My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 29

In Power

In the life of the country and in the life of the individual, I those were extraordinary days. In social passions, as well as in personal powers, tension reached its highest point. The masses were creating an epoch, and their leaders felt their steps merging with those of history. On the decisions made and the orders given in those days depended the fate of the nation for an entire historical era. And yet those decisions were made with very little discussion. I can hardly say that they were even properly weighed and considered; they were almost improvised on the moment. But they were none the worse for that. The pressure of events was so terrific, and the work to be done so clear before us, that the most important decisions came naturally, as a matter of course, and were received in the same spirit. The path had been predetermined; all that was required was to indicate the work. No arguments were necessary, and very few appeals. Without hesitation or doubt, the masses picked up what was suggested to them by the nature of the situation. Under the strain of events, their “leaders” did no more than formulate what answered the requirements of the people and the demands of history.

Marxism considers itself the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process. But the “unconscious” process, in the historico-philosophical sense of the term not in the psychological coincides with its conscious expression only at its highest point, when the masses, by sheer elemental pressure, break through the social routine and give victorious expression to the deepest needs of historical development. And at such moments the highest theoretical consciousness of the epoch merges with the immediate action of those oppressed masses who are farthest away from theory. The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls “inspiration.” Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history.

Every real writer knows creative moments, when something stronger than himself is guiding his hand; every real orator experiences moments when some one stronger than the self of his every-day existence speaks through him. This is “inspiration.” It derives from the highest creative effort of all one’s forces. The unconscious rises from its deep well and bends the conscious mind to its will, merging it with itself in some greater synthesis.

The utmost spiritual vigor likewise infuses at times all personal activity connected with the movement of the masses. This was true for the leaders in the October days. The hidden strength of the organism, its most deeply rooted instincts, its power of scent inherited from animal forebears all these rose and broke through the psychic routine to join forces with the higher historico-philosophical abstractions in the service of the revolution. Both these processes, affecting the individual and the mass, were based on the union of the conscious with the unconscious: the union of instinct the mainspring of the will with the higher theories of thought.

Outwardly, it did not look very imposing: men went about tired, hungry, and unwashed, with inflamed eyes and unshaven beards. And afterward none of them could recall much about those most critical days and hours.

Here is an extract from notes made considerably later by my wife: “During the last days of the preparation for October, we were staying in Taurid street. Lev Davydovich lived for whole days at the Smolny. I was still working at the union of wood-workers, where the Bolsheviks were in charge, and the atmosphere was tense. All the working hours were spent in talking about the uprising. The chairman of the union upheld ‘the point of view of Lenin-Trotsky’ (as it was called then), and we carried on our agitation together. The question of the uprising was discussed everywhere in the streets, at meal-time, at casual meetings on the stairs of the Smolny. We ate little, slept little, and worked almost twenty-four hours a day. Most of the time we were separated from our boys, and during the October days I worried about them. Lyova and Seryozha were the only ‘Bolsheviks’ in their school except for a third, a ‘sympathizer,’ as they called him. Against them these three had a compact group of offshoots of the ruling democracy Kadets and Socialist-Revolutionists. And as usually happens in such cases, criticism was supplemented by practical arguments. On more than one occasion, the head master had to extricate my sons from under the piled-up ‘democrats’ who were pummeling them. The boys, after all, were only following the example of their fathers. The head master was a Kadet, and consequently always punished my sons with ‘Take your hats and go home.’ After the revolution, it was quite impossible for the boys to remain in that school, and so they went to a ‘people’s school’ instead. Everything was much simpler and cruder there, but one could breathe more freely.

“L.D. and I very seldom were at home. The boys would come home from school and, finding that we weren’t in, would think it unnecessary for them to stay within the four walls either. In those days of demonstrations, dashes and shootings we were worried for their safety, because they were then in such a revolutionary mood . . . At our brief meetings they would tell us with the greatest joy: ‘To-day we were with some Cossacks in a street-car and saw them read Dad’s appeal, Brother Cossacks!

“‘Well?’

“‘They read it and passed it on to others; it was fine!’

“‘Fine?’

“‘Fine.’

“An acquaintance of L.D.’s, the engineer K., who had a large family of children of all ages, with a governess and so forth, offered to keep the boys in his home, where there would be some one to look after them. I jumped at this as a saving grace. I had to call at the Smolny about five times a day to carry out different commissions for L.D. We would return to Taurid street late at night; in the morning, we would separate again, L.D. going to the Smolny, and I to the union. At the culmination of events, we almost never left the Smolny. For days at a time L.D. would not come to Taurid street even to sleep. And I often stayed at the Smolny, as well. We slept on sofas and chairs without undressing. The weather was not exactly warm; it was autumn; the days were dry and lowering, and the wind blew in sharp, cold gusts. The main streets were quiet and deserted. And in this stillness one felt an intense watchfulness. The Smolny was bubbling over. The enormous hall sparkled with the thousands of lights from the magnificent chandeliers; day and night it was filled to the brim with people. Life in the mills and factories was strained, but the streets had quieted down. They were as still as if the city, in fright, had drawn its head down between its shoulders.

“I remember that on the morning of the second or third day after the uprising, I dropped into a room at the Smolny and found Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] there with Lev Davydovich. With them, if I remember correctly, were Dzerzhinsky, Joffe, and a crowd of others. Their faces were a grayish-green from lack of sleep; their eyes were inflamed, their collars soiled, and the room was full of smoke . . . Some one was sitting at a table surrounded by people waiting for orders. Lenin and Trotsky were also in the midst of a waiting mob. It seemed to me that orders were being given as if by people who were asleep. There was something of the somnambulist in the way they talked and moved about. For a moment I felt as if I were seeing it all in a dream, and that the revolution was in danger of being lost if ‘they’ didn’t get a good sleep and put on clean collars; the dream was closely bound up with those collars. I remember that next day I met Lenin’s sister, Marya Ilinishna, and reminded her hurriedly that Vladimir Ilyich needed a clean collar. ‘Oh, yes, of course,’ she replied, laughing. But by that time this matter of clean collars had lost its nightmarish significance for me.”

The power is taken over, at least in Petrograd. Lenin has not yet had time to change his collar, but his eyes are very wide-awake, even though his face looks so tired. He looks softly at me, with that sort of awkward shyness that with him indicates intimacy. “You know,” he says hesitatingly, “from persecution and a life underground, to come so suddenly into power . . . He pauses for the right word. “Es schwindelt,” he concludes, changing suddenly to German, and circling his hand around his head. We look at each other and laugh a little. All this takes only a minute or two; then a simple “passing to next business.”

The government must be formed. We number among us a few members of the Central Committee. A quick session opens over in a corner of the room.

“What shall we call them?” asks Lenin, thinking aloud. “Any thing but ministers that’s such a vile, hackneyed word.”

“We might call them commissaries,” I suggest, “but there are too many commissaries just now. Perhaps ’supreme commissaries’? No, ’supreme’ does not sound well, either. What about ’people’s commissaries’?”

“’People’s commissaries? Well, that might do, I think,” Lenin agrees. “And the government as a whole?”

“A Soviet, of course . . ., the Soviet of People’s Commissaries, eh?”

“The Soviet of People’s Commissaries?” Lenin picks it up. “That’s splendid; smells terribly of revolution!”

Lenin was not much inclined toward the æsthetics of revolution, or toward relishing its “romantic quality.” But all the more deeply did he feel the revolution as a whole, and all the more unmistakably did he define its “smell.”

“And what,” Vladimir Ilyich once asked me quite unexpectedly, during those first days “what if the White Guards kill you and me? Will Svyerdlov and Bukharin be able to manage?”

“Perhaps they won’t kill us,” I rejoined, laughing.

“The devil knows what they might do,” said Lenin, laughing in turn.

In 1924, in my recollections of Lenin, I described this incident for the first time. I learned afterward that the members of what was then a “trio” Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev felt terribly offended by it, although they did not dare contradict it. But the fact remains that Lenin only mentioned Svyerdlov and Bukharin. He did not think of any others.

Since he had spent fifteen years in his two exiles abroad, with only short intervals between, Lenin knew the main figures of the party who were living in Russia only from his correspondence with them or from his few meetings with them abroad. It was not until after the revolution that he was able to see them at close range and actually at work. And consequently he had to revise the old opinions, based on indirect reports, or else form new ones. A man of great moral passion, Lenin could not imagine such a thing as indifference toward people. A thinker, observer, and strategist, he was subject to spasms of enthusiasm for people. Krupskaya also mentions this trait of his in her memoirs. Lenin never weighed a man at a glance, forming some average estimate of him. His eye was like a microscope; it would magnify many times the trait that came within its field of vision at a particular moment. He would often fall in love with people, in the full sense of the word. And on such occasions I would tease him: “I know, I know, you are having a new romance.” Lenin realized this characteristic of his, and would laugh by way of reply, a little embarrassed but a little angry, too.

Lenin’s attitude toward me changed several times during 1917. He met me first with a certain reserve, cautiously. The July days brought us very close together, quite suddenly. When, in opposition to the majority of the leading Bolshevists, I proposed boycotting the pre-parliament, Lenin wrote me from his refuge: “Bravo, Comrade Trotsky!” Later on, judging from some accidental and quite erroneous indications, he concluded that I was being too dilatory in the matter of an armed uprising, and this suspicion was reflected in several of his letters during October. By contrast, his attitude toward me on the day of the revolution, when we were resting on the floor of a half-dark, empty room, became all the more unmistakable in its warmth and friendliness. The next day, at the meeting of the Central Committee of the party, he proposed that I be elected chairman of the Soviet of People’s Commissaries. I sprang to my feet, protesting the proposal seemed to me so unexpected and inappropriate. “Why not?” Lenin insisted. “You were at the head of the Petrograd Soviet that seized the power.” I moved to reject his proposal, without debating it. The motion was carried. On the first of November, during the impassioned discussions that took place at the meeting of the Petrograd party committee, Lenin exclaimed: “There is no better Bolshevik than Trotsky.” Coming from him, the words meant a great deal. It is no wonder that the minutes of the meeting at which they were pronounced are still withheld from the public.

The conquest of the power brought up the question of my government work. Strangely enough, I had never even given a thought to it; in spite of the experience of 1905, there was never an occasion when I connected the question of my future with that of power. From my youth on, or, to be more precise, from my childhood on, I had dreamed of being a writer. Later, I subordinated my literary work, as I did everything else, to the revolution. The question of the party’s conquest of power was always before me. Times without number, I wrote and spoke about the programme of the revolutionary government, but the question of my personal work after the conquest never entered my mind. And so it caught me unawares.

After the seizure of power, I tried to stay out of the government, and offered to undertake the direction of the press. It is quite possible that the nervous reaction after the victory had something to do with that; the months that had preceded it had been too closely tied up with the preparatory work for the revolution. Every fibre of my entire being was strained to its limit. Lunacharsky wrote somewhere in the papers that Trotsky walked about like an electric battery and that each contact with him brought forth a discharge. The twenty-fifth of October brought the let-down. I felt like a surgeon who has finished a difficult and dangerous operation I must wash my hands, take off my apron, and rest.

Lenin was in a different position. He had just arrived from his refuge, after spending three and a half months cut off from real, practical direction. One thing coincided with the other, and this only added to my desire to retire behind the scenes for a while. Lenin would not hear of it, however. He insisted that I take over the commissariat of the interior, saying that the most important task at the moment was to fight off a counter-revolution. I objected, and brought up, among other arguments, the question of nationality. Was it worth while to put into our enemies’ hands such an additional weapon as my Jewish origin?

Lenin almost lost his temper. “We are having a great international revolution. Of what importance are such trifles?”

A good-humored bickering began. “No doubt the revolution is great,” I answered, “but there are still a good many fools left.”

“But surely we don’t keep step with the fools?”

“Probably we don’t, but sometimes one has to make some allowance for stupidity. Why create additional complications at the outset?”

I have already had occasion to observe that the national question, so important in the life of Russia, had practically no personal significance for me. Even in my early youth, the national bias and national prejudices had only bewildered my sense of reason, in some cases stirring in me nothing but disdain and even a moral nausea. My Marxist education deepened this feeling, and changed my attitude to that of an active internationalism. My life in so many countries, my acquaintance with so many different languages, political systems and cultures only helped me to absorb that internationalism into my very flesh and blood.

If, in 1917 and later, I occasionally pointed to my Jewish origin as an argument against some appointment, it was simply because of political considerations.

Svyerdlov and other members of the Central Committee were won over to my side. Lenin was in the minority. He shrugged his shoulders, sighed, shook his head reproachfully, and consoled himself with the thought that we should all have to fight the counter-revolution anyway, no matter what departments of the government we were in. But my going over to the press was also firmly opposed by Svyerdlov; Bukharin, he said, was the man for that. “Lev Davydovich should be set up against the rest of Europe. Let him take charge of foreign affairs.”

“What foreign affairs will we have now?” retorted Lenin. But reluctantly he finally agreed, and I, likewise with reluctance, consented. And thus, at the instigation of Svyerdlov, I came to head the Soviet diplomacy for a quarter of a year.

The commissariat of foreign affairs actually meant freedom from departmental work. To comrades who offered their help, I almost invariably suggested that they look for a more gratifying field for their energy. One of them later gave, in his memoirs, a fairly juicy report of a conversation he had with me soon after the Soviet government was formed. “What diplomatic work are we apt to have?” I said to him, according to his account. “I will issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world, and then shut up shop.” My interlocutor was genuinely hurt by my lack of diplomatic consciousness. I had of course intentionally exaggerated my point of view, because I wanted to emphasize the fact that the centre of gravity was not in diplomacy at that time.

The principal tasks were to develop the October revolution further, extend it to the entire country, beat off the raid against Petrograd by Kerensky and General Krasnov, and fight the counter-revolution. These problems we were solving outside of the departments, and my collaboration with Lenin was most intimate and continuous at all times.

Lenin’s room in the Smolny was at the opposite end of the building from my own. The corridor that connected, or rather divided, them was so long that Lenin jestingly suggested that we establish communication by bicycle. We were connected by telephone, and several times each day I would walk the endless corridor that looked like an ant-hill to Lenin’s room for our conferences. A young sailor who was known as Lenin’s secretary was constantly running between us, bringing me Lenin’s notes, which consisted of two or three firmly expressed sentences, with the more important words underscored two or three times and the final question aimed pointblank. Often the notes were accompanied by drafts of decrees that required immediate comment. The archives of the Soviet of People’s Commissaries hold a great many documents of that period, some written by Lenin, some by me — Lenin’s texts with my amendments, or my proposals with Lenin’s additions.

During the first period — roughly speaking, until August, 1918 — I was active in the general work of the Soviet of People’s Commissaries. During the Smolny period, Lenin was eagerly impatient to answer all problems of economic, political, administrative and cultural life by decrees. In this he was guided not by any passion for bureaucratic method, but rather by a desire to unfold the party’s programme in the language of power. He knew that revolutionary decrees were only partially carried out. But to insure full execution and control for these measures, a properly functioning machine was required, as well as time and experience. No one could tell how much time we would have at our disposal. During that first period, the decrees were really more propaganda than actual administrative measures. Lenin was in a hurry to tell the people what the new power was, what it was after, and how it intended to accomplish its aims. He went from question to question with a magnificent tirelessness; he called small conferences, commissioned experts to make in quiries, and dug into books himself. And I helped him.

Lenin’s conviction of continuity in the work that he was doing was very strong. As a great revolutionary, he understood the meaning of historical tradition. It was impossible to tell in advance whether we were to stay in power or be overthrown. And so it was necessary, whatever happened, to make our revolutionary experience as clear as possible for all men. Others would come, and, with the help of what we had outlined and begun, would take another step forward. That was the meaning of the legislative work during the first period. That was why Lenin insisted impatiently on the earliest possible publication of the classics of socialism and materialism in Russian translation. He was anxious to have as many revolutionary monuments erected as possible, even if they were of the simplest sort, like busts or memorial tablets to be placed in all the towns, and, if it could be managed, in the villages as well, so that what had happened might be fixed in the people’s imagination, and leave the deepest possible furrow in memory.

Every meeting of the Soviet of People’s Commissaries 1, which changed its membership often at first, presented a picture of an immense legislative improvisation. Everything had to proceed from the beginning. There were no “precedents,” since history had none to offer. Lenin presided indefatigably at the Soviet for five and six hours on end, and the meetings of the People’s Commissaries were held every day. As a rule, matters were brought up for consideration without previous preparation, and almost always as urgent business. Often the substance of the question discussed was not known either to the members of the Soviet or to the chairman before the meeting opened. The debates were always condensed, only ten minutes being allowed for the opening report. Nevertheless, Lenin always sensed the necessary course. To save time, he would send very short notes to the members present, asking for information on this or that subject. These notes would reveal a large and very interesting epistolary element in the legislative technic of Lenin’s Soviet of Commissaries. But unfortunately the majority have disappeared, because the reply in most cases was written on the reverse side of the paper, and the note was usually destroyed at once by the chairman. At the proper moment, Lenin would announce his resolutions, always with an intentional sharpness; after that the debates would cease or else would give way to practical suggestions. In the end, Lenin’s “points” were usually taken as the basis for the decree.

Besides other qualities, a great creative imagination was necessary to guide this work. One of the most valuable powers of such an imagination is the ability to visualize people, objects, and events as they really are, even if one has never seen them.

To combine separate little strokes caught on the wing, to supplement them by means of unformulated laws of correspondence and likelihood, and in this way to recreate a certain sphere of human life in all its concrete reality, basing everything upon experience in life and upon theory that is the imagination that a legislator, an administrator, a leader must have, especially in a period of revolution. Lenin’s strength was chiefly this power of realistic imagination.

It is hardly necessary to say that in this fever of creative legislation there were many blunders and contradictions. But, taken as a whole, Lenin’s decrees of the Smolny period, that is, of the most stormy and chaotic period of the revolution, will be pre served forever in history as the proclamations of a new world. Not only sociologists and historians, but future legislators as well, will draw repeatedly from this source.

In the meantime, practical problems especially problems of civil war, food-supply and transport were coming more and more urgently to the fore. Special extraordinary commissions were created to face these new questions for the first time and to set in motion some department or other that was helplessly marking time at the threshold of the problem. I had to preside over many of these commissions: the food-supply commission of which Tzyurupa, enrolled for the first time in government work, was a member the transport commission, the one for publications, and others.

The diplomatic department, with the exception of the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, took very little of my time. The business proved a bit more complicated than I had expected, however. Even in the very first days, I found myself unexpectedly in diplomatic negotiations with the Eiffel Tower! During the uprising, we had been too rushed to pay heed to the foreign radios. But now, as the People’s Commissary for foreign affairs, I had to watch the reaction of the capitalist world toward the revolution. It is quite unnecessary to say that no greetings reached us from anywhere. The Berlin government, although it was ready to flirt with the Bolsheviks, set up interference from its Nauen station when the Tsarskoye Syelo station was broadcasting my statement about our victory over Kerensky’s troops. But if Berlin and Vienna were still vacillating between enmity to the revolution and the hope of concluding a profitable peace, the rest of the world not only those countries engaged in war, but the neutral ones as well echoed, in their respective languages, the sentiments of the ruling classes of the old Russia which we had overthrown. In this chorus the Eiffel Tower stood out for its very fury. In those days, it spoke even in Russian, obviously seeking some direct appeal to the hearts of the Russian people. Sometimes, when I read the Paris radios, I thought that Clémenceau himself must be sitting on top of the tower. I knew him as a journalist well enough to recognize his spirit, if not his style. The hatred in those radios almost choked in its own venom; malice reached its utmost limit. Sometimes it seemed as if the radio-scorpion on the Eiffel Tower would sting its head with its own tail.

We had the Tsarskoye Syelo station at our disposal, and so there was nothing to impose silence upon us. For several days I dictated answers to Cémenceau’s abuse. I knew enough of the political history of France to characterize the principal dramatis personae none too flatteringly. I reminded them of certain forgotten facts in their past history, beginning with the Panama business. For several days a tense duel raged between Paris and the Tsarskoye Syelo station. Ether, being a neutral agent, conscientiously transmitted the arguments of both sides. And what happened? Even I had not expected such quick results. Paris changed its tone abruptly; henceforth it expressed itself in a still hostile but civil manner. Later I often remembered with pleasure that I had begun my diplomatic activity by teaching the Eiffel Tower good manners.

On November 18, General Judson, the chief of the American mission, made an unexpected call on me at the Smolny. He informed me that he was not yet able to speak in the name of the American government, but he hoped that everything would be “all right.” Did the Soviet government intend to work toward the conclusion of the war in conjunction with the Allies? I replied that in view of the complete publicity of the forthcoming negotiations, the Allies would be able to watch their progress and join them at any stage. In conclusion, the peace-loving General said: “The time for protests and threats against the Soviet power has passed, if there ever was such a time.” But, as we know, one swallow, even if it has the rank of general, does not make a summer.

My first and last meeting with the French ambassador, Noulens, took place early in December. A former Radical deputy, he had been sent to establish friendly relations with the February revolution, in place of the declared monarchist, Paléologue, a Byzantine in more than name, whom the Republic had used to keep her friendship with the Czar. Why Noulens and not some one else was chosen, I do not know. But he did not raise my opinion of the rulers of human destiny. The conference, arranged at his initiative, brought no results. After vacillating for a while, Clémenceau finally went over to the barbed-wire regime.

I did not have a friendly interview with the head of the French mission, General Niessel, in my office at the Smolny. He had been exercising his aggressiveness in rearguard actions. Under Kerensky, he had been accustomed to command, and he did not want to unlearn this bad habit. To begin with, I had to ask him to leave the Smolny. Presently, relations with the French mission became even more difficult. The information bureau attached to the mission became a factory for the most disgusting insinuations against the revolution. In all the hostile papers, cabled reports “from Stockholm” began to appear daily, reports that excelled each other in fantastic invention, malice, and sheer stupidity. When questioned as to the source of the “Stockholm” telegrams, the editors of the papers pointed to the French military mission. I asked for an official explanation from General Niessel, and on December 22, he replied in a truly remarkable document.

“Numerous journalists of various shades of opinion,” wrote the General, “call at the military mission for information. I am authorized to give them information as to military events on the western front of the war, as to Salonika, Asia, and as to the situation in France. At one [?] of these interviews, one [?] of the young officers allowed himself to communicate a rumor which spread through the city [?] and whose origin was attributed to Stockholm . . . ” In conclusion, the General promised vaguely “to take steps to prevent such oversights [?] in the future.”

This was too much. We had not taught the Paris radio station the rules of decency only to allow General Niessel to create a subsidiary tower of lies in Moscow. The same day I wrote to Niessel:

“1. In view of the fact that the propaganda bureau called the bureau of ‘information’ at the French military mission has acted as a source for the dissemination of wilfully false rumors, with the object of spreading confusion and chaos in the public mind, this bureau is to be closed at once.

“2. The ‘young officer’ who fabricated lying reports is requested to leave Russian territory at once. I request you to communicate the name of this officer to me without delay.

3. The receiving installation of the radio telegraph is to be removed from the mission.

4. The French officers in the civil-war zone are to be recalled immediately to Petrograd, by an order to be published in the press.

5. I request you to inform me of all steps undertaken by the mission in connection with this letter.

People’s Commissary for Foreign Affairs,
L. TROTSKY

The “young officer” was brought out of his anonymity and left Russia as a scapegoat. The radio receiving installation was removed. The information bureau was closed. The officers were recalled to the centre. But this was only petty, front-line skirmishing. It gave way to a brief and unstable truce, after I had gone over to the Commissariat of War. The too forthright General Niessel was replaced by the insinuating General Lavergne. The truce did not last long, however. The French military mission, like the French diplomacy, soon became the centre of every plot and armed attack against the Soviet power. But this did not develop openly until after Brest-Litovsk, during the Moscow period, in the spring and summer of 1918.

1. The Soviet (Council) of People’s Commissaries is the executive and directive Organ of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. The Central Executive Committee acts as a legislative body between the sessions of the Congresses of Soviets. The Central Executive Committee, or, as it is sometimes called, the All-Union Central Executive Committee, is not to be confused with the “Central Committee,” often mentioned in the text; the latter is that of the Russian Cornmunist Party. — Trans.

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