they make the revolutionary period seem very real and fresh rather than mythical and alien.

I wonder if perhaps such movie-like vignettes, covering internecine disputes and dramas and personality quirks, are too absent from today’s hopeless and cynical would-be revolutionary discourse, where a conservative and petty trade-union mentality, in guise of opposing great personalities, pleads to drown all disagreements in banal grey “unity.” Perhaps these sketches help challenge that status quo a bit.
 — R. D.


Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov (b. 1856-1918)

I have few personal recollections of Georgii Valentinovich. Our meetings were infrequent, although they were not devoid of significance, and I gladly record my memories of him.

In 1893 I left Russia for Zurich, as I felt that I could only acquire the education I needed by going abroad. My friends the Lindfors gave me a letter of introduction to Pavel Alexandrovich Axelrod.

Axelrod and his family received me with delightful hospitality. By then I was a more or less convinced Marxist and considered myself a member of the Social Democratic party (I was eighteen and had begun work as an agitator and propagandist two years before going abroad). I am very much indebted to Axelrod for my education in socialism and, however far apart he and I may have moved subsequently, I look upon him with gratitude as one of my most influential teachers. Axelrod was full of awe and reverence for Plekhanov and spoke of him with adoration. This, added to the impression of brilliance that I had already gained from reading Our Differences and various other articles by Plekhanov, filled me with an uneasy, disturbing sense of expectation at the prospect of meeting this great man.

At last Plekhanov came from Geneva to Zurich, brought there by a dispute among the Polish socialists on the nationality question. The nationally-minded socialists in Zurich were headed by Jodko. Our future comrades were led by Rosa Luxemburg, then a brilliant student at Zurich University. Plekhanov was to pronounce on the conflict. For some reason his train was late, so that my first sight of Plekhanov was destined to be slightly theatrical. The meeting had already begun; with rather wearisome emphasis Jodko had been defending his viewpoint for half an hour when into the Eintracht Hall strode Plekhanov.

That was twenty-eight years ago. Plekhanov must have been slightly over thirty. He was a well-proportioned rather slim man in an impeccable frock coat, with a handsome face made particularly striking by his brilliant eyes and — his most marked feature — by thick, shaggy eyebrows. Later at the Stuttgart Congress one newspaper spoke of Plekhanov as “eine aristokratische Erscheinung” [an aristocratic appearance]. Indeed in Plekhanov’s appearance, in his diction, his tone of voice and his whole bearing there was the ineradicable stamp of the gentry — he was a gentleman from head to toe. This was apt to offend some people’s proletarian instincts, but when one remembered that this gentleman was an extreme revolutionary and one of the pioneers of the workers’ movement, Plekhanov’s aristocratic air became something impressive and moving: “Look what sort of people are on our side.”

I have no intention of writing a character-study of Plekhanov — that is a task for another occasion — but I would note in passing that in Plekhanov’s very appearance and manner something made me, a young man, involuntarily think: Herzen must have been like that. [1]

Plekhanov sat down at Axelrod’s table, where I was also sitting, but we exchanged no more than a few sentences.

Plekhanov’s speech itself rather disappointed me, perhaps by contrast with Rosa’s speech which was as sharp as a razor-blade and as brilliant as silver. When the loud applause for her speech had died down, old Greulich, even then gray-haired, even then looking like Abraham (I saw him, by the way, twenty-five years later looking almost as lively as he had on that occasion although, alas, by then neither he nor Plekhanov were progressive socialists) mounted the rostrum and said in a specially solemn tone: “Now comrade Plekhanov will speak. He will speak in French. His speech will be translated but, my friends, please try and maintain absolute silence and follow his speech with attention.”

This appeal by the chairman for reverential silence and the huge ovation with which Georgii Valentinovich was greeted combined to move me to tears. A mere youth, which made it pardonable, I was extremely proud of my great fellow-countryman. But his speech, I repeat, rather disappointed me.

For political reasons Plekhanov wanted to adopt a midway position. As a Russian he obviously found it awkward to speak out against the Polish national spirit, although he was theoretically wholly on Rosa Luxemburg’s side. [2] At all events he emerged from this difficult situation with honour and with great skill, playing the part of the wise conciliator.

Georgii Valentinovich then stayed for several more days in Zurich and at the risk of seeming rude I lingered whole days at the Axelrods’ to seize every possible chance of talking to him.

The opportunities were numerous. Plekhanov loved talking. I was a boy who was well-read, not unintelligent and extremely eager. In spite of my awe of Plekhanov I got on my high horse and, as it were, invited combat on various philosophical questions. Plekhanov liked this; sometimes he would deal playfully with me like a big dog with a puppy and would knock me on my back with an unexpected swipe of his great paw, sometimes he grew angry and sometimes he would expound his views with great earnestness.

Plekhanov was an absolutely incomparable conversationalist in the brilliance of his wit, the wealth of his knowledge, the ease with which he could mobilize the most enormous concentration of mental power on any subject. The Germans have a word — geistreich — rich of mind. It exactly describes Plekhanov.

I should mention that Plekhanov did not shake my faith in the great significance of “left realism,” i.e. Avenarius’s philosophy. He said jokingly to me: “Let’s talk about Kant instead, if you really want to flounder about in the theory of knowledge — he at least was a man.” Although Plekhanov was capable of dealing an intellectual knock-out blow on occasions, he was also prone to strike off-target.

However, these talks had an immeasurably great influence on me when Plekhanov dwelt on the great Idealist philosophers Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

Naturally I was already well aware of the enormous significance of Hegel in the history of socialism and of the impossibility of having a proper grasp of the Marxist philosophy of history without a sound acquaintance with Hegel.

Later Plekhanov was to accuse me in one of our public disputes of not having studied Hegel properly. Partly thanks to Plekhanov I had in fact read Hegel with some thoroughness, but I would have done so in any case, as befitted an aspiring socialist theoretician. Fichte and Schelling were another matter. I thought it quite adequate to have read about them in histories of philosophy, considering them to be a dead letter and not worth studying. Plekhanov, however, spoke of them with unexpected enthusiasm. Without for a moment relapsing into any heresy such as “Back to Fichte!” (later proclaimed by Struve), he nevertheless held forth to me in such a fervent, glorious paean to Fichte and Schelling as the architects of a monumental philosophical edifice that I immediately ran to the Zurich national library and plunged into reading the works of those great Idealists, who were to leave such a stamp not only on my whole philosophical outlook but indeed on my entire personality.

It is a great shame that Plekhanov did no more than touch on the Idealist philosophers. He knew them exhaustively, indeed with astonishing exactitude, and could have written a book on them which would certainly have been no less brilliant than his book on the materialist precursors of Marxism. [3] It is true, I think, that in Plekhanov’s undoubtedly rather Bazarov-like mind, of the forerunners of Marxism his favourites d’Holbach and Helvetius were dearer to him than the Idealists. But anyone who imagined that he ignored that other great root of Marxism would be doing Plekhanov an injustice.

Georgii Valentinovich suggested that I should visit him to continue our talks; but it was a year or so before I was able to go to Geneva from Paris. Those, too, were happy days. Georgii Valentinovich was then writing his foreword to the Communist Manifesto, and had become very interested in art. I had always been passionately interested in it and consequently the chief theme of our talks was the dependence of the cultural superstructure on the economic base of society, especially where art was concerned. I used to meet him in his study in the rue de Candole and sometimes in the Cafe Landolt where we would spend hours over many a mug of beer.

I remember one incident which made a tremendous impression on me. Plekhanov was pacing up and down his study explaining something. Suddenly he walked over to a cupboard, took out a large album, laid it on the table in front of me and opened it. It contained some wonderful engravings by Boucher, extremely frivolous and — by my standards of those days — almost pornographic; I at once said something to that effect, that here was a typical indication of the decadence of a ruling class on the eve of revolution.

“Yes,” said Plekhanov, looking at me with his glittering eyes, “but look how superb they are — what style, what life, what elegance, what sensuality.”

I shall not attempt to record the rest of the conversation — it would mean writing a minor treatise on rococo art. I can only say that Plekhanov more or less anticipated all of Hausenstein’s main conclusions, although I do not recall him telling me exactly whether or not Boucher’s art was fundamentally a bourgeois art that had been merely transplanted into a framework of court life.

To me his aesthetic perception was astounding — his powers of judgement on matters of art were wide-ranging and unprejudiced. Plekhanov’s taste was, I think, infallible. On any work of art that he disliked he could express himself in two words, with an absolutely lethal irony which totally disarmed you if you happened to disagree with him. About works of art which pleased him Plekhanov spoke with such precision, at times with such excitement that it became obvious why he was an influential writer on the history of art. His relatively modest studies, dealing only with a few periods, have become one of the cornerstones of subsequent work in that field.

From no book, from no museum, have I ever gained so much stimulation and insight as from those talks of mine with Georgii Valentinovich.

Unfortunately our subsequent meetings took place in rather less happy circumstances, where we encountered each other as political enemies.

I did not meet Plekhanov again until the Stuttgart Congress. The Bolshevik delegation had appointed me their official representative on the very important committee set up to work out the Party’s policy towards the trades unions. Plekhanov represented the Mensheviks. At the very start a dispute arose within the Russian delegation. The majority voted for our viewpoint and the waverers eventually swung over to our side. The matter was in no sense a personal victory of mine over Plekhanov: he defended his thesis brilliantly, but the thesis itself was unacceptable. Plekhanov insisted that close alliance between the Party and the trades unions might be detrimental to the Party, that the task of the trades unions was to improve the workers’ lot within the capitalist system whereas the Party’s task was to destroy that system itself. He advocated independence. The opposing tendency was headed by the Belgian De Brouckere. (De Brouckere was then a very left-wing socialist whose thinking had much in common with ours, although he was later to deviate.) De Brouckere stood for the need to penetrate the trade-union movement with a socialist consciousness of the indissoluble unity of the working class, the guiding role of the Party and so on. In the reigning atmosphere of heated discussion of the general strike as a fighting weapon, everyone was tending to reconsider their previous views. We were all aware that parliamentarism was becoming a more and more inadequate weapon, that without the trades unions the Party would never accomplish the revolution and that after the revolution the trades unions were bound to play a major part in rebuilding a new world. As a result, Plekhanov’s attitude, represented at the international level by Guesde, was ultimately rejected both by our committee and by the Congress itself.

To my surprise I detected a certain trace of the “Old Believer” in Plekhanov’s political attitudes. For the first time his orthodoxy seemed slightly ossified and it occurred to me that politics were far from being Plekhanov’s strong suit. One might have deduced this in any case from the way in which he wavered between one and the other of the Party’s two main factions.

We next met at the Stockholm Congress, where this characteristic behaviour of Plekhanov’s became all too evident. He was far from being a convinced Menshevik at this congress. In part his aim was conciliationist. He stood for Party unity (this was, after all, the “Unification” congress) and maintained that if revolutionary feeling were to increase in Russia the Mensheviks would find no allies except from the ranks of the Bolsheviks. On the other hand he was frightened by the rigidity of the Bolsheviks’ position. In his opinion Bolshevism was not orthodox. Indeed the main feature which differentiated the two factions at that time was their policy on the peasantry. [4]

The scheme of the revolution as the Mensheviks envisaged it was as follows: a bourgeois revolution was in progress in Russia, which would culminate in a constitutional monarchy, or at best in a bourgeois republic. The working class should support the protagonists of this capitalist revolution, simultaneously wresting from them positions of advantage for their future task of opposition and — ultimately — of revolution. It was assumed that there would be a considerable time-lag between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution.

Comrade Trotsky held the view that both revolutions, although they might not coincide, were so inter-connected that we would face a situation of “permanent revolution.” Starting with a seizure of power by bourgeois political forces, the Russian people would enter a revolutionary period; along with it the rest of the world, too, would not emerge from this period until the total completion of the social revolution. It is undeniable that in formulating these views comrade Trotsky showed great prescience, although his timing was wrong by fifteen years.

Incidentally I should point out that in a leading article in New Life I also outlined the possibility of a seizure of power by the proletariat and of the retention, under proletarian control, of a form of capitalism which would rapidly evolve towards socialism. I described a situation remarkably similar to our present NEP, but I was given a telling-off by L. B. Krasin who found my article ill-advised and un-Marxist. [5]

The Bolsheviks, with comrade Lenin at their head, were in fact extremely cautious; they held that there were no signs of the proletarian social revolution having begun, but they thought that this revolution had to be encouraged as much as possible without engaging in any theoretical guesswork and prediction, which were foreign to Vladimir Ilyich’s nature. In practical terms the Bolsheviks advanced confidently along the correct path. To bring about a plebeian revolution, a revolution similar to the French Revolution that could be taken even further than ‘93, an alliance with the bourgeoisie was useless: consequently our tactics demanded a break with the bourgeoisie. But we had no intention of isolating the proletariat, for whom we envisaged the enormous task of organizing an alliance with the peasantry, above all with the poor peasantry. Plekhanov was incapable of understanding this. Addressing Lenin he said: “This new idea of yours sounds a pretty ancient one to me!” [6] Why “ancient”? Because it seemed to be borrowing the worn-out policy of the SRs and to cause us to abandon our characteristic emphasis on the proletariat.

Plekhanov’s failure to comprehend our standpoint should not be lightly dismissed as being no more than a typical example of his blinkered super-orthodoxy. Were we not, in the course of our great revolution, once obliged to include some SRs, even if left SRs, in our government, and was this move entirely free of danger? Are we not delighted now that the childish policies of the left SRs themselves have caused their severance from the government? The fears of a “peasantization” of the Soviet government, of which comrades Shlyapnikov, Kollontai, and others occasionally warn us, are unfounded, but the soil which nourishes them is clear to everybody. At the moment it is impossible to say with absolute certainty how a joint workers’ and peasants’ government will succeed, although everything appears to support comrade Lenin’s predictions at the Party Congress that the huge deadweight of the peasantry which, once the plans for a political union of towns and country are completed, will have to be carried with us, is slowing down our movement; but it will never cause us to deviate from the straight and narrow path towards communism.

But all that lay then in the future. At the time, one thing was clear: the workers’-and-peasants’ revolution is a proletarian revolution, a bourgeois-and-workers’ revolution is a betrayal of the working class. To us this was clear, but not to Plekhanov. I remember that during a very biting speech by Plekhanov my neighbour in the next seat, Alexinsky, then a Bolshevik extremist, nearly boxed his ears but was stopped in time by comrade Sedoi, himself a pretty fiery character, who seized him by the coat-tails.

Alas, all that was to end much later in the miserable alliance between Alexinsky and Plekhanov.

It was at the Stockholm Congress that I moved a vote of censure against Plekhanov. My objection amounted to contrasting his view with that of another orthodox theoretician, Kautsky. This was easy, because at that time Kautsky in his pamphlet The Motive Force of the Russian Revolution had shown himself to be in sympathy with us. But Plekhanov was particularly annoyed by my reply to his accusation of Blanquism, when I said that as far as practical notions of making and leading an actual revolution were concerned, he had apparently gathered his ideas from the operetta Mademoiselle Angot. In his final rejoinder Plekhanov said some very angry words.

Several more years went by and we met again at the Copenhagen international congress, when our hopes for the first Russian revolution had foundered. I attended the Copenhagen Congress as a representative of the Forward group with a consultative vote, but I had practically joined the Bolsheviks and they looked upon me as one of them; indeed they again empowered me to represent them on one of the most important committees — the committee dealing with the cooperatives. The same thing happened here. Plekhanov insisted on the strictest separation of the Party from the cooperatives, fearing contamination by the cooperatives’ small-shopkeeper mentality.

I should mention that at the Copenhagen Congress Plekhanov was much closer to the Bolsheviks than to the Mensheviks. As far as I remember Vladimir Ilyich was not too interested in the cooperatives, but nevertheless the Russian delegation listened to my report on the committee and to Plekhanov’s objections. Our differences were more or less parallel to those which had arisen between us at Stuttgart on the subject of the trades unions. On this occasion, however, Plekhanov had had little experience of the problem under discussion and there was no particular cause for a clash with him.

In spite of all this, we remained personally on very good terms. He invited me several times to his rooms, we would leave the congress meetings together and he enjoyed giving me his off-the-record impressions of the conference. Plekhanov had by then aged a great deal and was ill, so seriously ill in fact that we were all concerned about him. This did not stop him from being as sharp as ever, and making witty remarks to left and right, strongly biased though they were. He was fondest of all of the old guard. He spoke particularly warmly and graphically of Guesde and of Lafargue, who was already dead. I mentioned Lenin. Here Plekhanov fell silent and he replied to my enthusiasm in terms that were not exactly deprecatory — if anything they were sympathetic — but were somehow vague.

I remember how during a speech by Vandervelde Plekhanov said to me: “Isn’t he exactly like an archdeacon?” His bon mot struck me so forcibly that to this day I cannot disentangle the image of an Orthodox deacon chanting the responses from the rhetorical fervour of that famous Belgian. I remember, too, in the course of a speech by Bebel how Plekhanov surprised me by the lapidary precision of his remark: “Look at that old man — he has exactly the head of Demosthenes.” At once there arose before my mind’s eye the famous statue of Demosthenes and the likeness seemed truly striking.

After the Copenhagen Congress I had to read a report on it at Geneva and at that meeting Plekhanov was my opponent. Later we arranged a few more discussion meetings, sometimes of a philosophical nature (for instance on a lecture by Deborin) and there Plekhanov and I met again. I was extremely fond of having discussions with Plekhanov, despite their complexity and difficulty, but I will refrain from describing them here as I might appear rather one-sided.

After Plekhanov defected from the revolutionary cause, i.e. after his deviation into social-patriotism, I never saw him again. [7]

This is not, I repeat, an attempt to draw a character-sketch of Plekhanov as a man, a thinker or a politician, but it is simply a contribution to the body of literature on Plekhanov drawn from my personal recollections. It may be that they are coloured rather subjectively, but a writer is inevitably subjective. Let the reader accept them as such. No one man, in any case, is capable of encompassing such a great figure with absolute objectivity. That monumental image can ultimately only be recreated from a host of varying opinions. But one thing I can state: Plekhanov and I often clashed, his printed remarks about me were largely negative and hostile, yet in spite of that my memory of Plekhanov is extraordinarily bright, it is a joy to recall those glittering eyes, that astounding intellectual agility, that greatness of spirit or, as Lenin put it, that physical force of his brain, that aristocratic forehead crowning a great democrat. In the final analysis even our great differences, as they are transmuted into the stuff of history, largely drop from the scales whilst the brilliant aspects of Plekhanov’s character will endure forever.

In Russian literature Plekhanov stands close to Herzen, in the history of socialism he belongs to that constellation (Kautsky, Lafargue, Guesde, Bebel, old Liebknecht) which revolves round those twin suns, Plekhanov’s demigods of whom he — strong, intelligent, incisive and proud as he was — would speak only with the voice of a disciple: Marx and Engels.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (b. 1870-1924)

I shall make no attempt here to write yet another biography of Lenin; for that there is no lack of other sources. I shall only refer to what I know of him from our personal relations and to my own direct impressions of the man.

I first heard of Lenin from Axelrod after the publication of a book written by “Tulin.” [8] I had not yet read the book, but Axelrod said to me: “Now we can really say that there is a genuine social-democratic movement in Russia and that real social-democratic thinkers are beginning to emerge.”

“What do you mean?” I enquired. “What about Struve, what about Tugan-Baranovsky?” Axelrod gave a somewhat enigmatic smile (the fact is that he had once expressed the highest opinion of Struve) and said: “Yes, but Struve and Tugan-Baranovsky — all that is just so many pages of scholarly theorizing, so much historical data on the evolution of the Russian academic intelligentsia; Tulin on the other hand is a product of the Russian workers’ movement, he is already a page in the history of the Russian revolution.”

Naturally Tulin’s book was read abroad (I was in Zurich at the time) with the utmost avidity and was subjected to every form of comment. After that I heard no more than rumours of his arrest and exile at Krasnoyarsk with Martov and Potresov. Lenin, Martov and Potresov appeared to be absolutely inseparable personal friends; they blended into a collective image of the purely Russian leadership of the newly-formed workers’ movement. How strange it is now to see what different paths these “three friends” were to follow!

The next book to reach us was On the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Although personally less concerned with purely economic questions — I already regarded the characteristics and development of capitalism in Russia as incontestable — I was nevertheless amazed by the enormously solid statistical foundation of the book and the skill of its argumentation. It seemed to me at the time (as was indeed to be the case) that this book would give the death-blow to all the misconceived notions of Populist [Narodnik] ideology.

I was in exile when news of the 2nd Congress began to reach us. This was the time when Iskra had begun publication and was already consolidating its position. [9] I had unhesitatingly declared myself a supporter of Iskra, but I knew little of its contents because although we did get all the issues, they reached us at very irregular intervals. We nevertheless had the impression that the inseparable trio — Lenin, Martov and Potresov — had become indissolubly fused with the émigré trinity of Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich. [10] At all events the news of the split at the 2nd Congress hit us like a bolt from the blue. We knew that the 2nd Congress was to witness the concluding moves in the struggle with The Workers’ Cause [Rabocheye Dyelo], but that the schism should take a course which was to put Martov and Lenin in opposing camps and that Plekhanov was to “split off” midway between the two — none of this so much as entered our heads.

The first clause of the Party statute — was this really something which justified a split? A reshuffle of jobs on the editorial board — what’s the matter with those people abroad, have they gone mad? We were disturbed more than anything else by this split and tried, from the meagre information which filtered through to us, to unravel what on earth was going on. There was no lack of rumours that Lenin was a trouble-maker and a splitter, that he wanted to set himself up as the autocrat of the Party at all costs, that Martov and Axelrod had refused, as it were, to swear fealty to him as the Grand Cham of the Party. [11] This interpretation was, however, largely contradicted by the stand taken by Plekhanov, whose initial attitude, as we know, was one of close and friendly alliance with Lenin. It was not long before Plekhanov deserted to the Menshevik side, but all of us in exile (and not only those exiled in Vologda, I suspect) took this as being very much to Georgii Valentinovich’s discredit. We Marxists had nothing to gain by such rapid changes of position.

In short, we were somewhat in the dark. I should add that the comrades in Russia who supported Lenin were also rather vague about what was happening. If we are to mention personalities, it was undoubtedly A. A. Bogdanov who gave him the most powerful support. It was here that Bogdanov’s adherence to Lenin was, I think, of decisive significance. If he had not sided with Lenin things would probably have progressed a great deal more slowly.

But why did Bogdanov associate himself with Lenin? He saw the quarrel which had broken out at the Congress as primarily a question of discipline: once a majority (even if only of one) had voted for Lenin’s formulae, the minority should have acquiesced; secondly he saw it as a clash between the Russian section of the Party and the émigrés. Even though Lenin did not have a single big name on his side he did have, practically to a man, all the delegates who had come from Russia, whereas as soon as Plekhanov crossed the floor all the big émigré names were gathered in the Menshevik camp.

Bogdanov recalled the scene, although not quite accurately, as follows: the émigré aristocrats of the Party had refused to realize that we were now a real party and that what counted above all was the collective will of those who were doing the practical work in Russia. There is no doubt that this line, which gave rise, inter alia, to the slogan: “A single Party centre — and in Russia,” had a flattering and encouraging effect on many Party committees in Russia, which were by then spread in a fairly wide network throughout the country.

It soon became clear what sort of people were drawn to each of the two factions: the Mensheviks attracted the majority of the Marxist intellectuals in the capitals; they also had an undoubted success among the more skilled working men; the chief adherents of the Bolsheviks were in fact the committee members, i.e. the provincial Party workers, revolutionary professionals. These were largely made up of intellectuals of an obviously different type — not academic Marxist professors and students but people who had committed themselves irrevocably to their profession — revolution. It was largely this element to which Lenin attached such enormous significance and which he called “the bacteria of revolution”; it was this section which was consolidated by Bogdanov, with the active support of the young Kamenev and others, into the famous Organizational Bureau of Committees of the Majority and which was to supply Lenin with his army.

Bogdanov by then had served his term of exile and was spending some time abroad. I was absolutely convinced that he must have made a reasonably correct assessment of the problems and therefore, partly out of confidence in him, I also took up a pro-Bolshevik position.

My exile over, I managed to see comrade Krizhanovsky in Kiev; he at the time was playing a fairly big part in affairs and was a close friend of comrade Lenin, although he was wavering between the strictly Leninist position and one of conciliationism. It was he who gave me a more detailed account of Lenin. He described him with enthusiasm, dwelling on his enormous intellect and inhuman energy; he described him as exceptionally kind and a magnificent friend, but he also remarked that Lenin was above all a political creature, that if he broke with somebody politically he would at once break off personal relations with him as well. Lenin was, in Krizhanovsky’s words, merciless and undeviating in the struggle. Just as I was beginning to build up a fairly romantic image of the man in my mind’s eye, Krizhanovsky added: “And to look at he’s like a well-heeled peasant from Yaroslavl, a cunning little muzhik, especially when he’s wearing a beard.” [12]

Hardly had I returned to Kiev from exile when I received a direct order from the Bureau of Committee of the Majority to go abroad immediately and join the editorial staff of the central organ of the Party. This I did. I spent several months in Paris, partly because I wanted to make a closer study of the causes of the Party split. However, once in Paris I immediately found myself at the head of the very small local Bolshevik group and was soon involved in fighting the Mensheviks. Lenin wrote me a couple of short letters, in which he urged me to hurry to Geneva. In the end it was he who came to Paris.

To me his arrival was somewhat unexpected. He did not make a very good impression on me at first sight. His appearance struck me as somehow faintly colourless and he said nothing very definite apart from insisting on my immediate departure for Geneva.

I agreed to go.

At the same time Lenin decided to deliver a major lecture in Paris on the subject of the prospects of the Russian revolution and the fate of the Russian peasantry. It was at this lecture that I first heard him as an orator. Lenin was transformed. I was deeply impressed by that concentrated energy with which he spoke, by those piercing eyes of his which grew almost sombre as they bored gimlet-like into the audience, by the orator’s monotonous but compelling movements, by that fluent diction so redolent of will-power. I realized that as a tribune this man was destined to make a powerful and ineradicable mark. [13] And I already knew the extent of Lenin’s strength as a publicist — his unpolished but extraordinarily clear style, his ability to present any idea, however complicated, in astonishingly simple form and to modify it in such a way that it would ultimately be engraved upon any mind, however dull and however unaccustomed to political thinking.

Only later, much later, did I come to see that Lenin’s greatest gifts were not those of a tribune or a publicist, not even those of a thinker, but even in those early days it was obvious to me that the dominating trait of his character, the feature which constituted half his make-up, was his will: an extremely firm, extremely forceful will capable of concentrating itself on the most immediate task but which yet never strayed beyond the radius traced out by his powerful intellect and which assigned every individual problem its place as a link in a huge, world-wide political chain.

I think it was on the day after the lecture that we, for I forget what reason, called on the sculptor Aronson, with whom I was then on quite friendly terms. Catching sight of Lenin’s head Aronson was enraptured and begged Lenin to allow him at least to sculpt a medallion of his head. He pointed out to me the amazing resemblance between Lenin and Socrates. I should add, incidentally, that Lenin bore a much closer likeness to Verlaine than to Socrates. […] [14]

What is there to be learned from this strange parallel between a Greek philosopher, a great French poet and a great Russian revolutionary? The answer is, of course — nothing. If it indicates anything at all, then it simply shows that similar features may indeed be found in men who are perhaps of an equal rank of genius but of a totally different cast of mind; apart from that it provided me with a chance of describing Lenin’s appearance in more or less graphic terms.

When I came to know Lenin better, I appreciated yet another side of him which is not immediately obvious — his astonishing vitality. Life bubbles and sparkles within him. Today, as I write these lines, Lenin is already fifty, yet he is still a young man, the whole tone of his life is youthful. How infectiously, how charmingly, with what childlike ease he laughs, how easy it is to amuse him, how prone he is to laughter, that expression of man’s victory over difficulties! In the worst moments that he and I lived through together, Lenin was unshakeably calm and as ready as ever to break into cheerful laughter.

There was even something unusually endearing about his anger. Despite the fact that of late his displeasure might destroy dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people, he was always in control of his anger and it was expressed in almost joking manner. It was like a thunderstorm “that seemed to sport and play, to rumble in a clear blue sky.” [15] I have often noticed that alongside that outward seething, those angry words, those shafts of venomous irony there was a chuckle in his glance and the instant ability to put an end to the angry scene which he had apparently whipped up because it suited his purpose. Inwardly he remains not only calm but cheerful.

In his private life, too, Lenin loves the sort of fun which is unassuming, direct, simple and rumbustious. His favourites are children and cats; sometimes he can play with them for hours on end. [16] Lenin also brings the same wholesome, life-enhancing quality to his work. I cannot say from personal experience that Lenin is hard-working; as it happens I have never seen him immersed in a book or bent over his desk. He writes his articles without the least effort and in a single draft free of all mistakes or revisions. He can do this at any moment of the day, usually in the morning after getting up, but he can do it equally well in the evening when he has returned from an exhausting day, or at any other time. Recently his reading, with the possible exception of a short interval spent abroad during the period of reaction, has been fragmentary rather than extensive, but from every book, from every single page that he reads Lenin draws something new, stores away some essential idea which he will later employ as a weapon. He is not particularly stimulated by ideas that are cognate with his own thought, but rather by those that conflict with his. The ardent polemicist is always alive in him.

But if there is something slightly ridiculous in calling Lenin industrious, he is on the other hand capable of enormous effort when required. I would almost be prepared to say that he is absolutely tireless; if that is not strictly so it is because I know that the inhuman efforts which he has lately been forced to make have caused his powers to flag somewhat towards the end of each week and have obliged him to rest…

But then Lenin is one of those people who knows how to relax. He takes his rest like taking a bath and when he does so he stops thinking about anything; he completely gives himself up to idleness and whenever possible to his favourite amusement and to laughter. In this way Lenin emerges from the briefest spell of rest freshened and ready for the fray again.

It is this well-spring of sparkling and somehow naive vitality which, together with the solid breadth of his intellect and his intense will-power, constitutes Lenin’s fascination. This fascination is colossal: people who come close to his orbit not only become devoted to him as a political leader but in some odd way they fall in love with him. This applies to people of the most varying calibre and cast of mind, ranging from such enormously sensitive and gifted men as Gorky to a lumpish peasant from the depths of the country, from a first-class political brain like Zinoviev to some soldier or sailor who only yesterday belonged to the Jew-baiting “Black Hundred” gangs who now is prepared to risk his tousled head for the “leader of the world revolution — Ilyich.” This familiar form of his name, Ilyich, has become so widespread that it is used by people who have never seen Lenin.

When Lenin lay wounded — mortally, we feared — no one expressed our feelings about him better than Trotsky. Amidst the appalling turmoil of world events it was Trotsky, the other leader of the Russian revolution, a man by no means inclined to sentimentality, who said: “When you realize that Lenin might die it seems that all our lives are useless and you lose the will to live.”

To return to the thread of my recollections of Lenin before the great revolution: in Geneva Lenin and I worked together on the editorial board of the journal Forward, then on The Proletarian. Lenin was a good man to work with as an editor. He wrote a lot and he wrote easily, as I have already mentioned, and took a very conscientious attitude towards his colleagues’ work: he frequently corrected them, gave advice and was delighted by any talented and convincing article.

In the first period of our life in Geneva up to January 1905 we spent most of our time on internal Party quarrels. Here I was astonished by Lenin’s profound indifference to every form of polemical skirmishing. He set very little store by the struggle to capture the émigré readership, which largely supported the Mensheviks. He failed to attend a number of solemn discussion meetings and made no effort to suggest that I should go to them either. He preferred me to spend my time on writing full-length papers and essays.

In his attitude to his enemies there was no feeling of bitterness, but nevertheless he was a cruel political opponent, exploiting any blunder they made and exaggerating every hint of opportunism — in which by the way he was quite correct, because later the Mensheviks themselves were to fan their erstwhile sparks into a sizeable blaze of opportunism. He never dabbled in intrigue, although in the political struggle he deployed every weapon except dirty ones. The Mensheviks, I should point out, behaved in exactly the same way. Relations between the factions were in any event pretty bad and there were not many of those who were political opponents at that time who were able to maintain any sort of normal personal relations. For us the Mensheviks had become enemies. Dan, in particular, poisoned the Mensheviks’ attitude towards us. Lenin had always disliked Dan, whereas he had always liked Martov and still does, but he always regarded him and still regards him as politically spineless and prone to lose sight of the main objectives in his fine-spun political theorizing.

With the forward march of revolutionary events, matters changed considerably. Firstly we began to gain something like a moral superiority over the Mensheviks.

It was then that the Mensheviks turned firmly to the slogan: push the bourgeoisie forward and strive for a constitution or at the best for a democratic republic. Our attitude of being technicians of revolution, as the Mensheviks claimed, was attracting a significant proportion of émigré opinion, in particular that of young people. We could feel firm ground under our feet. Lenin in those days was magnificent. With the utmost enthusiasm he unfolded a prospect of merciless revolutionary struggle to come, and set off in a passion for Russia.

At this point I went to Italy, due to poor health and fatigue, and I only kept in touch with Lenin by a correspondence that was largely concerned with matters of practical policy concerning our newspaper.

I next met him in Petersburg. I am bound to say that this period of Lenin’s activity, in 1905 and 1906, seems to me to have been a comparatively ineffective one. Of course, even then he wrote a considerable number of brilliant articles and remained the leader of what was politically the most active of the parties — the Bolsheviks. I watched him closely throughout that period, because it was then that I had begun to make a close study from good sources of the lives of Cromwell and Danton. In trying to analyse the psychology of revolutionary “leaders,” I compared Lenin with figures such as these and I wondered whether Lenin really was such a genuinely revolutionary leader as he had seemed to be. I began to feel that life as an émigré had somewhat reduced Lenin’s stature, that for him the internal party struggle with the Mensheviks had overshadowed the much greater struggle against the monarchy and that he was more of a journalist than a real leader.

It was bitter news to hear that discussions with the Mensheviks, to define the precise bounds between the two factions, were even going on whilst Moscow was prostrate from the effects of an unsuccessful armed uprising. Furthermore Lenin, from fear of arrest, made only rare appearances as a speaker; as far as I remember he did so on only one occasion, under the pseudonym of Karpov. He was recognized and given a magnificent ovation. He worked chiefly behind the scenes, almost exclusively with his pen and at various committee meetings of local Party branches. In short, Lenin, I felt, was still carrying on the fight rather on the old émigré scale, without expanding the work to the more grandiose proportions which the revolution was then assuming. Nevertheless I still regarded him as the leading political figure in Russia and I began to fear that the revolution lacked a real leader of genius.

To talk of Nosar-Khrustalev was, of course, ridiculous. We all realized that this “leader” who had so suddenly emerged had no future at all. A great deal more noise and glitter surrounded Trotsky, but at that time we all regarded Trotsky as a very able if somewhat theatrical tribune and not as a politician of the first rank. Dan and Martov were making extraordinary efforts to carry on the fight in the very heart of the Petersburg working class and as always they directed it against us, the Bolsheviks.

I now think that the 1905-6 revolution caught us somewhat unprepared and that we lacked real political skill. It was our later work in the Duma, our later work as émigrés in turning ourselves into practical politicians, in dealing with the problems of genuinely national politics, to which we were more or less convinced we should return sooner or later — it was this that added to our inner stature, which completely altered our manner of approach to the question of revolution when history summoned us again. This is especially true of Lenin.

I did not see Lenin while he was in Finland, when he was in hiding from the forces of reaction. I next met him abroad, at the Stuttgart congress. Here he and I were particularly close, quite apart from the fact that we were constantly conferring together as a result of the Party having entrusted me with one of the most essential jobs at the Congress. We had a number of major political discussions more or less in private, in which we weighed up the prospects of the great social revolution. On this subject Lenin was generally more of an optimist than I was. I considered that events would develop rather slowly, that we should obviously have to wait until capitalism was established in the Asian countries, that capitalism still had quite a few shots in its locker and that we might not see a true social revolution until our old age. This outlook genuinely upset Lenin. When I set out to prove my case to him I noticed a real shadow of sorrow crossing his powerful, intelligent features and I realized how passionately this man wanted not only to see the revolution in his lifetime but to exert himself in creating it. However, although he refused to agree with me he was obviously prepared to make a realistic admission that it would be an uphill task and to act accordingly.

Lenin turned out to possess the greater political insight, which is not surprising. He has the ability to raise opportunism to the level of genius, by which I mean the kind of opportunism which can seize on the precise moment and which always knows how to exploit it for the unvarying objective of the revolution. While Lenin was engaged on his great work during the Russian revolution he showed some remarkable examples of this brilliant timing, and he spelled this out in his last speech at the 4th Congress of the Third International, a speech uniquely interesting in subject-matter and in which he described what one might call the philosophy of the tactics of retreat. Both Danton and Cromwell had this same ability.

I should add in passing that Lenin was always very shy and inclined to lurk in the shadows at international congresses, perhaps because he lacked confidence in his knowledge of languages — although he speaks good German and has no mean grasp of French and English. In spite of this he used to limit his public utterances at congresses to a few sentences. This has changed since Lenin has felt himself, at first hesitantly and then unconditionally, to be the leader of world revolution. As long ago as Zimmerwald and Kienthal, where I was not present, Lenin appears, along with Zinoviev, to have made a number of major speeches in foreign languages. At the congresses of the Third International he frequently made long speeches which he refused to have translated by interpreters but instead generally made the speech himself first in German and then in French. He always spoke them with complete fluency and expressed his thoughts clearly and concisely. I was therefore all the more touched by a small document which I recently saw among the exhibits of the Red Moscow museum. It was a questionnaire, filled out in Vladimir Ilyich’s own hand. Opposite the question “Have you a fluent spoken knowledge of any foreign language?” Ilyich had firmly written: “None.” A trifle, but one which perfectly illustrates his unusual modesty. It will be appreciated by anybody who has witnessed the tremendous ovations which the Germans, the French and other western Europeans have given Lenin after he has made speeches in foreign languages.

I am very glad that I was never personally involved in our lengthy political quarrel with Lenin. I refer to the episode when Bogdanov, myself and others adopted a leftist deviation and formed the Forward group, in which we mistakenly disagreed with Lenin in his appraisal of the Party’s need to exploit the possibilities of legal political action during Stolypin’s reactionary ministry.

During that period of disagreement Lenin and I never met. I was very much disturbed by Lenin’s political ruthlessness when it was directed against us. I now believe that much of what divided the Bolsheviks and the Forwardists was simply a product of the misunderstandings and irritations of émigré life, quite apart, of course, from our very serious differences of opinion on philosophical matters; there was, after all, no reason for a political split between us because we both only represented shades of one and the same political viewpoint. At the time Bogdanov was so annoyed that he predicted that Lenin would inevitably leave the revolutionary movement and even tried to prove to comrade E. K. Malinovskaya and to myself that Lenin was bound to end up as an Octobrist. [17]

Yes, Lenin certainly became an Octobrist — but what a different October that was!

I should like to add the following to these cursory remarks: I have often had to collaborate with Lenin on drafting resolutions of all kinds. This was generally done collectively — Lenin liked cooperative work on such occasions. Recently I was called upon to undertake similar work on drafting the resolution for the 8th Congress on the peasant question.

Lenin himself is always extremely resourceful on such occasions; he quickly finds the appropriate words and phrases, weighs them up from every angle, sometimes rejects them. He is always very glad of help from any quarter. When someone manages to hit on exactly the right phrasing, “That’s it, that’s it, well said, dictate that,” Lenin will say in such cases. If he thinks some words are doubtful he will stare into space, ponder and say: “I think it would sound better like this.” Sometimes, having laughingly accepted some critical objection, he will alter the wording that he himself has just put forward in all confidence.

Under Lenin’s chairmanship this kind of work always proceeds extraordinarily quickly and somehow cheerfully. Not only does his own mind function at the top of its bent; he stimulates the minds of others to the highest degree.

I shall add nothing more at present to these recollections of mine, which largely make up my impressions of Vladimir Ilyich in the period before the 1917 revolution. Naturally I have a wealth of impressions and views concerning his absolute genius in the leadership of the Russian and world revolution, which was our leader’s contribution to history.

I have not given up the idea of writing a more exhaustive political portrait of Vladimir Ilyich on the basis of that experience. There is, of course, a whole series of new characteristics which have enriched my view of him during these last six years of our work together, none of which, be it said, contradict those I have singled out, but which constitute further first-hand evidence of his personality. But the time is yet to come for drawing such a broad and comprehensive portrait.

Those comrades who may wish to re-publish these pages from the first volume of The Great Revolution (to which I have made only slight editorial emendations) will not, I feel, be mistaken in the belief that my work, too, has its place of some small value in the history of Russia and of the modern world, which in our country has always rightfully attracted such a keen interest among the very widest circles.

Lev Davidovich Trotsky (b. 1879-1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only successful result which he achieved was the plenum at which he threw the “liquidators” out of the Party, nearly expelled the “Forwardists,” end even managed for a time to stitch up the gap — though with extremely weak thread — between the Leninites and the Martovites. [18] It was that Central Committee meeting which, among other things, dispatched comrade Kamenev as Trotsky’s general watchdog (Kamenev was, incidentally, Trotsky’s brother-in-law) but such a violent rift developed between Kamenev and Trotsky that Kamenev very soon returned to Paris. I must say here and now that Trotsky was extremely bad at organizing not only the Party but even a small group of it. He had practically no whole-hearted supporters at all; if he succeeded in impressing himself on the Party, it was entirely by his personality. [19] The fact that he was quite incapable of fitting into the ranks of the Mensheviks made them react to him as though he were a kind of social-democratic anarchist and his behaviour annoyed them greatly. There was no question, at that time, of his total identification with the Bolsheviks. Trotsky seemed to be closest to the Martovites and indeed he always acted as though he were.

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

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

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

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

My final meetings with Trotsky were even more prolonged and more intimate. These took place in Paris in 1915. Trotsky joined the editorial board of Our Word, which was naturally accompanied by the usual intrigues and unpleasantness: someone was frightened by his joining us, afraid that such a strong personality might take over the newspaper altogether. But this aspect of the affair was of minor importance. A much more acute matter was that of Trotsky’s attitude to Martov. We sincerely wanted to bring about, on a new basis of internationalism, the complete unification of our Party front all the way from Lenin to Martov. I spoke up for this course in the most energetic fashion and was to some degree the originator of the slogan “Down with the ‘Defencists’, long live the unity of all Internationalists!” [20] Trotsky fully associated himself with this. It had long been his dream and it seemed to justify his whole past attitude.

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

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

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

The agitational work of spring 1917 does not fall within the scope of these memoirs but I should say that under the influence of his tremendous activity and blinding success certain people close to Trotsky were even inclined to see in him the real leader of the Russian revolution. Thus for instance the late M. S. Uritsky, whose attitude to Trotsky was one of great respect, once said to me and I think to Manuilsky: “Now that the great revolution has come one feels that however intelligent Lenin may be he begins to fade beside the genius of Trotsky.” This estimation seemed to me incorrect, not because it exaggerated Trotsky’s gifts and his force of character but because the extent of Lenin’s political genius was then still not obvious. Yet it is true that during that period, after the thunderous success of his arrival in Russia and before the July days, Lenin did keep rather in the background, not speaking often, not writing much, but largely engaged in directing organizational work in the Bolshevik camp, whilst Trotsky thundered forth at meetings in Petrograd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Alexander Herzen (b. 1812-1870), the illegitimate son of a nobleman, was a writer and thinker who became known as the founder Russian socialism, and was one of the main precursors of agrarian populism. — R. D. 

[2] Russians were oppressing Poles, so Russians couldn’t in any way tell Poles to quell their class-collaborationist anti-Russian efforts, but the risk was that this would eventually deliver the Polish working class to the Polish bourgeoisie, after some successful break. — R. D. 

[3] G. V. Plekhanov, Essays on the History of Materialism (1893). [web] 

[4] The acclaimed American writer Joseph Heller acidly captured this attitude in his famous novel Catch-22 (1961). [web] — R. D. 

[5] For good modern context on the pseudo-capitalist New Economic Program, see Domenico Losurdo. [web] — R. D. 

[6] Lunacharsky would recall and expound on this incident a decade later in “Chernyshevsky’s Ethics and Aesthetics (1928). [web] — R. D. 

[7] Plekhanov vehemently opposed Lenin’s tactical Bolshevik-Russian retreat in the face of German aggression through the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Plehanov said, “So far as I am concerned, if I were not old and sick I would join the army. To bayonet your German comrades would give me great pleasure.” [web] — R. D. 

[8] “K. Tulin” was Lenin’s first pseudonym, which he used between 1895 and 1900. The reference is to The Economic Content of Populism and Its Critique in Mr Struve’s Book (1895). 

[9] Stalin’s very vivid and partisan account of the struggles of this period are incredibly interesting. [web] — R. D. 

[10] Regarding Vera Zasulich, Marx’s correspondence with her is extremely interesting in hindsight. [web] — R. D. 

[11] “Cham” is a kind of Eastern king. See Harold Lamb’s The Grand Cham (1922). [web] — R. D. 

[12] Muzhik is a rather unique word, it’s hard to find an idiomatic translation. See: “What is muzhik in Russian, and why is it cool to be one?” (2022). [web] — R. D. 

[13] The term “tribune” is somewhat important. In Ancient Rome, the “tribunes” exerted a counterbalancing power against the aristocratic senate, representing the plebeians and the military. — R. D. 

[14] Lunacharsky here departs onto a very extended description of “the outlines of the colossal dome of [Lenin’s] forehead” and observations of that sort, for the sake of fleshing out the sketch with some physicality. This could be useful, for, say, a filmmaker. However, it goes on for three paragraphs, and I think it mars the overall reading experience. This is perhaps an overly-harsh and opinionated editorial choice, but I relegated it to a footnote. [22] — R. D. 

[15] The reference is unclear. Perhaps a Russian poem? — R. D. 

[16] There’s various pictures of Lenin holding cats, and at least one statue! — R. D. 

[17] A Russian political party of right-wing liberals. 

[18] For a fantastic overview of the multiple factions in the progressive movement of its day, see Lenin’s “The New Faction of Conciliators, or The Virtuous” (1911). [web] — R. D. 

[19] Domenico Losurdo has very insightful comments on the objective contradiction between Trotsky’s “charismatic” legitimacy and Stalin’s “legal-traditional” authority. [web] — R. D. 

[20] In this context, “Defencist” refers to “Defence of the Russian Motherland” and “Internationalist” refers to “International working classes wish for the defeat of all regimes involved in the war.” These attitudes should be plainly recognizable even today, where Trotskyist “Internationalist” groups frame every instance of defense against American imperialism as “inter-imperialist” activity. — R. D. 

[21] A “Tartar” look would in North America today be perhaps better described as an “Asian” look. American anarchist Emma Goldman would infamously remark of Lenin, “A shrewd Asiatic, this Lenin.” [web] — R. D. 

[22] An engraving of Carriere’s portrait of Verlaine had recently been published and a famous bust of Verlaine was on exhibition at the time, later to be bought by the Geneva museum. People had, in fact, remarked on Verlaine’s unusual resemblance to Socrates, the chief similarity being in the magnificent shape of his head. The structure of Vladimir Ilyich’s skull is truly striking. One has to study him for a little while and then instead of the first impression of a plain, large, bald head one begins to appreciate the physical power, the outlines of the colossal dome of his forehead, and to sense something which I can only describe as a physical emanation of light from its surface.

The sculptor, of course, noticed it at once.

Beside this, a feature which gave him more in common with Verlaine than with Socrates was his pair of small, deep-set and terrifyingly piercing eyes. But whereas in the great poet these eyes were sombre and rather lacklustre (judging by Carriere’s portrait), with Lenin they are mocking, full of irony, glittering with intelligence and a kind of teasing mirth. Only when he speaks do they become sombre and literally hypnotic. Lenin has very small eyes but they are so expressive, so inspired that later I was often to find myself admiring their spontaneous vivacity.

The eyes of Socrates, to judge by the busts of him, were rather more protuberant.

In the lower part of the head there is a further significant resemblance, especially when Lenin’s beard is more or less fully grown. With Socrates, Verlaine and Lenin the beard grows in a similar way, slightly jutting and untidy. With all three the lower region of the face is somewhat shapeless, as if flung together as an afterthought.

A big nose and thick lips give Lenin something of a Tartar look, which in Russia is of course easily explicable. [21] But exactly the same or nearly the same nose and lips are to be found in Socrates, a fact particularly noticeable in Greece where a similar cast of features was usually only attributed to satyrs. It is the same with Verlaine. One of Verlaine’s close friends nicknamed him “The Kalmuck.” In the busts of the great philosopher, Socrates’ countenance chiefly bears the stamp of deep thought. I believe, however, that if there is a grain of truth in the descriptions of him left by Xenophon and Plato, Socrates must have been a man of wit and irony and that in the lively play of his features there would, I submit, have been an even greater likeness to those of Lenin than the bust shows. Equally there predominates in both the famous portraits of Verlaine that mood of melancholy, that minor-key air of decadence which of course dominated his poetry; everyone knows, however, that Verlaine, especially in the early stages of his drunken spells, was a man of gay and ironic temper and I believe that here again the likeness was more than is apparent.