Comrades, we love the sun that gives us light, but if the rich and the aggressors were to try to monopolize the sun, we should say: “Let the sun be extinguished, let darkness reign, eternal night…”
— Leon Trotsky (September 11, 1918)
Товарищи, мы любим солнце, которое дает нам жизнь, но если бы богачи и агрессоры попытались захватить себе солнце, мы бы сказали: «Пусть солнце погаснет, пусть воцарится тьма, вечная ночь…»
— Лев Троцкий (11 сентября 1918 г.)
Dmitrii Volkogonov, former court historian of Stalinism turned rabid anticommunist, famously dubbed Trotsky the “demon” of the October Revolution. When he commanded the Red Army, during the Civil War, this was indeed the image enemies of the Soviet Union had of him. He would appear in Theodor Adorno’s dreams, and Walter Benjamin devoured his autobiography and History of the Russian Revolution. The psychoanalyst Helmut Dahmer, a student of Adorno, has written on the various intellectual resonances and parallels between Trotsky’s Left Opposition and Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research. I’ve pointed out both the tensions and connections of Trotsky with the Italian communist leader Amedeo Bordiga, if not Trotskyism and Bordigism (which are much further apart than their respective founders).
Some of his works could already be found in a previous post, but here are a few more titles:
- Leon Trotsky, 1905 (1907)
- Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky (1920)
- Leon Trotsky, Military Writings, 1920-1923
- Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1923)
- Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition: Writings, 1923-1925
- Leon Trotsky, My Life (1928)
- Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (1928)
- Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 1: The Overthrow of Tsarism (1929)
- Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 2: Attempt at Counterrevolution (1930)
- Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: The Triumph of the Soviets (1931)
Here are some biographies and memoirs by his friends, as well:
- Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova, Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (1946)
- Jean van Heijenoort, With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacán (1978)
- Dmitrii Volkogonov, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary (1992)
- Ian D. Thatcher, Trotsky (2002)
- Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life (2011)
Dialectic wants YOU
After Lenin, Trotsky was perhaps the one revolutionary best able to grasp the fraught dialectical unity of theory and practice in his time. “Life has beaten rationalism out of me and taught me the inner workings of dialectic,” he recalled in My Life. Of course, in saying this Trotsky was in no way eschewing rational arguments or espousing irrationalism. Rather, “rationalism” for him meant the idea that all we have to do is appeal to individuals’ rational self-interest in order to bring about socialism. Following Hegel’s philosophy of history in this respect, Trotsky believed that reason manifested itself “behind the backs” of individual agents who were in the meantime busy pursuing private, irrational ends. “You may not be interested in the dialectic,” he once reportedly snapped at James Burnham. “But the dialectic is interested in you.”
Georg Lukács wrote in his 1967 preface to the reissue of History and Class Consciousness that he “always rejected” Trotskyite positions. Several years later he told Perry Anderson that he disliked Trotsky immediately upon their meeting in 1920, striking him as a “poseur.” If one goes back to the original version of Lukács’ essay “What is Orthodox Marxism?” published in 1919, one reads: “As truly orthodox, dialectical Marxists, Lenin and Trotsky paid little attention to the so-called ‘facts’… Lenin and Trotsky understood the true reality, the necessary materialization of the world revolution; it was to this reality, not to the ‘facts,’ that they adjusted their actions. It was they who were vindicated by reality, and not the apostles of Realpolitik… swaying to and fro like reeds in the wind.”
“What does this terrible word ‘dialectics’ mean?” Trotsky rhetorically asked in 1940. Responding to Hook, Eastman, and other American skeptical of Marx’s dialectical method, he answered: “Dialectics means to consider things in their development, not in their static situation.” He attributed this failing to Anglo-Saxon habits of thought, which had become enamored of William James and John Dewey. “Pragmatism, a mixture of rationalism and empiricism, became the national philosophy of the United States.” Because it refused to grapple with real social antagonisms, this philosophy was “least of all useful suited to understand revolutionary crises.” (Compare Trotsky’s scattered criticisms of the pragmatists with Max Horkheimer’s more thoroughgoing critique in The Eclipse of Reason).
Lukács affirmed in the updated 1923 version of “What is Orthodox Marxism?” that “materialist dialectic is revolutionary dialectic,” and goes on to state that “the issue turns on the question of theory and practice. And this not merely in the sense given it by Marx when he says in his first critique of Hegel that ‘theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses.’ Even more to the point is the need to discover those features and definitions both of the theory and ways of gripping the masses which convert the theory, the dialectical method, into a vehicle of revolution.” The crux of the matter was thus class consciousness, or how to unite revolutionary theory with proletarian practice in seizing the propitious moment. For Trotsky, it was posed as follows:
Marxism considers itself the conscious expression of unconscious historical processes. But these “unconscious” processes, in the historico-philosophical sense of the term — not the psychological — coincide with its conscious expression only at its highest point, when the masses, by sheer elemental pressure, break through the social routine and give victorious expression to the deepest needs of historical development. And at such moments the highest theoretical consciousness of the epoch merges with the immediate action of those oppressed masses, who are farthest away from theory. The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls “inspiration.” Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history.
In Trotsky’s view dialectics formed the “spring” of Marxist science, strong but flexible. “Dialectical thought is like a spring,” he analogized in 1923. “Springs are made from tempered steel.” Reflecting on his self-education in Marxian dialectics, Trotsky confessed that he “did not absorb historical materialism at once, dogmatically.” He continued to state that “the dialectic method revealed itself to me for the first time not as abstract definitions but as a living spring which I’d found in the historical process as I tried to understand it.” Against certain of his disciples who expressed reservations about this method of thought, he wrote “it is absolutely necessary to explain why American ‘radical’ intellectuals accept Marxism without the dialectic (a clock without a spring).” Like any Marxist, Trotsky sought the answer to this in social conditions:
The secret is simple. In no other country has there been such rejection of class struggle as the land of “unlimited opportunity.” Denial of social contradictions as the moving force of development led to the denial of the dialectic as the logic of contradictions in the domain of theoretical thought. Just as in the sphere of politics it was thought possible everybody could be convinced of the correctness of a “just” program by means of clever syllogisms and society could be reconstructed through “rational” measures, so in the sphere of theory it was accepted as proved that Aristotelian logic, lowered to the level of “common sense,” was sufficient for the solution of all questions.
To see just how decisive this methodology was in informing Trotsky’s revolutionary outlook, we must examine another issue, one which he did not explicitly thematize: reification.
Reification and revolution
Karl Korsch did not trust Trotsky when the Bolshevik Revolution first broke out. By the mid-1920s, however, after his conversion to Leninism — short-lived though this would prove to be — Korsch had come to favor Bronshtein’s position within the Comintern over that of Zinoviev. His comrade within the Italian party, Bordiga, thus wrote to him in 1926: “You, who used to be highly suspicious of Trotsky, have immediately subscribed to the program of unconditional solidarity with the Russian opposition, betting on Trotsky rather than on Zinoviev (a preference I share).” Subsequently Korsch would disavow Trotsky and Leninism tout court as the decade drew to a close, as Trotsky in turn wrote in 1929 that “Korschist tendencies must be mercilessly condemned.” Even if it did not last long, however, their confluence during this period is significant.
Lukács’ appreciation of Trotsky around this time ran even deeper, despite his later recantations: “[Opportunists] reject as impossible the emergence of anything that is radically new of which we can have no ‘experience’. It was Trotsky in his polemics against Kautsky who brought out this distinction most clearly, although it had been touched upon in the debates on the war: ‘For the fundamental Bolshevist prejudice consists precisely in the idea that one can only learn to ride when one is sitting firmly on a horse’.” In the footnote appended to this statement, Lukács went a step further. Trotsky’s line of argument in Terrorism and Communism approximated Hegel’s epistemological argument, whereas Kautsky’s argument was effectively analogous to the agnostic attitude of Kant:
I hold it to be no mere coincidence that Trotsky’s polemic against Kautsky in the sphere of politics should have repeated the essential argument adduced by Hegel in his attack on Kant’s theory of knowledge (there is of course no philological connection). Kautsky, incidentally, later claimed that the laws of capitalism were unconditionally valid for the future [i.e., like natural laws], even though it was not possible to attain to a concrete knowledge of the actual trends.
Generally speaking, this is consonant with Lukács’ argument throughout History and Class Consciousness that Kautsky had succumbed to the reification of social relations that took place under capitalism, stabilizing and petrifying that which is historically variable and fluid. What was it in Trotsky’s argument against Kautsky that so reminded Lukács of Hegel’s argument against Kant? “The theoretical apostasy of Kautsky lies just in this point,” Trotsky wrote in Terrorism and Communism. “Having recognized the principle of democracy as absolute and eternal, he has stepped back from materialist dialectics to natural law.” (No wonder Bordiga was so fond of this book by Trotsky, we may note, as he likewise refused to elevate democracy to a timeless ideal standing above class relations, “the democratic principle in its application to the bourgeois state, which claims to embrace all classes.”)
Trotsky, like Lenin and Engels and even occasionally Marx himself, did occasionally seek to vindicate dialectical materialism as a method applicable to social and natural science in equal measure. Yet this was just as often not the case, as these thinkers rejected the notion that social dynamics behaved in a manner as constant as natural law. It has become very common among young adepts of more sophisticated readings of Capital that Marx did not propose a new political economy in place of the old one, but rather a critique of political economy. Allegedly, this was a subtlety lost on subsequent generations of Marxists, who sought to establish Marxism as a positive science capable of explaining and predicting every phenomenon. However, this caricature does not hold up when one considers passages like the following from Trotsky:
Marxist political economy is an incontestable science; but it is not a science of how to manage a business, or how to compete on the market, or how to build trusts. It is the science of how in a certain epoch certain economic relations (capitalist) took shape, and what conditions these relations internally, and constitutes their lawfulness. Economic laws established by Marx are not eternal truths but characteristic only of a specific epoch of mankind’s economic development; and, in any case, they are not eternal principles as is represented by the bourgeois Manchester school, according to which private ownership of the means of production, buying and selling, competition, and the rest are eternal principles of economy, deriving from human nature (about which, however, there is absolutely nothing eternal).
In his 1937 introduction to the quintessential works of Karl Marx, Trotsky reiterated this point, recognizing that it was anachronistic to speak of “political economy” in precapitalist epochs. Political-economic categories could only be retroactively applied to such societies, since political economy itself was an artifact of bourgeois modernity:
It was not Marx’s aim to discover the “eternal laws” of economy. He denied the existence of such laws. The history of the development of human society is the history of the succession of various systems of economy, each operating in accordance with its own laws. The transition from one system to another was always determined by the growth of the productive forces, i.e., of technique and the organization of labor. Up to a certain point, social changes are quantitative in character and do not alter the foundations of society, i.e., the prevalent forms of property. But a point is reached when the matured productive forces can no longer contain themselves within the old forms of property; then follows a radical change in the social order, accompanied by shocks. The primitive commune was either superseded or supplemented by slavery; slavery was succeeded by serfdom with its feudal superstructure; the commercial development of cities brought Europe in the sixteenth century to the capitalist order, which thereupon passed through several stages. In his Capital Marx does not study economy in general, but capitalist economy, which has its own specific laws. Only in passing does he refer to other economic systems, to elucidate the characteristics of capitalism.
The self-sufficient economy of the primitive peasant family has no need of a “political economy,” for it is dominated on the one hand by the forces of nature and on the other by the forces of tradition. The self-contained natural economy of the Greeks or the Romans, founded on slave labor, was ruled by the will of the slave-owner, whose “plan” in turn was directly determined by the laws of nature and routine. The same might also be said about the medieval estate with its peasant serfs. In all these instances economic relations were clear and transparent in their primitive crudity. But the case of contemporary society is altogether different. It destroyed the old self-contained connections and the inherited modes of labor. The new economic relations have linked cities and villages, provinces and nations. Division of labor has encompassed the planet. Having shattered tradition and routine, these bonds have not composed themselves according to some definite plan, but rather apart from human consciousness and foresight. The interdependence of men, groups, classes, nations, which follows from division of labor, is not directed by anyone. People work for each other without knowing each other, without inquiring about one another’s needs, in the hope, and even with the assurance, that their relations will somehow regulate themselves. And by and large they do, or rather, were wont to.
So much for the alleged vulgarity of “traditional Marxism” as a whole. One might take issue with Trotsky’s offhand remark about commercialization leading straightaway, on its own, to capitalist social relations, but this is a minor point quickly glossed over.