Max Shachtman


The Trotsky I Knew

(early 1960s)

Extracts from Max Shachtman’s autobiography.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive

The first time that I saw Trotsky was in Moscow, in 1927, and then only by accident. I had been delegated to Moscow by the American party and by the International Labor Defense Organization for which I was working at the time to attend the meeting of MOPR, which were the Russian initials for International Red Aid of which the ILD was the American section, and to attend for the party the plenary meeting of the executive committee of the Communist International. Actually it was Cannon who was to be the delegate to both these meetings, but at the last minute for reasons that were connected with the factional struggle that was going on in the American party, he was unable to go, and I went in his place.

I recall this rather vividly, although it was an absolutely trivial episode. I had been walking from the building of the Comintern near the Red Square to the Hotel Lux on Tverskaya, the hotel where the foreign delegates were in those days principally housed, and my walking companion was the secretary of the Young Communists International, whom I had already met before in 1925, and who was in the youth movement the right-hand man of Zinoviev and of the Zinoviev group. By that time the Zinovievists and the Trotskyists had come together in the so-called united opposition bloc, and during the walk Vuyovitch was trying to enlist my sympathies and support for the opposition bloc. I cannot honestly say that I was listening too intently to his arguments, although my attitude towards him was personally very friendly. I admired him very much; he was already a revolutionist of considerable experience and high standing, although, like Zinoviev, he was already removed from official positions in the international Communist movement.

What is important in connection with Trotsky is that as we were standing in front of the hotel, Trotsky was being driven down the street in his automobile, and he was pointed out to me by Vuyovitch. I noticed also that there was a murmur among the passers-by, all of whom noticed Trotsky or pointed to him seated in the automobile. That was my first and only sight of Trotsky in Russia.

Like practically all the American Communists, I was preoccupied with the factional situation in the American party, and my interest in the Russian faction fight was subordinated to that consideration. And again, like all American Communists, we had simply taken a formal position for the so-called “old guard” and against the Trotskyist opposition, and we were ready to let it go at that. We didn’t begin to realize the significance for the Communist movement as a whole all over the world of the struggle that was going on inside the Russian Communist party. That was the first time that I saw Trotsky.

The first time that I met him was in Turkey in 1929, 1930. We had of course by that time already been expelled for Trotskyism from the American Communist movement, and we had finally managed to organise at the Chicago convention of the expelled Communists the formal national Trotskyist organisation which we called the Communist Party of America (Opposition).

Trotsky always seemed to give the impression of being very tall although actually he was not. He was a very solid figure of a man, large-framed, large-chested. And that together with that leonine head that everybody commented upon made him look much bigger than he actually was. It didn’t take me very long to see that all of the malicious legends about him were absolutely groundless. There was no vanity at all in his bearing. He didn’t act or strut or try to impress you with the fact that he was the great revolutionary leader and great military commander that he’d been in the days of the revolution. Life in the household was exceedingly simple. It was altogether modest. The appointments in the house could not have been more spare. The food in the house could not have been more simple, more ordinary.

One of the first things I observed, since I myself tend to be somewhat sloppy in my work habits, was that Trotsky was exceptionally economical about his time. You might almost say that every minute of the day was rigidly allocated to the work that he was involved in. He was a very hard and systematic and efficient worker, and he liked to see others work in the same way. There was no time at all for idle gossip or even simply relaxing and talking in a general, loose and pointless sort of way. He was an exceedingly well-organised worker, a highly efficient administrator, so to speak. He was an early riser, and after breakfast he would immediately start his work in his study until lunchtime, after which he would relax on the sofa for an hour or two, and there he would take a nap or he would simply read for relaxation some German or Russian or French literature, sometimes Schiller, sometimes the latest of the French novels that were sent to him by friends in France, some new edition of Sigmund Freud, whom he read very extensively and whom he admired enormously. I noticed that he would mark off and annotate page after page of Freud during this siesta period, and after an hour or two he would resume work at his desk, either writing or dictating letters to comrades and groups throughout the world to Frank or to myself.

I don’t want to convey the impression that life was monastic there. Trotsky had a very great passion for hunting and fighting. There was no possibility to go hunting in Turkey, but he did like to go fishing in the Sea of Marmara. During these fishing expeditions we would have some hilarious times. I had never seen fishing of that sort in my life. The four of us would get into the fishing barque, which was under the management of Kharalambos. There would be Kharalambos, the Turkish detective, Trotsky and myself starting out at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, which in those days was just about the time I was falling asleep in my room; and we would row out to an opposite shore of some little, deserted islet and load the barque with the largest stones that we could possibly find on the shore there. I didn’t know what they were for, and I watched with a good deal of interest: why all these stones for a fishing expedition?

And then we would go to some spot that Karalambos had selected and a vast net would be spread in a semi-circle, the top of which was held to the surface by cork floats with a net sinking down as a sort of barrier in the water. Then we would row to a point which would serve as a sort of apex to this rough triangle, and all of them would start hurling these rocks into tells, I learned to do the same thing, still marveling at this kind of fishing.

What was being done, of course, was that the fish were being scared to death and driven into the net by this storm of rocks that was hailed down upon them in the water. Then we would row to one end of the net and Trotsky would begin to pull it in, and it would usually be loaded, especially with a very tasty fish native to those waters which he called Rouget. And when he would get a good catch, his eyes would absolutely sparkle. He would be almost indescribably enthusiastic and delighted. He would chuckle and turn to me “Your President Hoover – he is a fisherman too. Can he catch fish like this?”

I said, “No, he’s a fisherman. He’s not a fish factory. He throws in a line and catches a fish at a time. That’s fishing. This is a factory.”

And Trotsky simply didn’t understand what I was getting at at all. “Here you get fish by the score, by the hundreds, at one stroke. What is this business of catching one fish at a time? Your President Hoover – he takes one fish at a time, eh? Here we get hundreds of fish.” This really was the only recreation that Trotsky had.

The house was not very well protected. Any passer-by could look through the iron rail fence that was around the house. And although visitors had to show their credentials, I felt from the very beginning that there would be no problem in making an attack on the household or on Trotsky personally. It didn’t take too much perception to see that. As a guard I was armed, wearing a pretty big German automatic strapped to my leg. Everybody else was armed. Trotsky had a small pistol. Even Natalia had a pistol. But that obviously was no serious assurance of security. And when we went out on these little fishing expeditions, it occurred to me that it was the easiest thing it the world for some enemy to come along in a fast boat and simply wipe out our barque and anyone who was on it. I would call this to Trotsky’s attention: “Isn’t this a very dangerous place to live? Isn’t this a very dangerous recreation, fishing in this unprotected barque?”

There was no bravado in Trotsky – none whatsoever. If anything there was perhaps a sort of fatalism in regard to the possibilities of an assassination. In those days there were literally thousands of Russian white guards living in Istanbul, and of course there was always the possibility of an action organised by the GPU. But Trotsky would simply shrug his shoulders when this problem was called to his attention, and he would even wave aside all comment on it. He once said to me jokingly, for example, “Do you think that even if there were ten of you American cowboys here you could protect the household if the GPU was determined to attack us? The GPU has at its disposal all the great resources of a state, and if they decide to attack, what can stop them? Nothing. Not you American cowboys (or as he said, “co-boys”) and not the Turkish police and not anything else that I can do. And it is impossible to work and live in a state of constant terror. We take certain elementary precautions, and that is all we can do.”

And, as it finally worked out, that is pretty near all that he could do. He could protect himself to the maximum available to an individual or to an individual surrounded by the assistance of people in a very small organisation, but that couldn’t even begin to be a match for a well-organised assault by an institution with all the power and resources of the Stalinist GPU. Once that institution made its final decision, it was just a matter of time.

I discussed the problems and prospects of the opposition internationally and the opposition in the United States many times with Trotsky, and I must say that there was nothing particular that he told me that was not at the time and later put down by him in print in public writings or writings disseminated by the opposition throughout the world. His main theme always was, and this goes back, mind you, to 1929, 1930.

The victory of Stalinism in Russia and in the Communist parties outside of Russia could not be traced to this or that mistake the opposition had made, or this or that clever tactic or manoeuvre that Stalin had employed; that Stalin himself was a product of profound social forces and factors over which he had infinitely less control that he imagined, and over which we ourselves (and by that in particular he meant the Russian opposition) had very little control; that Stalin was the product of the great social, economic and political reaction that had set in after the first few years of the triumph of Bolshevik revolution and the receding of the international revolutionary wave in the West. And while Trotsky never in any conversation I had with him at that time or in my subsequent visits showed the least doubt about his always reiterated belief that the revolutionary wave would flow strongly again, he always discouraged those people who thought that it was coming in the next twenty-four hours, so to speak. He insisted that we had to orient ourselves towards a long and hard period of holding out, of being patient. His more or less favorite phrase was “Impatience is the hallmark of opportunism.”

He maintained that in the internal life of the opposition – and this he said with special reference I suppose to our American group – all the responsible elements have to make sure that personal frictions, which are inevitable in small isolated groups and minor, episodic differences are not allowed to grow or to be stimulated artificially to the point where they disrupt the organisation or distract it from its main task, its main principles. That was with regard to the opposition in general.

For the American opposition he envisaged what might be called more optimistic prospects. Like all the old Russian leaders, he did not attach too much weight to the American Communist party. I say “weight” deliberately and not importance. He attached enormous importance to the growth of the Communist movement in the United States, but to the Communist party itself as it was, he did not attach too much weight. He knew that it was not a significant factor in American working class or political life, and in that he was absolutely right, even if several years later it appeared that it might become such a factor. And for a time at least he even held the view that it was possible for our tiny, little opposition to become the authentic Communist movement. You should bear in mind that at that time the Trotskyist movement considered itself an opposition movement in the Communist party seeking to return to the Communist party and not demanding as a condition for this return that its principles be adopted first by the party, demanding only that the opposition have elementary democratic rights of discussion inside the Communist party.

In this he was wrong in the sense that the Trotskyist opposition in this country really never had such a prospective as a real possibility, but I cite it only because it indicates that for the United States, he inclined toward a different outlook for the revolutionary movement than for the older countries of Europe where the Communist movement was much more deeply and seriously rooted in the political life of their respective lands.

I think it’s important here also to mention another aspect of Trotsky’s thinking or behaviour or outlook. While I myself and most of our other comrades never had up to that time or subsequently the slightest feeling that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky was a personal struggle or a struggle for personal power, I was nevertheless surprised – very favorably surprised, as it were – to hear Trotsky speak in our conversations or in his comments on this, that or the other thing with such complete and utter objectivity – impersonality would be more accurate – about Stalin.

The way he spoke about him in personal or intimate or confidential conversation was in no sense different from the way in which he wrote about Stalin in his public writings. I couldn’t find a trace of personal animosity or personal bitterness or personal hatred of Stalin in anything that Trotsky said or did, and especially in later years when Trotsky personally and Trotsky’s family really suffered tragically at the hands of Stalin or the Stalinist machine, found this increasingly gratifying and remarkable. And, by the way, I found exactly the same attitude on the part of Natalia Trotsky.

If I can interrupt myself at this point, I remember during one of our visits to Natalia after Trotsky had died – the visit of my wife and myself to Natalia in Mexico – we decided to take a little holiday and go out of town. She always very much liked to leave the house and go out for as long a period of time as she could. We went to Cuernavaca to a modest little hotel there, and while we were resting up there, the wireless brought the news that Stalin was seriously ill and a couple of days later that he had died. I watched Natalia very carefully and listened very carefully to what she would say. And there wasn’t even a sign of what would be the perfectly natural reaction of a woman in her position, a woman who had gone through what she had gone through at the hands of Stalin. There was not the slightest sign on her part of satisfaction that this monster had died or of glee or vindictiveness or of a feeling that he had finally, thank God, met his fate. Our conversation turned almost exclusively on the question of what would happen now in Russia, what would be the consequences of the struggle for the succession or the struggle that we took for granted.

And that was a political discussion, and the personal element was not simply subordinated; it just wasn’t there. And this was on the part of a woman whose two children and whose two foster children had been murdered by the GPU. And I considered that a tremendous tribute to the character of Natalia, to a revolutionary nature, to her ability to see political problems as political problems and not as problems coloured by personal considerations. And I know absolutely that my impressions or recollections on this score are in no way colored by considerations of piety towards Trotsky or Natalia Trotsky, but that’s exactly how it was.

I saw Trotsky for the second time in Turkey a few years later. After I was there for a short time came the very exciting news that he had been granted permission to live in France. One of the deputies of the radical party had interceded on his behalf with the French government, and he was given permission to move to France. Trotsky was enormously pleased with the prospect of going to France and so was Natalia, and so were all of us who were there at the time. Turkey was completely off the highways of international politics, geographically completely removed from the mainstream, or what there was of a stream of the Trotskyist movement in Europe. And while Trotsky had absolutely not the slightest complaint to make of the Turkish government or of the treatment of the Trotsky household – the government was absolutely correct and proper in all of its dealings with Trotsky – he looked forward very eagerly to getting back to France. There was feverish activity in the household – packing all the household goods, which consisted primarily of his books, his manuscripts, his documents; Trotsky never had any personal property to speak of. And I was appointed what Trotsky called, “my commissar for foreign affairs.”

That wasn’t due to any skill or experience on my part in world diplomacy, you can understand. But I was, so to speak, the most legal of the foreign comrades who were there. There was a young German comrade there at the time, Rudolph Klement, who was assassinated in Paris some time later by the GPU while he was acting as international secretary of the Trotskyist movement. There was a French comrade there, Von Heijenoort, who, being a French citizen, was not the indicated person to act as Trotsky’s representative during the trip from Turkey to France. There was an American comrade there who acted as his secretary and stenographer. She knew Russian perfectly. She, for other reasons, was not in a position to act as Trotsky’s representative. Whereas, I was a good, one hundred percent American with a good, one hundred percent American passport, and there was no reason to be apprehensive about my acting publicly as Trotsky’s representative. After all, I was known in the United States as being a leading Trotskyist, and I had never made any secrets about my visits to Trotsky, and so on.

Nevertheless, we had to exercise a good deal of caution in arranging the trip. We had to guard against the possibility of all sorts of enemies who might use the trip as an occasion for an attack on Trotsky. I booked the passage on the steamer Bulgaria of the Lloyd line in Istanbul under my own name, Max Shachtman and party. I remember the agent was very curious as to who the party was made up of, and when I explained to him with a wink that the man and woman were involved were foreigners in a very delicate situation, the French manager of the steamship office – I remember this with real hilarity – returned my wink very significantly and said, “Ah, monsieur, je comprends parfaitment”. He “understood” that there was some illicit affair involved and that he himself was the soul of discretion and would not press his inquiries further.

The Turkish government cooperated perfectly and set up a barrier around the quay so that there would be no access to the ship until we were boarded. We boarded from a lighter. And we were off. We didn’t know who else was on the ship and we had to be very careful. Trotsky and Natalia remained in seclusion in their cabin all the time, and Trotsky insisted that I not only be posted as guard in front of the cabin, but that I should very ostentatiously wear a couple of pistols. What I would have done if there had been a real attack, I don’t pretend to know. He insisted on it, so that it would be known throughout the ship that he was well guarded by an armed man.

The Commendatore of the ship was naturally in on the secret, and he supplemented my dubious guardsmanship by a couple of crew members, who would undoubtedly have been much handier in any incident that might have occurred than I would be.

By the time we got to Naples where the ship docked briefly the secret was out. All the newspapers of Europe carried the stories, most of them garbled. The fascist police came aboard, and I must say they, too, were the height of correctness and propriety. Their commander was a young fascist dressed in the standard black fascist uniform, and he assured me, as commissar of foreign affairs for Trotsky, that there would be no incidents whatsoever, that Signor Trotsky and his lady would be perfectly guarded and accorded all the honors of a statesman. I remember he told me “we in Italy honor Signor Trotsky as a great military commander.”

And there were no incidents in Naples, you may be sure. But as we neared Marseilles – this we learned a couple of days later – the entire French press was filled with stories about the impending visit of Trotsky. The Stalinist press on the one side and the reactionary press on the other side, including reactionary white Russian papers that were published in France, carried on a complementary drum fire of attack on Trotsky. One spoke of Trotsky as a butcher; the other spoke of Trotsky as a counter-revolutionist. But both said France will not tolerate this monster on its soil.

We had a pretty clear inkling of this by that time, and our French comrades were disturbed about the possibility of a Stalinist or Russian monarchist demonstrations on the docks of Marseilles when we would come in, and God knows what might possibly happen. Trotsky himself, by the way, during the trip was very ill. He was suffering at the time from what appeared to be lumbago and it was exceedingly painful. I remember that with the aid of the gracious Commendatore the sea was dredged for sand, which was then heated up to make it as hot as possible and these hot compresses were applied this back by Natalia to relieve the pain.

But by the time we approached Marseilles it seemed that the whole trouble had cleared up.

Our French comrades, who were in touch with the ministry of the interior of the French government, got them to agree to remove Trotsky from the ship just before it got into Marseilles. And sure enough the Commendatore, the ship’s captain, received wireless intelligence about this, and the ship was stopped just before it reached Marseilles in a little French fishing village named Cassis, as I recall it. We didn’t know anything about this until the Commendatore told me that Signor Trotsky would be removed from the ship before it docked. We were all very suspicious of this and wondered what was up, and I can only justify our conspiracy-consciousness at the time by what happened, not so many years later, in Mexico. As the ship slowed down, we saw a large motorboat coming from land. I was at the rail and soon recognised a couple of the comrades who were there aboard this motorboat with French police and authorities. One was the leader of the French organisation, Raymond Molinier, and the other was Lyova, Trotsky’s son. When we saw them we knew that it was all right. And holding back all the other passengers, we made a passage of armed sailors and myself and Trotsky was taken off and disappeared.

I proceeded, of course, to Marseilles with the other comrades, and I didn’t see Trotsky in France again. After I got to Paris, I had to return immediately to the United States for one reason or another that I don’t recall now, and so I couldn’t backtrack to see Trotsky where he had been allowed to settle down.

I visited him again after he had been expelled from France and had taken up residence in Norway. This was 1936. The period of his exile in Norway was the most peaceful of all his exiles in a sense – at least until the very end when the Norwegian government succumbed to the pressure of the Russian government and secluded Trotsky under armed guard and virtually imprisoned him. He lived in the home of a Norwegian Labor party deputy, Konrad Knudsen, in the village of Honefoss some miles out of the capital, Oslo. Knudsen was a splendid comrade, not a Trotskyist, but very friendly to Trotsky personally and had a very high regard for him. The whole Knudsen family – Konrad and his wife and his wonderfully lovely daughter, Hjordid, were exceedingly kind and gracious and considerate and attentive toward Trotsky and Natalia. And Trotsky was able to worke there more or less undisturbed.

Nevertheless, it was an exceedingly difficult period. Just about at the time I arrived to visit him in Honefoss, the Moscow trials broke loose, the first demonstration trials against Zinoviev, Kamenev and their friends. Trotsky had a pretty good idea of what was involved. It was obvious to him that Stalin was now determined not just to expel the opposition or exile them or imprison them, but that he was determined to wipe them out physically man by man wholesale. And these included not only all of Trotsky’s personal friends – his oldest personal friends like Christian Rakovsky, friends who went back to the days before the First World War – but all of his political friends and associates. And almost single-handedly he launched an international counter-campaign against the campaign of denigration of the oppositionists and ex-oppositionists, who constituted on the whole the core of the Bolshevik party that had organised and led the revolution of 1917, and the campaign to wipe them out, to kill them. It was a protean task that he had.

By that time throughout Europe and the United States most liberals and even radicals were exceedingly conciliatory toward the Stalin regime. All the big political factors in the world, and what might be called the psychological factors in the world, the ones that I referred to on an earlier occasion, were working for Stalin and against Trotsky – even specifically with regard to these monstrous frame-ups. The Comintern was then in the full-flush of its popular front policy. It was cooperating so nicely, it appeared, with all liberal and radical and labor and Socialist movements. It was the great champion of the Loyalist struggle against Franco in Spain. It was the strongest source of resistance, it appeared, to the growing threat of Hitlerism in Germany, the threat to democracy, to Socialism, to the labor movement, to peace.

And the liberal-labour-radical world was not very receptive to attacks upon the Russian regime, such as were being made and had to be made by Trotsky in connection with the Moscow trials. The whole atmosphere was such that there were on the contrary receptive to Stalinist propaganda that these men were guilty of counter-revolutionary activity; and, as the charges were finally expanded against them, of being in alliance with Hitlerism, which was just about the worst thing that you could say about anybody in those days, and understandably so. Comparatively few people could be found to take up the defense of the victims of the Moscow trials. The head of the Socialist International at that time, Friedrich Adler, was one of those. He wrote a famous pamphlet against what he called “The witchcraft trials in Moscow,” and there were many other Socialists and a number of liberals and others, but they were, alas, the exception to the rule. Even those who were not completely persuaded of the justice of the trials, who had doubts about them, or who shared to one extent or another the convictions of Trotsky in his attacks upon the trials, nevertheless felt: this is no time to attack Russia or the Russian regime. The most important thing is a solid front against fascism.

Stalin could not but have realised this enormous advantage that he had on his side in the field of international public opinion, and that is undoubtedly one of the main reasons he drove through so ruthlessly, cynically and unrelentingly until he had wiped out every last possible oppositionist in Russia in the course of the various Moscow trials and the trials which did not receive so much notoriety – the big purges, in a word.

What there was of an organised campaign against the Moscow trials was animated primarily by Trotsky. He was the great motive force behind the activity that was developed – primarily in France and in the United States. In most other countries there was little or no movement of protest against the Moscow trials. It was one of the most shameless periods in modern history: how whole labor, radical, liberal and even Socialist circles, numbering hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, could reconcile themselves to accepting, and in many cases even endorsing, this wholesale assassination of a revolutionary generation in Russia.

And at the same time that he was organising and conducting and being the spokesman for this campaign, an almost endless stream of articles, statements, interviews with the press, material emanating from him that you could not believe could come from one single individual, no matter how qualified, how experienced, how knowledgeable – he had to concern himself with the affairs of the international Trotskyist movement.

I was in Europe at the time not only to visit him but to attend an international Trotskyist conference that was being held in the environs of Paris. And as he was getting deeper and deeper into the fight against the Moscow trials, he had to busy himself with the preparations for this conference. He wrote the principal resolutions for the conference. And together with him, I wrote several of the minor resolutions for the conference. And I simply do not understand how he was able to do all of this – not to this day. He had an utterly incredible capacity for work. And when you consider the high intellectual and political level of what he turned out, regardless of whether one agreed with what he said and wrote or not, this capacity became even more incredible. And when you know that in addition to all this, he was at the same time carrying on a world-wide correspondence with dozens upon dozens of his partisans – because actually he was the Fourth International, he and no one else was the center of the international Trotskyist movement – and at the same time he was working on books, it becomes utterly staggering.

All of this had to be paid for. I remember Natalia whispering to me there, “LD is very tired. He is extremely tired.” I remember those phrases in particular because years later when she would recall those days she would repeat exactly those phrases: “He is very tired. He is extremely tired.” At one time she told me in Norway he simply flung himself onto the ground and said, “Je ne peux plus; je ne peux plus.” He probably said it to her in Russian, but she told it to me in French: “I cannot do anymore; I cannot go on anymore.”

Nobody could produce what he produced and under such difficult circumstances without taxing to the limit and even beyond the limit his moral and physical and intellectual capabilities. There are probably very few individuals who could tax them to that extent and still more to survive and continue. And while you can say in a manner of speaking he was a man of iron.

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Last updated on 25 January 2015