One hundred years ago, Leon Trotsky spent ten weeks in New York. From January to March in 1917, he and his family lived in a three-room flat at 1522 Vyse Ave. in the Bronx, where his children attended public school. Though Trotsky spoke little English, he instantly became involved in the American socialist movement, which included a significant number of Russian emigres.
|Leon Trotsky with His Daughter in 1915|
America, during those ten weeks he spent in New York, was going through rapid changes in its views on the war in Europe, testing the concept of freedom of speech, ultimately to the breaking point. Trotsky enjoyed the freedom he found working at as an editor at the Russian Socialist newspaper Novy Mir in New York.
Some of his observations and reflections on his time in New York are still striking today.
"Sunday, January 13: We are nearing New York. At three o'clock in the morning, everybody wakes up. We have stopped. It is dark. Cold. Wind. Rain. On land, a wet mountain of buildings. The New World!"
Here I was in New York, city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city in the world, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.
"I must disappoint my American readers. My only profession in New York was that of a revolutionary socialist. This was before the war for “liberty” and “democracy,” and in those days mine was a profession no more reprehensible than that of a bootlegger".
Trotsky Uncovers the "Black Problem"
|Trotsky's Former Apartment House|
We rented an apartment in a workers’ district, and furnished it on the installment plan. That apartment, at eighteen dollars a month, was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking-range, bath, telephone, automatic service-elevator, and even a chute for the garbage. These things completely won the boys over to New York. For a time the telephone was their main interest; we had not had this mysterious instrument either in Vienna or Paris. The janitor of the house was a negro. My wife paid him three months’ rent in advance, but he gave her no receipt because the landlord had taken the receipt-book away the day before, to verify the accounts. When we moved into the house two days later, we discovered that the negro had absconded with the rent of several of the tenants. Besides the money, we had entrusted to him the storage of some of our belongings. The whole incident upset us; it was such a bad beginning. But we found our property after all, and when we opened the wooden box that contained our crockery, we were surprised to find our money hidden away in it, carefully wrapped up in paper. The janitor had taken the money of the tenants who had already received their receipts; he did not mind robbing the landlord, but he was considerate enough not to rob the tenants. A delicate fellow, indeed. My wife and I were deeply touched by his consideration, and we always think of him gratefully. This little incident took on a symptomatic significance for me—it seemed as if a corner of the veil that concealed the “black” problem in the United States had lifted.
A Distaste for American Socialists
At an antiwar rally in Carnegie Hall, he wondered of the crowd: “How strong were these Americans? Did they have backbone like the Russians? Would they stand and fight when soldiers and police came?”
"In ideas the Socialist party of the United States lagged far behind even European patriotic Socialism. In the United States there is a large class of successful and semi-successful doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, and the like who divide their precious hours of rest between concerts by European celebrities and the American Socialist party.
Their attitude toward life is composed of shreds and fragments of the wisdom they absorbed in their student days. Since they all have automobiles, they are invariably elected to the important committees, commissions, and delegations of the party. It is this vain public that impresses the stamp of its mentality on American Socialism. My first contact with these men was enough to call forth their candid hatred of me. My feelings toward them, though probably less intense, were likewise not especially sympathetic. We be longed to different worlds. To me they seemed the rottenest part of that world with which I was and still am at war."
|This notice in Novy Mir announced a meeting against the war. |
It was held at Cooper Union, on 15 February 1917.
The first speaker, listed in all capitals, is Lev N. Trotsky.
America and the War
On 3 February came the long-awaited break in diplomatic relations with Germany. "The volume of the chauvinistic music was increasing daily. The tenor of the pacifists and the falsetto of the socialists did not disrupt the general harmony. But I had seen the same thing in Europe, and the mobilization of American patriotism was simply a repetition of what I had seen before."
Trotsky accused President Woodrow Wilson of having “no interest in stopping the gravy train of rich wartime weapons contracts,” describing him as “a smug, middle-class merchant who exploits the poor on weekdays and then goes to church on Sundays, piously asking absolution for his sins.”
“The figures showing the growth of American exports during the war astounded me; they were, in fact, a complete revelation. 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 as well.”
What is now happening in Russia will go down in history forever as one of its greatest events. Our grandsons and great-grandsons will speak of these days as of the beginning of a new era in the history of humanity.
As soon as word of the February Revolution reached the U.S., Trotsky resolved to return to Russia and sailed on 27 March, telling the assembled crowd: “When revolution calls, revolutionaries follow.” His journey was financed by Jacob Schiff head of the New York investment firm Kuhn, Loeb and Co. Later in the year a New York daily would carry the headline "Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution."
Sources: My Life by Leon Trotsky; Trotsky in New York by Kenneth Ackerman, and Project 1917.