Historiography and the Materialist Method

Bill Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Index Books and Porcupine Press, 1998, 440pp. Paperback, £15.00.

Reviewed by John Archer

BILL HUNTER'S book is the first half of his serious attempt to do justice to the Trotskyists of his generation. It is distinguished not only in the immense range of information which he has assembled, but, even more important, by the effective historical method which he has achieved. What he writes about this method in his introduction deserves quoting at length:

'One motive for writing about my life has to do with the way the history of Trotskyism, or certain aspects of it, have been written in some documents and books. Events are described which contradict my own experience as a participant, and there are many conclusions drawn which, at best, are half-truths. One feels that some of the writers emulate the medieval chroniclers who wrote up the past in the way they believe it ought to have happened. Thus there are people who write about Trotskyism in the past with their present subjectivity and prejudices directing their conclusions as to the way things were.

The one-sided history, or history fitted into a priori patterns - like the Bad Man or Woman interpretation - is often found in the writings on Trotskyism. Many of the historians of Trotskyism discuss what they consider its mistakes and its 'correct policies statically and negatively. Trotsky discussed in a different way, seeking to help forward development in the organisations of the time. With the former writers all we learn are one-sided definitions of leaders; of processes we learn nothing. Politics, in this way, becomes a question of personal psychology, so beloved by superficial journalism. Like many other opinions on Trotskyist history which have found their way into print, everything becomes very simplified. However, we learn nothing that helps us to build a movement today.

Together with this there is what we can call a religious conception of Trotskyist internal struggles as struggles between evil and good. This conception comes from writers who cannot understand the real contradictions in the development of revolutionary leadership, and see only heroes or villains.'

This method enables the book to make sense. It enables things about which Hunter could not possibly know to fit rationally in what he recounts. His account enriches, and in turn is enriched by, other investigators who adopt the same method. Trotsky wrote about scientific method in writing history. Let us test Hunter's method against Trotsky's. In the preface to Volume One of the History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

The history of a revolution, like that of every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened, and how. That however is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of some preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author's task.

This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollection. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon strictly verified documents... However, the fact that the author did participate makes easier his understanding, not only of the psychological forces in action, both individual and collective, but also of the inner connection of events. This advantage will give positive results only if one condition is observed: that it does not rely upon the testimony of his own memory either in trivial details or in important matters, either in questions of fact or questions of motive or mood.'

Trotsky develops this theme in the introduction to Volumes Two and Three of the History, in which he 'reviews' the reviewers of Volume One: 'We take the liberty to insist firmly that the coefficient of subjectivism is defined, limited and tested not so much by the temperament of the historian, as by the nature of his method. The purely psychological school, which looks upon the tissue of events as an interweaving of the free activities of separate individuals or their groupings, offers, even with the best intentions on the part of the investigator, a colossal scope to caprice. The materialist method disciplines the historian, compelling him to take his departure from the weighty facts of the social structure. For us the fundamental forces of the historic process are classes; political parties rest upon them; ideas and slogans emerge as the small change of objective interests. The whole course of the investigation proceeds from the objective to the subjective, from the social to the individual, from the fundamental to the incidental. This sets a rigid limit to the personal whims of the author... What convinces is the system which unites the general with the particular. The proof of scientific objectivism is not to be sought in the eyes of the historian or the tones of his voice, but in the inner logic of the narrative itself

Then Trotsky goes on: 'Spinoza's principle, "not to weep or laugh, but to understand", gives warning against inappropriate laughter and untimely tears. It does not deprive a man, even though he be a historian, of the right to his share of tears and laughter, when justified by a correct understanding of the material itself... There is an irony deep laid in the very relations of life. It is the duty of the historian as of the artist to bring it to the surface.

If Bill Hunter's book is received as it deserves, it can help to open up a new period in the resistance of the working people to 'flexibility of the labour market, 'privatisation’, 'deregulation’ and all the plans which Maastricht, Amsterdam, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have devised to load upon the oppressed and the exploited of the world the costs of preserving the system of private property in the means of production. For this reason we must thank also those who have undertaken to publish the book. It is a challenge. As the author wrote: 'It is necessary to ask not only the question, "How did we get where we are?”, but also the question "How do we go on from here?”.’ There are already signs of independence among those who gave Blair his immense majority last May. Can we not put together what those who are beginning to express this independence need, a network of contacts, a paper that discusses with them and publishes their ideas and meetings? We are for uniting the 'independence’ movement. Let us see where we are in history, and start by discussing together 'Where should we go from here?’, whether we are in the Labour Party or outside it.

Trained in a Hard School

By John Archer

An Extended Review of Bill Hunter’s Lifelong Apprenticeship:

The Life and Times of a Revolutionary.

Post free from 'Old Tavern’, Upper Denby, Huddersfield HD8 SUN. Price £1.35.

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