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Leon Trotsky 19380510 Letter to Denise Naville

Leon Trotsky: Letter to Denise Naville

May 10, 1938

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p 771 f., title: “Political Personality and the Milieu”]

Dear Comrades:

In my two books on Lenin and Stalin, on which I am working simultaneously, I find it necessary to clarify a theoretical question which is also of great political importance. Basically, it concerns the relationship between the political or historical personality and the "milieu." In order to go directly to the heart of the problem, I shall refer to Souvarine's book on Stalin, in which the author accuses the leaders of the Left Opposition, myself included, of various mistakes, omissions, blunders, etc., from 1923 on. By no means do I wish to deny that there were many mistakes, blunders, and even stupidities. What is important, however, from the theoretical as well as the political point of view, is the relation or rather the disproportion between these "mistakes" and their consequences. It was precisely in this disproportion that the reactionary character of the new historic stage was expressed.

We committed no few mistakes in 1917 and in the years that followed. But the revolutionary momentum filled in the gaps and repaired the errors, sometimes with our assistance and 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 years following, it was the turn of the liberals and the Mensheviks to commit mistakes, omissions, stupidities, etc.

I want to illustrate this historic "law" again with the example of the Great French Revolution in which, viewed in retrospect, the relationship between the actors and their milieu appear much more clearly defined and crystallized.

At a certain juncture in the revolution the Girondist leaders completely lost their bearings. In spite" of their popularity and their intelligence, they committed nothing but mistakes and blunders. They seemed to participate actively in their own downfall. Later it was the turn of Danton and his friends. Historians and biographers have never ceased to wonder at the confused, passive, and puerile attitude of Danton in the last months of his life. The same for Robespierre and his friends: disorientation, passivity, and incoherence at the most critical moment. The explanation is obvious. At a given moment each of these groups had exhausted its political opportunities and could advance no further against the reality of internal economic conditions, international pressure, the resultant new currents among the masses, etc. Under those conditions each step produced results contrary to what they hoped for. But political abstention was scarcely more favorable. The stages of the revolution and the counterrevolution succeeded one another at an accelerated pace; the contradiction between the protagonists of a particular program and the changed situation assumed an unexpected and extremely acute character. This gives the historian the possibility of displaying his retrospective wisdom by enumerating and cataloging the mistakes, omissions, and blunders. But unfortunately these historians have refrained from indicating the correct path which could have led a moderate to victory in a period of revolutionary upsurge, or on the other hand from indicating a revolutionary policy which would be both reasonable and victorious in a Thermidorean period.

It is unfortunate that we do not possess a library here, which compels me to ask the assistance of our French friends. It is necessary to search through the histories of the French Revolution and the biographies of its heroes to find the most typical references on this subject. It is necessary to present a full array of references from the historians and the biographers, beginning with the first historiographers of the French Revolution and ending with Mathiez and his pupils. The more varied the political viewpoints of the historians and biographers (ranging from royalist to socialist), the more clarified the question will be.

How is this work to be organized? It could, perhaps, be divided up among several friends sufficiently competent and interested in the subject. The basis of the division of labor should be neither the historical personages, nor the events, but only the books. In other words, each participant would assume the task of searching through a certain number of historical and biographical works and of extracting from them everything which directly or indirectly concerns the question before us. It is better to show too much than too little. All the references must be absolutely exact, indicating the work, the edition, and the page. It is unnecessary to say that this assistance would be most valuable to me.