My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 18

The Beginning of the War

In Vienna, the inscription “Alle Serben miissen sterben” appeared on the hoardings, and the words became the cry of the street boys. Our youngest son, Seryozha, prompted, as usual, by an instinct for being contradictory, shouted on the Sievering Common: “Hoch Serbien!” He came home with a black eye and experience in international politics.

Buchanan, the former British ambassador to St. Petersburg, speaks with exaltation in his memoirs of “those wonderful early August days” when “Russia seemed to have been completely transformed.” There is similar exaltation in the memoirs of other statesmen, although they may not embody the self-satisfied fatuity of the ruling classes with the completeness of Buchanan. All the European capitals were having equally “wonderful” days in August. They were all entirely “transformed” for the business of mutual extermination.

The patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in Austria-Hungary seemed especially surprising. What was it that drew to the square in front of the War Ministry the Viennese bootmaker’s apprentice, Pospischil, half German, half Czech; or our greengrocer, Frau Maresch; or the cabman Frankl? What sort of an idea? The national idea? But Austria-Hungary was the very negation of any national idea. No, the moving force was something different.

The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course — what can seem worse to Popischil than “normal” conditions?

I strode along the main streets of the familiar Vienna and watched a most amazing crowd fill the fashionable Ring, a crowd in which hopes had been awakened. But wasn’t a small part of these hopes already being realized? Would it have been possible at any other time for porters, laundresses, shoemakers, apprentices and youngsters from the suburbs to feel themselves masters of the situation in the Ring? War affects everybody, and those who are oppressed and deceived by life consequently feel that they are on an equal footing with the rich and powerful. It may seem a paradox, but in the moods of the Viennese crowd that was demonstrating the glory of the Hapsburg arms I detected something familiar to me from the October days of 1905, in St. Petersburg. No wonder that in history war has often been the mother of revolution.

And yet how different, or, to be more precise, how contrasting, were the attitudes of the ruling classes to the one and to the other! To Buchanan, those days seemed wonderful, and Russia transformed. On the other hand, Witte wrote about the most pathetic days of the revolution of 1905, “The overwhelming majority of Russians seem to have gone mad.”

Like revolution, war forces life, from top to bottom, away from the beaten track. But revolution directs its blows against the established power. War, on the contrary, at first strengthens the state power which, in the chaos engendered by war, appears to be the only firm support and then undermines it. Hopes of strong social and national movements, whether it be in Prague or in Trieste, in Warsaw or Tiflis, are utterly groundless at the outset of a war. In September, 1914, I wrote to Russia: “The mobilization and declaration of war have veritably swept off the face of the earth all the national and social contradictions in the country. But this is only a political de lay, a sort of political moratorium. The notes have been ex tended to a new date, but they will have to be paid.” In these censored lines, I referred, of course, not only to Austria-Hungary, but to Russia as well in fact, to Russia most of all.

Events were crowding one another. There came the report of the assassination of Jaurés. The newspapers were so full of malicious lies that there was still a possibility, for a few hours at least, of doubt and hope. But soon even this disappeared. Jaurés had been killed by his enemies and betrayed by his own party.

What attitude toward the war did I find in the leading circles of the Austrian Social Democracy? Some were quite obviously pleased with it, and spoke abusively of Serbians and Russians, making little distinction between the governments and the people. These were really nationalists, barely disguised under the veneer of a socialist culture which was now melting away as fast as it could. I remember Hans Deutsch, in later years some sort of a war minister, talking openly of the inevitability and the salutary nature of this war, which was at last to rid Austria of the Serbian “nightmare.” Others, with Victor Adler at their head, regarded the war as an external catastrophe which they had to put up with. Their passive waiting, however, only served as a cover for the active nationalist wing. Some, with an air of being very profound, remembered the German victory of 1871, which gave an impetus to German industry, and, along with it, to the Social Democracy.

On the first of August, Germany declared war against Russia. Even before then, Russians had begun to leave Vienna. On the morning of August 3, I went to the Wienzeile to take counsel with the Socialist deputies as to what we Russian émigrés should do. Friedrich Adler continued, through sheer inertia, to busy himself in his room with books, papers, and stamps for the International Socialist Congress soon to have met in Vienna. But the congress had already been relegated to the past — other forces were occupying the field. Old Adler suggested that he take me with him, at once, to headquarters, that is, to Geyer, the chief of the political police. On our way to the prefecture by automobile, I drew Adler’s attention to the festal mood that war alone had caused. “It is those who do not have to go to war who show their joy,” he answered promptly. “Besides, all the unbalanced, all the mad men now come out into the streets; it is their day. The murder of Jaurès is only the beginning. War opens the door for all instincts, all forms of madness.”

A psychiatrist by profession, Adler often approached political events “especially Austrian,” he would remark ironically from the psychopathological point of view. How far he then was from thinking that his own son would commit a political murder! On the very eve of the war, I published an article in the Kampf magazine, edited by Adler’s son, showing the futility of individual terrorism. It is significant that the editor warmly approved the article. The terrorist act committed by Friedrich Adler was merely an outburst of opportunism in despair, nothing more. 1 After he had vented his despair, he returned to his old rut.

Geyer cautiously indicated the possibility that all Russians and Serbians might be put under arrest the following morning.

“Then your advice is to leave?”

“The sooner, the better.”

“Good. I will leave with my family for Switzerland tomorrow.”

“Hm . . . I should prefer that you do it to-day.”

This conversation took place at three o’clock; at 6.10 that evening, I was already sitting with my family in the train bound for Zurich. Behind us, we had left the ties of seven years, and books, papers, and unfinished writings, including a polemic against Professor Masaryk on the future prospects of Russian culture.

The telegram telling of the capitulation of the German Social Democracy shocked me even more than the declaration of war, in spite of the fact that I was far from a naive idealizing of German socialism. “The European socialist parties,” I wrote as early as 1905, and reiterated more than once after ward, “have developed their own conservatism, which grows stronger the more the masses are captured by socialism. In view of this, the Social Democracy can become, at a definite moment, an actual obstacle in the way of an open conflict between the workers and the bourgeois reaction. In other words, the propagandist socialist conservatism of the proletariat party may at a certain moment obstruct the direct struggle for power by the proletariat.” I did not expect the official leaders of the International, in case of war, to prove themselves capable of serious revolutionary initiative. At the same time, I could not even admit the idea that the Social Democracy would simply cower on its belly before a nationalist militarism.

When the issue of the Vorwaerts that contained the report of the meeting of the Reichstag on August 4 arrived in Switzerland, Lenin decided that it was a faked number published by the German general staff to deceive and frighten their enemies. For, despite his critical mind, Lenin’s faith in the German Social Democracy was still as strong as that. At the same time, the Vienna Arbeiter-Zeitung proclaimed the day of the capitulation of German Socialism as “the great day of the German nation.” This was the cap-sheaf of Austerlitz his own “Austerlitz”! I did not think the Vorwaerts a fake; my first per sonal impressions in Vienna had already prepared me for the worst. Nevertheless, the vote of August 4 has remained one of the tragic experiences of my life. What would Engels have said? I asked myself. To me, the answer was obvious. And how would Bebel have acted? Here, I was not so certain. But Bebel was dead. There was only Haase, an honest provincial democrat, with no theoretical outlook or revolutionary temper. In every critical situation, he was inclined to refrain from decisive solutions; he preferred to resort to half-measures and to wait. Events were too great for him. And beyond him one saw the Scheidemanns, the Eberts, the Welses.

Switzerland reflected Germany and France, only in a neutral, that is to say, a subdued, way and also on a much-reduced scale. As if to make the situation more obvious, the Swiss parliament had as members two Socialist deputies, with identical names: one was Johann Sigg from Zurich, the other Jean Sigg from Geneva. Johann was a rabid Germanophile, and Jean a still more rabid Francophile. Such was the Swiss mirror of the International.

About the second month of the war, in a street in Zurich I met old Molkenbuhr, who had come there to mould public opinion. To my question as to how his party visualized the course of the world war, the old member of the Vorstand answered: “During the next two months we will finish France; then we will turn to the east and finish the Czar’s armies; and three, or at most, four months later, we will give Europe a lasting peace.” This answer is entered in my diary word for word. Molkenbuhr was stating, of course, not his own estimate of the situation; he was simply expressing the official opinion of the Social Democracy. At the same time, the French ambassador to St. Petersburg wagered Buchanan five pounds sterling that the war would be over before Christmas. No, we “utopians” foresaw things a little better than these realistic gentlemen from the Social Democracy and the diplomatic circles.

Switzerland, our refuge from the war, reminded me of my Finnish pension, Rauha, where, in the autumn of 1905, I had received news of the revolution in Russia. Of course, the Swiss army was also mobilized, and in Basel one could even hear the noise of cannonading. But the huge Helvetian pension worried chiefly over the surplus of cheese and the shortage of potatoes, and resembled a quiet oasis surrounded by the fiery echoes of war. Perhaps the hour is not so far off, I suggested to myself, when I can leave the Swiss oasis Rauha (Peace) to return again to the St. Petersburg workers in the hall of the Technological Institute. But that hour did not come until thirty-three months later.

A desire to clarify my thoughts about what was happening made me turn to a diary. As early as August 9, I wrote in it:

“It is perfectly obvious that the question here is not one of mistakes, of certain opportunist acts, of confused statements from the parliamentary tribune, of the voting of the budget by the Social Democrats of the Grand Duchy of Baden, of the experiments of French militarism, of certain leaders turning renegade it is a question of the collapse of the International, at the time of greatest responsibility, a time for which all the pre ceding work was only preparation.”

On August 11, I entered this: “Only an awakening of the revolutionary socialist movement, an awakening which will need to be very warlike from the start, will lay the foundations for a new International. The years to come will be the period of a social revolution.”

I entered actively into the life of the Swiss Socialist party. In its lower or labor strata, internationalism was regarded with almost boundless sympathy. I carried away from every party meeting a double store of assurance in the rightness of my stand. I found my first stanchion of support in the workers’ union, Eintracht, which was international in its membership. By agreement with the directorate of the union, in the early part of September I drafted a manifesto against war and socialist patriotism. The directorate invited the leaders of the party to the meeting where I was to read a paper in German in support of the manifesto. The leaders did not arrive. They thought it was dangerous to take a definite stand on such a bristling question; they preferred to wait and confine themselves, for the time being, to fireside criticisings of the “extremes” of German and French chauvinism. The meeting of the Eintracht almost unanimously adopted the manifesto, which, for all its ambiguities, gave a decided impetus to public opinion in the party. This was probably the first internationalist document on behalf of a labor organization after the outbreak of the war.

In those days, I came for the first time into close contact with Radek, who had come to Switzerland from Germany at the beginning of the war. In the German party he belonged to the extreme Left, and I hoped to find in him one who shared my views. Indeed, Radek condemned the ruling section of the German Social Democracy in fiercely militant tones. In this I was with him. But I was surprised to learn from our conversations that he never conceded the possibility of a proletarian revolution in connection with the war, and, generally speaking, in the near future. “No,” he replied, “for this the productive forces of mankind, taken as a whole, are not sufficiently developed.” I was quite used to hearing that the productive forces of Russia were not sufficient for the conquest of power by the working class. But I did not imagine that such an answer could come from a revolutionary politician of a progressive capitalist country. Shortly after my departure from Zurich, Radek read a long paper in the very same Eintracht, arguing that the capitalist world was not yet ready for the Social Revolution.

Radek’s paper, and Zurich as the general socialist crossroads at the outset of the war, are described in the rather interesting memoirs of a Swiss writer, Brupbacher. Curiously enough, he refers to my views at that time as “pacifist.” What he means by the word it is difficult to understand. He expresses his own progress at that time in the title of one of his books, From a Smug Citizen to a Bolshevik. I got a clear enough idea of his views at that time to subscribe unreservedly to the first half of the title. For the second half, I take no responsibility.

When the German and French socialist newspapers had made clear the picture of the moral and political catastrophe of official Socialism, I put aside my diary to write a political pamphlet on the subject of war and the International. Impressed by my first conversation with Radek, I added a preface to the pamphlet in which I emphasized even more energetically my view that the present war was nothing but an uprising of the productive forces of capitalism on a world scale, against private property on the one hand and state boundaries on the other.

The booklet, The War and the International, like all my other books, had its own peculiar destiny, first in Switzerland, then in Germany and France, later in America, and finally in Soviet Russia. A few words must be said about all this. My work was translated from the Russian manuscript by a Russian whose command of German was far from perfect. A professor in Zurich, Ragaz, took it upon himself to edit the translation, and this gave me an opportunity to know an original personality.

Ragaz, although a believing Christian, being moreover a theologian by education and profession, occupied a position on the extreme left of the Swiss socialism, recognized the most extreme methods of struggle against the war, and expressed himself in favor of the proletarian revolution. He and his wife attracted me by the profound moral earnestness of their attitude toward political problems, an attitude which distinguished them so favorably from the Austrian, the German, Swiss and other officials of the Social Democracy, who were so utterly de void of ideals. As far as I know, he was forced later on to sacrifice his chair at the University because of his ideas. For the class that he belonged to, this was considerable. And yet in the conversations I had with him, I would sense, along with my great respect for this unusual man, an almost physical sensation as of a thin but utterly impenetrable veil separating us from each other. He was an out-and-out mystic, and although he did not press his beliefs on me or even mention them, still in his speech even an armed uprising would become invested with some sort of vapors from another world which produced in me nothing but an uncomfortable shiver. From the very moment that I began to think for myself, I was an intuitive and then a conscious materialist. I not only never felt the necessity of other worlds, but I could not find any psychological contact with the people who managed to recognize both Darwin and the Holy Trinity at the same time.

But the book, thanks to Ragaz, came out in good German. From Switzerland, it found its way, as early as December, 1914, to Austria and Germany. The Swiss Left-wingers F. Platten and others saw to that. Intended for German countries, the pamphlet was directed first of all against the German Social Democracy, the leading party of the Second International. I remember that a journalist named Heilmann, who played first-violin in the orchestra of chauvinism, called my book mad, but quite logical in its madness. I could not have wished for greater praise. There was, of course, no lack of hints that my book was an artful tool of Entente propaganda.

Later on, in France, I came unexpectedly across a report in the French papers, by way of Switzerland, that one of the German courts had sentenced me in a state of contumacy to imprisonment for the Zurich pamphlet. From this I concluded that the pamphlet had hit the mark. The Hohenzollern judges did me a very good turn by their sentence, a sentence that I was not in any hurry to serve. For the slanderers and spies of the Entente, this German court-sentence was always a stumbling-block in their noble efforts to prove that I was nothing more than an agent of the German general staff.

This did not keep the French authorities, however, from holding up my book at the frontier on the strength of its “German origin.” An ambiguous note defending my pamphlet against the French censorship appeared in the newspaper published by Hervé. I believe that it was written by Ch. Rappaport, a man of some note, who was almost a Marxist; at any rate, he was the author of the greatest number of puns ever invented by any man who has devoted a long life to them.

After the October revolution, an enterprising New York publisher brought out my German pamphlet as an imposing American book. According to his own statement, President Wilson asked him, by telephone from the White House, to send the proofs of the book to him; at that time, the President was composing his Fourteen Points, and, according to reports from people who were informed, could not get over the fact that a Bolshevik had forestalled him in his best formulas. Within two months the sales of the book in America reached 16,000 copies. Then came the days of the Brest-Litovsk peace. The American press raised a furious campaign against me, and the book instantly disappeared from the market.

In the Soviet Republic, my Zurich pamphlet had by that time gone through several editions, serving as a text-book for the study of the Marxist attitude toward the war. It disappeared from the “market” of the Communist International only after 1924, the year when “Trotskyism” was discovered. At present, the pamphlet is still under a ban, as it was before the revolution.

Indeed, it would seem that books have their own destiny.

1. Friedrich Adler, son of Victor Adler, shot Count Stürgkh, the Austro-Hungarian premier, on October 21, 1916. He received the death-sentence, later commuted to imprisonment. He was released from prison by the revolution of 1918. - Trans.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trotsky/leon/my_life/chapter18.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05