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Book Review: Lessons From Trotsky's Life Story: A Dictator Denounces Dictatorship

The Great Man Moonshine.
Few men have been more idolised in modern times than Leon Trotsky; and few men have been more bitterly attacked. The publication of his own life story should therefore arouse extraordinary attention but Trotsky nowadays has gone out of fashion. His universal Bolshevik worshippers have taken the cue from Moscow and dubbed him counter-revolutionist, and the worldwide Press invective against him has declined since he was pushed off the Russian political stage. Newspapers nowadays are only interested in him so far as he can be used in their anti-Russian abuse. Those who hold to the unscientific great man theory and who conceived Trotsky to be almost a god—or a devil, will be in a hopeless quandary to explain how such a “great man” was undone.
 
The situation in Russia, like any other stage in social evolution, cannot be explained by the rise or decline of this or that leading figure. The war and the resulting effects in Russia supplied the conditions which pushed into the forefront obscure figures like Trotsky, editing a paper in a back street in New York, and Lenin penning little-known articles in a remote Swiss town. Trotsky’s incisive attack on the men who supplanted him is a complete answer to those who think that the great man makes the social situation instead of the social forces producing a human instrument limited and leavened by the conditions of his time.
 
That Lenin and Trotsky occupied so much space and claimed so much attention was not due to being “supermen" but was because backward social and economic Russia did not have the conditions under which many capable and experienced fighters could develop.
 
Trotsky’s own life story is a large book of over 500 pages and is written in a very readable, graphic style that holds interest to the end. While the early part is devoted to his childhood and youth the chief part is written as a justification for his attitude in Russia against the Communist Party leadership. The personal element in the book looms very large and most readers not acquainted with the interplay of men and forces in Russia will find it difficult to understand what were the actual differences between Trotsky and others in the Party. Trotsky’s story is too full—of Trotsky!
 
The Czarist Days.
His stormy struggle in Czarist Russia is a good illustration of the hardships and penalties of an agitator’s life when Church and Grand Duke held the fort. His early activity as a critic of Marxism and later as one of the members of the scattered Social Democratic Party in Russia is full of incident and interest, but space prevents it being referred to in detail here.
 
The secret meetings and secret organisation of Czarist days brought with it the agent provocateur or government spy, and thus Leon Trotsky, along with others, was arrested, and sent to Siberia. In prison he studied Marx’s Capital, Kautsky’s masterly reply to Bernstein and Plechanoff’s able writings, etc. Escaping from Siberia he came to London (1902) and there for the first time met Lenin who was also in exile, and working on the “Iskra,” a party paper smuggled into Russia. Trotsky, lecturing in the East End, was amazed at the stupid anti-Marxist arguments of men like Tchaikowsky, the Russian Liberal, and Tcherkesoff, the Russian Anarchist and war supporter. Trotsky also associated with Plechanoff and Vera Sassulitch at the early congresses of the Russian Party, and he indicates their varied ideas.
 
The attempted uprising, the general strike and ferment in Russia of 1905 took Trotsky back to Russia, where he met Krassin, the engineer, who was an active Bolshevik. The Party were then demanding a Constituent Assembly, the 8-hour day, better land distribution, etc. This was the period in which the St. Petersburg Soviet first achieved prominence, and in it Trotsky was very active.
 
The 1905 uprising was crushed by force, and Trotsky and the whole Soviet was arrested. Again in prison and transported to arctic Siberia, Trotsky once more escaped. Lenin fled to Finland.
 
In Exile.
Reaction sat heavy in Russia after 1905 and the activities of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had to be carried on in Continental exile up to 1917. The Russian Social Democratic Congress in London in 1907, at Dalston, was a milestone in their history. The Executive were unable to find funds for the continuance of the Congress and after visits to Hyndman and others, it was, I think, Joseph Fels, the Single Tax Soap Manufacturer, who lent them £3,000 for the purpose. Rosa Luxembourg, Maxim Gorky and other famous people visited the Congress, which was so mysteriously referred to in the London papers of the time. The split over questions of centralized Party control had already taken place and thus the famous titles of Menshevik (Minority) and Bolshevik (Majority) came into use. These two names acquired, however, many meanings in later years, as each section chopped and changed their attitudes on various points. 
 
The Second International.
After the Congress, Trotsky went to the so-called International Conference at Stuttgart, where he met Adler, Kautsky, Hilferding, Bernstein and similar popular figures in Social Democracy.
 
He criticises their ideas about Russia but says nothing of the essential point that these men, along with the mass of the delegates and parties at these International Congresses, were anything but Socialist. Reform and opportunism was their road to power. Lenin, Trotsky and the other Russian delegates had no objections then, as they accepted the reform position of these parties and only took up general opposition over the war attitude when 1914 came. But long before 1914, in taking our stand, national and international, the Socialist Party of Great Britain had refused to be a party to the anti-Socialist reform and political trading policy of these parties at home and abroad who used the Social Democratic label. Whilst Lenin and Trotsky and the Mensheviks were in alliance with the parties and leaders who were later denounced as “betrayers,” the Socialist Party had carried on the exposure for years, as the pages of our paper since 1904 show. Speaking of the Copenhagen International Congress (1910), Trotsky says : “ After all, I was not yet sure of the sort of amendment that must be made to the entire policy of the Social Democracy.” He states that he found out in 1914.
 
The World War.
When Trotsky reaches the 1914 period he was living in Vienna and was shocked at the "Capitulation of the German Social Democracy.” Had Trotsky overlooked their nationalism and ordinary liberal programme so similar to the general run of self-styled Socialist Parties—who all lined up for the World Carnage? Trotsky avoided internment by going to Switzerland which was to become the home of Lenin and most of the other Russian exiles during the War. Trotsky says Lenin thought the newspapers had faked the reports that German Social Democracy had voted for the War, for “Lenin’s faith in the German Social Democracy was still as strong as that.” (Page 204.) Trotsky met Karl Radek, in Switzerland, who differed from Trotsky’s view that a proletarian revolution would result from the War. Radek held that the productive forces were not sufficiently developed. This attitude surprised Trotsky.
 
After a brief stay in France, during which the Zimmerwald Anti-War Conference in Switzerland was arranged, Trotsky was ordered out of France and went to Spain, where the kindly hand of the French foreign office followed him and had him deported. He chose New York as his next haven, and here, after a brief sojourn of two months on the Russian paper, Novy Mir (New World), the news came of the fall of Czardom.
 
After Trotsky left for Russia and was detained in Canada by Lloyd George’s influence, a legend about him grew up in U.S.A. and amazing imaginary stories were told. Even Frank Harris, in Pearson's Magazine, had to get a story afoot and so he treated us to a romantic tale of how he had met Trotsky in New York and explained to him what must be done in Russia. Such is journalism.
 
Trotsky met Bucharin in New York, where we knew him as a member of the Left Wing Propaganda Group, whose shining light was Louis Fraina, the apostle of Force, who was accused by the Soviet Envoy of being a spy. In passing, I may add that Fraina was appointed the International Secretary of the Communist Party of America, and put on the Executive at Moscow.
 
Bucharin was then friendly to Trotsky, as neither was in power. The woman who was afterwards to become Soviet Minister of Welfare—Alexandra Kollontay—was also in New York. Trotsky complains that nothing was revolutionary enough for her—she took an ultra left stand against Trotsky and Lenin, we are told. This attitude towards Madame Kollontay indicates Trotsky’s judgment, as Madame Kollontay was the only Russian propagandist we heard in America who opposed the reform and opportunism so current there and who publicly stated that the Socialist Party of Great Britain took up the correct position. She, however, later incurred the displeasure of the Moscow machine and was transferred to Mexico in the diplomatic service.
 
Russia Under The Influence.
Trotsky arrived at Petrograd in May, 1917, and his story of the overthrow of the Provisional Government of Democratic Liberals and Mensheviks is told at some length, but a far clearer and fuller picture of the events is given in John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World”—reviewed in these pages many years ago. The turning point in favour of the Bolsheviks was that the soldiers and sailors, sick of war and want, came over to their side. The Lenin-Trotsky element had won the majority in the Soviet by adopting their opponent’s—the Social Revolutionary Party’s—peasant platform.
 
Trotsky was sent to Brest-Litovsk as Commissar for Foreign Affairs and with Lenin’s consent signed the peace treaty with Germany. The harsh terms were accepted, Trotsky tells us in his “Peace Program,” because without the hourly-expected World Revolution, Russia was not in a position to fight over terms. When Chicherin, Petroff, Litvinoff and other Russians were released from English prisons and went to Russia in 1918 the Bolsheviks were able to re-arrange official positions and Trotsky was persuaded by Lenin to become War Minister. Trotsky knew nothing of military affairs. He says (300) : "Was I prepared to do military work? Of course not. I had not even had the benefit of service in the Czar’s army.” Yet Maxim Gorky and many others write as though Trotsky made the Red Army. The peace released crowds of trained Russian officers who had to live and were ready to serve the new Government. There was the trained rank and file coming home from the War and when Germany surrendered later to the Allies, German officers were obtained for use in the building of Russia’s army.
 
The Peace Terms.
Stalin has resurrected every difference that Trotsky had with Lenin over points of policy in order to charge Trotsky with being an anti-Leninist. The conflict of ideas about accepting peace terms between Lenin and others has been used by Stalin although Trotsky finally accepted Lenin’s point of view. But when the Bolsheviks were faced with crushing terms by Germany, Lenin said at first, 'Yes, we shall have to fight, though we have nothing to fight with.” (P. 332.) A few minutes later Lenin changed his mind and said that military action would be ruinous.
 
When French and English diplomats brought an offer from their Governments to assist the Bolsheviks to continue war against Germany, Lenin and Trotsky were favourable; Bucharin objected to an alliance with the Imperialists. The Central Committee of the Party—which held the reins of Government, supported Lenin and Trotsky. Trotsky quotes Lenin’s resolution from memory: ‘‘That Comrade Trotsky be authorized to accept the assistance of the brigands of French Imperialism against the German brigands.” (P. 333).
 
Russia, however, was in no position then to fight over conditions, so the peace terms were signed. 
 
War Communism.
The rest of the story of the Russian struggle has been often told. Trotsky recounts his personal part in it. The efforts to impose “War Communism” with the resulting collapse due to a hostile peasantry and backward industry; the conscription of labour with military discipline in the endeavour to stop the decline, and the free and easy manner of working; these and similar policies were tried in vain. "The working masses were more and more disinclined to submit to the ways of military rule.” (P. 397.) Trotsky argued that the trade unions must be made organs of the State, as there was no place for them under War Communism. Lenin took an opposite view.
 
Marx's Lesson.
The teaching of Marx, the materialist explanation of history was now brought home to the actors in the Russian drama.
 
The stage reached in material development determines the social system possible in a country. Laws and edicts cannot dodge the obstacles that stand in the way of the normal development of a country. Communism could not be carried out where the productive powers and methods belonged to the early stages of capitalism. Peasant Property dominated Russia. The ideas of the population arising from these conditions were not Socialist. Socialist ideas could only be bred from highly-developed conditions of production where associated labour and large-scale industry had prepared the mind for social change.
 
So the new Economic Policy of free trade in commodities was ushered in to save Russia. It is still the basis of economic life in Russia. The Premier of Soviet Russia, Rykov, admitted this in his official speech to the Moscow Soviet on March 9th, 1928:—
 
All the talk to the effect that we are abolishing the New Economic Policy and introducing a system of requisitioning and the like is nothing but counter-revolutionary twaddle, which must be energetically opposed. The New Economic Policy underlies our entire economy and will remain so for a long historical period. The New Economic Policy permits of traffic in goods and the sufferance of Capitalism on condition that the State retains the right and the possibility of regulating trade from the standpoint of proletarian dictatorship ("International Press Correspondence," 29th March, 1928).
 
The admission that capitalism cannot be avoided in the evolution of Russia, proves the idiocy of those who hold up Russia as the Socialist example. Rykov’s reference to the State is misleading.
 
The material conditions of production are the determining factor and the State had to adopt the New Economic Policy because it could not avoid the economic obstacles in its path. No matter who wields the State power they cannot successfully legislate in conflict with the ideas flowing from the backward economic condition of a country. Peasant property made hash of all the Dictator’s decrees. Thus was the materialist conception of history proved true in Russia and the lesson Marx taught made plain.
 
Political parties, even dictatorships, cannot impose systems at their will; the method of production is the real dictator deciding what can be done.
 
After Lenin.
Trotsky traces Stalin’s opposition to him back to the days when Stalin was removed from positions by Trotsky’s orders as Minister of War. Trotsky’s long absence out in the country in charge of the Red Army gave Stalin an opportunity, according to Trotsky, to prejudice others against him and to curry favour with Lenin, who was fast becoming an invalid and nearly paralysed. The death of Lenin in January, 1924, was followed by Trotsky’s long illness. Very soon after recovery he was relieved of his post as War Minister, although Stalin says he was dismissed.
 
Lenin’s death coincided with growing opposition inside the Party to the rising influence of the Kulak or rich peasant. One “workers’ opposition,” led by Madame Kollontay, had long since been silenced but others took its place. Lenin’s wife was opposed to the party policy. She held that “Nep” was capitalism, but Stalin in one place says that such an idea is “ absurd.” (Stalin’s Leninism, p. 435.)
 
Trotsky's Position.
Trotsky held that Socialism could not come in one country alone, particularly Russia. The policy of the party, therefore, he claimed, should not be to work in harmony with the rich peasants and the Nepman but to promote the World Revolution. He objected to the growing bureaucracy in the party—he demanded more democracy—now that the “machine" was being used by others.
 
Stalin was secretary of the party and had built up an anti-Trotsky bloc or caucus. All the early writings and especially Trotsky’s story of 1905 and the October (1917) Revolt were used to fasten on him the title of anti-Leninist and liquidator of the Revolution. Trotsky attacked the Third International’s policy in Germany during the 1923 upsurge and also their attitude in backing the Nationalist Kuomintang in China with such terrible results for. the thousands of “Communist” victims. Stalin and Co; backed the General Council during the General Strike here in 1926 and thought that Purcell and Co. were with the workers. Trotsky demanded a break with the General Council and denounced Stalin and Co. as opportunists. He demanded the publication of Lenin’s last testament. This has never been done.
 
At the great Tenth Anniversary Demonstration in Moscow in 1927, the opposition carried their own banners inscribed with such demands as, “Let us Carry out Lenin’s Will,” "Against Bureaucracy,” etc.
 
Exile Again.
Soon afterwards, at the 15th Congress of the Party, the entire opposition was expelled and given over to the charge of the Bolshevik secret police, the Ogpu. Trotsky was taken to distant Turkestan and there, on the borders of China, carried on correspondence and kept in touch with his supporters. He was ordered to give up political activity under the penalty of being deported and, refusing, he was put out of Soviet territory and is now trying to persuade each Country in turn to give him a home.
 
Zinovief, the overlord of the Third International, and Karl Radek were busily occupied denouncing Trotsky, but they, along with Bucharin, Tomsky, Rakofsky, Kameneff, Krassin, Preobashevsky, etc., very soon took up the work of opposing Stalinism—and so right or left wings of the Party were formed. The very arguments of Trotsky became theirs and practically all of them from Rykov the Premier to Karl Radek were either expelled from their positions or membership, or made to recant. Zinovief joined with Trotsky but gave in at the last moment only to be once again accused.
 
Thus many of the leading Bolshevik figures were silenced. Only one political party is allowed to exist in Russia and every attempt at propaganda on the part of the opposition was crushed. Their press was confiscated and the heavy hand of the Military Tribunal descended upon those who sought to win support by speech or writing. So the Machine won.
 
What is the Lesson?
After narrating Trotsky’s story in outline it is necessary to draw attention to the lesson of the whole series of events. Neither Trotsky, nor Stalin (in the lengthy book written against the former) attempts to do so. In fact none of the many writers explain the cause of that long internal party struggle in Russia or its relation to Russian economic and political life. Trotsky merely attacks Stalin as though it is simply an individual matter.
 
The prominent Bolsheviks, who have so bitterly denounced the bureaucracy of present-day Russia and demanded wider democracy, have each and every one of them been to the fore in upholding terrorism and dictatorship. Whether in attacking Kautsky or in defending Bolshevik ideas they have gloried in smashing “democratic methods.” Trotsky’s “Defence of Terrorism” was the handbook of Bolshevism, and Karl Radek's “Proletarian Dictatorship and Terrorism” was the most outspoken message of minority rule the Communists issued.
 
Now, however, that they are suffering from their own methods being applied they bitterly complain.
 
The explanation of the policy pursued in Russia is in the economic situation there in 1917 and in the equally backward outlook of the population. Eighty-five per cent. were peasants, and in the towns industry was in a very undeveloped condition. Socialism, therefore, was not possible. Thus conditions paved the way for power to be seized by the Bolshevik minority (Communist Party). Stalin tells us that Lenin’s position was this :—
 
240,000 members of the Communist Party will certainly be able to govern the country in the interests of the poor and against the wealthy, seeing that they are in no way less competent than the 130,000 landowners who in former days governed the country in the interests of the wealthy and against the poor. (Leninism, p. 298.) 
 
The Bolsheviks therefore, even according to Lenin’s comparison, could only rule a country of 150 millions in the way the previous minority ruled them—by ignoring democratic methods and imposing their policy upon the majority. Capitalism and feudalism have a ruling class composed of a minority. A minority party can rule Russia but Socialism and even the building of a Socialist mass movement demands democratic methods.
 
A minority Bolshevik party kept power in Russia by yielding to the economic necessities of the country and by adopting a policy, therefore, to pacify the peasant. Hence arose the contradiction between their Socialist claims and statutes, and the actual capitalism they were building up. Socialism being impossible in Russia to-day, they had to develop Russia’s resources by going through a capitalist form of society. Stalin tells us that “the new economic policy permits of a free market, of capitalism, of wage labour.” (Leninism, p. 429.)
 
The work of spreading Bolshevik ideas could be carried on it is true. But in spite of living through the many years' rule of Bolshevism, out of 54 million adults among the peasantry, the number of members of the Communist Party is 136,000, or 0.37 of the adult rural population. (Stalin's Leninism, p. 298.)
 
The apostles of minority rule and the supporters of Dictatorship were faced then and are still faced with the question, who shall be the dictators? Once democracy is pushed aside and the masses do not have an open, free and full opportunity of coming to a decision; with all the information before them; with the chance of assembling and discussing; with the power to read and hear the various points; when these things are absent those concerned in a movement are simply the material upon which conspiracies and underhand methods can thrive. So in Russia the Bolshevik policy of Dictatorship has bred the inevitable contest for the dictators' positions.
 
Those who are acquainted with Communist Party organisation can well understand the part that "caucuses," “blocs" and similar machine methods played in the internal struggle in Russia where each follows a leader and strongly assails his opponents.
 
The lesson to be gathered from Trotsky's story, therefore, is the one taught by Socialists. That Socialism includes democracy and it can only be established when the majority understand it and decide to establish it. It cannot be imposed upon them by minorities, be they led by Trotsky, Stalin, Tomsky, Lenin, or some other leader.
 
Russia under Stalin or anybody else at present is compelled by necessity to carry on capitalism because it is not ripe for Socialism.
 
Adolph Kohn