2. The Main Course of American History and Its Next Stage




Название2. The Main Course of American History and Its Next Stage
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The Prophet Outcast, the final volume of his biography of Trotsky, where he treats of “The Revolutionary as Historian”, Isaac Deutscher discusses the role of personality in the determination of social events in a highly instructive context. The problem is raised in connection with Trotsky’s appraisal of Lenin’s place in the Russian Revolution.

Deutscher holds that Trotsky shuttled between two discordant positions. In the History of the Russian Revolution, a letter to Preobrazhensky in 1928, and in his Diary in Exile Trotsky maintained that Lenin was absolutely indispensable to the victory of October. It would not have been achieved without him. Elsewhere, in The Revolution Betrayed, says Deutscher, Trotsky reverted to the orthodox view of historical materialism which subordinates the quality of the leadership to the more objective factors in the making of history. Is this a wavering on Trotsky’s part?

Marxism does teach that no individual, however talented, strong-willed or strategically situated, can alter the main course of historical development, which is shaped by supra-individual circumstances and forces. Therefore, reasons Deutscher, the revolution would have triumphed in 1917 with other leaders even if Lenin had been removed from the arena by some accident. Trotsky himself, or a team of other Bolshevik chiefs, might have filled his place.

Deutscher divines that Trotsky’s lapse into a subjectivism bordering on “the cult of the individual” in regard to Lenin was motivated by a psychological need to exaggerate the role of individual leadership as a counterweight to Stalin’s autocracy in his mortal political combat with him. He seeks to correct Trotsky by reference to the ideas expressed in Plekhanov’s classical essay on The Role of the Individual in History. This was a polemic against the Narodnik school of subjective sociology which exalted the hero as an autonomous creator of history at the expense of the masses and other objective determinants of the class struggle. Arguing against the thesis that the collective demand for leadership could be supplied by only one remarkable individual, Plekhanov pointed out that the person hoisted into supreme authority bars the way of others who might have shouldered and carried through the same tasks, though in a different style. The eclipse of alternate candidates creates the optical illusion of the sole irreplaceable personality. If the objective prerequisites are ripe and the historical demand forceful enough, a range of men can fulfil the indicated functions of command.

The Chinese and Yugoslav examples, writes Deutscher, demonstrate how rising revolutions can utilise men of smaller stature than a Lenin or Trotsky to take power. The class struggle can press into service whatever human material is available to fulfil its objectives.

This theme has an importance surpassing Trotsky’s judgment on Lenin’s significance for the Russian Revolution or Deutscher’s criticism of Trotsky’s alleged inconsistencies on the matter. The reciprocal action of the objective and subjective factors in the historical process is one of the key problems of social science. It is no less a key to revolutionary practice in our own time.

Historical materialism unequivocally gives primacy, as Deutscher emphasises, to such objective factors as the level of the productive forces and the state of class relations in the making of history. But there is more to the matter than this.

In the first place, the social phenomena divided into opposing categories are only relatively objective or subjective. Their status changes according to the relevant connections. If the world environment is objective to the nation which is part of it, the nation in turn is objective to the classes which constitute its social structure. The ruling class is objective to the working class. The party is subjective to the class whose interests it represents and aims it promotes while groups, tendencies, factions and their combinations are subjective to the movement or party which contains them. Finally, the individual has a subjective status relative to all these other factors, although he has an objective existence in relation to other individuals.

In the second place, the multiple factors in any historical process do not, and indeed cannot have, an equal and simultaneous growth. Not only do some mature before others but certain of them may fail to achieve a full and adequate reality at the decisive moment, or indeed at any point. The coming together of all the various factors essential for the occurrence of a particular result in a great historical process is an exceptional or “accidental” event which is necessary only in the long run.

The leadership, collective and individual, embodies the conscious element in history. The influence of an individual in determining a course of events can range from negligibility to totality. The extent of his effectiveness in action depends upon the stage of development of historical conditions, the correlation of social forces, and the person’s precise connection with these at a given conjuncture.

There are long stretches of time when the strongest-willed revolutionist cannot in the least avail against the march of events and practically counts for nothing in redirecting them.

On the other hand, there are “tides in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune”.

Ordinarily, individual action takes place somewhere between these two extremes. What men do — or do not do — in their personal capacity affects to some limited degree the velocity and specific features of the main line of development.

The case in point is: Where and when can an individual exert the maximum weight and become the decisive force in the outcome of a struggle? This can happen only when his intervention is inserted at the culminating point of a prolonged evolution when all the other factors of a more objective sort have come into being. These set the stage for his decisive role and provide the means for carrying through the purposes and program of the movement he represents.

The great man, who helps start a novel line of development in any field, comes as the last link in the assemblage of conditions and the concatenation of events. We are all familiar with the straw that breaks the camel’s back or the drop that overflows the cup. The individual who makes all the difference serves as the precipitant that transforms quantity into quality in the process whereby the new supersedes the old.

However, he must intervene at the critical turning point of development for his action to have so decisive an influence. Such fortunate timing, which does not always depend upon his own awareness, permits him to become the final cause in the cumulative sequence of conditions which are necessary determinants of the outcome.

The discrepancy noted by Deutscher between Trotsky’s observations that Lenin was indispensable for the October victory and that the objective laws of history are far more powerful than the special traits of the protagonists involved is to be explained by the difference between the short and the long run of history. The calculus of probabilities applies to human history as well as to natural events. Given enough chances in the long run, the forces representing the objective necessities of social progress will break through all obstacles and prove stronger than the defences of the old order. But that is not necessarily true at any given stage or in any instance along the way. Here the quality of the leadership can decide which of the genuine alternatives growing out of the prevailing conditions will be realised.

The conscious factor has a qualitatively different import over an entire historical epoch than it has in a specific phase or situation within it. When antagonistic social forces vie for supremacy on a world-historical scale, such favourable and unfavourable circumstances as the character of the leadership tend to offset and cancel one another. The underlying historical necessities assert themselves in and through the aggregate struggles and override the more superficial and chance features which can decide the upshot of any particular encounter. Moreover, an ascending class in the long run benefits more than its opponent from the accidents of development, since the receding class has less and less reserve strength to withstand and overcome small variations in the relation of forces. The total assets of the one increase as those of the other diminish.

Time is an all-important element in the conflict of contending social forces. The indeterminate phase when events can be diverted in either direction does not last long. The crisis in social relations must be resolved quickly one way or the other. At that point the activity or passivity of dominant personalities, groups, parties and masses can tip the scales on one side or the other. The individual can enter as the ultimate factor in the total process of historical determination only when all the other forces in play are temporarily equalised. Then his added weight can serve to tip the balance.

Almost everyone can recall occasions where his own intervention or that of others proved decisive in resolving an uncertain situation. What happens in the small incidents of life applies to big events. Just as the single vote of the chairman can decide when the forces on an issue are evenly divided, so the outstanding qualities of great figures are manifested when history arrives at a deadlock. Their decision or decisiveness breaks the tie and propels events along a definitely different line. This holds for counterrevolutionary as well as revolutionary tendencies. Hitler was important because he took Germany into fascism and war. But he did not direct German or world history into a qualitatively new channel. He simply helped write a further horrible chapter in the death agony of capitalism.

Lenin’s imperishable contribution was the push he gave to opening an entirely new path for Russian and world history, redirecting it from the dead end of capitalism onto the new beginning of socialism.

This brings us back to the specific problem Deutscher discusses. He does not question the fact that in the actual unrolling of the 1917 revolution Lenin functioned as the final cause in the October victory. The difference between Deutscher and Trotsky concerns the uncertain realm of historical possibilities. Could another revolutionist such as Trotsky, or a combination of them, have assumed Lenin’s place?

Trotsky somewhat categorically said no. Deutscher objects that if others on hand could not have performed the same job of leadership, then the position of historical materialism on the lawful determination of events must be abandoned. Either the objective or the subjective factors decide; it is necessary to choose between them.

In my opinion, Deutscher here takes a too constricted and one-sided stand on historical determinism whereas Trotsky employed a more flexible and multi-sided interpretation based upon the interrelation of mutually opposing categories. He tested his conception, first in practice, then in theory, in the successive stages of the Russian Revolution where the importance of the conscious factors stood out with remarkable clarity.

The type of leadership was very different in the two revolutions of 1917. The February Revolution was not planned or directed from above. Trotsky points out in the chapter of his History, “Who Led the February Revolution?” that it was led “by conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin”. As educator and organiser of these key workers, Lenin was to that extent necessary to the February overturn, even though he was not on the spot in person.

Between February and October he became more and more decisive because of his resolute and farsighted stands at a series of crucial moments, starting with the reorienting of the Bolshevik cadres in April and culminating in his insistence on insurrection in October. According to Trotsky, Lenin’s role could not have been duplicated. This was not simply because of his personal gifts but even more because of his exceptional standing in the Bolshevik party which was largely his creation.

The question of leadership in the Russian Revolution had a dual aspect. While the Bolsheviks led the workers and peasants to victory, Lenin led the Bolshevik party. His paramount role came from the fact that he led the leaders of the revolution.

Trotsky knew better than anyone else how Lenin could sway the higher echelons as well as the ranks of his party. His authority was a considerable help from April to October in getting his correct proposals adopted over the resistance of other Bolshevik chiefs. This accumulated capital of prestige was not at the disposal of others, including Trotsky, who had a different organisational history and relations. That was the objective basis for his opinion that the October Revolution would most likely not have taken place unless “Lenin was present and in command”.

To be sure, it is not possible, as Deutscher remarks and Trotsky himself recognised, to be utterly categorical on this point. But Trotsky’s conclusion, which is to be found in all his writings after October and before the rise of Stalin, was not based upon a regrettable lapse into excessive subjectivity. It came from applying the Marxist dialectic to the facts as he witnessed and assayed them. If he was wrong, it was not because of any deviation in principle or abandonment of method induced by unconscious political-psychological motives, which Deutscher considers to be the case, but the result of misjudging the facts.


Sidney Hook has entered this controversy from the opposite end. In a review of The Prophet Outcast in the May 11, 1964, New Leader he seizes upon Deutscher’s criticism of Trotsky’s subjectivism for his own purposes. Instead of condemning, he compliments Trotsky for discarding the dogmas of dialectical materialism and attributing “the most important social event in human history’ to the purely personal and contingent circumstance of Lenin’s presence in Russia. In his eyes the October Revolution was the accidental consequence of the work of an individual. Hook repeats the view expressed in his book on The Hero in History, cited by Deutscher, that the October Revolution “was not so much a product of the whole past of Russian history as a product of one of the most event-making figures of all time”.

Whereas Deutscher in the name of Marxist orthodoxy inclines to make the objective factors virtually self-sufficient and thus underrates the crucial importance of Lenin’s leadership, Hook practically nullifies the other and prior determinants by making the October victory wholly dependent upon a single individual. His approach falls below the standards of the most enlightened liberal historians who at least placed objective factors on a par with the ideas and intervention of great men.

Hook has to falsify Trotsky’s standpoint in order to convert him into a pragmatist as superficial as Hook himself. Trotsky’s History is explicitly devoted to demonstrating the necessity of the Russian Revolution and its specific outcome as the result of the whole previous evolution of world capitalism, the backwardness of Russia complemented by its concentrated industrial enterprises and advanced working class, the stresses of the First World War upon a decayed tsarist autocracy, the weakness of the bourgeoisie, the failure of the petty-bourgeois parties and the bold vision of the Bolsheviks headed by Lenin.

Trotsky delineates the operation of this determinism in living reality by narrating and analysing the interconnection of the salient events from the February beginning to the October climax. The successive stages of the revolution did not unfold haphazardly; they issued with inexorable lawfulness one from the other in a causally conditioned sequence. The aim of his theoretical exposition was to find in the verified facts of the actual process the effects of the objective necessities formulated in the laws of the class struggle applied to a backward great power under 20th century conditions. He had already anticipated and articulated these in his celebrated theory of the Permanent Revolution.

Trotsky viewed the Bolshevik party as one of the components of this historical necessity, and Lenin as the most conscious exponent and skilled practitioner of the political science of Marxism based on these laws. It was not purely fortuitous that Lenin was able to play the role that he did. He was no chance comer. “Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole past of Russian development.” For years he had prepared himself and his party for the task of steering the expected revolution to victory.

There was no foreordination in the full compass of the preconditions for October extending from the history of Russia in the world to the political foresight and insight of Lenin. Their joint necessity was proved in practice. Nor was the actual course of events realised without the concurrence of many accidental circumstances favourable or unfavourable to both sides.

It was, for example, a lucky chance that the German General Staff for its own reasons permitted Lenin to travel from his Swiss exile back to Russia through Germany in time to redirect the Bolshevik party. It was an historical accident that Lenin remained alive and active throughout the crucial months; it could have been otherwise and indeed Lenin thought his murder quite probable. In that case, if we credit Trotsky, the socialist outcome implicit in the situation could not have been achieved in 1917.

This means that the history of the 20th century, which is now unthinkable apart from the Russian Revolution in all its consequences, would have been quite different. Not in the broadest lines of its development but certainly in the particular course and features of the irrepressible contest between the socialist revolution and its capitalist antagonists.

There is nothing un-Marxist, as Deutscher seems to think, in acknowledging this. To link “the fortunes of mankind in this century” with Lenin’s activity in 1917 is not subjectivist thinking; it is a matter of fact. Conversely, Lenin’s absence could well have subtracted that margin of determinism from the total conditions required for victory which would have made the subsequent sequence of developments in the world revolution quite different.

The great fortune of the Russian people and all mankind is that in 1917
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