This article about Leon Trotsky was written in 1943 by Victor Serge for the radical-cultural review Partisan Review
He was hardly forty-five when we began calling him “the Old Man” as we had Lenin at a similar early age. All his life he gave one the feeling of a man in whom thought, action and his personal life formed a single solid block, one who would follow his road to the end, on whom one could always absolutely depend. He would not waver on essentials, he would not weaken in defeat, he would not avoid responsibility or lose his head under pressure. A man with so profound an inner pride that he became simple and modest.
Proving his powers at an early age (he was president of the first Petersburg Soviet in 1905, at 28), he was from then on sure of himself, and was able to look at fame, government posts, the greatest power, in a purely utilitarian way, without either contempt or desire. He knew how to be harsh and pitiless, in the spirit of a surgeon performing a serious operation. During the Civil War and the terror, he could write a sentence like: “There is nothing more human, in a time of revolution, than energy.”
If I had to define him in one word, I would say he was a doer. Yet he was also attracted by research, by contemplation, by poetry and creation.
Fleeing from Siberia, he could appreciate the beauty of the snowstorms; in the thick of the 1917 revolution, he speculated on the role of the creative imagination in such events; during his Mexican exile, he admired the amazing forms of the cactus plant and made expeditions to dig up fine specimens for his garden. A religious unbeliever, he was sure of the value of human life, the greatness of man, and the duty of serving human ends.
I never knew him greater, and he was never dearer to me, than in the dingy rooms of workers in Leningrad and Moscow, where I used to watch him, a few years earlier one of the two undisputed chieftains of the revolution talk for hours in order to convince a few factory workers.
Still a member of the Political Bureau, he was on the road to losing his power and probably also his life. (We all knew it, as did he, who spoke of it to me.) He had come to believe that it was once more on the order of the day to win over the workers one by one, as in the old days of illegality under the Tsar, if revolutionary democracy was to be saved. And so thirty or forty poor workers listened to him, one or two of them perhaps sitting on the floor at his feet, asking questions and pondering his replies. We knew that we were more likely to fail than to conquer, to but that too, we felt, would be useful. If we had not at least put up a fight, the revolution would have been a hundred times more defeated.
The greatness of Trotsky’s personality was a collective rather than an individual triumph. He was the highest expression of a human type produced in Russia between 1870 and 1920, the flower of a half-century of the Russian intelligentsia. Tens of thousands of his revolutionary comrades shared his traits — and I by no means exclude many of this political opponents from this company.
Like Lenin, like certain others whom the chances of the struggle left in obscurity, Trotsky simply carried to a high pitch of individual perfection the common characteristics of several generations of Russian revolutionary intellectuals. Glimpses of the type appear in Turgenev’s novels, notably Bazarov, but it comes out much more clearly in the great revolutionary struggles.
The militants of the Narodnaya Volya were men and women of this stamp; even purer examples were the Social-Revolutionary terrorists of the 1905 period, and the Bolsheviks of 1917. For a man like Trotsky to arise, it was necessary that thousands and thousands of individuals should establish the type over a long historical period. It was a broad social phenomenon, not the sudden flashing of a comet, and those who speak of Trotsky as a “unique” personality, conforming to the classic bourgeois idea of the “Great Man” are much mistaken. The characteristics of the type were:
A personal disinterestedness based on a sense of history;
A complete absence of individualism in the bourgeois sense of the word;
A strong impulse to place one’s individuality at the service of society, amounting to a kind of pride (but not quite without vanity or desire to “shine”);
The capacity for personal sacrifice, without the least desire for such sacrifice;
The capacity for “toughness” in the service of the cause, without the slightest sadistic overtones;
A sense of life integrated with both thought and action which is the antithesis of the after-dinner heroism of Western socialists.
The formation of the great social type — the highest reach of modern man, I think — ceased after 1917, and most of its surviving representatives were massacred at Stalin’s orders in 1936-7.
As I write these lines, as names and faces crowd in on me, it occurs to me that this kind of man had to be extirpated, his whole tradition and generation, before the level of our time could be sufficiently lowered. Men like Trotsky suggest much too uncomfortably the human possibilities of the future to be allowed to survive in a time of sloth and reaction.
And so his last years were lonely ones. I am told that he often paced up and down his study in Coyoacan, talking to himself.(Like Tchernichevsky, the first great thinker of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, who, brought back from Siberia where he had spent twenty years in exile, “talked to himself, looking at the stars,” as his police-guards wrote in their reports.) A Peruvian poet brought him a poem entitled, “The Solitude of Solitudes,” and the Old Man set himself to translate it word for word, struck by its title.
Alone, he continued his discussions with Kamenev — he was heard to pronounce this name several times. Although he was at the height of his intellectual powers, his last writings were not on the level of his earlier work. We forget too easily that intelligence is not merely an individual talent, that even a man of genius must have an intellectual atmosphere that permits him to breathe freely. Trotsky’s intellectual greatness was a function of his generation, and he needed contact with men of the same temper, who talked his language and could oppose him on his own level.
He needed Bukharin, Piatakov, Preobrajensky, Rakovsky, Ivan Smirnov, he needed Lenin in order to be completely himself. Already, years earlier, among our younger group — and yet among us there were minds and characters like Eltsin, Solntsev, Iakovin, Dignelstadt, Pankratov (are they dead? are they alive?) — could no longer strike ahead freely; ten years of thought and experience were lacking in us.
He was killed at the very moment that the modern world entered, though the war, a new phase of his “permanent revolution”. He was killed just for that reason, for he might have played too great a historical role, had he ever been able to return to the land and the people of that Russia he understood so profoundly. It was the logic of his passionate convictions, as well as certain secondary errors stemming from this passion, which brought about his death: to win over to his views an obscure individual, some one who didn’t exist, who was only a decoy painted by the GPU in revolutionary colours, he admitted him to his solitary study, and this nobody, carrying out orders, struck him down from behind as he bent over a commonplace manuscript. The pickaxe penetrated the head to a depth of three inches.