2017 marks the centenary of the greatest event in world history: the Russian Revolution. The names Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky will forever be connected to that momentous social, political, and economic upheaval, which forever changed the course of humanity. Many people familiar with 20th Century history know that when the Russian working class overthrew the tsar in February 1917, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland, soon to return to Petrograd in the famous sealed train. But where was Trotsky before returning to the maelstrom?
On January 1, 1917, Trotsky wrote in his diary: “Two New Years of the war I have spent in France, the third is spent on the ocean. What has 1917 in store for us?” Trotsky, his wife Natalia Sedova, and their two children, Lev and Sergei were on the steamship Montserrat, bound for the United States from Spain, from whence they had been expelled from the European continent.
One hundred years ago today, on January 13, 1917, just weeks before the collapse of tsarism, the thirty-eight-year-old Trotsky arrived in New York City. For two-and-a-half months he lived and worked in the exuberant city before returning to revolutionary Russia. A professional revolutionary socialist and internationalist, he threw himself headlong into political activity from the moment he stepped ashore.
Trotsky was quite literally a man without a passport, hounded his entire adult life by the authorities, exiled, deported, and expelled from one country after another. He was twice exiled to Siberia for his revolutionary activities in Russia and escaped both times. From England to Austria and the Balkans, Switzerland, France, and Spain, Trotsky lived and breathed revolutionary Marxism wherever he went. He was a prodigious writer and editor of newspapers, articles, books, pamphlets, and gave countless speeches for socialist revolution and against capitalism, imperialism, and war in multiple languages.
Trotsky recalled his first impressions of the city in his 1930 autobiography, My Life: “Here I was in New York, city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city in the world, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.”
The day after he arrived, he wrote, “I left a Europe wallowing in blood, but I left with a profound faith in a coming revolution. And it was with no democratic ‘illusions’ that I stepped on the soil of this old-enough New World.”
As Kenneth Ackerman explains in his highly detailed and extensively researched account, Trotsky In New York, 1917: Portrait of a Radical on the Eve of Revolution, Trotsky hit the ground running. Of Ukrainian-Jewish origin, he landed in the infamous warrens of the Lower East Side (LES) in Manhattan, home to tens of thousands of Eastern European immigrants.
Just a few weeks after Trotsky’s arrival, food riots broke in the LES. Hundreds of women protested against food prices, which had doubled or even tripled on the eve of WWI. Price-gouging merchants and those who did not respect a boycott organized by the socialist-led Mothers’ Anti-High Price League were verbally and physically assaulted, their merchandise doused with kerosene, and a spontaneous protest of hundreds of protesters invaded nearby City Hall. According to Eric Ferrara of the LES History Project: “The enraged women—many with infants in tow—began shouting in both English and Yiddish, ‘We want food for our children!’”
As Trotsky recalled in My Life: “After the Germans came out for unrestricted submarine warfare, mountains of military supplies blocked the railways and filled all the eastern stations and ports. Prices instantly soared, and I saw thousands of women – mothers, in the wealthiest city of the world – come out into the streets, upset the stalls, and break into shops. What will it be like in the rest of the world after the war? I asked myself.”
In short, the working class districts of 1917 New York City were a pressure cooker of class struggle and political intrigue. Socialists, anarchists, labor activists, and police spies swarmed the crowded streets, tenements, mutual aid societies, ethnic clubs, and cafes. With the US on the verge of entering World War I, anti-war sentiment was high—as were accusations of anti-patriotic or pro-German behavior. Even before his arrival, Trotsky was well-known among political exiles and immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe as the leader of the St. Petersburg soviet during the 1905 Russian Revolution.
Trotsky’s first order of business was to meet up with Nikolai Bukharin, who he knew from his days in Vienna, and who insisted on an immediate visit to the New York Public Library. Desperately poor, Trotsky put his famous pen to use and began revolutionary work the very next day. He joined Bukharin and V. Volodarsky in editing the revolutionary paper Novy Mir, produced in the East Village at 77 St. Mark’s Place. Some sources claim that Trotsky lived for a time upon his arrival at Bukharin’s apartment across the street, at 80 St. Mark’s Place. During his short stay in the city, Trotsky also wrote articles for publication in the radical Yiddish paper Der Forverts, as well as for English-language The Call and the German-language Volkszeitung.
Natalia found an $18-a-month apartment through a friend of a friend at 1522 Vyse Avenue in the Bronx, near 172nd Street. In My Life, Trotsky writes that he lived on 164th Street in the Bronx—“if I am not mistaken." However, most historians agree that he lived on Vyse Avenue (although the actual building where he lived was torn down and replaced in 1931).
They furnished their tenement apartment on an installment plan, and as Trotsky recalls, it “was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking range, bath, telephone, automatic service elevator, and even a chute for the garbage. These things completely won the boys over to New York. For a time the telephone was their main interest; we had not had this mysterious instrument either in Vienna or Paris.”
Trotsky read insatiably in the New York Public Library’s Slavic collection as well as studying the economic history of the United States. Not knowing how long he would remain in this new land, he set about understanding it and was clearly happy to have the opportunity to study the future world superpower up close.
As he explained in My Life: “The figures showing the growth of American exports during the war astounded me; they were, in fact, a complete revelation. And it was those same figures that not only predetermined America’s intervention in the war, but the decisive part that the United States would play in the world after the war, as well. I wrote several articles about this at the time, and gave several lectures. Since that time the problem of ‘America versus Europe’ has been one of my chief interests. And even now [in 1930] I am studying the question with the utmost care, hoping to devote a separate book to it. If one is to understand the future destiny of humanity, this is the most important of all subjects.”
But he also paid keen attention to developments in Russia, and despite the depths of the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, maintained his revolutionary perspective. In the commemoration article “Lessons of a Great Year,” he wrote: “One thing is clear—if a revolution comes, it will not be a result of cooperation between capital and labor. The experiences of 1905 show that this is a miserable Utopia. To acquaint himself with those experiences, to study them is the duty of every thinking working-man who is anxious to avoid tragic mistakes. It is in this sense that we have said that revolutionary anniversaries are not only days for reminiscences, but also days for summing up revolutionary experiences.”
A renowned orator, he was much in demand as a public speaker, speaking in Russian and German in New York, Philadelphia, and other nearby cities. One surviving notice advertises him as the keynote speaker against the war at New York’s famous Cooper's Union. He also lectured at The Russian Free University the on East Seventh Street.
As he acclimated to his new home, he met with other Russian revolutionary exiles such as Alexandra Kollontai as well as with the leaders of the Socialist Party of America. Not surprisingly, he was not impressed, to say the least, given their reformist outlook. As he relates in My Life “During those months America was busily getting ready for war. As ever, the greatest help came from the pacifists. Their vulgar speeches about the advantages of peace as opposed to war invariably ended in a promise to support war if it became ‘necessary.’ This was the spirit of the Bryan campaign. The socialists sang in tune with the pacifists. It is a well-known axiom that pacifists think of war as an enemy only in time of peace.
“... I once saw, through the window of my newspaper office, an old man with suppurating eyes and a straggling gray beard stop before a garbage-can and fish out a crust of bread. He tried the crust with his hands, then he touched the petrified thing with his teeth, and finally he struck it several times against the can. But the bread did not yield. Finally, he looked about him as if he were afraid or embarrassed, thrust his find under his faded coat, and shambled along down St. Mark’s Place. This little episode took place on March 2, 1917. But it did not in any way interfere with the plans of the ruling class. War was inevitable, and the pacifists had to support it.”
He continued his excoriation of these dilettantes: “Immigrants who had played some role in Europe in their youth, they very quickly lost the theoretical premise they had brought with them in the confusion of their struggle for success. In the United States there is a large class of successful and semi-successful doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, and the like who divide their precious hours of rest between concerts by European celebrities and the American Socialist party. Their attitude toward life is composed of shreds and fragments of the wisdom they absorbed in their student days.
“... My first contact with these men was enough to call forth their candid hatred of me. My feelings toward them, though probably less intense, were likewise not especially sympathetic. We belonged to different worlds. To me they seemed the rottenest part of that world with which I was and still am at war.”
He immediately took up the struggle against the smug reformists in the pages of Novy Mir: “The paper was the headquarters for internationalist revolutionary propaganda. In all of the national federations of the Socialist party, there were members who spoke Russian, and many of the Russian federation spoke English. In this way the ideas of the Novy Mir found their way out into the wider circles of American workers. The mandarins of official Socialism grew alarmed. Intrigues waxed hot against the European immigrant who, it was said, had set foot on American soil only the day before, did not understand the psychology of the American, and was trying to foist his fantastic methods on American workers. The struggle grew bitter.”
The one exception was Eugene V. Debs. Again from the chapter “New York” in My Life: “Old Eugene Debs stood out prominently among the older generation because of the quenchless inner flame of his socialist idealism. Although he was a romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader, he was a sincere revolutionary; yet he succumbed to the influence of people who were in every respect his inferiors. Hillquit’s art lay in keeping Debs on his left flank while he maintained a business friendship with Gompers. Debs had a captivating personality. Whenever we met, he embraced and kissed me; the old man did not belong to the ‘drys.’ When the Babbitts proclaimed a blockade against me, Debs took no part in it; he simply drew aside, sorrowfully.”
Just a month after Trotsky's arrival, red flags were flying above the tsar’s palace in Petrograd. Trotsky paints the scene in his autobiography:
“After the mysterious silence of the cables for two or three days, came the first confused reports of the uprising in Petrograd. The cosmopolitan working-class in New York was all excited. Men hoped and were afraid to hope. The American press was in a state of utter bewilderment. Journalists, interviewers, reporters, came from all sides to the offices of the Novy Mir. For a time our paper was the center of interest of the New York press.
Telephone calls from the Socialist newspaper offices and organizations never stopped.
‘A cablegram has arrived saying that Petrograd has appointed a Guchkov-Miliukoff ministry. What does it mean?’
‘That to-morrow there will be a ministry of Miliukoff and Kerensky.’
‘Is that so? And what next?’
‘Next? We shall be the next.’
'This sort of thing was repeated dozens of times. Almost everyone I talked with took my words as a joke. At a special meeting of ‘worthy and most worthy’ Russian Social Democrats, I read a paper in which I argued that the proletariat party inevitably would assume power in the second stage of the Russian revolution. This produced about the same sort of impression as a stone thrown into a puddle alive with pompous and phlegmatic frogs. Dr. Ingermann did not hesitate to explain that I was ignorant of the four first rules of political arithmetic and that it was not worth while wasting five minutes to refute my nonsensical dreams.”
Trotsky obviously had the last laugh, as his perspectives were borne out in the weeks and months to come. The Russian working class of New York had a different outlook: “The working masses took the prospects of revolution quite differently. Meetings, extraordinary for their size and enthusiasm, were held all over New York. Everywhere, the news that the red flag was flying over the Winter Palace brought an excited cheer. Not only the Russian immigrants but their children, who knew hardly any Russian, came to these meetings to breathe in the reflected joy of the revolution.”
Trotsky immediately booked passage on the first ship available and prepared for his return to Russia. On the eve of their departure, his nine-year-old son Sergei, recovering from diphtheria, was allowed to go for a brief walk—and got lost while trying to ascertain whether there really was a "First Street." After many panicky hours, he was finally located at local police station. “When my wife arrived at the station an hour later with our older son, she was greeted gaily, like a long-awaited guest. Seryozha was playing checkers with the policemen, and his face was quite red. To hide his embarrassment over an excess of official attention, he was diligently chewing some black American cud with his new friends.”
This may well explain the enigmatic final sentence in Trotsky's 1934 work, If America Should Go Communist: “One final prophecy: in the 3rd year of the Soviet rule in America you will no longer chew gum!” Perhaps he associated this “American cud” with nearly missing his ship back to the revolution!
Despite the hiccup, on March 27, Trotsky, Natalia, and their boys boarded the Norwegian steamer, the SS Kristianiafjord, bound for Russia. After spending nearly a month as the guests of British imperialism at Amherst POW Internment Camp in Nova Scotia, Canada, Trotsky arrived in Petrograd on May 4. The rest, as they say, is history. Trotsky went on to again lead the Petrograd soviet, join the Bolshevik Party and become its key public leader, negotiate the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, create and lead the Red Army, and much, much more.
Trotsky’s time in New York was brief, but it clearly had profound impact on his understanding of the world and imperialism and the struggle for socialism. From a cryptic reference to the “Bronx witch” in his polemic against the petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP, to his discussions on the perspectives for a labor party in the US, his experiences in the US better equipped him to analyze the complexities and contradictions of American problems. Trotsky was keen to return to the US and applied for a visa to receive medical treatment later in the 1930s. Needless to say, this hated enemy of imperialism was not allowed back in.
He ends his chapter on New York as follows: “It would be a gross exaggeration to say that I learned much about New York. I plunged into the affairs of American Socialism too quickly, and I was straightway up to my neck in work for it. The Russian revolution came so soon that I only managed to catch the general life-rhythm of the monster known as New York. I was leaving for Europe, with the feeling of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged. My only consolation was the thought that I might return. Even now I have not given up that hope.”
Trotsky may never have returned to the US, but his time in New York City did not pass unnoticed. As the Bronx Home News wrote later in 1917: “Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution.”
A century has now passed since Trotsky first set foot in the city of John D. Rockefeller and Wall Street. Since then, the insoluble contradictions of capitalism have only intensified. The economy once again stands on the brink of a major crisis and confidence in all the system’s institutions has been shattered. While the liberal and reformist apologists wring their hands over the events of 2016, the comrades of the US section of the International Marxist Tendency recognize the historical significance of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and are filled with more revolutionary optimism than ever. Just as in 1917, this is no time to stand on the sidelines of history and struggle. Join the IMT and help us finish the work begun by Lenin and Trotsky one hundred years ago!