Historical Objectiveness ...

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 1 April 1933

Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 35, 15 July 1933, p. 4.
Collection(s): The Militant

Everyone digests his food and oxygenates his blood. But not everyone will dare write a thesis about digestion and blood circulation. Not so with the social sciences. Since each person lives under the influence of the market and of the historic process in general, it is considered sufficient to possess common sense in order to write exercises on economic and especially historico-philosophic themes. As a general rule only “objectives” is demanded of an historical work. In point of fact whatever does hear this high-sounding title in the language of common sense, has nothing to do with scientific objectiveness.

The Philistine, especially if he is separated from the fighting arena by space and time, considers himself elevated above the fighting camps from the mere fact that he understands neither one of them. He sincerely takes his blindness regarding the working of historical forces for the height of impartiality, just as he is used to considering himself the normal measure of all things. Notwithstanding their documentary value, too many historical papers are being written according to this standard. A blunting of sharp edges, even distribution of light and shadow, a conciliatory moralising, with a thorough disguising of the author’s political sympathies, easily secures for a historical work the high reputation of “objectiveness.”

In so far as the subject of investigation is a phenomenon, as poorly reconcilable with common sense as revolution, this historical “objectiveness” dictates in advance its immutable conclusions: the cause of the disturbances lies in the fact that the conservatives were much too conservative, the revolutionaries much too revolutionary: the historical excesses called civil war can in the future be avoided if the private owners will be more generous, and the hungry people more moderate. A book with such tendencies has a good effect on the nerves, especially during an epoch of world crisis.

The demand of science, and not of a parlor-philistine “objectives”, really is that one should expose the social conditioning of historical events, no matter how unpleasant they may be for the nerves. History is not a dumping-ground for documents and moral maxims. History is a science no less objective than physiology. It requires not a hypocritical “unpartiality” but a scientific method. One can accept or reject the materialistic dialectic as a method of historical science, but one must reckon with it. Scientific objectiveness can be and must be lodged in the very method itself. If the author did not manage its proper application it must be pointed out exactly where.

I attempted to base my History not on my own political sympathies, but on the material foundations of society. Revolution I considered as the process, conditioned by all the past, of the direct struggle of classes for power. The center of attention for me was those changes in the consciousness of the classes taking place under the effect of the feverish tempo of their own struggle. I considered political parties and political agents in no other light than that of mass shifts and clashes. Four parallel processes conditioned by the social structure of the country formed thus the background of the whole narrative; the evolution of the consciousness of the proletariat from February to October; the change of the moods in the army; a growth of the peasant vindictiveness; the awakening and insurgence of the oppressed nationalities. By revealing the dialectic of the consciousness of masses thrown out of equilibrium, the author ought to give the nearest immediate key to all the events of the revolution.

A literary work is “truthful” or artistic when the inter-relations of the heroes develop, not according to the author’s desires, but according to the latent forces of the characters and setting. Scientific knowledge differs greatly from the artistic. But the two also have some traits in common, defined by the dependence of the description on the thing described. An historical work is scientific when facts combine into one whole process which, as in life, lives according to its own interior laws.

Is the depiction of the classes of Russia true? Do these classes through their parties and politicians talk their own language? Do the events – naturally, without being forced – go back to the social source, i.e. to the struggle of living historic forces? Does the general conception of the revolution conflict with actual facts? I must admit with gratitude that a large number of critics have approached my work precisely from the standpoint of these really objective, i.e., scientific criteria. Their critical remarks may be right or wrong, but the great majority of them are fruitful.

It is not accidental, however, that those critics who miss “objectiveness” neglect completely the problem of historic determinism. They are really complaining about the “injustice” of the author toward his opponents, as if it were a question not of scientific research, but of a school report-card with marks for good conduct. One of the critics is offended for the monarchy, another for the liberals, a third for the compromisers. Since the sympathies of these critics got neither recognition nor indulgence from the actual reality in 1917, they would now like to find consolation in the pages of history; just as some people seek shelter from the blows of destiny in romantic literature. But the last thing the author had in mind was to console anybody. He merely wished to interpret in his book the verdict of the historical process itself.[1] The offended persons themselves, by the way, in spite of the fifteen or sixteen years which they have had at their disposal, have never attempted to explain the causes of what happened to them. The White emigration has not produced one single historical work worthy of the name. The cause of its misfortunes it still tries to find in “German gold”, the illiteracy of the masses, the criminal plots of the Bolsheviks. The personal irritation of the apostles of objectiveness – I trust this is indisputable – must necessarily be the sharper, the more convincingly the historical narrative reveals the inevitability of their destruction and their want of any hope for the future.

The more cautious of these politically disappointed critics often disguise the source of their annoyance in complaints to the effect that the author of the History permits himself to use polemics and irony. That, they seem to think, is beneath the dignity of the scientific guild. But revolution itself is a polemic become a mass action. Nor is irony lacking to the historical process; during a revolution it can be measured in millions of horse-power. Speeches, resolutions, letters of those taking part, as well as their subsequent recollections, have necessarily a polemic character. There is nothing easier than to “reconcile” all this chaos of bitter struggle of interests and ideas according to the method of the golden mean; there is also nothing more fruitless. The author strove to define the true relative might in the course of the social struggle of all opinions, slogans, promises and demands by means of a critical (or, if you wish, polemical) sorting and cleaning. The individual he reduced to the social, the particular to the general, the subjective he confronted with the objective. This is exactly what history consists of in our opinion as a science.

There exists a quiet special group of critics who are offended personally for Stalin, and for whom history outside of that question does not exist. These people consider themselves “friends” of the Russian revolution. In reality they are merely attorneys for the Soviet bureaucracy. That is not the same thing. The bureaucracy grew stronger as the activity of the masses weakened. The power of the bureaucracy is an expression of the reaction against the revolution. It is true that this reaction is still developing on the foundations laid by the October revolution, but even so it is a reaction. The attorneys of the bureaucracy are often attorneys of the anti-October reaction. This is not altered by the fact that they perform their functions unconsciously.

Like shop-keepers grown rich who create for themselves a new and more suitable genealogy, the bureaucratic stratum[2] which grew out of the revolution has created its own historiography. Hundreds of rotary presses are at its service. But its quantity does not make up for its scientific quality. Even to I please the most disinterested friends of the Soviet authorities, I could not leave untouched those historic legends which are perhaps very flattering to the vanity of the bureaucracy, but which nevertheless have the misfortune to contradict facts and documents.

I shall confine myself to one single example which, as it seems to me, well illustrates the matter. A number of pages in my book are devoted to refuting the fairy-tale created after 1924 to the effect that I attempted to postpone the armed insurrection until after the Congress of Soviets, while Lenin, it seems, backed by a majority of the Central Executive Committee, succeeded in having the insurrection carried, out on the eve of the Congress. By adducing numerous evidences, mostly indirect, I tried to prove – and I think I undeniably did prove – that Lenin, cut off by his illegal status from the theatre of struggle, was too impatient to bring on the insurrection, separating it completely from the Congress of Soviets. I, on the other hand, backed by the majority of the Central Committee, tried to bring the insurrection as near as possible to the Congress of Soviets, and cover it with the latter’s authority. With all its importance the disagreement was of a purely practical and temporary character. Later Lenin frankly admitted that he had been in the wrong.

While I was working on my History I did not have in hand the collection of speeches pronounced at the Moscow anniversary meeting of April 23, 1920, celebrating Lenin’s 50th birthday. One of the pages in that book reads verbatim as follows:

“We in the Central Committee decided to go ahead with reinforcing the Soviets, to summon the Congress of Soviets, to open the insurrection, and proclaim the Congress of Soviets the organ of state power. Ilych, who was then in hiding, did not agree and wrote (in the middle of September – L.D.) that ... the Democratic Conference must be dissolved and arrested. We understand that things were not so simple ... All the holes, the pitfalls on our course were more visible to us ... In spite of all Ilych’s demands we went ahead with reinforcement, and on the 25th of October confronted the picture of an insurrection, Ilych smiling, slyly looking at us, said: ‘Yes, you were right’.” (Fifteenth Anniversary of V.I. Ulyanov-Lenin, 1920, pp. 2728)

The above quotation is taken from a speech pronounced by none other than Stalin, some five years before he put into circulation the poisonous insinuation that I attempt to “belittle” the role of Lenin in the revolution of October 25th. If the just quoted document, which fully confirms my story (in cruder terms, it is true), had been in my hands a year ago, it would have relieved me of the necessity of adducing indirect and less authoritative proofs. But, on the other hand, I am content that this small book, forgotten by all, poorly printed on poor paper (1920, a heavy year!) happened into my hand so late. By this very fact it brings additional and very striking proof of the “objectiveness”, or, more simply the truthfulness of my narrative even in the sphere of those disputed questions of a personal character.

Nobody – I shall allow myself to state this in a most categorical manner – nobody has so far found in my narrative a violation of truthfulness which is the first commandment for historical, as well as all other narratives. Particular lapses are possible. Tendentious distortions – no! If it were possible to find in the Moscow archives even one single document directly or indirectly refuting or weakening my narrative, it would have been long ago translated and published in all languages. The adverse theorem is not hard to prove: all the documents in the least degree dangerous to the official legends are carefully kept out of sight. It is not surprising that the advocates of the Stalin bureaucracy, calling themselves friends of the October revolution have to make up for this lack of arguments by a surplus of zeal. But this type of criticism worries my scientific conscience least of all. Legends dissolve, facts remain.

Prinkipo, April 1, 1933

Leon Trotsky
  1. The printed version contains a proofreading error: “But the last thing the author had in mind was to interpret in his book the verdict of the historical process itself.” – see J.G.W., Correction, The Militant, Vol. VI No. 36, 22 July 1933, p. 3.
  2. Eastman’s translation was “bureaucratic class” – ibid.