Archive for the ‘Trotsky’ Category

Dmitrii Medvedev and Permanent Revolution

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Since I’m working on Leon Trotsky, I was very excited to note in Johnson’s Russia List the claim that Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev, writing for, had called for “permanent revolution” in Russia.  I thought Trotsky was making yet another comeback, given Trotsky’s deep association with the concept of permanent revolution.

Sadly it turns out that’s not the case at all.  The claim that Medvedev was calling for a permanent revolution is precisely the opposite of what he actually said.

What Medvedev in fact said was that he wanted to disappoint (ogorchit’) those who wanted a permanent revolution.  Don’t believe me?  Read it yourself, either in Russian or English.  Medvedev’s point was that he wanted to avoid revolution, but instead push for political, economic, and bureaucratic reform in careful, graduated, evolutionary steps.

In keeping with last month’s theme of misquotation, I’d like to point out that Medvedev uses the term not as Trotsky (or indeed Lenin) actually meant it, but as Trotsky was much later vaguely and inaccurately interpreted.

The original idea is fairly straightforward.  What Trotsky called “permanent revolution” (permanentnaia revoliutsiia) was the idea that even when the proletariat was objectively weak, too weak to seize power in an orthodox Marxist revolution, it could ally with the bourgeoisie to overthrow feudalism, and then take advantage of that revolutionary moment to keep going and overthrow the bourgeois in turn to produce proletarian power.  So there’s nothing very permanent about permanent revolution, and Trotsky admitted that the term was something of a misnomer.

Of course, this permanent revolution is very close to what actually happened in 1917, which is what brought Lenin and Trotsky together.  They had independently converged on the idea of piggybacking the proletarian revolution on a successful bourgeois revolution–in Russia, there was no other way of making a proletarian revolution happen.  Lenin called the concept “uninterrupted revolution,” which is a better label, but the concepts are essentially the same.

So what does this have to do with Russia in 2009?  Not very much.  “Permanent revolution” has become a vague synonym for hard-core radicalism, and that’s how Medvedev seems to use it.  Evidently he hasn’t read much Trotsky.  Too bad.  Trotsky’s other key concept, of a revolution hijacked by the state apparatus in its own interests, might just be instructive.

Speaking of Leon Trotsky

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

TRF readers looking for more Trotsky content may want to check out the most recent webcast of the Hoover Institution’s interview series “Uncommon Knowledge” where you’ll find the program’s host (and Hoover Fellow) Peter Robinson focusing in on the life and legacy of the Russian revolutionary. Robinson’s guests are the journalist, author, and self-proclaimed Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service — Professor of Russian History at St. Anthony’s College Oxford and author of the forthcoming study, Trotsky: A Biography.

Although specialists may find some of Robinson’s questions insufficiently “nuanced” for academic tastes (”Was Leon Trotsky a good guy, or a bad guy?”) and a good portion of the program is premised on a hypothetical (”What if Lenin had been succeeded not by Stalin, but by Trotsky?”) the responses from the guests are sufficiently informative (Service) and entertaining (Hitchens) to make the thirty-minute program well worth watching. For both video and a transcript of the interview, click HERE.

Next up: What if Superman grew up in Germany, instead of America?

You may not be interested in war . . .

Sunday, August 16th, 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.”

It doesn’t take much trolling around the internet to find examples of this idea tied to Trotsky: here, here, here, here, and here.

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.

War, Revolution, Locomotives, and History

Friday, August 14th, 2009

A recent query on H-War asked for the source of the quotation “War is the locomotive of history.”  I’ve had problems myself with great lines from historical figures that it seems they didn’t actually say, so I did some digging myself.

The concept as originally expressed is quite different, putting revolution in the place of war, and goes back to Marx himself.  In 1845 in “The German Ideology,” Marx wrote “revolution is the driving force of history.”  His point was to attack Hegelian idealism–the concept that that ideas, not economics, are what really matter.  Fuller context makes this clear: “not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory.”  This is orthodox Marxism: economic structures determine ideas and culture, not the other way around.  No translation problems here–the original German is straightforward: “daß nicht die Kritik, sondern die Revolution die treibende Kraft der Geschichte auch der Religion, Philosophie und sonstigen Theorie ist.”

For the idea of WAR as the driving force, specifically attached to the image of “locomotive,” we have to go to the Austro-German Marxist Karl Kautsky, who in “War and Revolution” in 1912 observed that “wars have always been powerful locomotives of world history.”  Though Kautsky was German, he seems to have first published this in a French newspaper, and I can’t find either German or French versions from my desk.

Kautsky’s formulation, much like Kautsky himself, lacks a certain panache.  Leon Trotsky picked up the idea, and as usual, smartened it up a little.  Trotsky expressed the idea in two ways.  Even before the revolution, in June 1917’s “Farce of Dual Power” Trotsky went back to Marx’s original idea and observed that “Truly, Marx was not wrong when he called revolution the locomotive of history!” Trotsky referred to the same idea using the same concepts (Marx, revolution, locomotives, and history) in 1918 and 1922. On both those later occasions, he was speaking to military audiences, but did not swap revolution for war.

The problem here is that Marx’s “German Ideology” wasn’t published until 1932.  We have to surmise that the basic concept, which was certainly clear enough in Marx’s other works and implied by the philosophy as a whole, was floating around European Marxism at the turn of the century. Given the close relationships among leading European Marxists, Trotsky could easily have gotten the phrase from Marx no worse than second-hand.

By 1922, though, only days after Trotsky quoted Marx that revolution is the locomotive of history, he told a NON-military audience, the Comintern, that “war, Comrades, is a great locomotive of history.”  The irony, of course, is that he was using Karl Kautsky’s idea and metaphor, and by this point Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks had dismissed Kautsky as a sell-out, opportunist, compromiser, capitalist running-dog, etc. Sic transit gloria mundi.

UPDATE: Hat tip to Jonathan Beard, who spotted an 1850 published use of the phrase “Revolutions are the locomotives of history” by Marx, five years after his “driving force” statement in “German Ideology” in The Class Struggles in France. The original German is about as straightforward as German gets: “Die Revolutionen sind die Lokomotiven der Geschichte.”

What strikes me is that there’s a subtle difference between the way Marx uses two very similar phrases.  In 1845, he made revolution the driving force of history in the sense that it determines philosophy, ideas, and culture.  In 1850, his point is more down-to-earth: revolutions speed up processes of social change by revealing how things really work.  In this particular case, Marx says, revolution shows the French peasantry that their true allies are the revolutionary proletariat, as is clear from the full paragraph:

 The condition of the French peasants, when the republic had added new burdens to their old ones, is comprehensible. It can be seen that their exploitation differs only in form from the exploitation of the industrial proletariat. The exploiter is the same: capital. The individual capitalists exploit the individual peasants through mortgages and usury, the capitalist class exploits the peasant class through the state taxes. The peasant’s title to property is the talisman by which capital held him hitherto under its spell, the pretext under which it set him against the industrial proletariat. Only the fall of capital can raise the peasant; only an anti-capitalist, a proletarian government can break his economic misery, his social degradation. The constitutional republic is the dictatorship of his united exploiters; the social-democratic, the red republic, is the dictatorship of his allies. And the scale rises or falls according to the votes the peasant casts into the ballot box. He himself has to decide his fate. So spoke the socialists in pamphlets, almanacs, calendars, and leaflets of all kinds. This language became more understandable to him through the counter-writings of the party of Order, which for its part turned to him, and which by gross exaggeration, by its brutal conception and representation of the intentions and ideas of the socialists, struck the true peasant note and overstimulated his lust after forbidden fruit. But most understandable was the language of the actual experience that the peasant class had gained from the use of the suffrage, were the disillusionments overwhelming him, blow upon blow, with revolutionary speed. Revolutions are the locomotives of history.