George Novack’s Understanding History

Trotsky’s Views On Dialectical Materialism

January 10, 1937—the day after Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, had landed in Mexico. His party was on the troop-guarded private train sent by the minister of communications to ensure their safe conduct from Tampico to Mexico City. That sunny morning Max Shachtman and I sat with Trotsky in one of the compartments, bringing the exile up to date on what had happened during his enforced voyage from Norway.

Our conversation was animated; there was so much to tell, especially about developments around the Moscow trials. (This was in the interval between the first and second of Stalin’s stage-managed judicial frame-ups.) At one point Trotsky asked about the philosopher John Dewey, who had joined the American committee set up to obtain asylum for him and hear his case.

From there our discussion glided into the subject of philosophy, in which, he was informed, I had a special interest. We talked about the best ways of studying dialectical materialism, about Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and about the theoretical backwardness of American radicalism. Trotsky brought forward the name of Max Eastman, who in various works had polemicised against dialectics as a worthless idealist hangover from the Hegelian heritage of Marxism.

He became tense, agitated. “Upon going back to the States”, he urged, “you comrades must at once take up the struggle against Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism, is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.”

I was somewhat surprised at the vehemence of his argumentation on this matter at such a moment. As the principal defendant in absentia in the Moscow trials, and because of the dramatic circumstances of his voyage in exile, Trotsky then stood in the centre of international attention. He was fighting for his reputation, liberty, and life against the powerful government of Stalin, bent on his defamation and death. After having been imprisoned and gagged for months by the Norwegian authorities, he had been kept incommunicado for weeks aboard their tanker.

Yet on the first day after reunion with his cothinkers, he spent more than an hour explaining how important it was for a Marxist movement to have a correct philosophical method and to defend dialectical materialism against its opponents!

He proved how serious he was about this question three years later by the manner of his intervention in the struggle which convulsed the Socialist Workers Party at the beginning of the Second World War.[1] By this time Shachtman had switched philosophical and political fronts. He was aligned directly with James Burnham and indirectly with Eastman and others against Trotsky, breaking away from the traditional positions of Marxism and the Fourth International on issues extending from the role of philosophy to the class nature of the Soviet Union and its defence against imperialist attack.

The Burnham-Shachtman opposition sought to separate philosophy from politics in general, and the principled politics of the revolutionary working class movement from Marxist theory in particular. In the spirit of pragmatism, Burnham demanded that the issues in dispute be confined to “concrete questions”. “There is no sense at all ”, he declared in “Science and Style”, “in which dialectics (even if dialectics were not, as it is, scientifically meaningless) is fundamental in politics, none at all.”[2]

In “An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham” Trotsky had pointed out that the experience of the labour movement demonstrated how false and unscientific it was to divorce politics from Marxist sociology and the dialectical method.

You seem to consider apparently that by refusing to discuss dialectic materialism and the class nature of the Soviet state and by sticking to “concrete” questions you are acting the part of a realistic politician. This self-deception is a result of your inadequate acquaintance with the history of the past 50 years of factional struggles in the labour movement. In every principled conflict, without a single exception, the Marxists sought to face the party squarely with the fundamental problems of doctrine and program, considering that only under this condition could the “concrete” questions find their proper place and proportion.[3]

On the other hand, opportunists and revisionists of every shade avoided discussion of principles and counterposed superficial and misleading episodic appraisals of events to the revolutionary class analysis of the scientific socialists. Trotsky cited examples from the history of the German social-democracy and from the disputes of the Russian Marxists with the “Economists”, the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. The Narodnik terrorists, bomb in hand, used to argue: “Iskra [Lenin’s paper] wants to found a school of dialectic materialism while we want to overthrow tsarist autocracy — It is historical experience”, Trotsky observed with characteristic irony, “that the greatest revolution in all history was not led by the party which started out with bombs but by the party which started out with dialectic materialism.”[4]

Trotsky attached such great importance to the generalised theory incorporated in Marxist philosophy because of its utility in political practice. “The question of a correct philosophical doctrine, that is, a correct method of thought, is of decisive significance to a revolutionary party just as a good machine shop is of decisive significance to production”, he wrote.[5] Many of the now indispensable tools of thought for investigating and analysing reality were fabricated by the great philosophers before entering into common use. In dialectical materialism, he asserted, Marx and Engels forged the theoretical tools and weapons required by the workers in their struggle to get rid of the old order and build a new one.


Trotsky never claimed originality for his philosophical views. He was an orthodox Marxist from his conversion to its doctrines in 1898 to his death in 1940. However, he did enrich and extend the teachings of the masters by his far-ranging applications of their method to the complex problems presented by the transition of humanity from capitalism to socialism. His insight and foresight in this field equalled that of any other disciple, Lenin included.

In his four decades of writing he touched upon almost all the principal aspects of materialism, from its insistence upon the primordial reality of nature to its explanation of the supreme products of human thought and artistic imagination. The basis of all life, of all human action and thought, and the object of knowledge, was the being and becoming of the independently existing material world. This universal evolutionary process of material nature was dialectical in character. It proceeded through the conflict of antagonistic forces, which at certain points in the slow accumulation of changes exploded the old formations, bringing about a catastrophic upset, a revolution.

We call our dialectic, materialist [he explained] since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our “free will”, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God, nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character.[6]

To clarify the operation of dialectical laws in nature he cited two examples from 19th-century science—one from biology, the other from chemistry. “Darwinism, which explained the evolution of species through quantitative transformations passing into qualitative, was the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter. Another great triumph was the discovery of the table of atomic weights of chemical elements and further the transformation of one element into another.”[7]

Materialism provided the only solid theoretical foundation for progress in the sciences, even though many natural scientists might be unaware of this truth or even deny it.

It is the task of science and technology [Trotsky said in a 1926 speech] to make matter subject to man, together with space and time, which are inseparable from matter. True, there are certain idealist books—not of a clerical character, but philosophical ones—wherein you can read that time and space are categories of our minds, that they result from the requirements of our thinking, and that nothing actually corresponds to them in reality. But it is difficult to agree with this view. If any idealist philosopher, instead of arriving in time to catch the 9pm train, should turn up two minutes late, he would see the tail of the departing train and would be convinced by his own eyes that time and space are inseparable from material reality. The task is to diminish this space, to overcome it, to economise time, to prolong human life, to register past time, to raise life to a higher level and enrich it. This is the reason for the struggle with space and time, at the basis of which lies the struggle to subject matter to man—matter, which constitutes the foundation not only of everything that really exists, but also of all imagination ...

Every science is an accumulation of knowledge, based on experience relating to matter, to its properties; an accumulation of generalised understanding of how to subject this matter to the interests and needs of man.[8]


Trotsky made many such penetrating observations on the materialist approach to the problems of the natural sciences. But his principal contributions to scientific knowledge came from his studies of contemporary society. These were all illuminated and directed by the Marxist method.

Trotsky became engrossed in the problems connected with the materialist conception of history at the early age of 18, when he was already involved in the illegal workers’ movement of South Russia. From that time on these two sides of his activity—the theoretical investigation of social reality and the practical urge to transform it with the masses along revolutionary lines—went hand in hand.

Trotsky tells in My Life how he at first resisted the unified outlook of historical materialism. He adopted in its stead the theory of “the multiplicity of historical factors”, which even today is the most widely accepted theory in social science. (Compare the school of Max Weber in Europe or C. Wright Mills in the United States.) His reading of two essays by the Italian Hegelian-Marxist Antonio Labriola convinced him of the correctness of the views of the historical materialists. They conceived of the various aspects of social activity as an integrated whole, historically evolving in accord with the development of the productive forces and interacting with one another in a living process where the material conditions of life were ultimately decisive. The eclectics of the liberal school, on the other hand, split the diverse aspects of social life into many independent factors, endowed these with superhistorical character, and then “superstitiously interpreted their own activity as the result of the interaction of these independent forces”.

During his first prison sentence Trotsky wrote a study of Freemasonry, which was later lost, as an exercise in the materialist conception of history. “In the writings of Marx, Engels, Plekhanov and Mehring, I later found confirmation for what in prison seemed to me only a guess needing verification and theoretical justification. I did not absorb historical materialism at once, dogmatically. The dialectic method revealed itself to me for the first time not as abstract definitions but as a living spring which I had found in the historical process as I tried to understand it.”[9]

Trotsky employed the newly acquired method to uncover the “living springs” of the class struggle in modern society and, first of all, in tsarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century, where a revolution was being prepared. The development of his celebrated theory of the permanent revolution was the first result of his researches. This was one of the outstanding triumphs of dialectical analysis applied to the social tendencies and political prospects of prerevolutionary Russia and, in its further elaboration, to the problems confronting backward countries in the imperialist epoch.

Marxists are often accused by their critics of dogmatism, of obsession with abstract schemes of historical development. Some would-be Marxists have been guilty of this fault. Not so Trotsky. He was a consistent practitioner of historical materialism, but within those principled boundaries he was the least formalistic and the most flexible of thinkers.

The materialist dialectic is based upon the existence of conflicting movements, forces, and relations in history, whose contradictions as they develop expose the shortcomings of all fixed formulas. As Trotsky wrote in 1906 in Results and Prospects : “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations.”[10]

Trotsky undertook to apply the Marxist method in this materialist manner to the specific conditions of tsarist Russia. He pointed out that the social structure of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was a peculiar blend of extremely backward and advanced features. The predominant political and religious backwardness embodied in the Asiatic despotism of the all-powerful monarchy and its servile state church was rooted in the historical and economic backwardness of the country. In Russia there had been no Reformation, no successful bourgeois revolutions, no strong third estate (bourgeoisie) as in Western Europe. The boundless spaces and windswept climate had given rise to nomadic existence and an extensive agriculture, a thin population, a belated and meagre feudal development, and an absence of commercial and craft centres. The prevalence of peasant agriculture and home industry self-contained in small villages, of large landed estates, and of administrative-military consuming cities restricted the domestic market and led to dependence upon foreign capital and culture.

However, with the entry of modern industry, this Asiatic backwardness became complemented and combined with the most up-to-date products of Western European development. Large-scale industry led not only to the fusion of industrial with banking capital and domination of the Russian economy by foreign finance, but ultimately to a proletariat in the major industrial centres, a modern labour movement engaging in political strikes and mass demonstrations, and scientific socialism. These exceptional conditions set the stage for the revolutionary events which were to explode in 1905 and culminate in 1917.

The schematic thinkers among the Russian social-democrats, who had learned the letter but not the essence of Marx’s method and were more or less under bourgeois influence, asserted that Russia would have to follow the trail blazed by Western Europe.

The older capitalist nations had passed from feudalism through a prolonged period of capitalist evolution toward socialism; in politics they had proceeded from rule by the monarchy and landed aristocracy to bourgeois parliamentarism before the workers could bid for supremacy. From this the Mensheviks concluded that the rulership of the bourgeoisie in a democratic republic on a capitalist basis was the logical successor to feudalised absolutism; the workers would have to wait a long while for their turn.

The attempt to impose such a prefabricated sequence upon 20th-century Russia was arbitrary and false, according to Trotsky. The powerful peculiarities of Russia’s past and present made possible, and even inevitable, an unprecedented path of development which opened up immense new prospects for the labour movement. The rottenness of tsarism, the weakness of the bourgeoisie and its institutions, the strategic position of the industrial workers, and the revolutionary potential in the peasantry springing from the unsolved, but urgent, problems of the land question would enable the pending revolution to compress and leap over stages. The workers could place themselves at the head of the insurgent people; they could lead the peasantry in overthrowing the old order and establishing democracy in a higher form under the government of the working class, which would quickly pass over from bourgeois democratic to revolutionary socialist measures. Thus the belated bourgeois democratic revolution would clear the way for and be a direct introduction to the first steps of the socialist revolution.

The political force of the working class could not be viewed in isolation but had to be judged in its relation with all the other factors at work within the country and the world. Although “the productive forces of the United States are 10 times as great as those of Russia, nevertheless the political role of the Russian proletariat, its influence on the politics of its own country and the possibility of its influencing the politics of the world in the near future are incomparably greater than in the case of the proletariat of the United States”.[11] From all these considerations he drew the conclusion that “the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers—and in the event of the victory of the revolution it must do so—before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get the chance to display to the full their talent for governing”.[12]

This was the first form of his theory of the permanent revolution. Upon the basis of Russian experience he subsequently extended it to cover the problems and prospects of the revolution in other underdeveloped countries where the workers and peasants must struggle against imperialism and its native agents to extricate themselves from precapitalist barbarism and acquire the benefits of modern economy and culture.

From 1904 to 1917 Trotskyism was identified with the conception that the Russian revolution could end only in the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in its turn must lead to the socialist transformation of society, given the victorious development of the world revolution. This outlook was opposed by the Mensheviks, who could not see beyond the bourgeois democratic republic, and was even unacceptable to the Bolsheviks. However, the young Trotsky was able to see farther than all the others among the brilliant constellation of Russian Marxists thanks to his precocious mastery of the materialistic and dialectical sides of Marx’s method and his exceptional boldness and keenness of thought. He was the Columbus of the most extraordinary event in modern history: the first successful proletarian revolution, in the most backward country of Europe.

In working out his prognosis of the Russian revolution, Trotsky utilised the law of uneven and combined development, which he was later to formulate in general terms. This generalisation of the dialectical intertwining of the backward and advanced features of the historical process is one of the most valuable instruments for deciphering the complex relations and contradictory trends of civilised society.


The laws of the class struggle constitute the essence of historical materialism applied to civilised society. Liberals and conservatives find this part of scientific socialism impossible to accept; reformists and Stalinists are unable to carry it through in the day-by-day struggle against capitalism. The recognition of the class struggle in its full scope and ultimate consequences was the very nerve centre of Trotsky’s thought and action.

The history of the development of human society is the history of the succession of various systems of economy, each operating in accordance with its own laws. The transition from one system to another was always determined by the growth of the productive forces, i.e., of technique and the organisation of labour. Up to a certain point, social changes are quantitative in character and do not alter the foundations of society, i.e., the prevalent forms of property. But a point is reached when the matured productive forces can no longer contain themselves within the old forms of property; then follows a radical change in the social order, accompanied by shocks. The primitive commune was either superseded or supplemented by slavery; slavery was succeeded by serfdom with its feudal superstructure; the commercial development of cities brought Europe in the 16th century to the capitalist order, which thereupon passed through several stages.[13]

This historical process was propelled forward by the action and reaction of one class upon another. The material stake in their struggles was the acquisition and distribution of the surplus product—that portion of the total social product beyond the minimum required for the survival and reproduction of the working force. Possessing and oppressing classes, from the slaveholders to the capitalists, have been distinguished primarily by the different methods of exploitation they have used to extract this surplus from the labouring masses. “The class struggle is nothing else than the struggle for surplus-product. He who owns surplus-product is master of the situation—owns wealth, owns the state, has the key to the church, to the courts, to the sciences and to the arts.”[14]

Each society forms an organic whole. The bones of the social organism consist of its productive forces; its muscles are its class (property) relations. The functions and reflexes of all other social organs can be understood only in their connections with the skeletal and muscular systems (the productive forces and property forms) which make up the general structure of the social organism. Since civilised society is split up into classes, the critical point of analysis in scientific sociology has to be “the class definition of a given phenomenon, e.g., state, party, philosophic trend, literary school, etc. In most cases, however, the mere class definition is inadequate, for a class consists of different strata, passes through different stages of development, comes under different conditions, is subjected to the influence of other classes. It becomes necessary to bring up these second and third rate factors in order to round out the analysis, and they are taken either partially or completely, depending upon the specific aim. But for a Marxist, analysis is impossible without a class characterisation of the phenomenon under consideration.”[15]

In order to ascertain the decisive tendencies and the main course of development of any given social formation or nation, the scientific sociologist, according to Trotsky, has to examine its structure and the dynamics of its social forces in their connections with world historical conditions. We must find specific answers to the following questions: What classes are struggling in a country? What are their interrelations? How, and in what direction, are their relations being transformed? What are the objective tasks dictated by historical necessity? On the shoulders of what classes does the solution of these tasks rest? With what methods can they be solved?

During his revolutionary career Trotsky analysed the situations in many major countries at critical turning points in their evolution, according to this procedure. These included Russia, Germany, France, England, Austria, and Spain in Europe; China and India in Asia; and the United States. The results of his inquiries are contained in a series of works which are models for any aspiring scientific historian or sociologist.

Ever since Marxism stirred up the academicians, much dust has been raised about its conception of the relations between the economic foundations and the rest of the social structure in the process of historical evolution. Trotsky tried not only to clear up the misunderstandings around this question in general, but also to show by example how the material substructure of society, crystallised in the relations of production and its property forms, reacted with other social and cultural phenomena.

“The opinion that economics presumably determines directly and immediately the creativeness of a composer or even the verdict of a judge, represents a hoary caricature of Marxism which the bourgeois professordom of all countries has circulated time out of end to mask their intellectual impotence”, he declared.[16] The dialectical approach of Marxism has nothing in common with this crude “economic determinism”, so often practiced by the Stalinist school.

The economic foundation of a given society is organically interrelated and continuously interactive with its political-cultural superstructure. But the relations between them can be harmonious or inharmonious, depending upon the given conditions of historical development and the specific combinations of historical factors. In some cases the political regime can be in stark contradiction with its economic basis. Indeed, this is the source of the deepening class antagonisms which generate the need for revolutions. This can hold true not only for capitalist states but for postcapitalist political structures in the period of transition to socialism. In the Soviet Union under Stalin and his heirs, for example, the economic basis of nationalised property and planned production has been increasingly at odds with the autocratic system of bureaucratic rule.

In the long run, economics takes precedence over politics Political regimes, institutions, parties, and leaders are defined by the roles they play in upholding or changing the existing relations of production. “[A]lthough economics determines politics not directly or immediately, but only in the last analysis, nevertheless economics does determine politics ”, Trotsky affirmed.[17] Capitalist property relations determine the nature of the bourgeois state and the conduct of its representatives; nationalised property determines the nature of the workers’ states, however deformed and bureaucratic they may be.

The controversy around “the cult of the individual” provoked by the de-Stalinisation campaign in the Soviet bloc has raised again for consideration the question of the role of the individual in history. This much-debated issue has long divided one tendency from another in the social sciences.

Nonmaterialists make one or another of the subjective factors in social life, from ideas to the actions of individuals, paramount in the determination of events. For a historical materialist like Trotsky, the social takes precedence over the individual, the general over the particular, the whole over the part, the material over the intellectual. The individual is important in history. But the extent of his influence depends upon broader historical factors. The strictly personal elements are subordinate to objective historical conditions and the major social forces of which they are a product, a part, and an exemplar.

The Russian Marxists from Plekhanov to Lenin gave considerable attention to this question. In arguing against the Narodnik school of subjective sociology, which in its most extreme expression upheld terrorism as a political means of struggle, the Marxists pointed out that social and political power was not simply an individual attribute; it was at bottom a function of the relations between people and, in the last analysis, between classes. The most prominent personages wield power not solely on their own account, but on behalf of social forces greater than themselves. Even kings, tyrants, dictators represent the material interests of a specific class or combination of classes.

No political institution, for example, fuses the superpersonal forces in history with the personal more than the monarchy. “Monarchy by its very principle is bound up with the personal”, wrote Trotsky in The History of the Russian Revolution .[18]

Under tsarism the royal family appeared to count as everything, the rest of the nation as nothing. Yet this was only the outward semblance of things.

“The king is king only because the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person.”[19] The king cannot rule without the tacit consent of nobles, landlords, and other class forces which he serves, or even in the end without the acquiescence of the mass of his subjects. When these refuse any longer to recognise or abide by the royal authority, it is in danger or done for. The first act of the Russian revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy, verified this social basis of personal power.

The Russian revolution, led by the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, abolished both tsarism and capitalism and instituted a workers’ and peasants’ democracy under the Soviets. This was smashed, and a new despotism came to flourish under Stalin. What was the social basis for Stalin’s absolute one-man rule?

Trotsky is often severely condemned for “permitting” Stalin to outwit him in the contest for supremacy after Lenin’s death. Critics of this superficial stamp do not understand that the most intelligent individuals with the most correct ideas and strategy are necessarily subordinated to the historical tides of their time and to the prevailing relations of class forces. Power is not a personal possession which can be transported at will like any commodity from one owner to another.

The fundamental factors at work in the world that decide the turn and outcome of great events were then ranged against the cause for which Trotsky fought; they favoured and facilitated the advance of Stalin. On the basis of the defeats of the working class in Europe, the isolation of the Soviet Union, and the weariness of the Soviet masses, Stalin was being lifted up and pushed to the fore during the 1920s by the increasingly powerful Soviet bureaucrats and labour aristocrats, backed up and egged on by an acquisitive upper layer of the peasantry. The Left Opposition, headed by Trotsky, which spoke for the revolutionary movement of the world working class and fought for the interests of the Soviet poor, was being pushed aside.

Trotsky explained over and over again that Stalin’s triumph and his own defeat did not signify the mere displacement of one individual by another, or even of one faction by another, but the definitive transfer of political power from the socialist working class to the privileged Soviet bureaucracy. He consciously tied his own fate and the fortunes of the Communist Left Opposition to the situation of the world revolution and the Russian working class.

Trotsky had thought profoundly on the dialectical interplay between the individual and the great impersonal driving forces of history. The purely personal characteristics of individuals, he stated, have narrow limits and very quickly merge into the social conditions of their development and collectivity to which they belong. “The ‘distinguishing traits’ of a person are merely individual scratches made by a higher law of development.”[20]

We do not at all pretend to deny the significance of the personal in the mechanics of the historic process, nor the significance in the personal of the accidental. We only demand that a historic personality, with all its peculiarities, should not be taken as a bare list of psychological traits, but as a living reality grown out of definite social conditions and reacting upon 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.[21]

The tsar, as the head of his dynastic caste resting upon the Russian bureaucracy and aristocracy, was a product of its whole historical development and had to share its destiny. The same law held good for his successors at the helm of the Russian state after February 1917. Each of the leading individuals, from Kerensky through Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin, represented and incarnated a different correlation of social forces both national and international, a different degree of determination by the working class, a different stage in the development of the Russian revolution and the state and society which issued from it.

Trotsky was as thoroughgoing a materialist in his psychological observations as in his sociological and political analyser. Stalin as a man, he explained, acquired his definitive historical personality as the chosen leader of the Soviet aristocratic caste. “One can understand the acts of Stalin only by starting from the conditions of existence of the new privileged stratum, greedy for power, greedy for material comforts, apprehensive for its positions, fearing the masses, and mortally hating all opposition”, Trotsky told the Dewey Commission in 1937.[22] Stalin’s depravity, confirmed two decades afterward by Khrushchev, was not uniquely his own.

The more precipitate the jump from the October overturn—which laid bare all social falsehood—to the present situation, in which a caste of upstarts is forced to cover up its social ulcers, the cruder the Thermidorian lies. It is, consequently, a question not simply of the individual depravity of this or that person, but of the corruption lodged in the position of a whole social group for whom lying has become a vital political necessity. In the struggle for its newly gained positions, this caste has reeducated itself and simultaneously reeducated—or rather, demoralised—its leaders. It raised upon its shoulders the man who best, most resolutely and most ruthlessly expresses its interests. Thus Stalin, who was once a revolutionist, became the leader of the Thermidorian caste.

Conversely, the revolutionary essence of the principles, positions, and social interests that Trotsky consistently embodied and expressed throughout his lifetime made him what he was and placed him where he had to be at each stage. He worked at the side of the Russian working class while it was preparing its first revolution; he rose to its head in the Soviet of 1905. He remained with its active vanguard during the subsequent reaction. When the revolution surged up to the heights he organised the October insurrection, and then led the Red Army until after the Civil War.

Later, when the workers again became politically passive and prostrate under Stalin’s regime, he still stood firmly with them. Throughout this period of reaction he did his utmost to stem the decline of the revolution, rally and educate its forces, and prepare the best conditions for its revival. Trotsky was too much the Marxist to desire or exercise power for any purpose other than to promote socialist aims.


Trotsky’s forecast of the Russian revolution was the first triumph of his application of the method of dialectical materialism; his analysis of its degeneration was his final and greatest achievement.

Here Trotsky was confronted with an unprecedented historical phenomenon. To be sure, previous revolutions had mounted to great heights and then receded. But these relapses had taken place within a class society where a new and more progressive—but nevertheless exploiting and oppressing—ruling class had been installed in power. He was familiar with leaderships of other workers’ movements which had succumbed to the temptations of privilege and office, abused their authority, become bureaucratised. But these, too, had been beneficiaries and appendages of imperialist capitalism.

The situation in the young Soviet Republic appeared fundamentally different. The workers and peasants, led by the most conscious revolutionary party in history, guided by the scientific doctrines of Marxism, had taken state power and begun to reconstruct society in their own image. For years the leaders and members of the Bolshevik Party had distinguished themselves in battle by their ideas and their program, showing their readiness to sacrifice everything for the cause of socialism.

And yet the viruses of bureaucratism and privilege—“the professional dangers of power”, as Christian Rakovsky designated them—had attacked the new rulers of Russia and weakened their resistance to alien class influences. The inroads of infection had been manifest during Lenin’s last years, and he had asked Trotsky to join him in combating their spread.

For someone like Trotsky, who had been so wholly and intimately identified with the revolution and its leadership, it required the utmost objectivity to detach his personal fate from this situation and cope with the problems it presented. He was like a medical scientist who, having detected the presence of a wasting disease in a dear companion, notes its symptoms and makes a diagnosis and prognosis, understanding all the while that the disease may not be arrested and can prove fatal. He followed the unfolding of the bureaucratic reaction step by step, analysing its causes, pinpointing its results—while prescribing the necessary therapeutic measures to alleviate and cure the disease.

The basic conditions for the growth of bureaucratism, he said, were first of all lodged in the world situation. The failure of the Russian revolution to be matched by the workers in the more advanced industrialised countries of the West, and the temporary stabilisation of international capitalism, left the first workers’ state in an exposed and weakened position. In the Soviet Union a small working class, exhausted after enormous and sustained exertions, surrounded by a sea of peasantry and poverty, lacking culture, an adequate economic basis, even the elementary necessities of life, had to relinquish the powers and positions it had won to a layer of bureaucratic specialists in administration who wanted rest and the enjoyment of the fruits of the previous revolutionary efforts. The material privileges and narrow political views of this upstart caste came into ever greater conflict with the interests of the masses.

This was the source of the factional conflicts which tore apart the Russian Communist Party and were extended into the Communist International. With the deepening and strengthening of world reaction during the 1930s this process reached its climax in the consolidation of the Stalinist autocracy and the total erasure of Soviet democracy. The ascendancy of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and of fascism in Western Europe were symmetrical historical phenomena. The destruction of bourgeois democracy under the decadence of capitalist imperialism and the destruction of workers’ democracy in the Soviet Republic were parallel products of the defeats of the working masses by reaction.

These totalitarian states had, however, completely opposite and historically different economic bases. The fascist dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco ruled over states which defended capitalist property relations. Stalin’s government, the uncontrolled agent of Soviet bureaucratism, rested upon nationalised property.

Trotsky gave a dialectical, historical, and materialist definition of the Soviet Union. By virtue of its nationalised property, its planned economy, its monopoly of foreign trade, and the socialist consciousness and traditions in the working class, it remained a workers’ state. But it was a special type of workers’ state in which the political structure contradicted the economic foundations. The policies and activities of Stalinist tyranny not only trampled upon the rights, feelings, and welfare of the masses in whose interests the revolution was made but injured the development of the Soviet economy itself, which required democratic administration by the workers to function most efficiently.

The conflict between Stalin’s one-man rule and workers’ democracy, between the totalitarian political structure and the economic foundation, was the prime motive force in Soviet society, however much it was repressed and hushed up. The tension between these contending social forces could not endure indefinitely. Either the workers would clean out the bureaucratic usurpers—or the bureaucrats would extrude a wing which would strike at the last remaining achievements of the revolution and clear the way for the return of capitalism from within or from abroad.

Trotsky was no defeatist; he did not declare in advance that the worst would happen. On the contrary, he threw all his forces and resources into the balance to help the favourable outcome prevail. Now, 20 years after his death, his struggle and foresight have been vindicated. While imperialism tore itself to pieces for the second time and was further weakened by the Second World War, the Soviet state survived, despite all the crimes of Stalinism. After revealing its powers of resistance in the war against Hitlerism, it has displayed amazing capacities for recuperation and swift growth in the postwar years. The socialist revolution itself broke through to new ground, extending into Eastern Europe and Asia and scuttling Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” as a by-product.

These international and national developments have elevated the Soviet working class to a higher cultural and material level and impelled the most progressive elements in Soviet society to press hard upon the bureaucrats to relax their dictatorship and grant concessions. The drive for de-Stalinisation breaks through with such irresistible force that—up to a certain limited point—it has even carried along elements among the bureaucracy. Its momentum testifies to the growing powers and impatience of the socialist elements in Soviet society and confirms Trotsky’s analysis of its main motive forces and trends.

Thus far we have seen only the opening events in this new chapter of internal Soviet development, which is heading toward an all-out conflict between the self-appointed successors of Stalin and the resurgent masses. The Soviet workers, intellectuals, and peasants will have to throw off all their overlords and restore democracy on an incomparably higher basis.

The reexamination of values which has been started under the slogan “Return to Lenin” will be supplemented and completed by the slogan “Return to Trotsky”. The new leaders of the people in the coming antibureaucratic revolution will reinstate Trotsky’s achievements to their proper place and honour him as the initiator, herald, and guide in the fight for socialist freedom and the preservation of the heritage of Marxism and Bolshevism.


Trotsky probed more deeply than any other Marxist thinker into the problems of materialist psychology. In the controversies that counterposed Pavlov’s school of conditioned reflexes to the Freudian school of depth analysis he took a third position. While he observed that their respective approaches to the formation of consciousness were different, he did not believe there was an insuperable materialist-idealist conflict between them, as the Stalinists have contended. Both Pavlov and Freud considered that physiology constituted the basis of the higher functions of thought. Trotsky compared Pavlov to a diver who descends to the bottom of the well of the human mind to inspect it from there upwards, while Freud stood above peering through the obscure and troubled waters of the psyche to discern what was at work within its depths.

The characteristic traits of people are elicited, formed, and perfected by their social environments; even the oddest quirks soon pass over into the behaviour and psychology proper to the individual’s epoch, group, or class. Certain common characteristics are imposed on people by the mighty forces of historical conditions; similar conditions call forth similar responses and produce similar personality traits. “Similar (of course, far from identical) irritations in similar conditions call out similar reflexes; the more powerful the irritation, the sooner it overcomes personal peculiarities. To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red-hot iron, alike. As a steam-hammer converts a sphere and a cube alike into sheet metal, so under the blow of too great and inexorable events resistances are smashed and the boundaries of ‘individuality’ lost.”[23]

In this way he explained the puzzles of what bourgeois psychologists call “the behaviour of crowds”, or, more precisely, mass consciousness. Despite all their individual differences and peculiarities, despite their separation in time and place, individuals placed in similar settings and faced with similar problems behave alike.

The so-called faculty psychologists of the 19th century split up the human personality and psyche into different factors such as instinct, will, intuition, consciousness, the unconscious, etc., elevating one or another of these elements of human behaviour into predominance. Trotsky viewed all these various functions as interpenetrating aspects of a unified physiological-psychological process, materially conditioned and subject to development and change.

Inspiration and intuition are usually regarded as the special province of idealists and mystics. However, Trotsky did not hesitate to come to grips even with these obscure and elusive phases of psychic activity. He noted that the conscious and unconscious coexist in the historical process just as they do within the individuals who compose it. He gave an incomparable definition of their interaction in My Life :

Marxism considers itself the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process. But the “unconscious” process, in the historico-philosophical sense of the term—not in the psychological—coincides with its conscious expression only at its highest point, when the masses, by sheer elemental pressure, break through the social routine and give victorious expression to the deepest needs of historical development. And at such moments the highest theoretical consciousness of the epoch merges with the immediate action of those oppressed masses who are farthest away from theory. The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls “inspiration”. Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history.

Every real writer knows creative moments, when something stronger than himself is guiding his hand; every real orator experiences moments when someone stronger than the self of his everyday existence speaks through him. This is “inspiration”. It derives from the highest creative effort of all one’s forces. The unconscious rises from its deep well and bends the conscious mind to its will, merging it with itself in some greater synthesis.

The utmost spiritual vigour likewise infuses at times all personal activity connected with the movement of the masses. This was true for the leaders in the October days. The hidden strength of the organism, its most deeply rooted instincts, its power of scent inherited from animal forebears—all these rose and broke through the psychic routine to join forces with the higher historico-philosophical abstractions in the service of the revolution. Both these processes, affecting the individual and the mass, were based on the union of the conscious with the unconscious: the union of instinct—the mainspring of the will—with the higher theories of thought.[24]

Trotsky had absorbed the materialist attitude into every fibre of his being; it permeated all his thought and action from his outlook upon human life to his appraisals of the individuals around him. As a consistent materialist he was a proud and avowed atheist. He would not permit himself to be degraded or humanity to be subjugated to any of its own fictitious creations issuing from the barbarous past.

His humanistic profession of faith was frankly stated in the testament he set down a few months before his assassination: “For 43 years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for 42 of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism ... I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist.”[25]

He felt no need for the fictitious consolations of personal life after death. Cramped and contaminated though it was by class society, life on earth was enough because of the potential for human enjoyment and fulfilment latent within it. “I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.” A few days later he added: “Whatever may be the circumstances of my death I shall die with unshaken faith in the communist future. This faith in man and in his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion.”[26]

Such was the final testimony of the most gifted exponent of the 2500-year-old materialist philosophy in our time.


[1] Trotsky’s contributions to the theoretical debate are collected in the book In Defence of Marxism (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1973); Burnham’s article “Science and Style” is included as an appendix.

[2] In Defence of Marxism page 196.

[3] Ibid., page 78-79.

[4] Ibid., page 79.

[5] Ibid., page 74.

[6] Ibid., page 51.

[7]Ibid., page 71.

[8] Trotsky, “Radio, Science, Technology and Society”, Problems of Everyday Life (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1973), pp. 252-253.

[9] Trotsky, My Life (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1970), p. 122.

[10] Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1969), p. 64.

[12] Ibid., page 65.

[12] Ibid., page 63.

[13]Trotsky, Marxism in Our Time (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1970), pp. 8-9.

[14] Ibid., page 14.

[15] In Defence of Marxism, p. 129.

[16] Ibid., pages 118-119.

[17] Ibid., page 119.

[18] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Monad Press: New York, 1980), Vol. 1, p. 52.

[19] Trotsky, “What Is National Socialism?”, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1971), p. 399.

[20] The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, p. 52.

[21] Ibid., page 95.

[22] Trotsky, The Case of Leon Trotsky (Merit Publishers: New York, 1968), p. 581.

[23]Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution Vol. 1, page 93.

[24] Trotsky, My Life, pages 334-335.

[25] Trotsky, “Testament”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40) (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1973), pp. 158-159.

[26] Ibid., page 159.