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

Note: This essay was first published on Dec 8, 2008

By Andrew River 

It has long been the case that David North is engaged in a systematic campaign to blur the distinction between Marxism and objectivism. North’s latest foray in this endeavor was a speech he recently presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) at its 2008 National Convention in Philadelphia on November 20-23. The speech, with the title “Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism” was subsequently published on the World Socialist Web Site. [1]

Before examining what North said, we must note that the venue itself is of some interest. The AAASS is a typical academic association that includes representatives from various political and theoretical orientations, undoubtedly including some very right wing individuals. Founded in 1938, the AAASS’ website reveals that “its representatives serve on such bodies as the U.S. State Department's Advisory Committee for Studies of Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the former Soviet Union, and the International Council for Central and East European Studies.” [2] Such organizations during the Cold War years were heavily infiltrated and financed by the CIA. (Indeed, when the past president of the AAASS, James R. Millar, died recently, it was noted in his obituary in the Washington Post that he had been a resident academic scholar employed by the CIA. [3])

That being said, there is nothing wrong with North addressing this conference. Indeed, he has a responsibility to defend the perspective of Trotskyism, even in such venues, when the opportunity presents itself. However, it is somewhat curious that whereas North has no problem attending forums sponsored by mainstream bourgeois academic organizations, he has never bothered to defend Trotskyism at any self-professed left wing forum. North has never presented the views of the Socialist Equality Party at any of the annual Left Forums held in New York or its predecessor, the Socialist Scholars Conference. Nor did North or any representative from the SEP make a presentation at a well publicized conference devoted to the topic of the Legacy of Leon Trotsky held at Fordham University this past summer.

Furthermore, it is rather incredible that North has no problem participating in conferences sponsored by an organization that has ties to the U.S. government, but in the WSWS smear campaign against Alex Steiner, North attacked Steiner for his educational activities with a left-wing alternative educational institution that has no government ties whatsoever, claiming this as proof of Steiner’s supposed “political associations” with middle class radicalism and the Frankfurt School [4]. By this same standard, one could accuse North himself of “political associations” with the AAASS and consequently with the US government. No doubt North would be outraged at such a flagrant use of guilt-by-association, but he has no trouble in resorting to the very same method when it comes to smearing Steiner.

In his presentation North bemoans the fate of Trotsky scholarship, which he sees as “drying up” after the publication of Baruch Knei-Paz's study of Trotsky’s thought, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, first published in 1978. He contrasts the period since the publication of that book with the 1950s and 1960s when Deutscher’s classic biography of Trotsky appeared amidst a renewed interest in the life and work of Trotsky and of the Russian Revolution coinciding with the revelations of Khrushchev and the beginning of the decades long unraveling of Stalinism.

“This drying up of Trotsky scholarship after 1978 is a curious phenomenon. After all, the deepening crisis of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe throughout the 1980s certainly justified a more intensive review of the work of Trotsky…”

North has a tale to tell and he is not one to let facts get in his way. He states that,

“The only notable and original contribution to Trotsky studies that appeared in the 1980s—such a tumultuous decade in Soviet history—was a small monograph, entitled Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, that focused on Trotsky’s achievements as a military strategist.”

While I can wholeheartedly agree that there has been a neglect of Trotsky scholarship in the past 30 years, North’s narrative overlooks an exception to this assessment, namely, that the most important contribution to Trotsky scholarship in the 1980s was not the minor work on military affairs cited by North, but the publication in 1986 of Trotsky’s Philosophical Notebooks. The discovery of the Notebooks by Philip Pomper in the Harvard Archives and their subsequent publication under the title Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-1935: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics, and Evolutionism, dwarfs anything else in the field of Trotsky scholarship for the past 40 years, Knei-Paz’s book included [5].

That North does not even mention the Trotsky Notebooks in a forum devoted to Trotsky scholarship is noteworthy but not surprising. For as was noted in an appreciation published earlier this year devoted to the Trotsky Notebooks,

“One would have thought that the publication of Trotsky’s Notebooks more than twenty years ago would have elicited renewed interest in the theoretical side of Trotsky’s work. However such has not been the case. While Trotsky is justifiably remembered as a supreme man of action, the co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution and the architect of the Red Army, there is little recognition of his importance as a Marxist theoretician. Unfortunately, the publication of the Notebooks has done little to dispel that viewpoint. In sharp contrast to the excitement caused by the publication of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (Volume 38 of his Collected Works) in English in the early 1960’s, there has been virtually no commentary on Trotsky’s Notebooks. This silence facilitates the prejudices of contemporary left wing intellectuals who continue to minimize Trotsky’s theoretical contributions.” [6]

One may add that notable among those authors who have been conspicuous by their silence about Trotsky’s Notebooks has been David North himself. Up till now the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has not devoted a single article or even a reference to this most seminal event in Trotsky scholarship since the Harvard Archives were opened. What accounts for the silence about this work that provides a glimpse into Trotsky’s views on Hegel, Lenin, Dialectics, Evolution and Freud, topics that Trotsky normally kept behind the scenes in his published writings? In North’s case, the Trotsky Notebooks must be made to disappear because the topics they cover do not conform to his version of Marxism, one that closes the door to a serious exploration of these issues.

Were one to ask why North’s version of Marxism finds such topics anathema, we would find a clue in examining North’s explanation of the causes for the lacunae in Trotsky scholarship. Let us then turn to that topic.

According to North, a major cause of the neglect of Trotsky scholarship has been the conservative political climate of the past two decades, particularly the period after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it seemed to many that Marxism was a failed 19th century doctrine that had little relevance to the contemporary world. And there is certainly a great deal of truth to this. But North doesn’t stop there. He provides a supplementary explanation for the neglect of Trotsky scholarship – one that is the real focus of his talk. He claims that the type of Marxism espoused by Trotsky has gone out of fashion among left intellectuals. According to North, Trotsky was the last great representative of what he calls “classical Marxism”, which he identifies as follows,

“It is not possible at this time to offer an exposition of Trotsky’s philosophical worldview and his conception of politics and human culture. But it must be said, for the sake of the argument being presented here, that crucial elements of this world view included an irreconcilable commitment to philosophical materialism, belief in the law-governed character of the historical process, confidence in the power of human reason (to the extent that this faculty is understood materialistically) and its ability to discover objective truth, and, associated with this, belief in the progressive role of science. Trotsky was a determinist, an optimist, and an internationalist, convinced that the socialist revolution arose necessarily out of the insoluble contradictions of the world capitalist system. Above all, he insisted that there existed a revolutionary force within society, the working class, that would overthrow the capitalist system and lay the foundations for world socialism.”

Now one can agree that Trotsky was indeed the last great representative of “classical Marxism”. But what North means by this term is very different than how this term has been understood traditionally in the Trotskyist movement. “Classical Marxism” is the Marxism of Marx and Engels and later of Luxemburg and Lenin, whereas for North it really means the Marxism of Second International orthodoxy, i.e. the Marxism of Kautsky and Plekhanov. Second International orthodoxy however was not a form of classical Marxism but in many ways its opposite. Second International orthodoxy conceived of Marxism as a form of economic determinism that upheld a “stages” view of history and considered socialism to be inevitable. The belief in the inevitability of socialism naturally took the teeth out of revolutionary struggle and in fact peacefully coexisted with a reformist day to day practice. Trotsky, like Lenin, resurrected the traditions of classical Marxism by breaking from Second International orthodoxy and stressing the decisive role of conscious leadership in forging the transition from capitalism to the socialist future of mankind. Trotsky also decisively broke from the “stages” theory of history in developing his ground-breaking theory of permanent revolution.

What North consistently does, in this speech as elsewhere, is to blur the distinction between the reductive economic determinism of the Second International and the standpoint of classical Marxism, as embodied in Bolshevism and Trotskyism. Thus North describes Trotsky here as a “determinist” who was “convinced that the socialist revolution arose necessarily out of the insoluble contradictions of the world capitalist system” – a description that applies just as well to a Kautsky or a Plekhanov. To describe Trotsky as this kind of a “determinist”, without any qualification, is to conflate classical Marxism with vulgar materialism. Trotsky’s entire career as a revolutionary was built on a break with this kind of determinism, as the following characteristic quote (from one of his speeches to the Communist International) makes clear:

“History has provided the basic premise for the success of the revolution – in the sense that society cannot any longer develop its productive forces on bourgeois foundations. But history does not at all assume upon itself – in place of the working class, in place of the politicians of the working class, in place of the Communists, the solution of this entire task. No, History seems to say to the proletarian vanguard (let us imagine for a moment that history is a figure looming above us), History says to the working class, ‘You must know that unless you cast down the bourgeoisie, you will perish beneath the ruins of civilization. Try, solve this task!’ Such is the state of affairs today.” [7]

What Trotsky is saying is that while the conditions for socialism are indeed “determined” through the internal dynamic of capitalism and its crisis, the resolution of that crisis is entirely contingent on the theoretical and political maturity of the working class and especially its revolutionary leadership. This is a fundamentally different conception of determinism than the inevitabilism of Second International orthodoxy as expressed by Kautsky and Plekhanov.

Indeed, if one were to accept North’s exposition of Trotsky’s thought, one would be hard-pressed to understand what the philosophical differences are between Trotsky and the old mechanistic materialism Marx attacked, or between Trotsky and the leading theoreticians of the Second International. There is no room for revolutionary dialectics in North’s treatment. Trotsky’s philosophy is presented as a clock that runs without a spring, a blind inevitabilism that cuts out all mediating factors (including the subjective dialectic of human consciousness) from history.

Yet according to North, this brand of Second International orthodoxy that he falsely portrays as the legacy of Trotsky has fallen into disfavor among academics. The chief culprit for this state of affairs in North’s indictment will come as a surprise to some readers. After taking on right wing opponents of Marxism such as Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest, and pro-Stalinist academics such as Robert Thurston, North comes to the real target of his ire, the Frankfurt School. North has been using the Frankfurt School for some time as a kind of ideological bogeyman to explain everything from the rise of postmodernism to the celebration of the irrational by fascists. And now according to North, it is the pervasive influence of the Frankfurt School in academia that is responsible for the demise of Trotsky scholarship in the last three decades.

North’s blanket indictment of the Frankfurt School as being responsible for all the ills of contemporary culture has already been refuted and will be explored in more detail on another occasion. [8] Aside from the fact that North’s explanation conveniently sidesteps his own share of responsibility for the neglect of Trotsky scholarship, North’s invectives against the Frankfurt School are so historically inaccurate that virtually no one who knows anything about this piece of intellectual history could take them seriously.

It is worth noting that for all that invective, North has no compunction about citing Walter Benjamin’s high opinion of Trotsky as a writer, even though Benjamin was himself associated with the Frankfurt School. [9] North also conflates the work of Adorno and Horkheimer with Hendrick de Man. North’s bogus attempt to link de Man with the Frankfurt School was exposed in Chapter 9 of Marxism Without Its Head or Heart. [10] The Frankfurters opposed de Man politically and philosophically. For instance, in 1932 Erich Fromm attacked de Man and accused him of reifying character traits of bourgeois society into human nature. [11] Again, the point here isn’t to defend the Frankfurt School against Marxist criticism, but to “treat history with a basic degree of honesty”. It is apparent that North only cites de Man as part of his ideological police action, to smear those who critique his version of Marxism as “irrationalist” and “anti-materialist”. Knowing this North could not have countenanced Trotsky’s Notebooks, which deal with the “subjective dialectic” of human consciousness, something that cannot be reduced to the crude formulas North advances.

It is significant to note that Lars Lih headed the panel where North gave his presentation at the AAASS conference. Lih, in his scholarly output on the relationship between Lenin and social democracy, denies that Lenin ever broke from the Second International orthodoxy of Plekhanov and Kautsky, and tries to depict Lenin as an unadulterated defender of their philosophical and political legacy. For Lih, Lenin defended the legacy of the Second International while Kautsky and the rest betrayed it. [12] Lih like North totally ignores Lenin’s theoretical development amidst the background of the betrayal of the Second International in 1914, an event that impelled him to break from Second International orthodoxy via a turn to a study of dialectics in his 1914-15 Conspectus on Hegel’s Logic. North and Lih all have an interest in collapsing the purportedly “good” days of the Second International with Lenin and Trotsky’s Third. They simply ignore the fact that the construction of the Third (Communist) International had to be laid on new theoretical foundations. In the words of Lenin, writing in anticipation of the New International during the dark days of World War I,

“It would be a very deplorable thing, of course, if the “Lefts” began to be careless in their treatment of Marxian theory, considering that the Third International can be established only on the basis of Marxism, unvulgarised Marxism.” [13]

[2] Quoted from the AAASS about us:

[4] See The Intellectual and Political Odyssey of Alex Steiner, Part-3, . The following is the relevant section of North’s document:
“At about the same time, Steiner was entering into new political relations of which he has made no mention in any of his attacks on the ICFI. It obviously has been his intention to conceal his present political associations from those who are reading his documents. Steiner became a lecturer on philosophy at The New School for Pluralistic Anti-Capitalist Education, also known as The New SPACE. In its literature, the New SPACE describes itself as "Resolutely anti-authoritarian and non-sectarian," bringing together "anarchists, humanist Marxists, and others." It is, to be more precise, a conglomeration of middle-class radical tendencies that are hostile to Trotskyism. Among its "Teachers, Speakers and Organizers" are individuals closely associated with the Frankfurt School, such as Kevin Anderson (whose writing is highly praised by Steiner), Stanley Aronowitz, Eric Bronner and Bertell Ollman. The faculty also includes individuals active in the Green Party and other brands of petty-bourgeois protest politics.”

[5] It should also be noted that North completely fails to mention that Knei-Paz’s study has been challenged and in large part superseded by a very recent work, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, by Kunal Chattopadhyay, Progress Publishers, Kolkata, India, October, 2006.

[7] The First Five Years of the Communist International , Volume 2, New Park Publications, p. 6
[8] A critique of North’s analysis of the Frankfurt School can be found in Chapter 6 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart: The Real Dialectic of the Enlightenment, , as well as in the essay, The Vulgar Critique of Vulgar Materialism,
[9] From North’s essay: “Trotsky, quite clearly, played a decisive role in the Russian Revolution, one of the key events of the 20th century. He was also, as it so happens, one of this century’s most brilliant literary figures. Walter Benjamin noted in his diary that Bertolt Brecht in 1931 “maintained that there were good reasons for thinking that Trotsky was the greatest living European writer.””
[10] See Chapter 9 of Marxism Without its Head or Heart “Remarks on Bernstein, ‘Neo-Utopianism’ and Political Amalgams” pages 242-243.

[11] See Fromm’s “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology” Reprinted in The Crisis of Psychoanalysis
[12] See Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. (Brill Academic Publishers, 2005)
[13] The Junius Pamphlet , Collected Works, Volume 22 . This is available online at

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