The Transformation of Diplomacy
How to Save the State Department
TROTSKY stood up gloriously against the blows of fate these last fifteen years -- demotion, rejection, exile, systemized slanderous misrepresentation, betrayal by those who had understood him, repeated attempts upon his life by those who had not, the certainty of ultimate assassination. His associates, his secretaries, his relatives, his own children were hounded to death by a sneering and sadistic enemy. He suffered privately beyond description but he never relaxed his monumental self-discipline. He never lost his grip for one visible second, never permitted any blow to blunt the edge of his wit, his logic or his literary style. Under afflictions that would have sent almost any creative artist to a hospital for neurotics and thence to the grave, Trotsky steadily developed and improved his art. His unfinished life of Lenin, which I had partially translated, would have been his masterpiece. He gave us, in a time when our race is woefully in need of such restoratives, the vision of a man.
Of that there is no more doubt than of his great place in history. His name will live, with that of Spartacus and the Gracchi, Robespierre and Marat, as a supreme revolutionist, an audacious captain of the masses in revolt. Beyond these clearly shining facts, however, the doubts about Trotsky, the problems of his character, are many and complex. Few great men lend themselves to false portraiture and extreme overcorrections of it as he does. His inward nature, like Robespierre's, will remain a subject of hot argument while history lasts. Moreover, those in a position best to give testimony, his colleagues in great action, are all dead or destroyed. Stalin has not left one to tell the story. I have been less close to him than many knowing of our literary collaboration think; but I have received a definite impression of his character which is surely worth setting forth.
As a young man of twenty-six Trotsky presided over the revolution of 1905, the first assault of the Russian masses on the Tsar's government. Twelve years later he organized and led the victorious October revolution of 1917, a model for all insurrections and one of the turning points in history. In the next years he created a revolutionary army out of hungry and bedraggled hordes, and fought off on seven fronts the invading forces of Europe. He played, next to Lenin, the major rôle in founding the Soviet state. And when it was done, he wrote a three-volume history of these events that holds a permanent place in the world's literature. With all this behind him, he died in a strange loneliness, hunted out of every country, starved of friendship, imprisoned without being protected, robbed almost of the company of the earth.
The causes of this sad story are of course as complex as the forces he attempted to manipulate. But large among them, in my view, looms a singular defect or weakness in his own motivation. When I went to Russia in 1922 he was more popular among the masses than Lenin was. He was a military victor and a national hero. His oratorical ability, which surpassed that of all his rivals put together, seemed to guarantee this popularity. His prestige and personal power, had he known how, or wished, to use them, were invincible. And to certify this, Lenin, when he fell sick, offered to make him vice-president of the Council of People's Commissars -- offered, that is, to designate Trotsky before the world as his successor, an act which would have made the rise of Stalin, whom they both despised, well-nigh impossible.
Trotsky declined the offer. He stood meekly aside while Stalin organized a political machine capable of displacing him at Lenin's death. When the expected death occurred he was en route to the Caucasus, and to the amazement of all did not come back to be on the spot and make the funeral oration. He let Stalin push him off with a lying telegram about the date -- and complained about it long after:
"I immediately telegraphed the Kremlin: 'I deem it necessary to return to Moscow. When is the funeral?' The reply came in about an hour: 'The funeral will take place on Saturday. You will not be able to return in time. . . . Stalin.' Why this hurry? Why precisely Saturday? But I did not feel that I should request postponement for my sake alone. Only in Sukhum did I learn that it had been changed to Sunday."
There had been no change. Lenin's body lay in state four days. Trotsky could have returned from twice as far. He did not want to be there. He did not want to fight for power. He sidestepped the power at every vital turn, rationalizing his conduct by appeals to etiquette or ethical punctilio. The future of the revolution was at stake, but its leader "did not feel that he should request postponement for his sake alone"!
Having evaded the power at these two crises, Trotsky adopted, while Stalin laid the groundwork for his counter-revolutionary tyranny, a "policy of silence," disheartening to his followers, bewildering to the Russian masses, astounding to the whole world. In 1926, when I crashed that silence with my book "Since Lenin Died," exposing Stalin's conspiracy to seize the power, and quoting Lenin's deathbed warning to the party against Stalin and endorsement of Trotsky as "the ablest man in the Executive Committee," he disavowed my book. He disavowed it, although he himself had given me the key facts, and done so with the express understanding that I was going to publish them. He denied over his signature that there was any such thing as this document, called "Lenin's Testament," which I had quoted directly from his lips. To be sure, he disavowed his disavowal long after, exonerating me and endorsing me beyond my merits, but by that time Stalin was secure. Trotsky will go down to posterity as a great man, one of the few men who ever wrote history as brilliantly as he made it. But he will go down as a great man who let himself be jockeyed out of the supreme position by a second-rater.
Of all mistaken judgments of him, the most fantastic is that he was, in these late years, eaten up with a yearning to "come back." His basic policy, since Stalin established his dictatorship, has been to advocate the overthrow of Stalin, but at the same time the defense of the Soviet Union. The workers of the world, he has insisted, while rejecting Stalin's tyranny, must defend the Russian state, if necessary with arms in their hands. After the Stalin-Hitler pact and the invasion of Finland this was almost quixotic, but Trotsky stuck to it. That made it seem plausible that he wanted to return to power -- but only to those who did not realize that he had dropped the power when he had it, dodged it when it was thrust at him.
Trotsky advocated the defense of the Soviet Union, and insisted on calling Stalin's one-man rule a "workers state," because he was an orthodox Marxian, and according to Marx only the workers can expropriate the private capitalists. If it was Stalin's bureaucracy and not the Russian proletariat that nationalized the Russian land and industries, then Trotsky's whole philosophy of life, his inward flame of faith, was wrong. That is why he stuck out loyally for the defense of Stalin's Russia as a workers' state even when it cost him the last appearances of good sense. And Stalin of course foiled him once more in the very hour of death -- placing in the assassin's pocket a prepared statement that he had killed Trotsky because Trotsky had urged him to "sabotage the Soviet Union." Everyone has read that statement. Few will ever read the torrent of Trotsky's sixteen years of impassioned argument to the contrary.
Trotsky was not eaten up with any yearning at all. It was natural to him to be in opposition, to be fighting with a sense of righteous indignation those who ruled. That is what, in his deep self, he wanted. He would rather be right than president -- yes, and more: he would rather be right and not president. That was his weakness. Some say that he dreaded to become a Bonaparte and I think that that thought did dwell in his mind. But deeper and nearer the heart of this over-confident brandisher of programs was an instinctive distaste for the power to put them through.
Others, who realize that Trotsky dodged the power, imagine that he did so because his pride was hurt -- he wanted power handed to him on a golden platter. In France a book was published on this subject, "La Vie Orgueuilleuse de Trotsky." It is pure nonsense. Trotsky did like admiration, and liked it fairly thick. Worse than that, he did not know he liked it. He thought he was very "impersonal," "objective," as Marxists are supposed to be. In his "History of the Russian Revolution" he always speaks of himself in the third person. "The then head of the Red Army did thus and so," he says. Once he alludes to himself in the same passage as "the author of these lines" and "the then head of the Red Army," not realizing that two impersonals make an especially obtrusive personal. Genuine modesty would say simply "I did thus and so." But Trotsky did not know that. He did not know himself. That made it possible to influence him sometimes by mixing flattery with only a fair argument. But not often -- not on questions of principle. His vanity was superficial.
His consecration to the cause of socialism was deep. It was absolute. I talked about Trotsky's famous pride one day with his first sweetheart, one who loved him and conspired with him when he was eighteen, married him and bore him two children in Siberian exile.
"Arrogance," she said, "would be a better word than pride. Leon Davidovich is self-assertive and explosive, a little difficult that way sometimes in personal life, but he is the most consecrated person I ever met. Nothing, absolutely nothing -- not even a disgraceful death -- would swerve him from the path of his objective duty to the revolution." I quote her because she was an exceptionally wise, warm and judicious person, herself a devoted Communist. But I could quote to the same effect anybody who ever really knew Trotsky.
I think the main reason Trotsky side-stepped the power is a good one -- namely, that he could not wield it. He could not handle men. He did not live among men. He lived among ideas. As a politician in the narrow sense, the Jim Farley sense, Trotsky was a total loss. He had no genial tastes or habits. He did not "smoke, drink, chew, swear, dance nor play cards." He could not bring an improper word to his lips. He tried once to tell me the obscene remark made by Stalin when he first read Lenin's "Testament." It had to be conveyed in a paragraph of fastidious circumlocutions. He hated the smell of tobacco, hated a speck of ashes on his desk. He could not put his feet up on a chair -- he lacked the art. He dressed like a dude -- not in bad taste, but too immaculately. And although he could laugh heartily, he had also, when embarrassed, a nervous clicking giggle in his throat, a sort of ghost laugh that made you feel he was not present in reality at all.
I once attended an anniversary Smoker in the Kremlin where all the old Bolsheviks used to assemble, as the Dutch Treat Club does, to put on some fool acts and exchange a little jovial gossip jazzed up with alcohol. Somebody played the Volga Boat Song on all the various parts of a kitchen stove. Trotsky wandered among those old revolutionists, of whom he was then still the chief, like a lost angel, faultlessly clad as always, with a brand new shiny manuscript-case under his arm, a benign sort of a Y. M. C. A. secretary's smile put on for the festivities, but not an offhand word to say to anybody. It seems a funny epithet to use about a Commander, but he reminded me of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
I remembered, of course, that these were for the most part veterans of a party to which he had come over only in the hour of action, a party which, even when he led them, insisted upon regarding him as an outsider. But why -- when his loyalty had been so tested, and his service to the party greater than that of anyone but Lenin -- why did they hold him off? Why could Trotsky never win his way in, with no matter what achievements, to the heart of the Bolshevik Party? I felt that what I saw was the reason for this strange fact, not merely its result.
To correct the impression, you have to remember that all those men knew Trotsky for the bravest of the brave. He had defied two governments, daring them to arrest him while he organized their overthrow. He had refused to go underground, as Lenin did, in the dangerous July Days when Tsarist generals undertook to liquidate the Bolsheviks. As head of the Red Army he had been criticized for the recklessness with which he exposed himself to rifle fire. He was not the kind of general who dies in bed. They knew, also, that at the drop of the hat he could mount the platform and raise them out of their chairs with a revolutionary speech. They respected him, but he was not one of them.
That would not have mattered fatally if he had had the gift of personal friendship. He lacked that also. Aside from his quiet, thoughtful wife, toward whom his attitude was a model of sustained gallantry and inexhaustible consideration, he had, in my opinion, no real friends. He had followers and subalterns who adored him as a god, and to whom his coldness and unreasonable impatience and irascibility were a part of the picture. And he had admiring acquaintances charmed by his brilliant conversation and those "beautiful manners" for which he was famous at the age of five. But in a close and equal relation he managed to get everybody "sore." One after another, strong men would be drawn to him by his deeds and brilliant conscientious thinking. One after another they would drop away.
Lacking both sympathetic imagination and self-knowledge, he seemed spiritually, in an intimate relation, almost deaf and dumb. He would talk with you all night long, very candidly and about everything under the sun, but when you went home at dawn you would feel that you had not been with him. You had received no personal glance out of those cold light-blue eyes. You had heard no laughter but of mockery. You had been exchanging ideas with a brilliant intellect, one that had heard about friendship and had it explained to him, and with consummate skill and intelligence was putting on the act. That at least was my experience.
People who disliked Trotsky were always calling him an actor. He was not an actor when motivated by ideas. His passion for ideas was instinctive, deep, disciplined. His loyalty to ideas was absolute. It was his whole natural self. He had no other loyalty (once more making exception of his wife -- or rather, I assume, his family), and therefore, in personal relations he was in some degree an actor. The part he acted was that which a high idea of personal relations demanded of him, but since the whole feeling was not there he fell often and too easily out of the part.
He would make promises and forget them, make contracts and try to squirm out of them, conveniently failing to remember the aspect that was important to the party of the second part. When he arrived in Prinkipo and was in a way to be mulcted by American publishers and their agents, I took on the job of his literary agent as well as personal representative in this country. Much of my spare time was spent trying to get contracts amended or backed out of, contracts which he had signed without quite clearly noticing what he was giving as well as getting. It seemed to me that his idea of how a revolutionist should act would dictate a proud recklessness in signing a contract, and then the authentic impulses and real necessities of his being would demand a cancellation. At any rate, I remember that two years of work trying to help Trotsky do business as a frantic period. I would as soon have tried to straighten out the affairs of General Grant.
That "ability to deal with people," for which Old John D. Rockefeller used to say he would pay more than for any other commodity, consists essentially in treating people as ends and not means. It consists in remembering that they are ends even when you are using them as means. Try as he would, Trotsky could not remember that for long. Sooner or later he would repel every associate not willing to take the position of an instrument in his hands. Of his genius for losing friends and alienating people there is a wealth of private anecdotes, and mine is too long to tell. But here is a little piece of it:
One of our amusements while I stayed with him in Prinkipo in 1932 was for him to dictate letters to me in his then horrendous English, and let me fix them up. It was entertaining, for although he had no grammar, he had a prodigious vocabulary. One day he showed me a letter from some woman in Indiana asking him please to look up her relatives in Russia. He asked me if I knew her name, and when I said, "No, it's just some half-wit," he agreed. I crumpled the letter and started to throw it in the wastebasket. He stopped me with a cry as though I were stepping on a baby's face.
"Is that the way you treat your correspondence! What kind of a man are you? That letter has to be filed by my secretaries!"
I straightened out the letter and passed it over to him laughing.
"Did you keep letter files," I asked, "in the days when you were a penniless agitator in Paris and Vienna? I'm not an army commander. I'm a poor writer."
He relaxed then, and smiled: "Well, I like to keep things in order so far as I can."
The incident in itself was not in the least unpleasant. But in a day or two another question arose between us. I was leaving for a trip through the Near East, and he had just finished a long article that I was supposed to translate. I said I would do it on the train and send the translation from Jerusalem to a literary agent in New York.
He said he would rather let the literary agent find a translator. I pointed out the scarcity of good Russian translators, and the unlikelihood that a commercial agent could find one or recognize one when found.
"Well, I don't want my articles carted around over Europe and Asia!" he said.
I answered: "Your literary agent is just as likely as not to send it to Canada or San Francisco to be translated."
Again he flared up as though ignited by a fuse.
"I don't want my articles translated by people who crumple up letters and throw them in the wastebasket!"
It was an angry shout. In view of what I had been doing for him, it was moreover unreasonable to the nth degree. To anybody but Trotsky, and perhaps Shakespeare, I would have said, "To hell with your articles!" and walked out. As it was, I recalled by good luck the criticism Lenin made of him in his Testament. I recalled it very exactly and rolled it off in perfect Russian:
"Lyef Davidovich," I said, "I can only answer you in the words of Lenin: 'Comrade Trotsky is inclined to be carried away by the administrative aspect of things.'"
I must say that he laughed at my thrust with great good nature, and dropped into his chair and relaxed. Inside of two minutes he was proposing that we collaborate on a drama about the American Civil War.
"You have the poetic imagination," he said, "and I know what civil war is as a fact."
It was a poor time to suggest collaboration -- mighty poor. It shows what I mean by saying that Trotsky did not know himself or others. In relations with people he was nothing less than obtuse. He had a blind spot. His life was in his head. A poorer politician never lived.
Lenin combined intellect and idealism with a mastery of the craft of politics. Trotsky inherited the intellect and idealism, Stalin the craft -- a fatal split. Every move that Trotsky made when Stalin opened his attack on him was inept. At first, as I have said, he did not move at all. He stayed in bed while Stalin falsified his writings and misrepresented him without limit in the party press. Supposedly he had one of his mysterious fevers, but he would not have had a fever if the fight had been of mass against class. Trotsky could have gone into the factories and barracks with a few forthright speeches and raised every fighting revolutionist in Moscow and Leningrad against the Stalin clique. But that would have meant war. Lenin would have waged that little war without a moment's hesitation, because Lenin sensed things in their practical terms. Trotsky was theoretical, and there was no place in his theories for any war except between the workers and the bourgeoisie.
Moreover, he was squeamish, he was disgusted when he should have been enraged. His wife told me at the time, with tears flowing from her eyes, that he never read a word of the attacks that were made on him. "He couldn't stomach all that filth."
During that winter of 1924 while Trotsky gave him a free hand, Stalin changed the entire membership of the party and changed the essential policy of the press. By June, when the party held its convention, he had the delegates in the palm of his hand. Trotsky emerged then from his mysterious silence, like Achilles from his tent -- but not to fight for his and Lenin's trampled policies, only to make what he considered a diplomatic speech.
"The party can never make a mistake," he said.
Incredible as it may seem, that is what he said. That was his idea of being a crafty politician. He also declared his readiness to go into the trenches and fight with the humblest soldier in defense of the revolution. Somebody yelled:
"That isn't what we expected from you, comrade Trotsky. We expected leadership!"
It was certainly the most ill-judged speech I ever listened to. I had just been talking to him about his real opinions. In fact it was in a little nook behind the platform at that convention that he told me about Lenin's Testament, his last letter to the party, which Stalin had withheld from them and locked up in the safe. He quoted the main phrases of it for me to use. I was leaving Russia the next day, and we said goodbye.
"What are you going to do when you get home?" he asked.
"I'm not going to do anything except write books."
He smiled a deprecating smile and I added:
"I believe in the class struggle, but I love peace."
"You love peace? You ought to be arrested," he said.
I agreed; and that was, it seemed, our farewell word. But right after that he got up and made this insincere, inept, inadequate -- to my mind blunderingly stupid -- speech. I could not refrain from going up and drawing him into our nook again and telling him what I thought he ought to do.
"In God's name," I said, or words to that effect, "why don't you peel off your coat and roll up your sleeves and sail in and clean them up? Read the Testament yourself. Don't let Stalin lock it up. Expose the whole conspiracy. Expose it and attack it head on. It isn't your fight, it's the fight for the revolution. If you don't make it now, you'll never make it. It's your last chance."
He looked at me in some surprise. I had been on the whole a respectful biographer. He even weighed my advice seriously for a moment. Then he assumed a quizzical expression.
"I thought you said you loved peace," he said.
I knew then, as certain wise old Bolsheviks had told me, that although Trotsky's policies were right, he never could take Lenin's place. It was always the policies, not Trotsky's leadership, that they were fighting for. That made the fighting weak.
Trotsky must have been at least dimly aware of this himself. No man could be so lonely and not know it, or at least feel it, and not have it influence his acts. I asked him once why he declined the offer of Lenin to make him acting head of the government.
"Stalin and Zinoviev and Kamenev had already ganged up on me," he said. "What could I do with a majority of the Politburo working against me?"
What could he do? Kamenev was his brother-in-law. He could ask him in to the War Department for a glass of tea and talk it over man to man. He could ask one or two others in -- Bukharin, especially, who adored him. He could use his charm and his overpowering prestige. He could play the heart as well as the head. That was really all he had to do. But that was beyond his powers.
Trotsky side-stepped the heritage of Lenin because he was inadequate to it. Although incapable of saying so even to himself, he felt inadequate to it. He could command minds; he could command armies; he could sway masses from the safe distance of the platform. But he could not bring two strong men to his side as friends and hold them there. That, I think, is the secret of the sad arc traced by his life-story, his rise to supreme heights under another leader and in an epoch of war and insurrection, his incredibly swift decline when skill in politics and his own leadership were called for.