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Trotsky on Dialectics

After a long struggle to oppose the Stalinist dictatorship in the Soviet Union Trotsky was expelled from its territory in 1929 and was forced to continue his struggle in exile. Having been refused exile in Turkey, Norway and France he finally settled in Mexico with the help of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. His main base of support at this time was the American Socialist Workers Party, led by James P. Cannon. In the January 1939 issue of the Party Journal, New International, an article appeared over the names of two leading members, James Burnham and Max Shachtman, entitled “Intellectuals in Retreat”. Addressing questions of theory the two authors wrote:

   “The two authors of the present article differ thoroughly on their estimate of the general theory of dialectical materialism. One of them accepting and the other rejecting it … There is nothing anomalous in such a situation. Though theory is doubtless always in one way or another related to practice, the relation is not invariably direct or immediate; and as we have before had occasion to remark, human beings often act inconsistently. From the point of view of each of the authors there is in the other a certain such inconsistency between ‘philosophical theory’ and political practice, which might on some occasions lead to decisive concrete political disagreement. But it does not now, nor has anyone yet demonstrated that agreement or disagreement on the more abstract doctrines of dialectical materialism necessarily affects today’s or tomorrow’s concrete political issues – and practical parties, programmes and struggles are based on such concrete issues. We may all hope that as we go along or when there is more leisure, agreement may also be reached on the more abstract questions. Meanwhile there is fascism and war and unemployment.

   Trotsky considered the methodology upon which the article was based to be politically disastrous, and we may read his criticism of it in one of his most important books, In Defence of Marxism. In the section entitled “Warning and Verification” he writes:

   “The article astonished me to such an extent that I immediately wrote to Comrade Schachtman, “I have just read the article you and Burnham wrote on the intellectuals. Many parts are excellent. However, the section on the dialectic is the greatest blow that you, personally as editor of the New International, could have delivered to Marxist theory. Comrade Burnham says ‘I don’t recognise the dialectic’. It is clear and everybody has to acknowledge it. But you say ‘I recognise the dialectic, but no matter, it does not have the slightest importance.’ Re-read what you wrote. This section is terribly misleading for the readers of the New International and the best of gifts to the Eastman’s of all kinds. Good! We will speak about it publically.” [Eastman was a leading member of the intellectual group against which the article was directed.] (In defence of Marxism, New Park Publications, page 59)

Trotsky’s Criticism

   We now reproduce Trotsky’s reply to this Article, which begins on page 63 of the same book under the heading of “The ABC of Dialectics”, in which Trotsky explains the difference between formal logic, which he refers to as Aristotelian logic, and dialectical logic which is the basis of all Marxist theory.

   “The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism, but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.

   “I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concise form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that A is equal to A. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality A is not equal to A. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens – they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the form or size of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar – a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object; but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true – all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour etc. They are never equal to themselves.  A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself ‘at any given moment’. Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this ‘axiom’, it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word ‘moment’? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that ‘moment’ to inevitable changes. Or is the ‘moment’ a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom A is equal to A signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.

   “At first glance it may seem that these ‘subtleties’ are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom A is equal to A appears on the one hand to be the point of departure for all our knowledge, on the other hand to be the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom A is equal to A is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes are negligible for the task at hand then we can presume that A is equal to A. That is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and seller consider a pound of sugar. We consider the temperature of the sun likewise. Until recently we considered the buying power of the dollar in the same way. But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or kerosene ceases to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all spheres of knowledge including sociology.

   “Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal (A is equal to A). When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.

   “Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exists ‘tolerance’ which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom A is equal to A, but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. ‘Common sense’ is characterised by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical tolerance.

   “Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, freedom, workers’ state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism, morals are equal to morals etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which A ceases to be A, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state.

   “The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wished to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close the living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement etc.

   “Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws; change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for elementary tasks.

   “Hegel wrote before Darwin and before Marx. Thanks to the powerful impulse given to thought by the French Revolution, Hegel anticipated the general movement of science. But because it was only an anticipation, although by a genius, it received from Hegel an idealistic character. Hegel operated with ideological shadows of the ultimate reality. Marx demonstrated that the movement of these ideological shadows reflected nothing but the movement of material bodies.

   “We call our dialectic materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our ‘free will’, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. Out of the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither god, nor devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character.”

The Practical Result

   Having dealt with these most important theoretical questions, Trotsky goes on to show how the formal, non-dialectical method of Burnham and Shachtman led to a hopelessly false conclusion on a concrete political question, that of the political and economic nature of the Soviet Union – a question as vitally important today as it was then. Clearly the economic emancipation of the working class depends firstly on its political emancipation, the power to control by democratic means the process of production and exchange in the economy. This was achieved for the first time by the Russian Revolution of 1917 which resulted in a workers’ state and the socialisation of the economy. However, the degeneration of the Soviet Union into a brutal dictatorship under Stalin gave rise to serious questions. Was such dictatorship the inevitable result of social revolution and working class state power? Since in the Soviet Union the working class suffered brutal oppression, was it a workers state at all? Since the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy governed in its own interests at the expense of the working class, what exactly was the class nature of the Soviet Union? Trotsky goes on to show that the contradictory nature of the Soviet Union can only be understood through the practice of dialectical logic:

   “The definition of the USSR given by Comrade Burnham, ‘not a workers state and not a bourgeois state’, is purely negative, wrenched from the chain of historical development, left dangling in mid-air, void of a single particle of sociology and represents simply a theoretical capitulation of pragmatism before a contradictory historical phenomenon.

   “If Burnham were a dialectical materialist, he would have probed the following questions: (1) What is the historical origin of the USSR? (2) What changes has the state suffered during its existence? (3) Did these changes pass from the quantitative stage to the qualitative? Answering these questions would have forced Burnham to draw the only possible conclusion – the USSR is still a degenerated workers state.” (Op. cit. page 68)

   The answer to these questions provides us with the answer to the vexing question of the nature of the USSR because we find the truth of this workers state, the result of this revolution, at this historical juncture, as opposed to the question of workers states as a general historical abstraction. Answering the first question above, we note that there were great revolutionary upheavals in many countries during and after the period of the First World War, including Germany, Britain and Hungary, but only in Russia did the working class conquer state power. Russia was still predominantly a very backward feudal country and had suffered terrible military defeats – the monarchical dictatorship was ripe for overthrow and the rising bourgeois class proved unable to win political power. The working class were mainly poor peasants with a growing and well organised industrial proletariat, and the latter, crucially, had a revolutionary leadership under Lenin and Trotsky armed with the theory of dialectical materialism which enabled them to understand the political crisis of the moment, lead a successful revolution and take state power. But the very backwardness of the Russian social and economic conditions made it very difficult to develop the new social system and to make matters worse there was a famine and foreign military intervention and isolation. None of the other revolutions, most notably that in Germany, succeeded, and this brings us to the second question, what changes did it undergo?

   Due to appalling conditions and acute shortages the soviet state had to adopt strict measures of central organisation, and with the loss of many of the theoretically talented leaders of the revolution during the counter-revolutionary civil war, the state became dominated by petty bourgeois opportunist elements of which Stalin was the epitome. The result was the rise of a self-serving bureaucracy, and those who fought against it under Trotsky’s leadership were politically defeated. These were the changes that the Soviet Union suffered. The third question is the most important – did these quantitative changes lead to qualitative change? The answer, at the time that Trotsky was writing was no, because there had been no successful counter-revolution, neither the feudalists nor the bourgeoisie had regained state power, so the USSR remained a workers state, although one which had degenerated into a bureaucratic dictatorship. With this understanding which correctly, dialectically, reflected the contradictory nature of the USSR at the time, Trotsky concluded that the state must be overthrown by revolutionary means whilst the socialised property relations must be preserved. This conclusion could never have been reached on the basis of formal logic. Trotsky goes on:

   “The dialectic is not a master key for all questions. It does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism.

   “Bruno R. places both the Soviet Union and Fascist regimes under the category of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, because the USSR, Italy and Germany are all ruled by bureaucracies; here and there are principles of planning; in one case private property is liquidated, [in the USSR], in another limited, [Italy and Germany]. Thus on the basis of the relative similarity of certain characteristics of different origin, of different specific weight, of different class  significance, a fundamental identity of social regimes is constructed, completely in the spirit of bourgeois professors who construct categories of ‘controlled economy’, ‘centralised state’, without taking into consideration whatsoever the class nature of the one or the other.” (Ibid.)

   Here Trotsky is explaining that the practice of equating two things on the basis of their external features, or form, is false logic (a method known as eclecticism) and that it is necessary to discover the content, the inner truth or Essence of things in order to grasp their true relation. While both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were dictatorships they were mirror image opposites in their fundamental social nature and therefore an entirely different approach to the task of overthrowing each of them was necessary. On the basis of such considerations Trotsky remarks on the following page that “the USSR minus the social structure founded by the October Revolution would be a fascist state”. The truth of this has been demonstrated since 1991-93 when the social structure founded by the October Revolution was indeed negated when Yeltsin overthrew the Gorbachev regime in a coup and capitalist property relations were restored. The system in Putin’s Russia is fascist in all but name.

Terry Button, July 2007