Brian Pearce

Trotsky as an Historian

(April 1960)

From The Newsletter, 27 August 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

IN the field of history Trotsky carried forward into the 20th century and the new circumstances created by the victory of the workers’ revolution in Russia, the method of Marx and Engels. Trotsky stands out as the real Marxist historian, in contrast to the Stalinist distorters who have done so much to discredit the Marxist method.

Among many historians and people generally who are aware of the importance of history as the key to present-day social and political problems, the materialist conception of history has too often become something of a joke, through its presentation by the Stalinists in a form which bears less and less relation to reality.

The idea of a fixed and limited succession of stages through which all peoples have passed, or must pass – primitive communism, slave-owning society, feudalism, capitalism, with no allowance for, or explanation of, the skipping of stages or the appearance of combined or transitional forms, much less of the existence of distinctive types of society which can hardly be accommodated within any of the sacred four categories. Thus the essence of the pseudo-Marxist, Stalinist version of the materialist conception of history, is untenable nowadays, except on the basis of ignorance or cynicism.

The most valuable work done in the West by historians under the influence of Marxism has been done in disregard of the Stalin formula. In particular, we have had the work of the late Gordon Childe on the Bronze Age and the social changes associated therewith, for which he coined the term ‘the urban revolution’. Stalinist historians have rightly hailed Childe’s work as a triumph of Marxist method without explaining, however, how they reconcile it with Stalin’s formula. Some years ago, when I was still in the Stalinist camp, I put it to a historian colleague that Childe and Stalin couldn’t both be right; and I was a little shocked – though not so much as I should have been – when he replied: ‘Well, you see, Stalin’s formula is just a simplification for the masses’.

Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution

Trotsky was a practical politician and had little opportunity to write history as such. But about his History of the Russian Revolution, published in the early 1930s – in this country by Victor Gollancz – Isaac Deutscher has recently said: ‘I think it is one of the greatest works of history that have ever been written. It is a work that is now largely unknown, neglected, but it will establish its place in historical literature’.

For an introduction to Trotsky’s way of understanding and use of the materialist conception of history one cannot do better than read the first chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution, on The Peculiarities of Russian Development , together with the first appendix to this volume, where he reproduces an article he wrote in 1922 arguing about this question with the historian Pokrovsky.

Already before the revolution Trotsky was combating the reduction of the materialist conception of history to a mechanical system of analogies, whereby backward countries are seen as following in the footsteps of advanced countries, merely reproducing at a later date the forms of development already known to history. Unevenness of development, far from being something which had appeared for the first time, as Stalin claimed, for his purposes, in the epoch of imperialism, was ‘the most general law of the historical process’.

Based upon this unevenness, moreover, was the graft of features taken from more advanced communities upon the way of life of less advanced communities which came into contact with them. That Trotsky called ‘combined’ development, something which made possible the skipping of whole stages, and which brought into being transitional social forms of great variety.

Russia’s combined development

Examining the history of his own country in the ‘Moscow’ and ‘Petersburg’ periods, that is from the late Middle Ages onward, after the Mongol invasions, Trotsky showed how the social progress of Russia had been checked and thrown back so that the towns and cities failed to develop as they did in Western Europe. Handicraft remained linked with agriculture in the villages; these crafts developed only feebly in the urban centres, which remained essentially administrative and military headquarters.

No self-government of the bourgeoisie through guilds and communes appeared in Russia. On the basis of the stunted condition of all classes, and in face of the Mongol Hordes and of the Western states which took advantage of Russia’s weakness, there arose the autocracy, the Tsardom, concentrating all power in its hands, a state more of the type of the Oriental despotism than any in the rest of Europe. But for the purposes of defence, this monstrous super-state took over and introduced from the neighbouring Western countries some of the most advanced elements of technology and technique, creating a potentially explore combination of the extremely primitive with the extremely up-to-date.

Trotsky’s interpretation of Russian history gave rise to the theory of permanent revolution, and this is highly relevant to the living problems of the countries of Asia today; most obviously, I should say, to the question of the revolutionary future of Japan.

Besides his book on the Russian Revolution, illuminating thoughts on historical problems are to be found scattered through all Trotsky’s writings in connection with the many political struggles in which he engaged. In recent years there has been much discussion in the historical world about the peculiarities of the history of China. Marx’s passing and unexpanded references to an ‘Asiatic mode of production’, to an ‘Oriental society’ distinct both from slave-owning society and from feudal society, have been, so to speak, rediscovered, independently, and indeed, in spite of the Stalinist guardians of ‘official Marxism.’

It is worth pointing out that during his battle with Stalin on practical questions of the Chinese revolution, in 1927 and 1928, Trotsky refused to agree to the thrusting of Chinese reality into the strait-jacket of ‘feudalism’. Refused to see, by order, in China a mere reproduction of European social forms, and instead insisted on making the party face the complex and original facts of the Chinese scene.

‘China has no landed nobility’, he pointed out. ‘Large and medium land ownership as it exists in China is most closely intertwined with urban capitalism. There is no landowning caste in opposition to the bourgeoisie. The most widespread, generally-hated exploiter in the village is the usurious wealthy peasant. The agrarian revolution has therefore just as much of an anti-bourgeois as it has of an anti-feudal character in China. The Chinese revolution will have to begin the drive against the kulak at its very first stages.’

Chinese revolution vindicated Trotsky

The victorious Chinese revolution in our time has, in fact, developed, regardless of the wishes of its leaders, along the lines foreseen by Trotsky rather than along those laid down by Stalin. To understand what is going on inside China today, something which has deep roots in the specific characteristics of Chinese history, while one can find no guidance in Stalinist literature, it is helpful to turn back to the documents of the Communist International in the days when Trotsky played a big part in drafting and editing these documents. Here, for instance, is a passage from the resolution on the Eastern question adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922.

“The specific conditions of agriculture in certain parts of the Orient (artificial irrigation), formerly maintained by the special organization of a collective labour community on a feudal patriarchal basis, and later undermined by the system of capitalist piracy, also demand a state organization which is able to meet social needs in a planned and organized manner. In view of the special climatic and historical conditions, co-operatives of small producers will have an important part to play in the transition period throughout the East generally.”

In the Communist Party in this country the study of the materialist conception of history, in so far as this is still attempted in party classes and schools, has come to be a sort of scholastic exercise, a sort of ritual which has no real links with the practical politics of today. In the Trotskyist movement we try to unite theory and practice in a way which will enable us, by understanding better the past to act more scientifically and so more effectively in the present. Only an honest facing of the facts, in history as in economics or any other sphere, can give theoretical results of value to the working class.

Here Trotsky set us a good example. He also warned us, so far back as 1923, against the treatment of history which has become the hallmark of Stalinism. In his article on Order No. 1042, telling the story of the planned reconstruction of Russia’s railways ruined during the civil war and refuting certain distortions of this story which had appeared, he wrote: ‘Marx, it is true, called the revolution the locomotive of history ... But while it is possible to patch up the locomotives of the railways, the same cannot be done to the locomotive of history, particularly not post-datedly. In plain language, such attempts at repairing history are called falsifications.’

Last updated on 15.10.2011