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Leon Trotsky 19381200 A Conversation with William R. Mathews

Leon Trotsky: A Conversation with William R. Mathews

Published December 13, 1938

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p 798-806]

America faces a "terrible revolution" whose course will depend much on what the Rockefellers, as a symbol of the American ruling class, tell Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, as a symbol of American political reaction, to do. Within two years there will be a terrible worldwide war, and "you will be in it." American capitalism has reached its natural zenith in the capitalist era, and is now decaying. The democracy of the capitalist system is doomed. In France it is giving dying gasps, while in Britain it is rapidly disintegrating. The New Deal is merely a program of palliatives and is certain to fail. The Stalin regime in the Soviet Union is doomed to an early fall. The recent trials in Moscow symbolize the decay of the Stalin "aristocracy" and the mounting unrest and discontent of the Russian masses. The Communist leaders in Mexico are Stalinists and his personal mortal enemies. Trotsky is in Mexico because it was the only country in the world that offered him a refuge. He is still a Marxian socialist believing in the ultimate triumph of the working class.

Such is the gist of a one hour private interview I had with the first military master of the Russian Revolution; the first commissar of war of the Soviet Union; the associate and executor of Lenin in overthrowing the old regime in Russia and establishing the first dictatorship of the proletariat; and today a political exile in Mexico: Leon Trotsky. I found him living with his wife and a few devoted followers in the modest villa donated to him by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, in the small and ancient village of Coyoacan where nearly 400 years ago Cortez once made his headquarters. At the conclusion of the interview he explicitly gave me permission to quote him "to the best of your memory, Mr. Mathews."

By a mere coincidence I happened to meet a man who has the confidence of Mr. Trotsky. Yesterday noon when I met him I told him of my desire to meet the Russian revolutionary, that I had been in Russia the year previous, and had read several of Trotsky's books. He offered to take me out and see if I could get in. When I suggested that we telephone ahead for an appointment, he said he thought it would be better to go out and take our chances. At four o'clock yesterday afternoon we motored out to the little village of Coyoacan. As we turned off the main road into one of the narrow bumpy streets of the village my companion said, pointing ahead, "That's the place where those policemen are standing guard."

We drove up to the side of one of those Mexican houses built flush with the street. The police knew my friend from previous visits. Standing with the police was a brawny, tall, blond young man with a cartridge belt and pistol slung about his waist. He was Jean van Heijenoort, a Hollander born in France who joined Trotsky at his first exile on the island of Prinkipo. I was introduced to him, told who I was and what I sought, how I had been in Moscow a year previously. He replied he would see what he could do. He walked to a gate where on ringing a bell, he was admitted.

A few minutes later van Heijenoort came out and waved for us to come on. We entered the patio and walked up the steps of the veranda. Across, on the opposite veranda, was an elderly, small, faded blond woman sitting in a chair reading a book, one arm resting on the iron rail of the veranda. She was Mrs. Trotsky. We entered a room where another man, also wearing a pistol, took out a book and in good English asked my name and address, which he wrote down.

Led by van Heijenoort, we walked around the veranda of the patio towards the little faded blond woman, but stopped short before an open door. Van Heijenoort motioned for me to enter. I entered. From a corner behind a desk and large table piled with books and reams of scattered typewritten manuscript, a moderate sized grey-haired man wearing familiar pince-nez eyeglasses and a short goatee, arose alertly, came forward and in perfect English greeted me cordially. He ushered us to our chairs and took up his seat behind his work desk. At his side was a dictaphone. In his shirt sleeves and his shirt unbuttoned at the collar, his forehead bald at the temples, his gray hair brushed back over his head, he appeared more as a working newspaperman than the former military master of one-sixth of the area of the world.

He started talking familiar shop immediately. He explained how he talked with Senator Henry J. Allen of Kansas a few weeks ago, and that Senator Allen had written articles in which he, Trotsky, was charged with promoting Communism in Mexico and implying that the Mexican Communists were taking advice from him.

"I do not think that Senator Allen is quite an honorable man, because I told him that one of the conditions of my stay in Mexico was that I was not to participate either directly or indirectly in any kind of political activity. That I would work with Laborde and Toledano is ridiculously false. They are agents of Stalin and mortal enemies of mine. Why should I risk my life and the only refuge open to me in the world?"

He threw back his head and with a smile and a sigh said humorously:

"It reminds me of that play of Shakespeare, what is the name of it? One man accuses another of being dishonorable, and the other replies, 'You are a senator.'"

He then spoke to my friend about a New York newspaperman who had endeavored to see him, and remarked that he would not see that man unless he would give bond to print answers to questions exactly as answered in writing.

"I know what they are trying to do," he remarked with incisiveness.

Turning to me he said, "And you have been to Russia recently?"

I explained that I had and that during my stay I had seen the name Trotsky used time after time in the Moscow newspapers.

"I believe that you are the one man in the world whom Stalin fears most?" I continued.

Trotsky raised up his chin, a dreamy look came into his eyes, and then softly he said:

"Stalin does not fear me, no, he does not fear me. He fears the Russian masses, and his fear is a reaction to the insecurity he feels."

"How long do you think that the Stalin regime can last?" I queried.

"It cannot last long. The recent trials are a symbol of the increasing discontent of the Russian masses. They show how weak the Stalin 'aristocracy' is, and how it is failing to meet the demands of the masses. Stalin has only two alternatives. He must either give in to those who want private property back, or he must establish a democracy. If he establishes either, he and his privileged class will fall.

"Nothing that I can say or do will have any effect," he continued as he leaned forward to emphasize words. "He has established a privileged class, and that class is not meeting the needs of the Russian masses. You must give the people food and clothing if you are to continue in power."

"Will such a possible change take the form of a palace revolution or of forcible revolt?"

"That I cannot say. A palace revolution is possible, but what form the change takes is beyond the power of any man to say. I simply know this, that the Russian masses will find a way of expressing their desires."

"Would you say that the New Deal is a step in the direction of creating a revolutionary situation in the United States?" I asked.

"No, no, the New Deal is not revolutionary. It is a program of mere palliative seeking to cure a badly diseased body. It will of course fail, because it is doing nothing to cure the causes of the disease. It represents the culmination of the final contradictions in the decay and fall of capitalism."

"Then you think that the United States will have a revolution?" I asked with interest.

"Yes, Mr. Mathews, you will have 'a revolution, a terrible revolution," he replied, shaking his head slowly and speaking in a sad voice. "What course it takes will depend much on what Mr. Rockefeller tells Mr. Hague to do. Mr. Rockefeller is a symbol o' the American ruling class, and Mr. Hague is a symbol of its political tools."

Again leaning forward and measuring his words slowly, he exclaimed, "Mr. Hague is more powerful than Mr. Roosevelt." "When will this revolution come?"

"Oh, I cannot say just when. I may be gone, but I hope to live to see it. But it is certain to come because capitalism has reached its zenith in America, and has exhausted itself. It is now living on its savings, consuming its own fat. Your society in the United States is decaying, because capitalism has served its purpose. Look at your unemployed. No form of society can continue long that permits such conditions to exist. Oh, you can feed them for a while, but you are consuming your savings. You are doing nothing to increase wealth.

"Another depression will come, and it will be much more severe than the Hoover crisis. Then is when you will have exhausted all the resources capitalism has. What the ruling class in America tells Frank Hague to do, what support it gives him, will determine the course of American destiny.

"If the American masses will rise and adopt socialism, America could bring the world to its feet. Your great monopolies have developed the technique of administration of large units. You could plan your production for increased wealth. You have a continent, you do not need colonies. You have everything to make socialism a success."

"Then you believe that there is enough intelligence available to make the intricate planning of socialism a success?"

"Yes, yes."

"Will it not be possible to win the support of the directing personnel of these successful large units?"

"You will have to use some of them, but not all, but the best will be with true revolution."

"In such a scheme would it be necessary for the government to use only the instruments of production and leave distribution to private enterprise?"

"That is merely incidental. You could produce so much, everybody could have so much of everything they want, that the form of distribution would take care of itself."

"Marxian socialism requires a dictatorship of the proletariat, does it not?"

"Yes, yes, it does. That would be part of the revolution, but in America it might be accomplished peacefully if the people could be taught how 90 percent of them would be better off. Only 10 percent would be less well off."

"Will you explain what you mean about the capitalistic decay in America?"

"Capitalism has fulfilled its function and reached the point where its manifest contradictions defeat its progress. Capitalism has served its purpose. You see in the first life of man, the barbarians would, after conquering their enemies, eat them. Then man became more civilized, and merely killed them. Then he put them in chains. After that he progressed to the point where he put them to work as slaves. Then he made them serfs, and then he found that he could better himself by making them free. Now another period is coming to an end, and in the future everybody will under socialism have everything they want. All men will have their wants satisfied. Capitalism has thus served its purpose, and fulfilled its mission."

"Then with a possible dictatorship of the proletariat we cannot look forward to democracy?"

"The democracy of capitalism is finished. Look at France where it is making dying gasps. Do you note how Daladier is asking for full powers? That means dictatorship. England, and France too, with their colonies face the rise of Germany. You notice how both Germany and Italy are now asking for colonies. Yes, your democracy of capitalism is finished, but in America you could, of all places in the world, work out a socialist democracy."

"Do you believe that Germany and Italy constitute a menace to the Western Hemisphere?"

Before answering he leaned back in his chair and looked out of the window. Then turning slowly in measured words he answered:

"There will be a great world war, and you in the United States will be in it, everybody will be in it." "Do you expect it soon?" "Yes, very soon." "Eighteen months or two years?"

"Yes," he replied quietly, and then in an animated voice, for one of the few times he had to stop to think of the proper English word for the French word for "vanguard," he continued:

"The vanguard of it is already in sight. Look at Munich. We are told we were to have peace. That conference is only a few weeks past, and Italy is now demanding Tunis and Corsica of France. Germany will next be making similar demands of England."

By this time I saw the master revolutionary was tiring, so I arose to take my leave. He arose with me, but I could not resist getting in a few more questions. So, standing with him in the center of the room, I asked:

"How do you expect this war will be precipitated?"

"That I cannot say; no man can say, but the antagonistic forces exist and, because they are contradictory, will clash."

"Will Germany attack Russia?"

"Who knows? I cannot say as to details. What I recognize are the conflicting forces."

"Can an independent Poland survive?"

"That will be decided at the peace conference."

Then, looking intently in my eyes, he declared with feeling and incisiveness:

"When Germany attacks Russia, you will have to take sides against her. Everybody will have to take sides. You cannot afford to allow Germany to become master of all that area and gain all those resources to use against you later. There will be a terrible war, and we will all be much poorer. You will be in it; everybody will be in it."

"You are still a Marxian socialist?"

A smile split his face from side to side; his eyes kindled in a kindly twinkle.

"Ah, yes," he said softly, "and I believe that socialism will eventually triumph."

As we again shook hands, I told him I would be willing to write out the interview and send my manuscript to him for correction.

"No, Mr. Matthews, that will not be necessary. You are free to quote me to the extent of your memory."

We walked out through the gate of the patio and out to the car where my friend's wife awaited. We greeted her cordially. Again all of us shook hands. As we drove away, the wooden gate of the patio swung shut behind our host. The Mexican policemen walked their posts, while van Heijenoort, wearing his cartridge belt and pistol, waved us a good-bye. We had been inside for a little more than an hour.

Trotsky appeared to be in good health. He speaks perfect English with a slight Slavic accent. He radiates good nature. He has a quick, alert manner and mentality. He uses simple words and expresses his thoughts with a clarity and confidence which cannot be misunderstood. The only time he dodged or seemed reluctant to answer categorically was when I asked him about the program of the Mexican government. All he would say was that the situation in Mexico was entirely different than in the United States, where capitalism had reached what he called its zenith.

He saw the Mexican situation as a mass movement of people struggling up from a feudal poverty.

When I asked him about his Fourth International and what he was doing to promote it, he said that all he could do was done by his writing for publication. "I have had articles printed even in China, and I have had my writing translated into various languages throughout the world," he explained.

He told of the recent meeting of the Fourth International, in Switzerland; of the hounding of its members by Stalinist agents of the OGPU. He accused Toledano of Mexico of meeting with Stalin OGPU agents during his recent trip to Europe. He explained that directions for the Mexican Communists came from New York and Washington, and that those places in turn took their orders from Moscow. In defending himself against the charge that he was assisting Mexican Communists, he spoke bitterly of the recent meeting in Mexico City of Stalinists of the Western Hemisphere and how the Stalinists had excluded from the meeting and refused to pay the expenses of a few delegates who had had the temerity to criticize.

"Laborde wants me driven from Mexico because he says I am a German fascist agent; your Senator Allen says that I am giving advice to Laborde and other Mexican Communists. Now what am I?"

Throughout the talk the master revolutionary seemed to be more concerned with actual mass movements and technical situations than in personalities. He never mentioned Mussolini or Hitler, but seemed much concerned with the dynamic energy that was being developed in Germany. He seems to have absolute confidence in his diagnosis of these mass movements and their ultimate course. In speaking of Rockefeller, Hague, and Roosevelt, he spoke of them as symbols of the great movements under way in America.

During my drive back, my friend who had arranged the interview said that Trotsky had unburdened himself more to me than to any other man he had taken out. He said that usually the interviews were of a formal nature and arranged for a period of ten or twenty minutes, or that questions would be submitted in advance and answered in writing.

Thus ended the most fascinating meeting I have ever had, and an interview with one of the makers of history who, at one time, was the military master of one-sixth of the area of the world; with one who, as an expert in the technique of revolution, upset the rule of the once all-powerful czar, and who now, as a political refugee, spends his time writing his memoirs in a small old villa in an ancient Mexican village guarded by a few faithful disciples and a detachment of Mexican police. The mighty do fall.