Trotsky in love. Whatever his initial motivations, Bronstein’s revolutionary career began under appropriately romantic auspices. He was introduced by school friends into a radical discussion group conducted by a self-educated Czech gardener named Franz Shvigovsky. Though the group’s subversive activities were limited to tea drinking and talk, Shvigovsky was regarded as a dangerous conspirator by the czarist police, and therefore had immense prestige in the eyes of the students.
One member of the group was a young woman, several years older than Bronstein, named Alexandra Sokolovskaya. Alexandra, who later became Bronstein’s first wife, was a Marxist. Bronstein, like his mentor Shvigovsky, thought of himself as a Narodnik, a socialist-populist of the old-fashioned, idealistic, warmhearted Russian sort. “A curse upon all Marxists, and upon those who want to bring dryness and hardness into all relations of life,” he exclaimed in a defiant New Year’s toast, addressed with adolescent boorishness to Alexandra herself. She walked out of the room, and a few months later he became a convert to Marxism.
The incident illustrates the basic dichotomy in Trotsky’s nature. There were to be occasions in his career as an adult revolutionary when the marxist zealot or windy theorizer would seem, in fact to have forgotten his native humanity, not to mention his common sense. In 1919 Trotsky proposed conscripting workers to lay the basis for a Socialist economy in Russia, and in what a few years later would have seemed a typical example of Stalinist cynicism, denounced the “wretched and miserable liberal prejudice” that forced labor was always unproductive.
More often perhaps, Trotsky’s Marxism would serve as a focusing lens to the somewhat diffuse ardor of his temperament, magnifying both his virtues and his faults to a heroic intensity, ultimately enabling him to personify better than any other figure in modern history the twentieth-century myth of revolution.