Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Trotsky on "Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle"

The blogger Dialectical Confusions usefully reminds us of a brilliantly expressive polemical passage from Trotsky, which goes to the heart of a serious social-revolutionary ethic. Trotsky spelled out the implications more fully in "Their Morals and Ours", where he defends what I would describe—in modified Weberian terms—as a revolutionary ethic of absolute responsibility. (Trotsky's essay provoked an interesting critical response from John Dewey ... which has struck some people as brilliantly insightful and others as vague and unconvincing.)

In an era when many people who used to consider themselves Marxists or semi-Marxists have morphed into neo-Kantian legalists and/or multi-culturalists (while often continuing to defend or make excuses for violence and terrorism committed by any groups they consider oppressed and/or aggrieved), it is worth being reminded that a genuine ethic of total revolution can be defended in a way that is worth taking seriously. Even if one happens to disagree with this kind of position (which I do), a morally and intellectually serious defense of it has the advantage of bringing out its fundamental premises and implications.

—Jeff Weintraub

Dialectical Confusions
Monday, July 3, 2006

Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle
As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life.” We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.
Ah, polemic.

# posted by DC @ 3:01 PM

P.S. Brad DeLong agrees that "when [the] DEITY made Lev Bronstein, she broke the mold." But he goes on to add:
Me, I'm going to line up alongside John Maynard Keynes, and endorse Keynes's view of Trotsky:
Review of Trotsky On England (Where is Britain Going?), by John Maynard Keynes. From John Maynard Keynes (1933), Essays in Biography (London: Harcourt, Brace).
I had forgotten that particular piece by Keynes, so it was a nice favor for Brad to remind us of it. I don't think it fully captures Trotsky, but some parts of it are brilliant. For example:
Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation. [....] He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for.
Sounds harsh ... but it captures a crucial lacuna in a whole century of "revolutionary" Marxist & Marxist/Leninist discourse & argument. Much of it has started from the premise, explicit or implicit, that The Solution for mankind's problems is clear, obviously workable, and ready to be put into effect--namely, Socialism (or Communism). Getting there requires the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. So the question is how to find the strategies and generate the will to accomplish that job. (Anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating or generalizing too broadly should revisit, for example, the accumulated work of someone like Perry Anderson.)

Millions of people have accepted that this premise was valid, even obviously correct. Why, and on what basis? Frankly, that's a great world-historical puzzle.

=> Then there is this passage, in which I was especially struck by the sentence I've bolded.
Well, that is how the gentlemen who so much alarm Mr. Winston Churchill strike the real article. And we must hope that the real article, having got it off his chest, feels better. How few words need changing, let the reader note, to permit the attribution of my anthology [of Trotsky's attacks on reformist politicians and political intellectuals --JW] to the philo-fisticuffs of the Right. And the reason for this similarity is evident. Trotsky is concerned in these passages with an attitude towards public affairs, not with ultimate aims. He is just exhibiting the temper of the band of brigand-statesmen to whom Action means War, and who are irritated to fury by the atmosphere of sweet reasonableness, of charity, tolerance, and mercy in which, though the wind whistles in the East or in the South, Mr. Baldwin and Lord Oxford and Mr. MacDonald smoke the pipe of peace. "They smoke Peace where there should be no Peace," Fascists and Bolshevists cry in a chorus, "canting, imbecile emblems of decay, senility, and death, the antithesis of Life and the Life-Force which exist only in the spirit of merciless struggle." If only it was so easy! If only one could accomplish by roaring, whether roaring like a lion or like any sucking dove!
That bolded sentence is both penetrating and gracefully phrased.

=> On the other hand, I think one has to regard judgments like these more equivocally.
Trotsky's book must confirm us in our conviction of the uselessness, the empty-headedness of Force at the present stage of human affairs. Force would settle nothing no more in the Class War than in the Wars of Nations or in the Wars of Religion. An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things.
Well, yes and no. Reflecting on the historical experience of the 70-odd years since Keynes wrote this passage, I'm not so sure. This historical experience certainly does not suggest that a preference for resorting to Force is a good idea--quite the contrary. I would agree that love of Force and direct Action for their own sake, and contempt for compromise and negotiation, are foolish as well as dangerous. But the reality is that Force does settle and accomplish quite a bit (though not always what is intended). It has not become politically or strategically obsolete.

Yours for reality-based discourse (& learning from experience),
Jeff Weintraub