When Socialists Really Ran Brooklyn
Trotsky’s adventures in the Big Apple
In Out of the Fog, historical detective Brian Berger digs through newspaper columns, clippings, and other clues to bring readers the fascinating, scandalous, and forgotten tales of the past.
Today, it sounds like a gag waiting for a punch line: Leon Trotsky in Brooklyn? But yes—as the Great War was devouring Europe and gradually pulling the neutral United States into its death madness also—this really happened.
Recently expelled from France and then Spain, the Russian revolutionary arrived in New York aboard the steamship Montserrat on Sunday morning, Jan. 14, 1917. Though he was unknown to most Americans, Trotsky’s Socialist allies had arranged for reporters to speak with the 38-year-old after he and his family—including his wife, Natalia, and their two school-age sons, Sergei and Lev—disembarked at South Street in lower Manhattan.
For New York’s Socialist press, including publications in Russian, German, Yiddish, and the English-language New York Call, Trotksy’s arrival was a major event. But the attentions of the city’s regular daily papers would prove fleeting, although the Times and the Tribune did publish stories on Trotsky, the “pacifist” who’d been “expelled from four lands.” This is understandable. Trotsky—born Lev Davidovich Bronstein to a well-off, largely non-observant Jewish farming family in today’s Ukraine—spoke little English, and New York was already bursting with fractious Socialists.
With his family checked into the Hotel Astor in Times Square, Trotsky came to Brooklyn that very first night. The occasion was a meeting at the home of Ludwig Lore, 41-year-old German-born editor of the Socialist New Yorker Volkszeitung, and his wife, Lily, at 243 55th Street, a three-story townhouse between 3rd and 2nd Avenues in the South Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
Among those also present were fellow Russian exiles like 45-year-old Alexandra Kollontai, then living in New Jersey, and the famed Nikolai Bukharin, then 29 and soon to become a famous Bolshevik revolutionary, who had arrived in New York the previous October.
Perhaps the evening’s most significant discussion concerned the question of whether left-wing American Socialists, frustrated by more conservative, proceduralist leaders should secede and form their own party. Trotsky argued against this, asserting they should instead form a left-wing faction and publish a representative magazine titled Class Struggle. Its debut issue would appear that May.
In the meantime, Trotsky soon moved to the Bronx and joined Bukharin at Novy Mir, a Russian-language Socialist paper run out of an office in what is now known as Manhattan’s East Village but was then still a part of the sprawling immigrant Lower East Side. Energetic and assertive, Trotsky also wrote for the New Yorker Volkzeitung and, in Yiddish translation, for The Forward, and he became a featured speaker—in Russian or German—at many Socialist anti-war events.
Trotsky returned to Brooklyn on Jan. 24. The occasion was Russian Night, a highlight—including food, drink, music, and dancing—of a 15-day bazaar hosted by the Brownsville Labor Lyceum. Brownsville’s reputation as a radical hotbed was well earned, including the birth control clinic Margaret Sanger had opened the previous October, for which she would soon face trial on obscenity charges.
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In the following days, ever more people would become consumed by the war. On Feb. 15, Trotsky spoke at a massive anti-war rally at college Cooper Union. On Feb. 26, The Suffering Mothers of Williamsburg—3,000 marchers strong—protested war-related increases in food prices.
On March 1, President Woodrow Wilson revealed the existence of the Zimmermann Note, a secret telegram in which Germany tried to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States. Its audacity pushed many previously cautious Americans over the edge, including Forward editors Baruch Charney Vladeck and Abraham Cahan, whom the furiously pacifist Trotsky now denounced.
Just two weeks later, following increasingly violent anti-war protests in Petrograd, Russia, came the news that Tsar Nicholas had abdicated power, and the provisional Kerensky government was granting amnesty to political exiles. Astonishingly, it was time to go home.
Before he did so, however, Trotsky returned to Brooklyn, where on March 23 he spoke at the Deutsche Branch of the Socialist Party of East New York. His subject, announced in a New York Call advertisement, was “Will America’s Intervention Shorten the European War?” Somehow, the Brooklyn Eagle—which hadn’t yet written about Trotsky—had a reporter present.
“We are living in a social revolutionary epoch, an epoch of blood and iron,” Trotsky declared. “Russia has fanned that little smouldering, sputtering spark of revolution to a great flame, and that flame is spreading until it will grow to a huge conflagration, which will envelop the whole world. It is a revolution of the proletariat against the capitalist that is following on the heels of the great war. The Romanoffs have gone. The Hohenzollerns are next.”
“Ja Wohl!” roared the crowd. “God grant that it may be true.”
Four days later, on March 27, the Trotskys boarded the S.S. Kristianiafjord at the Norwegian-American line pier at 45th Street in South Brooklyn. “Under Neutral Flag. No Contraband Carried,” its advertisements announced, to reassure those wary of German U-boats.
The United States declared war on Germany on April 6. The vote wasn’t unanimous. Fifty representatives—including New York State’s only dissenter, Jewish Socialist Meyer London—and six senators opposed it.
Soon there was startling news from Russia too. In that country’s second revolution of the year—where, under the Julian calendar, it was still late October—the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, had taken control of Petrograd.
Now Trotzky wasn’t just world-famous but Brooklyn-famous too. On Saturday, Nov. 10, a page-two Eagle story wryly began “Trotzky? There are many people of that name. Leon Trotzky? Well that’s different …”