Trotsky: The Prickly Lion of the Revolution (an interview with Alexander Reznik)

This interview was conducted on Radio Svoboda and published in Russian on Jan. 27, 2017. It was translated in English for LeftEast by Evgeni V. Pavlov.

“Insurrection of the masses does not require a justification. And what took place was indeed an insurrection and not a conspiracy. We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection… To those who left from here and who are proposing other courses of action, we have only this to say: You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!” Thus spoke Leon Trotsky addressing the Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets on the day of the October coup of 1917, directing his remarks against those delegates who objected to the Bolshevik seizure of power, of which he was one of the main organizers.

Roughly ten years after he made this speech, it was Trotsky himself together with his allies in the intra-party opposition who would end up in the “dustbin of history,” put there by the victorious group of Stalin. In 1940 the former revolutionary leader, now exiled from the USSR, was assassinated in Mexico by a Soviet agent, and his historical role was not discussed openly or without ideological clichés in the Soviet Union until the period of Perestroika in the 1980s.

Alexander Reznik, Trotsky and Comrades: the Left Opposition and the Political Culture of RKP(b), 1923-1924

A Russian reader interested in the figure of Leon Trotsky, who played one of the leading roles in the history of Soviet Russia and international communism, can learn much more about him today, in the centenary year of the revolution. Two books dedicated to Trotsky will be published this year: a monograph Trotsky and Comrades: Left Opposition and Political Culture of RCP(b), 1923-24 and an anthology L.D. Trotsky: pro et contra that contains documents on Trotsky, memoirs and other texts. Our guest at Radio Liberty today (Jan. 25, 2017) is Alexander Reznik, a Candidate of Historical Sciences and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Basel University (Switzerland), the author of the first book listed above and the editor of the second.

Many leaders of social revolutions, including the Bolsheviks, did not come from very poor or proletarian social classes. Trotsky is one such example. How and why would such people get involved in the revolutionary movement, i.e. why would they cross the social barricade and fight on the other side and even, as was the case with Lenin and Trotsky, lead the representatives of that ‘other side’?

– In his memoirs My Life, Trotsky lets us know that he had a heightened sense of injustice and that in his childhood he had a chance to meet workers who were employed at his father’s estate. It is clear from his memoirs that his family was prosperous and that he had an opportunity to receive a good education and had plenty of free time. This allowed for a higher probability that he would become a revolutionary.

Trotsky was for a long time somewhat of an enfant terrible of the Russian revolutionary movement. For a long time he did not join any party and found himself among the Bolsheviks only in the middle of 1917. Did this fact influence his political biography as a whole and did it affect his reputation in the party?

– Of course. Trotsky became a Bolshevik only after the July events, even though following the February Revolution practically nothing stood in the way of his joining the party, with the exception of his past conflicts with Lenin’s supporters. Of course he was a new person in the Bolshevik party. But we also have to note that the Bolshevik party itself changed very much in 1917. Trotsky belonged to the so called Mezhraiontsy [Interdistrictites], and among them were a few other well known people such as Lunacharsky, Uritsky and their supporters in Petrograd.

What was different about their program?

– If we want to state it concisely, they insisted on the necessity for all revolutionary elements of the Russian Social Democratic parties to work together, they wanted to overcome the conflict between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.

So in 1917 Trotsky looked like a more moderate leader in comparison with Lenin?

– No, by 1917 their differences were largely eliminated. Among all the Bolshevik leaders Trotsky was closest to Lenin at the time of the October revolution. Lenin praised him and said that once Trotsky recognized that the formation of a coalition government by representatives of all the Socialist parties was impossible, there was no better Bolshevik than him. At the same time until 1917 Lenin sharply criticized Trotsky precisely for his attempts to unify the different social democratic parties. Therefore, later, in 1923, Trotsky’s adversaries – at first Zinoviev, then Kamenev, Stalin and Bukharin – could easily create a myth of the organically anti-Leninist Trotsky.

Trotsky’s role in the organization and execution of the October coup was undoubtedly significant. But just how significant was it? Is it fair to say that without Trotsky, if he had not been among the leaders of the Bolsheviks at the time, they would not have been able to seize power or they would have not have been able to do it so easily?

– Trotsky himself addressed this question. He said that if there had been no Lenin in 1917, then most likely the revolution would not have taken place, but if he himself hadn’t been there, it would have taken place regardless. I don’t think he was being disingenuous. Despite the fact that Trotsky was a very self-confident person, he understood that oratorical skills alone were not sufficient for leadership in the revolution; one needed organization. Lenin was the indisputable leader among the Bolsheviks and he had a huge influence that Trotsky simply never had.

Was there any competition between Lenin and Trotsky or did Trotsky clearly and voluntarily take up a position of someone standing close but still behind Lenin? How did their relationship evolve?

one of the few surviving images of Lenin and Trotsky (most were destroyed during the Stalin era)

– In 1917 they slowly grew closer. At the same time we don’t have a lot of sources that throw light on the personal aspects of this process. We have of course the classical episode from My Life where Trotsky describes how Lenin was in very close contact with him and the day after the coup they spent all night resting and talking, unable to fall asleep. This is a very Freudian scene. Later, on many occasions, Lenin expresses his trust in the actions of Trotsky when the latter is the head of the People’s Commissariat of Military Affairs and the Revolutionary Military Council, and supported him against Stalin. But I tend to think that Lenin thought it necessary to have a certain balance of forces within the party, and that’s how I explain his rather sharp struggle against Trotsky at the end of 1920 and the beginning of 1921.

What was the reason for this struggle?

– This was the so-called discussion about the role of labor unions, although in reality it concerned how to govern the party in the conditions of War Communism and after. Bluntly put, Trotsky maintained that if there is a military situation, then the party should govern using administrative, harsh methods. Lenin, on the other hand, insisted that unions should have more independence but at the same time they should not become the organs of power in the spirit of revolutionary syndicalism, which was the proposal of some farther left elements.

– Before his death Lenin wrote what the old Bolsheviks called his political testament, where he in equal measure set out his views on the entire Bolshevik leadership. Trotsky gets an ambiguous assessment, a combination of respect and criticism: “Comrade Trotsky is perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C.[Central Committee], but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.” As far as I can tell Lenin never considered Trotsky to be his indisputable successor. Why?

In this case we are not talking about succession in the sense of some monarchs or dictators who pass on their power to someone else. The issue here is not some personal power. Actually, even Lenin never had such a personal power. He can be considered a dictator, of course, but in a completely different sense, a sense that our contemporaries are not used to.

– Are you saying that due to the power of his charisma and authority among the Bolsheviks Lenin was a sort of a natural dictator?

He had a very significant authority and ability to overcome various conflicts within the leadership. In other words Lenin was a sort of mediator. This somewhat contradicts what we know about his harsh actions but the Bolshevik party and its leadership were not united at that time. Theirs was a history of factions and intra-party arguments. Even though, in my opinion, until 1923 there wasn’t any struggle for power. But when Lenin left the scene, such a struggle was inevitable. And the reason was not so much his personality but the fact that the party was changing, the state was changing and this form of power could not last forever. However, as soon as Lenin fell ill and distanced himself from active participation in politics, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin as well as their supporters got scared: they were convinced that Trotsky represented the danger of a possible ‘red Bonaparte,’ a potential dictator.

– But did Trotsky himself feel that he was such a Bonaparte or not?

The materials of the intra-party struggle of 1923-24 that I studied contain no evidence that Trotsky was creating an effective political machine in order to seize personal power or to support the power of his faction. More than that, Trotsky did not personally participate in many fierce political discussions of that period due to his illness. Even though it is known that his oratorical talent could have easily swayed, for example, the Moscow organization to vote for the opposition. This concerns the beginning of 1920s. Right now I’m researching the political cult of Trotsky during the Civil War and I do not yet have the complete answer to your question. The only thing that the archives show fairly clearly is that Trotsky did not have any personal apparatus for creating a cult for himself as, for example, did Alexander Kerensky in 1917.

There is an interesting story related to the only propagandist brochure, a biography of Trotsky, called The Tribune of Revolution written by Gregory Ustinov, a friend of the poet Sergey Esenin. Ustinov wrote this brochure, it appears, at the end of 1918. But, because its content seemed inappropriate in the context of a moment when Lenin himself had started to criticize propagandists in order to reduce the amount of praise showered on him and Trotsky, this brochure only appeared in 1920 in a very small print that went essentially unnoticed. Some historians make strange conclusions based on this brochure about some incredible cult of personality of Trotsky.

Whether it was a cult or not, Trotsky’s popularity in Soviet Russia at the end of the Civil War was great and that played a large role in the ultimate victory of the Reds. There is another question in connection with this: During the Civil War Trotsky demonstrated himself to be a very serious and powerful organizer of the Red Army, but later in the 1920s he lost to Stalin in the struggle for power precisely in the field of organization – Stalin was able to better construct an apparatus of power. Why did this happen? Where did all of Trotsky’s organizational abilities go? Or was Stalin just such a brilliant organizer of the apparatus [apparatchik]?

Here we must distinguish between administrative power and political power. Trotsky was never capable of creating a decent factional organization. Even his opponents during the intra-party struggle pointed that out. In 1924 they mocked him in the words of Zinoviev who said that Trotsky “creates pretty pathetic factions.” In reality Trotsky was indeed a very talented organizer but, in my opinion, as a new member of the party, he would not have been able to win over the large majority of communists to his side, even if he had wanted to. And subjectively he did not strive to do that.

As strange as it sounds, the entire analysis of his activity, including the documents from his personal archive and the archive of his secretariats, reveal a lack of any large work of rallying his allies to his side or any search for friends. He had his own clients, let’s put it this way, for whom he was a patron. Trotsky was able to give them a kind of symbolic resource such as, for example, penning a laudatory review of a book of poems, as he did for Alexander Bezymensky, who in turn supported Trotsky during the intra-party struggle, but afterwards withdrew his support and joined the supporters of Stalin. The political culture of the 1920s was in principle still not entirely prepared for some form of personal power.

– Did Stalin then develop a new political culture that would be more perceptive to such a form of power?

Of course, but at the same time he still had to maneuver. Plus, we have to remember molecular processes that took place in the society. There are multiple letters to Stalin found in the archives where we can see that more and more ordinary people, peasants and workers, write precisely to Stalin as the head of the party apparatus, and turn to him with their problems or ideas. There was of course no cult of Stalin in the 1920s. But, I would put it this way, there is a slow formation of authoritarian thinking.

– What kind of a person was Trotsky? For example, how cruel was he? He played a large role in the organization of the Red Army and in its victory in the Civil War. We know about his ruthless directives not only regarding enemies but also about his own troops – for example his directive to shoot every tenth soldier of one of the Red Army regiments that retreated without a order at the end of summer of 1918. Was he a fanatic, a “knight of revolution” willing to drown everything in blood in the name of his ideas and the discipline or was he a more complex person afterall?

Trotsky as an individual was a pretty prickly person and found it hard to make friends. Stalin was much more friendly in a small circle of people. Trotsky was more pedantic and often in the Politburo, for example, refused to participate in more informal gatherings.

– “Informal” here means while drinking vodka?

And those kinds of gatherings as well. In the middle of the 1920s when Trotsky formed a bloc with Kamenev and Zinoviev one time he could not stand being at a party at Kamenev’s place and had to leave and go home saying that he just couldn’t do it, that it was a nightmare and all tasteless. He had only a few close friends. And those friends were all devoted to him, but in the 1930s they were all broken one way or another. This is, for example, the story of Christian Rakovsky and Evgeny Preobrazhensky. Regarding personal cruelty, after studying personal recollections of Trotsky by many different individuals I have not seen much reference to this. One exception comes from one of the most famous biographies of Trotsky written by his ally in the first socialist organization, Georgy Ziv, in 1921. He presented a very negative picture of Trotsky and while he pointed out some of his talents, at the same time he argued that Trotsky was a kind of emotional invalid who wanted to be at the head of the army and give out ruthless orders.

But wasn’t that the case?

Ziv himself points out a paradox: Trotsky was very sincere and kind in personal interactions but he still had a certain prevalent instrumentalist view of others. I think that this psychological mystery is not yet solved and will never be solved since we cannot look inside a soul of a person who lived a hundred years ago.

– A few times Trotsky publicly explained his refusal to accept any high office in the Bolshevik hierarchy – for example as a deputy chairman of Sovnarkom when Lenin already fell ill – by referring to his Jewish origin. Was it really that important for him?

This is the issue that he tried to avoid inasmuch as it was possible to avoid it. But his refusal to accept a position of the chairman of Sovnarkom at first and then as a deputy chairman was indeed motivated by this issue. At the same time Trotsky sought to avoid getting involved in issues where his origin might have played some role. For example, he did not participate in the activity of the Jewish section of the party, and he did not present himself as some high-profile fighter against anti-Semitism. Considering his prolific literary output he perhaps wrote no more than ten essays where he in one way or another addressed the Jewish question. In reality Trotsky was a principled opponent of national identities.

– In other words he was a genuine internationalist as any communist must be?

He considered himself to be one. He also explained that Jewish culture did not really affect him in any noticeable way when he was growing up. In his childhood he basically spoke Surzhyk [a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian]. His parents were not particularly religious. When he later moved to Odessa and Nikolaev, he lived in educated families of his relatives and was raised as a citizen of the Russian Empire without any particular national identification. He was always against such Jewish organizations as the Bund and Poale Zion, because he thought it was unimportant and that all radical socialists needed to unite into one movement regardless of nationality.

– Did Trotsky have his own fully developed conception or notion of how socialism and communism should be constructed? Can we talk about Trotskyism as a fully-fledged ideology and not only as an ideological designation that was later assigned to Trotsky and his followers by Stalin?

This is actually a very interesting story because this label gradually became a self-designation of the movement but of course only after Trotsky’s death. There are political groups that conceive of Trotskyism as some fully-fledged ideology within the framework of socialism. Firstly, in my opinion, ‘Trotskyism’ is a rather unfortunate term, and, secondly, Trotsky did not have all the answers to all the questions, just as Lenin did not have them. Neither Leninism not Trotskyism are fully-fledged ideologies – they are certain trends in social-democratic and, later, communist movements that addressed specific questions. Trotskyism did not provide answers regarding the steps for building socialism.

– But within the framework of the Bolshevik system after the revolution could Trotsky be considered a carrier of some real alternative? If he suddenly managed to win the struggle for power would the Soviet project have developed in some essentially different way?

This is a very popular question but, in my opinion, it is not formulated entirely correctly. If we’re talking about Trotsky becoming a dictator instead of Stalin, we’re in the realm of fantasy fiction. We do not really know how Trotsky would have behaved and whether he would have been a kinder dictator who did not need the phantasmagoria of terror where who would have had to accuse all of his former allies of treason. But I think that Trotsky could not have been such an alternative dictator. His alternative was the way that he proposed the party should be governed.

And what way was that?

My analysis of his published and unpublished essays, his discussions with comrades persuaded me that Trotsky was leaning toward a return to more democratic norms within the party. I think he was correct in thinking that if the party started to follow the decisions of the leaders blindly, then it would fundamentally change the meaning and the content of the movement because it would limit initiative. And he really believed that the initiative of the regular party members and Soviet society, as he put it, was necessary for the development of socialism.

– And did he not see a fundamental contradiction here? Because if we allow for what another communist leader called the ‘pluralism of opinions’ within the ruling party, then it will lead to a situation where it is no longer the sole party. It would inevitably break up into different platforms and then, who knows, even different parties. How would it be possible to keep everyone in the same one-party system?

– Trotsky remained within certain limitations and illusions that emerged in 1921 as a result of the Kronstadt Rebellion, when the Bolsheviks severely limited the activity of intra-party groups. But already in 1930 he arrived at the conclusion that not only can the party have different factions but in principle after the political revolution that would eliminate Stalin’s group there was a possibility for a multi-party system. However he did not propose to leave the boundaries of a socialist multi-party system.

When Trotsky was in exile during the years before his assassination, did he have any regrets? Did he write or speak about how this or that was done incorrectly or that he was mistaken about something?

He emphasized many times that he was wrong on the issues of building the party before the revolutions of 1917, i.e. in his arguments with Lenin. But the sharpening of political discussions and the marginalization of Trotsky as a political leader led him to an uncritical assessment of his own activity, including during the Civil War. He insisted that authoritarian methods were appropriate at that time. He refused to accept, for example, that Kronstadt was a colossal error. In principle one can discern some small signs of regret when it comes to evaluating his own political naiveté during the 1920s. Gradually Trotsky came to the realization that he lost not to some insignificant nobody, which was his original view of Stalin, but to someone who turned out to be more cunning and better able to seize power and establish his own dictatorship.

– Trotsky lived through some significant personal tragedies: Almost all of his relatives that remained in the USSR and could be located by Stalin’s regime perished. Did he say anything about this or did he experience this mostly internally, only within himself?

Trotsky’s diaries and letter are all published in their majority. Of course he was deeply affected first and foremost by the death of all of his children. (Trotsky’s youngest son, Sergey Sedov, was executed; his oldest son, Leon, died in Paris under suspicious circumstances – Trotsky himself believed that he was poisoned by the Soviet agents. One of Trotsky’s daughters, Nina, died from tuberculosis; another, Zinaida, committed suicide.) We can see in Trotsky’s letters to his wife how different he was emotionally from Stalin, who left no personal documents. Trotsky indeed had a very powerful palette of feelings. But, for example, his diary he composed based on the assumption that it will be published so he was not sufficiently frank when writing in it.

Alexander Reznik is a a Candidate of Historical Sciences, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Basel University (Switzerland), the author of the first book listed above and the editor of the second, and a member of RSD.