Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume 1

History And Culture

The Philosophy of
British Capitalism

If the advanced bourgeoisie has banished inertia, routinism and superstition from the domain of productive technology, and has sought to build each enterprise on the precise foundations of scientific methods, then in the field of social orientation the bourgeoisie has proved impotent, because of its class position, to rise to the heights of scientific method. Our class enemies are empiricists, that is, they operate from one occasion to the next, guided not by the analysis of historical development, but by practical experience, routinism, rule of thumb, and instinct.

Assuredly, on the basis of empiricism the British imperialist caste has set an example of wide-flung predatory usurpation, provided us with a model of triumphant farsightedness and class firmness. Not for nothing has it been said of the British imperialists that they do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents. This habit of weighing and appraising practically the most important factors and forces has been acquired by the ruling British clique thanks to the superiority of its position, from its insular vantage point and under the conditions of a relatively gradual and planned accumulation of capitalist power.

Parliamentary methods of personal combinations, of bribery, eloquence and deception, and colonial methods of sanguinary oppression and hypocrisy, along with every other form of vileness, have entered equally into the rich arsenal of the ruling clique of the world’s greatest empire. The experience of the struggle of British reaction against the French Revolution has given the greatest subtlety to the methods of British imperialism, endowed it with utmost flexibility, armed it most diversely, and, in consequence, rendered it more secure against historical surprises.

Nevertheless the exceedingly potent class dexterity of the world-ruling British bourgeoisie is proving inadequate – more and more so with each passing year – in the epoch of the present volcanic convulsions of the bourgeois regime. While they continue to tack and veer with great skill, the British empiricists of the period of decline – whose finished expression is Lloyd George – will inescapably break their necks.

From Military Doctrine or Pseudo-Military Doctrinairism (dated 5th December 1921),
Kommunisticheskii Internatsional, 17th December 1921

* * *

Buckle [1], the son of a progressive merchant, sincerely believed that the rule of “enlightened businessmen” would finally make war – as a form of zoological struggle and not as the social rivalry of man against man – the property of the murky past, yet today the omnipotent organ of the bigoted British bourgeoisie, in its Christmas editorial, The Times, resounds with brazen hypocrisy: “It is the business of combatants to kill each other but ... they ought to kill each other ‘as Christians should’ ...”

And today in connection with the behaviour of Britain in South Africa and the activity of the “enlightened businessmen” like Cecil Rhodes [2], Chamberlain [3] and Co. and their protectors like Roberts [4] and Kitchener [5], what murderous irony echoes in the following words of John Stuart Mill [6]: “The British state comprehends the meaning of freedom more than others and whatever might have been its mistakes in the past it has reached in its dealings with other states an honesty and frankness that other great nations consider impossible or even undesirable.”

The evolution of the bourgeoisie with its glorious beginning and its grievous end is present before us. While the bourgeoisie fought against feudalism, absolutism, catholicism, guild restrictions and so on it embodied progress and movement forward, it was the bearer of advanced ideals and it carried society along with it.

But when having captured the field it tried to entrench itself in this position for good and preparing to retreat backwards rather than move forward. history condemned it for lack of ideals and for moral and political decomposition. Life is merciless: it strikes those who, like Lot’s wife, look back, with a fearful punishment.

Feeling the real soil under its feet shaking the bourgeoisie even gradually renounces its free-thinking and begins to seek support from supernatural powers. Mysticism becomes its spiritual diet. Brunetire [7] more and more often goes to Rome to kiss the Pope’s slipper.

From A “Declaration of Rights” and a “Velvet Book”,
Vostnochnoe Obozrenie, 13th and 14th March 1901

* * *

The entire philosophy of British utilitarianism is derived in the last analysis from a cookery book. In order to make people happy it is necessary to introduce such and such reforms, such and such improvements. In order to prepare a pudding for twelve it is necessary to take two pounds of flour, so many eggs, so much sugar, plums, and so on. In its specifications the cookery book presupposes that flour, plums, etc., are always available in necessary amounts and ready to hand. Similarly, the empiricists-utilitarians from Jeremy Bentham [8] down to the latter-day pragmatists consider it sufficient to issue “practical” prescriptions in order to assure the salvation of society. So far as the organic laws of society itself are concerned, they prefer not to bother their heads about them. These gentlemen have not become accustomed to thinking about the organic laws which govern the development of society, for the simple reason that their forefathers had achieved uninterrupted progress without understanding either its sources or its laws. It is noteworthy that British methods have found their greatest flowering on American soil.

Fragment written in 1940 and first published in Fourth International, January 1942

* * *

It is remarkable that the common sense of the Anglo-Saxon philistine has managed to wax indignant at the “Jesuit” principle and simultaneously to find inspiration in the utilitarian morality, so characteristic of British philosophy. Yet, the criterion of Bentham-John Mill, “the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number”, signifies that those means are moral which lead to the common welfare as the highest end. In its general philosophical formulations Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism thus fully coincides with the “Jesuit” principle, “the end justifies the means”. Empiricism, we see, exists in the world only to free us from the necessity of making both ends meet.

Herbert Spencer [9], into whose empiricism Darwin [10] inculcated the idea of “evolution” as a special vaccine, taught that in the moral sphere evolution proceeds from “sensations” to “ideas”. Sensations impose the criterion of immediate pleasure, whereas ideas permit one to be guided by the criterion of future, lasting and higher pleasure. Thus the moral criterion here too is “pleasure” and “happiness”. But the content of this criterion acquires breadth and depth depending upon the level of “evolution”. In this way Herbert Spencer too, through the methods of his own “evolutionary utilitarianism, showed that the principle “the end justifies the means”, does not embrace anything immoral.

It is naive, however, to expect from this abstract “principle” an answer to the practical question “what may we, and what may we not do?” Moreover, the principle, the end justifies the means, naturally raise the question “and what justifies the end?” In practical life as in the historical movement the end and the means constantly change places. A machine under construction is an “end” of production only that upon entering the factory it may become the “means”. Democracy in certain periods is the “end of the class struggle only that later it may be transformed into its “means”. Not embracing anything immoral, the so-called “Jesuit” principle fails, however, to resolve the moral problem.

The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of gregarious animals, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society divided into classes.

Bourgeois evolutionism halts impotently at the threshold of historical society because it does not wish to acknowledge the driving force in the evolution of social forms: the class struggle. Morality is one of the ideological functions in this struggle. The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the “greatest possible happiness” not for the majority but for a small and ever-diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality. The production of this cement constitutes the profession of the petty-bourgeois theoreticians and moralists. They radiate all the colours of the rainbow but in the final analysis remain apostles of slavery and submission.

From Their Morals and Ours (dated 16th February 1938),
New International, June 1938

* * *

Last year I was visited by a young British professor of political economy, a sympathiser of the Fourth International. During our conversation on the ways and means of realizing socialism, he suddenly expressed the tendencies of British utilitarianism in the spirit of Keynes and others: “It is necessary to determine a clear economic end, to choose the most reasonable means for its realization” etc. I remarked: “I see that you are an adversary of dialectics”. He replied, somewhat astonished: “Yes, I don’t see any use in it.” “However”, I replied to him, “the dialectic enabled me on the basis of a few of your observations upon economic problems to determine what category of philosophical thought you belong to – this alone shows that there is an appreciable value in the dialectic.” Although I have received no word about my visitor since then, I have no doubt that this anti-dialectic professor maintains the opinion that the USSR is not a workers’ state, that unconditional defence of the USSR is an “outmoded” opinion, that our organizational methods are bad, etc. [11] If it is possible to place a given person’s general type of thought on the basis of his relation to concrete practical problems, it is also possible to predict approximately, knowing his general type of thought, how a given individual will approach one or another practical question. That is the incomparable educational value of the dialectical method of thought ...

In the same conversation the young British scholar said: “I understand the weight of the proposition that everything undergoes change and that, given these conditions, the immutability of the syllogism is incomprehensible; but I think that the syllogism is simply an agreement among people to understand specific concepts in one and the same sense, something like a rule in a game ...”

I replied to him that in the sphere of logic he had arrived at Rousseau’s social contract in sociology. He took my remark as a joke. As a matter of fact it is quite precise and perhaps even too indulgent an appraisal of the logical method of my opponent. If one thinks the matter through as one should, it is difficult to believe that any man in the twentieth century with a knowledge of science, with a knowledge of evolution, could talk about the syllogism as being the product of agreement among people. Precisely in this is revealed the entire hopeless backwardness of the “scientific” method of this anti-dialectician. To say that people have come to an agreement about the syllogism is almost like saying, or more correctly it is exactly the same as saying, that people came to an agreement to have nostrils in their noses. The syllogism is no less an objective product of organic development, i.e., the biological, anthropological, and social development of humanity, than are our various organs, among them our organ of smell.

American, or, generally, Anglo-Saxon empiricism contains both formal logic and dialectical logic within itself in undeveloped form, and does not distinguish between them. Pragmatism insofar as I understand it, is precisely the philosophy of this undifferentiated combination of formal logic with the dialectic. But in all those cases where a representative of this empirical school of thought is compelled to leave his place of refuge, whenever he is compelled to bring his thoughts to a conclusion, he falls into the most trivial rationalism, that is, whenever he proves himself incapable of rising to the dialectic. This is what happened with my British opponent on the question of the dialectic.

On the question of the syllogism, let us take up the following argument as to why the syllogism, taken apart from all that exists, remains immutable: because the syllogism is simply an agreement arrived at between people that every concept should remain unchanged during a discussion, and so on. Here rationalism reveals to us its Achilles’ heel. Being absolutely incapable of penetrating into the objective historical nature of society, Rousseau [12] thought of society as the product of a contract between people; in the same way, the fetishists of formal logic arrive at Rousseau’s theory (of the social contract) in the sphere of knowledge. However, the elements of the syllogism do obtain among animals; the chicken knows that grain is in general useful, necessary, and tasty. It recognizes a given piece of grain as that grain – of wheat – with which it is acquainted and hence draws a logical conclusion by means of its beak. The syllogism of Aristotle is only an articulated expression of those elementary mental conclusions which we observe at every step among animals. To speak therefore of the syllogism as the product of a contract is absolutely ludicrous. It is doubly ludicrous in relation to the past because it rationalizes our entire previous history, and furthermore it is especially ludicrous in relation to the future. It turns out that our biblical and pre-biblical ancestors were capable of arriving at an agreement concerning such forms of thought as preserve their compulsory and imperishable force for all time to come.

Logical thinking, formal logical thinking in general, is constructed on the basis of the deductive method, proceeding from a more general syllogism through a number of premises to the necessary conclusion. Such a chain of syllogisms is called a “sorites”. It is well known with what case Anglo-Saxon thought breaks the chain of syllogisms and, under the influence of purely empirical data and considerations, arrives at conclusions which have no connection whatever with the previous logical chain. We see this especially clearly in the sphere of politics, as well as in other spheres. Thus the cult of the syllogism is not at all characteristic of Anglo-Saxon thought. On the contrary, it is possible to say that this [school of] thought is distinguished by a sovereign-empirical contempt for the pure syllogism, which did not prevent the English from making colossal conquests in many spheres of scientific investigation. If one really thinks this through as one should, then it is impossible not to arrive at the conclusion that the empirical disregard for the syllogism is a primitive form of dialectical thinking; with the aim of purely empirical corrections, the English save themselves from the formal-logical emptiness of the syllogism, i.e., to a certain extent they attain that which can more fully, much better, on a much broader scale, and more systematically be attained through dialectical thinking.

Anglo-Saxon thinking, and to a large extent that of the French, submits to the dialectic with difficulty because of historical factors. France is the land of the syllogism. The entire struggle against the dialectic is conducted in the name of the sovereign rights of the syllogism. The syllogism is looked upon not as an instrument of our consciousness in the process of its adaptation to nature and the growing knowledge of nature in short not as a psychological formation that has a relative, logical, i.e., conscious value, but rather as a distinct super-historical absolute which determines and controls all our cognitive processes and thereby our consciousness [as well]. The fetishists of formal-logical thinking [represent] a form of logical idealism ...

Human thought has assimilated the cosmogony of Kant and LaPlace, the geology of Lyell [13], the biology of Darwin, the sociology of Marx, which analyse every existing thing in the process of its uninterrupted change, evolution, development, catastrophes, etc. But for formal logic the syllogism remains immutable; it does not appear as an instrument, a historical lever of our consciousness in the process of its adaptation to external nature with the aim of learning about nature in a word, not a concrete historical formation conditioned by the circumstances of time and place, including the structure of our consciousness, the scope of its experience, etc. On the contrary, the syllogism appears as a once-and-for-all-given form of comprehending external events. The syllogism stands above these events, above humanity itself and its consciousness, above matter, and is the eternal beginning, immutable and all-powerful, for it controls all our activity; in other words the syllogism is invested with all the attributes of God.

Dr. John Dewey [14] writes that my world outlook partakes of teleology. I place before myself certain social goals (socialism) and at the same time deduce from this that the objective development of my consciousness has prepared all the necessary conditions for the realization of these goals. The dialectic in this sense appears to Dewey to be akin to religion, which views the historical process as the fulfilment of divine prescriptions.

In no case is it permissible to accuse Anglo-Saxons of excessive worship of the syllogism. On the contrary, their thought is permeated with a spirit of compromise in the form of empiricism or in the form of pragmatism which is a partial expression of this same empiricism. A Britisher easily departs from his democratic syllogism in order to put on abbreviated court knickers and bow before His Majesty. An English scholar readily breaks the thread of the syllogism in order to bow before religion. This tradition has been wholly borrowed by the United States.

But if the Anglo-Saxon does not consider himself, in contrast to the Latin peoples, bound by the compulsory force of the syllogism, then he attempts [to defend himself] before the highest form of logical thought, namely, before the dialectic. In the struggle against the dialectic or in self-defence against the dialectic our empirical or pragmatic Anglo-Saxon turns out to be the captive of the syllogism, as the highest, and sole immutable, form of human thought. In the struggle against the revolutionary dialectic the syllogism still remains a better or a less compromised weapon than the empirical compromise of religion. Similarly, in defence of the interests of British imperialism, an appeal to democracy appears more convincing than an appeal to the rights of the British monarch.

“We do not know anything about the world except what is provided through experience.” This is correct if one does not understand experience in the sense of the direct testimony of our individual five senses. If we reduce the matter to experience in the narrow empirical sense, then it is impossible for us to arrive at any judgement concerning either the origin of the species or, still less, the formation of the earth’s crust. To say that the basis for everything is experience is to say too much or to say nothing at all. Experience is the active interrelationship between subject and object. To analyse experience outside this category, i.e., outside the objective material milieu of the investigator who is counter-posed to it and who from another standpoint is a part of this milieu – to do this is to dissolve experience in a formless unity where there is neither object nor subject but only the mystical formula of experience. “Experiment” or “experience” of this kind is peculiar only to a baby in its mother’s womb, but unfortunately the baby is deprived of the opportunity to share the scientific conclusions of its experiment.

In order to deal me a blow in the most vital spot Burnham informs me that in the university textbooks on logic that he deals with, the dialectic is not mentioned at all. He should have added that in the university courses on political economy Marx’s labour theory of value is not mentioned either, or it is mentioned only under the sign of condemnation. And the main thing that should have been mentioned is that in the university textbook there is no mention, or only a condemnation, of historical materialism. In the courses in civil law there is no exposition, or only a condemnation, of the socialist attitude toward property forms, etc., etc. ... From the fact that the dialectic is not mentioned in the university textbooks [it is essential] to draw some conclusions about the class nature of official scholarship – its fear of revolution, the inability of bourgeois thought to go beyond the limits of empirical tasks, etc. For Burnham [15] and his ilk the banning of Marxism from official scholarship suffices to disprove the scientific nature of Marxism.

Common sense opposed to religion is progressive. But common sense opposed to science is reactionary and stupid.

The aphorism of His Majesty’s Opposition, “The State is created for and not man for the state” represents a circular model of nationalistic rationalistic thinking. As a matter of fact this aphorism expresses merely the demands of the bourgeois that the state trouble him as little as possible. From the scientific point of view this aphorism does not in the slightest way express a correct relationship between the individual and the state. The individual in the modern world to a far greater measure is created by the state than the state by the individual. That is why it is an outright rationalization to assign to the creation of the state a definite goal dictated by individual personal interests.

The first paragraph is from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party of the United States
(dated 15th December 1939) Byulleten Oppozitsii, February-April 1940.
The subsequent passages are fragments most probably originally intended for inclusion in the above article but omitted from the published version.
These fragments were first published in 1972,
The Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-1940 (Second Edition).

* * *

Despite all the indisputable greatness of Anglo-Saxon genius one cannot help observing that it is precisely in the Anglo-Saxon countries that the laws of revolution are least understood. This can be explained on the one hand by the fact that the phenomenon of revolution itself in these countries relates to a far distant past and evokes from the official “sociologists” the condescending smile intended for a naughty child. On the other hand the pragmatism so characteristic of Anglo-Saxon thinking is of least avail for the understanding of revolutionary crises.

The English Revolution of the 17th century like the French Revolution of the 18th century had the object of rationalizing the structure of society, i.e. clearing out feudal stalactites and stalagmites and subordinating it to the laws of free competition which in that era seemed to be the laws of “common sense”. To this end the puritan revolution clad itself in biblical garb, thereby displaying an infantile inability to comprehend its real meaning. The French revolution which exerted a considerable influence on progressive thought in the United States was guided by the formulas of a pure rationalism. Common sense which was still afraid of itself and resorted to the mask of biblical prophets or secularized common sense which regarded society as the product of a reasonable “contract”, to this day form the basic forms of Anglo-Saxon thinking in the field of philosophy and sociology.

Meanwhile real historical society has been built neither according to Rousseau, upon a reasonable “contract”, nor according to Bentham upon the principle of the “common good”, but has taken shape “irrationally” through contradictions and antagonisms. For a revolution to become inevitable class contradictions must reach an ultimate degree of tension. It is this very historical fatalism of a collision, which does not depend on good or bad will but on the objective interrelations of classes, that makes revolution, along with war, the most dramatic expression of the “irrational” basis of the historical process.

“Irrational” does not however mean arbitrary. On the contrary in the molecular preparation of a revolution, its outbreak, its upsurge and its decline there lies a profound inner pattern which can be established and broadly foreseen in advance. Revolutions, as has been said more than once, have their own logic. But this is not Aristotelian logic or even less the pragmatic semi-logic of “common sense”. It is a higher function of thought: the logic of development and its contradictions, i.e. dialectics.

The persistence of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and its hostility to dialectical thinking have therefore their material causes. just as a poet cannot grasp the dialectic of feelings from books and without his own experiences, so a secure society which has lost the habit of upheavals and has grown used to uninterrupted “progress” is incapable of understanding the dialectic of its own development. However it is only too obvious that this privilege of the Anglo-Saxon world is a thing of the past. History is about to give Great Britain and the United States some sharp lessons in dialectics.

From The Revolution and the War in China,
foreword to The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938) by Harold Isaacs.

Volume 1, Chapter 1 Index


1. Henry Buckle (1821-1862), English historian, whose chief work was History of Civilisation in England.

2. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), British imperialist active in Southern Africa. Founder of of the colony of Rhodesia, today Zambia and Zimbabwe.

3. Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), influential British businessman and politician. Originally a radical Liberal, he split from the Liberal Party over the question of Home Rule for Ireland and set up the Liberal Unionists which later merged with the Conservatives. As Colonial Secretary he actively furthered imperialist policies.

4. Lord Roberts (1832-1914), Anglo-Irish soldier who was a leading commander of the British Army during the Victorian period. He served in many military campaigns in Afghanistan, Abyssinia and India. He was commander of the British forces in South Africa during the first phase of the Second Boer War in 1899-1900.

5. Lord Kitchener (1850-1916), Irish-born British soldier who commanded British imperialist forces in Egypt and Sudan. In 1900 he succeeded Lord Roberts as commander of the British forces in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Served as Secretary of State for War from 1914 until his death in 1916.

6. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), British philosopher, political economist and politician. He was a leading liberal thinker of the 19th century and an advocate of utilitarianism.

7. Leading French literary critic and editor of the Revue des deux mondes who held an evolutionary theory of literary development and opposed naturalism in fiction.

8. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), English jurist and philosopher, foun der of utilitarianism.

9. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher and political theorist, best known as the founder of Social Darwinism.

10. Charles Darwin (1809-1882), English naturalist, who proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection.

11. See Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism (New Park Publications, 1971) for a full treatment of the polemic with the group in the Socialist Workers’ Party led by Burnham and Schachtman in 1938-39.

12. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788), Geneva-born philosopher of the Englightenment whose political ideas had a great effect on the French Revolution and subsequent political developments.

13. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German philosopher and cosmologist regarded as the last great philospher of the Enlightenment. – Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), French mathematician and astronomer. – Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Scottish geologist, close friend of Charles Darwin and one of his first prominent scientific supporters.

14. John Dewey (1859-1952), American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer, one of the founders of Pragmatism. In 1937 he chaired the commission of enquiry that cleared Trotsky of the charges made against him by Stalin.

15. James Burnham (1905-1957), American political theorist. During the 1930s he was a leading member of the American Trotskyist movement. After the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 he was involved in the faction fight about the class nature of the Soviet Union that led him and Max Shachtman to split from the Socialsit Workers Party and set up the Workers Party in 1940. Shortly afterwards he resigned from the Workers Party and moved to the right, eventually ending up as a leading supporter of the Cold War and theoretician of conservatism. His theoretical contribution to the Trotskyist movement is documented in the James Burnham Archive in the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Volume 1 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 1.7.2007