I am inspired here to relate a beautiful moment in the history of political speeches, and surely it follows, the history of biographical narrative. Isaac Deutscher’s biographical narrative of Trotksy is amazingly comprehensive and well-rounded, and without lack in criticism.
In today’s historical moments of fragile ceasefires and lead-coated peace talks, it has been inspiring to go over the speech Trotksy gave in anticipation of the Brest Litovsk peace talks; an all-too-important moment for the newly established Bolshevik government, coming after their seizure of Petrograd and Moscow, and importantly, after the withering away of the Russian army (the next chapter in the Autobiography details how Trotsky’s military strategy in rebuilding the Red Army and fighting the counterrevolutionary White Army in the civil war of 1918.) The peace of Brest Litovsk was short-lived, but this post is not about the success of peace talks, but about the attitude of a revolutionary in the face of fateful moments in history.
Without further delay, Trotsky’s speech (in italics), as narrated by Isaac Deutscher:
On 8 December, the day before the inauguration of the actual peace talks at Brest Litovsk, Trotsky addressed a joint session of the government, the Central Executive of the Soviets, the Soviet and town council of Petrograd, and leaders of trade unions. This was one of his most remarkable speeches, not only because of its rhetorical excellence and its soaring revolutionary humanitarian ethos, but also because it vibrated with his own mental wrestlings:
Truly this war has demonstrated man’s power and resilience, which enables him to endure unheard of sufferings. But it has also shown how much barbarity is still preserved in contemporary man… He, king of nature, has descended into the trench-cave, and there, peeping out through narrow holes, as from a prison cell, he is lurking for his fellow man, his future prey. … So low has mankind fallen. … One is oppressed by a feeling of shame for man, his flesh, his spirit, his blood, when one thinks that people who have gone through so many phases of civilization—Christianity, absolutism, and parliamentary democracy—people who have imbibed the ideas of socialism, kill each other like miserable slaves under the whip of the ruling classes. Should the war have this outcome only that people return to their mangers, to pick the miserable crumbs thrown from the tables of the propertied classes, should this war finish with the triumph of imperialism, then mankind would prove itself unworthy of its own sufferings and of its own prodigious mental effort, which it has sustained over thousands of years. But this will not happen—it cannot happen.
Having risen in the land of Europe’s former gendarme, the Russian people declares that it desires to speak to its brothers under arms … not in the language of guns, but in that of international solidarity of the toilers. … This fact cannot be eliminated from the mind of the popular masses … of all countries. Sooner or later they will hear our voice, they will come to us and stretch out a helpful hand. But even if … the enemies of the people were to conquer us and we were to perish … our memory would still pass from generation to generation and awaken posterity to a new struggle. To be sure, our position would have been much easier if the peoples of Europe had risen together with us, if we had to parley not with General Hoffmann and Count Czernin but with Karl Liebknecht, Klara Zetkin, and Rosa Luxemburg. This has not happened. And we cannot be blamed for that. Our brothers in Germany cannot accuse us of having communed with the Kaiser, their sworn enemy, behind their backs. We are talking to him as to an enemy—we do not soften our irreconcilable hostility to the tyrant.
The truce has brought a pause in hostilities. The booming of guns has been silenced, and everybody is anxiously waiting to hear in what voice the Soviet government will talk with the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs. You must support us in this that we should talk with them as with freedom’s enemies … and that not a single atom of freedom should be sacrificed to imperialism. Only then will the genuine meaning of our strivings penetrate deeply into the consciousness of the German and Austrian peoples.
This appeal was followed by a curious passage in which he was thinking aloud before his large audience and gave free rein to his hesitation and indecision. ‘If the voice of the German working class … does not exercise a powerful and decisive influence … peace will be impossible’, he stated abruptly. Then came a second thought: ‘But if it should turn out that we had been mistaken, if this dead silence were to reign in Europe much longer, if this silence were to give the Kaiser the chance to attack us and to dictate terms insulting to the revolutionary dignity of our country, then I do not know whether—with this disrupted economy and universal chaos entailed by war and internal convulsions—whether we could go on fighting.’ As if feeling that his audience was stunned by his cry of despair, he turned abruptly and exclaimed: ‘Yes, we could.’ This brought forth stormy applause. Spurred on by the response, he added:. ‘For our life, for our revolutionary honour, we would fight to the last drop of our blood.’ Here the verbatim report records ‘a new outburst of applause’. The audience, which consisted of the leading groups of the two governmental parties, thus demonstrated its emotional opposition to separate peace.
“The weary and the old ones’, Trotsky continued, ‘would step aside … and we would create a powerful army of soldiers and Red Guards, strong with revolutionary enthusiasm. … We have not overthrown the Tsar and the bourgeoisie in order to kneel down before the German Kaiser.’ If the Germans were to offer an unjust and undemocratic peace, then ‘we should present these terms to the Constituent Assembly and we should say to it: make up your mind. If the Constituent Assembly accepts such terms, the Bolshevik party will step aside and say: Look for another party willing to sign such terms. We, the Bolsheviks, and I hope the Left Social Revolutionaries too, would summon all peoples to a holy war against the militarists of all countries.’ It hardly entered his mind that one day the Left Social Revolutionaries would rise against the Bolsheviks with the cry for this ‘holy war,’ and that he himself would then suppress them. ‘If in view of the economic chaos’, he concluded, ‘we should not be able to fight … the struggle would not be at an end: it would only be postponed, as it was in 1905, when Tsardom crushed us but we lived to fight another day. That is why we have joined in the peace negotiations without pessimism and without black thoughts. …’ His speech worked up his audience into an exalted state similar to that in which before the insurrection the crowds of Petrograd repeated after him the words of the revolutionary oath.