Are we sensible enough of all the sources of our own literary heritage? The question is suggested to me by some of the writings of the young Trotsky. Upon reading them, it is quickly evident, even from the accessible fraction of a much larger output belonging to the years before the October Revolution, that here is one rich source. Where is its wealth appreciated? Naturally, anyone in the least familiar with Trotsky’s life’s work will know that within his wide range of concerns the literary-artistic occupied a prominent place, as they will know also the power and quality of his best writing. His biographer, in a work whose own towering literary achievement is undiminished by the passage of a decade and a half since its completion, gives due space and attention to these facets of Trotsky’s personality. Others besides Isaac Deutscher have commented on the excellence of his prose.footnote1 And yet such is the imaginative force of some parts of Trotsky’s early work, and so compelling their narrative drive, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that, as a contribution to revolutionary literature, they have not yet been properly valued. This appears to be a paradox, so let us explore it. I am not now speaking about the strictly scientific value of these writings, about their strengths and deficiencies as political theory or historical analysis (or, for that matter, literary criticism), although even in this respect many things still need to be spoken. Nor is it a matter of focusing, narrowly, on the nature of Trotsky’s prose style, his manner of construction or exposition. The question as to what is literature may be a particularly thorny one but I mean simply to draw attention to the way in which, in some basic sense at least, the techniques and inspirations of creative literature inform the productions of the young Trotsky in his activities as historian and journalist, revolutionary theoretician and polemicist. Theoretical analysis, historical narrative or political characterization may be illuminated by a sudden, compressed image. The language of Marxist objectivity (not, of course, the same thing as neutrality) is doubled by the vivid recreation of some lived experience, the subjectivity, so to speak, of that objectivity. Global historical forces in movement are set off against a small detail of individual humour or tragedy. A personal portrait is given depth by the invocation of impersonal structures. The results are usually effective and sometimes stunning: for each strained or misplaced metaphor, each occurrence of some exaggerated literary flourish—for these there sometimes are—there is many another passage of fine and whole conviction. One result, in particular, is that the book 1905, as well as being a political text of capital importance, is a great book of the revolutionary experience of that year. Of lesser scope and maturity than Trotsky’s subsequent History of the Russian Revolution, dwarfed by the massive stature of that work, it nevertheless displays many of the same qualities, and it does for 1905 some of the things that the History does for 1917, proffering, to be sure, a theory of the unfolding events, sketching the outlines of a history of them but, over and above this, communicating an acute sense of them.

Let me then pose another question, the answer to which I really do not know. When one speaks of revolutionary literature or art, when, as Marxists and socialists, we seek to define a tradition in this matter, to appraise its elements or provide a theory of its nature, is the view cast sufficiently wide that it will encompass also such elements as might lie beyond the boundary of works of literature and art in the strict sense? Can it take in not only Brecht but also Marx, Trotsky as well as Eisenstein? Even in the sober, matter-of-fact idiom of Lenin, a world away from the creative drama or fiction, one can be startled on occasion by the appearance of an unexpected image, telling in its own specific way beyond the possibilities of prosaic argument: as, for example, when towards the end of the relentlessly detailed polemic of What Is To Be Done?, Lenin abruptly unlocks a window from the Russian underground on to a more open revolutionary horizon by picturing himself at a party conference stoutly defending his right to dream; or when, in a swift phrase in Two Tactics, he encapsulates an essential truth about revolutions, calling them ‘festivals of the oppressed’.footnote2 In any case, it is out of a conviction that Trotsky’s early work, whose devices are far richer, contains as well as politics, theory, history, also some of the ingredients of a genuine literature of the socialist movement, above all and as certainly as any fictional construction, of a literature of revolution, that I am tempted into this essay of appraisal. Whatever may be the general answer to the questions just posed, the suspicion is a nagging one that, as they concern in particular the young Trotsky, the response is largely negative. Few would look, or expect to find, here a valuable aesthetic source.

The reasons for this are not very difficult to identify. If we examine for a moment the other case, alluded to above, lying beyond that tightlydrawn boundary of creative literature, the case, namely, of Marx, things stand rather differently. So great today is the intellectual authority of the man that even those in the process of breaking from revolutionary politics seek for a shred of justification in his work, while others more distant still from Marxism will concede to him every sort of merit other than the essential ones. One of them is a powerful artistic vision and this has been widely acknowledged. It is impossible to read Marx’s magnum opus, whatever difficulties it might otherwise present, and fail to be impressed by his rich satirical gift, by the cumulative impact of his documentary description and by his arresting use of metaphor and imagery.footnote3 The impersonal interplay of commodities with commodities, of capitals with each other, and the crushing weight of this world of automata are conveyed there with a force that puts to shame many a contemporary drama of human alienation. Marx’s scrupulous depiction of the living and working conditions of labouring men and women, a vivid sketch of hell, belongs to a long line passing through such points as Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England and Jack London’s People of the Abyss, Zola’s Germinal and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Each type of discourse is clearly an important strand within a socialist literary tradition. But so, equally clearly, should be what one might call a discourse of the mass workers’ movement, of its periods of calm and defeat as of those of stormy upsurge, of its vast organizations, of its leaders and of its masses. For this one has to look beyond Marx’s time. Where Marx is revered or at least respected, Trotsky on nearly every side has been regarded with some mixture of hostility, contempt and ignorance. The phenomenon reaches far beyond the confines of a hard-nosed Stalinism of the ‘old’ sort into the consciousness even of some of the most independent thinking socialists. Amongst people who have been unwilling to approach Trotsky’s political contribution to the workers’ movement with the conscientious principle and seriousness which it merits, it is not surprising if a literary dimension of his earlier writings has been of no great interest.

However, a combination of reasons, good and not so good, may have been responsible also for its relative neglect by those nearer Trotsky’s politics or more sympathetic to his person. Among the good, one can count the fact that, taken as a whole, the works of Trotsky’s maturity do unquestionably overshadow those of the pre-October period and were bound, accordingly, to attract greater attention sooner. Their theoretical and political importance was of the most pressing immediacy. The effect, on supporters and sympathizers, of Trotsky’s own ambivalent attitudes towards his anti-Leninist past ranks perhaps as a much less convincing argument for such a neglect of its products (as reflected, for example, in the large quantity of this material that has yet to be translated from Russian into the other major languages). Anyway, what follows is a small attempt to redress an imbalance. The scope of this essay is strictly circumscribed. It does not offer a detailed appraisal of the young Trotsky’s political record, much less one of his subsequent career. It is not concerned with a general reconsideration either of his merits and achievements as a revolutionary or of his failures and political errors. In its broad outlines there is, evidently, a view of Trotsky involved here, one which I have made no effort to hide. But the substantive preoccupation of this text is only a particular aspect of his politics as reflected in a part of his early work, namely, the quality of his writing. Trotsky being who he was, this is not, of course, a ‘purely literary’ enterprise, if such a thing is possible in any case. Important political themes and philosophical positions, concerning the modalities of political action, the nature of proletarian revolution, the human content of the struggle for socialism, and much else besides, are crucially at issue. However, they are treated in their relationship to the central question as I have presented it, the question of Trotsky’s contribution to the literature of socialism. Such a focus is of interest and importance surely even for those, like myself, unfamiliar with any formal canon of literary criticism.

Trotsky, then, is at work. He is discussing Tolstoy on the latter’s eightieth birthday. Where Marx and Heine, he says, still appear contemporary with his own generation, this actual contemporary is already cut off from it by the flow of time. He pictures him, at first, as ‘an enormous jagged cliff, moss-covered and from a different historical world’. Then, evoking that historical world, Trotsky quickly restores Tolstoy to his real physical, and social, setting. He grew up ‘in an atmosphere of the old nobility, among inherited acres, in a spacious manorial home and in the shade of linden-tree alleys’. The ‘short and narrow path’ from the manor to the peasant’s hut Tolstoy, the artist, trod lovingly before Tolstoy, the moralist, turned it into ‘a road of salvation’. At the source of his creative being he is, according to Trotsky, an aristocrat. His is the world of landlord and muzhik; he hates the turmoil and disintegration brought by new social relations, the hum of city life. Although no apologist for serfdom, his heart belongs ‘there where life is reproduced changelessly from one generation to the next’, and this is reflected in the ‘aesthetic pantheism’ of his best work, War and Peace, as in his ‘calm, unhurried, frugal’ style. During the course of this appreciation, we are told of Tolstoy’s abode: ‘In the ancestral home of the Princes Volkonsky, inherited by the Tolstoy family, the author of War and Peace occupies a simple, plainly furnished room in which there hangs a handsaw, stands a scythe and lies an axe. But on the upper floor of this same dwelling, like stony guardians of its traditions, the illustrious ancestors of a whole number of generations keep watch from the walls.’ It is, says Trotsky, an inverted symbol of Tolstoy himself. On ‘the summits of consciousness’ there lies a moral philosophy of the simple life and submergence within the people; below, at the origin of emotion and volition, the influence of the ancestors continues to make itself felt.footnote4

Now Trotsky is describing Victor Adler, the leader of Austrian Social Democracy. He makes the scantest overt reference to Adler’s ‘opportunism’. He presents a shrewd politician of penetrating, analytic mind and a man of warmth and great charm. Disturbed early one Sunday morning during an election period, after a hectic speaking and editorial schedule the previous day, Adler is grumpily helpful to the young Russian arriving penniless in Vienna. Trotsky highlights his pragmatism, a flair for tactical improvization and the diplomacy of compromise, a disrespectfully ironic regard towards all rigidity of principle and doctrinairism. Adler wants to drain dry all the possibilities of each political situation. He is deeply sceptical of attempts at objective prognosis. Trotsky recounts an incident. At the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International in 1907, an Australian trade unionist ‘who turned out to be a mystic (this happens with the Anglo-Saxons)’ reported having had a vision of the advent of social revolution in 1910. In translating, the French interpreter ‘magnanimously’ omitted the prophecy, while the ‘honest German’ said there had been a lot of rubbish at the end of the Australian’s speech. Afterwards in the lobby, Victor Adler for his part joked that he preferred such forecasts to ones based on the materialist conception of history.footnote5

Another occasion: we are on the threshold of the courtroom, about to be conducted by Trotsky into the trial of the Petersburg Soviet. Behind, there lie the sweep and the excitement of revolutionary days, ahead, the examination of charges of insurrectionary conspiracy. ‘The indictment’, says Trotsky, ‘reflects the revolution in the same way as a dirty puddle in a police station yard reflects the sun.’footnote6 Or else he is discussing the professional intelligentsia, wanting to convey the spiritual as well as material dependence on bourgeois society of managers, doctors, professors and lawyers. An electrician, he tells us, can remain himself, installing wiring day after day in the offices or bedrooms of ministers and bankers. But it is different for the doctor ‘who is obliged to find music in his soul and in his voice which will accord with the feelings and habits of these persons.’footnote7