Problems of friendship with Trotsky - Max Eastman
Based on his experience as Trotsky's biographer and literary collaborator, Eastman offers some insights into the man's personality and social behaviour.
ALTHOUGH Trotsky's eyes were a rather pale blue, reporters were always calling them black. Not only Frank Harris, with his genius for remembering what didn't quite happen, but John Reed, a keen and careful observer, made this mistake.
"To look at he is slight, of middle height, always striding somewhere. Above his high forehead is a shock of wavy black hair, his eyes behind thick glasses are dark and almost violent, and his mouth wears a perpetual sardonic expression. . . ."
So Reed described him in a dispatch from revolutionary Petrograd in 1918.
"There's something fatal about it," Trotsky commented. "Those black eyes figure in every description of me, although the eyes nature gave me are blue."
I, for my part, can testify that in Prinkipo in 1932, nothing less dark or violent was to be seen on the horizon than Trotsky's pale blue eyes. His mouth, in repose, might be described as cherubic. He could be sardonic; he could cause an oratorical opponent to shrivel in the air with a single shaft of sarcastic logic. This seemed a black art, and its Mephistophelian character was emphasized by that wavy black hair and a short, pointed beard. It was, however, a trait of mind and social attitude, not a physical trait.
I came rather close to Trotsky during the year and nine months that I spent in Russia in 1922 to 1924, for he agreed to tell me his life story and let me make a book of it. We never finished the book, but I published half of it with the title, Leon Trotsky, The Portrait of a Youth. Nine years later Eliena and I spent twelve days with him and his wife and retinue of bodyguards and secretaries on Prinkipo Island in the Sea of Marmona where he found refuge after Stalin had driven him from Russia. It was there that he and I got really acquainted. It was not on my side a pleasant process—or rather it was pleasant while superficial, but harshly unpleasant as the acquaintance deepened. This was no great surprise to me, for although I took Trotsky's side in the conflict with Stalin, and fail to see how any understanding revolutionist could have chosen otherwise, I was far from enamored of him personally. I hero-worshipped him and do still, especially after reading Isaac Deutscher's glowing account of his revolutionary deeds, but I did not, even in Moscow while writing my own little book about his youth, feel any affection for him. I used to say this frequently when coming home to Eliena after an hour's conversation with him at the War Office, but I could not explain why. He was not egotistical; he was forever wandering from the main subject to expatiate with thoughtful penetration about the lives and qualities of his friends. Yet to me he was not a friend. With all those intimate talks about his infancy and youth—about all infancy and youth, all growing into life and grasping it—we never came together. Therefore it was not with happy excitement, but with an under feeling of reluctance, that I accepted in 1932 his urgent invitation to "come and spend several weeks with us in Prinkipo and we'll work and go fishing together."
Although it happened twenty-five years ago, my impressions of Trotsky at that time are entirely fresh for I wrote them down then and saved them. I wrote them at two separate times: one in the evening after the first three days of our visit, the other on the train to Jerusalem the morning we left. I present them here as they were written in 1932.
I. After Three Days
Trotsky seems the most modest and self-forgetful of all the famous men I have known. He never boasts; he never speaks of himself or his achievements; he never monopolizes the conversation. He gives his attention freely and wholly to anything that happens or comes up. With all the weight of worldwide slander and misrepresentation he struggles under today, the peculiar position he occupies, he has not so far breathed a syllable suggestive of preoccupation with himself or even the ordinary, quite human touchiness that one might expect. As we work on his book, if I pay him a compliment, he says some little thing, "I am glad," and then passes hastily to another subject. After all, I agree with his colleague, Lunacharsky, although I did not when I came here, that there is "not a drop of vanity in him."
Like many great men I have met he does not seem altogether robust. There is apt to be a frailty associated with great intellect. At any rate, Trotsky, especially in our heated arguments concerning the "dialectic," in which he becomes excited and wrathful to the point of losing his breath, seems to me at times almost weak. He seems too small for the struggle. He cannot laugh at my attacks on his philosophy, or be curious about them—as I imagine Lenin would—because in that field he is not secure. He is not strongly based. I get the impression of a man in unstable equilibrium because of the mountain of ability and understanding that he has to carry. In what is he unequal to the load? In self-confidence? Is it the Jew's inferiority complex after all? Is it that he has never played, never loafed and invited his soul, or observed that the sunshine is good whatever happens? When I remarked that fishing with a dragnet is interesting work, but not sport, he said:
"Two plusses—it is interesting and it is work! What more can you ask?"
I wonder if that is the mood in which he will go fishing—intense, speedy, systematic, organized for success, much as he went to Kazan to defeat the White Armies.
He seems to me over-sure of everything he believes. I suppose that is what Lenin meant in his testament when he warned the party against Trotsky's "excessive self-confidence." But I suspect that his weaker point as a political leader would be that when that cocksureness breaks down, he is non-plussed. He does not know how to cherish a doubt, how to speculate. Between us, at least, to confer is out of the question.
His magnanimity, his freedom from anything like rancour, is amazing. I see it in his portrayal of his enemies, but also in smaller things. Yesterday we reached a point of tension in our argument about dialectic that was extreme. Trotsky's throat was throbbing and his face was red; he was in a rage. His wife was worried, evidently, and when we left the tea table and went into his study still fighting, she came in after us and stood there above and beside me like a statue, silent and austere. I understood what she meant and said, after a long, hot speech from him:
"Well, let's lay aside this subject and go to work on the book."
"As much as you like!" he jerked out, and snapped up the manuscript.
I began reading the translation and he following me, as usual, in the Russian text. I had not read three sentences when he suddenly, to my complete surprise, dropped the manuscript and, looking up like a child proposing a new game, said:
"I have an idea. What do you say you and I together write a drama of the American Civil War!"
"Fine!" I said, trying to catch my breath.
"We would each bring something to it that the other lacks. You have a literary gift that I lack, and I could supply a factual knowledge of what a civil war is like!"
This man has the childlike charm of an artist. Perhaps my feeling of his weakness, of his being inadequate to his load, derives from the fact that his character as a man of action is the result of self-discipline and not of instinct. He has made out of himself something more, or at least other, than he is. I do not know. I merely record these two, or rather, three impressions. an utter absence of egotism, instinctive magnanimity, and something like weakness, as of a man overburdened with his own great strength.
II. Ten Days Later
It is fortunate that I recorded the above impressions immediately, for now, after twelve days in Trotsky's home, my mood has changed to such an extent that I could hardly write them down. I feel "injured" by his total inward indifference to my opinions, my interests, my existence as an individual. There has been no meeting either of our minds or feelings. He has never asked me a question. He has answered all my questions, as a book would answer them, without interchange, without assuming the possibility of mutual growth. My pointed criticisms of his policy—that he has not thought out the implications of the problem of nationalities on a world scale, that he never should have let Stalin make "socialism in one country" the issue, thus jockeying him into the defense of a negative slogan—were met with mere lordly-hasty rejection. I was an amateurish creature needing to be informed of the technical truth which dwelt in his mind.
On the disputed question of Trotsky's "vanity," I still agree with Lunacharsky. His failing is subtler than that and more disastrous. He lives instinctively in a world in which other persons (except in the mass, or as classes) do not count. In youth he stood prodigiously high above his companions in brain, speech, and capacity for action, so that he never formed the habit of inquiring—he was always telling. His knowledge and true knowledge, his view and the right view, were identical. There is no bragging or vanity in this, no preoccupation with himself. Trotsky is preoccupied with ideas and the world, but they are his ideas and his view of the world. People, therefore, who do not adulate, go away from Trotsky feeling belittled. Either that, or they go away indignant, as I am.
Opinionated minds are usually far from wise; Trotsky is opinionated in the highest degree, but with wise opinions. Cranky people are usually old and barren of fruit. Trotsky is cranky, but young and fruitful.
I want to dwell on the manner in which his arrogance differs from vanity, or self-centered egotism. It is not a conscious thought, but an unconscious assumption that he knows, and that other people are to be judged and instructed. It is a postulate laid down in his childhood, as I said, and by his instincts. That, I now suspect, is why he is weak and indecisive and lacks judgment when frustrated. That is why he became almost hysterical when I parried with ease the crude cliches he employed to defend the notion of dialectic evolution. The idea of meeting my mind, of "talking it over" as with an equal, could not occur to him. He was lost. Similarly in the party crisis when the flood of slander overflowed him, he was lost. He never made one move after Stalin attacked him that was not, from the standpoint of diplomatic tactics, a blunder. Trotsky is much concerned with the task life imposes of making decisions. He told me once that in youth he passed through a period when he thought he was mentally sick, because he could never make up his mind about anything, but that as Commander of the Red Army he often astonished himself by the prompt assurance with which he gave orders to generals and colonels trained for a lifetime in military science.
It was in revolt against an inferior father's stubborn will that Trotsky developed the "excessive self-confidence" that Lenin warned against. What he needed, when that self-confidence cracked, was a father—an authority to defer to. That is what Lenin supplied. If you read Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution carefully—as carefully as I, the translator, did—you will find that, although he praises others, he never attributes fundamental importance, either of initiative or judgment, to any Bolshevik but Lenin and himself (That comes near, I must say, to being the objective truth about the October revolution, yet I think a diligent search might have discovered exceptions.)
Trotsky's idea of our collaborating on a play was, he confessed later, a scheme for making money. He is spending $1000 a month, according to his wife—his secretary tells me it is nearer $1500—keeping up the establishment he has founded here and in Berlin. There is, here in Prinkipo, besides the secretary and stenographers, a bodyguard of three proletarians, one continually on sentry duty at the door; there is another secretary in Berlin, an ingenious system for transporting books from the library there and getting them back on time. Besides that, Trotsky is supporting a sick daughter and her child in Prague. He does not live in luxury; there is practically no furniture in his villa; it is a barrack; and the food is simple to an extreme. He merely keeps up the habits of a War Minister after he has become the leader of a tiny proletarian party. His secretary, Jan Frankel, a Czechoslovak, confided to me his anxiety approaching despair because Trotsky, still living like a commissar, ignored completely the problem of financing his new party and his own gigantic labors. This was not a newly developed trait in Trotsky; he was always, even in his poverty-stricken days, incapable of hanging onto his earnings. Even the small change in his pocket would dribble away, thanks usually to some transparent form of chantage, in the course of a short walk down the street. In his present situation, however, it is a calamity, for it makes him overestimate the revolutionary integrity of certain dubious characters who chip in generously to the ever dwindling treasury of his "Fourth International." Money, of course, is beneath the contempt of a revolutionary idealist—gold, according to Lenin, was to be used for public urinals in the socialist society—but while we are on the way there it deserves a little steady attention.
The lack of comfort or beauty in Trotsky's house, the absence of any least attempt to cultivate the art of life in its perceptual aspect, seems almost despicable to me. A man and woman must be almost dead aesthetically to live in that bare barrack, which a very few dollars would convert into a charming home.
The center of both floors of the house is a vast hall—not a hall exactly, but a room twenty feet long and fifteen feet wide with great double doors opening on a balcony which looks outward to the richly deep blue sea and downward to this bright redcliffed island that crouches in the sea like a prehistoric animal drinking. In these vast rooms and on these balconies there is not an article of furniture—not even a chair! They are mere gangways, and the doors to the rooms on each side are closed. In each of these rooms someone has an office table or a bed, or both, and a chair to go with it. One of them, downstairs, very small and square and white-walled, with barely space for table and chairs is the dining room. The garden surrounding the villa is abandoned to weeds and these are running to seed. "To save money," Natalia Ivanovna explains. Through sheer indifference to beauty, I should say. Trotsky talks a good deal about art in his books and lays claim to a cultivated taste, but he shows no more interest in art than in that garden. I brought home one day from Istanbul photographs of the rarely beautiful sarcophagus of King Tobuit of Sidon that is in the Museum of Antiquities.
"Do you want to see one of the most beautiful works of sculpture in the world? I said to Trotsky.
He grasped them hastily and handed them back to me almost with the same gesture. "Where were they found?"
"They were dug up in the ruins of Sidon."
"Who dug them up—Schliemann?"
I said, "No . . ." but by that time he was out of the door and on his way down to dinner.
His sole reaction had been, it seemed to me, to avail himself of the chance to reveal his acquaintance with the name of Schliemann. He had, at least, no interest whatever in the sculpture.
Although it is not so in his books, he seems in personal life to lack altogether the gift of appreciation. I think it is because no one ever feels appreciated by him that he fails so flatly as a political leader. He could no more build a party than a hen could build a house. With all his charming courtesy and fulfillment of every rule of good manners, including a sometimes quite surprising attentiveness to one's comfort, his social gift, his gift of friendship, is actually about on the level of a barnyard fowl. His followers, the followers of the great brain—the greatest political intelligence, I think, that we have today—make pilgrimages to him, and they come away, not warmed and kindled, but chilled and inhibited. Those of them, that is, who have individual will and judgment of their own. Hence he has no influence, properly so called. He does not sway strong people, but merely directs the weak.
Trotsky is playful and proud of being so, but I notice that his humor consists almost exclusively of banter. A perpetual poking of fun at the peculiarities of others, their nationality, their profession, their circumstances or tendencies—good-natured, smiling and charming, to be sure, but not varied with an occasional smile at himself, or any genial recognition of the funny plight of mankind in general. And when you take part in the game, when you poke fun at him, he does not laugh, and his smile is never so cordial as when he, himself, lands a blow. I feel it is a little mean and picayune to make this hypercritical observation of Trotsky at play, for he can be delightful indeed, if you are firm enough on your own feet to accept his banter and give it back; but as a student of laughter—and of Trotsky—I can't refrain. To me it is all the more significant since it is a superficial trait.
As to his angularity, his cocksure terseness, that quality which led Lunacharsky to describe him as "prickly," I could not honestly be silent. It is a failure of instinctive regard for the pride of others, a lamentable trait in one whose own pride is so touchy. But he also disregards, when his own schemes are involved, the personal interests of others. And he is not forthright about it; he is devious even with his friends. As Trotsky's gift for alienating people has a certain historic importance, I am going to set down here the otherwise rather inconsequential details of an episode which alienated me.
I functioned for some time as a sort of unofficial literary agent for Trotsky in the United States. I got my pay in royalties in the end; I am not pretending to have been extravagantly generous; but I did, when he first arrived in exile, do quite a mountain of unpaid work for him. In the fall of 1931, however, he sent me an article to translate and sell for him, offering me twenty percent of what I got for it. He said he hoped for a large sum, as much, perhaps, as two hundred dollars. I translated it and took it to George Bye, a popular literary agent, who sold it to Liberty magazine for $1500. Of this George took ten percent for the sale and I, ten percent for the translation. This seemed not quite fair, and George, who was very generous, agreed in the case of future articles to let me have fifteen percent for the translation and take only five percent for the sale. This arrange ment was reported to Trotsky; we sold two or three more of his articles, and he was delighted.
All went well until an article about Stalin arrived while I was absent on a lecture trip and the translation was delayed a few weeks. During those weeks Trotsky, impelled by his book publishers to give an interview to the press, gave out the substance of the article. After that it could not be sold at a high price, but George persuaded the New York Times syndicate to pay a hundred dollars for it and give it the wide publicity that Trotsky, whatever the money payment, so much desired.
The delay, and the small fee, and his own costly mistake in giving out the interview, irritated Trotsky beyond measure. He decided to throw me over and deal directly with George Bye, trusting him to find a translator. I suspected this, because a long letter from George was lying on his desk the day I arrived in Prinkipo. I said nothing about it, but I noticed the next morning that the letter was gone. As he had never heard of George Bye, or had anything to do with him, except through me, this piqued my curiosity, and at the risk of impoliteness, I decided I would force him to be frank. To my seemingly casual question about the letter I had seen, he answered nervously: "Oh yes, when you told me you were going to Palestine and might not come to see me until afterward, I thought it might be best to get in touch with the agent directly."
I said: "It is all right for you to deal with George Bye directly, if you want to, but please remember that I have a contract with him giving me five percent of his commission, and if you deal directly with him without mentioning this, it will deprive me of a part of my earnings."
He was not impelled either by friendship, or by a recognition of my unpaid services to make any response to this. He was angry about that Stalin article. I was by this time heartily pleased with the prospect of not being interrupted every week or so with a too-long article to translate, but I ventured to remind him that George Bye did not have a Russian translator at his elbow. He merely said very sharply:
"No, it is absolutely impossible when you are traveling around Europe. The fate of that Stalin article showed me how impossible it is. I prefer to deal directly with a responsible agent."
My breath was taken away by the harsh, irascible tone in which he said this. If I had been at home when the Stalin article came, and had translated and sold it immediately—say to Liberty—for a high price, it would have been in print and ready to publish when he gave away the substance of it to the press. The result would have been an explosion in the editorial rooms and a refusal to have anything to do with "Trotsky articles" in the future. I tried to say this, but he cut me off again sharply.
"No! Such delays are impossible. It is quite impossible to have the translator in one place and the agent in another."
In short, I was fired—and being in my heart glad of it, I took it in silence, and we changed the subject.
We both loved languages, and one of our pleasantest diversions was for him to dictate to me, in his horrendous English, answers to his American and British correspondents, which I would take home and bring back the next day polished off and typed on my portable machine. That same afternoon he drew out an illiterate inquiry from some woman in Ohio about her relatives in Russia, asking me if I knew who she was. When I answered, no, he said, "I guess there's no use answering." I agreed and crumpled the letter, or started to crumple and throw it in the wastebasket, but he stopped me with an outcry as though I were stepping on a baby's face.
"Is that the way you treat your correspondence? What kind of a man are you? That letter must be filed!"
I straightened the letter out, laughing at my mistake and passed it over to him, remarking, however, that it didn't seem to be very important to file a letter that wasn't worth answering.
There followed a certain amount of playful banter on that subject, and we went on with our fun, entirely friendly and good-natured.
The next day, however, I got to worrying, as everybody in the household did, about Trotsky's money problems. (In that respect, at least, he was a faithful follower of Karl Marx.) Realizing that if he sent articles to George Bye to be translated by anybody with a Russian accent who happened along, he would spoil his last chance of getting the needed $1500 monthly out of the American press, I ventured to raise again that question on which he had been so crisp. (Trotsky was a hero, you must remember, and moreover, he had been through such nerve-shattering experiences at the hands of the implacable avenger of excellence, Stalin, that no one could hold a grudge against him.)
"I feel a little embarrassed to resist you in this matter," I said, "because my own financial interests seem to be involved, but I can't help warning you that if you leave to a commercial agent the choice of a translator, you can easily lose in a month the position you've gained as a writer available to the American press. Of course, you can get statements on questions of the day published because you are Leon Trotsky, but that is a different thing from being a highly paid contributor to American magazines."
That was, at least, what I set out to say, but he interrupted me halfway through with an exclamation impatiently snapped out:
"No, no! I prefer not to send my articles to a man who grabs up his correspondence and throws it in the wastebasket!"
He imitated my gesture of the day before, but now without the slightest playfulness. He was still angry, I suppose, about the low price he got for that Stalin article. You would have to have in your memory, as I had, the painstaking drudgery of my two years' effort to protect his financial interests and teach him to get what was coming to him from the American press, to appreciate my indignation. Had he been anybody but Leon Trotsky, I would have given a red-hot expression to it and walked out.
Instead, I sat still until there came a brilliant inspiration. It was one of the few times in my life when I thought of the right thing to say.
"Lyef Davidovich, I can only answer you in the words of Lenin." And I quoted, in perfect Russian, from the famous testament: "Comrade Trotsky is apt to be too much carried away by the administrative aspect of things."
At this Trotsky relaxed and dropped back into his chair, laughing genially and completely, as though to say, "Touché!"
In a moment, however, he was forward and at it again, insisting now that I had been negligent about other articles—"the one on Hitler, for example." This was an article that, after several high-paying magazines refused it, George had finally sold to the Forum for three hundred dollars. There was nothing else to do with it and nobody was to blame.
At that point I gave up. Repeating once, and more insistently, my warning that a single article published prominently in a bad translation might ruin his chances, I added that I would let him know as soon as I was settled somewhere, and he might send me his articles or not, as he pleased. What he will do I have no idea, but that he will do anything out of consideration for my interests, or my legitimate stake in the enterprise, I regard as ausgeschlossen.
By "gave up," I mean that I abandoned the attempt at friendly conversation with Trotsky. I abandoned it about practical, as I had previously about theoretical, questions. I got away as quickly as I politely could, pleading the need to get back to the West in time to correct the proofs of the second volume of his history. To the end Trotsky kept insisting that we stay for several months at least, so that he and I might continue to "work together and go fishing." He was, so far as I could judge, blandly oblivious to the unwarmth and unfruitfulness of our relation.
The problem of Trotsky's character weaves so intricately in with the story both of the success and the failure of the Bolshevik revolution that it will never lose interest for historians. I hope a little light is cast on it by this memorandum, so immediately set down, of my visit to him after the story ended.
On my way home from Prinkipo, I met in Paris one of Trotsky's greatest admirers and closest friends—the closest, I think, after Christian Rakovsky—and we spoke of the subtle contradictions in Trotsky's character. To my hesitant and groping effort to say that he seemed to me to lack a feeling for others as individuals, his friend said shortly:
"C'est tout-a fait vrai. II n'a pas d' humanite. Elle lui manque absolument."
Notwithstanding this startlingly extreme confirmation of my impression, I feel that I left out of my memorandum something which, in justice to Trotsky, ought to have been included; a confession, namely, of my own failure of regard for the interests —indeed the most vital passions—of another. It was far from tactful of me to descend upon this intellectually lonely exile with a headful of fresh hot arguments against the religious belief by which he had guided his life to triumph and to this tragic end. It must have put him on edge against me. Perhaps that underlay some of the responses which I attributed to more trivial causes and to the general traits of his character. I find in our subsequent correspondence a letter in which, as though to heal an unmentioned wound, he took pains to mention that he had sent a certain manuscript direct to George Bye only because he had been given to understand that I was away from home.
I think Trotsky earnestly wanted to be regardful of the interests of others, but except in small matters and in the case of his wife, toward whom the most exquisite consideration seemed to be instinctive, he did not know how to do it. He lacked the gift of mutuality. He could apprehend, and discuss at times with keen penetration, the currents of emotion prevailing in other people, but he could not flow with them in a warm common stream.
1] I refer to the first volume of his biography, The Prophet Armed; the second is not yet published.
2] Mark Aldanov thinks it was by this route that Stalin's assassin crept into Trotsky's confidence—a speculation that does not seem to me improbable.
Source; Einstein, Trotsky Hemingway, Freud and Other Great Companions – Max Eastman, Collier Books, NY, 1962.