Trotsky wrote this article after attending a highly-touted rally at Carnegie Hall of groups opposing American entry into World War I, just days after Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare against American shipping and President Woodrow Wilson, in response, had severed American diplomatic relations with Germany. Though it does;t mention him by name, the article was intended as a slam against Morris Hillquit, leader of the Socialist Party in New York City and the principal speaker at the rally. The article appeared in Novy Mir on February 8, 1917, and later was included in a 1923 collected called War and Revolution. Here it is translated from the original Russian:. Big Responsibility (In Reference to the Carnegie Hall Meeting Resolution)
“The official socialist campaign against the war kicked off on February 5th with the impressive meeting in Carnegie Hall. From a political and organizational standpoint, the first presentation was weighted down by a huge mistake: the meeting was organized by the socialist party in conjunction with bourgeois, priest like pacifists (“Friends of Peace”). The reason for that, as they said, was “circumstantial”: the only suitable venue, Carnegie Hall, had already been rented out to the bourgeois pacifists, and our party found it impossible to delay the meeting any further. However, regardless of the practical significance, we consider it necessary to state that the price for the opportunity to conduct this meeting at Carnegie Hall was too high. The socialist party was forced to present in a single rank the people who sincerely protest against the war today, and tomorrow, when they hear the first shot, will gladly call themselves good patriots and, following the example of all European bourgeois pacifists, will start supporting the governmental machine of mass murders, persuading the crowds that in order to reach “fair peace,” “lasting peace,” and “eternal peace,” it is necessary to fight the war until the end. When presenting together with the people who still have Wilson as their predetermined appeaser of the nations, we confuse the message and mislead the crowd. Meanwhile, in reality, and not for show, for revolutionary, and not a flashy fight against the war and militarism, the working class needs first and most of all a clear class-consciousness.
“The first mistake led to a second one: both rendered resolutions, the socialist and pacifist, were voted on conjointly. Although, it was apparent from the meeting spirit that the vast majority of it consisted of the revolutionist working class, it did not find its reflection in the voting pattern, and the revolutionary aspect of the meeting wasweakened, both psychologically and politically.
“On the other hand, we were very satisfied with the actual text of the resolution put forth by the official orators of the socialist party. However, it did not state everything we wanted to convey, and some of the points are extraneous. Nevertheless, the overall resolution is a principal internationalist document, and under the given circumstances, is also a revolutionary act, or at least a preface to it.
“If the resolution states that ‘the war will weaken the most noble traditions of this republic,’ then the only thing left is to note that the ambiguous pleasantries toward the traditions of the bourgeois republic would be more appropriate in the bourgeois pacifists’ resolution: they will start proving to the people, just like the French pacifists, that it is necessary to smash Germany in order to save the “republic’s most noble traditions”. Our proletarian republic does not dwell on the past – it is all in the future.
“The resolution states – and beautifully states – ‘the threatening war will only serve the selfish capitalists’ interests of that country.’ These interests are called by name in the resolution: the fight is going on because of the ‘sacred right of the American capitalists to fatten up on the misfortune of war-struck Europe.’ In this light, the resolution states that ‘it is a great hypocrisy that President Wilson informs Congress that we are not going to serve the egotistical goals.’ The greatest hypocrisy is well stated, and more importantly, it hits the nail on the head of those pseudo-socialists, who replaced (partially or entirely) their socialist colors with the colors of Wilsonism. Socialism assumes an organized uprising against the bourgeois society. Socialist policy is an organized [Page 381 of Source Text] distrust for the bourgeois parties, their leaders, and the governmental bosses.
“The resolution does not strictly pose the question of ‘national defense.’ This is its’ serious shortcoming. However, it has a perfectly sufficient political answer to this question. Who indeed will dare to tell us tomorrow about our national defense duties, when today we see that the war starts as a defense mechanism of ‘America’s sacred right to fatten up on the misfortunes of war-struck Europe?’ Remember this clear, simple and honest formula, comrades! It will be of use to you. It includes a practical responsibility of all representatives of the working class to vote against any credits meant to sponsor the war. It gives a wolf ticket to those party members who will try to talk about “civil peace” with the national government tomorrow when the war will break out: because only backsliders, defectors, and people with no sense of honor and consciousness, can ask working men to ‘make peace’ with the organizers and leaders of this massacre, which was started to provide American capitalists with the right to fatten up on the misfortunes of bleeding Europe.” The resolution calls “workers of the United States to fight against all attempts to drag the United States into the war by all possible means.” We believe that we could have done a better job of describing those means in greater detail. However, the main direction of the fight was clearly described by stating that the resolution promises to take the way of Liebknet, Fenner-Brockway, and five members of the Russian Duma “and other martyrs who sacrificed their freedom, and even life for the cause of peace.”
“The means at the command” of the working class are entirely determined by its role in capitalist production and its position in the modern state: they are provided by the historic experience of the proletariat’s class war in its highest, most rigorous forms. The resolution calls us to fight in this very direction and widens the stream of the movement by increasing its political ideological and political swing and increasing its combative intensity.
Comrades see that the socialist party’s resolution is content-rich. This is a fighting call to action and a guide. However, it is also a big responsibility, which the leading party circles assume. We will watch that this obligation is fulfilled to the very end – without any weaknesses, compromises, and doubts!
“N.M.” February 8, 1917
 Fenner- Brockway was a member of the “ Independent Party of Labor” in Britain. He was publishing Labour Leader at the beginning of the war. As a representative of the war opposition, he was sent to prison. In essence, he was a typical pacifist in the spirit of the intelligence right wing. He has lost his importance lately. (Haywood’s note)
Trotsky’s ship, the Spanish steamer Montserrat, landed at pier 8 at the bottom tip of Manhattan at about 3am on Sunday, January 14, 1917, a cold winter morningStill, the ship’s landing attracted a carnival atmosphere, with at least six newspapers covering the event including the English-language the New York Times, Tribune, and Call. But the most poignant coverage came from the foreign-language socialist press. Trotsky was already a celebrity in these circles, and they treated him well. Here are some selections:
N.Y. Volkszeitung, Jan 14, 1917 (translated from original Germain)
Leon Trotsky is arriving today!
He is arriving at 9am at Pier 8 from Cadiz.
Our much persecuted comrade Leon Trotsky at will arrive in New York this morning at 9am aboard the Spanish vessel “Montserrat”. For at least the time of the war he will find a home here.
Comrade Trotsky belongs to the internationally minded Russian Social Democrats. He is also an editor at the Russian Social Democratic Daily in Paris. He was persecuted by the Russian government throughout all of Europe and he finally found his last resort in the United States.
The “New York Volkszeitung” is welcoming their courageous fellow combatant in the name of the internationally minded German-Speaking Socialists of the United States.
N.Y. Volkszeitung, Jan 15, 1917 (from original German)
Trotzky is here.
At least one country that still is free of Csarism. United States the only refuge.
The Russian Internationalist is giving credit to the “Volkszeitung” and the “German-Language Group”.
On schedule, in good health and in excellent spirits the four members of the Trotsky family arrived in New York yesterday. Out of circumstances they will take their home here for the time being. The genuine surprise of comrade Leon Trotsky, the renowned Russian socialist theorist, writer and speaker, to be able to land in the United States is revealing a lot about the upheavals that occurred in Europe since the beginning of the unfortunate year of 1914. “In fact” he repeatedly told the reporter of the “N.Y. Volkszeitung” there were no difficulties imposed upon me and my family whatsoever. Your immigration officers were as friendly and polite as if they wanted you to feel at home here right away, very different to Old Europe.”
And then he pointed out that all of Europe, no matter if part of the Entente or neutral, belonged to the area of influence of the Csar.
“You know”, the seasoned comrade said, “I made myself impossible in France as an editor of “Nashe Slovo”. Honestly, this isn’t surprising in light of the fierce opposition we were imposing on the “socialist” and the “capitalist” war mongers. Worse, truly democratic and neutral Switzerland didn’t dare to take me in for fear of Russian reprimands. As well as neutral Spain arrested and deported me on Russian demand. I am truly a ‘fatherland-less’ chap and I am grateful to have found a country that is accepting me within its boundaries.”
After, Trotsky gave friendly credit to the “Volkszeitung” and he explained that the paper is received in Europe as a reliable and accountable part of the Internationale. “I read the Volkszeitung every day in Paris as well as in Vienna and I do not want to let the opportunity pass to thank you for your loyal and brave attitude. Likewise, there are many European comrades who appreciate the high amount of socialist sense of duty and clear insight of the New Yorker voice of the German speaking socialist workers.” And then Trotsky cited several articles that he especially recalled.
Thanks to the German language Group
I’d like to thank as well the German language Group of the local Socialist Party for their financial donation to support of the international socialists that were left by all good patriots. Although it wasn’t a big amount it was still a sign of solidarity that was highly encouraging and pleasing. It were those times when we were berated by “friends” and enemies as “vassals of the Hohenzollern”, when we were suspected to be German spies. When your letter with the money wire arrived we published it in the newspaper and let everybody know how proud we were ….. to save us we get the support of the international proletariat who are defamed and suspected by their fellow patriots as “friends of Russians” and “mercenaries of England”. Many letters to the editor of our newspaper expressed the joy about this demonstration of solidarity.”
An Episode from Spain
In relation to the above comrade Trotsky told in fluent German a little episode from Spain. As he was interrogated by the Spanish police prefect it turned out that this high official was unable to speak any other language than Spanish. A translator was called, a German who was supposed to translate the questions as well as the response. In addition it turned out that the translator was also the secretary of the German consul……”The nationalist defamation is truly international” added our comrade with a smile “and it uses the same dirty tricks everywhere”.
What plans does our friend have for his future. ….The socialist movement in this country can only be thankful that the war sent this fellow combatant and teacher to its shores.
And here’s the front page of the next morning’s Jewish Forward. The Forward’s 200,267 circulation made it one of the most widely-ready daily newspapers in the city and country, competing even with the New York Times. The caption under Trotsky’s photo says “This is Comrade Trotsky” and introduces him as Russian revolutionary par excellence. The Forward would carry interviews with Trotsky for the next several days.
Of all the people Leon Trotsky met during his 1917 ten-week stay in New York City, few were more personally hostile then Grisha Ziv. Ziv had known Trotsky back in Russia when they were both teenagers, was arrested with Trotsky in 1898 when their youthful circle of friends helped organize an illegal workers’ union in the industrial Black Sea town of Nikolaev, was sentenced with Trotsky to exile in Siberia, and knew the woman Alexandra Sokolovskaya Bornstein who Trotsky married behind bars awaiting sentence.
Ziv published a Russian-language book about Trotsky in 1921 that contained a rare account of his interactions with the future Russian Bolshevik leader in 1917. I had the account translated into English as part of the research on my book TROTSKY in NEW YORK, 1917 . As a service to future researchers, I am posting the full text of the translation below.
From Trotskii: Testimony as to Character
Narodoprevstvo Publishing House, New York, 1920:
Meeting in New York. – Speeches about the “Immediate Ceasefire on the Fronts.” – “The Reactionary Imperialist Entente” and “Progressive” Germany. – The Forthcoming “World Revolution.”
Once it became apparent that Trotsky was coming to New York, all of the local socialist newspapers started their campaign to prepare the general public to properly welcome the guest.
The circumstances were more than favorable for this campaign to be executed on a large scale, the way they do it in America: an old advocate for Russian freedom and democracy (Trotsky has always been a supporter of democracy and freedom), a socialist and revolutionary, who had been deported from Austria, not allowed into Germany, persecuted in Spain and France, oppressed all around Europe for his selfless dedication to the idea of peace, was very appealing to the anti-militarist audiences of the socialists newspapers, which kept their readers on their toes by providing the newest information of Trotsky’s past and present activities.
Not only Vorwärts, The New World, and The Call were filled with articles about him, but bourgeois newspapers also gave him favorable publicity here and there: not only was he an anti-militarist, but he also played a role in the Russian fight for freedom, which Americans have always sympathized to.
Before Trotsky stepped on American soil, experienced reporters, who represented local newspapers, rushed to give him the third degree about his past and present life, his ideas, political views, plans—pretty much about everything, which he knew very well, knew very little, or knew nothing at all about.
The next day, almost all of the socialist newspapers published detailed reports on those interviews. Vorwärts wrote the biggest article, which filled almost half of a large-sized page. It was continued the next day, this continued so on and so forth.
During one such interview, Trotsky, who was being attacked by a half-dozen reporters and was touched by such a welcoming, noted: “I have never sweated like now when I am under the crossfire of those masters of their trade, not even when the police would give me the third degree.”
Newspapers published his portraits – both old portraits and those that were newly captured – in different poses and postures.
Soon after Trotsky’s arrival in New York City, there was a so-called Reception Meeting that was thrown in his honor at the Cooper Union.
Obviously, this meeting was promoted in every possible way, both in articles and advertisements, with the typical American razzle-dazzle.
Of course, I decided to go to the meeting. Although I was considerably late, there was no crowd outside despite my expectations. The room was almost empty, and I found a spot in one of the front rows.
I remember such a meeting in this very room in 1912, when the same Reception Meeting was thrown in honor of Deytch. The room was packed way before the announced time. Not only was the entire platform on the stage busy, all of the seats and aisles were taken, but there was also no space behind the seats, between the seats, and even on the window sills. Everywhere your foot would normally touch the floor, there was another person. This is how popular Deytch was, although he just came for the modest purpose of editing a small Russian newspaper.
This time, even the best-crafted advertisement, which touched the most sensitive strings of the emigrant mass, was obviously insufficient to make a person that lived all the way across the ocean and that was mostly unfamiliar to the vast majority of the public that normally fills up such meetings popular overnight.
The room was filling up slowly, and the meeting was forced to be opened with the room half empty, way past the announced time for the beginning of the meeting.
Again, in accordance with the established customs, before Trotsky took the stage, a lot of other speakers heaped their praises in different languages on the distinguished guest. However, who stood out the most was a representative of a German socialist newspaper, Lore, who raved and stormed (he obviously was an internationalist and hoped for Germany to win the war) to extol “our dearest teacher,” forgetting, however, that three-quarters of the audience did not know German and could not understand a thing he was saying.
How could Trotsky, who was writing in Russian, possibly become a teacher of the German Lore, who obviously did not speak Russian, and what academic articles he meant, remained his personal secret. Was it a little booklet “The War and The International” that enlightened the unpretentious scholar and editor?
When the audience was pretty much exhausted by this disorderly army of multilingual speakers, the man of the day took the floor and was welcomed by vigorous applause.
It is know that the popularity of the speaker is measured by the time during which the audience detains the beginning of the speech by showing affection in different ways: applauding, whistling, stomping feet, etc. – simple, yet noisy methods.
This is called “cheering.”
It is hard to tell how long this “cheering” would last if Trotsky, who had not yet developed a taste for the American treatment, did not disrupt it at the very beginning by expressing obvious signs of impatience and began his speech in the midst of the thunderous applause, when the signs of impatience did not work.
The audience settled immediately.
It is really hard to judge declamatory skills of your opponent. However, this speech of his had a great effect on me, just from the artistic standpoint. While listening to him, I experienced aesthetic pleasure, despite the fact that I absolutely rejected the idea the speech was based on.
I have listed to him many times after that. Sometimes his speeches were just average, sometimes they were good, and sometimes they were excellent. However, I have never heard any speech, which was like this one. Trotsky obviously thoroughly prepared for it, having this rare opportunity, and managed to get prepared for this one in a way he had never prepared and could not prepare. This speech had no rough demagogic methods of influencing the audience, at least those that for a cultured listener we can obviously call demagogic: the good theme made them absolutely excessive. He bombarded the audience with a great number of facts, which portrayed the terrifying realities of the war and the irrecoverable destruction, both material and spiritual, which it was inflicting at the moment and which would have threatened us in the future.
He thrilled his readers with terrifying reports that Paris was getting dark after six. And not because they were scared of the German zeppelins, he exclaimed in the heat of his enthusiasm, but because France was short on coal in its economic degradation; and women are wandering around the streets with bags where they collect coal leftovers to warm their freezing children and make a little warm food….
And spiritual degradation. To achieve victory at any price (in the midst of the German domination in the war), with the full acceptance of its no less barbaric allies, the French government, in order to save civilization, did not refrain from sending black African savages, who carried in their bags (and this is where Trotsky’s boiled-over pathos reached its highest point) cut-off ears of the German soldiers.
The spiritual degradation caused by the war could not go any further. He depressed the audience with the abundance of facts, each scarier than the last. His burning resentment and high-minded pathos were transmitted to the audience, which in turn, being ignited by his eloquence, joint in sincere indignation against the French government and its allies, who were leading Europe to such terrifying economical, social, and spiritual degradation.
However, all of those terrifying facts, no matter how serious they were, were nothing in comparison to the terror and degradation created by the civil war that broke out later in Russia. It is so true that you unconsciously start to doubt Trotsky’s sincerity when you realize that he and his friends, who managed to come to power, were the ones who inspired and led the civil war and tried their best to spread the sacramental fire of the civil war not across Europe, which had just started to embrace the peace that Trotsky was a big advocate for, but also to the rest of the civilized and uncivilized world, which has not yet been appended to this pestilent degradation.
However, his audience could not have known all of that then, and they could not have known about the forthcoming communist civilizing role in China and other doings of Trotsky and his friends, which were simply terrifying and easily overshadow all of those horrible facts that Trotsky was painting black to his New York audience.
That is why that aesthetic unity of their impression was not disturbed, and Trotsky’s triumph was complete. This part of the speech, where he spoke about the horrors of the war, was indeed dominating—both in length and content—as we have seen it before in speeches of all abstract advocates for peace by all manner of means, regardless of whether they were called “internationalist,” “antimilitarists,” or “neutralists.”
This speech was distinctive not because of the novelty of its ideas or profundity of thought, but because of its artistry.
Since war is such a horrible thing, it is obvious that every socialist should be dead against it. And those who accept war, who contribute to the extension of that war, even for a day in one way or another, is a traitor and defector of the working class’s business. And the socialists who remained loyal to their ideas could not have anything to do with those castoffs. They could not have anything to do with them, except for the grim struggle with those rabid enemies of the working class. He considered it necessary to make it clear in the very beginning, so no one has any doubts about it. This dissociation of socialists from traitors (he used those strong expressions all the time), regardless of their statuses and names—whether they were Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Thomas, Ged, etc.—is the first and foremost thing for every honest socialist.
Even I was impressed by the artistry of his speech, this logical transition from horrors of the war to abstract, starry-eyed, philistine and naïve antimilitarism quand meme was grate on my ears.
Anyway, here Trotsky did not tolerate any compromises and with the full power of his eloquence, he criticized the French socialist Thomas and others who shamed themselves for forever by joining bourgeois governments, accepted the war, consciously participated in that war and thus took the responsibility for all depicted economic, social and spiritual horror of it.
And when he started talking about nine Russian volunteers who were shot in battle because they did not obey some disciplinary rules, his eloquence reached the highest point, and his resentment had no limits. May the French government not try to make any excuses and shift the blame on the battlefield government—it carries the full responsibility for this despicable crime. And let Thomas comfort himself with the notion that he did not personally sign this death sentence. There was no actual signature of his on that document, but his name is engraved there with shameful indelible letters. And let those socialists who found it possible to reach a helping hand to such socialists like Thomas for any conjoint venture be damned. This is where his speech reached its climax. His scourging resentment seemed to be pouring out from the very bottom of his soul and was passed onto the audience, which was listening to him with breathless attention.
This happened at the end of 1916, just months before the Russian Revolution. And in the beginning of 1918, in the capacity of Field Marshal, and not just a modest immigrant, Trotsky reported in Moscow about instances of disciplinary disobedience in his army. There were no traces of the past pathos and pacifist resentment. He reported this calmly and busily, as it would be expected from a person in such a high rank, and thoroughly explained the steps that he took, including the arrest of those ten defaulters. Just on a side note, as if it was a small embarrassing lapse, he noted, “unfortunately they have not yet been executed.”
However, the audience of the Reception Meeting could not have known that, and they could not have known how easily the same Trotsky would soon kill not only dozens and hundreds guilty soldiers, but also their children and families, if those soldiers escaped the prosecution…Therefore, the artistry of the impression from his speech was not disturbed.
I anxiously listened to Trotsky in hopes of hearting his explanation as to why Belgians, Frenchmen, Serbians, and others should lay aside their weapons in the face of victoriously attacking Wilhelm’s army, and what kind of kind of benefits the Belgians, French, Serbians, Russians, and others, as well as those nations who were under the power of victors, would get out if it.
The answer soon followed.
It was as simple as could be. The horrors of the war were so extreme, baneful, and obvious to everybody, that there was no doubt that this would be the working class, which would come back from the war and would not be able to tolerate the political and social regime that committed those horrors. There is no doubt that they would organize uprisings against their governments and wipe them off the face of the Earth, together with the bourgeois lifestyles those regimes were carriers of, and establish a socialist regime. The working class from both sides experienced the horrors of the war. Therefore, upon returning home, they would create uprisings and revolutions everywhere, regardless of whether their government was the winner or loser in the war.
This opened my eyes, and everything became apparent to me. Since it is inevitable that the working class will organize revolutions and establish socialist regimes, there is no real difference as to which country wins and which country loses in this war.
The victory does not matter. What really matters is the all-round speedy return from the war. It is that simple!
What if they do not organize uprisings? Then…“Then,” Trotsky stated, viciously shaking his fist in the air, “I will become a misanthrope.” As you can see, he provided a solid guarantee there.
“An immediate ceasefire” is what is important. And all those “without annexations and contributions” and other propaganda are just small details, which serve as a honey trap to provoke a faster return from the fronts.
Why does this all matter when the whole of society, the whole world will be redeveloped in a completely new way and the entire map of Europe and the whole world will be completely redone in accordance with the program described in Trotsky’s “The War and The International”?
Needless to say, the speech had a huge success.
Trotsky soon gained huge popularity among the Russian community. Soon, he broke off relations with “social-patriots,” who made his journey to America possible and who welcomed him so warmly.
He became the editor in chief of The New World and quickly turned this publication into the second edition of Our Word.
Trotsky’s arrival in New York fell during the season of balls hosted by various organizations. Trotsky was a very tempting attraction for those organizations that managed to get him as a guest speaker, and, therefore, increase the profitability of their event. I saw and listened to him at a number of such events.
However, I have never spoken to him in person. His crisp and definite speech left no desire to do so. Besides, he was very inapproachable. He gave his speeches, provoked needed enthusiasm, got his fair share of triumph, and then left the podium. However, he did not join the crowd, did not blend in like a big beloved brother, but rather disappeared in a backstage cloud, surrounded by the atmosphere of a cold arrogance, which like a thick armor chased away even his most dedicated fans if they did not belong to the elite of the party and organization.
It was apparent not only to me, but also to those people who managed to get closer and get behind the amour. This is what one of the reporters of the local newspaper, who had the honor to interview Trotsky, shared with me: “In 1912 I interviewed Deytch when he came to New York to edit The New World. What a contrast between him and Trotsky! While Deytch is very approachable, and you soon feel like a good friend, despite the huge age difference, with Trotsky you always feel inferior as if you would be standing in front of an important nobleman who makes sure you don’t forget the distance between you and him.”
Meanwhile, upon his arrival in 1912, Deytch was already widely known as an old Russian revolutionary, who had already visited America after his escape from the penal establishment and as the author of 16 Years and Siberia, which was translated into nearly twenty languages. Not only was he known among the socialist audience, but also among other populations.
On the other hand, before his banishment from France, Trotsky was unknown to the non-socialist parts of the population, and he was only well known to a small group of socialist Russian immigrants.
However, the more arrogant he was, the more reverence he would get. The same reporter that I mentioned above once proudly told me that Trotsky had made a promise to initiate him. I must admit that I also wanted to see Trotsky somehow. We shared too many old memories and moments to simply ignore it. “When Trotsky visits you, tell him I said hi.” If Trotsky had any desire to see me, he could easily call me on the phone. That call never happened though.
“So, have you seen Trotsky?” I asked the next day. “Yeah, I recall him,” is all that Trotsky had to say about me after the reporter said hi from me.
It has been nearly three weeks since Trotsky’s arrival. One day I answer my phone: “Grisha, is that you? Do you recognize me? It’s me – Trotsky.”
It appeared that he had long wanted to see me and did his best to find me (if he really wanted, it was pretty easy to find me). He had found out about my appearances at the balls after I had left been gone, or after he had left the event. In one word, he wanted to see me and asked to set up a good place and time.
I went to see him. Our meeting was friendly, but not overly warm. There was no awkwardness, because both of us, as if we had a silent agreement between us, avoided any discussion on hot political topics (it was before the February revolution) and we already had a lot of other things to talk about. I learned a lot about my long-lost friends and acquaintances.
“How is Parvus doing?” (once Trotsky’s teacher and mentor), I asked.
“Working on getting his twelfth million,” Trotsky replied curtly.
I saw him several other times. We almost had never spoken about political topics. Once he made a remark about Plekhanov, obviously, not in the most favorable way. “Does that mean that he is a counter revolutionist, daddy?” his 11-year-old son, who was standing right there and attentively listening to him, asked. Trotsky smiled and did not reply.
Once he offered to play chess, apparently considering himself a good chess player. He showed himself to be a weak player and lost, which obviously upset him. He immediately offered to play another one. Once he won that one, he did not want to play anymore.
In this little episode, it was not just important that Trotsky did not want to play since the chances that he would lose were high, but also the fact that Trotsky could not learn how to be a good player. To learn how to play, he needed to play with superior players, and, therefore, lose multiple times. Trotsky could never afford that.
I have already mentioned above that Trotsky’s first speech opened my eyes as to his meaning of the slogan that he put into repeated by all “internationalists,” “immediate ceasefire.” It became apparent to me why he wanted that immediate ceasefire regardless of the way the war map looked at the given moment. However, it became less apparent to me why he was sympathizing Germany and its victories.
However, one lecture opened my eyes on that aspect as well. After drawing a picture of how modern European capitalist society, and even a society of the whole civilized world, is moving towards larger and larger unification, and how this development is leading to the destruction of economical independency and autonomy of certain countries, which in turn would strengthen their mutual dependence. He draws the right conclusion that the strengthening progressive connection and dependency between civilized countries is inevitably leading to a necessity for a political unification. And any attempt to preserve independence of one country or another, whether it be Belgium, Serbia, Austria, France, or Russia, will inevitably be politically, and, therefore, socially reactionary. Thus, any discussions about defense are highly harmful and reactionary. “Social-patriots,” with their ideas about protecting the given Motherland disturb the judgment of crowds, restraining them from a sooner ceasefire.
It is just one country involved in the war, which is so far ahead in its’ social, economic, and cultural development that it is the only country that could possibly, in the case of victory, make unification of the civilized world from “the top” possible, and, therefore, play a significant progressive role. This country is Germany.
Trotsky was very cautious with his wording. Obviously, he did not want to sound clearer, so he does not openly appear to be a Germanist. I listened closely to his speeches to get and not lose the main theme of his reasoning. He did not have a strong desire to make direct implications from this idea and clearly communicate them to the public for some obvious reasons: at the time he hoped to make that unity happen through revolutions and uprisings in certain countries. He was hiding the idea of the German domination—maybe away from himself—on the back of his consciousness, like a plan B in case plan A fails.
Like an experienced strategist, he could not really talk about the perspectives of the unlikely, according to his beliefs, failure, so it does not stay in the way of victory.
“The bourgeois method of resolving current issues is war. The working class method is revolution,” he pronounces in his pamphlet “The War and The International.” As a “revolutionist” he prefers the second method and only if it fails he agrees to the first method, where oppressive Germany conquers the world.
After signing a peace treaty in Brest with oppressive Germany, which gave Russia a good chance to feel its heavy paw, the Bolsheviks were knocked off their feet for a while. Not only the external, but also the internal situation did not look too promising for the nearest future. The new Russian Messieurs were in a pretty grim mood. And when they found out that Japan, with the full support of its allies, was going to attack Soviet Russia, Trotsky stated in the press. “If we are threatened by invasion of the imperialist Entente, we will form an offence-defense alliance with Germany (after smashing Russia, Wilhelm’s government had still been victoriously fighting the Allies), like with a more progressive imperialist country as opposed to the reactionary Entente.”
Therefore, the cautiously guarded from himself and others reserved the idea of the German domination started to become apparent and assumed the similitude of the reality.
Sometimes returning from the lectures, Trotsky would condescend to me and give me a friendly clap on the back telling his people, “This is my old friend who needs to stay in France for a couple of months to become a good socialist.”
One time, using our alone time, I started to interview him about his certain “internationalist” colleagues in New York. There was someone called Semkov, an uneducated person with a naturally loud voice and overly “revolutionist” manner of speech. He had a special talent to speak in “revolutionary” phrases without rest for an unlimited amount of time, although those phrases had no logical connection. As an uneducated person, he did not know any thorny subjects or questions, and everything was clear and easy for him. He could never been caught off-guards. He was always ready to object any question on any subject. His ecstatic speeches always made such an impression, as if he would stuff his pockets with random phrases from Lenin and Trotsky’s catechesis along with cigarettes and matches when he would rush out of his house to attend yet another meeting. Once he appeared at those meetings, he would start to turn his pockets out and show off all of this stuff without even carefully listening to the opponents’ arguments. His phrases would be pulled out of context, without beginning or ending, and the main body, however, had a more impressive “revolutionist” effect and provided him with a great success among “revolutionist” crowd. He was much appreciated in the “internationalist” crowds, and he was considered an irreplaceable and valuable member. This star, all spite aside, I asked Trotsky about.
“No matter what he is, “ said Trotsky as always giving full value to each word, without even thinking, “When the time comes, Semkov will be there, where needed, unlike N.N. (Trotsky’s permanent opponent at all meetings) will always be there where not needed.”
 Later, following the activities of Trotsky’s former New York associates in the Russian newspapers, I had the true opportunity to see that Semkov was always “there where needed,” holding “there” in a high position.
As a historian watching Vladimir Putin’s Russia flout international law to send troops into Crimea – part of the separate country of Ukraine – it is truly hard not to marvel. Another Crimean War? Really?Why would anyone want to repeat that particular horror?
Yes, Putin has reasons for the incursion.Don’t they always. Crimea’s coast city of Sevastopol happens to host Russians principal warm water post and Navy base.And most of the people who live in Crimea actual want the Russians in control.In a fair plebiscite, they would doubtless vote for joining Putin.But a new war over Crimea?
The first Crimean War
In case you forget, the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 was the premier European bloodbath of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Over 220,000 Russians died in the contest along with some 300,000-375,000 “allies,” mostly British, French, and Turkish.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
practicing with loaded weapons.
But worst of all was the original War’s utter pointlessness.Started over a pretext – alleged Turkish mistreatment of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, which Turkey then controlled – it had more to do with Western fears of Russian expansion than any principled stand to “protect Turkey” – the West’s ultimate excuse to intervene. Russia mostly lost the War.Britain and France finally captured Sevastopol, the Black Sea was de-militarized for a time, but not for long.Russia soon re-established its Naval base and, by 1914, Britain and France had happily switched sides and embraced Russian as their new ally in preparation for Europe’s next grand and largely pointless bloodbath, World War I.
View from the USA
We Americans happily stayed out of that fight. We would stage our own grandiose bloodbath Civil War a few years later in the 1860s. As a result, most Americans have only two clear images of the Crimean War.
The other is of Errol Flynn in his 1936 classic The Charge of the Light Brigade (see clip above), playing real-life British officer Lord James Cardigan leading that famous 1854 suicide cavalry mission (yes, it resulted from miscommunication among careless officers) that, through pure courage and pluck, managed to breach Turkish lines before it was forced to immediately retreat. In real life, almost half the 670 British soldiers involved were lost: 118 dead, 127 wounded, 60 captured.
Still, Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his heroic poem.
Florence Nightingale leading British nurses in Crimea.
The irony of a new Crimean War in 2014 is hard to miss. How convenient it would be in its own odd way. All the historic battlefields are already there and waiting. Why not simply recycle, and maybe use re-enactors instead of real soldiers?
Hopefully, cooler diplomatic heads will prevail, a formula will emerge for all sides to save face, guaranteeing both independence for the Ukrainian state as well as Russia’s strategic access to Sevastopol. But if not, what an opportunity it could be for historians – the parallels, the contrasts, the urgent need for TV talking heads.
It’s true what they say:Never throw away your old notes.
Yiddish is not beautiful. Harsh and gutteral, it makes you twist your face to get the sounds out. Many of its words are bastardized from German, Slavic, Polish, Hebrew, English, French, you name it. And worse, Yiddish today is rapidly dying. Millions of people spoke it a few decades ago– the Jewish national tongue — but today it has grown largely irrelevant. American Jews speak English, French speak French, and Israelis speak Hebrew. Even the old Jewish Daily Forward, once the largest Yiddish-language newspaper in the world, still survives but now publishes also in English.
But Yiddish can also achieve beauty and depth. It can be hilarious and harmonic, even if you don’t understand a word. The backdrop of countless family stories, its phrases live on in dozens of American slangs. But disappearing with the language today is also our access, in original form, to an amazingly rich literature: books, theater, newspapers, music, and, yes, movies. And that brings us to Molly Picon.
Molly Picon — born Malka Opiekun in 1898 in New York City’s Jewish enclave on the Lower East Side — loved comedy. Look at her prancing around the kitchen in the film clip above from her popular 1938 hit Mamele. (The subtitles are Polish, but that hardly matters.) Molly Picon started acting at six years old and became star of the New York Yiddish stage of the 1920s and 1930s, pioneer of Yiddish film, and, later, as times changed, a lifelong familiar face of English-language TV and film — including a regular spot on the 1960s show Car 54 Where Are You? (see clip below).
Molly Pico Theater in 1931.
New York alone had three daily Yiddish newspapers back in Molly Picon’s prime, the 1920s and 30s. Its fourteen Yiddish stage companies — mostly huddled together on lower Second Avenue — produced everything from slapstick comedies to cabarets to sappy immigrant stories to Yiddish translations of Broadway hits and Shakespeare classics. With hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers in New York and millions more still living in pre-WWII Eastern Europe, theater troops from NY often toured Warsaw and vice versa. It was big business and very profitable.
Molly Picon quickly became a favorite on Second Avenue. By 1931, she and her husband — fellow actor Yankel Kalich — had enough money to lease the Yiddish Folks Theater at 12th Street and Second Avenue for her own productions. (She had to leave later than year, though, when the owners sold it in foreclosure. This was, after all the Depression.) The building still stands today as a movie house. (Click here to take a visit.) She starred in one of the first Yiddish-subtitled silent films, 1922’s East and West, then in the 1930s became a favorite in Yiddish talkies. She traveled to Poland to shoot what became her best known film, Yidl Mitn Fidl (see clip below), a sentimental comedy about a young girl disguising herself as a boy to join a group of traveling musicians, but then falls in love with another band member.
Molly kept acting her entire life — even after the Yiddish stage stated fading way in the 1950s. She would appear regularly on pioneer TV shows from Dr. Kildare to Trapper john, M.D. to The Naked City. Fittingly, she would win a role in the film Fiddler on the Roof as Yenta the Matchmaker. She would live 94 years before Alzheimer’s disease caught up with her in 1992.
But I like her best as the young star of Yiddish stage and film in the 1930s, taking those hard-edged words and giving them warmth, depth, and humor, even if you can’t understand more than a syllable.
BTW, two of Molly’s early Yiddish films are now listed on Netflix — Mamele and Yiddle with his Fiddle. Enjoy.
Anzia Yezierska paid a price for being a renegade.During the Depression, when popular tastes turned against stories about immigrants, her career guttered, and she had few reserves in terms of money and contacts to keep her afloat.But even down and out, she nurtured her rebel side.
Anzia later described one encounter she had in the WPA cafeteria with a young Richard Wright after he won a prize his fiction:
Richard Wright in 1939.
“He handed me a copy of Story magazine… with the announcement that the first prize of the WPA Writers’ Contest was awarded to Richard Wright…‘Five hundred bucks!… And they’re going to publish my book!’
“In his eyes I saw my own elation thirty years ago when my first story was published… I knew the double-edged thrill of his triumph. It was not only recognition for his talent, but balm for all he had suffered as a Negro. I thought of Hollywood, when I’d been as intoxicated with the triumph over my handicaps as Wright was now… He would know how to take success for what it was worth and not become rattled by it as I had been…”
Anzia enjoyed the limelight again briefly in the 1950s with her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse. After that, though, she was mostly forgotten. She continued to write and live in New York City, dying in poverty in 1970.
Anzia Yezierska has influenced generations of writers who managed to discover her work.The late Grace Paley, another brash and wonderful Jewish writer of short stories who grew up later in the East Bronx, was one. “I loved them,” Paley said of Yezierska’s stories in a telephone interview. “I read her later. When I got away from ‘literature’ I became close to the literature that I had to do.” That is, with an ear to the language of the neighborhoods.”
In 1998, the critic Margo Jefferson ranked Yezierska’s Saloméof the Tenements among seven novels demanding to be filmed. Saloméwas inspired by Yezierska’s friend Rose Pastor, who championed socialist causes, protested World War I, was tried and convicted of violating the espionage act of 1917 with her writings against the war (her case was dismissed in 1921), divorced, and later became a successful dress designer.
Yezierska’s own life story, rising from poverty to literary success, still strikes people today. Kyle Semmel, a writer and translator, invoked her immigrant story when he applied to a nonprofit that helps first-generation college students. Like many first-generation immigrants, she lived with her impoverished family and helped support them, selling items to vendors while studying English in night school. When everyone else in the family was asleep, she would crawl up to the roof “and talk out my heart to the stars. Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life?”
“Yezierska’s case is a distinctly American one,” Semmel wrote, “and it mirrors the situation many young people find themselves in today: talented, eager and hard-working, but ultimately uncertain about their future because their families are in lower-income brackets.”
Hollywood and Broadway
Now in 2014, both Hollywood and Broadway are about to present striking glimpses into Anzia’s world – 1920s Manhattan and its strong woman burdened by hard life and hard choices.
The Immigrant, a new film starring Marion Cotillard, got a standing ovation at Cannes last spring and gets its U.S. debut soon. The Village Voice called the film, about a Polish
Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant.
immigrant new to New York, “a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic.”
On Broadway, Rebecca Hall (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Iron Man 3) will debut in a revival of Machinal, a 1928 play by the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell, inspired by the true story of a woman driven to murder. (The same murder provided the seed for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity).
Anzia Yezierska’s set a model decades before what became known as the women’s movement.“The 1920s were very much the modern world,” says Amy Bloom, author of the bestselling novel Away, whose protagonist (like Yezierska) escapes pogroms in Russia to face the trials of the New World. “We had cars and telephones and radio and movies. And I think that the struggle within women—between what is expected of them, discovering their own natures and trying to make their way in the world and be reasonably successful in whatever world they choose to be in—is always an issue.”
For Bloom, who gave voice to Yezierska in the 2009 documentary Soul of a People, which Andrea Kalin and I produced, Anzia’s hungry spirit and her characters would always slam against society’s norms. “By and large, women didn’t design the norm,” said Bloom, “so it doesn’talways suit them.But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to try to make their way in the bigger world.”
When Rebecca Hall and Marion Cotillard step into the footlights, they may remind us of another pioneer from that era still waiting in the wings.
Publicity photo of Anzia Yezierska from Goldwyn studio period, circa 1922.
Click here for Part II on Anzia, her legacy on Broadway, on more. You’ve probably never heard of Anzia Yezierska.But not too long ago, this foreign-sounding name was the toast of New York publishing and Hollywood films.Anzia Yezierska got attention because she wrote in a voice that demanded it.She spoke not only for the flood of new immigrants flooding New York’s lower East Side in the early 1900s – Jews, Poles, Italians, and the ethnic strangers to Old America – but also for women carving out a strong new role.
Even if you haven’t read her books (click here for her Amazon page), you certainly know her characters.This winter, Hollywood and Broadway give us two striking glimpses into Anzia’s world of the 1920s, a fitting tribute a century later, but more on that in Part II of this Post.
Anzia directly confronted the bastion of white male writers dominating American letters in the 1910s and 1920s. Speaking out in the prestigious New York Times Book Review for a foreign-born author denied a university job in 1922, she openly threatened the cloistered old regime: “The generations that went before in America have little to say to us,” she wrote. “They could not begin to imagine the new world of the Melting Pot.”
Scene from film version of Hungry Hearts, 1922.
Anzia Yezierska made her name through critically acclaimed novels set in Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side – her immigrant world — that earned her the sobriquet “Cinderella of the Tenements.” Her stories like Hungry Hearts and Salomé of the Tenements featured tough, independent characters. Her 1920 Hungry Hearts—tracing the lives and loves of Jewish immigrant women—became a well-reviewed Hollywood film in 1922 for the Goldwyn Company, the first time this Jewish-owned firm tried to show actual lives of Jewish people. (Click to see a clip.)
Born in Poland and reaching New York as a child in the 1890s, Anzia had to create her destiny by fighting both poverty and tradition.Her parents refused to send her to college, so she sent herself.Anzia’s daughter, writing years later, described how her mother “withheld from her wages enough money to pay for a year at the New York City Normal College.” Anzia ironed clothes in a laundry before and after classes.Ultimately, she won her college degree. But having to defy her parents made her feel like a nomad. “She wrote about this as homelessness,” her daughter Louise wrote, “being lost between her parents’ Old World and the new world.”
Notice how, in the newspaper drawing, Anzia’s
Jewish features — nose and eyes — seem to disappear.
Anzia’s prose could be clunky and melodramatic, but she had an ear for tart dialogue and vivid characters.In her story “Hunger,” a young woman balks at her uncle’s complaints about the meal she’s made for him: “What a fuss over a little less salt!” she cries. When the old man says the Talmud gives a man the right to divorce his wife for not salting his soup, the young woman fires back: “Maybe that’s why Aunt Gittel went to the grave before her time – worrying how to please your taste in the mouth.”
Yezierska didn’t enter the limelight to please.Among other targets, she took on the state of male-female relationships: “American Man Must Be Nearly 60 Before He Really Loves, Says Novelist,” sounded the NY Evening Telegram in a profile of her in early 1923.
Yezierska’s rollercoaster fame finally rode her to Hollywood, where she received $200 a week as a studio-employed screenwriter.It was a fortune at the time, but it gave her vertigo.She felt lost in California, cut off from her stories and people. She left after a few months, writing “This is What $10,000 Did to Me” for Cosmopolitan.She married twice and ended both marriages, raised a daughter, had an affair with philosopher John Dewey, published five more novels and another collection of stories, and struggled.
In 1964, speaking at Purdue, Anzia described just how the Lower East Side’s voices first inspired her to write:
“What started me on [my first] story was the sight of a crazed mother, looking among the pushcarts for her lost child. ‘People! My child! Find me my child! My Benny! My best child from all my children!’
“And when a policeman came, leading a frightened, pale-faced little boy, the way that mother slapped and cursed her Benny, her best child of all her children! “A fire should burn you! The waters should drown you! Thunder and lightning should strike you! Haven’t I enough worries over my head, without you getting lost on me?”
It was this voice that she turned into literature – and in portraying complex characters in a society contorted by change, she offers a model of courage for all of us today who call ourselves writers.
Next: The price of being a renegade, and the legacy.
As promised, today a few more clippings from the wonderful overstuffed scrapbook of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, irrepressible oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt — a fantastic find at the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress.
Alice with her stylish fur and feather hat, all the rage in 1906.
Alice kept piles of cuttings from the White House press office, which used service like this one in London to assure global reach — here a story from Berlin via the London Herald.
Alice and Nick arriving in Paris was a great event for the local society.
Alice in the 1930s with her only child, daughter Paulina. Born in 1925, Paulina’s father was understood to be not Nick Longworth, Alice’s husband, but rather Senator William Borah (R-Idoha), with whom Alice had an affair. Sadly, Paulina suffered from a chilly relationship with her mother complicated by what doctors back then called “melancholy,” and died of a pill overdose in 1957 at 31 years old. Her husband, Alexander Sturm, had died of hepatitis in 1951.
This is my personal favorite: Alice wrote a memoir in 1933 called CROWDED HOURS, published by Scribner.s, and, like any good writer, she tracked her sales and royalties like a hawk. Here’s one of her statements.
It’s easy to like Alice Roosevelt Longworth, oldest daughter of TR and owner of Washington, D.C.’s sharpest tongue for 96 years (1884-1980). Among others she’s credited with–
•“If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come here and sit by me.”
•“My simple philosophy: Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. And scratch what itches.”
•“The secret to eternal youth is arrested development.”
•On Calvin Coolidge: He “looks as if he was weaned on a pickle.”
•And on Thomas E. Dewey: “The little man on top of the wedding cake.”
Her father, Theodore Roosevelt, famously added this: “I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.”
Recently, I spent a day rummaging through her scrapbooks in the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress. What a pleasure!! They contain a treasure trove of newspaper clips, full of gossip, politics, old smudgy snapshots, so on.
I’m not sure yet what to do with them yet. (The research was part of my endless quest into the story of cantankerous old House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon, a project that has become my own personal White Whale. I’ll catch that damn whale some day.)
In the meantime, I’d like to share some of the photos with you, spread out over the next few weeks. To start, in 1904, Alice made herself the glamour sensation of the country by announcing her surprise, sudden wedding engagement to young Congressman Nicholas Longworth, scion of the richest family in Cincinnati. Nick and Alice had met early that year year on a diplomatic mission to the Phillipines hosted by then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Newspapers loved the story, and Alice clipped them all. Here are a few–