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Deutscher weakens his case considerably by focusing attention on Russia. The role of Lenin and his party stand out more clearly and sharply in the light of the defeats suffered by the working class elsewhere in Europe and Asia during the 1920s and 1930s, in the last analysis because of the lack of a collective and individual leadership of Bolshevik-Leninist calibre. The October victory coupled with the post-October defeats convinced the once dubious Trotsky of the decisive role of leadership in an objectively revolutionary situation. These experiences led him to the generalisation which was the keystone of the founding program of the Fourth International, adopted in 1938, that “the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership”. That is why he dedicated the last years of his life to the task of attempting to assemble such a leadership under the banner of the Fourth International.
Deutscher’s disagreement with Trotsky over Lenin’s part in the Russian Revolution is directly connected with his difference with Trotsky over the latter’s role in the post-Lenin period. Deutscher regards Trotsky’s assertion that the foundation of the Fourth International was “the most important work of my life — more important than 1917, more important than the period of the civil war, or any other …” as an aberration. The energy devoted to the Trotskyist groups was largely wasted, he believes, since the objective conditions were not suitable for constructing a new international. In his opinion, Trotsky would have been better advised to remain an interpreter of events instead of vainly trying to change their course by means of a rival world revolutionary organisation.
J.B. Stuart undertook to answer Deutscher’s criticism of Trotsky’s unrealism in connection with the Fourth International in World Outlooka and there is no point in repeating his arguments. Here we are primarily interested in the real rationale behind Trotsky’s positions.
Deutscher contends that Trotsky misjudged Lenin’s importance in the winning of the Russian Revolution and his own role in the period of world reaction after Lenin’s death for psychological reasons which ran counter to Marxist objectivity. Trotsky actually derived his position in both cases, it seems to us, from his conception of the needs of the revolutionary process in our time. He thought that all the major objective ingredients for the overthrow of capitalism had in general ripened. What was missing for new Octobers was the presence of leadership of the type supplied by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Such cadres had to be created to prevent the incompetent and treacherous bureaucracies heading the different sectors of the workers’ movement from ruining more revolutionary opportunities. Thus world political, rather than individual psychological, necessities accounted for his conclusions.
It is true, as Deutscher points out, that revolutionary power was conquered in Yugoslavia and China with leaderships trained in the Stalinist school which do not match the standards of Lenin’s Bolshevism. The 1963 Reunification Congress of the Fourth International took cognisance of this development in its resolution, The Dynamics of World Revolution Today. “The weakness of the enemy in the backward countries has opened the possibility of coming to power even with a blunted instrument.”
However, the document hastens to add: “The strength of the enemy in the imperialist countries demands a tool of much greater perfection.” For the taking of power in the capitalist strongholds as well as the administration of power in the degenerated or deformed workers’ states, the building of new mass revolutionary parties and their unification in a new international organisation remains the central strategical task of the present period no less than in Lenin’s and Trotsky’s day.
This dialectical unity of the objective and subjective factors in the making of a revolution has been both exemplified and theorised by Fidel Castro and his close associates. If ever an historic event could be considered the work of one man, that was — and is — the Cuban Revolution. Castro is truly its “lider maximo” [main leader].
Castro has explained, notably in his December 21, 1961, speech on Marxism-Leninism, how the founders of the July 26 Movement did not wait for all the objective conditions required for revolutionary success to emerge spontaneously. They deliberately set about to create the still missing revolutionary conditions by fighting. Their guerrilla warfare did bring about the moral, psychological, political changes needed to overthrow Batista’s tyranny. The general lesson of their experience for the further struggles against Latin-American dictatorships has been formulated as follows by Che Guevara in his handbook on guerrilla warfare: “It is not always necessary to wait until all the conditions are ripe for the revolution; the insurrectional centre can create them.”
The transformation of the balance of forces in favour of the progressive side by the initiative of a small band of conscious revolutionary fighters dramatically demonstrates how decisive the subjective factor can be in making history. Yet Castro would be the first to caution against an adventurism which ignores objective conditions, to disavow any cult of the individual, and to acknowledge that his intentions would have miscarried and his combatants would have been rendered powerless without the response they received, first from the peasants in the mountains and then from the masses in the rural and urban areas. The sensitivity of the Cuban leaders to the interplay of the subjective and objective factors in the development of the revolution and its regime at all stages has brought them to a deeper understanding of the ideas of Marx and of the need for a party like Lenin’s.
I I I
Events 90 miles from Cuba have highlighted the twofold aspects of the individual’s weight in history-making. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 did not seriously interrupt any operations of the US government or shift its course at home or abroad. After assuming executive authority, Johnson pursued essentially the same policies as his predecessor, albeit with a Texas brand rather than a Harvard accent. Thus the abrupt removal of an extremely popular and powerful personality proved to be inconsequential compared to the automatism of capitalist rulership. Pro-capitalist individuals come and go; the system remains.
At the same time, the holder of supreme office in the United States controls more massive military power than any other person in the world or in human history. On June 4, 1964, Johnson boasted that the national strength “is stronger than the combined might of all the nations in the history of the world”.
The president can release enough nuclear missiles to destroy all mankind. Who can question the overwhelming importance of the individual when one man’s decision can terminate human history on this planet? Kennedy was eyeball to eyeball with this possibility during the 1962 Caribbean crisis.
To be sure, the man in the White House does not act as an isolated individual. He is the chief executive of the United States, commander in chief of its armed forces, and more significantly, agent of the profiteers who run the economy and government. His personal role by and large accords with the objective necessities of monopolist domination; and, in the last analysis, the fundamental interests of the ruling class determine his political conduct.
But his representative functions do not nullify the fact that he alone is delegated to make the final decision and can give the command to press the H-button.
Personal decision is the crowning expression of social determinism, the last link in its causal chain. The social determinism operative in the world today is divided into two irreconcilable trends, stemming from opposing class sources. One is directed by the capitalist war-makers whose spokesmen in the United States have stated that they will not refrain from using atomic weapons if necessary. The other is constituted by the masses of the United States and the rest of the world who dread this prospect and have everything to lose if it should occur.
Which of these contending determinisms will prevail? The fate of mankind hangs in the balance of this decision. To dispossess and disarm the atomaniacs headquartered in Washington, a revolutionary movement of tremendous dimensions and determination will have to be built. No single individual will stop them. But victory in the life-and-death struggle for world peace against nuclear annihilation will require the initiative and devotion of individuals who, though they may not possess the outstanding leadership capacities of a Lenin, Trotsky or Castro, can act in their spirit.
Historical materialists would be untrue to their own principles if they failed to regard their method of interpreting history as the result of a prolonged, complex and contradictory process. Mankind has been making history for a million years or more as it advanced from the primate condition to the atomic age. But a science of history capable of ascertaining the laws governing man’s collective activities over the ages is a relatively recent acquisition.
The first attempts to survey the long march of human history, study its causes, and set forth its successive stages along scientific lines were made only about 2500 years ago. This task, like so many others in the domain of theory, was originally undertaken by the Greeks.
The sense of history is a precondition for a science of history. This is not an inborn but a cultivated, historically generated capacity. The discrimination of the passage of time into a well-defined past, present and future is rooted in the evolution of the organisation of labour. Man’s awareness of life as made up of consecutive and changing events has acquired breadth and depth along with the development and diversification of social production. The calendar first appears, not among food gatherers, but in agricultural communities.
Primitive peoples from savagery to the upper stages of barbarism have as little concern for the past as for the future. What they experience and do forms part of an objective universal history. But they remain unaware of the particular place they occupy or the part they play in the progression of mankind.
The very idea of historical advancement from one stage to the next is unknown. They have no need to inquire into the motive forces of history or to mark off the phases of social development. Their collective consciousness has not reached the point of an historical outlook or a sociological insight.
The low level of their productive powers, the immaturity of their economic forms, the narrowness of their activities and the meagreness of their culture and connections are evidenced in their extremely restricted views of the course of events.
The amount of historical knowledge possessed by extremely primitive minds may be gauged from the following observations made by the Jesuit father Jacob Baegert in his Account of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the California Peninsula written 200 years ago. “No Californian is acquainted with the events that occurred in the country prior to his birth, nor does he even know who his parents were if he should happen to have lost them during his infancy … The Californians … believed that California constituted the whole world, and they themselves its sole inhabitants; for they went to nobody, and nobody came to see them, each little people remaining within the limits of its small district.”
In pre-Spanish times they marked only one repetitive event, the pitahaya fruit harvest. Thus a space of three years is called three pitahayas. “Yet they seldom make use of such phrases, because they hardly ever speak among themselves of years, but merely say, ‘long ago’, or ‘not long ago’, being utterly indifferent whether two or 20 years have elapsed since the occurrence of a certain event.”
Until several thousand years ago, peoples took their own particular organisation of social relations for granted. It appeared to them as fixed and final as the heavens and earth and as natural as their eyes and ears. The earliest men did not even distinguish themselves from the rest of nature or draw a sharp line of demarcation between themselves and other living creatures in their habitat. It took a far longer time for them to learn to distinguish between what belonged to nature and what belonged to society.
So long as social relations remain simple and stable, changing extremely slowly and almost imperceptibly over vast stretches of time, society melts into the background of nature and does not stand out in sharp contrast from it. Nor do the experiences of one generation differ much from another. If the familiar organisation with its traditional routine is disrupted, it either vanishes or is rebuilt on the old pattern. Moreover, surrounding communities, so far as they are known (and acquaintance does not extend very far either in space or time), are much the same. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the North American Indian could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or the Australian native thousands of miles, without encountering radically different types of human societies.
Under such circumstances, neither society in general nor one’s own special mode of living is looked upon as a peculiar object which is worth special attention and study. The need for theorising about history or the nature of society does not arise until civilisation is well advanced and sudden, violent, and far-reaching upheavals in social relations take place during the lifetime of individuals or within the memories of their elders.
When swift strides are taken from one form of social structure to another, the old days and ways stand out in startling contrast, and even conflict, with the new. Through trade, travel and war, the representatives of the expanding social system undergoing construction or reconstruction come into contact with peoples of quite different customs on lower levels of culture.
More immediately, glaring differences in the conditions of life within their own communities and bitter conflicts between antagonistic classes induce thoughtful men who have the means for such pursuits to speculate on the origins of such oppositions, to compare the various kinds of societies and governments, and to try and arrange them in an order of succession or worth.
The English historian M.I. Finley makes a similar point in reviewing three recent books on the ancient East in the August 20, 1965, New Statesman: “The presence or absence of a ‘historical sense’ is nothing less than an intellectual reflection of the very wide differences in the historical process itself.”
He cites the Marxist scholar, Professor D.D. Kosambi, who attributes “the total lack of historical sense” in ancient India to the narrow outlook of village life bound up with its mode of agricultural production. “The succession of seasons is all important, while there is little cumulative change to be noted in the village from year to year. This gives the general feeling of ‘the Timeless East’ to foreign observers.”
The other civilised peoples of the ancient Near and Middle East likewise lacked a sense of history. There is nothing, notes Professor Leo Oppenhelm, “that would attest the awareness of the scribes of the existence of a historical continuum in the Mesopotamian civilisation”. This is confirmed by the fact that “the longest and most explicit Assyrian royal inscriptions … were embedded in the substructure of a temple or a palace, safe from human eyes and only to be read by the deity to whom they were addressed”.
The main preconditions for an historical outlook upon history in the West were brought into being from about 1100 to 700 BC by the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age in the Middle East and Aegean civilisations. The comparatively self-sufficient agricultural kingdoms and settlements were supplemented or supplanted by bustling commercial centres, especially in the Phoenician and Ionian ports of Asia Minor. There new classes — merchants, shipowners, manufacturers, artisans, seafarers — came to the fore and challenged the institutions, ideas and power of the old landed gentry. Patriarchal slavery became transformed into chattel slavery. Commodity relations, metal money, mortgage debt corroded the archaic social structures. The first democratic revolutions and oligarchic counterrevolutions were hatched in the city states.
The Ionian Greeks, who set down the first true written histories, were associates of traders, engineers, craftsmen and voyagers. The pioneer of Western historians, Hecaeteus, lived in the same commercial city of Miletus as the first philosophers and scientists and belonged to the same materialist trend of thought.
The writing of history soon engendered interest in the science of history. Once the habit of viewing events in their sequence of change was established, the questions arose: How did history unfold? Was there any discernible pattern in its flux? If so, what was it? And what were its causes?
The first really rational explanation of the historical process as a whole was given by the outstanding Greek historians from Herodotus to Polybius. This was the cyclical conception of historical movement. According to this view, society, like nature, passed through identical patterns of development in periodically repeated rounds.
Thucydides, the pre-eminent Greek historian, declared that he had written his record of the Peloponnesian wars to teach men its lessons since identical events were bound to happen again. Plato taught the doctrine of the Great Year at the end of which the planets would occupy the same positions as before and all sublunary events would be reduplicated. This conception was expressed as a popular axiom in Ecclesiastes: “There is no new thing under the sun.”
The cyclical character of human affairs was closely affiliated with the conception of an all-powerful, inscrutable, inflexible Destiny which came to replace the gods as the sovereign of history. This was mythologised in the persons of the Three Fates and further rationalised by learned men as the ultimate law of life. This notion of cosmic tragic fate from which human appeal or escape is impossible not only became the major theme of the classic Greek dramatists but is also embedded in the historical work of Herodotus.
Comparisons with other peoples, or between Greek states in different stages of social, economic, and political development, produced a comparative history along with the first inklings of historical progression. As early as the eighth century BC the poet Hesiod talked about the copper age that had preceded the iron one. Several centuries later Herodotus, the first anthropologist as well as the father of history, gathered valuable information on the customs of the Mediterranean peoples living in savagery, barbarism and civilisation. Thucydides pointed out that the Greeks once lived as the barbarians did in his own time. Plato in his
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