My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 6

The Break

The political development of Russia, beginning with the middle of the last century, is measured by decades. The sixties after the Crimean War were an epoch of enlightenment, our short lived eighteenth century. During the following decade the intelligentsia were already endeavoring to draw practical conclusions from the theories of enlightenment. The decade began with the movement of going down to the people with revolutionary propaganda; it ended with terrorism. The seventies passed into history mainly as the years of “The People’s Will.” The best elements of that generation went up in the blaze of the dynamite warfare. The enemy had held its positions. Then followed a decade of decline, of disenchantment and pessimism, of religious and moral searchings the eighties. Under the veil of reaction, however, the forces of capitalism were blindly at work. The nineties brought with them workers’ strikes and Marxist ideas. The new tide reached its culmination in the first decade of the new century in the year 1905.

The eighties passed bearing the mark of the Supreme Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, Pobedonostzev, the classical upholder of autocratic power and universal immutability. The liberals regarded him as the pure type of the bureaucrat who did not know life. But this was not true. Pobedonostzev evaluated the contradictions hidden in the depths of the national life far more soberly and seriously than did the liberals. He understood that once the screws were loosened, the pressure from below would tear off the social roof in its entirety and all that not only Pobedonostzev but the liberals as well regarded as the pillars of culture and ethics would dissolve into dust. In his own way, Pobedonostzev saw more profoundly than the liberals. It was not his fault that the processes of history proved mightier than the Byzantine system which he, the inspirer of Alexander III and Nicholas II, had defended with such force.

In the dead eighties, when the liberals thought that every thing had become lifeless, Pobedonostzev still felt beneath his feet a ground-swell subterranean rumblings. He was not calm even in the calmest years of the reign of Alexander III. “It has been and still is hard, and it is bitter to confess that it will continue so,” he wrote to one of his trusted men. “The burden upon my soul does not vanish, for I see and feel every hour the temper of the time amid what has come over the people . . . Comparing the present with the distant past we feel that we are living in some strange world where everything is going backward to primeval chaos and we feel ourselves help less in the midst of all this ferment.” Pobedonostzev lived to see the year 1905, when the subterranean forces that had so greatly terrified him broke out, and the first deep cracks ap peared in the foundation and walls of the entire old structure.

The year 1891, memorable for the crop failure and the famine, marks the official date of the political breaking-point in the country. The new decade centred around the labor question. And not in Russia alone. In 1891 the German Social-Democratic Party adopted its Erfurt programme. Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical dealing with the condition of the working man. Wilhelm was obsessed by social ideas which consisted of a mixture of insane ignorance and bureaucratic romanticism. The rapprochement between the Czar and France guaranteed the inflow of capital funds into Russia. The appointment of Witte to the post of Minister of Finance ushered in an era of industrial protectionism. The stormy development of capitalism bred that very “temper of the time” which had tormented Pobedonostzev with uneasy forebodings.

The political shift in the direction of action cropped up first of all in the midst of the intelligentsia. More and more frequently and decisively did the young Marxists resort to action. At the same time the dormant populist movement began to show signs of awakening. In 1893 the first legally printed Marxist work, written by Struve, made its appearance. I was then in my fourteenth year, and still very remote from these matters.

In 1894 Alexander III died. As was usual on such occasions, the liberal hopes sought support from the heir to the throne. He replied with a kick. At the audience granted to the Zemstvo leaders, the young Czar described their aspirations for a constitution as “nonsensical dreams.” This speech was published in the press. The word-of-mouth report was that the paper from which the Czar had read his speech said “groundless dreams,” but in his agitation the Czar had expressed himself more harshly than he intended. I was fifteen at the time. I was unreservedly on the side of the nonsensical dreams, and not on that of the Czar. Vaguely I believed in a gradual development which would bring backward Russia nearer to advanced Europe. Beyond that my political ideas did not go.

Commercial, multi-racial, loudly colored and noisy Odessa remained, to an extraordinary degree, far behind other centres in a political sense. In St. Petersburg, in Moscow, in Kiev, there were already in existence at that time numerous socialist circles in the educational institutions. Odessa had none. In 1895 Friedrich Engels died. Secret reports were read at meetings held in his memory by student groups in the various cities of Russia. I was then in my sixteenth year. But I did not know even the name of Engels, and could hardly say anything definite about Marx. As a matter of fact, I probably had never heard of him.

My political frame of mind while at school was vaguely oppositionist, but no more than that. In my day, revolutionary questions were still unknown among the students. It was whispered that certain groups met at the private gymnasium maintained by the Czech, Novak; that there had been arrests; that Novak, who was our instructor in athletics, had been dismissed and replaced by an army officer. In the environment surrounding the home of the Schpentzers there was dissatisfaction, but the regime was held to be unshakable. The boldest dreamed of a constitution as possible only after several decades. As for Yanovka, the subject was unmentionable there. When I returned to the village after my graduation from school, bringing with me dim democratic ideas, Father, immediately alert, remarked with hostility: “This will not come to pass even in three hundred years.” He was convinced of the futility of all reformists’ efforts and was apprehensive for his son. In 1921, when he came to me in the Kremlin, after having escaped the Red and White perils with his life, I jestingly asked: “Do you remember what you used to say that the Czarist order was good for another three hundred years?” The old man smiled slyly and replied in Ukrainian: “This time, let your truth prevail.”

In the early nineties, the Tolstoyan tendencies began to die down among the intelligentsia. Marxism was victoriously marching upon the populist movement. Publications of all kinds were filled with the echoes of this ideological struggle. Everywhere there were references to the self-confident young people who called themselves materialists. I encountered all this for the first time in 1896.

The question of personal morals, so intimately connected with the passive ideology of the eighties, touched me in a period when “self-perfection” was to me not so much a matter of theory as an organic demand of my spiritual growth. The problem of “self-perfection,” however, quickly became bound up with the question of my outlook on the world in general, which led, in turn, to the fundamental dilemma: populism or Marxism? The conflict of these trends engrossed me, but several years later than the general break in the intellectual concepts of the country. By the time I was approaching the alphabet of economic sciences, and was raising the question in my mind as to whether Russia must go through the stage of capitalism, the Marxists of the older generation had already succeeded in finding a path to the working man and in becoming Social Democrats.

I faced the first crossroads on my path, poorly equipped politically even for a seventeen-year-old boy of that period. Too many questions confronted me all at once, without the necessary sequence and order. Restlessly I cast about me. One thing is certain: even then life had stored within my consciousness a considerable load of social protest. What did it consist of? Sympathy for the down-trodden and indignation over injustice the latter was perhaps the stronger feeling. Beginning with my earliest childhood, in all the impressions of my daily life human inequality stood out in exceptionally coarse and stark forms. Injustice often assumed the character of impudent license; human dignity was under heel at every step. It is enough for me to recall the flogging of peasants. Even before I had any theories, all these things imprinted themselves deeply on me and piled up a store of impressions of great explosive force. It was perhaps because of this that I seemed to hesitate for a while before reaching the great conclusions which I was impelled to draw from the observations of the first period of my life.

There was also another side to my development. When one generation succeeds another, the dead cling to the living. This was the case with the generation of Russian revolutionists whose early youth developed under the weight of the atmosphere of the eighties. In spite of the large perspectives held out by the new doctrines, the Marxists in reality remained imprisoned by the conservative mood of the eighties, displaying an inability to take bold initiatives, remaining inactive when confronted by obstacles, shoving the revolution into the indefinite future, and inclining generally to regard socialism as a task for centuries of evolution.

In such a home as the Schpentzers’, political criticism would have been voiced far more loudly several years before my time or several years later. To my lot fell the most stagnant years. One heard almost no conversation on political topics. Big questions were evaded. It was the same at school. Undoubtedly I imbibed a great deal of the atmosphere of the ’80s. And even afterward, when my revolutionary ideas were already taking shape, I would catch myself in an attitude of mistrust of action by the masses, taking a bookish, abstract and therefore sceptical view of the revolution. I had to combat all this within myself, by my thinking, my reading, but mainly by means of experience, until the elements of psychic inertia had been conquered within me.

There is no evil without good. Perhaps the fact that I had consciously to overcome within me the reverberations of the eighties enabled me to approach fundamental problems of mass action in a more serious, concrete and profound manner. Only that is lasting which is gained through combat. All this, how ever, is related to chapters of my story which are still far ahead.

I attended the seventh grade not in Odessa but in Nikolayev. It was a provincial town and the level of the school was lower there. But my year at Nikolayev in 1896 was the turning point of my youth, for it raised within me the question of my place in human society. I lived in a home where the children were more grown up, and already somewhat in the grip of the newer movements. It is remarkable that at first in conversations I was the stubbornest opponent of “socialist utopias.” I played the part of the skeptic who had passed beyond all that. My reaction to political questions was always one of ironic superiority. The landlady in whose home I lodged regarded me with amazement and even cited me as a model although not always quite confidently to her own children, who were a little older than I and whose tendencies were toward the Left. But it was merely an unequal struggle on my part for independent judgment. I endeavored to escape the personal influence of such young socialists as I would encounter. This losing battle lasted altogether a few months. The ideas filling the air proved stronger than I, especially since in the depths of my soul I wished for nothing better than to yield to them. My conduct underwent a radical change after several months in Nikolayev. I repudiated my assumption of conservatism and swung Leftward with such speed that it even frightened away some of my new friends. “How did it happen?” my landlady would remark. “And it was all for nothing that I held you up to my children as a model!”

I neglected my studies. The store of knowledge which I had brought from Odessa enabled me, however, to retain some how my official lead as a star student. More and more frequently I played truant. Once the inspector called on me at home to ascertain the cause of my non-attendance. I felt humiliated beyond words. But the inspector was courteous. He satisfied himself that the home in which I lived and my own room were orderly, and left peaceably. Under my mattress were several illegal political pamphlets.

In Nikolayev I met, in addition to the young people who were drawn toward Marxism, several former exiles who were under police surveillance. These were secondary figures of the period of the decline of the populist movement. At that time Social Democrats were not yet returning from exile, they were going into it. The two cross-movements gave rise to whirl pools of theory. For a time I too was drawn into them. There was an odor of putrefaction emanating from populism. Marxism repelled by its so-called “narrowness.” Burning with impatience I tried to grasp the ideas instinctively, but they were not so easy to master. I found no one about me to offer sure guidance. Every new conversation, moreover, forced me to come to the bitter, painful and desperate conclusion that I was ignorant.

I became intimately acquainted with the gardener, Shvigovsky, who was a Czech by origin. He was the first working-man I had known who subscribed to newspapers, read German, knew the classics, and participated freely in the arguments between the Marxists and the populists. His one-room cabin in the garden was the meeting-place for visiting students, former exiles and the local youths. One could obtain a forbidden book through Shvigovsky. The conversations of the exiles were punctuated with the names of the populists, Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Figner, who were treated not as legendary heroes but as real people with whom the older friends of these exiles if not they themselves were familiar. I had a feeling that I was joining a great chain as a tiny link.

I swallowed books, fearful that my entire life would not be long enough to prepare me for action. My reading was nervous, impatient and unsystematic. After wading through the illegal pamphlets of the preceding period, I passed on to Logic of John Stuart Mill, then took up Lippert’s Primitive Culture without completing Logic. The utilitarianism of Bentham seemed to me the last word in human thought. For several months I was a stanch Benthamist. In the same manner I was carried away by the realistic asthetics of Chernyshevsky. Without having finished Lippert, I threw myself upon the history of the French Revolution by Mignet. Each book lived separately for me, with no place in a unified system. My striving for a system became tense, sometimes savage. At the same time, I would be repelled by Marxism partly because it seemed a completed system.

I began to read newspapers, not as I had read them in Odessa, but with a political mind. The most authoritative daily at the time was the liberal Russkiya Vedomosti of Moscow. We studied rather than read it, beginning with the impotent, professorial editorials and ending with the scientific articles. The foreign correspondence, especially from Berlin, was the pride of the newspaper. It was from the Russkiya Vedomosti that I first formed a picture of the political life of western Europe, especially of the parliamentary parties. It is difficult to-day to recall the agitation with which we followed the speeches of Bebel and even those of Eugene Richter. And to this day I remember the phrase which Dashinsky flung in the face of the police when they entered the house of parliament: “I represent thirty thousand workers and peasants of Galicia who will dare touch me?” We pictured the Galician revolutionist as a titanic figure. The theatrical stage of parliamentarism, alas! cruelly deceived us. The successes of German socialism, the presidential elections in the United States, the free-for-alls in the Austrian Reichsrat, the intrigues of the French royalists, all of this absorbed us far more than the personal fate of any one of us.

Meanwhile my relations with my family were growing worse. On one of his trips to Nikolayev to market grain, my father somehow learned of my new acquaintances. He sensed the approach of danger, but hoped to prevent it by the power of his parental authority. We had several stormy scenes. I uncompromisingly defended my independence, my right to follow my own path. It ended with my refusing to accept material aid from home. I left my lodgings and went to live with Shvigovsky, who was now leasing another garden with a more spacious cottage. Here six of us led a communal life. During the summer one or two tubercular students seeking fresh air joined us. I began to give private lessons. We led a spartan existence, without bed-linen, and got along on stews which we prepared ourselves. We wore blue smocks, round straw hats and black canes. In town it was rumored that we had joined a secret organization. We read without method, we argued without restraint, we peered into the future passionately, and were happy in our own way.

After a while we organized a society for the distribution of useful books among the people. We collected dues and bought cheap editions, but were unable to disseminate them. In Shvigovsky’s garden there worked a hired laborer and an apprentice. We focused upon them, first of all, our efforts at enlightenment. But the laborer turned out to be a disguised gendarme who had been planted in our midst expressly to watch us. His name was Kirill Tkhorzhevsky. He had also put the apprentice in touch with the gendarmerie. The latter stole from us a large package of popular books and took it to headquarters. This beginning was clearly inauspicious, but we firmly hoped for success in the future.

I wrote a polemical article for a populist periodical in Odessa, taking issue with the first Marxist journal. The article had more epigraphs, quotations and venom than it had content. I mailed the article and a week later made a trip to find out its fate. The editor, through large glasses, eyed with sympathy an author whose head displayed an enormous mop of hair but whose face did not show a trace of beard. The article never saw the light. No one was the loser, least of all myself.

When the board of directors of the public library raised the annual fee from five to six roubles, we perceived an attempt to get away from democracy, and sounded an alarm. For several weeks we did nothing but prepare for a general meeting of the library members. We emptied all our democratic pockets, collecting roubles and half-roubles, and with this fund registered more radical members, many of whom not only lacked the six roubles but also were under the twenty-year age limit required by the constitution. We turned the library application-book into a collection of fiery leaflets. When the annual meeting was called, two parties appeared: on the one hand, officials, teachers, liberal landlords, and naval officers; on the other hand, we the democracy. Victory was ours along the entire front. We restored the five rouble fee and elected a new board.

Casting about for activities, we decided to organize a university on a basis of mutual instruction. There were about twenty students. My department was sociology. That was high-sounding. I prepared for my course with all my powers, but after two lectures, which came off satisfactorily, I suddenly realized that my resources had been exhausted. The second lecturer, whose course was the French Revolution, became confused as soon as he began and promised to deliver his lecture in writing. Of course he failed to fulfil his promise, and that was the end of the enterprise.

I then decided, with the second lecturer, the elder of the brothers Sokolovsky, to write a play. We even left the commune temporarily for that purpose, and hid ourselves in a room without leaving any address. Our play was full of social tendencies, against a background of the conflict of generations. Although the two dramatists regarded Marxism with only half-trust, nevertheless the populist in the play was a feeble character, while all the courage, youth and hope were with the young Marxists. Such is the power of time. The romantic element found expression in the love tendered by a revolutionist of the older generation, who had been crushed by life, to a young Marxist girl, but she handed it back with a merciless speech about the failure of populism.

The work on the play was no mean task. At times we wrote together, driving and correcting each other; at other times we divided the acts into sections, and each of us would devote his day to the preparation of a scene or a monologue. We had, it must be said, no shortage of monologues. Sokolovsky would return from his work toward evening, and then would proceed freely to revise the whimpering speeches of the hero of the seventies whose life had been crushed. I would return from my private lessons or from Shvigovsky’s. The daughter of the landlady would put up a samovar for us. Sokolovsky would pull out from his pockets some bread and sausage. Separated by a mysterious armor from the rest of the world, the dramatists would spend the balance of the evening in intensive labor. We completed the first act, even providing the proper curtain effect. The remaining acts, four in number, were drafted. The farther we got into it, however, the more we cooled. After a while we arrived at the conclusion that we must give up our mysterious room and postpone the completion of the drama to some future date. The roll of manuscripts was taken by Sokolovsky to another lodging. Later, when we found our selves in the Odessa prison, Sokolovsky made an attempt through his relatives to locate the manuscript. Perhaps the thought occurred to him that exile would be favorable for the completion of our dramatic opus. But the manuscript was no more, having vanished without trace. In all probability the people in whose home it had been left considered it prudent to throw it in the fire upon the arrest of its ill-fated authors. It is not difficult for me to reconcile myself to its fate, especially since, in the course of my subsequent and none too smooth life, I have lost manuscripts of incomparably greater value.

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