Monday, December 8, 2008

Comments on “Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism”

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zimes said...

I agree with your conclusions about North in this essay. I noticed the objectivism in the North essay too especially when he said that Trotsky was a "determinist." I really enjoy reading the posts on this site.

Keep up the good work.


Zach Kimes

Anonymous said...

You make some interesting points with regards to Trotsky's philosophical notebooks and the "gap" in Trotsky scholarship, and I would like to see it explored further. From there, though, you make a series of outlandish charges against North and the SEP that I think are quite absurd.

On the basis of -- as far as I can tell -- a single paragraph describing Trotsky as a "determinist" for recognizing that socialist revolution is the product of objective conditions (which you admit to largely agreeing with), you implicitly accuse North, and by extension the SEP, of a range of things: adapting to "reformist day to day practice," having no conception of the role of consciousness in history and abandoning permanent revolution in favor of inevitable historical progression via "stages." You stop just short of calling the man a Kautskyite, whose socialist convictions would fold in the face of another world war.

Even if we were to accept these claims on the basis of the threadbare evidence that supposedly exists in North's paper, they immediately fall apart when you read something outside of it. The WSWS has published quite a bit of material, some of it written by North himself, that hammers against the same ideological tendencies you now accuse them of embracing -- from the legacy of Kautsky and the Second International to the importance of revolutionary consciousness in the historical process to the power of permanent revolution in modern politics.

If there is some grand political and ideological failing on North's part as you allege, I really don't think this is it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mdv,

Thank you for your reply. We certainly agree that Trotsky’s notebooks have been underappreciated (to say the least) in the ICFI. Of course, this speech of North’s needs to be understood in the overall context of the SEP’s theory and practice that Steiner and Brenner have critiqued in Marxism Without its Head or Heart, (see chapters 7 and 8 on Objectivism and Socialist Consciousness [1]). You would know from reading MWHH that this isn’t an isolated case. But the contrast between North’s form of objectivism and Trotsky’s conception of the socialist revolution is already obvious here.

North states that the socialist revolution necessarily arises out of the objective contradictions of capitalism. But Trotsky is clear that while history gives us the necessary conditions for socialism, these conditions alone cannot resolve the historical crisis of capitalism. History does not give us any guarantees like the fates of Greek tragedy, where it would be a wasted labor to resist since everything is “determined” (it would be akin to a professor giving his student an automatically earned A. In that scenario why would the student study for any future exams in that class?). As Marx said against the Left Hegelians in the Holy Family: “History does nothing”: It is not History with a capital H or the objective circumstances themselves but real flesh and blood men and women who make history, albeit in predetermined conditions.

In the schema North presents, the sufficient condition of socialist consciousness and the activity of the working class from which the revolution will arise from is missing. It is a stagist/fatalistic view of history in that there is no room for what Marx called the practical-critical activity of the proletariat. As you said, we do not deny the objective social conditions and contradictions capitalism grants us (in contrast to those in the SEP leadership who accuse us of being subjectivists and idealists). But the objectivist error is a vulgarization of historical materialism which collapses the sufficient conditions into necessary ones, and effaces the subjective factor in the equation of revolutionary dialectics.

We have already documented how North’s form of objectivism translated politically into the SEP’s apology for Left nationalism in Iraq [2], their abysmal record in the NYC transit strike [3], their failure to do anything in Mexico in 2006 [4], and their abstentionism in the 2008 elections [5]. It is the SEP’s current political practice that above all confirms their objectivism.


Andrew River

1. Alex Steiner, Frank Brenner Marxism Without its Head or Heart Chapter 7 & 8

2. Steiner ibid Chapter 2

3. Steiner ibid Chapter 5

4. Steiner ibid Chapter 1

5. See Alex Steiner’s two blogs, The SEP’s 2008 Election Campaign, and A Footnote to the SEP’s 2008 Election Campaign:

Kunal said...

Hello. This is a general comment in part. A response to the brief comment Alex left in my blog -- a very infrequent one, so i saw it only a few days back. Thanks for reading my book and for the praise. Anyone weanting copies will have to write to Progressive, and they are not the best of people.
I certainly agree about the Pomper book. It was interesting. John Molyneux wrote a book on Trotsky, where he was arguing that Trotsky's failure to break with Second international marxism in key areas, especially dialectics, was his achilles heel. When I wrote my book in the original form, as a thesis, i did not have the Pomper book, did not even know of its existence, though it had been published (no internet, and a roughly 6-7 year gap between books being published and turning upin Calcutta). So I used other stuff, including Problems of Everyday Life, to contest Molyneux. The Pomper book changed the situation radically.