On the eve of revolution: Trotsky in New York

Submitted by Matthew on 1 March, 2017 - 11:37 Author: Paul Hampton

In October 1917 Leon Trotsky was a principal leader of the Russian revolution, leading workers to power and the establishment of their own state. Trotsky would become the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, responsible for taking Russia out of the First World War. Yet his year had begun in very different circumstances.

For ten weeks Trotsky lived in exile in New York. His time there is retold by Kenneth Ackerman.

Although the book is flawed in its political assessments and littered with silly mistakes, it nevertheless manages to capture more clearly than previous accounts the historical context of Trotsky’s time in New York and his political impact on the US socialist movement.

On a cold, rainy Sunday morning on 13 January 1917, Trotsky, his partner Natalia Sedova, and his two sons Sergei and Lyova, disembarked from the steamship Montserrat in New York. They had endured the “wretched little boat” and conditions they dubbed “transport barbarism” following expulsion from Spain. They had to lie about their real identities and record. The journey was perilous because German submarines had been sinking ships to enforce their blockade of Britain during the war.

Trotsky had opposed the First World War from the beginning, living in exile in Paris and producing the paper Nashe Slovo (Our Word). He attended the Zimmerwald anti-war conference in 1915 and drafted its manifesto. He was deported from France to Spain in October 1916 after attempting to reach the war front to report on conditions there. Jailed in Spain, he sought to remain in Europe but was forced into transatlantic exile by the Spanish state.

Ackerman records the warmth with which Trotsky was greeted in New York: “within two days, at least six New York newspapers with more than half a million readers would announce Trotsky’s arrival in the city. Three put the story on the front page, and two, the Forward and the New York Call, included front-page photos”. Trotsky had landed in a city with nearly half a million Russians and almost a million Jewish people from Eastern Europe, many refugees from the Tsarist regime. As a revolutionary of two decades standing and the chair of the Petrograd soviet in 1905, his reputation as “a resolute fighter for the revolutionary international” preceded him. Trotsky was greeted in New York by an array of socialists.

In 1917, the Socialist Party was a formidable force in America. Two Socialists had sat in the US Congress. Socialists held mayor’s offices in 56 towns and cities. The party had more than 110,000 dues-paying members and about 150 affiliated publications. Its main magazine, Appeal to Reason, reached almost 700,000 readers each month. The Socialist Party’s presidential candidate Eugene Debs won over 900,000 votes in 1912, about 6% of the total, running against Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. But the party was also packed with reformists and machine-politicians such as Victor Berger and notably in New York, the lawyer Morris Hillquit.

On his first full day in New York, Trotsky went to the offices of Novy Mir (New World), where he would work during his time in the city. The journal had a circulation of 8,000 and according to Ackerman, was “arguably the most impactful Russian journal in the western hemisphere, easily overshadowing the city’s three larger-circulation Russian dailies”. He joined a team of Russian socialists, including editor Gregory Weinstein, the left-Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin and a protégé from Paris, Grigorii Chudnovsky. On his first night in New York Trotsky, Bukharin and Chudnovsky were invited to dinner with Ludwig Lore, the associate editor of the New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York People’s Paper) in Brooklyn. Other guests included the Bolshevik feminist Aleksandra Kollontai and Moisei Volodarsky, who came up from Philadelphia.

All these Russians would play leading roles in the revolution when they returned home in 1917. Other guests included the veteran Japanese socialist Sen Katayama, socialist lawyer Louis Boudin and the young socialist cultural critic Louis Fraina. The meal witnessed an epic but comradely debate between Bukharin, who advocated splitting the Socialist Party, versus Trotsky who advocated the left organise within the party.

On 25 January 1917, these socialists organised a big welcoming party for Trotsky in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, holding around 900 people. It was here that Trotsky gave his first public speech in the USA. He told the audience “the socialist revolution is coming in Europe and America must be ready when it comes”.

Ackerman paints these few months of Trotsky’s life in bright colours and brings to light much that has previously been ignored. The book is laced with vignettes of the personalities Trotsky met, as well as the flavour of his life in exile. The political context Trotsky found himself in was dominated by the impending decision of the US government to enter the First World War on the side of Britain and France. On 3 February, President Woodrow Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. Trotsky became one of New York’s leading voices opposing US entry into the war.

In early February, Trotsky addressed packed crowds at the Brooklyn Lyceum, Manhattan’s Beethoven Hall, the Labor Temple near Union Square and other venues. On 1 March, the Zimmermann telegram was published, in which the German foreign minister offered Mexico an alliance and the recovery of lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if it joined the German side. The telegram sparked outrage, which was refracted through the socialist movement. The Jewish daily Forward carried an editorial by Baruch Vladeck, stating that “every inhabitant of the country would fight to the last drop of blood to protect the great American republic against the monarchies of Europe and Asia and their allies”.

Trotsky promptly had a face-to-face row with the Forward’s editor Abraham Cahan. Morris Hillquit convened a Socialist Party meeting in New York to determine what they should do if the US entered the war. This “Resolution Committee” of seven included both Fraina and Trotsky as representatives of the left wing. There are no records or minutes, no newspaper accounts or even letters and memoirs about the three meetings of the committee. However Ackerman explains that although they agreed about denounce patriotism and pacifism, the reformists were not prepared to sanction Trotsky and Fraina’s calls for mass working-class action to oppose US entry into the war. Unable to settle the matter, they resolved to hold a public debate.

This was held on 4 March 1917 at the Lenox Casino, now the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque, and featured Fraina against Hillquit and his cabal. The latter won by 101 votes to 79. Trotsky and Fraina would not lie down, joining Eugene Debs for a mass rally against the war on 8 March at Cooper Union, vowing to carry on the class struggle during wartime. That same day Russian workers spurred by international women’s day had risen for bread, peace and the end of the Tsarist autocracy.

For five days hundreds of thousands took strike action and demonstrated in Petrograd, until they toppled the hated regime. The news reached New York on 15 March. Ackerman described how “celebrations were erupting all across New York’s vast immigrant neighbourhoods: Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, especially the Lower East Side. Spontaneous parades, rounds of drinks, songs and dancing spread like wildfire with the news...”.

The book does not cover Novy Mir’s extensive commentary on the situation in Russia in much depth. This is disappointing, as much of Trotsky’s journalism has been available in English in Moisei Olgin’s collection Our Revolution (1918) and the Journal of Trotsky Studies (1993). Days after the overthrow of the Tsar, Trotsky predicted that “an open conflict between the forces of the revolution, led by the urban proletariat, and the anti-revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie which has temporarily come to power, is completely inevitable”.

He articulated his permanent revolution perspective. He wrote: “In this struggle the proletariat, uniting around itself the insurgent popular masses, must set as its direct objective the conquest of power. Only a revolutionary workers’ government will have the volition and ability, even during the preparation for the Constituent Assembly, to conduct a radical democratic purge in the country, reconstruct the army from top to bottom. Turn it into a revolutionary militia, and in fact demonstrate to the peasant masses that their salvation lies only in support for a revolutionary workers’ regime” (Trotsky, [19 March 1917], ‘The Growing Conflict: The Internal Forces of the Russian revolution’, Journal of Trotsky Studies).

Once they heard about events in Russia, the revolutionaries immediately made plans to return to join the struggle there. They approached the Russian consulate following the amnesty of exiles to obtain the necessary papers. They found passage on a Norwegian-American steamship Kristianiafjord and discovering that it would have to call in Canada, obtained further permission from the British colonial authorities. More than three hundred people saw them off at the South Brooklyn pier on 27 March.

However when the ship docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia a few days later, British naval officers removed Trotsky and five other Russians, acting on a panicked report of spooks operating out of New York. They were illegally detained in a British makeshift prisoner-of-war camp for German sailors in an abandoned factory at Amhurst. Trotsky wasted no time. As Ackerman describes it, “he soon found himself giving talks to small ad hoc circles [telling them] about the Russian revolution, about Lenin, about America’s intention to join the war, and about how, once the war ended, they could go home and overthrow the government in Germany, just as Russian soldiers would help topple the tsar. They could get rid of the Kaiser and the whole capitalist crowd in Berlin who had started this pointless bloodshed in the first place”.

The camp commander colonel Morris complained: “After only a few days here [Trotsky] was by far the most popular man in the whole camp with the German prisoners-of-war, two thirds of whom are socialists”.

While Trotsky was interned, the political situation shifted. Lenin arrived back in Russia on the night of 3 April. His ‘April Theses’ spelt out the orientation the Bolsheviks would take, refusing to support the provisional government and campaigning to take power. The US government announced on 6 April that it would enter the war. The Russian provisional government including Aleksandr Kerensky and Paul Miliukov at first tried to keep Trotsky’s arrest a secret, then asked he be released, only to cancel the request. A petition in the camp signed by 500 prisoners protested at Trotsky’s confinement. Socialists in New York and in Russia campaigned for their release. Trotsky would eventually be freed on 3 May, reaching Norway and then onto Russia by 17 May.

Kenneth Ackerman’s lack of understanding of Trotsky’s Marxist ideas means the book is littered with mistakes and poor judgements. At one point he laughably equates the present day legacy of Trotskyism in the USA with the post-Healyite Socialist Equality Party of David North, ignoring the myriad of other far healthier political groups within the American left.

But Ackerman does succeed in capturing the continued vitality of Trotsky as a symbol of working class socialism. He concludes the book with the astute observation on why he was never rehabilitated in the USSR even as it fell to pieces. Ackerman rightly states: “Trotsky still appeared too dangerous. He still represented the historical alternative, the possibility that things can always be different, that socialism could have worked, that ruling powers any place and any time can be overthrown by the conscious, organised will of the people.

“All this made Trotsky dangerous to the Russian tsar in 1905, to Kerensky in 1917, to Hillquit in New York, to Stalin in the 1920s, even to Gorbachev in the 1980s. For all his faults, he remains the eternal agent of change”.