Lecture at Historians’ Convention: In Defense of Leon Trotsky

October 6th, 2012

Published on World Socialist Web Site WSWS, by David North, October 4, 2012.

… The historian who undertakes the gigantic task of writing a biography of a historical figure of Trotsky’s magnitude must be prepared to immerse himself in the archival record. He or she must be prepared to devote the years and even decades—not a few months—necessary to acquire the appropriate level of understanding of the man and the times in which he lived.  

The point I am trying to make is that the historian is obligated, by the nature of his discipline, to immerse himself in a vast objective record. Every biographer has, of course, a “standpoint.” But he should not see it as his task to lecture, harangue and denounce his subject for pursuing aims, holding views and living in times different than his own. If a politically conservative historian undertakes to write about a Russian Communist, he must still attempt to understand the historical and social context which shaped the ideas and determined the actions of his subject. The historian has, and, indeed, must have, ideas of his own. If he did not, he could not produce an interesting work. However, he must grapple with the ideas of his subject and be prepared to accept their legitimacy, at least in the sense of understanding the historical circumstances and conditions of which they were an expression. To borrow a phrase from the historian R.G. Collingwood, as recalled by E.H. Carr, “the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae…” [2]

It should not be necessary to add that the historian must exhibit an absolutely unyielding honesty in his treatment of the archival record and all that falls under the broad category of what is generally termed the “facts.” Of course, despite the popularity of the phrase, no historian has ever “read everything that can be read” on any substantial subject. But he or she will make a good faith effort to locate and examine all that is necessary to achieve a multi-faceted reconstruction of the historical subject. The selection of facts must not be arbitrary and tendentious, and their presentation must be accurate. Nothing is so irreparably damaging to the reputation of a historian and the credibility of his work than the discovery that he has gotten his facts wrong, that the claims and assertions of a historian are not supported by the documents he cites, or that he has, in one way or another, falsified the historical record to fit preconceived needs of a predetermined narrative.

It has been irrefutably established over the past three years, since I wrote my first analysis of Service’s biography, that his work is a travesty of historical writing. His book is, as the letter of the fourteen historians so precisely stated, a “defamatory lampoon.” Even though I substantially expanded my critique in the course of additional lectures, including two in Berlin and one in Leipzig, I could not fully catalog the errors, falsifications and misrepresentations that Service somehow managed to pack into a single volume. The pattern of dishonesty is so deeply woven into the fabric of Service’s narrative that he apparently felt compelled to misrepresent historical documents even when there was no apparent reason for doing so.

For example, as I was preparing my remarks for today’s meeting, I once again looked through the Service biography. I selected a chapter at random, knowing that I was likely to find at least one error on whatever page I looked. I turned to Chapter 14, entitled “War on War.” It deals with the impact of the outbreak of World War I on Trotsky’s life. On page 137, Service describes an encounter between Trotsky and the German social democrat Hermann Molkenbuhr on a Zurich street, in which the latter predicted a speedy end to the conflict. Immediately following the quoted words of Molkenbuhr, Service adds the following sentence: “Molkenbuhr regarded Trotsky’s apocalyptic prognosis as the ranting of a ‘utopian.’” [3]

The entire account is taken from Trotsky’s My Life, and Service includes a footnoted reference … //

… In a review posted on the web-edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, historian Ulrich Schmid, who praises Service’s work, argues that the factual errors pertain only to minor details—he uses the term “Monita”—which do not significantly detract from the overall value of the work. He justifies this position with the following declaration: “Neither North nor Patenaude have brought forward arguments that detract from Service’s fundamental criticism of Trotsky’s revolutionary fanaticism and his willingness to use violence. Trotsky directed the Red Terror in 1918 with an iron fist and ordered the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising in 1921.” [12]

Schmid is arguing not as a historian but as a petty-bourgeois moralist. His position is, in effect, that the exposure of Service’s factual errors and fabrications do not detract from his condemnation of Trotsky on ethical grounds. The obvious reply to this sort of tendentious argument is that Service should have simply written a pamphlet entitled, “Why I Hate Trotsky,” and marketed this work not as a historical biography, but rather as a statement of his own personal ethical, political and, perhaps, religious convictions. Ulrich Schmid fails to explain why Trotsky’s support for the Red Terror in 1918 (which began after the assassination of Bolshevik leaders and the nearly successful attempt on Lenin’s life) and the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising absolve Service of the responsibility to deal scrupulously with the historical record, and, moreover, make some attempt to understand and explain the historical circumstances and political pressures that shaped the actions of Trotsky and the Bolshevik regime.

A serious historian is not indifferent to moral issues. But if a moral condemnation is in order, it should emerge with compelling force out of the logic of the narrative itself. The historian should not feel the need to conceal or falsify the historical record in order to make his “moral” point. A genuine historian like Ian Kershaw does not need to wag his finger at Hitler and remind his reader again and again how awful he was. Hitler’s criminality and the horror of the regime he led emerge out of the historian’s narrative. Kershaw’s command of the archival record and a vast body of secondary literature is never in doubt. Moreover, as a historian, Kershaw is interested in Hitler not simply as an individual. He seeks to understand and explain how such a man could rise to power and become the subject of mass adulation.

Of course, Kershaw’s choice of a subject simplified, in a certain sense, the moral issue. An honest and scrupulous treatment of the historical record leads inexorably to the conclusion that Hitler led a criminal regime. Those who seek to justify the regime, like the notorious David Irving, are the ones who must distort, falsify and lie.

Herein lay the source of the problem for Service. He could not extract from the historical record the materials he needed to sustain his efforts to portray Trotsky as an odious and even criminal political figure. Thus, to achieve his aim, he had to resort, as Stalin did in the 1930s, to fabrications, half-truths and outright lies.

In a candid moment, Service declared that he hoped that he had successfully completed what the assassin had failed to accomplish: the destruction of Trotsky’s reputation. But this effort has failed completely. The only reputation that has been completely destroyed by Service’s biography is that of its author.
(full long long text and footnotes 1 – 12).

(We publish here the text of a lecture given at the Historians’ Convention at the University of Mainz in Germany by David North, national chairman of the Socialist Equality Party (US) and chairman of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site. See: Meeting in defense of Leon Trotsky at German Historians Conference).

Links:

  • Meeting in defense of Leon Trotsky at German Historians Conference, on WSWS, Sept. 29, 2012;
  • Book: IN DEFENSE OF LEON TROTSKY, by David North, on Mehring Books: Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) – the leader of the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s unyielding opponent – remains an immensely controversial figure seventy years after his assassination in Mexico City …
  • WSWS’s main-website;

on en.wikipedia:

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