My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 22

New York

Here I was in New York, city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city in the world, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.

Of the legends that have sprung up about me, the greater number have to do with my life in New York. In Norway, which I only touched in passing, the resourceful journalists had me working as a codfish cleaner. In New York, where I stayed for two months, the newspapers had me engaged in any number of occupations, each more fantastic than the one before. If all the adventures that the newspapers ascribed to me were banded to gether in a book, they would make a far more entertaining biography than the one I am writing here.

But I must disappoint my American readers. My only profession in New York was that of a revolutionary socialist. This was before the war for “liberty” and “democracy,” and in those days mine was a profession no more reprehensible than that of a bootlegger. I wrote articles, edited a newspaper, and addressed labor meetings. I was up to my neck in work, and consequently I did not feel at all like a stranger. In one of the New York libraries I studied the economic history of the United States assiduously. The figures showing the growth of American exports during the war astounded me; they were, in fact, a complete revelation. And it was those same figures that not only predetermined America’s intervention in the war, but the decisive part that the United States would play in the world after the war, as well. I wrote several articles about this at the time, and gave several lectures. Since that time the problem of “America versus Europe” has been one of my chief interests. And even now I am studying the question with the utmost care, hoping to devote a separate book to it. If one is to understand the future destiny of humanity, this is the most important of all subjects.

The day after I arrived in New York I wrote in the Russian paper, the Novy Mir (The New World): “I left a Europe wallowing in blood, but I left with a profound faith in a coming revolution. And it was with no democratic ‘illusions’ that I stepped on the soil of this old-enough New World.” Ten days later I addressed the international meeting of welcome as follows: “It is a fact of supreme importance that the economic life of Europe is being blasted to its very foundations, whereas America is increasing in wealth. As I look enviously at New York — I who still think of myself as a European — I ask myself: ‘Will Europe be able to stand it? Will it not sink into nothing but a cemetery? And will the economic and cultural centres of gravity not shift to America?’” And despite the success of what is called “European stabilization,” this question is just as pertinent to-day.

I lectured in Russian and German in various sections of New York, Philadelphia and other nearby cities. My English was even worse than it is to-day, so that I never even thought of making public addresses in English. And yet I have often come across references to my speeches in English in New York. Only the other day an editor of a Constantinople paper described one of those mythical public appearances which he witnessed as a student in America. I confess that I didn’t have the courage to tell him that he was the dupe of his own imagination. But alas! with even greater assurance, he repeated these same recollections of his in his paper.

We rented an apartment in a workers’ district, and furnished it on the instalment plan. That apartment, at eighteen dollars a month, was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking-range, bath, telephone, automatic service-elevator, and even a chute for the garbage. These things completely won the boys over to New York. For a time the telephone was their main interest; we had not had this mysterious instrument either in Vienna or Paris.

The janitor of the house was a negro. My wife paid him three months’ rent in advance, but he gave her no receipt because the landlord had taken the receipt-book away the day before, to verify the accounts. When we moved into the house two days later, we discovered that the Negro had absconded with the rent of several of the tenants. Besides the money, we had intrusted to him the storage of some of our belongings. The whole incident upset us; it was such a bad beginning. But we found our property after all, and when we opened the wooden box that contained our crockery, we were surprised to find our money hidden away in it, carefully wrapped up in paper. The janitor had taken the money of the tenants who had already received their receipts; he did not mind robbing the landlord, but he was considerate enough not to rob the tenants. A delicate fellow, indeed. My wife and I were deeply touched by his consideration, and we always think of him gratefully. This little incident took on a symptomatic significance for me — it seemed as if a corner of the veil that concealed the “black” problem in the United States had lifted.

During those months America was busily getting ready for war. As ever, the greatest help came from the pacifists. Their vulgar speeches about the advantages of peace as opposed to war invariably ended in a promise to support war if it became “necessary.” This was the spirit of the Bryan campaign. The socialists sang in tune with the pacifists. It is a well-known axiom that pacifists think of war as an enemy only in time of peace. After the Germans came out for unrestricted submarine warfare, mountains of military supplies blocked the railways and filled all the eastern stations and ports. Prices instantly soared, and I saw thousands of women — mothers, in the wealthiest city of the world — come out into the streets, upset the stalls, and break into shops. What will it be like in the rest of the world after the war? I asked myself.

On February 3 came the long-awaited break in diplomatic relations with Germany. The volume of the chauvinistic music was increasing daily. The tenor of the pacifists and the falsetto of the socialists did not disrupt the general harmony. But I had seen the same thing in Europe, and the mobilization of American patriotism was simply a repetition of what I had seen before. I noted the stages of the process in my Russian paper, and meditated on the stupidity of men who were so slow to learn their lessons.

I once saw, through the window of my newspaper office, an old man with suppurating eyes and a straggling gray beard stop before a garbage-can and fish out a crust of bread. He tried the crust with his hands, then he touched the petrified thing with his teeth, and finally he struck it several times against the can. But the bread did not yield. Finally he looked about him as if he were afraid or embarrassed, thrust his find under his faded coat, and shambled along down St. Mark’s Place. This little episode took place on March 2, 1917. But it did not in any way interfere with the plans of the ruling class. War was inevitable, and the pacifists had to support it.

Bukharin was one of the first people I met in New York; he had been deported from Scandinavia only a short time before. He had known us in the Vienna days, and welcomed us with the childish exuberance characteristic of him. Although it was late, and we were very tired, Bukharin insisted on dragging us off to the Public Library the very first day. That was the beginning of a close association that warmed — on Bukharin’s part — into an attachment for me that grew steadily more intense until 1923, when it suddenly changed to an opposite sentiment.

Bukharin’s nature is such that he must always attach himself to some one. He becomes, in such circumstances, nothing more than a medium for someone else’s actions and speeches. You must always keep your eyes on him, or else he will succumb quite imperceptibly to the influence of some one directly opposed to you, as other people fall under an automobile. And then he will deride his former idol with that same boundless enthusiasm with which he has just been lauding him to the skies. I never took Bukharin too seriously, and I left him to himself, which really means, to others. After the death of Lenin, he became Zinoviev’s medium, and then Stalin’s. At the very moment that these lines are being written, Bukharin is passing through still another crisis, and other fluids, as yet not known to me, are filtering through him.

Madame Kolontay was in America at that time, but she travelled a great deal and I did not meet her very often. During the war, she veered sharply to the left, without transition abandoning the ranks of the Mensheviks for the extreme left wing of the Bolsheviks. Her knowledge of foreign languages and her temperament made her a valuable agitator. Her theoretical views have always been somewhat confused, however. In her New York period, nothing was revolutionary enough for her. She was in correspondence with Lenin and kept him informed of what was happening in America, my own activities included, seeing all facts and ideas through the prism of her ultra-radicalism. Lenin’s replies to her reflected this utterly worthless information. Later, in their fight against me, the epigones have not hesitated to make use of mistaken utterances by Lenin, utterances that he himself recanted both by word and by deed. In Russia, Kolontay took from the very first an ultra-left stand, not only toward me but toward Lenin as well. She waged many a battle against the “Lenin-Trotsky” regime, only to bow most movingly later on to the Stalin regime.

In ideas the Socialist party of the United States lagged far behind even European patriotic Socialism. But the superior airs of the American press — still neutral at the time — toward an “insensate” Europe, were reflected also in the opinions of American socialists. Men like Hillquit welcomed the chance to play the socialist American “uncle” who would appear in Europe at the crucial moment and make peace between the warring factions of the Second International. To this day, I smile as I recall the leaders of American Socialism. Immigrants who had played some role in Europe in their youth, they very quickly lost the theoretical premise they had brought with them in the confusion of their struggle for success. In the United States there is a large class of successful and semi-successful doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, and the like who divide their precious hours of rest between concerts by European celebrities and the American Socialist party. Their attitude toward life is composed of shreds and fragments of the wisdom they absorbed in their student days. Since they all have automobiles, they are invariably elected to the important committees, commissions, and delegations of the party. It is this vain public that impresses the stamp of its mentality on American Socialism. They think that Wilson was infinitely more authoritative than Marx. And, properly speaking, they are simply variants of “Babbitt,” who supplements his commercial activities with dull Sunday meditations on the future of humanity. These people live in small national clans, in which the solidarity of ideas usually serves as a screen for business connections. Each clan has its own leader, usually the most prosperous of the Babbitts. They tolerate all ideas, provided they do not undermine their traditional authority, and do not threaten — God forbid I— their personal comfort. A Babbitt of Babbitts is Hillquit, the ideal Socialist leader for successful dentists.

My first contact with these men was enough to call forth their candid hatred of me. My feelings toward them, though probably less intense, were likewise not especially sympathetic. We belonged to different worlds. To me they seemed the rottenest part of that world with which I was and still am at war.

Old Eugene Debs stood out prominently among the older generation because of the quenchless inner flame of his socialist idealism. Although he was a romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader, he was a sincere revolutionary; yet he succumbed to the influence of people who were in every respect his inferiors. Hillquit’s art lay in keeping Debs on his left flank while he maintained a business friendship with Gompers. Debs had a captivating personality. Whenever we met, he embraced and kissed me; the old man did not belong to the “drys.” When the Babbitts proclaimed a blockade against me, Debs took no part in it; he simply drew aside, sorrowfully.

I joined the editorial board of the Novy Mir at the very outset. The staff included, besides Bukharin and myself, Volodarsky, who later was killed by the Socialist-Revolutionists in Petrograd, and Chudnovsky, who later was wounded outside Petrograd, and eventually was killed in the Ukraine. The paper was the headquarters for internationalist revolutionary propaganda. In all of the national federations of the Socialist party, there were members who spoke Russian, and many of the Russian federation spoke English. In this way the ideas of the Novy Mir found their way out into the wider circles of American workers. The mandarins of official Socialism grew alarmed. Intrigues waxed hot against the European immigrant who, it was said, had set foot on American soil only the day before, did not understand the psychology of the American, and was trying to foist his fantastic methods on American workers. The struggle grew bitter. In the Russian federation the “tried and trusted” Babbitts were promptly shouldered aside. In the German federation old Schlueter, the editor-in-chief of the Volkszeitung, and a comrade in arms of Hiliquit’s, was more and more yielding his influence to the young editor Lore, who shared our views. The Letts were with us to a man. The Finnish federation gravitated toward us. We were penetrating by degrees into the powerful Jewish federation, with its fourteen-story palace from which two hundred thousand copies of the Forward were daily disgorged — a newspaper with the stale odor of sentimentally philistine socialism, always ready for the most perfidious betrayals.

Among the American workers, the connections and influence of the Socialist party as a whole, and of our revolutionary wing in particular, were less effective. The English organ of the party, The Call, was edited in a spirit of innocuous pacifist neutrality. We decided to begin by establishing a militant Marxist weekly. The preparations for it were in full swing — when the Russian revolution intervened l

After the mysterious silence of the cables for two or three days, came the first confused reports of the uprising in Petrograd. The cosmopolitan working-class in New York was all excited. Men hoped and were afraid to hope. The American press was in a state of utter bewilderment. Journalists, interviewers, reporters, came from all sides to the offices of the Novy Mir. For a time our paper was the centre of interest of the New York press. Telephone-calls from the Socialist newspaper offices and organizations never stopped.

“A cablegram has arrived saying that Petrograd has appointed a Guchkov-Miliukoff ministry. What does it mean?”

“That to-morrow there will be a ministry of Miliukoff and Kerensky.”

“Is that so? And what next?”

“Next? We shall be the next.”

“Oho!”

This sort of thing was repeated dozens of times. Almost every one I talked with took my words as a joke. At a special meeting of “worthy and most worthy” Russian Social Democrats I read a paper in which I argued that the proletariat party inevitably would assume power in the second stage of the Russian revolution. This produced about the same sort of impression as a stone thrown into a puddle alive with pompous and phlegmatic frogs. Dr. Ingermann did not hesitate to explain that I was ignorant of the four first rules of political arithmetic, and that it was not worth while wasting five minutes to refute my nonsensical dreams.

The working-masses took the prospects of revolution quite differently. Meetings, extraordinary for their size and enthusiasm, were held all over New York. Everywhere, the news that the red flag was flying over the Winter Palace brought an excited cheer.

Not only the Russian immigrants, but their children, who knew hardly any Russian, came to these meetings to breathe in the reflected joy of the revolution.

At home they saw me only in abrupt flashes. They had a complex life of their own there. My wife was building a nest, and the children had new friends. The closest was the chauffeur of Dr. M. The doctor’s wife took my wife and the boys out driving, and was very kind to them. But she was a mere mortal, whereas the chauffeur was a magician, a titan, a superman! With a wave of his hand, he made the machine obey his slightest command. To sit beside him was the supreme delight. When they went into a tea-room, the boys would anxiously demand of their mother, “Why doesn’t the chauffeur come in?”

Children have an amazing capacity for adapting themselves to new surroundings. In Vienna we had lived for the most part in the workers’ districts, and my boys mastered the Viennese dialect to perfection, besides speaking Russian and German. Dr. Alfred Adler observed with great satisfaction that they spoke the dialect like the good old Viennese cabmen. In the school in Zurich the boys had to switch to the Zurich dialect, which was the language in use in the lower grades, German being studied as a foreign language. In Paris the boys changed abruptly to French, and within a few months had mastered it. Many times I envied them their ease in French conversation. Although they spent, in all, less than a month in Spain and on the Spanish boat, it was long enough for them to pick up the most useful words and expressions. And then in New York, they went to an American school for two months and acquired a rough-and-ready command of English. After the February revolution, they went to school in Petrograd. But school life there was disorganized, and foreign languages vanished from their memory even more quickly than they had been acquired. But they spoke Russian like foreigners. We were often surprised to notice that they would build up a Russian sentence as if it were an exact translation from the French — and yet they could not form the sentence in French. Thus the story of our foreign wanderings was written on the brains of the children as indelibly as if they were palimpsests.

When I telephoned my wife from the newspaper office that Petrograd was in the midst of revolution, the younger boy was in bed with diphtheria. He was nine years old, but he realized definitely — and had for a long time — that revolution meant an amnesty, a return to Russia and a thousand other blessings. He jumped to his feet and danced on the bed in honor of the revolution. It was a sign of his recovery.

We were anxious to leave by the first boat. I rushed from consulate to consulate for papers and visas. On the eve of our departure the doctor allowed the convalescent boy to go out for a walk. My wife let him go for half an hour, and began to pack. How many times she had gone through that same operation? But there was no sign of the boy. I was at the office. Three anxious hours; then came a telephone-call to my wife. First, an unfamiliar masculine voice, and then Seryozha’s voice:

“I am here.” “Here” meant a police station at the other end of New York. The boy had taken advantage of his first walk to settle a question that had been worrying him for a long time:

Was there really a First Street? (We lived on 164th Street, if I am not mistaken.) But he had lost his way, had begun to make inquiries, and was taken to the police station. Fortunately he remembered our telephone number.

When my wife arrived at the station an hour later with our older son, she was greeted gaily, like a long-awaited guest. Seryozha was playing checkers with the policemen, and his face was quite red. To hide his embarrassment over an excess of official attention, he was diligently chewing some black American cud with his new friends. He still remembers the telephone number of our New York apartment.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that I learned much about New York. I plunged into the affairs of American Socialism too quickly, and I was straightway up to my neck in work for it. The Russian revolution came so soon that I only managed to catch the general life-rhythm of the monster known as New York. I was leaving for Europe, with the feeling of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged. My only consolation was the thought that I might return. Even now I have not given up that hope.

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