On the eve of revolution: Trotsky in New York City, 1917

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One hundred years ago Russian insurrectionist Leon Trotsky landed in New York with his wife and two sons. A political refugee for over a decade, Trotsky had been forced out of Germany, France, Switzerland and Spain. The Allied powers in World War I already raging in Europe were afraid Trotsky’s tireless opposition to the war would destabilize tsarist Russia and force it out of the war. But the European Allied forces needed Russian troops on their eastern front. So anxious were they to be rid of Trotsky that Spain paid his first-class steamship ticket to the USA.

In his new book, Trotsky in New York, 1917: Portrait of a Radical on the Eve of Revolution, Kenneth Ackerman tells the story of Trotsky’s two-and-a-half-months in New York City. During that time he wrote regular columns for Novy Mir, a Russian language paper published by socialists and revolutionaries, and many other newspapers. He gave countless speeches for socialist revolution and against capitalism, imperialism, and World War I. He quickly attracted the attention of tens of thousands of Eastern European immigrants in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and plenty of native radicals as well. One such man was Midwesterner James P. Cannon, an early opponent of Stalinism and founder of Trotskyism in the U.S.

Ackerman provides sharp insight into the times as well as the man. He paints a vivid picture of what life was like among radicals. New York was a cosmopolitan place in 1917 with immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Eastern Europe, to name just some. The city boasted four daily papers in Russian, six Yiddish and three German language papers. The city was alive every night with lectures, political meetings and entertainment. One could listen to the famous anarchist Emma Goldman and on the same evening listen to family planning-advocate Margaret Sanger, and to Trotsky — world revolutionary. Ackerman describes a young, confident city with a population so far untouched by the horrors of trench warfare.

War or peace. Trotsky lost no time involving himself in the issues of the day, and whether the U.S. should join the World War or not was a major issue. Most Americans opposed getting involved in a war and had elected Woodrow Wilson as an anti-war president. Anti-war sentiments changed drastically in a few short weeks when U.S. and Allied ships were sunk by German submarines. Pro-war hysteria was furiously stoked at home.

The socialist movement was divided on the issue. Some maintained they had a patriotic duty to fight for their respective country, regardless of one’s politics. Trotsky had nothing but disdain for these types. He was equally contemptuous of pacifists, whom he saw as unwilling to fight for revolution. He was, however passionately opposed to WWI, which he denounced as a fight among the world’s ruling class, using the >working class for cannon fodder.

Back to revolution. In March 1917, the Russian tsar was suddenly driven from power and a provisional, non-revolutionary government was formed. Trotsky made immediate plans to return to Russia, determined to advance the insurrection past the goals of the provisional government.

But once their ship was outside U.S. waters and in those of Nova Scotia, British intelligence moved his family from the ship and put Trotsky into a prison camp for German prisoners of war. Seen as a threat to the new provisional government, the Allied powers were determined to block Trotsky’s return.

Ackerman is at his best when he lets Trotsky’s personality shine through. For example, no sooner had Trotsky landed in the prison camp than he drew up a list of demands for his immediate release and presented them to the commander, who of course rejected them. Trotsky then spent the next month of his incarceration lambasting the imperialist war, urging a revolt against the Kaiser, and teaching German POW soldiers about socialism. This seditious talk raised the ire of the German POW commander and resulted in Trotsky being thrown into solitary confinement. Trotsky put this time to good use furiously writing and preparing for his return to Russia. Friends back in the U.S. finally discovered he’d been imprisoned and applied pressure for his release. He was at last able to ship back home — to revolution.

Trotsky’s ten weeks in the United States magnified people’s understanding of the coming century. As he wrote in his autobiography My Life, “The figures showing the growth of American exports during the war astounded me. And it was those same figures that not only predetermined America’s intervention in the war, but the decisive part that the United States would play in the world after the war.”

Ackerman has written an important book that gives us a rare look at a towering figure of the 20th Century.

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