Review: Kenneth D. Ackerman, Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution (2016)

Kenneth Ackerman, author of Trotsky in New York, 1917, is more an historian of “Old Gotham” than someone writing inside a specific left-wing framework. His previous book was about Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. He was a career attorney in Washington, dc, both in and out of government.

This book on Leon Trotsky’s ten-week stay in New York City from January to March 1917, before the latter’s departure to participate in the overthrow of Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government in Russia that fall, is a powerful evocation of the New York social scene just as the United States was entering World War I, and of Trotsky’s little-remembered impact in the rather considerable New York left of that era. (The contemporary left scene pales by comparison.)

Trotsky arrived in New York after being expelled from France and Spain, knowing no English and in fact very little about America. Language was actually no obstacle, since in addition to his native Russian he spoke fluent German, at a time when large Russian and German immigrant groups were as dominant, if not more dominant, in New York socialist circles than native-born English speakers.

Ackerman’s book provides no special viewpoint on the highly debated aspects of Trotsky and Trotskyism today, and is more a social-cultural history of that time and place in America. Trotsky’s brief New York stay hardly figures in most people’s awareness of his life; Isaac Deutscher’s classic three-volume biography devotes a few scant pages to it. Whatever one thinks of Trotsky’s historical legacy, his formidable talents as a speaker and writer got him onto the front pages of the New York Times and of several other New York newspapers, large and small, and several hundred people saw him off at the pier when he finally got a passport from the new Russian government and the necessary visas for a ship to Norway via Halifax, Nova Scotia. As a revolutionary known to British intelligence, he was detained for a month in Canada, ultimately in a camp of German pows, whom he then agitated and who, when he was finally allowed to continue to Norway, carried him on their shoulders to the prison gate singing the “Internationale.”

When not addressing mass meetings or publicly debating such (forgotten) luminaries as Morris Hillquit, a leader of the American Socialist Party, Trotsky, while living in the Bronx with his wife Natalia and their two young sons, commuted daily to the offices of the Russian-language left-wing daily Novy Mir at St. Mark’s Place in Greenwich Village. One of his colleagues on the staff there was none other than Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik, also awaiting a chance to return to Russia. Still another important figure in this scene was Alexandra Kollontai, also a Bolshevik and champion of women’s liberation, and who was, when wartime mails permitted, reporting to Lenin, half-crazed by his inability to get to Russia from enforced Swiss exile. Kollontai in 1915 had taken a four-month speaking tour of the United States, during which she addressed 123 meetings in 80 cities. Trotsky, during his New York stay, was still an independent, having previously been a Menshevik but rapidly converging on Lenin’s views.

Quite a cast of characters moves through Ackerman’s narrative. Trotsky’s closest link to American radicalism was the young Louis Fraina, son of Italian immigrants, who had come to the United States at age five and who would later briefly be a firebrand of one of the two competing American Communist parties founded in 1919 (and then ordered to merge by the Communist International). Fraina accompanied Trotsky to key meetings with the anti-war Hillquit, whom Trotsky came to loathe for his dubious entourage from moderate and liberal New York circles. (Trotsky later called the American sp the “socialism of dentists.”) Another comrade was Ludwig Lore, editor of the German-language New York Volkszeitung, who organized small dinner parties with Trotsky, Fraina and Hillquit to discuss anti-war strategy.

Trotsky and his family boarded a steamship to Norway in late March 1917, and the United States declared war on Germany two weeks later. Trotsky’s ship arrived in Halifax a few days after leaving New York for what seemed like a brief stopover; he and several other suspicious returning Russians were, however, bundled off by British marines and his month’s delay in confinement began. The camp commander was a veteran of some of Britain’s colonial wars in Africa, and apparently said about Trotsky “If only I had him on the South African Coast.” Trotsky’s agitation of the rank-and-file German pows also alarmed the German officers detained in the camp, who did not appreciate the spread of revolutionary ideas among the troops. One British officer said: “if he had stayed there any longer… [he] would have made communists of all the German prisoners.”

Finally a letter from one of Trotsky’s companions reached the editor of Novy Mir in New York, spelling out the details of the Russians’ confinement. It arrived almost simultaneously with Wilson’s declaration of war on April 6, but still created a stir when made public. When the news reached Russia, all left factions turned it into a sensation, especially since the Russians detained in Nova Scotia were being held by Russia’s ostensible ally, Britain. The clamor was such that the British ambassador in Petrograd feared attacks on British factory owners residing there. In the midst of this, Lenin returned to Russia and issued his “April Theses,” turning the Bolshevik Party, which up to that point had been supporting the Provisional Government, upside down.

Shortly thereafter, the revelation of the Provisional Government’s secret agreement to continue the Russian war effort, despite the huge unpopularity of the war, created a political crisis of the first order. Before resigning, Russia’s foreign minister had to reiterate his earlier, failed demand to the British government that Trotsky be released. On April 15, a mass rally in New York, chaired by Louis Fraina, also demanded Trotsky’s release. Meanwhile, Trotsky continued his agitation of the German pows, as in “one continuous mass meeting,” to the point that the camp commander placed him in isolation; the German soldiers circulated a petition protesting Trotsky’s treatment. His case was becoming a worldwide cause célèbre. Finally the arrival of a top British intelligence officer in Halifax led to an order from London to release Trotsky and his fellow Russian socialists. On May 3, Trotsky, his family and his fellow Russians were placed on a ship bound for Norway, and then traveled by train to Russia, where he arrived on May 17. And the rest is history, as they say.

Readers of Insurgent Notes might wonder why a left-communist journal is devoting even minor space to a review of a book by a liberal author with no new contribution to the “Trotsky question” as the latter on occasion agitates the broader left milieu. We might cite as context the current confluence of centennials, starting with the Russian Revolution (1917) and the German Revolution (1918), which give this admittedly minor historical episode a somewhat larger contemporary interest. We, for our part, write with Spinoza’s dictum in mind “To neither laugh nor cry but to understand.” The Trotsky in Ackerman’s narrative is an outsized personality obviously capable of moving masses, with his frenetic New York journalism at Novy Mir, his various speeches in two languages to large New York crowds, his ability, in record short time, to engage top leaders of the American Socialist Party and his agitation in fluent German of the pows in Nova Scotia. As indicated at the outset, the book provides a detailed portrait of the broader social and cultural scene in 1917 New York, in addition to one of the sizable left milieu there.

The “Trotsky question” today includes his role in the crushing of the Kronstadt sailor revolt of 1921; his early 1920s call for the militarization of Soviet labor; his calls for a “united front” of Socialists and Communists against fascism; his theory of the (1917–91) Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state” to be critically supported in the second inter-imperialist world war, a theory extended by his followers to the so-called “deformed workers’ states” after 1945, of which China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba remain after the collapse of the Soviet bloc; and his theory of various “workers’ parties” such as the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party or the German Social Democrats.

Above all it crops up, pro or con, in debates about the need for a revolutionary “vanguard party,” or what other kind of mass worker organizations are needed today. If most of these questions seem remote or superannuated in the United States, it suffices to think of Latin America, where in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, Trotskyist parties have enough weight to ruffle the waters, or the large Trotsky-influenced milieu in Britain or France. Even for provincial America, Trotsky-influenced individuals such as clr James or Raya Dunayevskaya leave more than a chemical trace.

One does not need to agree with Trotsky on Kronstadt or the militarization of Soviet labor to recognize that his application (along with Parvus) of the theory of “permanent revolution” to Russia (against the dominant linear “two stage” theory bequeathed by the Second International), was resoundingly confirmed in 1905 and still more in 1917.

Some of the key specifics of Trotsky’s legacy disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the simultaneous decline of Socialist and Communist Parties in many European countries. No one today in France calls for a “united front” of the much-diminished Communist Party (with 5 percent of the vote) with the even more diminished Socialist Party, almost wiped out in recent elections. Some tiny groups may still appear at demos chanting “2-4-6-8/defend the Chinese workers’ state!” Nonetheless, to conclude, some of the other questions posed by Trotsky’s legacy remain.

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