Below is an extract from Issac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast, the third part of his famous trilogy on Leon Trotsky’s life
Here Trotsky is grappling with the classical problem of personality in history; and here he perhaps is least successful. His factual account of Lenin’s activity is irreproachable. At no stage is it possible to say that here, at this or that point Lenin did not act and the Bolsheviks did not behave as Trotsky tells us they did. Nor is he out to present Lenin as a self-sufficient maker of events. ‘Lenin did not oppose the party from outside, but was himself its most complete expression’, he assures us; and he repeatedly demonstrates that Lenin merely translated into clear formulas and action the thoughts and moods which agitated the rank and file, and that because of this he eventually prevailed. Leader and mass act in unison. There is a deep concord between Lenin and his party, even when he is at cross purposes with the Central Committee. Just as Bolshevism had not made its historic entry by chance, so Lenin’s part was not fortuitous: he was ‘a product of the whole past...embedded in it with the deepest roots.’ He was not ‘a demiurge of the revolutionary process,’ but merely a link, ‘a great link’ in a chain of objective historic causes.
However, having placed Lenin as a link in this chain, Trotsky intimates that without the ‘link’ the ‘chain’ would have fallen to pieces. He asks what would have happened if Lenin had not managed to return to Russia in April 1917 - Is it possible...to say confidently that the party without him would have found its road? We would by no means make bold to say that. It is quite conceivable, he adds, that ‘a disoriented and split party might have let slip the revolutionary opportunity for many years.’ If in History Trotsky expresses this view with caution, he dots this elsewhere. In a letter he wrote to Preobrazhensky from Alma Ata he says: ‘You know better than I do that had Lenin not managed to come to Petrograd in April 1917, the October Revolution would not have taken place.’ In his French Diary he makes the point categorically: ‘Had I not been present in 1917 in Petrograd the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petrograd, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt!’ If Lenin is not yet a ‘demiurge of history’ here, this is so only in the sense that he did not make the revolution ex nihilo: the decay of the social structure, the ‘steam of mass energy, the ‘piston box’ of the Bolshevik Party (which Lenin had designed and engineered) – all these had to be there in order that he should be able to play his part. But even if all these elements had been there, Trotsky tells us, without Lenin the Bolsheviks would have ‘let slip the revolutionary opportunity for many years.’ For how many years? Five – six? Or perhaps thirty-forty? We do not know. In any case, without Lenin, Russia might have continued to live under the capitalist order, or even under a restored Tsardom, perhaps for an indefinite period; and in this century at least world history would have been very different from what it has been.
For a Marxist this is a startling conclusion. The argument admittedly has a flavour of scholasticism, and the historian cannot resolve it by reference to empirical evidence: he cannot re-enact the revolution, keep Lenin out of the spectacle, and see what happens. If the issue is nevertheless pursued a little further here, this is not done for the sake of the argument but for the light it throws on our chief character. On this point the views of Trotsky, the historian, are closely affected by the experience and the mood of Trotsky, the leader of the defeated Opposition – it is doubtful whether earlier in his career he would have expressed a view which goes so strongly against the grain of the Marxist intellectual tradition.
Of that tradition Plekhanov’s celebrated essay The Role of Individual in History is highly representative- like Plekhanov’s other theoretical writings it exercised a formative influence on several generations of Russian Marxists. Plekhanov discusses the issue on terms of the classical antinomy of necessity and freedom. He does not deny the role of the personality; he accepts Carlyle’s dictum that ‘the great man is a beginner’: ‘This is a very apt description. A great man is precisely a beginner because he sees farther than others and desires things more strongly than others.’ Hence the ‘colossal significance’ in history and the ‘terrible power ‘of the great leader. But Plekhanov insists that the leader is merely the organ of an historic need or necessity, and that necessity creates that organ when it needs it. No great man is therefore ‘irreplaceable’. Any historic trend, if it is deep and wide enough, expresses itself through a certain number of man, not only through a single individual. In discussing the French Revolution, Plekhanov asks a question analogous to that which Trotsky poses: what would have been the course of the revolution without Robespierre or Napoleon?
Let us assume that Robespierre was an absolutely indispensible force in his party; but even so he was not the only one. If the accidental fall of a brick had killed him in, say, January 1793, his place would, of course, have been taken by someone else; and although that other person might have been inferior to him in every respect, events would have nevertheless taken the same course as they did with Robespierre...The Gironde would probably not have escaped defeat, but it is possible that Robespierre’s party would have lost power somewhat earlier...or later, but it would have certainly fallen....
What Trotsky suggests is that if a brick had killed Lenin, say in march 1917, there would have been no Bolshevik revolution in that year and ‘for many years after.’
The fall of the brick would consequently have diverted a tremendous current of history in some other direction. The discussion about the individual’s role turns out to be a debate over accident in history, a debate with a close bearing on the philosophy of Marxism. Plekhanov concludes his argument by saying that such accidental ‘changes in the course of events might, to some extent, have influenced the subsequent political ... life of Europe.’ But that ‘in no circumstances would the final outcome of the revolutionary movement have been the “opposite” of what it was. Owing to the specific qualities of their minds and their characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces.’ Trotsky implies that Lenin’s personality changed not merely the ‘individual features of events’ but the general trend- without Lenin the social forces that made that trend or contributed to it would have been ineffective. This conclusion accords ill with Trotsky’s Weltanschauung and with much else besides. If it were true that the greatest revolution of all time could not have occurred without one particular leader, then the leader cult at large would by no means be preposterous; and its denunciation by historical materialism, from Marx to Trotsky, and the revulsion of all progressive thought against it would be pointless.
Trotsky evidently succumbs here to the ‘optical illusion’ of which Plekhanov speaks in his argument against historians who insist that Napoleon’s role was decisive because no one else could have taken his place with the same or a similar effect. The ‘illusion’ consists in the fact that a leader appears irreplaceable because, having assumed his place, he prevents others assuming it:
Coming forward [as the ‘saviour of order’] ...Napoleon made it impossible for all other generals to play this role; and some of them might have performed it in the same or almost the same way as he did. Once the public need for an energetic military ruler was satisfied, the social organization barred the road to this position... for all other gifted soldiers... The power of napoleon’s personality presents itself to us in an extremely magnified form , for we credit him with the power of the social organization which had brought him to the fore and held him there. His power appears to us quite exceptional because other powers similar to this did not pass from the potential to actual. And when we are asked: ‘What would have happened if there had been no Napoleon?’ our imagination becomes confused, and it seems to us that without him the social movement upon which his strength and influence were based could nt have take place.
Similarly, it may be argued, Lenin’s influence on events appears to us greatly magnified because once Lenin had assumed the post of the leader, he prevented others from assuming it. It is, of course, impossible to say who might have taken his place had he not been there. It might have been Trotsky himself. Not for nothing revolutionaries as important as Lunacharsky, Uritsky, and Manuilsky, discussing, in the summer of 1917, Lenin’s and Trotsky’s relative merits, agree that Trotsky had at that time eclipsed Lenin – and this while Lenin was there, on the spot; and although Lenin’s influence on the Bolshevik Party was decisive, the October insurrection was in fact carried out according to Trotsky’s , not to Lenin’s plan. If neither Lenin nor Trotsky had been there someone else might have come to the fore. The fact that among the Bolsheviks there was apparently no other man of their stature and reputation does not prove that in their absence such a man would not have emerged. History has indeed a limited number of vacancies for the posts of great chiefs and commanders; and once the vacancies are filled, potential candidates have no opportunity to develop and achieve ‘self fulfilment.’ Need it be held that they would not have achieved it in any circumstances? And could Lenin’s or Trotsky’s part not have been played by leaders smaller in stature, with this difference perhaps that the smaller men instead of ‘allowing destiny to direct’ them would have been dragged by it.It is a fact that almost every great leader or dictator appears irreplaceable in his lifetime; and that on his demise someone does fill his place, usually someone who to his colleagues appears to be the least likely candidate, a ‘mediocrity, ‘destined to play second or third fiddle.’ Hence the surprise of so many at seeing first Stalin as Lenin’s successor and then Khrushchev as Stalin’s heir, the surprise which is a by-product of the optical illusion about the irreplaceable colossus. Trotsky maintains that only Lenin’s genius could cope with the tasks of the Russian Revolution; and he often intimates that in other countries too the revolution must have a party like the Bolshevik and a leader like Lenin in order to win. There is no gainsaying Lenin’s extraordinary capacity and character, or Bolshevism’s good fortune in having him at its head. But have not in our time the Chinese and the Yugoslav revolutions triumphed under parties very different from that of the Bolsheviks of 1917, and under leaders of smaller , even much smaller, stature? In each case the revolutionary trend found or created its organ in such human material as was available.