My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 19

Paris, and Zimmerwald

On November 19, 1914, I crossed the French frontier as a war-correspondent for the Kievskaya Mysl. I accepted the offer from the paper all the more eagerly because it would give me a chance to get closer to war. Paris was sad; in the evening the streets were lost in pitch-black darkness. Now and then the Zeppelins would pay their flying visits. After the checking of the German advance on the Marne, the war became constantly more exacting and ruthless. In the boundless chaos that was enveloping Europe, with silence from the masses of workers, deceived and betrayed by the Social Democracy, the engines of destruction were developing their automatic power. Capitalist civilization was reducing itself to an absurdity while it strove to break the thick skulls of men.

At the time when the Germans were nearing Paris and the bourgeois French patriots were deserting it, two émigré Russians set up a tiny daily paper published in Russian. Its object was to explain current events to the Russians whom fate had isolated in Paris, and to see that the spirit of international solidarity was not utterly extinguished. Before the first number appeared, the capital of the paper amounted to exactly thirty francs. No “sane” person could believe it possible to publish a daily paper on so little capital. As a matter of fact, in spite of work donated by the editors and other contributors, at least once a week the paper went through a crisis so acute that there seemed to be no way out. But somehow a way out was found. The compositors, faithful to the paper, went hungry, the editors scoured the town in search of francs, and the issue that was due appeared. In this way, withstanding the constant buffets of deficit and censorship, disappearing and reappearing again under a new name, the paper managed to exist for two years and a half, until the revolution of February, 1917. Arriving in Paris, I began to work actively for the Nashe Slovo (Our Word) which then was called the Golos (The Voice). A daily paper proved a valuable aid in orienting myself in the midst of the events that were unfolding. My experience on the Nashe Slovo was useful to me later, when I had to deal with military affairs more closely.

My family came to France in May, 1915. We settled down in Sèvres, in a little house lent to us for a few months by a young friend of ours, an Italian artist, René Parece. Our boys went to the school in Sèvres. The spring was very lovely; its greenness seemed especially caressing. But the number of women in black was growing constantly; the school-children were losing their fathers. The two armies dug themselves into the ground. One could see no way out. Clémenceau was launching attacks against Joffre in his paper. In the reactionary underground circles a coup d’état was being prepared; reports of it were passing by word of mouth. In the pages of Le Temps, the parliament for several days was referred to only by the name of “ass.” But the Temps still sternly demanded of the Socialists that they preserve the national unity.

Jaurés was no more. I visited the Café du Croissant where he was killed; I wanted to find a trace of him there. Politically, I had been far removed from him. But one could not help feeling the pull of his powerful personality. Jaurés’ mind, which was a composite of national traditions, of the metaphysics of moral principles, of love for the oppressed, and of poetic imagination, showed the mark of the aristocrat as dearly as Bebel’s revealed the great simplicity of the plebeian. They were both, however, head and shoulders above the legacy which they left.

I had heard Jaurés at popular meetings in Paris, at international congresses, and on committees, and on each occasion it was as if I heard him for the first time. He did not fall into routine; fundamentally he never repeated himself, but was always finding himself again, and mobilizing the latent resources of his spirit. With a mighty force as elemental as a waterfall, he combined great gentleness, which shone in his face like a reflection of a higher spiritual culture. He would send rocks tumbling down, he would thunder and bring the earthquake, but himself he never deafened. He stood always on guard, watched intently for every objection, quick to pick it up and parry it. Sometimes he swept all resistance before him as relentlessly as a hurricane, sometimes as generously and gently as a tutor or elder brother. Jaurés and Bebel were at opposite poles, and yet at the same time they were the twin peaks of the Second International. Both were intensely national, Jaurés with his fiery Latin rhetoric, and Bebel with his touch of Protestant dryness. I loved them both, but with a difference. Bebel exhausted himself physically, whereas Jaurés fell in his prime. But both of them died in time. Their deaths marked the line where the progressive historical mission of the Second International ended.

The French Socialist party was in a state of complete demoralization. There was no one to take the place Jaurés had left. Vaillant, the old “anti-militarist,” was putting out daily articles in a spirit of intensest chauvinism. I once met the old man in the Committee of Action, which was made up of delegates of the party and the trade-unions. Vaillant looked like a shadow of himself — a shadow of Blanquism, with the traditions of sansculotte warfare, in an epoch of Raymond Poincaré. Pre-war France, with her arrested growth in population, her conservative economic life and thought, seemed to Vaillant the only country of progress or movement, the chosen, liberating nation whose contact alone awakens others to spiritual life. His socialism was chauvinistic, just as his chauvinism was messianic. Jules Guesde, the leader of the Marxist wing, who had exhausted himself in a long and trying struggle against the fetiches of democracy, proved to be capable only of laying down his untarnished moral authority on the “altar” of national defense.

Everything was topsy-turvy. Marcel Sembat, the author of the book, Make a King, or Make Peace, seconded Guesde in the ministry of Briand. Pierre Renaudel found himself for a time the “leader” of the Socialist party — after all, somebody had to occupy the place left vacant by Jaurés. Renaudel strained himself to the utmost to imitate the gestures and thundering voice of the murdered leader. Behind him trailed Longuet, with a certain diffidence which he passed off for extreme radicalism. His ways were a constant reminder that Marx was not responsible for his grandsons. The official syndicalism, represented by the president of the Confédération Générale, Jouhaux, faded away in twenty-four hours. He “denied” the state in peace-time, only to kneel before it in time of war. That revolutionary buffoon, Hervé, the extreme anti-militarist of the day before, turned him self inside out, but remained, as an extreme chauvinist, the identical, self-satisfied buffoon. As if to make his mockery of his own ideas of yesterday doubly painful, his paper continued to call itself La Guerre Sociale.

Taken all in all, it seemed like making a masquerade of mourning, a carnival of death. One could not help saying to oneself: “No, we are made of sterner stuff; events did not catch us unawares; we foresaw something of this, and we foresee much now, and we are prepared for much of what lies ahead of us.” How often we clenched our fists when the Renaudels, the Hervés, and their like tried to fraternize, from a distance, with Karl Liebknecht! There were elements of opposition scattered about, in the party and in the syndicates, but they showed few signs of life.

The outstanding figure among the Russian émigrés in Paris without a doubt was Martov, the leader of the Mensheviks, and one of the most talented men I have ever come across. The man’s misfortune was that fate made him a politician in a time of revolution without endowing him with the necessary resources of will-power. The lack of balance in his spiritual household was tragically revealed whenever great events took place. I watched him through three historical cataclysms: 1905, 1914, and 1917. Martov’s first reaction to events was nearly always revolutionary, but before he could put his ideas on paper, his mind would be besieged by doubts from all sides. His rich, pliant, and multiform intelligence lacked the support of will. In his letters to Axelrod in 1905 he complained ruefully that he could not gather his thoughts together. And he never really did, up to the very day when the reactionaries assumed power. At the beginning of the war, he again complained to Axelrod that events had driven him to the very verge of insanity. Finally, in 1917, he made a hesitant step toward the left and then, within his own faction, yielded the leadership to Tzereteli and Dan, men not even knee-high to him in intellect — in Dan’s case, not in any respect.

On October 14, 1914, Martov wrote to Axelrod: “More readily than with Plekhanov, we could probably come to an understanding with Lenin who, it seems, is preparing to appear in the role of a fighter against opportunism in the International.” But this mood did not last long with Martov. When I arrived in Paris, I found him already fading. From the very first, our collaboration in the Nashe Slovo developed into nothing more nor less than a bitter struggle, which ended with Martov’s resigning from the editorial board and finally from the contributing staff.

Soon after I arrived in Paris, Martov and I sought out Monatte, one of the editors of the syndicalist journal, La Vie Ouvriére. A former teacher, later a proofreader, Monatte in appearance was a typical Paris worker, a man of brains as well as character, and he never for a moment inclined toward reconciliation with militarism or the bourgeois state. But how was one to find a way out? We differed. Monatte “denied” the state and political struggle, but the state ignored his denial, and made him don the red trousers after he had come out with an open protest against syndicalist chauvinism. Through Monatte, I came into close touch with the journalist Rosmer, who also belonged the anarchist-syndicalist school, but, as events proved, even then stood closer to Marxism fundamentally than to the Guesdists. Since those days I have been bound to Rosmer by ties of friendship which have stood the test of war, of revolution, of Soviet power, and of the demolition of the opposition. About this time I came to know several active workers in the French labor movement whom I had not known before. They included the secretary of the union of metal-workers, Merrheim, a cautious, slyly ingratiating, and calculating man, whose end was in every respect unhappy; the journalist Guilbeaux, later condemned to death in contumacy for a treason he had not committed; the secretary of the coopers’ syndicate, “Papa” Bourderon; the teacher Loriot, who was trying to find the way to the road of revolutionary socialism; and many others. We met every week on the Quai de Jemmapes, and sometimes in greater numbers on the Grange-aux-Belles, exchanged “inside” news of the war and the diplomatic goings-on, criticised official socialism, seized upon signs of a socialist reawakening, encouraged the falterers, and mapped out the future.

On August 4, 1915, I wrote in the Nashe Slovo: “And in spite of everything, we meet the bloody anniversary without mental distress or political scepticism. In the midst of the greatest catastrophe we revolutionary internationalists have held to our standards of analysis, criticism, and forethought. We have re fused to view things through the ‘national’ spectacles that the general staffs have been offering us, not merely cheaply but even with a bonus attached. We have continued to see things as they are, to call them by their real names, and to foresee their logical consequences.”

And now, thirteen years later, I can only repeat those words. That feeling of being superior to the official political thought, including patriotic socialism a feeling that never left us was not the fruit of unjustified presumption. There was nothing personal in it; it was the natural result of our theoretical position, for we were standing on a higher peak. Our critical view-point enabled us, first of all, to see the war in clearer perspective. Each side, as everybody knows, was counting on an early victory. One could quote innumerable evidences of such optimistic lightness of judgment. “My French colleague,” Buchanan relates in his memoirs, “was at one moment so optimistic that he even bet me £5 that the war would be over by Christmas.” In his own heart, Buchanan himself did not postpone the end of the war any later than Easter. In opposition to this view, we reiterated day in and day out in our paper, from the autumn of 1914 on, that the war, regardless of all the official prophecies, would be hopelessly protracted and that all Europe would emerge from it utterly broken. Time after time we said in the Nashe Slovo that even in case of victory by the Allies, France would find herself, when the smoke and fumes had cleared away, only a larger Belgium in the international arena. We definitely foresaw the coming world-dictatorship of the United States. “Imperialism,” we wrote for the hundredth time on September 5, 1916, “by virtue of this war, has placed its stakes on the strong; they will own the world.”

Long before this, my family had moved from Sèvres to Paris, to the little rue Oudry. Paris was growing more and more deserted. One by one, the street clocks stopped. The Lion de Belfort, for some reason, had dirty straw sticking out of its mouth. The war went on digging farther and farther into the ground. Let us get out of the trenches, out of this stagnation, this immobility! that was the cry of patriotism. Movement! Movement! And out of this, there grew the terrible madness of the Battle of Verdun. In those days, writing in such a way as to elude the lightning of the military censors, I said in the Nashe Slovo: “However great the military significance of the Battle of Verdun may be, the political significance is infinitely greater. In Berlin and other places [sic!] they have been wanting ‘movement’ and they will have it. Hark! under Verdun there is being forged our tomorrow.”

In the summer of 1915 there arrived in Paris the Italian deputy Morgari, the secretary of the Socialist faction of the Rome parliament, and a naive eclectic, who had come to secure the participation of French and English socialists in an international conference. On the terrasse of a café on one of the Grands Boulevards, we held a meeting attended by a few socialist deputies who for some reason thought themselves “lefts,” and Morgari. As long as the conversation held to pacifist talk, and to repeating generalities about the necessity of restoring international connections, everything went smoothly. But when Morgari spoke in a tragic whisper of the necessity of getting false passports for the trip to Switzerland he was obviously fascinated by the “carbonari” aspect of the affair the deputies made long faces, and one of them I don’t remember which hurriedly called for the waiter and paid for all the coffee we had had. The ghost of Molière stalked across the terrasse, and, I think, the ghost of Rabelais too. That was the end of the meeting. As we walked back with Martov, we laughed a lot, gaily, but not without a certain anger.

Monatte and Rosmer had already been called up for the army and could not go to Switzerland. I went to the conference with Merrheim and Bourderon, both very moderate pacifists. We did not need the false passports, after all, because the government, which had not completely shed its pre-war customs, issued legal ones. The organization of the conference was in the hands of the Berne socialist leader, Grimm, who was then trying his utmost to raise himself above the philistine level of his party, which was also his own inherent level. He had arranged to hold the meeting in a little village called Zimmerwald, high in the mountains and about ten kilometres distant from Berne. The delegates, filling four stage-coaches, set off for the mountains. The passers-by looked on curiously at the strange procession. The delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the first International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches. But they were not sceptical. The thread of history often breaks then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing in Zimmerwald.

The days of the conference, September 5 to 8, were stormy ones. The revolutionary wing, led by Lenin, and the pacifist wing, which comprised the majority of the delegates, agreed with difficulty on a common manifesto of which I had prepared the draft. The manifesto was far from saying all that it should have said, but, even so, it was a long step forward. Lenin was on the extreme left at the conference. In many questions he was in a minority of one, even within the Zimmerwald left wing, to which I did not formally belong, although I was close to it on all-important questions. In Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action. In a Swiss mountain village, he was laying the corner-stone of the revolutionary International.

The French delegates noted in their report the value of the Nashe Slovo in establishing a contact of ideas with the international movement in other countries. Rakovsky pointed out that the Nashe Slovo had played an important part in setting forth the development of the international position of the Balkan Social Democratic parties. The Italian party was acquainted with the Nashe Slovo, thanks to the many translations by Balabanova. The German press, including the government papers, quoted the Nashe Slovo oftenest of all; just as Renaudel tried to lean on Liebknecht, so Scheidemann was not averse to listing us as his allies.

Liebknecht himself was not in Zimmerwald; he had been imprisoned in the Hohenzollern army before he became a captive in prison. Liebknecht sent a letter to the conference which proclaimed his abrupt about-face from pacifism to revolution. His name was mentioned on many occasions at the conference. It was already a watchword in the struggle that was rending world-socialism.

The conference put a strict ban on all reports of its proceedings written from Zimmerwald, so that news could not reach the press prematurely and create difficulties for the returning delegates when they were crossing the frontier. A few days later, however, the hitherto unknown name of Zimmerwald was echoed through out the world. This had a staggering effect on the hotel proprietor the valiant Swiss told Grimm that he looked for a great increase in the value of his property and accordingly was ready to subscribe a certain sum to the funds of the Third International. I suspect, however, that he soon changed his mind.

The conference at Zimmerwald gave to the development of the anti-war movement in many countries a powerful impetus. In Germany, the Spartacists expanded their activities. In France a “Committee for the Restoration of International Connections” was established. The labor section of the Russian colony in Paris tightened its ranks about the Nashe Slovo, giving it the support needed to keep it afloat through constant financial and other difficulties. Martov, who had taken an active part in the work of the Nashe Slovo in the first period, now drew away from it. The essentially unimportant differences that still separated me from Lenin at Zimmerwald dwindled into nothing during the next few months.

But, in the meantime, clouds were gathering overhead, and during 1916 they grew very dark. The reactionary La Liberté was publishing, as advertisements, anonymous communications accusing us of being Germanophiles. We were constantly receiving anonymous letters containing threats. Both the accusations and the threats clearly had their source in the Russian embassy. Suspicious-looking persons were always prowling about our printing-works. Hervé was threatening us with the arm of the police. Professor Durckheim, who was chairman of the government committee on Russian exiles, was heard to say that there was talk in government circles of closing down the Nashe Slovo and expelling the editors from the country. The action was being delayed, however. They had nothing to base it on, because I had not infringed upon the law, not even the censor’s infractions of the law. But there had to be a reasonable excuse, and so in the end it was found, or, to be more exact, manufactured.

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