Aug 16 2009
In keeping with the last posting about the provenance of the quote “war is the locomotive of history,” I’ve been looking into another great line of dubious reliability: Trotsky’s supposed claim that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Terrific line, but there’s not much evidence that Trotsky actually said it. Roger Simon gets closer to the truth when he corrects Newt Gingrich and has the quotation as “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”
That isn’t strictly correct, but it’s closer to what Trotsky in fact said. The interesting commonality with the locomotive line is that in both cases, what was originally an abstruse point of intellectual debate became a much broader claim about what really matters in history. Marx’s line about “revolution as the driving force of history” began as an explanation of Marxism’s difference from Hegel’s idealism, but soon became in Marx’s own usage a claim about the way that revolution speeds and intensifies social processes.
The same is true for the line in question here. What Trotsky originally said in December 1939 in “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition? in the Socialist Workers Party” was “Burnham does not recognize the dialectic, but the dialectic recognizes Burnham, that is, extends its sway over him.”
Huh? The broader context here is noted political theorist James Burnham’s abandonment of Trotsky and Marxism. He’d been a staunch Trotskyist for most of the 1930s, but by the late 1930s was moving away from Marxism altogether. In debate over the question of whether anti-Stalin Marxists should support the Soviet Union in World War II, Burnham made it clear that he thought dialectical reasoning wasn’t particularly required to come to worthwhile conclusions, and that orthodox Marxists and non-Marxists could reason effectively together towards congruent conclusions. Trotsky, naturally, disagreed forcefully. According to Trotsky, Burnham might think of himself as rejecting dialectical reasoning, but he was in fact caught in a web of dialectical thinking, and his arguments and positions only showed his true standing on issues of the class struggle.
It’s a LONG way from Trotsky’s original claim about dialectical reasoning to a pithy statement about the importance of war in human affairs. I guess we want short, sharp, clear claims about what really matters. It’s a shame we don’t get them more often.