Problems of theory and history

Chapter 3

The incapacity for concrete analysis which afflicted Trotsky throughout his militant life resulted from his failure to comprehend the materialist dialectic, an incomprehension even worse than Bukharin's, although less flagrant, for, prudently, he ventured only rarely into the higher spheres of Marxist philosophy. When he did so, particularly at the time of his polemic against Burnham, the results reach no more than an elementary level. He disparages formal logic but knows nothing of the developments in symbolic logic since Hilbert, Peano and Russell. He assumes that to acknowledge the dialectic implies rejecting the principle of identity or its restriction to elementary and subordinate tasks. For him, 'the dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics'.(1) Furthermore, formal logic is supposedly inapplicable, even approximately, to phenomena exhibiting appreciable quantitative changes. He would be at a loss to explain to us how mathematics (based on the principles of identity and non-contradiction) could be applied to nearly instantaneous physical transformations like those which occur at the moment of a nuclear explosion. In fact, Trotsky confused Aristotelian logic with the metaphysical inferences which are wrongly drawn from it by certain philosophers and which deny movement and change.
    He had so little idea of the dialectic that he imagined Marx's mode of exposition in 'Capital' to be a vain display of philosophical pedantry. He was reduced to regretting that the creator of the theory of value was 'the doctor of philosophy' Marx and not 'Bebel the turner' who 'could have formulated it in a more popular, simple and direct form'.(2)
    Trotsky was more serious when he argued as a politician. His conception of materialism is none the less very schematic. He conflated the instances of the social formation (economic, legal-political, ideological) and saw neither how these instances are articulated, how the contradictions proper to each of them can converge and fuse, nor that contradictions displace one another, a secondary contradiction being able to become temporarily the principal one at a given stage, pushing the principal contradiction 'de jure' into the background within the framework of a wider historical period.(3) It follows that the necessity for detours in the revolutionary struggle generally escapes him and even when he accepts it in principle he is unable to understand its nature and implications.
    It is Mao Tse-tung who has systematised this dialectical logic and produced its concepts but it was already active in Lenin's writings, models of concrete analysis leading to the definition of a scientific strategy and tactics: cf. for example, 'Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution'. Trotsky, on the other hand, although in his own terms he 'went through Lenin's school', was failed by history in the most important subject, political science. Lenin made a fundamental criticism of him when he said that 'in all his theses, he looks at the question' from the angle of 'general principles'.(4)
    With a few examples we shall show in greater detail his inability to rise to the concrete in thought, which is neither the immediate empirical nor abstract principles cut off from practice.


It is well known that in 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power by inscribing on their banners this triple slogan: 'Peace to the people, bread to the workers, land to the peasants'.
    However, the peace which they sought was 'without annexations and indemnities'. The Germans were deaf to such a conception.
    Even before October the Russian soldiers had started to 'vote for peace with their feet'. The trenches at the front were deserted. Lenin was therefore faced with this problem: how could the survival of proletarian power be ensured without an army at a time when German imperialism was preparing to take it by storm. He opted for the acceptance of the German conditions, disastrous as they were, thus giving up space in order to win time. He was then defeated in the Central Committee by a coalition composed on the one hand of the left wing of the party led by Bukharin, supporters of revolutionary war; and on the other hand, of Trotsky, whose point of view (which prevailed at the time) was summed up in the slogan: 'Neither peace nor war', or more precisely: 'We interrupt the war and do not sign the peace - we demobilise the army'.(5)
    It was a bluff based on three postulates, all of which turned out to be false:

    1.  that the attitude of the Soviet government would incite the German proletariat to rise before the Kaiser's troops attacked;
    2.  that Bolshevik power could not be sustained in Russia unless it received assistance from victorious proletariats in the countries of Western Europe: 'The only way out of the current situation is to act on the German proletariat in a revolutionary way'; and lastly
    3.  formulated in a letter to Lenin at the end of January 1918: 'We shall declare that we end (the Brest-Litovsk) negotiations but do not sign a peace. They will be unable to make an offensive against us'.(

The facts soon called this bluff, to Russia's great cost. In short, Trotsky was incapable of analysing the concrete situation.

    The army opposing them having evaporated, the Germans merely had to get into a train to go to Petrograd. This is what they did. They had to be halted by a hurried acceptance of their new conditions and these were much more onerous than the previous ones. However, by signing the peace, the Soviet government obtained a respite which enabled it to mobilise 'a new army into which there was an influx of peasants eager to defend the expropriated lands' (Bukharin).
    A few months later, the consequences of the Brest-Litovsk peace were erased.
    In retrospect, Lenin's position seems obvious to us and Trotsky's seems absurd. Even if this is an optical illusion, the face [fact?] remains that in those serious circumstances, when the future of the revolution was at stake, Trotsky's formalism, i.e., proceeding from principles and not from reality, led to errors all along the line. These principles were, moreover, those of the permanent revolution, which can be summarised under the formula: 'The Russian proletariat cannot possibly maintain itself in power unless it is aided by a triumph of the revolution in the West'. For Trotsky, the principal contradiction was always the fundamental contradiction of our whole epoch, namely the one between capital and labour. For him, the alternative was therefore: world revolution or world defeat of the proletariat. On the other hand, Lenin saw that in the conjuncture at the beginning of 1918, the principal contradiction was the one between the necessity of maintaining Soviet power and the temporary impossibility of making the peasant majority fight in its defence. The alternatives were therefore immediate peace at any price (an indispensable respite for the Bolsheviks) or the destruction of their power. Resolutely grasping the first alternative was the condition for all later success.