War on the War

Leon Trotsky, perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries, was born on this day in 1879. Here is a selection from Robert Service’s biography focusing on Trotsky’s life, and moves from Vienna to Switzerland and then to France at the start of World War I.

The Trotskys lived quietly in Vienna in summer 1914 while a political storm erupted over Europe which ended suddenly in the outbreak of the Great War. Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June. The Austrian government held Serbia responsible and delivered an ultimatum containing demands which were bound to be rejected. As yet there seemed no cause for alarm. This seemed like yet another dispute in the Balkan peninsula and all such disputes in previous years had ended in compromise.

This time it was different as the European powers spent July in conditions of rising tension. Russia warned the Austrians against military action. The atmosphere worsened when Germany encouraged the Austrians to act on their threats to Serbia. Emperor Franz Joseph needed little encouragement because he judged the state’s interests and his personal honour to be under challenge. The Russians sensed that a continental war might be imminent, and Nicholas II ordered the preliminary mobilization of his forces. This only agitated the Austrians and Germans further. The Russians were told to stand down their army or else face war. When Nicholas II ignored the demand, the Germans declared war on Russia. The Austrians, already fighting Serbia, joined them. Neither London nor Paris was willing to see Russia defeated and Germany enabled to dominate central and eastern Europe. Two great coalitions were put together. The Central Powers were led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Allies by France, Russia and the United Kingdom. Europe heard the noise of marching feet and trundling trains. But few ministers and diplomats expected that this war would produce a political and social cataclysm across Europe. Most thought it would be of short duration and intensive mobility.

Trotsky let nothing disturb him until the German declaration of war on Russia rendered him vulnerable as a Russian subject living in a state allied to Imperial Germany. Next day, on 3 August, he went to the offices of Arbeiter-Zeitung, the social-democratic daily, at Wienzeile and sought out his friend Friedrich Adler. Friedrich’s father Victor joined them and suggested that Trotsky should obtain proper guidance about how the Viennese authorities intended to proceed with Russian emigrants like him. Victor, a psychiatrist as well as the country’s leading socialist, foresaw mass ‘insanity’ as the war released nationalist inclinations in society. The fact that Trotsky was a critic of Nicholas II might not save him from incarceration. It could not be discounted that he and his family would suffer at the hands of a vengeful mob. The entire situation was unpredictable. Victor Adler was in no doubt that Trotsky’s personal security was under threat. Having contacts at the highest levels of the state administration, in the middle of the afternoon he ordered a taxi and took Trotsky to meet the chief of the political police, Geier. Geier validated Friedrich Adler’s pessimism, indicating that there was about to be a mass temporary arrest of residents of Russian citizenship.

Trotsky took the news calmly: ‘So you would recommend leaving the country?’
‘Absolutely. And the quicker the better.’
‘Very well. I shall go to Switzerland with my family tomorrow.’ ‘Hm! . . . I should prefer it if you would leave today.’

The gentlemanly Geier had no desire to fill Vienna’s prisons with foreigners. Trotsky, known as an enemy of Nicholas II, had never figured on the Austrian official list of undesirable aliens. It would be convenient for everybody if he slipped away before measures were taken against him. He hurried home to tell the family. Suitcases were pulled out of storage and rapidly packed with clothes and political files. There was no panic: Trotsky and Natalya were practical, orderly people who led their lives on the assumption that they had to be ready for any sudden emergency. By 6.40 p.m. they were seated on a train leaving Austria for neutral Switzerland.

Their first destination was Zurich, where there was a large community of Russian Marxists and Trotsky could meet up with other veteran comrades. He had lost the fixed centre of his practical revolutionary activity. His Pravda was no more, his team of helpers had fallen apart and his financial circumstances were anything but dependable. Worst of all for him was the reaction of most member parties of the Second International to the war. They had vowed to prevent an outbreak of hostilities and to withhold support from their national governments if they went to war. To Trotsky’s chagrin this commitment was abandoned. In Germany, France and Britain the ascendant leadership of the main socialist party voted in favour of the military effort. Russian and Bulgaria were among the exceptions; but even in those countries there were plenty of socialists who took up the patriotic cause. The best known of these was Georgi Plekhanov. Even Bolsheviks such as Grigori Alexinski declared that Germany was the enemy of the Russian people and had to be defeated. Many socialist e’migre´s from the Russian Empire, who hated Nicholas II, queued to volunteer for service in the French armed forces. The Second International was dead. The German Social-Democratic Party saw itself as postponing revolutionary action until such time as the country was secure against being overrun by the French, British and Russians; the French Socialist Party claimed it was rallying to the side of a government which strove to prevent conquest by Germans.

Anti-war socialists like Trotsky were angry with those parties which had dishonoured the commitments agreed in the Second International. Trotsky himself found just a crumb of comfort in the outbreak of war in Europe. He had nothing to say about military strategy; he had little or no interest in particular rulers, cabinets or high commands. But he was confident that the fighting would enhance the prospects of revolution. He was sure that the ‘imperialist war’ was the last gasp of global capitalism. The vast military struggle in Europe was about to disrupt the political status quo in every belligerent state. Socialism would arise from the ashes of war as the saviour of humankind.

It was in this mood that Trotsky ran into Hermann Molkenbuhr on a Zurich street. Molkenbuhr was visiting on behalf of the German Social-Democratic Party and canvassing for its policy on the war. Trotsky asked him how he thought things would turn out. Back came the reply: ‘We’ll finish off France in the next two months and then we’ll turn eastward and finish off the armies of the tsar; and within three months — four at the outside — we’ll deliver a firm peace to Europe.’ Molkenbuhr regarded Trotsky’s apocalyptic prognosis as the ranting of a ‘utopian’. Trotsky would not be browbeaten. He remembered how in 1905 he had been holed up one day in a Rauha pension-house only to find himself a day later at the Technological Institute in St Petersburg heading the work of the Soviet. That sudden change in circumstances, he thought, would surely happen again. Switzerland, of course, remained a neutral country. Its armed forces were maintained solely to protect its frontiers and cannon practice was regularly undertaken; but the government hoped to keep the country out of the military conflict. The main public discussion was about the surplus of potatoes and the growing cheese shortage.

Like others on the political far left, Trotsky did not discount the prospects of socialist revolution in Switzerland. But after making a careful assessment of the anti-war movement he decided that France would be the better country for him — and anyway Kievskaya mysl was asking him to be its war correspondent there. He traveled to Paris on 19 November 1914. A vigorous Russian Marxist group operated there which included Anatoli Lunacharski and Yuli Martov. Trotsky aimed to collaborate on their newspaper Golos (‘Voice’) and was listed among the contributors along with other anti-war Marxists including Yuli Martov, Alexandra Kollontai and Angelica Balabanova. His old friend Axelrod, who sent articles from Switzerland, also appeared on the masthead. He left Natalya to sort out the family’s arrangements. When she wrote saying they had run out of money Trotsky contacted Axelrod and asked him to help her to obtain a short-term loan. He also telegraphed Kievskaya mysl to get a cheque sent to her. It was not that the Trotskys lacked money in their bank account but that he was encountering difficulty in transferring it to her from Paris.

Golos soon changed its name to Nashe slovo (‘Our Word’) and Trotsky made known his desire to join its editorial board. His indication was not without controversy. The editors knew his domineering personality and there was a worry that he might disturb the working atmosphere. But it was recognized that he had unmatched literary flair and was committed to working with every anti-war Marxist from Martov to Lenin. He could hardly be rejected. Not that Martov was pleased with the result. As soon as Trotsky joined the board he insisted on debating Martov’s reluctance to break definitively with Plekhanov and all the others who supported the Russian war effort. Board meetings at Nashe slovo became occasions for fiery outbursts. Martov had a temperamental distaste for divisiveness and was anyway taking the path of broad organizational tolerance which Trotsky had recommended before 1914. Trotsky no longer accepted the case for a grand inclusiveness. The Great War was the new and fundamental question for the entire party. While Martov was sticking to the old Marxist politics, Trotsky called for a fresh approach. In his eyes, anyone who advocated the patriotic defense of the Russian Empire was to be treated as an outright enemy of the proletarian cause.

For the first time in his career he entered into polemics with Plekhanov, whom he now regarded with utter contempt. As the party’s great putative unifier Trotsky had eschewed vituperation with the party’s founder whenever possible. He hated factional struggle and his recurrent dispute with Lenin from 1903 was exceptional. Likewise his pre-war denunciation of the Liquidators had not been his usual way of handling internal party disagreements. He turned on Plekhanov in late 1914 over policy towards the war. Plekhanov, without supporting the Imperial monarchy, wanted Russia to defeat Germany. He predicted a Europe under the German jackboot if the Central Powers were to emerge victorious. He therefore approved of military credits being voted for the Russian government. Trotsky denounced him as a renegade. In his eyes, Plekhanov had descended to a nadir of chauvinism and no longer deserved to be regarded as a comrade. Trotsky had for a long time detested Alexander Potresov and the Liquidators. It came as no surprise to him that nearly all of them became ‘social-patriots’, and he regularly denounced them. He also fell out comprehensively with Marian Melenevsky, who had helped him become the editor of the Vienna Pravda. In 1915 Melenevsky headed the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine and had turned from a Marxist into a nationalist. Trotsky denounced him; Melenevsky replied in kind.

Wartime politics shattered Trotsky’s assumption that it was worth holding the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party together. He fulminated against any party leader who condoned the voting of financial credits to Nicholas II’s government. This was his primary criterion of strategic judgement. Bolsheviks who turned into patriots typically abandoned their factional allegiance, but other party groups were divided by policy disagreements. Much more serious than Plekhanov’s writing, from Trotsky’s viewpoint, was the editorial line taken by Nasha zarya. This was a Menshevik newspaper which, dropping all neutrality, adopted the line that victory by the democratic Allies over the autocratic Central Powers was desirable. Trotsky was enraged. How could the editors not understand that the war was not ‘a conflict of political forms’? It had nothing to do with democracy. The two belligerent coalitions were really fighting over markets, territory and global domination. According to Trotsky, this made it nonsense for Nasha zarya to blame everything on the German Junkers. At the same time he could not abide Lenin’s proposal for a political campaign for Russia’s military defeat. Even many Bolsheviks who opposed the war thought this fanatical and senseless. Like Trotsky, they called for criticism of all belligerent powers at one and the same time. Trotsky prided himself on being an internationalist. To him, Lenin’s manoeuvres smacked of inverted nationalism. He wrote an open letter on the subject but Nashe slovo failed to publish it — or perhaps he himself had second thoughts for some undisclosed reason.

. . .

Both Trotsky and his wife were to claim that they lived frugally in Paris. There is no evidence for this. In 1914 he dispatched six substantial articles to Kievskaya mysl. Such was their success that the newspaper continued to employ him throughout 1915–16; and since the French and the Russians were allies in the war he could rely on money being transferred quickly to his bank account in Paris. The Trotskys were not hard up in wartime France. Although Kievskaya mysl, a liberal outlet, brought valuable income he preferred to write for the socialist press. Indeed he always hoped to place articles with newspapers taking the standpoint of anti-war socialism. But he was also willing to deliver articles to newspapers on the political left which had no fixed position on the war. Among these was New York’s Novy mir (‘New World’), which was widely read among the Russian emigrants. Trotsky continued to send material to it across the Atlantic in wartime and did not stint in his warnings about Russian, French and British imperialism. Ziv, Trotsky’s old comrade from Nikolaev, who had emigrated and set up a medical practice in New York, supported the campaign against the war and American participation in it; he sent back his best wishes to Trotsky.

Allied governments and commanders censored such news as became available about the fighting; and there was no question of Trotsky going anywhere near any front during the Great War. Yet he keenly reported on the invalids and widows he saw on Paris streets. He needed only a glimpse of tragedy and he could weave it into a tapestry of denunciation of the ‘imperialists’ and ‘capitalists’ who had started the military conflict in quest of financial profit. Trotsky felt a strong need to visualize the reality he was trying to describe and analyse: he understood that his readers would be more sympathetic to his political recommendations if he brought the awfulness of the Great War to life for them. He needed to be careful how he phrased his reports for both Paris and Kiev newspapers. There was no point in his writing things that he knew would never be permitted by the French or Russian wartime censorship. His articles for the legal press pushed at the limits of the printable.

Plekhanov accused him of publishing contradictory messages in Nashe slovo and Kievskaya mysl. Trotsky justifiably retorted that he never allowed his basic thought to be emasculated. Sometimes he went too far for the censors and blank patches had to appear in Nashe slovo. Usually, though, he knew how to moderate his language or make it more indirect so as to get his articles published. A game of cat and mouse was going on. Unsurprisingly the Russian ambassador in Paris complained that Trotsky and other anti-war revolutionaries from Russia were undermining patriotism in the Allied countries.

Anti-war socialist internationalists from both France and the Russian Empire met for their discussions at the Quai de Jemmapes in the French capital. Trotsky was a regular. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, one of those who helped him at Nashe slovo, attended less frequently since he was usually tied down by editorial duties. Natalya stayed behind to look after the boys. Until Trotsky’s arrival it had been Martov who was the soul of the debates. Everyone agreed that he was deeply intelligent and committed and he sparkled in conversation. Trotsky put him in the shade. Forceful and witty, he was never disabled by the intellectual doubts and comradely inhibitions experienced by Martov. Trotsky liked Martov but had long ago concluded that he lacked the briskness necessary for the making of a revolutionary party and the discharging of the tasks of revolution. Yet there was much they agreed about. The war, they asserted, was the outcome of capitalist and imperialist rivalries which could be terminated only by the installation of socialist governments in Europe. The biggest part of the Second International had irreversibly discredited itself. The job for people such as the Russian and French militants at the Quai de Jemmapes was to construct an international alliance of socialist groups hostile to the war. Groupings and organizations needed to be brought together regardless of national origin. The Great War had to be ended. Europe badly needed the era of socialism to commence.