The Bolshevik Revolution, Leon
and the New York Public Library
(Left) Leon Trotsky’s French passport photo from 1915. He was expelled from France the next year. (Right) The main building of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in 1917. Trotsky studied in the Slavic reading room, now closed.
Here it was: the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the New York Public Library had organized an exhibition, “The Russian Revolution: American Perspectives.” All the venerable institutions of the mediacracy were running series like “Communism’s Bloody Century” (Wall Street Journal), the New York Times series on “The Red Century,” and the like. So when the Library announced a symposium on the Russian Revolution with some academic “experts” for November 18, we in the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth decided to attend the event and bring along some copies of our pamphlet on “How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled” – maybe that’ll spook the ivory tower stiffs a bit. And maybe they would have something interesting to say.
This was not the case. All five of the speakers at the symposium were decidedly against the October Revolution. They recited paeans to the February Revolution of the same year, they loved Kerensky’s bourgeois Provisional Government and lamented the “undemocratic” seizure of power by the Bolsheviks that took place eight months later. It was a high-minded snooze-fest, low on accuracy. Susan Smith-Peter, the exhibition and symposium organizer from the College of Staten Island, talked about “How to Teach a Revolution,” saying that while the Bolsheviks wanted global revolution, “America” just wanted to “make the world safe for democracy, not revolution.” It was Woodrow Wilson, the “liberal” Democratic president and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, who propagated that slogan about making the world safe for democracy even as he sent U.S. troops to occupy every country around the Caribbean rim.
A grad student at CSI gave a bizarre presentation titled “The Bolshevik of Wall Street,” throwing in an apocryphal story about Lenin calling to compromise with capitalists to get American financing. Even he admitted he was unsure of the quote’s authenticity. Another speaker canonized an American journalist, Bessie Beatty, for transitioning from ambivalence about the Bolsheviks to active condemnation. Ben Whisenhunt from the College of DuPage at least mentioned Louise Bryant, John Reed’s wife and a committed left-wing journalist. But Reed barely got a mention, even though his book was featured in the exhibition and was among the first published eyewitness accounts of October. Definitely too red for this crowd.
Lenin and Trotsky were demonized, misquoted and slandered. The gains of the October Revolution were not mentioned at all. Mainly the speakers went on about how awfully “undemocratic” the Bolsheviks were for seizing power. I got up to challenge their abuse of the word “democracy.” I refuted the claim that the Bolsheviks were being “undemocratic” in leading an insurrection, since they had been democratically elected to lead the soviets. I went on to explain that when these learned scholars talk of “democracy” what they mean is bourgeois democracy, whereas the Bolsheviks stood for proletarian democracy – the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Lenin explained:
“The dictatorship of the proletariat alone can emancipate humanity from the oppression of capital, from the lies, falsehood and hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy – democracy for the rich – and establish democracy for the poor, that is, make the blessings of democracy really accessible to the workers and poor peasants, whereas now (even in the most democratic – bourgeois – republic) the blessings of democracy are, in fact, inaccessible to the vast majority of working people.”
–V.I. Lenin, “‘Democracy’ and Dictatorship” (January 1919)
For all their made-up stories, it was curious that nobody mentioned a real story about Leon Trotsky and the New York Public Library – in fact, about the very building we were in. In My Life (1930), the co-leader of the Bolshevik Revolution recalled that when he and his companion Natalia Sedova arrived in New York City in January 1917:
“[Bolshevik leader Nikolai] Bukharin was one of the first people I met in New York…. Although it was late, and we were very tired, Bukharin insisted on dragging us off to the Public Library the very first day.”
Kenneth D. Ackerman wrote about the same event in his recent book Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution:
“Bukharin had found something in New York City that he felt Trotsky, as Europe’s foremost socialist writer, would surely appreciate…. ‘[We] had hardly got off the boat when he told us enthusiastically about a public library which stayed open late at night and which he proposed to show us at once,’ Natalya recalled. ‘At about nine o’clock in the evening we had to make the long journey to admire his great discovery’.”
“Bukharin knew Trotsky would adore this site. He and Trotsky shared a passion as deep as politics,” the historian goes on:
“In every European capital either of them visited, one of their first stops had been the library, be it Vienna, Paris, Madrid or Copenhagen. Trotsky had loved libraries since his teens. In his first prison in Nikolaev, he had sought out the prison library for solace.”
As the lights blazed in the winter night, Trotsky and Natalia marveled at the Library building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and the magnificent main reading room, “larger than the entire ship Montserrat on which they had just crossed the ocean.” Ackerman continues:
“And books! The library’s seventy-five miles of shelves held more than a million of them, plus newspapers and magazines from around the world! For anyone! For free! To just come and read! Till almost midnight! Even on a Sunday night!”
The Internationalist Group organizer told me about Trotsky’s introduction to the NYPL, saying he first read about it some 40 years ago. What struck him then was that when Trotsky visited it, the library was open till midnight! But by the mid-’70s the city was under the financial dictatorship of Wall Street under the Emergency Financial Control Board and Municipal Assistance Corporation run by investment banker Felix Rohatyn. They were slashing funding to public works left and right – mass transit, infrastructure, public schools, the City University and, of course, libraries. At the time, the New York Public Library only stayed open until 6 p.m. and not at all on Sundays. Today the 42nd Street library never stays open later than 7:45 p.m., and closes at 5 on Sundays.
Bukharin and Trotsky weren’t the only future leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution who had a passion for libraries. Four years earlier, Lenin wrote admiringly of public libraries in the West where “readers can read publicly owned books at home” (“What Can Be Done for Public Education,” July 1913). He continued:
“I have before me the report of the New York Public Library for 1911…. The total number of books is now about two million. In the course of the year the library was visited by 1,658,376 people. There were 246,950 readers using the reading-room and they took out 911,891 books…. Almost eight million (7,914,882 volumes) were issued to readers at home….”
Lenin was particularly taken with the fact that “even children can make use of the rich collections.” He wrote:
“The New York Public Library has opened a special, central, reading-room for children, and similar institutions are gradually being opened at all branches. The librarians do everything for the children’s convenience and answer their questions. The number of books children took out to read at home was 2,859,888, slightly under three million (more than a third of the total). The number of children visiting the reading-room was 1,120,915.”
And today? In this period of the U.S.’ terrorist “war on terror” and war on immigrants, in much of the U.S., the children of undocumented immigrant parents are excluded from libraries for lack of a government-issued photo ID (“How Libraries Discriminate Against Undocumented Children,” Time magazine, 18 October 2017). Only in the provinces? Try getting a library card in New York today without a photo ID from some government or college (a New York public school ID won’t get a teenager in). Even at the City University, a couple of years ago, an undocumented immigrant comrade was not allowed to take a book out of the Queens College Library for lack of a Social Security number, even though CUNY let him register. They also tried to make him pay out-of-state tuition, but backed down due to a partial victory that had been won by a mobilization launched by the Internationalist Group in 2001 to stop the purge of undocumented students from CUNY following 9/11.1
The NYPL was built on the cusp of the imperialist era, as capitalism was still prodigiously developing the productive forces, building steel plants and transcontinental railroads. Today, in the epoch of imperialist decay, the U.S. is deindustrializing and public services are cut to the bone and then closed or privatized. In 2010, the NYPL’s Slavic and Baltic division was closed. This is where John Reed’s collections of leaflets and posters from the Bolshevik Revolution were kept, where Trotsky toiled in the reading room during his few months in NYC. More recently they closed the Asian and Middle East division. Now the Library’s former main building with its iconic lions has been renamed the Steven A. Schwarzman Building, after the CEO of the Blackstone Group, a top private equity fund, who was chairman of President Donald Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum.
Capitalist development was achieved through barbaric means including chattel slavery and the extermination of the Native American population, but also brought public schools and libraries. Even then, “public” libraries were funded in good part by the barons of industry. The NYPL was founded with money from the estate of John Jacob Astor, the German American fur trade and real estate mogul, and dozens of branches were funded by several million dollars from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Today public services have been starved for funds for decades while top capitalists like Bill Gates and the Walton and Koch families are spending billions to privatize public education. Meanwhile, “net neutrality” regulations have been repealed, so that Internet service providers can (and will) charge whatever the traffic will bear.
As we wrote in 1999, at a time when the last vestiges of open admissions were eliminated at the City University of New York:
“In the rising period of capitalism, the U.S. was a pioneer in mass public education, with free public libraries, land-grant colleges and other innovations unknown in Europe. The name of Horace Mann is famous worldwide as an architect of progressive education (and opponent of slavery) along with that of the liberal educator John Dewey. The Russian Bolsheviks paid great attention to public education in the U.S. Lenin wrote articles on U.S. schools and in praise of the New York Public Library, pointing out that ordinary workers could go there after work to gain knowledge, and vowing to introduce such institutions in a workers Russia. Today, in the era of capitalist decline, many European countries still do not have public libraries, the NYPL is closed most evenings, and now the New York city government is planning to ‘blow up’ the City University by cutting its size in half.
“The bourgeoisie and pro-capitalist reformists seek to adjust the educational system to the needs of capital. This produces the spectacle of cutbacks in enrollment in higher education, particularly of black and Latino youth, at a time when technological developments require more skills not less. A chauvinist drive is underway against bilingual education and English as a Second Language instruction just as the immigrant population is exploding. In opposing the butchering of CUNY, liberals argue for a more ‘rational’ educational policy. Yet the offensive against mass public higher education is an expression of the fundamental irrationality of the capitalist system, which destroys millions of jobs in the name of profitability and educates youth only to use them as cannon fodder in its wars.
“Today, as 150 years ago with the dawn of scientific socialism, it is the communists who are the only consistent defenders of free public education for all.”
–“Smash Racist Purge of CUNY – Fight for Open Admissions, Free Tuition!” The Internationalist No. 7 (April-May 1999)
Capitalism in the imperialist epoch is a cannibalizing force, eating away at what the working class has built bit-by-bit in its frenzy over ever-shrinking profit margins. Only through socialist revolution is it possible to provide public works with no strings attached, works that truly exist to serve the interests of the working class rather than catering to the ivory tower clique of the bourgeois academy. Only through international socialist revolution is it possible to bring about proletarian democracy. ■
- 1.See the Internationalist pamphlet, Defend Immigrant Students, Stop CUNY’s “War Purge” (December 2001).