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Irving Howe

How Could One Man Have Done All This?

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Just as in modern society there is an increasing tendency towards a productive specialization in which each man merely does one operation, apparently meaningless and without satisfaction in itself; so too in the intellectual world of capitalist society there has taken place the same kind of destructive specialization, the compartmentalization of human knowledge into pigeon holes.

Leon Trotsky was one of the few thinkers of our time who escaped this deadening division. His approach to life and thought was total: the approach of a committed revolutionist who summed up in his action, his passion and his thought a central outlook which allowed him to view contemporary society as a whole. Trotsky, for all his vast and often unsuspected knowledge, was not the most erudite man of his time; there were many fields in which other people knew more than he. But no thinker of this century, since the death of Lenin, was able to use a theoretical method – Marxism – in such a way that it served as a rigorous guide, a controlling instrument and yet did not become a rigid dogma. Trotsky’s outlook was from one perspective, the most fruitful of all historical perspectives: Marxism; and yet the whole world, all of its concerns and ideas, was within his purview.

Scope of His Work

For a man so thoroughly committed to the life of revolutionary action and all its attendant dangers, Trotsky’s writings reveal an extraordinary breadth of interest, scope of knowledge, and flexibility of approach. In his young manhood, he tells us in his fascinating autobiography, he worked – almost simultaneously – on his first projection of his greatest contribution to Marxism: the theory of permanent revolution, as outlined in his little known book. Our Revolution; on his as yet untranslated 1905, a history of that revolution in Russia; on a collection of literary essays on such figures as Ibsen and Shaw (which someone would do well to dig up, translate and publish); and, while in Siberia, on a study of Freemasonry, which was unfortunately lost. All this apart from the vast store of polemical and political articles which one expects from a practising revolutionist!

Trotsky’s primary interest was, of course, Marxism: the theory of socialist revolution. Trotsky’s work is consistently polemical, as is that of most Marxists, for Marxism is a theory of action above all else.

Yet Trotsky was able to produce a work which is at the very pinnacle of its type: his gigantic History of the Russian Revolution This book – the only Marxist rival to which in the field of history is Marx’s own 18th Brumaire – is not only one of the very greatest works of history ever written; it is a living challenge demonstrating the superiority of the Marxist method when used by skillful hands.

Much of Trotsky’s writing remains, unfortunately, untranslated. His studies of military problems written during the civil war period, in fact, most of his writings from the period of the Russian Revolution until his exile from Russia, are not available in English. But those that are available, and those we know of by hearsay, again attest to the range and power of Trotsky’s mind. Imagine, if you will, a revolutionary leader at the helm of a young workers’ state suffering from intervention, breakdown and starvation, who yet finds time – in between battles and political work – to write voluminously on military problems; to write a masterpiece, Literature and Revolution, discussing problems of literations which were passionately and (in such contrast to Stalin’s later intellectual tyranny) so freely discussed in Russia of the early twenties; to write an almost forgotten little book called Problems of Life in which he raised problems of revolutionary morality: religion, swearing, sex, home and family life.

Such a man was Trotsky – whose mind knew few limits, whose intellectual curiosity was insatiable and whose pen the sharpest of our time.

From the period of his struggle against Stalinism, Trotsky produced a steady stream of books and writings defending Marxism against its traducers: his New Course, a discussion of bureaucratism; his <Permanent Revolution, the classic statement of that theory; his Third International After Lenin, the basic document of Trotskyism in which he reiterated the internationalist character of socialism; his innumerable books and pamphlets on the internal Russian situation; and then the works on political problems faced by the working class throughout the world.

From the earlier Lessons of October, in which he discussed the reasons for the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions in the early twenties, he turned his attention to every country in which the working class began to move.

And then a return to the problems of Russia in his Revolution Betrayed. All the while, innumerable articles, documents and studies. Not even the limitations of exile, the necessity of starting from scratch in the rebuilding of the revolutionary movement against odds greater than ever before, could narrow Trotsky’s interests. Against those “new moralists” who were polemizing against Marxism, Trotsky retained his interest in literature to the end. writing in recent years studies of such authors as Celine, Malaquais and Silone. It has been reported that, though he did not write on the subject, he followed with keen interest the most recent developments in the field of psychology, such as Freudianism.

Method of Marxism

Just to list his works – and I have done little more than that here – is cause for awe and wonder. How could one man have done all this? I think the answer is that in few men of our time has there been such a unified conception of life: Trotsky was a revolutionist, a man who lived by his ideas, a man who would not, could not make one iota of peace with capitalist society. His passion and his intellect were fused into one: the triumphant Marxist who would not let terror or exile or hardship stand in the way of what he believed to be true. Therein too, I think, is the secret of his style: the majesty and power of his History; the biting sarcasm of his polemic against the theory of “social-fascism” in his Germany, What Next; the tender, moving quality of his tribute to his murdered son; the noble peroration with which he ended his Literature and Revolution.

Certain Philistines – only yesterday in awe of Hitler’s power – are today engaged in a revision of estimates; they see Stalin, who retained power, as the great man and Trotsky, murdered in lonely exile, as the failure. Such a revision says nothing about Trotsky or Stalin, though it says a great deal about the values of those who make it. It suffices however only to compare two monuments: Stalin’s monument of betrayed revolutions, bureaucratic tyranny, fawning toadying before power, Moscow Trials, pacts with Hitler; and Trotsky’s monument of revolutionary incorruptibility, great works of history, criticism and revolutionary strategy, implacable and serene indifference to hardship or defeat because of confidence in ideas and ideals.

Two monuments; two men; two movements; two choices.

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