Monday, October 8, 2012

North and Service on Trotsky's attitude to Plekhanov

by Alex Steiner

Sometimes a small matter can shed light on a larger problem. In that regard a remark of David North’s in a recent speech to a conference of historians in Mainz, Germany deserves some comment. First some context.

As any regular reader of the Word Socialist Web Site (WSWS) would know, North, the editor-in-chief of that publication, has been vigorously prosecuting a case against the historian Robert Service, whose book, Trotsky: A Biography, is full of numerous errors and outright lies. We are all for exposing the falsifications of history perpetrated by Service and others. Service is a cynical anti-communist whose career has been devoted to discrediting the Russian Revolution and those who led it. His academic affiliation with Oxford University provides a respectable veneer for the rubbish he produces. In his biography of Trotsky he went as far as reproducing a number of Stalinist inspired slanders against Trotsky. North and other critics have done a commendable job in exposing these falsifications.

Robert Service

However it’s also necessary to say that there seems something out of proportion in the fact that this campaign of North and the WSWS against Service’s book has now gone on for over three years. Reading the WSWS one almost gets the impression that this campaign is on a par with Trotsky’s exposure of the Moscow Trials. The latter was an event of world historic importance. The exposure of Service and other academics of the same ilk, while a praiseworthy enterprise, hardly has the same significance today. Unlike Stalin in the 1930s, Service does not command an audience of tens of millions of workers, who while misled by the Stalinists, still had a sense of loyalty to the Russian Revolution and the cause of socialism. No such comparable situation exists today. One has a right to wonder if this continuing attack on an ignoble but not very consequential slanderer has by now come to serve as a convenient way to divert attention from the deep theoretical and political problems that afflict North’s own party.

As it so happens, the small matter I want to discuss ties in directly with those problems. In his most recent outing as a historian North made a revealing error about Service's distortion of Trotsky's attitude toward Plekhanov. Here is what North said:

"Just a few paragraphs later, Service writes: “For the first time in his [Trotsky’s] career he entered into polemics with Plekhanov, whom he now regarded with utter contempt.” The sentence is footnoted. Service informs us that he is citing a letter from Trotsky to the much older revolutionist, Pavel B. Axelrod, dated December 22, 1914. It is part of the famous Nicolaevsky Collection that is housed at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where Service did almost all his research for the biography. When I first read this passage, I was taken aback. While Trotsky certainly deplored Plekhanov’s support of the war, it was surprising to read that Trotsky regarded the “father of Russian Marxism” with “utter contempt.” After the Bolsheviks came to power, Trotsky affirmed in several moving essays his intense and enduring admiration of Plekhanov. So what did Trotsky actually write to Axelrod in December 1914? Did Trotsky, in a private letter to an older comrade, give vent to an inner rage provoked by Plekhanov’s political betrayal?

Trotsky’s letter to Axelrod consists of three brief paragraphs. Only the first paragraph makes any reference to Plekhanov. It reads:

Have you read Plekhanov’s pamphlet? I have begun a series of articles about it. For the first time in my life I am polemicizing against Plekhanov. He is not as secure as he had seemed to me.

Most readers, lacking access to the source material, would assume that Service has accurately interpreted the content of the letter that he is citing. But it would be a mistake to extend such credit to Service. There is nothing in the referenced paragraph that suggests that Trotsky’s attitude toward Plekhanov had become one of “utter contempt.” That sentiment, which would reflect on Trotsky’s own character, is simply invented by Service. In reality, this short letter conveys a sense of regret and sorrow over Plekhanov’s evolution, sentiments far more appealing in the circumstances than that suggested by Service." [1]

G.V. Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism

Knowing something about North's adulatory attitude toward Plekhanov - he once described himself as "member Number 1 of the Michigan Branch of the G.V Plekhanov fan club" [2] - I began to wonder if perhaps something was amiss in North's account. I did not have available to me the Nicolaevsky Collection from which North quotes,but I do have a copy of Trotsky’s book Political Profiles (published by the press of the former Workers Revolutionary Party of the UK), which consists of a series of sketches of some of the leading figures of Social Democracy before and during the First World War that he encountered during his years of exile in Europe. Most of the sketches were written before the October Revolution although a few consist of speeches Trotsky gave in the early years after the revolution. One such well known piece was a talk Trotsky gave to a meeting of the Moscow Soviet on the day that Plekhanov died in 1918. Trotsky's tone in this speech, titled "In memory of Plekhanov" [3] was to claim for the revolution all that was positive and of lasting value in Plekhanov and discard that which the enemies of the revolution embraced, namely Plekhanov's social chauvinism and his hostility to the revolution.

But there is an earlier piece in that book with the title "Stop Worrying Us" written in 1915, in which Trotsky berates Plekhanov for mis-educating the new generation of workers and youth with imprecations aimed at the parliamentary deputies representing the Social Democrats. Plekhanov called on the deputies to support the war efforts of the Tsarist government. Although Trotsky acknowledged the pioneering work of Plekhanov he was not one to mince his words, and gave free expression to his outrage. He wrote,

"And while immediately around Plekhanov in his surrounding retinue of nobodies there is no one who could make him understand that his public actions are not only destroying him; but also hopelessly darken the image which now forms the property of party history, we are left not only the duty but the right to be contemptuous."[4]

Trotsky addressing Red Army soldiers in Moscow, 1918

So it turns out that in this one instance Service was not making up out of whole cloth the notion that Trotsky held Plekhanov in "utter contempt". True, Service adds the word “utter” in his depiction of Trotsky’s attitude. His account is also one-sided. He provides no context and gives the impression that Trotsky’s attitude toward Plekhanov was solely one of contempt when in reality it was far more complex than that. It is also obvious that Service provided the wrong citation. Instead of the letter to Axelrod, which as North points out, provides no evidence of Trotsky holding Plekhanov in contempt, Service should have cited the sketch “Stop Worrying Us” which does in fact provide some support for his claim. So while it is true, as North says, that “There is nothing in the referenced paragraph that suggests that Trotsky’s attitude toward Plekhanov had become one of “utter contempt.” it is also true that there is solid evidence in another paragraph from a published essay by Trotsky in this same period that he felt a good deal of contempt (if not “utter contempt”) towards Plekhanov from 1914 on. In fact Trotsky is not only describing his own feelings towards Plekhanov, but is insisting that it is both a “right” and a “duty” for other party members to hold Plekhanov in contempt! But leaving aside the smaller matter of whether Service’s footnote established what he claimed or not, the larger question remains, what was Trotsky’s attitude toward Plekhanov after the latter became a social chauvinist. On this larger question North writes,

“That sentiment [contempt], which would reflect on Trotsky’s own character, is simply invented by Service”.

As we have seen, on this larger question North is in fact wrong.

As errors go this may not seem that significant, but I would argue that it’s indicative of a mindset that thinks you can settle scores by collecting incriminating quotations. Even when North's quotation hunting is in the service of a worthy cause, in this case exposing the falsifiers of Trotsky's history, and not (as in his polemics with us) aimed at perpetuating a mythical history of his own political evolution, or smearing a political opponent, it is a poor method for historical scholarship. Furthermore, considering North’s close attention to the writings of both Trotsky and Plekhanov, it is hard to imagine that North was not aware of the quote in the essay “Stop Worrying Us”.

What can then account for North’s error at this speech in front of an audience of international historians? A hint is provided in the highlighted words of North’s last statement,

“That sentiment, which would reflect on Trotsky’s own character, is simply invented by Service.”

The implication is that an attitude of contempt by Trotsky towards Plekhanov would reflect badly on Trotsky’s own character. But why would it? When Service makes this argument [that Trotsky had “utter contempt for Plekhanov] the reason is clear enough. It is part of Service’s character assassination of Trotsky - to portray him as arrogant and overbearing toward his fellow Marxists, echoing in fact the slanders of the Stalinists. And obviously Service sees nothing wrong in Plekhanov’s social chauvinism, and therefore portrays Trotsky as unreasonable and even ungrateful to "the father of Russian Marxism". But on the other hand, why should a revolutionary not feel contempt toward Plekhanov’s support for the war, tempered it is true with respect for his past contribution to Marxism? Recall that Plekhanov’s support for the war effort was so loud and his denunciation of his fellow socialists who opposed the war so vehement that it shocked even those socialists who held a moderate position on the war question. The Italian Socialist leader Angelica Balabanoff expressed her shock when she heard Plekhanov say the following words to her,

“So far as I am concerned if I were not old and sick I would join the army. To bayonet your German comrades would give me great pleasure.”[5]

That North feels that holding Plekhanov in contempt for his actions after World War I reflects badly on Trotsky is more a comment on the drift of North’s politics than anything having to do with a historical analysis of either Trotsky or Plekhanov. For a number of years now North has partaken in an effort in the WSWS and elsewhere to soften the conflict between Social Democracy and revolutionary Marxism. This became an important issue in our polemics with North. (See Dialectical Path of Cognition and Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.) [6] Particularly in our essay The Dialectical Path of Cognition, we brought out the sharp differences that Lenin had with Plekhanov on philosophical questions. His critique of Plekhanov emerged when Lenin undertook a study of Hegel's Science of Logic in the opening days of World War I as part of an effort to get at the philosophical roots of the betrayal of orthodox Marxists such as Plekhanov and Kautsky. Lenin located their failure in their rejection of dialectics and their adaptation to the philosophical methods of the bourgeoisie. North strongly disagreed, basically denying that philosophical method has anything to do with one's political practice. North then went on to ascribe the political betrayal of the principles of socialist internationalism and opposition to imperialist war by Plekhanov and Kautsky to the personal misfortunes of their fate. We showed that North's softening of the theoretical conflict between Social Democracy and Marxism was the flip side of the WSWS's turn in practice away from Trotskyism into the blind alley of sectarian abstentionism on the one hand and adaptation to bourgeois nationalism on the other. [7] North has over the past decade continued to blur the conflict between Social Democracy and Marxism. We had noted this continuing trajectory of North's work when we commented on his participation at another conference where he indicated his solidarity with a revisionist school of historians who have in recent years denied that there was ever a philosophical break by Lenin with the Second Internartional. [8]

A page from Lenin's notes on Hegel

Thus, North's error in his lecture on Service, while a small matter in itself, provides an insight into an attitude that has been developing for over a decade. And we are not speaking about the attitude of Trotsky toward Plekhanov in this case, but the attitude of North toward Trotsky. One might say that in this one instance North goes from defending Trotsky against Service to defending North against Trotsky.

[2] I previously wrote an extended critique of North’s mostly uncritical attitude toward Plekhanov and its relationship to his current political perspective. See my essay, The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice.  For the "fan club" quote, see, page 71.
[5] Quoted in Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism, by Samuel H. Baron. P. 324.
[6] The Dialectical Path of Cognition was composed in 2003 and published on the permanent revolution web site in 2006.  That essay includes a thorough critique of Plekhanov's Marxism. See  Marxism Without its Head or its Heart (MWHH) was published in installments in 2007.  In that document the relationship between philosophy and political practice is discussed most explicitly in chapter 1,, chapter 3,
[7] For a discussion of the WSWS's sectarian abstentionism towards the revolutionary events in Mexico, see Chapter 1 of MWHH,, page 19 and following. For a discussion of the WSWS's abstentionist attitude toward an important strike of transit workers in New York, see chapter 5 of MWHH,, page 122 and following.  For a discussion of the WSWS's adaptation to bourgeois nationalism in Iraq, see chapter 2 of MWHH,, page 25 and following.  
[8] At a conference held in 2008, North shared the podium with Lars Lih, the most outspoken historian pushing the thesis of a continuity between Lenin and the theory and practice of the Second International. See Comments on 'Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism' ,   


Anonymous said...

You could be right, but the passage in question is more than a little confusing. It doesn't even parse as an English sentence so that one doesn't know for sure whether "contempt" is to be felt for Plekhanov, his hangers-on, or both. It would probably require an analysis of the original to settle this for sure.

Alex Steiner said...

Here is the passage you say doesn't even parse as English:

"And while immediately around Plekhanov in his surrounding retinue of nobodies there is no one who could make him understand that his public actions are not only destroying him; but also hopelessly darken the image which now forms the property of party history, we are left not only the duty but the right to be contemptuous."

The English is admittedly awkward but I think Trotsky's meaning is clear enough. The contempt is reserved for Plekhanov not only because his recent actions supporting an imperialist war have destroyed his personal reputation but they have also blacked the legacy he left behind which affects us, the members of the party he once pioneered.