Trotsky and the dialectic of history

John Rees (1990)


Trotsky and the dialectic of history
The structure of the dialectic
The individual in history
The dialectic of permanent revolution



Even his most determined enemies grant that Leon Trotsky was a great revolutionary. His leadership of the Russian Revolution and the Red Army are acts which even the unholy alliance of right wing and Stalinist historians have been unable to erase in the 50 years since his death. Among academics, if not among revolutionaries, Trotsky's status as a theoretician is less secure. That same alliance of conservatives and Russia worshippers who have failed to eradicate the facts of Trotsky's life have been more successful in denying the intellectual contribution that he made to the Marxist tradition. It is an ironic tribute to Trotsky's continuing political relevance that he remains, even more than Lenin, an outcast from the ivory towers.

Yet Trotsky was one of the great original thinkers of the Marxist tradition. The theory of permanent revolution predicted the course of the Russian Revolution 11 years before it broke out. His analysis of Germany foresaw the dangers of Nazism when many, on the left as well as the right, remained blind. His writings on art and literature gained respect even from the unlikely figures of F R Leavis and T S Eliot. Trotsky's monumental History of the Russian Revolution moved historian A L Rowse to say 'his gift is so brilliant and incisive that one is continually reminded of Carlyle'. [1]

But even among those who are willing to grant all this, Trotsky has never had much of a reputation as a pioneer of the Marxist method. In the post-war period Marx's philosophy has become an object of almost obsessional study. The philosophy of both Lukacs and Gramsci have produced endless debate. Even Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism and his Philosophical Notebooks have received some attention. But Trotsky it was assumed, even by some of his admirers, had little to contribute in this field. [2] This was always unjust. The evidence of Trotsky's fine dialectical method was obvious not just in his explicit statements from the 1920s and late 1930s but also from his theory of permanent revolution and his writings on history and art.

Now, however, we have new proof of Trotsky's original contribution to the Marxist method. In 1986 Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-35, Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism were published for the first time. They not only place Trotsky very firmly in the 'Hegelian' Marxist tradition, they also develop that tradition in a way which equips it to meet many of the criticisms that are commonly thrown against it today. It has long been asserted, for instance, that Marxism is incapable of dealing with politics and ideology other than by reducing them to economics. Or else it is said Marxism, 'Hegelian' Marxism in particular, argues that the course of history is predetermined, developing according to immutable dialectical laws. Any attempt to argue that the dialectic applies to both nature and society is seen as proof that the blind laws of evolution are being indiscriminately applied to society with the inevitable result that human beings are denied any conscious choice about their fate. More recently, post-modernists have argued that any attempt to see the world as a totality where each aspect of reality is linked to the others, a key Marxist concept, is a form of intellectual tyranny and oppression which can only lead to the gulag.

Trotsky's notebooks on dialectics and his other related writings provide more than a defence of the materialist conception of history. They provide an account of the Marxist method which resolutely refuses all crude reductionism and which articulates a dialectical method which is sophisticated enough to give proper weight to all the different political, ideological and philosophical elements within the totality – without lapsing into idealism.

Of course, the idea that any analysis must be mediated by the different, distinct levels of reality was present in Hegel's account of the dialectic. But Hegel's idealism, especially in his later years, robbed these levels of analysis of any real power, flattening out his own account of reality into a sterile dialectic formula. It is this interpretation of the dialectic with which Stalinism and the Marxism of the Second International had most in common. They too needed a fatalistic, closed form of the dialectic which justified the status quo. They too needed to iron out the volatility, the uniqueness and unevenness in the world that the dialectic was first developed to explain. Trotsky is a true inheritor of Marx and Engels' materialist transformation of the Hegelian dialectic. His materialist analysis deals with real history unfolding in time and space, not just the timeless patterns of consciousness. It therefore needed to develop concepts which were either undeveloped or unknown in Hegel. Trotsky's concepts of combined and uneven development, his notion of a 'differentiated unity' and his distinction between the form of the dialectic in nature and the dialectic in history are an important contribution to this task.


The structure of the dialectic

The dialectic 'adds nothing to our understanding of Marxism and our ability to change the course of history' and its laws are 'useless pieces of theoretical baggage which simply serve to mystify.' They are 'the remnants of German nature philosophy' which simply 'substitutes metaphysical obscurities for genuine scientific analysis'. [3] These are increasingly common reactions, even among Marxists, to those who argue that the dialectic is an essential part of the classical Marxist tradition. In this tradition I include the work of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, the young Lukacs and Trotsky, all of whom adhered to the dialectic. Of these it fell to Trotsky to deal most directly with the kind of objections to the dialectic cited above.

Shortly before his death 50 years ago this summer Trotsky was taking part in a fight inside the American Socialist Workers Party. [4] The substance of the fight, the class nature of Russia, is explained elsewhere in this journal and does not directly concern us here. [5] Trotsky's central opponent, James Burnham, like many in the SWP (US) at this time, was from the intelligentsia. In the mid 1930s many intellectuals had been drawn to the American Communist Party. They were horrified by the great slump and the rise of Nazism and inspired by the resistance of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. A minority of these were also puzzled by a Popular Front tactic which meant welcoming Roosevelt's New Deal and disgusted by the Moscow Trials. Edmund Wilson, Sidney Hook, James T Farrell and many others were briefly drawn by 'the dramatic pathos of Trotsky's struggle and to his eloquence and literary genius. Trotskyism became something of a vogue. [6]

Trotsky was always wary of this superficial popularity and, as the Second World War grew nearer, the arguments with his intellectual fellow travellers grew more intense. Isaac Deutscher catches something of the atmosphere:

Never yet had any cause looked as hopeless as Trotsky's began to look to the professors, authors, and literary critics who were deserting him. They came to feel that by opting for Trotskyism they had needlessly involved themselves in the huge, remote, obscure and dangerous business of the Russian revolution; and that this was bringing them into confict with the way of life and the climate of ideas which prevailed in their universities, editorial offices, and literary coteries. It was one thing to lend one's name to a Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky and to protest at the purges, but quite another to subscribe to the Manifestoes of the Fourth International and to echo Trotsky's call for the conversion of the forthcoming world war into a global civil war. [7]

Under circumstances where a whole layer of intellectuals were breaking with their former attachment to Marxism it is not surprising that the dialectic, the Marxist method, should come into question.

In fact an early episode in this saga had already raised the question of the Hegelian influence in Marxism. Some left intellectuals had probed Trotsky about his role in supressing the Kronstadt rising, claiming that it showed the cynical immorality of Bolshevism's doctrine that the end justifies the means. American philosopher John Dewey was one of those who traced this supposed failing to Marxism's 'Hegelian origins'. Trotsky's response, Their Morals and Ours, was a masterpiece of polemical writing. It demonstrated with great dialectical verve that only certain means could achieve socialist goals. Lying, deceit and dishonesty could never 'impart solidarity and unity to revolutionary workers', consequently the Bolsheviks were the 'most honest political party in the whole of history.' [8]

In the subsequent months, as the debate moved from the historical question of Kronstadt to the current question of Russia, the issue of the dialectic became more central. Burnham attacked the dialectic again and again, using formulations almost identical to those used to attack it today. He found Engels writings on the dialectic 'confused or outmoded by subsequent scientific investigation.' Burnham saw Hegel as 'the centurydead arch-muddler of human thought' and insisted that:

Hegelian dialectics has nothing whatever to do with science. How the sciences have influenced the forms of thought no one will ever discover by spending even a lifetime on the tortuous syntax of the reactionary absolutist, Hegel. [9]

Burnham favoured modern science and empiricism which 'are the monopoly of no man or group or class, but a common human possession.' [10] In any case, he argued:

There is no sense at all in which dialectics (even if it were not, as it is, scientifically meaningless) is fundamental in politics, none at all. An opinion on dialectics is no more fundamental for politics than an opinion on non-Euclidean geometry or relativity physics. [11]

It therefore made no difference if:

every revolutionist believed in dialectics and everyone who was against the revolution disbelieved [because] this fact ... would not have the slightest relevance to the question of the truth, falsity, or scientific meaninglessness of dialectics. [12]

Trotsky's reply to these arguments contains an excellent explanation of why the dialectic is an essential part of Marxism. Trotsky first sketches an account of why:

American 'radical' intellectuals accept Marxism without the dialectic (a clock without a spring) . . . The secret is simple. In no other country has there been such a rejection of class struggle as in the land of 'unlimited opportunity'. The 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' programme by means of clever syllogisms and society could be reconstructed through 'rational' measures, so in the sphere of theory it was accepted that Aristolian logic, lowered to the level of 'common sense', was sufficient for the solving of all problems.

Pragmatism, a mixture of rationalism and empiricism, became a national philosophy in the United States. [13]

This historical circumstance was most damaging to the intelligentsia because, argued Trotsky, 'the academically trained petty bourgeoisie['s] ... theoretical prejudices have been given a finished form at the school bench.' Academics assume that because they have 'succeeded in gaining a great deal of knowledge both useful and useless without the aid of the dialectic they can continue excellently through life without it.' But the test of great events always reveals that 'in reality they dispense with the dialectic only to the extent that they fail to check, sharpen and theoretically polish their tools of thought.' [14]

Trotsky replies to those who argue that questions of method are not important in reaching correct political conclusions:

What is the meaning of this thoroughly astonishing reasoning? Inasmuch as some people through a bad method sometimes reach correct conclusions, and inasmuch as some people through a correct method not infrequently reach incorrect conclusions, therefore ... the method is not of great importance ... Imagine how a worker would react upon complaining to his foreman that his tools were bad and receiving the reply: With bad tools it is possible to turn out a good job, and with good tools many people only waste material. I am afraid that such a worker, particularly if he is on piece-work, would respond to the foreman with an unacademic phrase. [15]

Trotsky then goes on to spell out the essence of the dialectic. He makes some elementary points that bear repetition since they are still not widely understood even among Marxists.

Firstly, Trotsky insists that the dialectic is not an alternative to 'normal' scientific methods or formal logic. These methods are perfectly valid within certain limits, just as Newtonian physics is perfectly adequate for many purposes. Formal logic, however, like Newtonian physics, has proved inadequate to deal with the 'more complicated and drawn out processes.' So the dialectic stands in the same relation to formal logic as Newtonian physics stands to relativity theory or, as Trotsky puts it, as 'that between higher and lower mathematics.' [16]

Secondly, Trotsky warns against seeing the dialectic as 'a magic master key for all questions.' The dialectic is not a pocket calculator or a mathematical formula into which it is possible to punch the problem and allow it to compute the solution. This would be an idealist method more akin to Hegel than Marx. A materialist dialectic must grow from a patient, empirical examination of the facts not be imposed on them. Although on occasion Trotsky defined the dialectic as a method of analysis, here he is pointing to a deeper truth. A dialectical method is only possible because reality itself is dialectically structured. It is from this material dialectic that the dialectical method must emerge and against this material dialectic that it must constantly check itself. For Trotsky the dialectic 'does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road.' [17]

Trotsky had already elaborated this point in his 1926 essay Culture and Socialism:

Dialectics cannot be imposed on the facts; it has to be deduced from facts, from their nature and development. Only painstaking work on a vast amount of material enabled Marx to advance the dialectical system of economics to the conception of value as social labour. Marx's historical works were constructed in the same way, and even his newspaper articles likewise. Dialectical materialism can be applied to new spheres of knowledge only by mastering them from within. The purging of bourgeois science presupposes a mastery of bourgeois science. You will get nowhere with sweeping criticism or bald commands. Learning and application here go hand in hand with critical reworking. [18]

Trotsky saw that it was the inadequacies and contradictions of formal logic that drove theorists toward dialectical formulations. Even those who pride themselves on a 'deductive method' which proceeds 'through a number of premises to the necessary conclusion' frequently 'break the chain of syllogisms and, under the influence of purely empirical considerations, arrive[s] at conclusions which have no connection with the previous logical chain.' Such ad hoc empirical adjustments to the conclusions of formal logic betray a 'primitive form of dialectical thinking.' The only way to escape this 'primitive' combination of abstract logic and empiricism is to combine these elements 'more fully, much better, on a much broader scale, and more systematically ... through dialectical thinking. [19]

The reason why formal logic is often forced to abandon its own procedures in the face of the facts is that it attempts to analyse a living, evolving reality with static concepts. Formally things are defined statically, according to certain fixed properties – colour, weight, size and so on. This is denoted by the expression 'A is equal to A'. Trotsky, following Engels' formulations, gives a 'very concise sketch' of the inadequacies of this way of looking at the world:

In reality 'A' is not equal to 'A'. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens-they are quite different to each other. But, one can object, the question is not the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar – a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true – all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour etc. They are never equal to themselves. [20]

It is not even true, Trotsky continues, that a pound of sugar is equal to itself 'at a given moment in time'. Even in an infinitesimal moment of time the pound of sugar is undergoing microscopic changes – 'existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation.' At this point a word of warning is necessary. A criticism sometimes levelled at this kind of example is that it is trying to explain the changes taking place in the pound of sugar. This is obviously not the case. An explanation would have to proceed from the established properties of sugar and the surrounding air etc, to the laws governing the changes in these properties and their interaction. The example merely shows that, since the sugar is in the process of transformation, no static formal definition will even be adequate to formulate the question, never mind deliver the answer. And since we have to formulate the question dialectically, we are justified in hypothesising that the answer will be dialectical as well.

The doctrine that 'A equals A' is satisfactory only under conditions where the scale of change is not vital to our understanding-as when we buy a pound of sugar. But for more complex tasks in politics, history and science generally this will not do. Common sense and formal logic are agreed on static definitions of, for instance, 'capitalism', 'freedom' or 'the state.' Much of modern social science is obsessed precisely with this kind of classification and definition, the 'motionless imprints of a reality that consists of eternal motion.' But 'dialectical thinking analyses all phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which "A ceases to be A".' This method gives theory a 'succulence' which 'brings it closer to the living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development.' [21] Although he recognised that Hegel's dialectic was only an 'anticipation' of scientific thought, Trotsky concludes this passage by saying:

Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks. [22]

As we have already seen this brief outline of the dialectic, like Engels own account, met with sustained criticism. It is said to be an all-embracing determinism, predicting the inevitable unfolding of history according to spurious dialectical laws. The idea that the dialectic applies to the natural world as well as the social world, which Trotsky clearly believes, has been cited as evidence for this determinism. Nature develops blindly and unconsciously, it is argued, and so any dialectic which applies both to the natural world and the social world must end in denying conscious human agency any role in social change. Even Lukacs shared the view that the dialectic could not be applied to the natural world without running the risk of turning Marxism into determinism. For others Hegel himself was a determinist and this is evinced as further proof that the dialectic is an unscientific fatalism. In the last 30 years such accusations have been the common coin of idealists and empiricists alike, of structuralists, Althusserians, post-modernists and analytical Marxists.

Trotsky did not meet such criticisms at the time of the debate in the American SWP. He was mostly concerned with the substantive issue of the class nature of Russia and touched on dialectics only in outline. But some years earlier, in 1933-35, he did study Hegel while working on his biography of Lenin. In preparation for his study of Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks, Trotsky studied Aristotle, Descartes and, especially, Hegel. The notebooks and the notes that he continued to make until the time of the debate in the SWP contain some of the most incisive thinking about the dialectic since Marx, albeit in fragmentary notes. They form a remarkable unity with his earlier comments on the dialectic in the 1920s and his polemical defence of the dialectic in the debate with Burnham. Many of the formulations bear directly on the objections now frequently raised against the dialectic. Since these notebooks have only been available in the last few years I shall deal with them in some detail.

Trotsky begins by making some important observations on the difference between the Hegelian and the Marxist dialectic. Hegel had insisted on the identity between men's consciousness of the world and the real structure of the world itself, the identity of knowing and being. Hegel believed that the history of the world mirrored the unfolding of human consciousness. This is the root of his idealism. Marx refused to accept the dialectic in this form, although he understood that Hegel had struck an important blow against Kantian dualism by asserting that thought and reality were part of one whole and could not be separated into two distinct spheres. So how should a materialist theory interpret this relationship'' Lenin, in an important aside in the Philosophical Notebooks, remarked that Marxists should prefer the formulation 'the unity of knowing and being' rather than the 'identity of knowing and being.' Trotsky elaborates this insight:

According to Hegel being and thinking are identical (absolute idealism). Materialism does not adopt this identity – it premises being to thought ...

The identity of being and thinking according to H[egel] signifies the identity of objective and subjective logic, their ultimate congruence. Materialism accepts the correspondence of the subjective and objective, their unity, but not their identity, in other words it does not liberate matter from its materiality, in order to keep only the logical framework of regularity, of which scientific thought (consciousness) is the expression. [23]

Hegel's Logic is of course a massive example of a 'logical framework' constructed by 'liberating matter from materiality.' However this edifice can only be kept from collapsing by doing both enormous violence to the facts, so that they fit into the construction, and also by hammering the logical framework until it fits the facts. Trotsky is arguing that a materialist dialectic must both show how dialectical logic can only arise from a dialectical reality and that the relationship between thought and reality cannot be as rigid and constricted as it is in Hegel's idealism. For Marxists the dialectic in history – the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the clash of the class struggle – cannot have a structure identical to the intellectual process by which we come to understand history. The dialectical method involves analytically separating a chaotic social whole into its various constituent economic formations, classes, institutions, personalities and so on. It then involves showing how these factors interrelate and contradict each other as part of a totality. Such an intellectual operation gives us a finished picture of the dialectic in history, but it is not itself the same as that dialectic. Trotsky goes on to spell out some of the implications that this distinction involves:

What does logic express? The law of the external world or the law of consciousness? The question is posed dualistically, [and] therefore not correctly [for] the laws of logic express the laws (rules, methods) of consciousness in its active relationship to the external world. The relationship of consciousness to the external world is a relationship of the part (the particular, specialised) to the whole. [24]

Trotsky is allowing for interaction and contradiction to emerge between thought and reality in a way that was inadmissable for Hegel. Any materialist theory must develop a method capable of dealing with all history's lapses, leaps, inconsistencies and unevenness. To meet this challenge the distinction between the Hegelian unity and the Marxist identity of thought and material reality is vital. Trotsky calls this kind of distinction a 'differentiated unity'. Indeed, he uses this phrase to describe the term dialectical materialism itself. [25] Differentiated unity is a concept which Trotsky uses again and again to distinguish a dialectical materialist approach from a reductionist, deterministic approach. It is particularly useful when it come to the question of the dialectic in nature.

Trotsky realised that natural scientists were less directly affected by the class nature of the dominant ideology than social scientists. He based this belief on the fact that while the bourgeoisie no longer needs to transform the social structure and so no longer has need of a critical social science, as it did in its revolutionary years, it still does need to transform the natural world. The competition between different capitals, the drive to accumulate, mean that capitalism still needs to advance its ability to transform nature and to develop new technology. Of course the class nature of this process leaves its mark even on natural science-by compartmentalising areas of study and subordinating research to the needs of economic and military competition. And the more science attempts to generalise, the more it attempts to overcome this compartmentalisation and restriction, the more it has to confront philosophical issues. And the more it confronts these issues the more it is liable to fall victim to the ideological prejudices of the ruling class.

So, for nature to be fully understood, it had to be seen as a totality and in its full connection with society. Following Marx and Engels, Trotsky sees Darwin's theory of evolution as an important breakthrough for a materialist understanding of history but argues that it is 'less concrete, with less content, than the dialectical conception.' This is partly because of Darwin's refusal to generalise his findings. He remained a Christian and therefore ultimately compromised the importance of his own theory. But partly also Darwin did not have a conscious dialectical method which would have enabled him to refine his findings, seeing them in the broader framework. Such a framework would have made it easier to see that there is no impenetrable barrier between 'nature' and 'human society'. Human beings' battle for survival is, as Marx put it, the 'everlasting, nature-imposed condition of human existence.'

Nature had to be seen dialectically, not just in its connection to society, but in itself as well. Trotsky, again following Marx, saw that human beings are part of the natural world and that any attempt to break this unity would result in dualism:

Dialectics is the logic of development. It examines the world-completely and without exception-not as the result of creation, of a sudden beginning, the realisation of a plan, but as a result of motion, of transformation. Everything that is became the way it is as a result of lawlike development.

... the organic world emerged from the inorganic, consciousness is a capacity of living organisms depending upon organs that originated through evolution. In other words 'the soul' of evolution (of dialectics) leads in the last analysis to matter. The evolutionary point of view carried to a logical conclusion leaves no room for either idealism or dualism, or for the other species of eclecticism. [26]

In other words, the alternative to seeing both history and nature as dialectical in structure is to assume that nature has a series of laws totally separate from those governing human society. The result is either to reduce nature to an unknowable realm (a Kantian thing-in-itself), or to abandon the theory of evolution because it assumes that humans did grow out of nature and are still part of nature.

Trotsky had already made some similar observations in his 1925 speech on 'Dialectical Materialism and Science'. Here he argued that each of the sciences were bound in a totality. Psychology 'in the final instance' rests on physiology, which rests on chemistry, mechanics and physics. Without such an approach 'there is not and cannot be a finished philosophy linking all phenomena into a single system.' [27] In his notebooks on dialectics he put it even more strongly:

All evolution is a transition from quantity into quality ... Whoever denies the dialectical law of the transition from quantity into quality must deny the genetic unity of plants and animal species, the chemical elements, etc. He must, in the last analysis, turn back to the biblical act of creation. [28]

Such phrases inevitably raise the objection that Trotsky is reducing everything to matter, that he is importing the blind, deterministic laws of the natural sciences into Marxism and generally paving the way for a vulgar materialism in the manner of the Second International. Careful reading of 'Dialectical Materialism and Science' alone should dispel these objections. For instance, Trotsky argues:

Human society has not developed in accordance with a pre-arranged plan or system, but empirically, in the course of a long, complicated and contradictory struggle of the human species for existence, and, later for greater and greater mastery over nature itself. The ideology of human society took shape as a reflection of and an instrument in this process-belated, desultory, piecemeal, in the form, so to speak, of conditioned reflexes, which are in the final analysis reducible to the necessities of the struggle of collective man against nature. [29]

Without losing sight of its material base, Trotsky spells out that human ideology is not simply a 'reflection' of the historical process but also 'an instrument in this process,' and so cannot be pre-determined. Elsewhere in the same speech he uses the idea of a 'differentiated unity' in his analysis of the sciences. We have seen that he argues that psychology rests on physiology which rests on chemistry and so on. But he goes on to say that 'chemistry is no substitute for physiology.' In fact, 'Chemistry has its own keys' which must be studied separately using 'a special approach, special research technique, special hypotheses and methods.' Trotsky concludes, 'each science rests on the laws of the other sciences only in the so-called final instance.' [30]

This understanding prevents Trotsky from crudely applying natural laws to society. He warns that it is a 'fundamental mistake' when 'the methods and achievements of chemistry or physiology, in violation of all scientific boundaries, are transplanted to human society.' It is true, says Trotsky, that 'human society is surrounded on all sides by chemical processes'. Nevertheless, 'public life is neither a chemical nor a psychological process, but a social process which is shaped by its own laws. [31]

But what of the dialectic itself? It is one thing to say that the laws of natural science cannot be automatically transferred to the analysis of society, but where does this leave the claim that the writ of the dialectic runs in both the natural and the social world? Trotsky has a startlingly original approach to these questions in his notebooks on dialectics. He continues to insist that human beings are part of nature, that the conscious grew out of the unconscious. 'Our human reason is nature's youngest child' he argues. But the development of this consciousness marks a new historical phase which cannot simply be analysed using the tools that are adequate for objective nature:

Dialectical cognition is not identical with the dialectic of nature. Consciousness is a quite original part of nature, possessing peculiarities and regularities that are completely absent in the remaining part of nature. Subjective dialectics must by virtue of this be a distinctive part of objective dialectics – with its own special forms and regularities. [32]

Trotsky then goes on to argue, in an aside levelled at Hegel's attempt to transfer the dialectic of consciousness onto the dialectic of nature, that 'the danger lies in the transference-under the guise of "objectivism" – of the birth pangs, the spasm of consciousness, to objective nature.' Actually, since Hegel, few have tried to claim that nature reproduces the patterns of human consciousness. The main danger, at least within the socialist movement, has been the opposite. It was a feature of both Stalinism and the Marxism of the Second International that they tried to reduce the dialectic to a series of positive laws which rigidly determined the course of history. Trotsky's differentiation between the form of the dialectic appropriate in nature and that adequate for the study of society both preserves the unity of the dialectic (thus avoiding dualism) and also prevents a deterministic interpretation of Marxism. Trotsky sums up the relationship between theory and practice in words which strongly recall Marx's use of the term 'practical-critical activity':

The dialectic of consciousness (cognition) is not thereby a reflection of the dialectic of nature, but is a result of the lively interaction between consciousness and nature and – in addition – a method of cognition, issuing from this interaction. [33]

For Marx 'practical-critical activity', or practice, meant the unique capability of human beings to consciously alter the material world which determines their existence-a capacity summarised in the famous epigram, 'Men make their own history, but not in conditions of their own choosing.' Trotsky points to the same dialectical combination of subjective and objective factors in human action when he says that the 'attempt to set up a hostile opposition' between determinism, 'the philosophy of objective causality', and teleology, 'the philosophy of subjective purposes', is 'a product of philosophical ignorance.' [34]

Such distinctions between the dialectic in nature and that in history inevitably mean a transformation of some key dialectical concepts. Trotsky, for instance, puts great stress on one particular dialectical lawthe transition from quantity into quality. This emphasis differs from that given in many accounts of the dialectic which stress the negation of the negation. A distorted account of the negation of the negation can be used to accuse Marxism of determinism. Crudely, the argument runs that the contradiction between capitalism and its antithesis, the working class, must inevitably be resolved in a synthesis, a socialist society in which classes disappear. The negation is negated. The Marxists of the classical Marxist tradition have long argued that the resolution of such contradictions is not automatic, but a question that can only be resolved in struggle. Marx and those who followed him have insisted only that the struggle between the classes is inevitable, but not its outcome. Marx argued, in the Communist Manifesto, that the outcome of the struggle might either be socialism or 'the common ruin of the contending classes', Luxemburg stressed that 'socialism or barbarism' was the choice facing humanity while Lenin insisted that 'the capitalists can always solve the crisis so long as the working class is prepared to pay the price.' So far this century the price has proved very high: two world wars, fascism, Stalinism, famine, mass unemployment and the permanent threat of nuclear annihilation.

Trotsky's interpretation of the dialectic is wholly in this spirit. He says that the dialectic gives us the 'forms of the transformation of one regime into another' but then continues:

... in such a general fore: it is only a matter of possibility ... Thus, from the possibility of a bourgeois victory over the feudal classes until the victory itself there were various time lapses, and the victory itself frequently looked like a semi-victory.

In order for the possibility to become a necessity there had to be a corresponding strengthening of some factors and the weakening of others, a definite relationship between these strengthenings and weakenings. In other words: it was necessary for several quantative changes to prepare the way for a new constellation of forces. [35]

Trotsky is so committed to viewing the dialectic in history as tendency not a deterministic law that he defines the negation of the negation, or triad (the thesis negated by the antithesis in turn negated by the synthesis), as 'the "mechanism" of the transformation of quantity into quality.'

Trotsky expresses his understanding of the dialectic particularly sharply in the notebooks, but he had been using the method for much longer. His analysis of the role of the individual in history shows just how brilliantly he wielded the Marxist method.


The individual in history

To account for the role of the individual in history is a serious test for any materialist theory of history. Today, when so much that passes for social theory – including important post-modernists, feminists and analytical Marxists – insists on the irreducible nature of individual experience, it is more important than ever that Marxists approach this problem correctly.

Trotsky gives a marvellous account of the formation of individuality in his Literature and Revolution:

the truth is that even if individuality is unique, it does not mean that it cannot be analysed. Individuality is a welding together of tribal, national, class, temporary and institutional elements and, in fact, it is in the uniqueness of this welding together, in the proportions of this psychochemical mixture, that individuality is expressed. [36]

In the History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky expressed a similar thought: 'The "distinguishing traits" of a person are merely individual scratches made by a higher law of development.'

Trotsky argues that it is only because each of us is a unique fusion of elements that are common that we can understand individual works of art. The work of art combines forces that are at work on all of us, but it does so in a unique way determined by each particular artist:

So it can be seen that what forms a bridge from soul to soul is not the unique, but the common. Only through the common is the unique known; the common is determined in man by the most persistent conditions which make up his 'soul', by the social conditions of education, of existence, of work, and of associations. [37]

This is why 'a class standard is so fruitful in all fields of ideology.' But, as should now be obvious, he did not mean that each individual could therefore be reduced to a simple stereotypical example of their class. He wrote:

We do not at all pretend to deny the significance of the personal in the mechanics of historic process, nor the significance in the personal of the accidental. We only demand that a historic personality, with all its pecularities, should not be taken as a bare list of psychological traits, but as the living reality grown out of definite social conditions and reacting on them. As a rose does not lose its fragrance because the natural scientist points out upon what ingredients of soil and atmosphere it is nourished, so an exposure of the social roots of a personality does not remove from it either its aroma or its foul smell. [38]

Of course it is one thing to be able to develop a general formula with which to understand the problem of individuality, it is quite another, more difficult, problem to make it render an account of the specific role of particular individuals. Trotsky is the author of one such study: Lenin's role in the Russian Revolution.

Trotsky examines Lenin's role in April 1917, when the Bolsheviks were failing to challenge the Provisional government. Would the Bolsheviks have re-oriented themselves and begun the fight for a second, socialist revolution without Lenin? Trotsky's argument is that they probably would have done, but not in time since:

the war and the revolution would not allow the party a long period for fulfilling its mission. Thus it is by no means excluded that a disoriented and split party might have let the revolutionary opportunity slip for many years. [39]

It was Lenin's 'personal influence' which 'shortened the crisis.' Here, says Trotsky, 'the role of the personality arises before us on a truly gigantic scale' but we should have no difficulty accepting this since 'dialectical materialism ... has nothing in common with fatalism.' [40]

Trotsky's account is hotly contested by Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Outcast. Deutscher's reaction is to claim that this analysis is one of Trotsky's 'least successful.' Deutscher accuses Trotsky of a 'subjectivism' which 'goes strongly against the grain of the Marxist intellectual tradition.' [41] In opposition to Trotsky Deutscher champions 'Plekhanov's essay The Role of the Individual in History' [41a]. Deutscher paraphrases Plekhanov in insisting, 'the leader is merely the organ of an historic need or necessity, and that necessity creates its organ when it needs it. No great man is therefore "irreplacable".' And he quotes Plekhanov favourably when he says that if Robespierre had been killed in January 1793:

his place would, of course, have been taken by someone else; and although that other person might have been inferior to him in every respect, events would have nevertheless taken the same course. [42]

On this analysis 'History's' carelessness in not replacing Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 is inexplicable. But, not troubled by such details, Deutscher ploughs on, descending from the ridiculous to the idiotic:

Have not in our time the Chinese and the Yugoslav revolutions triumphed ... under leaders of smaller, even much smaller, stature? In each case the revolutionary trend found or created its organs in such human material as was available. [43]

Deutscher has obviously lost sight of the fact that Mao and Tito were not representatives of the working class, did not head revolutionary parties and were not leaders of working class revolutions. It is, therefore, hardly surprising to find that in these examples the role of the working class has been filled by a 'revolutionary trend' which is 'creating' what it requires without human intervention.

If we return to Trotsky's analysis of Lenin's role in the Russian Revolution we can see that rather than tearing the question of leadership free of its historical context, as both Deutscher and Plekhanov do, he roots it firmly in that context.

Trotsky insists that 'Lenin was not a demiurge of the revolutionary process', he 'merely entered into a chain of objective historic forces.' Lenin did not 'oppose the party from the outside, but was himself its most complete expression. In educating it he had educated himself.' Lenin guided the Bolsheviks, not because he was a solitary hero but because he had been created by the Bolshevik party. The endless struggle to build the party, the streams of letters stretching back over decades from Lenin to the workers and party members and from them to Lenin, the articles and speeches both given by Lenin and given by others to which Lenin had listened, these were what had formed Lenin. As Trotsky says:

Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole of Russian history. He was embedded in it with the deepest roots. Along with the vanguard of the workers, he had lived through their struggle in the course of the preceeding quarter century. [44]

It was precisely what Lenin had in common with his party which made him able to speak with it, from 'soul to soul', thoughout 1917. His uniqueness was that he expressed this common tradition more accurately, more completely than his opponents. Trotsky spells this out most clearly in the notebooks on dialectics:

Lenin, at times, erred not only in minor but in major issues ... A whole row of persons can, with every justification, point to their correctness and Lenin's errors in given, sometimes very important, issues. The group Bor'ba [The Struggle] was correct in its criticism of Lenin's first agrarian programme ... ; Plekhanov was right in his criticism of Lenin's theory of socialism 'from the outside'; the author of these lines was correct in his general prognosis of the character of the Russian Revolution. But in the struggle of tendencies, groups, persons, by far no one was able to yield an account with a credit like Lenin's. In this lay the secret of his influence, his strength and ... not in a fraudulent infallibility, of the sort portrayed in the historiography of the epigones. [45]

This fact would have been more obvious, and Lenin's individuality less striking, had it not been for the exceptional circumstance that he was a revolutionary leader returning from exile. This physical separation made for an easy, impressionistic counterposition of the 'hero' and the 'mass'. Had Lenin not been in exile the 'inner continuity of the party's development' would have been more readily discernible. [46]

From this account two things are clear. Firstly, such a leader forged by an organisation during decades of theoretical work and practical struggle cannot be simply 'replaced' on the eve of revolution by the 'forces of history'. Secondly, the uniqueness of such a leader lies only in his or her ability to summarise the common experience of those with whom they have built such an organisation and the facility with which they bend that common tradition to meet new tasks. Without a revolutionary organisation they would have neither the means to understand the struggle, nor the capacity to direct it.

Any collective working class organisation, whether a revolutionary party, a trade union or even a reformist party, gives something of this power to change history to its members and its leaders. But how much power they have and whether they use it effectively depends on many things – the size of the organisation, its politics, its history, the economic situation in which it operates, the strength and organisation of the ruling class and so on.

When most social theorists examine the situation of the individual, however, they do not look at this collective context. Many of the difficult issues with which some socialists and feminists have become most concerned in recent years – rape, pornography, child abuse – are situations in which the individuals themselves are most cruelly separated from any collective power. To argue that such individuals, whether they are the victim or the perpetrator, exercise a choice in their individual destiny in the same way that the individual members and leaders of great social movements exercise power over their collective fate is wrong.

What gave Lenin or Cromwell or Robespierre the ability to make an individual contribution to history was the great power of the movements from which they rose. What crushes even the smallest element of real choice out of the lives of isolated individuals is their total separation from any such movement and their utter dependence, both economically and ideologically, on a system which is entirely hostile to their needs and aspirations. The more isolated and powerless the individual and the more brutal the circumstances he confronts the less chance he has of influencing his fate. As Trotsky put it:

To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red hot iron, alike. As a steamhammer converts a sphere and cube alike into sheet metal, so under the blow of too great and inexorable events resistances are smashed and the boundaries of 'individuality' are lost. [47]


The dialectic of permanent revolution

The theory of permanent revolution marked a important break with the determinism of the Second International. Later it became the cornerstone of Trotsky's fight against Stalin's fatalistic theory of 'socialism in one country'. In both cases Trotsky argued that for a backward country to be ripe for socialist revolution it did not have to go through all the stages of capitalist development which characterised the advanced capitalist powers. Trotsky's theory, the law of combined and uneven development, stressed that any analysis of the revolutionary potentiality of backward countries must start from the totality of capitalist development on a world scale. Here it was clear the material conditions for a socialist society existed, even if they did not exist in each part of the world system taken in isolation. But if a revolution was to be successful in a backward country then it must spread to other parts of the system and so tap their material wealth. Thus seeing the interconnectedness of the different parts of the totality was also key to Trotsky's analysis. And to realise this potential the working class would have to consciously battle for the leadership of the revolution.

Even from this thumbnail sketch it is clear that Trotsky's theory was a brilliant application of the dialectical method to new historical circumstances. He did not simply impose an abstract dialectical scheme on recalcitrant facts. From empirical research he built up a picture of the totality of class relations and formulated the law of combined and uneven development to trace the relationship between the different parts of that totality. It is a picture accurately described by the phrase that he later used in the notebooks on dialectic -differentiated unity. In answer to the Stalinists who accused him of 'skipping over historical stages' he spelt out this conception:

It is nonsense to say that stages cannot in general be skipped. The living historical process always leaps over isolated 'stages' which derive from theoretical breakdown into its component parts of the process of development in its entirety, that is, taken in its fullest scope ... It may be said that the first distinction between a revolutionist and a vulgar evolutionist lies in the capacity to recognise and exploit such moments. [48]

Trotsky gave equally short shrift to his opponents talk of historical inevitability:

One stage or another of the historical process can prove to be inevitable under certain conditions, although theoretically not inevitable. And conversely, theoretically 'inevitable' stages can be compressed to zero by the dynamics of development, especially during revolutions. [49]

Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution is a brilliant example of applied dialectics. It contains in a concrete analysis all the propositions that he later formulated as general principles in his writings on the dialectic.

We find the same principles at work when we look at Trotsky's writing on art. Here he ties culture to its material roots, insists that the 'class criteria' is vital in art, but also argues that art must be 'judged according to its own laws.' This sounds like a contradiction until we understand it as another example of a 'differentiated unity.'

In Literature and Revolution Trotsky once again shows that neither idealism nor vulgar materialism are sufficient to analyse the role of art. Art, he argues, is neither a mirror which simply reflects society, nor a hammer which can shape society according to its own desires.

Trotsky dismisses 'pre-October art' which simply hankers nostalgically after the days of the Tsar. But he is far from uncritical of the Futurists and the practitioners of proletcult. He says that the Futurists call to break with the art of the past only 'has a meaning insofar as the Futurists are busy cutting the cord which binds them to the priests of bourgeois literary tradition.' But for the working class this call means nothing since 'the working class does not have to, and cannot break with literary tradition because the working class is not in the grip of such a tradition.' [50]

Trotsky's argument is that the working class must master the old culture as well as forge the new. In the course of this they will both create new artistic forms and revitalise old forms. This attitude is based on an appraisal of the development of culture as a whole, seeing both its continuity and discontinuity with the pre-revolutionary society. It is an attitude which stresses that a transformation of art can only be based on an understanding of the relationship between revolution and art which neither passively accepts art as an independent realm, nor reduces art to an immediate expression of society's needs, to the level of propaganda:

One cannot turn the concept of culture into the small change of the individual daily living and determine the success of a class culture by the proletarian passports of individual inventors or poets. Culture is the organic sum of knowledge which characterises the entire society, or at least its ruling class. It embraces and penetrates all fields of human work and unifies them into a system. Individual achievements rise above this level and elevate it gradually. [51]

Individual artists can help remake culture, but not in isolation and not in conditions of their own choosing.



Trotsky's philosophical writings are often short and their meaning compressed. Indeed some were notes not intended for publication. Perhaps their full significance is only clear against the background of the tradition of dialectical thought which began with Hegel and which passes down through the writing of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Lukacs and Gramsci. Trotsky obviously thought this was the case since his writings are partly a comment on Hegel's writings and partly a preparation for studying Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks. This is certainly the light in which I have interpreted Trotsky's views. In this conclusion I simply want to spell out the positions to which I think this tradition commits us.

Firstly, it binds us to a view of the natural and social world as a single totality developing over time as a result of its internal contradictions. Any other position reduces the natural world to an unknowable realm, separate from society and developing according to alien principles. Moreover, since the social world grows out of the natural world (and is still shaped by constant interaction with it) there is every reason to believe that if one has a dialectical structure so will the other.

The reason why natural science seems to have less need of a dialectical method than the social sciences is because the compartmentalised and instrumental nature of much scientific research is sufficient for the purposes of the capitalist class. Nevertheless this scientific work, real though its fruits are, is necessarily limited in achievement and in method. The ends of science are pre-determined by the bourgeois nature of society and this closes off much discussion about the overall structure of the natural world and the purposes of science. The moment scientific research pushes beyond these boundaries – whether it be in the area of evolution, relativity, or in chaos theory or in the theories, like those of Stephen Hawking, that deal with the nature of the universe – questions of dialectics often arise. In many cases (Darwin is the example which Trotsky cites) these natural scientists develop quasi-dialectical theories. This is an indication both that the reality they study has a dialectical form of development and that they would find a dialectical framework the most useful in such study. This, of course, is an argument that can only be decisively proved by a detailed analysis of modern science. I have neither the opportunity nor the knowledge to undertake such an analysis here.

Nevertheless, there are a number of general reasons for supposing that nature is dialectical. We can clearly say that nature is an interconnected system which developed for millions of years before human beings walked the earth. It continues to develop now and would do so whether or not humans laboured upon it. It therefore has an internal dynamic. We can also confidently claim that nature did not develop randomly, but according to certain rationally comprehensible principles. Neither did it develop smoothly and evenly. It evolved through great transformations which, although prepared by small molecular changes, once they occurred, were to leave the world qualitatively and fundamentally different from what went before. Trotsky points to the development of human consciousness as one such moment of transformation.

Secondly, this view lays the basis for an argument which avoids the accusation that any conception of the dialectic which embraces both nature and society must run the danger of importing the objective laws of natural development into the social sphere, thus reducing Marxism to a determinism. Previously this has seemed, to me at least, a real difficulty for Marxism. Trotsky's notebooks provide a solution to this problem. Trotsky's point is not just that the 'conscious rose out of the unconscious' and thereby opened a qualitively new phase in history. He also argues that the structure of the dialectic in society is different to that in nature – the former must take account of the development of consciousness in a way that the later need not. The dialectic cannot remain some immutable substratum on top of which everything else changes but which is itself immune to change. The dialectic itself is transformed as the natural world and the social world develop. This is a fundamental feature of a materialist dialectic which is wholly missing from Hegel. Hegel dealt only with the timeless patterns of thought and therefore had no need of an articulated dialectic capable of moulding its form to meet the contours of the material world from which it rises.

In this view nature and society are 'a unity', but they are not identical. They are a 'differentiated unity' in which each particular sphere is still connected to every other, but in which each sphere also produces its own special processes, laws and so on. Trotsky had long used a similar distinction in his theoretical work. It was, I have tried to show, a guiding principle in his theory of permanent revolution, in his historical writing and in his analysis of art. Trotsky's conception of 'differentiated unity', a philosophical equivalent of combined and uneven development, is an original formulation.

This is a Marxist analysis which stands in no need of being refined by notions such as 'relative autonomy', does not require that we relapse into dualism for the sake of maintaining that conscious human action plays a role in changing society and does not demand that we fall into idealism in order to explain the role of the individual in history.

It is, however, a method which needs defending. Many socialists in the advanced capitalist economies have experienced ten years or more where the genuine Marxist tradition has been in retreat. As Trotsky noted, 'reactionary periods ... naturally become epochs of cheap evolutionism' and, he might of added, of its dialectical opposite, rampant idealism. We have had plenty of both. Now it looks, in Britain at least, as if that period may be coming to an end. There could be no better time to reassert the genuine Marxist tradition and no better example than Trotsky's writings.



My thanks to Duncan Blackie, Alex Callinicos, Sue Clegg, Tony Cliff, Lindsey German, Chris Harman and John Molyneux for their comments on the first draft.

1. Quoted in I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast (OUP, 1963), p220.

2. See, for instance, John Molyneux's Leon Trotsky's Theory of Revolution (Harvester, 1981).

3. The first two phrases are Malcolm Povey's, the second two Paul Jakubovic's in, respectively, Socialist Worker Review May and June 1988. Paul and Malcolm are far from alone in holding these views, as debates over the years at Marxism – the annual summer school organised by the SWP – have proved, they are merely unfortunate in having committed them to paper.

4. The American Socialist Workers Party, which has now abandoned Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution in favour of hero-worshipping Castro, was in the 1930s one of the more promising sections of Trotsky's Fourth International.

5. See Steve Wright's article on Hal Draper, particularly the appendix and for a wider perspective see Chris Harman's 'From Trotsky to state capitalism', both in this journal [International Socialism Journal, issue 47].

6. I Deutscher, op cit, p430.

7. Ibid, pp442-443.

8. Ibid, pp436-443.

9. J Burnham, 'Science and Style', reproduced in L Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (New York, 1973), pp190-191.

10. Ibid, p198.

11. Ibid, p196.

12. Ibid, p192.

13. L Trotsky, ibid, pp43-44.

14. Ibid, p45.

15. Ibid. pp44-45. Although, of course. Trotsky realised that it would be 'lifeless pedantry' to demand that 'every party member occupy himself with the philosophy of dialectics.'

16. Ibid. p49.

17. Ibid, p52.

18. See L Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York, 1973), p233.

19. 'Dialectics and the Immutability of the Syllogism' in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40 (New York, 1973), pp400-401.

20. In Defence of Marxism, op cit, p49.

21. Ibid. p50.

22. Ibid, p51.

23. Trotsky's Notebooks 1933-35: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, translated by P Pomper (New York, 1986), p77.

24. Ibid, p87.

25. Ibid, p97.

26. Ibid, pp96-97.

27. L Trotsky, 'Dialectical Materialism and Science' in Problems of Everyday Life, (New York, 1973), pp212-214.

28. Notebooks ..., op cit, p113.

29. 'Dialectical Materialism and Science', op cit, p215.

30. Ibid, p214.

31. Ibid, p216.

32. Notebooks ..., op cit, p102.

33. Ibid, pp101-102.

34. Ibid, p113.

35. Ibid, p90.

36. L Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York), pp59-60.

37. Ibid, p60.

38. L Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, quoted in G Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (New York, 1978), pp281-282

39. L Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London, 1977), p343.

40. Ibid.

41. I Deutscher, op cit, pp241, 242, 251.

[ 41a. A Danish version of Plekhanovs work is now available: G. V. Plekhanov: Personlighedens rolle i historien; Webmaster. ]

42. Ibid, p243.

43. Ibid, pp245-246.

44. History ..., op cit, p344.

45. Notebooks ..., op cit, p84.

46. History ..., op cit, p344.

47. L Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, quoted in G Novack, op cit, p287. Trotsky is primarily talking of how great revolutions impel individuals of the same class location to behave in similar ways. But the analogy holds good for the purposes to which I am putting it here because the 'normal' oppressive relations of society hit the isolated individual with all the steam-hammer force that great revolutions hit whole classes. In both cases the force of circumstance mostly outweighs individual peculiarities. The difference between a revolutionary situation and the normal functioning of exploitation and oppression is that in the former workers through their collective power can alter their individual circumstance by altering their collective circumstances.

48. L Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (New York, 1969), p240.

49. Ibid, p241.

50. Literature and Revolution, op cit, p130.

51. Ibid, p200.


Last updated 1.1.2002