Leon Trotsky

How Lenin Spoke on the Platform


Publishing Information: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 3, 20 January 1945, p. 3.
Transcription/MTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for Leon Trotsky Internet Archive in 2018.
Copyleft: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

(We reprint on this 21st anniversary the following article which Trotsky wrote shortly after Lenin’s death. Trotsky’s article was published in Moscow in 1924 by the State Publishing House, as part of a volume, On Lenin, Materials for a Biography.)


After the October revolution many photographs of Lenin were taken and movies were also made. His voice was recorded on the phonograph. His speeches were transcribed by stenographers, and were then published. All the elements of Vladimir Ilyich are thus available. But they remain only – the elements. The living personality consists of the unreproducible and always dynamic combination of these elements.

I am trying to evoke Lenin in my mind with a fresh eye and fresh ear, as if seeing and hearing him on the platform for the first time, and I see a strong, pliant figure of medium height and I hear an even fluent voice speaking very rapidly, with a slight lisp, without interruptions, almost without a pause, and in the initial stages, without any special inflection.

The introductory phrases are, as a rule, general, the tone is that of probing; the speaker’s entire figure seems not to have found its equilibrium as yet; the gesture has yet to take shape, the eyes seem to gaze inwardly; the features of the face appear sullen and even exasperated – the idea is probing for an approach to the audience. This introductory phase lasts for a longer or shorter period of time, depending on the audience, the topic, the speaker’s mood. But now the speaker has found the trail. The theme begins to unfold. The upper part of his body tilts forward, the thumbs slide under the armpits into the vest. And this twofold movement immediately causes the head and the hands to jut forward.

The head does not, in and of itself, seem large on this well- knit, strong, not-tall and rhythmic body. But the forehead and the ridges on the bald skull appear, enormous. The hands are very agile, but not fidgety or nervous. The wrists are broad, chunky, “plebeian,” strong. They, like the entire body, denote dependability and virile good nature. Before this can be perceived, however, the speaker must catch fire internally, as he exposes an opponent’s cunning ruse, or succeeds himself in laying a trap.

Then from beneath the mighty canopy of forehead and skull the Leninist eyes appear (which were just barely caught by a lucky photograph taken in 1919). Even an indifferent listener, catching this glance for the first time will become on guard and sit up in expectation. In such moments the angular cheek bones were illumined and softened by a profoundly shrewd indulgence, behind which could he sensed a vast knowledge of men, of inter-relationships and situations – down to nethermost subsoil. The lower part of his face with its reddish-gray growth seemed to remain in the shadows. The voice became softer, more flexible and – at times – slyly ingratiating.

How Lenin Answers His Opponents

But now the speaker, is bringing up a possible objection of an opponent or citing a vicious quotation from an enemy’s article. Before he proceeds to analyze the hostile idea, he gives you to understand that the objection is groundless, superficial or false. He disengages his fingers from behind the vest, tilts his body back a little, retreats a few short paces, as if to make room for a running start, and – either ironically or with a look of despair – shrugs his steep shoulders, spreads his hands with the thumbs expressively extended. He always prefaces a refutation by condemning his opponent, deriding or disgracing him – depending on the opponent and the circumstances. It is as if the listener were forewarned what sort of proof to expect, and how to attune his mind.

Then the logical offensive is launched. The left hand either seeks out again the vest, or more frequently the trouser pocket. The right accompanies the logic of the exposition and beats off its rhythm. Whenever necessary, the left hand lends assistance. The speaker heads toward his audience, strikes to the very edge of the platform, leans forward and with rounded gestures of his hands moulds his words. This means that the central idea, the main point of the entire speech has been reached.

If opponents are present in the audience, the speaker is greeted from time to time with critical or hostile heckling. Nine times out of ten these remain unanswered. The speaker intends to say what he has to say: say it to those whom he is addressing; in whatever way he feels it must be said. He is not to be sidetracked by chance remarks. Hasty wit is alien to his concentrated thought. Following hostile exclamations his voice only becomes more harsh, his sentences more compact and aggressive, the formulations grow sharper, the gestures more abrupt. He catches up the hostile heckle only if it coincides with the general trend of his ideas and can aid him to reach the necessary conclusions more quickly. Then his answers are entirely unexpected and annihilating in their simplicity. Point blank he lays bare a situation which, according to all expectations, he should have sought to camouflage.

The Mensheviks went through this experience more than once during the initial period of the revolution when charges of violations of democracy still had a ring of novelty. “Our newspapers have been shut down!” “Of course! But unfortunately not all of them as yet. They will all be shut down presently. The dictatorship of the proletariat will destroy at its very roots this shameful traffic in bourgeois opium!” The speaker has straightened up. Both hands are in the pockets. There is not even a hint of posing, in the voice not a trace of oratorical modulation – instead the entire figure, the angle of the head, the compressed lips, the cheek bones, the slightly hoarse timbre of the voice, all radiate an indomitable confidence in his correctness and his truth. “If you want to fight, then come on, let’s really fight.”

Whenever the speaker lashes out not at an enemy but at one of “his own,” it can be felt both in the gestures and the voice. The most frenzied attack in these cases preserves the character of “bringing to reason.” Occasionally the speaker’s voice breaks off on a high note. This happens whenever he swoops down on “a friend,” exposes him, tries to put him to shame, proves that the opponent understands exactly nothing and is unable to adduce so much as a scintilla in support of his objections. It is on these “exactly nothings” and “scintillas” that the voice now and then rises to a falsetto and breaks off, and this unexpectedly invests the angriest tirade with a semblance of good nature.

He Thought Out Problems to the End

The speaker has completely thought out his idea in advance down to the ultimate, practical conclusion – the idea, but not the presentation, not the form of presentation, with the exception perhaps of the most succinct, most pertinent and juiciest expressions and coined words which thereupon enter into the political life of the party and of the country as the ringing medium of exchange. The construction of the sentences is as a rule massive, clause accumulates on clause like geological strata, or on the contrary, a clause imbeds itself in the previous one. These constructions are a trial to the stenographers, and then to the editors. But through these massive phrases the intense and imperious idea cuts a strong and reliable highway for itself.

Is it really true that the speaker is a profoundly educated Marxist, a theoretician and an economist, a man of enormous erudition? Why, it seems, at least every now and then, that some extraordinary self-taught man is speaking, who arrived at these conclusions through his own efforts, pondered all this in his own brain, in his own way, without any scientific equipment, without a scientific terminology and is now presenting it in his own manner. Why? Because the speaker has thought out the problem not only for himself but also for the mass, he has carried his mind through the experience of the masses and has completely removed from his presentation the theoretical scaffolding, which he had himself utilized when first approaching the problem.

It so happens, by the way, that on occasion the speaker ascends too swiftly on the ladder of his thoughts, skipping two and three rungs at a time. This happens whenever a particular conclusion is all too clear to him, is of great practical urgency and the audience must become acquainted with it as quickly as possible. But now he has sensed that the listeners cannot keep up with him, that the bond between him and the audience has been disrupted. He immediately takes himself in hand and with a single leap descends in order to begin his ascent anew, but this time with a more tranquil and measured stride. The voice itself, free of any extra strain, becomes altered and subtly persuasive. The construction of the speech naturally suffers from the duplication. But is a speech designed for its construction? Is there any worthwhile logic in a speech other than the logic which compels, action?

And when the orator arrives for a second time at his conclusion, this time bringing all his listeners along, not losing a single one on the way, a rejoicing at the satisfactory culmination of the intense labor of the collective mind can be physically felt in the hall. It remains to tap the conclusion twice or thrice more in order to reinforce it; give it a simple, lucid and pictorial expression for memory’s sake; and then it is permissible to take a breathing spell, joke and laugh a little, so that the collective mind is better able in the interim to absorb its new conquest.

Lenin’s Humor and Purposefulness

Lenin’s oratorical humor is as simple as all his other devices if it is possible to speak of devices in this connection. In Lenin’s speeches there is no self-sufficient wit, nor word-play, but there is the joke, a sally, accessible to the masses, in the real sense of the term, a folk-joke. If there is nothing too alarming about the political situation, if the audience is predominantly “his own” then the speaker is not averse to a little “horse-play” in passing. The audience heartily welcomes the sly-simple adage, the good-natured- merciless characterization, sensing that this, too, is intended not as a flourish but to serve the self-same goal.

When the speaker is about to jest, the lower part of his face becomes more prominent, especially the mouth capable of infectious laughter. The lines of the forehead and skull seem to soften, the eyes stop boring like gimlets and twinkle with a merry light, the lisp becomes more pronounced, the intensity of the virile idea is softened with a love for living and humaneness.

Khvostism (tail-endism) and peredyshka (breathing spell), and Smychka (alliance with the peasantry) and drachka (inner-party squabble) and komchvanstvo (communist snobbery) and scores of others which have not been perpetuated. Before he gets to such a word the speaker circles around as if in search of a suitable spot. Once that is located he affixes the nail, gauges the distance properly, takes a full swing and brings the hammer down on the head once, twice, ten times until the nail is driven in so firmly that it becomes difficult to dislodge it once the necessity for it no longer exists. When that occasion arises, Lenin will, uttering an adage, have to tap this nail from the right and from the left in order to loosen it, and tear it out and cast it into discard among the archives – to the great sorrow of those who had grown accustomed to it.

At the Close of His Speech

But now the speech draws to its conclusion. The balance sheet has been taken, the conclusions have been driven home securely. The speaker looks like a worker who is tired but whose job has been completed. From time to time he passes his hand over the naked skull beaded with perspiration. The voice loses its intensity like a fire dying down. The speech may now be concluded. But one need not expect a peroration, without which it would seem hardly possible to leave the platform. Others could not do it, but Lenjn can. He does not conclude his speech oratorically. He finishes his work and puts a period. “If we understand this, if we do it, then we shall surely conquer,” – such, not infrequently, is the closing phrase. Or, “This is what we must set as our goal, not in words but in action.” And sometimes, simply: “This is all I wanted to say to you.” And nothing more. And such a conclusion is in complete harmony, with the nature of Lenin’s eloquence and with Lenin’s own nature, and it in no way chills the audience. On the contrary, it is precisely after such an “ineffective,” “drab” ending that the audience seems again to grasp in a single eruption everything that Lenin gave in his speech, and bursts into stormy, grateful, ecstatic applause.

Long Li ... Lenin ... Leader ... Ilyich ... The never-to-be-duplicated head shimmers in the electric light amid the wild waves of applause. And when it seems that the whirlwind of enthusiasm has reached its highest intensity, suddenly through the roar, the tumult and the handclaps,, some youthful, shrill, happy and ecstatic voice cuts like a siren through a storm: Long Live Ilyich! And somewhere from the profoundest, palpitating innermost depths of solidarity, love and enthusiasm, a veritable cyclone rises in answer, a universal, indivisible, roof-splitting shriek-shout: LONG LIVE LENIN!

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Last updated on: 5 April 2018