Preface to a Book on War and Peace

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 1 March 1940

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p. 886-891]
Keywords : Pacifism, WW2, War

March-April 1940

To begin with, I am printing an article first published in May 1929, i.e., several weeks after my deportation to Turkey. This article will, to a certain extent, serve as an introduction to several of the other articles, providing a perspective on the overall development. It has undergone eleven years of serious testing since that time. The article was printed in the American magazine The New Republic, before its editors had received their revelation of the “true word” from the Kremlin. The editors supplied my article with their own commentary, which now, eleven years later, acquires special interest. My principal misfortune, in the opinion of the editors, consisted in a “rigid Marxism,” which prevented me from fathoming or grasping the “realistic view of history.” The most glaring lack of a realistic view of history was shown in my evaluation of formal democracy, i.e., the parliamentary regime, which, I said in that article, had for the first time come into conflict with the development of society and would necessarily disappear from one country after another. The New Republic editors contended against me that democracy was subject to ruin only in those countries where it had established only “the feeblest beginnings” and in countries where “the industrial revolution has hardly more than started.” The editors did not explain, or trouble themselves with the impossibility of explaining, why these feeble beginnings of democracy, if it is a viable form, did not undergo further maturation, as had happened with the older capitalist countries, but instead were swept away by various systems of dictatorship. The second reference, to the inadequacy of industrial development, or, more correctly, of capitalist development, holds relatively true for Russia, Italy, the countries of southeast Europe, the Balkans, and Spain. But one can hardly speak of the inadequacy of industrial development in Austria and Germany. Moreover, in these two countries democracy held out for about fifteen years before giving way to fascist dictatorships. The New Republic editors did not foresee this, although my own “rigid Marxism” and lack of “a realistic view of history” did not prevent me from forecasting such developments.

The third argument of the then editors of The New Republic is still more striking. Kerensky, with his weakness and indecisiveness, was, you see, “an historic accident, which Trotsky cannot admit, because there is no room in his mechanistic schema for any such thing.” The weakness of Kerensky’s character as an individual was, to be sure, an accident from the point of view of historical development. But the fact that a historically belated democracy, condemned from its very beginnings, could not find anyone but the weak and vacillating Kerensky to be its leader is no accident.

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Democrats of various shadings ruled in Germany and Austria for a number of years. All allowed themselves to be removed from the political scene without resistance. One may say, of course, that the weakness of Scheidemann, Ebert, Renner, and others was “an historic accident.” But why were these people allowed to assume the leadership of the democracy? Are we not entitled to conclude that a historically belated democracy, tom by internal contradictions and condemned to historical death, cannot find anyone for its leadership other than people without clear ideas and strong wills? Or, if not, are we not justified in asserting that, independently of their personal character traits, the leaders of formal democracy in times of crisis lose their composure under the pressure of historical contradictions and give up their positions without a fight? If this kind of historical accident repeats itself time after time in states at various levels of development, then we have the right to conclude that before us are not isolated historical exceptions, but instances of a general historical law.

The most recent verification of this law was the fate of the Spanish republic.

One may say, to be sure, that the personal characters of Zamora, Azana, Caballero, Negrín, and others are their unfortunate personal property and, in this sense, “an historic accident.” But it was no accident that precisely these people assumed the leadership of the decadent, belated democracy and, although they put up a fight this time, they did surrender all their positions to a worthless clique of generals. I will therefore allow myself to think that a “mechanistic schema” is not so bad, if it allows one to foresee major events.

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In the bourgeois press of the world it has now become the custom to depict the [present situation] as the product of the evil will of one man. The initiative for this concept belongs to France: “Isn’t it really because of the will of one person, a single madman, that Europe and all humanity will again be plunged into the abyss of war?” This concept then crossed over to England and the United States. The story goes that the whole world is generally the flourishing site of peaceful and fraternal relations. But a dictator appeared from somewhere and this one person was able to plunge the whole world, with its millions of inhabitants, into war. This is the same concept The New Republic elaborated in regard to Kerensky and the October Revolution. There the trouble was that a weak person assumed the leadership of the democracy and did not know how to prevent strongmen from toppling the democracy and replacing it with a dictatorship. Here the misfortune is that in Germany a strongman in power has upset the peace that is favored by the more powerful democracies.

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That which has happened is not, by far, what was foreseen in these articles. And what they foresaw is not, by far, what has happened. Such is the fate of every political prognosis. Reality is immeasurably richer in resources, variants, and combinations than any imagination. That the war would begin with the division of Poland between Germany and the USSR, we did not predict. A more attentive, detailed analysis might well have suggested that variant too. But when all is said and done, the division of Poland is only an episode.

A prognosis is valuable not insofar as it expresses or finds photographically exact confirmation in subsequent developments but rather in the extent to which, by projecting historical factors ahead, it helps us to orient ourselves in the actual development of events. From this point of view it seems to us that the articles collected in this volume have withstood the test. The author feels he has the right to add that even now, by illuminating the present in the light of the past, they [can still be of value].

Events work at such a pace that some predictions are realized or confirmed much earlier than one could suppose. Thus, when we spoke in an interview [with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 14, 1940] of the inevitability of United States intervention in the war, it was seen as heresy which every party and every shading of party opinion in the United States rejected. That was only about a month ago, and today, as these lines are being written, the American press, commenting on the invasion of Scandinavia by the Germans, is saying that intervention by the United States is entirely possible in the year ahead.

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On March 9, 1939, Mr. Chamberlain assured foreign correspondents that the international situation had improved, that Anglo-German relations had thawed, and that disarmament could be placed on the order of the day. Six days later the German army occupied Czechoslovakia.

In 1937 Mr. Roosevelt proclaimed neutrality, not foreseeing at all the incompatibility of that doctrine with the global position of the United States.

Such examples can be cited without end. One can almost state it as a law that the ruling posts in contemporary democracies are filled only by those who have demonstrated for a period of years that they cannot orient themselves in the present situation and can foresee nothing.

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In June 1939 I had a chat with a group of American travelers on questions of world politics. The talk touched upon the World’s Fair in New York. This exhibit is undoubtedly a magnificent triumph of human genius. But when they call it “the world of tomorrow,” they give it a one-sided name — one-sided at the very least. Tomorrow’s world will appear differently. To give a true picture of tomorrow’s world, they should have had bombers fly over and drop their loads for hundreds of miles around. The presence of human genius side by side with terrifying barbarism — that is the image of tomorrow’s world. Here too our “rigid schema” has proved to be correct. What is important in scientific thinking, especially in complicated questions of politics and history, is to distinguish the basic from the secondary, the essential from the incidental, to foresee the movement of the essential factors of development. To people whose thinking goes only from day to day, who seek comfort in all kinds of episodic occurrences without bringing them together into one overall picture, scientific thinking that proceeds from basic, fundamental factors seems dogmatic; in politics this paradox is met with at every turn.

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If the author has foreseen some things correctly, the credit for this belongs not to him personally, but to the method which he applied. In any other field, people — or at least specially trained people — consider the application of a definite method to be essential. It’s a different matter in politics. Here sorcery predominates. Highly educated people believe that, for a political operation, one’s powers of observation, eye measurements, a certain stock of slyness, and common sense are sufficient. The illusion of free will is the source of this subjective arbitrariness. In America, the view of the politician as an “engineer,” who takes the raw material and builds according to his own blueprints is especially widespread. Nothing is more naive and barren than this point of view. However, as in any philosophy, including the philosophy of history, there is a correct way of conceiving the interrelation of the subjective with the objective. In the final reckoning the objective factors always predominate over the subjective. Therefore correct politics begins with an analysis of the real world and an analysis of the trends at work within it. Only thus can one arrive at a correct scientific prediction and a correct intervention into a process on the basis of this prediction. Any other approach would be sorcery.

People of a vulgar turn of mind could now allude to the defeat of that political current to which the author of this book belonged and still belongs. How could it happen that the empiricist Stalin defeated the faction which followed the scientific method? Doesn’t this mean that common sense has the advantage over doctrinairism? Every sorcerer has a certain percentage of patients who recover. And every doctor has a certain percentage of patients who die. From this, many primitive people are inclined to give preference to sorcery over medicine. But in fact, science can demonstrate that in the one case the patient recovered in spite of the intervention of the sorcerer, and in the other the patient died because medical science, at least at its present state, could not effectively overcome the destructive powers affecting the organism; in both cases one must correctly determine the relation between the objective and subjective.

In politics the scientific method cannot provide victories in all cases. Sorcery, on the other hand, in certain cases provides a victory when this victory is founded on the objective alignments and general tendencies of development.

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There are people who consider themselves educated but who permit themselves such summary judgments as that “the October Revolution was a failure.” And what about the French Revolution? It ended in the restoration, though episodic, of the Bourbons. And the Civil War in the United States? It led to the rule of the Sixty Families. And all of human history in general? So far it has led to the second imperialist war, which threatens our entire civilization. It is impossible not to say, then, that all of history has been a mistake and a failure. Finally, what of human beings themselves — no small factor in history? Isn’t it necessary to say that this product of prolonged biological evolution is a failure? No one is forbidden of course to make such general observations. But they derive from the individual experience of the petty shopkeeper, or from theosophy, and [do not] apply to the historical process as a whole or to its overall stages, its main chapters, or its episodes.