The Individual in History

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 10 May 1938


[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 11, 1938-1938, New York ²1974, p. 129 f.]

I have come to the necessity of clarifying a theoretical question which also has a great political importance. It essentially involves the relation between the political or historical personality and the "milieu." To go straight to the heart of the problem, I would like to mention Souvarine's book on Stalin, in which the author accuses the heads of the Left Opposition, myself included, of various errors, omissions, blunders, etc., beginning with 1923.

I do not at all wish to deny that there were many mistakes, unskillful acts, and even stupidities. Nevertheless, what is important, from the theoretical as well as the political viewpoint, is the relation, or rather the disproportion, between these "errors" and their consequences. It is precisely in this disproportion that the reactionary character of the new historical stage expressed itself.

We made not a few mistakes in 1917 and in the following years. But the sweep of the revolution filled up these gaps and repaired the errors, often with our aid, sometimes even without our direct participation. But for this period the historians, including Souvarine, are indulgent because the struggle ended in victory. During the second half of 1917 and the following years, it was the turn of the liberals and Mensheviks to commit errors, omissions, blunders, etc.

I would like to illustrate this historical "law" once again with the example of the Great French Revolution in which, thanks to the remoteness in time, the relations between the actors and their milieus appear much more clear-cut and crystallized.

At a certain moment in the revolution the Girondin leaders entirely lost their sense of direction. Despite their popularity, their intelligence, they could commit nothing but errors and inept acts. They seemed to participate actively in their own downfall. Later it was the turn of Danton and his friends.

Historians and biographers never stop wondering at the confused, passive, and puerile attitude of Danton in the last months of his life. The same thing for Robespierre and his associates: disorientation, passivity, and incoherence at the most critical moment.

The explanation is obvious. Each of these groupings had at a given moment exhausted its political possibilities and could no longer move forward against the overpowering reality: internal economic conditions, international pressure, the new currents that these generated among the masses, etc. Under these conditions, each step began to produce results contrary to those that were hoped for.

But political abstention was hardly more favorable. The stages of the revolution and counterrevolution succeeded one another at an accelerated pace, the contradictions between the protagonists of a certain program and the changed situation acquired an unexpected and extremely acute character. That gives the historian the possibility of displaying his retrospective wisdom by enumerating and cataloguing the mistakes, omissions, ineptness. But, unfortunately, these historians abstain from indicating the right road which would have been able to lead a moderate to victory in a period of revolutionary upswing, or on the contrary, to indicate a reasonable and triumphant revolutionary policy in a Thermidorean period.