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Learning from the Masses: Trotsky at the Modern Circus

In the early 20th century, mass audiences at the Modern Circus in Petrograd clamored at the sound of Trotsky’s voice, and he, in turn, vibrated to the rhythm of the audience. Marxist scholar Warren Montag dissects a passage of Trotsky’s ‘My Life’ and analyzes it through the lens of Baruch Spinoza. 

Warren Montag

September 6, 2020
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New Planet, 1921 by Konstantin Yuon.

My remarks on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination will be limited to a brief commentary on a passage from his autobiographical text, My Life, published in 1930, the same year as The History of the Russian Revolution, to which it is intimately connected. Both texts were composed during a “pause” in his life and in the life of the revolutionary process in the USSR, a pause that these texts, in different ways and from different perspectives, sought to explain. 

After a brief period of internal exile in Kazakhstan, Trotsky was expelled from the USSR and sent to Turkey, where he took the opportunity to explain (to himself and to his comrades in the Opposition), how the broader masses, once both the body and mind of the Communist Party, were gradually excluded from discussion, debate and decision-making. Trotsky often seemed to underestimate the effects of any diminishing of the role of the masses on the course of the revolution itself, especially in the period of the Civil War and War Communism, but now, nearly a decade later,  saw clearly the almost inevitable results of their exclusion, no matter how gradual or partial. 

The specific conjuncture in which he conducted his inquiry made what the Bolsheviks had long recognized in practice strikingly visible and available for theoretical elaboration: the extent to which the revolution emerged from the self-organization of the laboring masses, a self-organization whose theory was immanent in its practice, requiring only to be recorded as such by those wise enough to “learn from the masses,” that is, to listen to their demands and slogans and to observe the forms of proletarian self-administration (e.g., the soviets or workers’ and soldiers’ councils) they invented as they broke through the seemingly unsurpassable horizon of the parliamentary regime. The Bolsheviks, especially after the February revolution, came to depend on both the intelligence of the masses, that is, their perpetual reflection by means of the conversations, arguments, and demands that arose from their daily life (at work and in the street), and on the intelligence provided by the masses, the incessant gathering of information on everything from food supplies and troop movements, to changes in attitude and disposition among the diverse social strata. And just as the mass movements advanced through often fierce debates and disputes, so the Bolsheviks learned to accept what was in fact a necessity: untrammeled internal debate in matters of tactics and strategy (understood as the first testing ground for new proposals). 

Unlike the History of the Russian Revolution, where Trotsky presents the lessons of October as they emerged in the concrete struggles waged by the different social and political forces, My Life, as Trotsky openly admits, is a polemical work, focused on the persons and personalities who came to play a role in the making of “the miracle” (Lenin) of the revolution or in its undoing. It takes the form of portraits that are often distorted and unbalanced, not to deny the reality, but precisely to make it visible and intelligible, like a cubist painting that must disassemble the figures it depicts to show the composition of their actual existence. 

What makes the passage to which I refer remarkable is that the personality described in minute detail in Trotsky’s narrative is his own, captured in the act, repeated many times, of speaking to a large hall, the Modern Circus, packed with a radicalized working class audience. He says nothing about the content of his speeches or the nature of his arguments: they are irrelevant to the issue at hand. What he reconstructs with great care, choosing his words with the precision of a poet, and producing what might be read as a kind of prose poem, is the concrete experience of “learning from the masses” as he lived it, even as the role assigned to him was that of agitator sent to persuade the audience that the Party’s positions were right and just. The experience as he describes it might easily be understood as a kind of possession: Trotsky arrives with remarks prepared in advance, but as soon as he begins speaking to the crowd, he hears himself making arguments other than, and superior to, those he had intended to make. He offers an explanation of this phenomenon, according to which the “the imperative pressure of sympathy” causes the remarks prepared in advance to “break and recede,” thereby allowing unfamiliar arguments to arise from the depths of the unconscious (or even “his” unconscious). 

Trotsky appears to understand what happens as a sequence, the first part involving the action of sympathy and the second the movement by which “his” unconscious fills the place left open by the disappearance of his prepared remarks. What he describes, however, is a collective process, as corporeal and affective as it is mental or intellectual, suggesting that sympathy rather than an unconscious individualized by a possessive pronoun supplies the unexpected ideas and arguments. Trotsky’s words lead us back to Rousseau’s remark in Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jacques, a kind of eighteenth-century version of My Life, that “our true self is not entirely within us.”1Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques’, Dialogues, in Collection complète des oeuvres (Geneva: Société typographique de Genève, 1780-1789), vol. 11, 216.

From Trosky:

I usually spoke in the Circus in the evening, sometimes quite late at night. My audience was composed of workers, soldiers, hard-working mothers, street urchins – the oppressed under-dogs of the capital. Every square inch was filled, every human body compressed to its limit. Young boys sat on their fathers’ shoulders; infants were at their mothers’ breasts. No one smoked. The balconies threatened to fall under the excessive weight of human bodies. I made my way to the platform through a narrow human trench, sometimes I was borne overhead. The air, intense with breathing and waiting, fairly exploded with shouts and with the passionate yells peculiar to the Modern Circus. Above and around me was a press of elbows, chests, and heads. I spoke from out of a warm cavern of human bodies; whenever I stretched out my hands I would touch someone, and a grateful movement in response would give me to understand that I was not to worry about it, not to break off my speech, but keep on. No speaker, no matter how exhausted, could resist the electric tension of that impassioned human throng. They wanted to know, to understand, to find their way. At times it seemed as if I felt, with my lips, the stern inquisitiveness of this crowd that had become merged into a single whole. Then all the arguments and words thought out in advance would break and recede under the imperative pressure of sympathy, and other words, other arguments, utterly unexpected by the orator but needed by these people, would emerge in full array from my subconsciousness. On such occasions I felt as if I were listening to the speaker from the outside, trying to keep pace with his ideas, afraid that, like a somnambulist, he might fall off the edge of the roof at the sound of my conscious reasoning. 2Leon Trotsky, My Life: An attempt at an Autobiography. New York: Dover, 1930, 295. I want to thank Oleg Gelikman for explaining this passage to me word by word on the basis of the original Russian version. I could not have written this text without his assistance.  

This passage has not gone unnoticed: recent readers have examined its imagery, particularly the evocation of parent-child pairs (the mother breastfeeding an infant, the father carrying a young boy on his shoulders), while earlier readers recorded their own reactions to it, summed up in adjectives such as “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” and “magnificent.” The last of these served as the final word on Trotsky’s account of the Modern Circus in a brief, but penetrating, commentary by Tony Cliff, who used such adjectives sparingly: “The crowd lifted Trotsky emotionally. He became its medium. The interaction between the speaker and his audience was the lifeblood of his oratory. . . . What a magnificent description!”3Tony Cliff, Trotsky 1917-1923: The sword of the revolution, London: Bookmarks, 1990. Cliff’s description, composed of three terse and disconnected sentences followed by an exclamation, is itself testimony to the power of this passage, a power that Cliff feels but cannot quite explain. And how could he, given that Trotsky himself, in recounting the experience as he lived it, does not seem to be aware that he has begun to refer to himself in both the first and third person, I and he, and comes very close to the language of mysticism.

Trotsky’s Freud may help us reach the entrance of the Modern Circus, but cannot help us orient ourselves once inside.  For this, only Spinoza, whose kinship with Trotsky is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the account of the Modern Circus, can provide us with the concepts adequate to the experience Trotsky describes. According to Spinoza’s materialism, a materialism far more thoroughgoing than that of his contemporary, Hobbes,  if right was to be something more than a fiction designed to reassure those who “possessed” it, right had to be understood as “coextensive” with power, the power to actually do that to which they have a right (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, XVI). From this postulate, Spinoza derived another: individuals separated from others can exercise little power; in fact, they tend constantly to unite without any law or contract and without the motivation of fear or interest. Their unity is not that of the people, that artificial, legal collectivity increasingly regarded as the ultimate possessor of sovereignty. In his last unfinished work, the Tractatus Politicus, Spinoza calls this collectivity, the multitude, multitudo, that “acts as it were with one mind” (TP III), even in and because of its diversity, a singular thing composed of singular things and whose physical power and intelligence every sovereign fears.

How the multitude is constituted in a physical and material sense to act and think as a singular thing capable, even as a temporary concurrence of forces, of being the cause of effects, Spinoza does not explain in the Tractatus Politicus. The elements of an explanation, however, are found in the Ethics, Part III, Proposition 27, the discussion of the phenomenon of “the imitation of the affects.” Spinoza defines affect not simply as emotion or passion but as “the affections of the body by which the body’s power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked, together with the ideas of these affections” (Ethics III, Definition 3). Further, he argues that “whatsoever increases or diminishes, assists or checks, the power of activity of our body, the idea of the said thing increases or diminishes, assists or checks the power of thought of our mind” (Ethics III, Proposition 11). The greater the constraints to which the body is subjected, not only by law, but by the practices and rituals of daily life, and above all, those encountered in the activity of work and the degree to which space and time are organized by the processes of capital accumulation, the more the power of the mind to think and  criticize is diminished. As Althusser said, practice precedes theory: “spontaneous” revolt, riot, and popular forms of wealth redistribution disrupt the rituals of subjection and make thought more powerful than it was before.

According to Spinoza, there exists a constant communication of affects and ideas without the knowledge or consent of those affected. His use of the term “imitation” to describe this phenomenon is important; with it, he renders neutral a process that his contemporaries (as well is theoreticians of the crowd in the nineteenth century) often referred to as “contagion,” suggesting that only harmful, or least sinful, affects or passions, like diseases, can truly be transmitted. But he retains an element of the idea of contagion: imitation inevitably suggests that the individual is both the site or support of the imitation, and the agent who brings it about. Spinoza who seems content to leave the idea of imitation unspecified, nevertheless allows the reference to the transmission of disease to remain. Based on various statements in Ethics III-IV, it is possible to argue that the affect spreads through imitation, on the basis of a theory that resembles the concept of  viral replication, that allows for the possibility that we may be “infected” with affects and ideas that increase our power and pleasure. 

If we prefer to think with psychoanalytic conceptions, however, we need to proceed with caution. Spinoza’s statement that we imitate affects we “imagine” the other to have, as if we are indeed the agents of the imitation, may initially suggest that something like projection is at work. The problem with this concept is that it confines the process of imitation to the individual who imagines, without involving the other at all, except as a screen on which the individual projects the products of the imagination.

For Spinoza, and this is what sets him apart from nearly every other political thinker of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the greater the physical power of the masses, their ability to resist the legal and extra-legal constraints imposed on them,and to move into spaces once closed to them, the greater their ability to see and understand the causes of their servitude. This is the principle behind Trotsky’s observation that the “molecular agitation carried on by nameless workers, sailors, soldiers” ensured that the relationship of forces increasingly favored the masses and with their increasing power came the rapid development of the knowledge accessible only to those who see “politics from below and not from above.” It is they who know from experience that class rule is secured and maintained not simply by market coercion supported by direct state violence, but also by more subtle tactics, the easily overlooked and often unnamed forms of coercion and exclusion exercised throughout the space and time of everyday life. 

Social Democrats everywhere seek only to teach the masses, to instruct them in the proper form of the transition to socialism, already worked out in advance of the revolutionary crisis whose specificity is regarded as irrelevant. Trotsky captured in the portrait of the Modern Circus the fact that the revolutionary party must “learn from the masses” and observe every insight they have gathered in the course of their molecular struggles. Only in this way can the party determine the strategy that will unify to the greatest extent possible all the disparate forces in struggle (workers, soldiers, peasants and oppressed nationalities) with the aim of “softening” the defenses of the class enemy until the appearance of that fleeting moment when a single carefully calculated assault can change the course of history and “turn the world upside down.” 

In Trotsky’s description of the most oppressed and the most brutally exploited, there is no trace of condescending pity, no sense that their suffering purifies them or that their poverty renders them virtuous. On the contrary, he feels the power that has increased with their unity, the density capable of resisting all the blows the state is capable of inflicting; the knowledge immanent in this power strikes him suddenly, crowding his mind with ideas and conceptions previously unknown to him as if the visible image of the interior of the Modern Circus were the objective correlative of a mind so filled with new ideas that the old ideas find themselves pushed out altogether by the endless stream produced by the activity of the masses.

 A few lines after the passage cited above, Trotsky notes that “leaving the Modern Circus was even more difficult than entering it. The crowd was unwilling to break up its new-found unity; it would refuse to disperse.”4Trotsky, My Life, 296. Their experience of both space and time has already changed; we see in the press and posture of the crowd the effects of the self-administration of movement and bodily disposition. Against the ritualized movements of daily life and a division of time directed by the needs of capital accumulation, that resistance has made visible, the masses have discovered the power and pleasure of directing their own movements. And while the organization of daily life alternates between a dynamic of individualization, dispersal and separation, on the one hand, and the coerced confinement of the workplace or the home, on the other, the masses, once they begin to exercise their power, seek unity and collectivity even in their movements.   

Trotsky’s description of the interior of the Modern Circus, where every inch of space is occupied by bodies pressed against each other, compressed, that is, squeezed, to the maximum, and where he must often be passed from hand to hand over the heads of the crowd to reach the speaker’s platform, might in a different context have served as a description of a hellish and inhuman mass detention. Here, it is the cause and effect of the experience of a profound enjoyment, a new sense of the body, one’s own and everyone else’s. The press of so many bodies, the din of shouts and cries, the mingling of exhalations in the air: together these form the perfect environment for the rapid transmission of ideas and feelings and for the concatenation of arguments into ever more effective forms. Indeed, even the street children have become intellectuals, suddenly consumed by the question of the way forward and how to find it, and ready to contribute to the answer. The Modern Circus also represents the rejection of the time imposed on the people and lived by them until now as natural. It is midnight and the entire district has made its way to the great amphitheater to debate, argue, and carry on a kind of dialogue with their favorite speaker, Trotsky: workers whose labor begins in a few hours, children who will go to school soon after and those who must care for them, infants and their grandparents. It is they, not the masters, who will collectively decide the organization of time necessary to the moment at hand. 

The overwhelming sense of corporeality is essential to the experience that Trotsky will describe, the sense of bodily contact, the embrace of crowding, and even the way he, in speaking to the multitude, underlines or punctuates his discourses with gestures, movements of his hands and arms, and in doing so inevitably touches those closest to him. The latter in turn with a shake of the head and a wave of the hand signal in an instant for him to go on, that he need not bother with the conventions of courtesy. For everyone in the room, man, woman and child, it is urgent that Trotsky continue. He experiences this urgency not simply as the expectation or need he reads on the faces packed into the room, but as an effect of the combined force of the mass that he likens to an “electric tension,” the force of an electrical current whose flow he cannot resist, no matter how exhausted he is, as if their demand to know had taken on a material form to carry him onward. But at this precise point, Trotsky’s narrative takes its surprising turn. He feels his lips, his mouth, responding to the crowd’s demand through a power that causes him to abandon the words he had prepared in solitude. By means of “the imperative pressure of sympathy,” the mass has communicated other words and other arguments to him that have replicated themselves in him, and, although foreign to him, “utterly unexpected by the orator,” they are now his. These are the arguments demanded by them without their knowing it, the arguments which they have already communicated to Trotsky and with which he cannot help but respond. 

By speaking  of himself as “the orator” in the third person, Trotsky acknowledges that the words the crowd has demanded of him are theirs, not his, which “unexpectedly” he cannot help but pronounce. As he listens to the other he has become, he finds himself “trying to keep pace with his ideas,” the orator who gathers as he speaks the arguments and postulates communicated in the masses’ every gesture and facial expression, the strings of words shouted or whispered, even the press of the hands that reach out to pat him on the back in response to his exhortation that they prepare for power, or simply rest on his shoulder in approbation as he addresses the crowd. Trotsky looks upon himself as one who has been ventriloquized by the mass, or as a somnambulist, more powerful when asleep and freed from the prison of consciousness than when awake, whose feats of political reasoning he likens to sleepwalking on the edge of a roof high above the ground, who “might fall off the edge of the roof” if awakened or disturbed by the sound of Trotsky’s own reasoning.  

Here, once again, Trotsky, holding his breath as he watches himself walking on the edge of a roof,  or the edge of the world, has come upon Spinoza, who saw the somnambulist’s feats as signs of what a body can do (and say) when freed from the discipline and coercion of everyday life. The self that he sees utters words that are truer than those he meant to say, words whispered or shouted by a thousand voices with the greatest urgency because they arise from the experience of struggle and the stark conclusion to which it points. To have found himself speaking these words rather than the arguments and proposals worked out in advance, and even more to have instantly recognized their truth, a truth that he could not have discovered on his own: this vivid memory of the nights spent with the mobilized masses of Petrograd, a memory of the moment he did not lead them, but walked with and among them along the edge of a new world, the edge of history, fearing it was a dream from which he might awaken, sustained him through defeat and exile. Trotsky has captured, in a brief passage, as difficult as it is beautiful, and perhaps by that fact destined never to be forgotten, one of the most important lessons of October: the absolute necessity of learning from the masses and of recognizing the intelligence that arises from their mobilization. Stalin hoped, by killing Trotsky and everyone associated with him, to bury this truth once and for all; he failed, precisely because this truth is not a matter of words alone, but is inscribed in every one of the acts by which the insurgent masses contest their exploitation and oppression.


1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques’, Dialogues, in Collection complète des oeuvres (Geneva: Société typographique de Genève, 1780-1789), vol. 11, 216.
2 Leon Trotsky, My Life: An attempt at an Autobiography. New York: Dover, 1930, 295. I want to thank Oleg Gelikman for explaining this passage to me word by word on the basis of the original Russian version. I could not have written this text without his assistance.
3 Tony Cliff, Trotsky 1917-1923: The sword of the revolution, London: Bookmarks, 1990.
4 Trotsky, My Life, 296.
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Warren Montag

Warren is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the editor of décalages and author of several books on the works of Adam Smith, Spinoza and Althusser.

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