Books: Leon Trotsky’s 1917 stay in New York City

April 2017 Trotsky young

By DAVID JONES

“Trotsky in New York 1917, A Radical on the Eve of Revolution,” by Kenneth D. Ackerman. (Berkeley, Calif., Counterpoint 2016), $30.

One hundred years ago, on Jan. 13, 1917, the small Spanish passenger vessel SS (or Vapor Correo) Montserrat (Vapor is Spanish for steamship, Correo for mail) arrived in the harbor of New York City after a 17-day voyage from Barcelona, Spain. According to official records, the passengers disembarked on Monday, Jan. 15. Most of the passengers—hundreds—were Spanish immigrants to the United States, traveling in steerage, the maritime equivalent to the basement.

Also on board was a Russian family traveling in first class, courtesy of the Spanish government. Leon Trotsky, his wife Natalia Sedova, and their two children sailed on the SS Montserrat because they were being unwillingly deported from Europe at the insistence of the Tsarist government.

Writing in 1930, Trotsky recalled his first reaction: “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!”

Leon Trotsky, of course, is a figure of continuing world-historic significance. It is commonly known that he spent a short time in New York City, but the only generally available account of his stay is one chapter in his 1930 autobiography, “My Life.”

Historian Kenneth Ackerman has now researched and written the first book on Trotsky’s experiences, “Trotsky in New York 1917, A Radical on the Eve of Revolution.” From his account, it appears Trotsky was far too modest in the recounting of his 10-week visit to the city, where, as he said, he left “with the feeling of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.”

Trotsky was already a world famous figure when the SS Montserrat docked in January 1917. In 1905, the year of the first Russian Revolution, at age 26, he had been elected president of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers Delegates. (“Sankt Peterburg” was renamed “Petrograd” in 1914 so as to deflect attention from its original German name and the German birth of the Tsarina. Likewise, the British royal family renamed itself “Windsor” in lieu of its authentic Teutonic surname of “Saxe-Coburg-Hesse,” prompting Kaiser Wilhelm’s memorable quip that he was “looking forward to attending the next performance of ‘The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Hesse.’”)

The revolutionary struggle of the St. Petersburg workers, the arrest and suppression of the Soviet in December 1905, the trial of the leaders, and Trotsky’s electrifying speech to the Tsarist court riveted the attention of the world. Trotsky continued to be a major international figure during the next 12 years as a political journalist and revolutionary activist.

His reception on his arrival in New York had the flavor of late 20th-century rock-star celebrity. The city was home to a million and a half residents of Jewish origin, mostly immigrants from the Tsar’s dominions of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia, including many passionate socialists, and universally seething with hatred for the brutal and absolutist Romanov regime.

Ackerman relates that “bounding down the gangway to the pier, Trotsky found himself the center of attention.” The front page of the daily German socialist newspaper New Yorker Volkzeitung headlined that morning: “Leon Trotzki Kommt Heute!” (Leon Trotsky Is Arriving Today!). All the English language dailies reported similarly: “Expelled from Four Lands” (The New York Times) and ”With Bayonets Four Lands Expel Peace Advocate” (New York Tribune).

“The New York Herald touted Trotsky’s four years in Russian prisons and his battle with long-arm tsarist harassment even in France … Another English-language (daily) paper, the (socialist) New York Call, described Trotsky as ‘pursued with particular vindictiveness by authorities of the capitalist order,’” writes Ackerman. “Within two days at least six New York newspapers with more than half a million readers would announce Trotsky’s arrival in the city.”

And then there was the 200,000-circulation Yiddish-language socialist daily Forwerts (“Forward”), which put Trotsky’s photo on the front page. “The Forward in 1917 operated from a beautiful new ten-story building in Lower Manhattan … displaying bas-relief portraits of Marx, Engels and Ferdinand La Salle” (p. 151).

Trotsky immediately plunged into intense antiwar agitation, and began working on the staff of the Russian-language socialist daily Novy Mir (New World, with 8000 daily circulation) located at 77 St. Marks Place (extant), along with exiled Bolsheviks Nikolai Bukharin and Grigorii Chudnovsky.

“In early February, Trotsky addressed packed crowds at the Brooklyn Lyceum, Manhattan’s Beethoven Hall, the Labor temple near Union Square and similar venues. His articles ran three or four times each week in Novy Mir. At least four appeared in Yiddish translation in the Forward, with others in German in the New Yorker Volkzeitung and the socialist Die Zukunft” (“The Future”) (p. 117). Trotsky also lectured in Philadelphia and other nearby cities, speaking in Russian and German.

And then, on March 3, over 10,000 workers at the giant Putilov Works in Petrograd went on strike, led by the Bolsheviks. On March 8, International Women’s Day, they were joined by striking female textile workers. That night Eugene Debs spoke at to a mass rally at New York’s historic Cooper Union. He asked Trotsky to join him on the stage.

“Speaking for myself,” Debs shouted, “I shall absolutely refuse to go to war for any capitalist government on this earth. I would … rather be lined up against a wall and shot for treason to Wall Street than to live as a traitor to the working class” (p. 180). In Petrograd the strike wave continued to swell, and on March 15, the Tsar abdicated.

On March 20 New York socialists organized a giant rally at Madison Square Garden, with 10,000 (according to The New York Times) or 15,000 (New York Call), and thousands who couldn’t get in assembled outside to celebrate the overthrow of Tsarist absolutism. Russian socialists in New York organized another meeting.

Ackerman does make a small mistake here. He reports that “James P. Cannon of Kansas City” spoke on the platform of the March 20 meeting at the Garden, citing The New York Times, March 21: “Joseph Kennon, former Socialist Candidate for United States Senate,” and privately in response to my inquiry, citing the New York Call, March 21: “Joseph D. Cannon and many other prominent in Socialist and working-class activities,” and obviously presuming that Jim Cannon’s name had been misspelled or otherwise rendered incorrectly. Leaving other sources aside, such as Brian D. Palmer’s 2007 biography of the early years of James P. Cannon, “Joseph D. Cannon” was a real person, verifiably the Socialist Party candidate for United States Senate from New York.

“All that week,” Ackerman writes, “Trotsky carried the same message of incomplete revolution through a blizzard of newspaper columns and speeches. He appeared before audiences almost every night … with thousands packing the halls” (p. 194).

On March 27, after the provisional Kerensky government had declared an amnesty for political exiles, Trotsky and his family and a few other Russians embarked from New York on the Norwegian vessel Christianiafjord, seeking a prompt return to revolutionary Russia. They were illegally detained at Halifax, Canada, by British authorities for a month before they were released to continue their voyage.

Ackerman has some fine research in British archives illuminating the machinations behind the detentions of Trotsky and his companions. But there is a rich account of all that in Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution,” and in the interests of brevity, that account and the story of further events can be sought there.

Kenneth Ackerman is not a revolutionary socialist historian. Nonetheless, he has assembled an impressive amount of original research and cogent narration on Trotsky’s seminal 10 weeks in New York.

The real strength of the book is the new window it opens on the bubbling caldron of socialist and antiwar agitation and action in New York in the early months of 1917, and the brief but central role Trotsky played in it as revolutionary journalist and agitator.