Joseph Hansen

A Speech to the Youth on Trotsky

(August 1941)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 8, October 1941, pp. 239–242.
Excerpts from a speech delivered at the Trotsky Memorial Meeting on August 22, 1941, in New York City.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

In her article in the August 1941 issue of the Fourth International, Natalia Sedov Trotsky tries to give us a more intimate picture of Leon Trotsky, to let us see something of the man whose name stands for Marxism today. Natalia’s contributions not only have a priceless historical value for those unborn generations who will comb the records of the past in order to get a better picture of the founders of the classless society, but they have a political value as well. Natalia has solid political judgment in her own right. She is a woman in every respect worthy of Trotsky.

Her writings give us a deeper insight into Trotsky’s character and enable those who aspire to become leaders in the revolutionary struggle of the working class to better shape their talents in conformity with the great aim they have chosen.

One of the quickest ways of learning an art is to take a master-craftsman in that art and imitate him closely. Every apprentice anxious to learn selects someone whom he knows or a great name in his field and strives to reach the perfection of the model he has chosen. Writers when they first begin usually imitate a great writer or a series of great writers of the past. Painters and sculptors do likewise. Military men select Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon.

It is only natural that a youth joining the revolutionary movement should take Trotsky as his model and hope that some day he can be as adept in the science and art of proletarian revolution, granting his more modest talents, as was Trotsky. Such a goal is wholly normal and praiseworthy. It is reported that John Keats, who became one of the great romantic poets of England, would content himself with no one less than Shakespeare as a model when he set out to become a poet, and in that he was correct.

The danger in choosing Trotsky as one’s model lies in the possible discouragement which can come when one has reached that stage of development were he can begin to appreciate Trotsky’s true stature as a revolutionist.

Trotsky’s titanic intellect and his vast political experience during some of the most turbulent decades of human history are compressed into a relatively few volumes. Trotsky’s works are so polished, their logic so unshakeable, their insight into characters, events, movements of parties and classes so profound, that the revolutionary apprentice is inclined to throw up his hands and say, “No one can ever hope to equal that – it is better to choose a pattern of more modest scope.” When he recalls that Trotsky was renowned as best of the best, as an orator, as an organizer, as an administrator – when he understands Trotsky’s role in leading the armed insurrection of October – when he appreciates Trotsky’s colossal work in building the Red Army, in directing the armed defense of the Soviet Union against the interventionist armies of the imperialist world, and adds on top of this his work in founding with Lenin the Third International, and then the Fourth International, the young comrade is ready to say, “Such a man occurs only once.”

And he will be saying the truth. There can be only one Trotsky.

But that is not the whole truth. Trotsky did not walk off a farm near Odessa and immediately sit down to write his History of the Russian Revolution. Besides those of his own personal characteristics which he could shape to one degree or another, there was the past which he could use as a foundation and there were world events to do the final molding.

We Stand on Their Shoulders

The higher development of the class struggle made it possible for Lenin and Trotsky to begin where the founders of scientific socialism were forced by death to leave off. Trotsky developed his theory of the permanent revolution, through which he was able to predict the course of the 1917 revolution, more than twelve years before the event. Lenin developed his concept of a professional revolutionary party which made the success of that revolution possible.

That is why Trotsky could predict that the future development of socialism, and especially in the United States, will bring forth dialectical materialists – those who profess the revolutionary philosophy of Marx – superior to those of the past, great as they have been.

When one stops to think why this must obviously be so, with the increase of knowledge and experience available to the new generations, then it begins to seem strange that anyone among the youth should feel discouraged about trying to develop his talents in the pattern furnished by Trotsky. The rich heritage of our party in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky will provide the material for theoretical grounding. If we stop to recall the revolutionary movement at the beginning of the past war and especially in the United States in 1918, we can say that the revolutionaries at the beginning of the Second World War are far richer in theory and experience.

And the crisis of capitalism in its death agony provides one revolutionary situation after another. Even though the immediate period may isolate us still further, that period will be followed by tremendous expansion of all the forces of the Fourth International.

The youth of today enjoy the privilege of standing higher on the rungs of history than their predecessors. We have not only the revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune, we have 1905 and October. We have not only Marx and Engels, we have Lenin and Trotsky.

How Trotsky Joined the Movement

Trotsky entered the revolutionary movement in much the same way that many of us have entered. He rebelled against the oppression which existed on every side. He was filled with protest that had no outlet and which he himself undoubtedly did not understand at the time. He felt it as an urge to “perfect himself.” When he encountered socialists, he ridiculed them, considered them utopians, counted himself as conservative, argued vehemently with them. In fact, the more he was convinced by their arguments, and the more he felt the ground crumbling under his feet, the harder he argued to maintain himself – just like the rest of us began.

When he finally became convinced that the only hope for humanity lay in the working class, he joined wholeheartedly in spreading these new ideas. He wrote leaflets, ran them off on a home-made duplicator, got his fingers as thoroughly inked as if it were the most modern mimeograph.

Trotsky next found himself up against the ideology of Marxism, and he was not easily convinced of its correctness. Just as he had struggled against accepting socialism in general, so he struggled against Marxism. It seemed too rigid to him, too finished a philosophy, too closed a system. But in arguing with Marxism, he discovered that he was ignorant. Not a few of us, no doubt, have experienced that same embarrassment at one time or another, especially the first time we encountered a well-equipped Marxist.

Trotsky set about to remedy his ignorance. He read desperately, at first with little system, skipping haphazardly from one author to another. During his first imprisonment, he had the opportunity to read at his leisure, and in the development of the events of the past, he discovered for himself the truth of the laws formulated by Marx and Engels.

Trotsky’s third great hurdle was Lenin’s “organizational methods.” His struggle over accepting Lenin’s concepts took the longest time. This is understandable, since Lenin’s theories on organization were a basic innovation in the international socialist movement and had not been proved in practise. In addition Lenin met the opposition of the great figures of the European socialist movement, who spoke with tremendous authority as disciples of Marx and Engels and leaders of the huge Social Democracy.

For some years, Trotsky did not hesitate to deal stiff polemical blows against Lenin and his organizational methods. What is important, however, is that during the war and in the crucible of the Russian revolution, Trotsky recognized the correctness of Lenin’s views and joined Lenin’s party.

The knowledge that it was necessary for Trotsky to go through the same internal struggles that everyone experiences in his development as a Marxist should prove a source of encouragement to all of us. Trotsky even had to break with his family at the beginning, although the rupture was later healed. He had to disappoint his father who wanted him to take up a career as an engineer. He had to disappoint his mother who wanted him to be a good boy and who came to see him behind the bars at Kherson after his first arrest and cried over his conduct.

For some years Trotsky was held up as the bad example in the family circle. His cousin who made a fortune in Siberia during the Russo-Japanese war was held up as the good example. But Trotsky was not out to make himself a rich bourgeois – he was out to expropriate the entire class. After the revolution, his cousin called Trotsky up by telephone. He had lost everything and wanted Trotsky to do something for him.

What Made Trotsky Great?

What qualities gave Trotsky his pre-eminence? What did he have which ordinary men do not possess or do not possess to such a striking degree as Trotsky? Let me enumerate a few of the more prominent characteristics of Trotsky.

He was gifted with a prodigious memory, and especially a memory for theories. His practise of reading over his previous articles coupled with his perception of the logic of events sharpened this memory still further. In 1938 for example, he translated a speech which he had made in 1924 in a scientific congress. We took the finished draft to Trotsky for his approval. He returned it shortly with a question mark on one of the pages. “What is wrong with the translation?” we asked him. “I think there is a sentence missing here.” he responded. Trotsky was correct. We had missed a sentence in a speech he had made fourteen years before.

He was gifted with remarkable quickness of perception. He was completely honest – by that I mean honest to the working class. He was a fighter.

But there were others of his generation who had similar gifts – men who became famous as theoreticians, journalists, politicians – such men as Plekhanov, Parvus, who had a brilliant career before him, and Martov. None of them reached the heights of Trotsky, however, despite the fact they lived through the same great events and were even revolutionaries. All of them lacked one quality that was the characteristic of Trotsky – will power.

Trotsky’s will was absolutely indomitable. It radiated from his very presence, his bearing, his vigorous manner of speech, his impatience of opposition if he was certain that he was correct. More than once I had occasion to feel this iron trait of Trotsky when I had not succeeded in convincing him that he had taken an incorrect position on some small issue.

His writings are permeated with this unbreakable will. It is especially apparent in the scathing sarcasm he heaps upon the enemies of the working class. His whole life’s course speaks of this will – nothing could break him, prisons, exile, expulsions, persecution, slander, death itself.

Trotsky was undoubtedly endowed with an unusual amount of energy. He learned to use this energy in a highly disciplined manner, concentrating and directing its firing power where it would be most effective. Ordinary people dissipate what energy they begin with and stifle any possibility of increasing its flow by splitting their interests into contradictory channels. They no sooner begin an enterprise than they are halted in their tracks by the paralyzing thought that maybe they should be doing something else.

Trotsky, once having made up his mind, threw himself with complete abandon into the project. This was true of the smallest things. His secretaries tell how in France Trotsky insisted on helping with the housework. The comrades did not wish him to leave his study, but the best deal they could make with him was that he should do no more than wipe the dishes. However, he proved to be a bottleneck in the production line of the kitchen as he would insist upon bringing the dishes to such a high polish that they glistened like jewels and the rest of the work had to await his completion of this task. It was the same in his recreation. In Turkey his secretaries tell me stories of being dragged from bed at 3:30 and 4 o’clock in the morning, their eyes still glued with sleep, to go out fishing with Trotsky who was all dynamic energy after a previous hard day’s work. In Mexico many of the American comrades had the privilege of climbing up and down the hot Mexican hills, acting as burros to carry the cactus which Trotsky dug from the countryside.

How Trotsky Worked

But this tremendous energy was especially apparent at his work desk. He chained himself here, working from early in the morning until late at night with just brief periods of rest and time out for meals. He worked like this no matter what the task at hand might happen to be, whether it was the disagreeable work of combatting the GPU, writing Stalin’s biography, or something which he enjoyed such as writing for the press of the Fourth International.

During the last Moscow trial he organized the work of his secretariat down to the least detail. I remember him walking up and down with a New York Times in his hand which had been airmailed from New York with the complete indictment. He had covered it with notations in red and blue pencil, studied it from end to end, and he organized his secretariat as if it were a small army. We stood at attention while he outlined what we should do, asked for proposals and discussion. We divided up the work, this comrade and that comrade to work on translations, this one to take care of press relations, this one to do research work, etc., etc.

This done, we all went on the firing line and Trotsky himself worked harder than any of us. In one day I recall he made five press releases, one of them a long article for a London paper. Some of his secretaries worked 22 hours at a stretch. It was through such work, in collaboration with others who provided material from New York and other cities, that Trotsky was able to completely expose the falsity of this frameup as he had the previous Moscow trials.

When I see our comrades on the street gathering signatures on the petitions to place James P. Cannon on the ballot for mayor of New York, I think how Trotsky would have plunged into such a campaign, how he would have enjoyed organizing an all-out battle to put James P. Cannon on the ballot in New York. He would have blocked out all the districts on the map, held meetings, consulted comrades, and then seen to it that everyone carried out his assignment. He himself would have been everywhere, checking this neighborhood and that neighborhood. I can see him even standing on a street corner with petition blanks in his hand, arguing in a kindly but vehement tone with the crowd about him, but at the same time not losing a single opportunity for signatures.

Trotsky’s whole life was like that. He chose his main objective – one single objective – to fight for the socialist revolution. From the time he made that decision, everything he did had no other purpose but to further this one aim. This singleness of purpose made it possible for Trotsky to focus his energy and to so thoroughly synthesize it with his other gifts that they in turn received a richer development and he became the very incarnation of the proletarian revolution.

But even such a man is subject to the ebb and flow of the tides of the class struggle. In the final analysis no one can do more than give expression to one or another force of the contending camps. Creatures embodying all the vilest dregs of the past can rise to power when a revolution subsides. After the upheaval, a period of reaction sets in, and it is in such periods that the sternest tests are placed upon a revolutionary. He is deserted, isolated, hounded, slandered, imprisoned, tortured, sometimes faces death. The labor movement seems like a vast tomb during gloomy years until a new upturn begins.

Some of Trotsky’s greatest work was done in such a period – the period climaxed by the Second World War the period in which Trotsky became the target upon which every reactionary force in the world vented its furious hatred During this period he laid down the theoretical structure for a new International of the working class. He exposed the crimes of the monstrous Stalinist bureaucracy before the eyes of the whole world. And he taught and hardened the cadres who will continue the Marxist movement.

The founding of the Fourth International may well go down in history as Trotsky’s crowning achievement. Trotsky’s unflinching struggle in the teeth of the most terrible persecution is one of the most valuable lessons he has given us.


Last updated on: 22 May 2016