My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 40

The Conspiracy of the Epigones

It was the early weeks of 1923, and the twelfth congress was drawing near. There remained little hope that Lenin could take part in it. The question of who was to make the principal political report arose. At the meeting of the Politbureau, Stalin said, “Trotsky, of course.” He was instantly supported by Kalinin, Rykov, and, obviously against his will, by Kamenev. I objected.

“The party will be ill at ease if any one of us should attempt, as it were personally, to take the place of the sick Lenin. This time let us manage without an introductory political report, and say what we have to say in connection with the separate items of the agenda. Besides,” I added, “there are differences between us on economic questions.”

“I don’t see any differences,” Stalin replied, while Kalinin added: “On almost all questions, the Politbureau adopts your proposals.” Zinoviev was on leave in the Caucasus. The question remained undecided. At any rate, I agreed to report on industry.

Stalin knew that a storm was menacing him from Lenin’s direction, and tried in every way to ingratiate himself with me. He kept repeating that the political report should be made by the most influential and popular member of the Central Committee after Lenin: i.e., Trotsky, and that the party expected it and would not understand anything else. In his feigned at tempts at friendliness, he seemed even more alien than in his frank exhibitions of enmity, the more so because his motives were so obvious.

Zinoviev soon returned from the Caucasus. At that time, very close factional conferences were continually being held behind my back. Zinoviev demanded that he be allowed to make the political report. Kamenev was asking the “old Bolsheviks,” the majority of whom had at some time left the party for ten or fifteen years: “Are we to allow Trotsky to become the one person empowered to direct the party and the state?” They began more frequently to rake up my past and my old disagreements with Lenin; it became Zinoviev’s specialty. In the meantime, Lenin’s condition took a sharp turn for the worse, so that danger no longer threatened there. The trio decided that the political report should be made by Zinoviev. I raised no objection when, after due preparation behind the scenes, the question was put before the Politbureau. Everything bore the stamp of a temporary arrangement. No disagreements were manifest, just as no independent line could be found anywhere in the policy of the trio. My theses on industry were at first accepted without discussion. But when it seemed certain that there was no prospect of Lenin’s returning to work, the trio made a sharp about-face, frightened by the too peaceful preparations for the congress. It was looking now for a chance to line itself up against me in the upper circle of the party. At the last moment before the congress, Kamenev proposed the addition of a clause about the peasantry to my resolution, which had already been approved. There would be no sense in dwelling on the subject-matter of this amendment, which had no theoretical or political importance, but was designed as an act of “provocation,” to provide the basis for accusations — so far, only behind the scenes — of my “under appreciation” of the peasantry. Three years after his break with Stalin, Kamenev, with his characteristic good-humored cynicism, told me how they had cooked up this accusation, which of course none of its authors took seriously.

To operate with abstract moral criteria in politics is notoriously hopeless. Political morals proceed from politics itself, and are one of its functions. Only a politics that serves a great historical task can insure itself morally irreproachable methods. On the contrary, the lowering of the level of political aims inevitably leads to moral decline. Figaro, as every one knows, refused to differentiate at all between politics and intrigue. And he lived before the advent of the era of parliamentarism! When the moralists of the bourgeois democracy attempt to perceive the source of bad political morals in revolutionary dictatorship as such, one can only shrug one’s shoulders compassionately. It would be very instructive to make a cinematic record of modem parliamentarism, if but for a single year. But the camera should be placed not alongside the president of the chamber of deputies at the moment when a patriotic resolution is being adopted, but in quite other places: in the offices of bankers and industrialists, in the private rooms of editorial offices, in the palaces of the princes of the church, in the salons of political ladies, in the ministries — and, with it, let the eye of the camera record also the secret correspondence of the party leaders. On the other hand, it would be perfectly right to say that very different demands should be imposed on the political morals of a revolutionary dictatorship and on those of parliamentarism. The sharpness of the weapons and methods of dictatorship demands watchful antiseptics. A dirty slipper is nothing to fear, but an unclean razor is very dangerous. The very methods of the “trio” were, in my eyes, a sign of political backsliding.

The chief difficulty that the conspirators faced was that of coming out openly against me before the masses of the people. The workers knew Zinoviev and Kamenev, and listened to them readily. But their behavior during 1917 was still too fresh in every one’s memory. They had no moral authority in the party. Stalin, beyond the narrow circle of the old Bolsheviks, was al most unknown. Some of my friends used to say to me: “They will never dare to come out against you in the open. In the minds of the people you are too inseparably bound to Lenin’s name. It is impossible to erase the October revolution, or the Red army, or the civil war.” I did not agree with this. In politics, and especially in revolutionary politics, popular names of acknowledged authority play a very important, sometimes gigantic, but yet not decisive part. In the final analysis, the fate of personal authority is determined by the deeper processes going on in the masses. During the rising tide of the revolution the slanders against the Bolshevist leaders only strengthened the Bolshevists. During the ebb tide of the revolution the slanders against the same men were able to provide the weapons of victory for the Thermidorian reaction.

The objective processes in the country and in the world arena were helping my opponents. But their task nevertheless was no easy one. The literature, press and agitators of the party were still living on the memories of the preceding days passed under the sign of Lenin and Trotsky. It was necessary to turn all this around 180 degrees, not at once, of course, but by several stages. To show the extent of the turn, one must give at least a few illustrations of the prevailing tone of the party press toward the leading figures of the revolution.

On October 14, 1922, at the time when Lenin had already returned to work after his first stroke, Radek wrote in the Pravda: “If Comrade Lenin may be called the reason of the revolution, dominating through his transmission of will, Comrade Trotsky may be characterized as the iron will bridled by reason. Trotsky’s speech sounded like a bell summoning to work. All its importance, all its meaning, as well as the meaning of our work during the last few years, appears very dearly.” And so forth. It is true that Radek’s personal exuberance became a by word; he was capable of saying one thing and just as capable of following it with another. Much more important is the fact that these lines were printed in the central organ of the party while Lenin was still alive without jarring on any one’s ears.

In 1923, with the conspiracy of the trio already a fact, Lu nacharsky was one of the first to try to raise Zinoviev’s pres tige. But how did he set about his work? “Of course,” he wrote in his character sketch of Zinoviev, “Lenin and Trotsky have be come the most popular (whether loved or hated) personalities of our epoch, perhaps of the whole world. Zinoviev somewhat re cedes before them, but then Lenin and Trotsky had for so long been regarded in our ranks as men of such great gifts, as such undisputed leaders, that no one was much surprised at their amazing growth during the revolution.”

If I quote these pompous panegyrics in somewhat doubtful taste, I do it only because I need them as elements in the general picture, or, if you like, as evidence for a court trial. It repels me to have to quote yet a third witness, Yaroslavsky, whose pane gyrics are perhaps even more insufferable than his calumnies. This man now plays a most important r6le in the party, measur ing by his insignificant stature the depth of the downfall of its leadership. Yaroslavsky rose to his present position entirely by his slandering of me. As the official corrupter of the history of the party, he represents the past as an unbroker. struggle of Trotsky against Lenin. It goes without saying that Trotsky “under-appreciated” the peasantry, “ignored” the peasantry, “did not notice” the peasantry. But in February of 1923 — that is, at a time when Yaroslavsky must already have been familiar with my relations to Lenin and my views on the peasantry, in a long article dealing with the first steps of my literary activity (the years 1900-1902) he characterized my past in the following way:

“The brilliant work of Comrade Trotsky as a writer and publi cist has earned him the world-name of ’prince of pamphieteers,’ as he was called by the English author, George Bernard Shaw. Those who have watched his activity for a quarter of a century, will find that his talent shone with particular brightness.


and so on and so forth. “Many readers must have seen the much-reproduced photograph of the youthful Trotsky . . . etc. Under this high forehead there was already seething even then a stormy flow of images, thoughts, and impressions which sometimes car ried Comrade Trotsky a bit away from the highroad of history, at times either forcing him to choose paths too roundabout or, on the contrary, to attempt fearlessly to break through where no path was possible. But in all these efforts to find the right way, we had before us a man profoundly devoted to the revo lution, matured for the rôle of a tribune, with a tongue as sharp and flexible as steel, that cuts down the opponent . . . ” And so forth.

“The Siberians were carried away with enthusiasm,” Yaroslavsky gushes with an excess of zeal, “after reading these brilliant articles, and waited impatiently for their appearance. Only a few knew their author, and those who knew Trotsky were the last to imagine at that time that he would be one of the recognized leaders of the most revolutionary army and the greatest revolution in the world.” The case of my ignoring the peasantry fares, if possible, even worse at the hands of Yaroslavsky. The first of my literary works was dedicated to the peasants. Here is what Yaroslavsky says about it:

“Trotsky could not stay in a Siberian village without exploring all the petty details of its life. First of all, he turns his attention to the administrative machinery of the Siberian village. In a series of articles, he gives a brilliant characterization of this machinery . . . ” And farther on: “Around himself, Trotsky saw only the village. He suffered over its needs. He was oppressed by its benighted condition, its outlawry.” Yaroslavsky demands that my articles on country life be included in the textbooks. All this in February, 1923, the same month when the version of my inattention to the country was being created for the first time. But Yaroslavsky was then in Siberia, and therefore not yet well informed about the new “Leninism.”

The last example that I want to quote concerns Stalin himself. As early as the occasion of the first anniversary of the revolution, he wrote an article which, though disguised, was directed straight at me. In explanation, one must remember that during the preparation for the October insurrection, Lenin was hiding in Finland; Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, and Kalinin were op posed to an uprising, and no one knew anything about Stalin. As a result, the party connected the October revolution chiefly with my name. During the first anniversary of the October revolution, Stalin made an attempt to weaken this impression by setting up against me the general leadership by the Central Committee. But to make his account at all acceptable, he was obliged to write:

“The entire work of the practical organization of the uprising was carried on under the immediate direction of the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky. One may state without hesitation that the party was indebted first and foremost to Comrade Trotsky for the garrison’s prompt going over to the Soviet and for the able organization of the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee.”

If Stalin wrote in this vein, it was because at that time even he could not write in any other way. It needed years of unbridled baiting before Stalin could venture to state in public:

“Comrade Trotsky did not and could not play any special role either in the party or in the October revolution.” When the contradiction was pointed out to him, he replied by merely redoubling his rudeness.

The “trio” could under no circumstances pit itself against me. It could pit against me only Lenin. But for this it was necessary that Lenin himself no longer be able to oppose the trio. In other words, the success of their campaign required either a Lenin who was fatally ill, or his embalmed corpse in a mausoleum. But even this was not enough. It was necessary that I too be out of the fighting ranks during the campaign. This happened in the fall of 1923.

I am not dealing here with the philosophy of history, but re counting my life against the background of the events with which it was bound up. But I cannot help noting how obligingly the accidental helps the historical law. Broadly speaking, the entire historical process is a refraction of the historical law through the accidental. In the language of biology, one might say that the historical law is realized through the natural selection of accidents. On this foundation, there develops that conscious human activity which subjects accidents to a process of artificial selection.

But at this point, I must interrupt my account to tell some thing about my friend Ivan Vasllyevich Zaytzev, from the village of Kaloshino, on the river Dubna. This locality is known as Zabolotye (Beyond the Swamps), and, as its name suggests, is rich in wild game. Here the river Dubna floods the country over wide areas. Swamps, lakes, and shallow marshes, framed by reeds, stretch along in a wide ribbon for almost forty kilometres. In the spring, the place is visited by geese, storks, ducks of all kinds, curlew, snipe, and all the rest of the swamp brotherhood. Two kilometres away in the small woods, between hummocks of moss, woodcocks are clucking over the red bilberry shrubs. With a single short oar, Ivan Vasilyevich drives his hollow canoe along the narrow furrow between the banks of swamp. The furrow had been dug no one knows when, perhaps two or three hundred years or even longer ago, and it must be dredged out every year to prevent its being sucked in. We are obliged to leave Kaloshino at midnight to get to the tent before dawn. With every step, the peat bog lifts its wobbling belly. Once this used to frighten me. But Ivan Vasilyevich said to me on my very first visit: step with out fear, people do get drowned in the lake, but nobody has ever lost his life on the swamp.

The canoe is so light and shaky that it is safer to lie on one’s back motionless, especially if there is a wind blowing. Boatmen usually stand on their knees for safety. Only Ivan Vasilyevich, though lame in one leg, stands upright. Ivan Vasilyevich is the duck-lord of these lands. His father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather were all duck-men. Probably some ancestor of his supplied ducks, geese, and swans to the table of Ivan the Terrible. Zaytzev has no interest in moorcocks, woodcocks, or curlews. “Not of my guild,” he will say cursorily. But he knows the duck through and through, its feathers, its voice, its soul. Standing in his moving boat, Ivan Vasilyevich picks up from the water a feather, then a second and a third, and after looking at them, declares:

“We shall go to Gushcbino, the duck rested there in the evening.”

“How do you know?”

“The feather, you see, floats on the water, it is not soaked yet; a fresh feather: the duck was flying in the evening, and there is no other place she could fly to but Gushchino.”

And so, whereas other sportsmen bring back a brace or two, Ivan and I bring five or even eight braces. His the merit, mine the credit. It often happens so in life. In the reed tent, Ivan Vasilyevich would put his rough palm to his lips and begin quacking like a duck, so tenderly that the most cautious drake, shot at many a time, would succumb to the spell and come swinging around the tent or alight plop on the water a few paces off, so that one actually felt ashamed to shoot it. Zaytzev notices every thing, knows everything, senses everything. “Get ready,” he whispers to me, “the drake is heading right toward you.” I see the two commas of his wings far off over the woods, but cannot figure out that this is a drake — such mysteries are open only to Ivan Vasilyevich, the great master of the duck-guild. But the drake is really heading toward me. If you miss, Ivan Vasilyevich will emit a low, polite groan — but it is better never to have been born than to hear this groan behind you.

Before the war, Zaytzev worked in a textile factory. In the winter he now goes to Moscow to work as a fireman, or in a power station. During the first years after the revolution, battles were going on all over the country, woods and peat-bogs were burning, the fields were bare, and the ducks stopped flying. Zaytzev had his doubts then about the new regime. But after 1920, the ducks came again, this time in hordes, and Ivan Vasilyevich fully recognized the Soviet power.

About two kilometres from here, a small Soviet wick factory ran for a year. Its director was the former chauffeur of my military train. Zaytzev’s wife and daughter used to bring home about thirty roubles a month apiece. This was untold wealth. But the factory soon supplied the whole district with wicks and then closed down, and the duck again became the basis of the family’s well-being.

One Mayday, Ivan Vasilyevich found himself in a large Moscow theatre, among the guests of honor on the stage. Ivan Vasilyevich sat in the first row, with his lame leg under him, showing a little embarrassment but, as always, a marked dignity, and listened to my report. He had been brought there by Muralov, with whom I usually shared the joys and sorrows of game-shooting. Ivan Vasilyevich was pleased with the report, understood absolutely everything, and recounted it all back at Kaloshino. This cemented the friendship of the three of us even more solidly. It should be noted that the old hunters, especially from the parts near Moscow, are all spoiled; they rubbed shoulders with the great of the earth and are masters of flattery, lying, and braggadocio. But Ivan Vasilyevich is different. He has a great deal of simplicity, a power of observation, and personal dignity. It is because he is not at heart a trader, but an artist.

Lenin also went hunting with Zaytzev, and Ivan Vasilyevich would always point out the place in a wooden shed where Lenin had lain on the hay. Lenin was passionately fond of game hunting, but he rarely went for a hunt. When he did, he usually got excited, in spite of his great self-control in important things. Just as great strategists usually are bad chess-players, so men with a genius for political marksmanship can be mediocre shots. I remember how Lenin, almost in despair, as if conscious of some thing that could never be repaired, complained to me of missing a fox at twenty-five paces in a drive-hunt. I understood him, and my heart swelled with sympathy.

Lenin and I never had a chance to go hunting together, though we agreed to do so and made firm plans for it many times. In the first years after the revolution, there was generally no time for this sort of thing. Lenin occasionally managed to leave Moscow for the open spaces, but I was hardly ever free of the railway carriage, the staffs, or the automobile, and I did not once have a shotgun in my hands. And in the later years, after the end of the civil war, something unforeseen was always cropping up to prevent one or the other of us from keeping our agreement. Later on, Lenin’s health began to give away. A short time before he was laid low, we arranged to meet on the river Shosha in Tver province. But Lenin’s automobile got stuck on the country road, and I waited for him in vain. When he recovered from his first stroke, he fought insistently to go shooting game. Finally the doctors yielded, on the condition that he not overexert him self. At some agronomic conference, Lenin sidled up to Muralov. “You and Trotsky often go game shooting together, don’t you?”


“And do you fare well?”


“Take me with you, will you?”

“But are you allowed to go?” Muralov asks cautiously.

“Of course I am allowed . . . So you will take me?”

“How can I refuse to take you, Vladimir Ilyich?”

“I’ll give you a ring, shall I?”

“We’ll be looking forward to it.”

But Lenin did not ring. His illness rang a second time instead. Then death.

All this digression has been necessary to explain how and why one of the Sundays in October, 1923, found me in Zabolotye, on the bog, among the reeds. There was a slight frost that night and I sat in the tent in felt boots. But in the morning the sun was warm and the bog thawed. The automobile was waiting for me on the rise of land. The chauffeur, Davydov, with whom I had gone shoulder-to-shoulder throughout the entire civil war, was as usual consumed with impatience to learn what game I had. From the canoe to the automobile I had to walk about a hundred steps, not more. But the moment I stepped onto the bog in my felt boots my feet were in cold water. By the time I leaped up to the automobile, my feet were quite cold. Sitting beside Davydov, I took off my boots and tried to warm my feet by the heat of the motor. But the cold got the better of me. I had to stay in bed. After the influenza, some cryptogenic temperature set in. The doctors ordered me to stay in bed, and thus I spent the rest of the autumn and winter. This means that all through the discussion of “Trotskyism” in 1923, I was ill. One can foresee a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting-trip for wild ducks.

Lenin was laid up at Gorki; I was in the Kremlin. The epigones were widening the circle of the conspiracy. At first they proceeded cautiously and insinuatingly, adding to their praise ever larger doses of poison. Even Zinoviev, the most impatient of them, surrounded his slander with reservations. “The authority of Comrade Trotsky is known to everyone,” Zinoviev was saying at the party conference in Petrograd on December 15, 1923, “as well as his services. In our midst, there is no need of dwelling on it. But errors remain errors. When I erred, the party pulled me up sharply enough.” And so on, in that cowardly yet aggressive tone that was for so long the one characteristic of the conspirators. Only after a deeper sounding of their ground, and a further occupying of positions, did they grow bolder.

A whole science was created for fabricating artificial reputations, composing fantastic biographies, and boosting the appointed leaders. A special small science was devoted to the question of the honorary presidium. Since October, it had been the custom at the meetings to elect Lenin and Trotsky to the honorary presidium. The combination of these two names was included in every-day speech, in articles, poems, and folk-ditties. It now became necessary to separate the two names, at least mechanically, so that later on it might be possible to pit one against the other politically. Now the presidium began to in chide all the members of the Politbureau. Then they began to be placed on the list in alphabetical order. Later on, the alphabetical order was abandoned in favor of the new hierarchy of leaders. The first place came to be accorded to Zinoviev — in that Petrograd set the example. Some time later, the honorary presidiums would appear here and there without Trotsky at all. Stormy protests from the body of the gathering always greeted this, and on occasion the chairman was obliged to explain the omission of my name as a mistake. But the newspaper report was of course silent on this point. Then the first place began to be given to Stalin. If the chairman was not clever enough to guess what was required of him, he was invariably corrected in the newspapers. Careers were made and unmade in accordance with the arrangement of names in the honorary presidium. This work, the most persistent and systematic of all, was justified by the necessity of fighting against the “cult of the leaders.” At the Moscow conference of January, 1924, Pryeobrazhensky said to the epigones: “Yes, we are against the cult of the leaders, but we are also against practising, instead of the cult of one leader, the cult of others merely of smaller stature.”

“Those were hard days,” my wife writes in her memoirs, “days of tense fighting for Lev Davydovich at the Politbureau against the rest of the members. He was alone and ill, and had to fight them all. Owing to his illness, the meetings were held in our apartment; I sat in the adjoining bedroom and heard his speeches. He spoke with his whole being; it seemed as if with every such speech he lost some of his strength — he spoke with so much ‘blood.’ And in reply, I heard cold, indifferent answers. Everything, of course, had been decided in advance, so what was the need of getting excited? After each of these meetings, L.D.’s temperature mounted; he came out of his study soaked through, and undressed and went to bed. His linen and clothes had to be dried as if he had been drenched in a rainstorm. At that time, the meetings were frequent and were held in L.D.’s room, whose faded, old carpet appeared in my dream every night in the shape of a live panther: the meetings during the day became nightmares. Such was the first stage of the struggle be fore it came out into the open.”

In the later struggle by Zinoviev and Kamenev against Stalin, the secrets of this period were disclosed by the members of the conspiracy themselves. For it was a real conspiracy. A secret political bureau of seven was formed; it comprised all the members of the official Politbureau except me, and included also Kuybyshev, the present chairman of the Supreme Economic Council. All questions were decided in advance at that secret centre, where the members were bound by mutual vows. They undertook not to engage in polemics against one another and at the same time to seek opportunities to attack me. There were similar centres in the local organizations, and they were connected with the Moscow “seven” by strict discipline. For communication, special codes were used. This was a well-organized illegal group within the party, directed originally against one man. Responsible workers in the party and state were systematically selected by the single criterion: Against Trotsky. During the prolonged “interregnum” created by Lenin’s illness, this work was carried on tirelessly but still under cover, so that in the event of Lenin’s recovery, the mined bridges could be preserved intact. The conspirators acted by hints. Candidates for posts were required to guess what was wanted of them. Those who “guessed” went up the ladder. In this war a special “careerism” was developed, which later on received unashamed the name of “anti-Trotakyism.” Lenin’s death freed the conspirators and allowed them to come out into the open. The process of personal selection descended a rung lower. It now became impossible to obtain a post as director of a plant, as secretary of a party local, as chairman of a rural executive committee, as bookkeeper or typist, unless one had proved one’s anti-Trotskyism.

The members of the party who raised their voices in protest against this conspiracy became the victims of treacherous attacks, made for reasons entirely remote and frequently invented. On the other hand, the morally unstable elements, who were being mercilessly driven out of the party during the first five years, now squared themselves by a single hostile remark against Trotsky. From the end of 1923, the same work was carried on in all the parties of the Communist International; certain leaders were dethroned and others appointed in their stead solely on the basis of their attitude toward Trotsky. A strenuous artificial selection was being effected, a selection not of the best but of the most suitable. The general policy became one of a replacement of independent and gifted men by mediocrities who owed their posts entirely to the apparatus. It was as the supreme expression of the mediocrity of the apparatus that Stalin himself rose to his position.

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