Nicolas Krassó attempted to explain Stalin’s victory in the inner-party struggle of the Bolshevik party during the twenties by two alleged basic weaknesses of ‘Trotsky’s Marxism’: his ‘sociologism’, i.e. his constant underestimation of the autonomous role of political institutions; and his ‘administrativism’, which tended to identify him with the stringent repressive measures the Bolshevik régime had to introduce against the working class in the 1920–21 period. We showed that these explanations do not correspond to historical truth and do not give an adequate explanation of the destiny of the Russian revolution after 1917—not to speak of the destiny of world revolution.

In his reply, Krassó tries to defend his hypothesis both by general theoretical arguments and by an attempt to refute some of the factual material which I introduced into the discussion.footnote1 Both attempts fail. They illustrate more clearly than Krassó’s initial piece the basic weakness of his analysis, which consists in departing from the Marxist method of understanding, interpreting and acting upon contemporary history.

‘The whole aim of my analysis was to try and reconstruct the unity of Trotsky’s thought and practice as a Marxist: its singular character and coherence. Mandel’s reply renounces any attempt to seek such a unity,’ writes Krassó.footnote2 In other words: Krassó tries to view Trotsky’s thought and practice as a totality governed by some basic principles which he seeks to discover. Any refusal to answer him on the same level—either to accept his definition of the uniqueness of Trotsky’s Marxism, or to substitute another ‘basic principle’ for his own to interpret Trotsky—is condemned as ‘empiricism’.

We shall come back at the end of this essay to what we consider the differentia specifica of Trotsky’s Marxism. But let us first take Krassó’s theoretical argument for what it is worth. From the point of view of Marxian dialectics, processes are governed not by basic ideas but by conflicting forces. Any historical process is governed by basic contradictions of a social nature. To conceive of a life-process essentially ruled and explained by ideas is to take a step backward from Marx to Hegel. To view these ideas as immutable, permanent and unrelated either to their inner contradictions or to the contradictions between them and living practice is to take a step backward from Hegel to Kant.

To assume that Trotsky’s life constitutes a ‘unity’ the key of which is an ideological ‘conception’; to identify that conception with the original sin of ‘sociologism’; to deny the historical fact that, after joining the Bolshevik party, Trotsky attached the greatest importance to the role of the ‘subjective factor’ in history and politics, became the staunchest defender of the Leninist theory of the party, and gave us, both as a politician and a historian, some of the finest examples of precise understanding of the ‘autonomous role of political institutions’ is to advance an ‘explanation’ for Trotsky’s Marxism which flies in the face of truth. It is an arbitrary, abstract construction of the mind, divorced from reality, both theoretical and practical.

The methodological weakness of Krassó’s thesis goes deeper than his failure to explain in a consistent way all the essential aspects of Trotsky’s activities (the superiority of dialectical theory over empiricism does not reside in its negation of empirical data, but in its capacity to explain them in a coherent manner; and no coherent explanation of Trotsky’s theory and action in, say, 1917, 1923, 1933 or 1938, is possible from the viewpoint of his ‘underestimating the autonomous role of political institutions’). This weakness goes to the roots of one of the most fascinating aspects of Marxist sociology and historiography: the relationship between the individual and the historical process.

We do not deny that every individual can be considered as a relevant object of study, that his life-process can be dialectically examined and explained. But obviously, what we are practising in such theoretical activity is individual psychology, not sociology.footnote3 This procedure is all right as long as we are dealing with individuals who play only a marginal role in the historical process. The great contribution of Marx towards understanding history was precisely the point that one cannot explain the historical process as a simple interaction of individual psychologies, as a myriad of intertwining ‘case histories.’ What this understanding demands is a conceptual social mediation: that of the social class. World history is not a history of conflicting individuals (although these individuals are very real and sometimes very important) ; world history is a history of class struggle. The combination of individual aspirations, needs, strivings and ideas which are relevant for the understanding of history is their combination in social classes. The conflicts which shape history in civilized life are the conflicts between social classes or inside social classes.footnote4