Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Trotsky in New York 1917 has much to offer the reader. It also has some serious problems. Before getting to those let me discuss why the book deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in the life and ideas of Trotsky, the history of Marxism in America, New York at the time of World War I, and the Russian Revolution.
Ackerman’s book is the first full-length account of a brief, though crucial period in the life of Trotsky, his nine weeks in New York prior to his return from political exile to Russia in 1917, where he would play a decisive role in the October Revolution. Previous accounts of Trotsky’s stay in New York were scattered in personal memoirs, contemporary newspaper accounts, and a few magazine articles with very specific and narrow foci. For example, one such article took great lengths to track down the identity of a wealthy Bronx resident who befriended Trotsky’s family. Trotsky’s own account of his stay in New York consists of a few pages in his autobiography, My Life. These few pages contain some precious insights and anecdotes but provide few details and make no assessment on the impact of his intervention into the politics of the radical movements in New York.
Ackerman has performed a sterling job in bringing all this material together and creating one coherent narrative. In the course of his research he has also uncovered a number of previously unknown facts about this period that fill in many gaps. More important, the restoration of a previously fragmented historical narrative allows us to gauge the political significance of Trotsky’s impact on the history of Marxism in the United States. It turns out that Trotsky’s intervention in the factional struggles then emerging in the Socialist Party (SP) over America’s entry into World War I would play a decisive role in creating the nucleus of a left-wing opposition that would later go on to found the Communist Party (CP). This requires a radical revision in the historical understanding of the birth of American Communism, one that future historians cannot ignore.
To cite one example of Ackerman’s diligence, he located the manifest for the passenger ship Montserrat that brought Trotsky from Spain to New York in January of 1917. From the list of passengers he gained some insight into the social background of some of the other passengers on the trip and Trotsky’s reaction to them. Trotsky’s own brief account of this trip, consisting of one paragraph in My Life, provides few details. In his account he writes that one of the passengers he met was “A boxer, who is also a novelist and a cousin of Oscar Wilde, confesses openly that he prefers crashing Yankee jaws in a noble sport to letting some German stab him in the midriff.”1
Ackerman tells us that the “boxer” Trotsky mentions was a larger-than-life adventurer named Arthur Cravan who later published his reminiscences of his encounter with Trotsky. It was not by accident that Cravan left a lasting impression on Trotsky. It turns out that this colorful figure really was related to Oscar Wilde and did fight a match with ex-world champion Jack Johnson.
The day Trotsky arrived in New York he was given a hero’s reception. Both the New York Times and the New York Tribune sent reporters and each featured a story about Trotsky on their front page the next day, although he was still little known to English-speaking readers. To the East European immigrants he was something of a celebrity. They knew of him from his days in the leadership of the 1905 Russian revolution and his subsequent trial. He was featured on the cover of the mass circulation Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward the next day. The German language and Russian language papers also carried stories about this soon-to-be hero of the Russian Revolution arriving in America.
There have been many legends about Trotsky’s activities while he was in New York, the great bulk of them fanciful fictions. Trotsky addressed this topic in My Life where he wrote,
If all the adventures that the newspapers ascribed to me were banded together in a book, they would make a far more entertaining biography than the one I am writing here.
But 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. I wrote articles, edited a newspaper, and addressed labor meetings. I was up to my neck in work, and consequently I did not feel at all like a stranger.2
Ackerman’s book devotes an entire section to debunking many of the legends surrounding Trotsky’s time in New York, including the anti-Semitic legend that Trotsky was being financed by wealthy Jews as part of a plot to take over the world. Such legends, fed by White Guardists and other reactionaries, mushroomed after the Russian Revolution.
The main focus of the book is Trotsky’s conflict with the conservative leadership of the Socialist Party of New York. In 1917 the SP in the United States was on the cusp of becoming a major political force, challenging the iron grip of the two capitalist parties, the Republicans and Democrats that had defined the political physiognomy of the country since the Civil War. In the presidential election of 1912 the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received over 900,000 votes. Socialists were elected to Congress and won local and statewide positions in dozens of cities throughout the country.
The SP was particularly strong in New York, where it played an influential role among the vast immigrant communities that came from eastern and central Europe in the previous two decades. The SP’s immigrant membership in the city vastly outnumbered its native born membership, a situation very different than that in the rest of the country. New York’s foreign-born comprised a full 30 percent of the white population.3 The largest group was the Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. New York had no less than six Yiddish daily newspapers at the time, the largest and most influential being the Jewish Daily Forward with a circulation of over 200,000, rivaling that of the New York Times. There were in addition to the Yiddish newspapers, four daily newspapers in Russian, three in German, and several other foreign language dailies. Many of these newspapers had a leftwing and socialist orientation. In addition to the pro-socialist Forward, the German language New Yorker Volkszeitung had as its editor in chief, Hermann Schluter, a one-time friend of Marx and Engels.
The nominal head of the SP in New York was Morris Hillquit, an immigrant from Latvia who assimilated into American society and became a successful lawyer with a plush apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive. To his credit, Hillquit, who was the official attorney of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, often took on cases for little or no compensation to defend working-class victims of ruthless employers and the state. When the government began attacking the socialist presses after America entered the war, Hillquit defended journals like Novy Mir and The Call from wartime censorship and suppression. He also had political ambitions and in the 1917 election for mayor of New York, received 145,000 votes, or 21.7 percent of the total cast in the three-way race. Although Hillquit held genuine socialist convictions, he was no revolutionary. He was a “pragmatic” politician, a reformist socialist of the type that could be found in the right wing of the German Social Democratic Party prior to 1914.
The big issue facing American Socialists at that time was opposing preparations by the Wilson Administration to enter the European war on the side of Britain, France, and Russia, a threat that was becoming ever more concrete in the early days of 1917. The immigrant communities in New York, who comprised the bulk of supporters of the SP, were fervently opposed to America’s entry into the war, not only out of deeply held socialist convictions, but also fueled by their hatred of the Czarist regime in Russia, from whose pogroms many had fled. Hillquit and the Socialist Party leaders in New York were opposed to American entry into the war, but their opposition went only so far. They refused to advocate mass action should the United States enter the war. They also made it clear in their policy pronouncements that although they opposed America’s entry into the war, they would be loyal patriots should it come down to that.
Though he had never met Hillquit prior to arriving in New York, Trotsky knew the type he represented very well. Hillquit was the embodiment in America of the social patriots he had met in Vienna and Paris: men who gave sterling speeches against war only to be caught up in the fever of war and patriotism once war broke out. Trotsky always considered the social patriots beneath contempt, and by 1917 had come very close to Lenin’s position that in a war between imperialist countries, it was the duty of socialists to turn that war into a civil war against their own bourgeoisie. It was thus inevitable that Trotsky’s arrival in New York would produce a confrontation with Hillquit.
Ackerman depicts a series of meetings and rallies in which this conflict played out. This begins with a meeting in the Brooklyn apartment of Ludwig Lore, then the editor of the German language socialist paper the New Yorker Volkszeitung. It was at this meeting, arranged on the day after Trotsky’s arrival in New York, where Trotsky first met the leaders of what would become the left-wing opposition within the Socialist Party. Besides Lore, Trotsky met for the first time the young Louis Fraina. Also present at this gathering was the lawyer Louis Boudin who would go on to play a pivotal role in the left opposition in the Socialist Party. Other Russians present, besides Trotsky, were the future Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin, Alexandra Kollontai, Grigorii Chudnovsky, and V. Volodarsky.
To the assembled guests Trotsky laid out his position—that the Left in the SP should organize itself independently of its conservative leadership in New York and be prepared to challenge it on the all-important war question. Bukharin and Trotsky, although agreeing on fundamentals, disagreed as to tactics, with Bukharin advocating an immediate split, while Trotsky insisted that the left opposition would be more effective working within the Socialist Party. They eventually agreed not to advocate a formal split but to launch an independent journal that would speak for the Left. Fraina was immediately inspired by Trotsky’s ideas and would go on to become his main advocate and protégé in America. Trotsky and Fraina struck up a personal friendship and began to collaborate from that day.
Ackerman recounts the drama of Trotsky’s first official introduction to the New York socialist movement when he was the featured speaker at a rally in the historic Great Hall of Cooper Union just two weeks after his arrival. Trotsky’s speech, reprinted in the English language socialist daily, The Call, as well as the Russian language Novy Mir, where both he and Bukharin were contributors, was a more or less open challenge to Hillquit and his conservative opposition to the war. Trotsky said,
The Socialist Revolution is coming to Europe and America must be ready when it comes. Socialists were caught napping when war started but they must not be nodding when revolution comes. In France, the soldiers who come out of the trenches say, “We will get them.” The French think that the soldiers mean they will get the Germans, that they want to kill the workers in the other trench. But what they really mean is that they will “get the capitalists.”4
On February 5th at Carnegie Hall the Socialist Party held a major event to present its official position on the war. Hillquit was the featured speaker. Trotsky attended along with 4,000 others in the standing-room-only audience. Trotsky’s reaction to the speech was published in Novy Mir the next day. He had no particular criticism to make of the speech itself, but he was highly critical of the company Hillquit chose to surround him on the stage. They were pacifists such as the Reverend Frederick J. Lynch of New York Church Peace Union, and the suffragette Elizabeth Freeman of Women’s Peace Party. Trotsky wrote that these people may talk about peace but “when they hear the first shot will gladly call themselves good patriots [and] start supporting the government machine of mass murders persuading the crowds that in order to reach ‘fair peace,’ and ‘eternal peace’ it is necessary to fight the war until the end.”5
He went on to ask why the Socialist Party had agreed to share the stage with these “bourgeois priest-like pacifists.” While Trotsky refrained from laying the responsibility for this on Hillquit by name, the target of his ire was unmistakable. Thus began a conflict whose culmination would only come in August–September 1919, long after Trotsky left New York, when the left wing of the SP formalized their split and formed two organizations, the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America, which merged into a single party in 1921.
Trotsky finally confronted Hillquit in person when he and Louis Fraina were invited to participate in the SP’s resolutions committee to draw up an official statement on the policy towards the war. The committee met at the Socialist Party offices in a townhouse on East 15th Street in Manhattan. Hillquit soon learned that there would be no compromise with Trotsky and Fraina. It became clear that Hillquit and his supporters could not accept a resolution that denounced any support for “national defense,” and in the event of mobilization for war called for “mass action” opposing war. Hillquit had the majority and his version of the resolution—a mild statement against war but also leaving room to support the war effort should it be mandatory—passed. Trotsky and Fraina were allowed to present a minority report.
The battle between these two factions continued to be played out in other venues. The two conflicting resolutions were brought to a vote at a delegated meeting in early March at the Lenox Casino, a building in Harlem often rented by the Socialist Party for large meetings. At this meeting, Fraina argued for the minority resolution among the 200 or so delegates who managed to make it through a blizzard. The final vote favoring Hillquit’s resolution was 101 to 79. This close result showed that Hillquit’s control of the SP was tenuous, and emboldened the opposition.
Ackerman also captures another meeting in Cooper Union that March featuring the most prominent socialist in America, Eugene V. Debs. Debs had heard of Trotsky and specifically invited him to join him on the stage for the meeting. This was the only time Trotsky and Debs were together. It is not known what they discussed if anything of substance, but Trotsky does recount that when Debs saw him he “embraced me and kissed me.”6 In his speech Debs made it clear—without mentioning names—that when it came to the conflict between Hillquit and the Trotsky-Fraina group, he stood solidly with Trotsky and Fraina; as did another leader of the Socialist Party from the West, the future founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon.
But perhaps the most dramatic account in Ackerman’s book is that of the confrontation between Trotsky and the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. At that time the Forward Building was a ten-story behemoth that loomed over the largely Jewish Lower East Side neighborhood of Seward Park. It functioned not only as offices of the daily paper, but also served as a community center, the hub of all political and cultural activity in the neighborhood. When a Forward columnist published an editorial supporting Woodrow Wilson’s effort to bring America into the war, Trotsky, who had contributed to the Forward, was incensed at this betrayal of socialist principles. According to one account, Trotsky travelled from his tiny office in the basement occupied by Novy Mir in St. Marks Place to the fortress known as the Forward Building on East Broadway for a face-to-face encounter with the Forward’s editor, Abraham Cahan, wherein a no-holds-barred shouting match commenced. From that day on Trotsky had nothing but contempt for the Forward, which he would later characterize as a newspaper, “with its fourteen [ten] story palace . . . with the stale odor of sentimentally philistine socialism, always ready for the most perfidious betrayals.” 7
Writing years later in My Life, Trotsky used even harsher words in portraying the right-wing leader of the SP, Morris Hillquit, of whom he said, “A Babbitt of Babbitts is Hillquit, the ideal Socialist leader for successful dentists.”8
There are many good reasons to read Ackerman’s book, but no review can be complete without mentioning the problems contained in this popular history. In reconstructing an historical narrative from which lots of pieces are missing, it is sometimes necessary to take some liberties and speculate as to what people said or thought in the absence of historical records. But Ackerman stretches his speculation a bit too far in some cases. For instance, in a chapter describing Lenin’s reaction to a letter he received from Alexandra Kollontai about the argument Trotsky had with Bukharin over the direction of the left opposition, he speculates as to Lenin’s reaction, writing: “Did he [Lenin] roll his eyes at the story? Or maybe stifle a laugh? How typical of Trotsky, Lenin must have thought, this Menshevik straddler with his “sheer false pride,” who always it seemed, had to interfere and insist on winning an argument, even in America.”9
It is true that the differences Lenin had with Trotsky prior to the Revolution of 1917 sometimes led to very harsh exchanges between the two. That is part of the public record. But Ackerman’s speculation as to Lenin’s motives in this case would reduce those differences to little more than personal animosity.
Far more serious, however, is the author’s apparent indifference to the substance of the arguments that were being fought out in the American and international socialist movement over the war. While the author does summarize the views of Trotsky and others, he also makes it clear in many ways that he has little sympathy for Trotsky’s views. This in itself is not necessarily a problem, but it is incumbent that a historical account of Trotsky takes his ideas seriously and presents them with some degree of integrity. Instead, Ackerman, when presenting Trotsky’s thoughts on the war and patriotism, seems to dismiss them out of hand without seriously considering them. For instance, suggesting that Trotsky’s attitude, as evidenced by one of his first interviews in New York, was beyond the pale. He writes, “Just as curious was his [Trotsky’s] performance with the New York Call . . . Trotsky’s talk turned to politics and Trotsky chose to jump right in with a slam at his new country.”10
Ackerman does little to hide his disdain for Trotsky’s radical stand against the war, while expressing sympathy for Trotsky’s moral courage. But ideas do matter. For Ackerman it is self-evident that practical politicians like Hillquit had the better approach. The fact that these very questions had been bitterly debated within the international socialist movement for decades and had been the subject of much theoretical work by Lenin, Trotsky, and others never enters Ackerman’s narrative. While Ackerman, to his credit, does try to present the ideas of others with whom he disagrees, his disdainful approach trivializes those same ideas.
On a final note, Ackerman observes the irony of the Forward Building as it exists today, having been sold by the Forward publishers some years ago, and explains that while the bas-relief portraits of Marx, Engels, Ferdinand LaSalle, and Friedrich Adler still grace its imposing entrance, it is now a luxury apartment building where the least expensive apartment goes for a million dollars. Manhattan has changed mightily since 1917, as has the political climate of America. Another irony noted is the current status of 77 St. Marks Place, whose basement once housed the offices of Novy Mir, where Trotsky and Bukharin worked. You can today rent a three-bedroom apartment there for $5,000 a month.
This speaks volumes about the changed circumstances we face today. The culture that nurtured a lively socialist movement in the United States one hundred years ago has disappeared along with the wave of radicalized immigrants and American workers who supported it. That culture needs to be rebuilt in a very different environment today, when once again the threat of war looms.
- Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Penguin Books, 1984), 277.
- Ibid, 279.
- This and other statistics on the relative weight of immigrants and the influence of the Socialist Party in different parts of the United States can be found in the classic study of American socialism by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It didn’t happen here: Why socialism failed in the United States (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).
- New York Call, January 26, 1917. Quoted in Ackerman, 82.
- Leon Trotsky, Novy Mir, February 8, 1917, Reprinted in War and Revolution, Volume 2, 379. Quoted in Ackerman, 124.
- My Life, 284.
- My Life, 285.
- My Life, 284.
- Ackerman, 143.
- Ackerman, 47.