At the time of writing this valuable biography of Trotsky, among the first in English, Moissaye J. Olgin was on the right of the Left in the Socialist Party, still heavily influenced by Bundism, and an editor of Forverts. He had long known of Trotsky, and personally began a relationship sharing West European exile in 1907. He had recently hosted Trotsky in his newspaper and at events during Trotsky’s brief stay in New York and was, more than anyone, responsible for the early U.S. translations of Trotsky’s work. He would later become one of the foremost ‘anti-Trotskyists’ of the Comintern, perhaps because of his former association. Born in Ukraine in 1878 where he joined the revolutionary movement, organized Jewish self-defense groups and participated in 1905 as a member of the Central Committee of the local Bund in Vilnius. He emigrated to the US in 1915 where he wrote for Forverts and became a Left Wing leader of the Socialist Party’s Jewish Socialist Federation as he was when this was written. He, like many in the JSF, sided with the Workers Council group and stayed in the SP to fight for its adherence to the Third International until 1921. He joined the CP in 1922.
‘Biography of Leon Trotzky’ by Moissaye J Olgin from Our Revolution by Leon Trotzky. Translated and Edited by Moissaye J Olgin. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1918.
The world has not known us Russian revolutionists. The world has sympathized with us; the world abroad has given aid and comfort to our refugees; the world, at times, even admired us; yet the world has not known us. Friends of freedom in Europe and America were keenly anxious to see the victory of our cause; they watched our successes and our defeats with breathless interest; yet they were concerned with material results. Our views, our party affiliations, our factional divisions, our theoretical groupings, our ideological constructions, to us the leading lights in our revolutionary struggles, were foreign to the world. All this was supposed to be an internal Russian affair.
The Revolution has now ceased to be an internal Russian affair. It has become of worldwide import. It has started to influence governments and peoples. What was not long ago a theoretical dispute between two “underground” revolutionary circles, has grown into a concrete historical power determining the fate of nations. What was the individual conception of individual revolutionary leaders is now ruling millions.
The world is now vitally interested in understanding Russia, in learning the history of our Revolution which is the history of the great Russian nation for the last fifty years. This involves, however, knowing not only events, but also the development of thoughts, of aims, of ideas that underlie and direct events; gaining an insight into the immense volume of intellectual work which recent decades have accumulated in revolutionary Russia.
We have selected Leon Trotzky’s contribution to revolutionary thought, not because he is now in the lime light of history, but because his conceptions represent a very definite, a clearcut and intrinsically consistent trend of revolutionary thought, quite at from that of other leaders. We do not agree with many of Trotzky’s ideas and policies, yet we cannot overlook the fact that these ideas have become predominant in the present phase of the Russian Revolution and that they are bound to give their stamp to Russian democracy in the years to come, whether the present government remains in power or not.
The reader will see that Trotzky’s views as applied in Bolsheviki ruled Russia are not of recent origin. They were formed in the course of the First Russian Revolution of 1905, in which Trotzky was one of the leaders. They were developed and strengthened in the following years of reaction, when many a progressive group went to seek compromises with the absolutist forces. They became particularly firm through the world war and the circumstances that led to the establishment of a republican order in Russia. Perhaps many a grievous misunderstanding and misinterpretation would have been avoided had thinking America known that those conceptions of Trotzky were not created on the spur of the moment, but were the result of a lifelong work in the service of the Revolution.
Trotzky’s writings, besides their theoretical and political value, represent a vigor of style and a clarity of expression unique in Russian revolutionary literature.
As to revolutionary writers, the very character of their work has compelled them to hide their names to escape the secret police. Ulyanov, therefore, became “Lenin,” and Bronstein became “Trotzky.” As to his “camouflaging” as a Russian, this assertion is based on sheer ignorance. Trotzky is not a genuine Russian name no more so than Ostrovski or Levine. True, there was a Russian playwright Ostrovski, and Tolstoi gave his main figure in Anna Karenin the name of Levine. Yet Ostrovski and Levine are well known in Russia as Jewish names, and so is Trotzky. I have never beard of a Gentile bearing the name Trotzky. Trotzky has never concealed his Jewish nationality. He was too proud to dissimulate. Pride is, perhaps, one of the dominant traits of his powerful personality.
Revolutionary Russia did not question the race or nationality of a writer or leader. One admired Trotzky’s power over emotion, the depth of his convictions, the vehemence of his attacks on the opponents of the Revolution. As early as 1904, one line of his revolutionary conceptions became quite conspicuous: his opposition to the liberal movement in Russia. In a series of essays in the Social-Democratic Iskra (Spark), in a collection of his essays published in Geneva under the title Before January Ninth, he unremittingly branded the Liberals for lack of revolutionary spirit, for cowardice in face of a hateful autocracy, for failure to frame and to defend a thoroughly democratic program, for readiness to compromise with the rulers on minor concessions and thus to betray the cause of the Revolution. No one else was as eloquent, as incisive in pointing out the timidity and meekness of the Zemstvo opposition (Zemstvo were the local representative bodies for the care of local affairs, and the Liberal land owners constituted the leading entity in those bodies) as the young revolutionary agitator, Trotzky. Trotzky’s fury against the wavering policy of the welltodo Liberals was only a manifestation of another trait of his character: his desire for clarity in political affairs. Trotzky could not conceive of halfway measures, of “diplomatic” silence over vital topics, of cunning moves and concealed designs in political struggles. The attitude of a Milukov, criticizing the government and yet willing to acquiesce in a monarchy of a Prussian brand, criticizing the revolutionists and yet secretly pleased with the horror they inflicted upon Romanoff and his satellites, was simply incompatible with Trotzky’s very nature and aroused his impassioned contempt. To him, black was always black, and white was white, and political conceptions ought to be so clear as to find adequate expression in a few simple phrases.
Trotzky’s own political line was the Revolution a violent uprising of the masses, headed by organized labor, forcibly to overthrow bureaucracy and establish democratic freedom. With what an outburst of blazing joy be greeted the upheaval of January 9, 1905 the first great mass movement in Russia with clear political aims:
“The Revolution has come!” he shouted in an ecstatic essay completed on January 20th. “The Revolution has come. One move of hers has lifted the people over scores of steps, up which in times of peace we would have had to drag ourselves with hardships and fatigue. The Revolution has come and destroyed the plans of so many politicians who had dared to make their little political calculations with no regard for the master, the revolutionary people. The Revolution has come and destroyed scores of superstitions, and has manifested the power of the program which is founded on the revolutionary logic of the development of the masses … The Revolution has come and the period of our infancy has passed.”
The Revolution filled the entire year of 1905 with the battle cries of everincreasing revolutionary masses. The political strike became a powerful weapon. The village revolts spread like wildfire. The government became frightened. It was under the sign of this great conflagration that Trotzky framed his theory of immediate transition from absolutism to a Socialist order. His line of argument was very simple. The working class, he wrote, was the only real revolutionary power. The bourgeoisie was weak and incapable of adroit resistance. The intellectual groups were of no account. The peasantry was politically primitive, yet it had an overwhelming desire for land. “Once the Revolution is victorious, political power necessarily passes into the hands of the class that has played a leading role in the struggle, and that is the working class.” To secure permanent power, the working class would have to win over the millions of peasants. This would be possible by recognizing all the agrarian changes completed by the peasants in time of the revolution and by a radical agrarian legislation. “Once in power, the proletariat will appear before the peasantry as its liberator.” On the other hand, having secured its class rule over Russia, why should the proletariat help to establish liamentary rule, which is the rule of the bourgeois classes over the people? “To imagine that Social-Democracy participates in the Provisional Government, playing a leading role in the period of revolutionary democratic reconstruction, insisting on the most radical reforms and all the time enjoying the aid and support of the organized proletariat, only to step aside when the democratic program is put into operation, to leave the completed building at the disposal of the bourgeois ties and thus to open an era of liamentary politics where Social-Democracy forms only a ty of opposition, to imagine this would mean to compromise the very idea of a labor government.” Moreover, “once the representatives of the proletariat enter the government, not as powerless hostages, but as a leading force, the divide between the minimum program and the maximum program automatically disappears, collectivism becomes the order of the day,” since “political supremacy of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic slavery.” It was precisely the same program which Trotzky is at present attempting to put into operation. This program has been his guiding star for the last twelve years.
In the fall of 1905 it looked as if Trotzky’s hope was near its realization. The October strike brought autocracy to its knees. A Constitution was promised. A Soviet (Council of Workmen’s Deputies) was formed in Petersburg to conduct the Revolution. Trotzky became one of the strongest leaders of the Council. It was in those months that we became fully aware of two qualities of Trotzky’s which helped him to master men: his power as a speaker, and his ability to write short, stirring articles comprehensible to the masses. In the latter ability nobody equals him among Russian Socialists. The leaders of Russian Social-Democracy were wont to address themselves to the intellectual readers. Socialist writers of the early period of the Revolution were seldom confronted with the necessity of writing for plain people. Trotzky was the best among the few who, in the stormy months of the 1905 revolution, were able to appeal to the masses in brief, strong, yet dignified articles full of thought, vision, and emotion.
The Soviet was struggling in a desperate situation. Autocracy had promised freedom, yet military rule was becoming ever more atrocious. The sluices of popular revolutionary movement were open, yet revolutionary energy was being gradually exhausted. The Soviet acted as a true revolutionary government, ignoring the government of the Romanoffs, giving orders to the workingmen of the country, keeping a watchful eye on political events; yet the government of the old regime was regaining its self-confidence and preparing for a final blow. The air was full of bad omens.
It required an unusual degree of revolutionary faith and vigor to conduct the affairs of the Soviet. Trotzky was the man of the hour. First a member of the Executive Committee, then the chairman of the Soviet, he was practically in the very vortex of the Revolution. He addressed meetings, he ordered strikes, he provided the vanguard of the workingmen with firearms; he held conferences with representatives of labor unions throughout the country, and the irony of history he repeatedly appeared before the Ministers of the old regime as a representative of labor democracy to demand from them the release of a prisoner or the abolition of some measures obnoxious to labor. It was in this school of the Soviet that Trotzky learned to see events in a national aspect, and it was the very existence of the Soviet which confirmed his belief in the possibility of a revolutionary proletarian dictatorship. Looking backward at the activities of the Soviet, he thus characterized that prototype of the present revolutionary government in Russia. “The Soviet,” be wrote, “was the organized authority of the masses themselves over their seperate members. This was a true, unadulterated democracy, without a twochamber system, without a professional bureaucracy, with the right of the voters to recall their representative at will and to substitute another.” In short, it was the same type of democracy Trotzky and Lenin are trying to make permanent in presentday Russia.
The black storm soon broke loose. Trotzky was arrested with the other members of the “revolutionary government,” after the Soviet had existed for about a month and a half. Trotzky went to prison, not in despair, but as a leader of an invincible army which though it had suffered temporary defeat, was bound to win. Trotzky had to wait twelve years for the moment of triumph, yet the moment came.
In prison Trotzky was very active, reading, writing, trying to sum up his experience of the revolutionary year. After twelve months of solitary confinement he was tried and sentenced to life exile in Siberia: the government of the enemies of the people was wreaking vengeance on the first true representatives of the people. On January 8, 1907, Trotzky started his trip for Obdorsk, in Northern Siberia on the Arctic Ocean.
He was under unusual rigid surveillance even for Russian prisons. Each movement of his and of his comrades was carefully guarded. No communication with the outer world was permitted. The very journey was surrounded by great secrecy. Yet such was the fame of the Soviet, that crowds gathered at every station to greet the prisoners’ train, and even the soldiers showed extraordinary respect for the imprisoned “workingmen’s deputies” as they called them. “We are surrounded by friends on every side,” Trotzky wrote in his note book.
In Tiumen the prisoners had to leave the railway train for sleighs drawn by horses. The journey became very tedious and slow. The monotony was broken only by little villages, where revolutionary exiles were detained. Here and there the exiles would gather to welcome the leaders of the revolution. Red flags gave touches of color to the blinding white of the Siberian snow. “Long live the Revolution!” was printed with huge letters on the surface of the northern snow, along the road. This was beautiful, but it gave little consolation. The country became ever more desolate. “Every day we move down one step into the kingdom of cold and wilderness,” Trotzky remarked in his notes.
It was a gloomy prospect, to spend years and years in this God forsaken country. Trotzky was not the man to submit. In defiance of difficulties, he managed to escape before he reached the town of his destination. As there was only one road along which travellers could move, and as there was danger that authorities, notified by wire of his escape, could stop him at any moment, he left the road and on a sleigh drawn by reindeer he crossed an unbroken wilderness of 800 versts, over 500 miles. This required great courage and physical endurance. The picturesque journey is described by Trotzky in a beautiful little book, My Round Trip.
It was in this Ostiak sleigh, in the midst of a bleak desert, that he celebrated the 20th of February, the day of the opening of the Second Duma. It was a mockery at Russia: here, the representatives of the people, assembled in the quasi-parliament of Russia; there, a representative of the Revolution that created the Duma, hiding like a criminal in a bleak wilderness. Did he dream in those long hours of his journey, that some day the wave of the Revolution would bring him to the very top?
Early in spring he arrived abroad. He established his home in Vienna where be lived till the outbreak of the great war. His time and energy were devoted to the internal affairs of the Social-Democratic Party and to editing a popular revolutionary magazine which was being smuggled into Russia. He earned a meager living by contributing to Russian “legal” magazines and dailies.
I met him first in 1907, in Stuttgart. He seemed to be deeply steeped in the revolutionary factional squabbles. Again I met him in Copenhagen in 1910. He was the target of bitter criticism for his press comment on one of the Social-Democratic factions. He seemed to be dead to anything but the problem of reconciling the Bolsheviki with the Mensheviki and the other minor divisions. Yet that air of importance which distinguished him even from the famous old leaders had, in 1910, become more apparent. By this time he was already a well-known and respected figure in the ranks of International Socialism.
In the fall of 1912 be went into the Balkans as a war correspondent. There be learned to know the Balkan situation from authentic sources. His revelations of the atrocities committed on both sides attracted wide attention. When he came back to Vienna in 1913 he was a stronger internationalist and a stronger anti-militarist than ever.
His house in Vienna was a poor man’s house, poorer than that of an ordinary American workingman earning eighteen dollars a week. Trotzky has been poor all his life. His three rooms in a Vienna working-class suburb contained less furniture than was necessary for comfort. His clothes were too cheap to make him appear “decent” in the eyes of a middle-class Viennese. When I visited his house, I found Mrs. Trotzky engaged in housework, while the two light-haired lovely boys were lending not inconsiderable assistance. The only thing that cheered the house were loads of books in every corner, and, perhaps, great though hidden hopes.
On August 3, 1914, the Trotzkys, as enemy aliens, had to leave Vienna for Zurich, Switzerland. Trotzky’s attitude towards the war was a very definite one from the very beginning. He accused German Social-Democracy for having voted the war credits and thus endorsed the war. He accused the Socialist ties of all the belligerent countries for having concluded a truce with their governments which in his opinion was equivalent to supporting militarism. He bitterly deplored the collapse of Internationalism as a great calamity for the emancipation of the world. Yet, even in those times of distress, he did not remain inactive. He wrote a pamphlet to the German workingmen entitled The War and Internationalism (recently translated into English and published in this country under the title The Bolsheviki and World Peace which was illegally transported into Germany and Austria by aid of Swiss Socialists. For this attempt to enlighten the workingmen, one of the German courts tried him in a state of contumacy and sentenced him to imprisonment. He also contributed to a Russian Socialist daily of Internationalist aspirations which was being published by Russian exiles in Paris. Later he moved to Paris to be in closer contact with that paper. Due to his radical views on the war, however, he was compelled to leave France. He went to Spain, but the Spanish government, though not at war, did not allow him to stay in that country. He was himself convinced that the hand of the Russian Foreign Ministry was in all his hardships.
So it happened that in the winter 1916-1917, he came to the United States. When I met him here, he looked haggard; he had grown older, and there was fatigue in his expression. His conversation hinged around the collapse of International Socialism. He thought it shameful and humiliating that the Socialist majorities of the belligerent countries had turned “Social-Patriots.” “If not for the minorities of the Socialist parties, the true Socialists, it would not be worth while living,” he said once with deep sadness. Still, he strongly believed in the internationalizing spirit of the war itself, and expected humanity to become more democratic and more sound after cessation of hostilities. His belief in an impending Russian Revolution was unshaken. Similarly unshaken was his mistrust of the Russian non-Socialist parties. On January 20, 1917, less than two months before the overthrow of the Romanoffs, he wrote in a local Russian paper:
“Whoever thinks critically over the experience of 1905, whoever draws a line from that year to the present day, must conceive how utterly lifeless and ridiculous are the hopes of our Social-Patriots for a revolutionary cooperation between the proletariat and the Liberal bourgeoisie in Russia.”
His demand for clarity in political affairs had become more pronounced during the war and through the distressing experiences of the war. “There are times,” he wrote on February 7, 1917, “when diplomatic evasiveness, casting glances with one eye to the right, with the other to the left, is considered wisdom. Such times are now vanishing before our eyes, and their heroes are losing credit. War, as revolution, puts problems in their clearest form. For war or against war? For national defense or for revolutionary struggle? The fierce times we are living now demand in equal measure both fearlessness of thought and bravery of character.”
When the Russian Revolution broke out, it was no surprise for Trotzky. He had anticipated it. He had scented it over the thousands of miles that separated him from his country. He did not allow his joy to overmaster him. The March revolution in his opinion was only a beginning. It was only an introduction to a long drawn fight which would end in the establishment of Socialism.
History seemed to him to have fulfilled what be had predicted in 1905 and 1906. The working class was the leading power in the Revolution. The Soviets became even more powerful than the Provisional Government. Trotzky preached that it was the task of the Soviets to become the government of Russia. It was his task to go to Russia and fight for a labor government, for Internationalism, for world peace, for a world revolution. “If the first Russian revolution of 1905,” he wrote on March 20th, “brought about revolutions in Asia, in Persia, Turkey, China, the second Russian revolution will be the beginning of a momentous Social-revolutionary struggle in Europe. Only this struggle will bring real peace to the blooddrenched world.”
With these hopes he went to Russia, to forge a Socialist Russia in the fire of the Revolution.
Whatever may be our opinion of the merits of his policies, the man has remained true to himself. His line has been straight.
New York, February 16th, 1918.
Our Revolution by Leon Trotzky. Translated and Edited by Moissaye J Olgin. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1918.
Essays on Working-Class and International Revolution, 1904-1917.
Contents: Preface and Biographical Notes by Moissaye J Olgin, The Proletariat and the Revolution (1904), The Events in Petersburg (1905), Prospects of a Labor Dictatorship (1906), The Soviet and the Revolution (1907), Preface to My Round Trip (1907), The Lessons of the Great Year (1917), On the Eve of a Revolution (1917), Two Faces (1917), The Growing Conflict (1917), War or Peace? (1917), Appendix: Trotsky on the Platform in Petrograd (1917).
PDF of full book: https://archive.org/download/cu31924028357634/cu31924028357634.pdf
Online text of book: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/ourrevo/index.htm