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Irving Howe

On Historical Methodology

A Rejoinder to Erber’s Criticism

(February 1947)

From New International, Vol. XIII No. 2, February 1947, pp. 56–58.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ernest Erber’s polemic in the January 1947 issue of The New International against my Reviewing the New Course (Op. Cit., September ’46) unquestionably represents the opinion of the majority of our movement. But in largely ignoring the specific questions my article raised and concentrating his salvoes on my “idealist” historical method, he has shifted the discussion from the specific issue – what he calls “those aspects of the methods and policies of the Revolution which facilitated its strangulation at the hands of the bureaucracy” – and has forced me, in this brief rejoinder, to plunge in after him into the depths of historiography.

1) In and Out of Context – How to Approach the Past

Erber takes me to task for writing that one can examine an historical work by attempting a “placement of oneself in the context in which it was written”; and that one can also examine the past with a full consciousness that the examination is colored by subsequently acquired experiences and knowledge. He finds it “amazing” that I should call the effort to “move backwards in time and imagine ourselves in a situation of the past” both “never successful” and “self-contradictory.” He is unwilling to admit to legitimacy any method which does not squarely place itself “in the context” of the period under study and he has himself a bit of fun with queries as to when one approaches a period of history “in” or “out” of context; whether there is any value from my point of view to a method admittedly self-contradictory, etc.

I think Erber’s complaint misaddressed; he should rail against the practise of history in general rather than my attempt at it. For the two methods of which I spoke are merely variants of emphasis – degrees of recognition of distance – in any historical examination conducted some time later than the period under study. One may and should attempt to “place oneself” in the context of the period understudy, to imagine one’s attitudes if in So-and-So’s shoes; but that attempt can never be quite successful, for it is impossible to eradicate ideas and experiences absorbed from events that took place after the period under study. But suppose such an attempt were possible, suppose one could step into the attitudes, opinions and limitations of a figure of the past. How could one learn anything that way? All one would know would be what that person knew then. To draw lessons from his experience, the use of subsequently acquired data is essential. For it is not only the past which helps illuminate the present; it is also the present which illuminates the past. Erber’s apparent failure to take the latter half of this reciprocal relationship into consideration is the major cause of most of his objections to my methodology.

In any historical study one admits the unavoidable fact of hindsight, second-guessing and subsequently accrued knowledge and opinions. This recognition is legitimate so long as it doesn’t result in moralistic judgments where the belief in present superior conceptions is based on knowledge that was unavailable to those judged.

When Erber therefore asks: “If it (the attempt to view in context) cannot be done successfully and if the effort is self-contradictory, of what value is it?”, he is really questioning not my statement of the limitations of the “in context” approach. but rather the efficacy of historical criticism in general. For it is obvious that I couldn’t have and didn’t question the need of trying to “imagine ourselves in a situation of the past.” Were that attempt not made, historical criticism would literally be impossible. I was rather suggesting the limits of that attempt and therefore the need frankly to take those limits into account as part of the data of one’s historical examination, as well as to acknowledge that sometimes such recognition of limits is a positive advantage. (This recognition is common to all scientific methodology, especially in the social sciences, and is sometimes called the inclusion of the experimenter in the experiment.) As for the problem of which emphasis to underscore at a given time, that depends on the purpose of the investigation: a study of the possible alternatives facing Trotsky in his struggle must attempt to confine itself to the then available data, but a study of the lessons that struggle has for us today can range beyond the context of the then experiences and take into account subsequently developed knowledge and ideas. That somewhat variant results would necessarily follow from either emphasis is as obvious in the field of historiography as is the fact that the position – both spatial and ideological – of an astronomer has a bearing on the data and results of his experiment.

That Erber should find these quite obvious notations on historical method “amazing” is itself ... amazing.

2) The Strange Appearance of Thomas Carlyle

The main purpose of my article was to try to note – through an examination of his The New Course where they appear in incipient but clear form – what seem certain errors in Trotsky’s approach to the struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalinism. These errors which manifested themselves in an underestimation of the need to propagate the idea of soviet democracy, later formed the basis of his untenable views in favor of defending Stalinist totalitarianism in its imperialist war and labeling it a “workers’ state.” These boiled down to his insistence that Russia faced only two alternatives: either return to a genuine working class revolutionary regime or to be led by the Stalinist bureaucracy to the return of capitalism, that is, private property. But neither alternative was realized; something else, a third variant, took place: Stalin didn’t restore private property but rather maintained and protected nationalized property while simultaneously instituting a privileged bureaucratic totalitarianism. The main tack of my article was to determine the consequences of Trotsky’s failure to see the possibility (not the inevitability) of such a variant. Such a determination of consequences involves no retrospective judgment; if accurate, it is merely a statement of fact.

However, and secondarily, I also wrote that “it does not seem absurd to ask why Trotsky didn’t see what took ordinary mortals twenty additional years to see.” For saying this, Erber finds me guilty of a “Carlylian theory of the man of genius.” I think he is wrong for at least two reasons:

a) It was physically and historically possible for Trotsky to have foreseen the possibility of an indigenous bureaucratic totalitarianism maintaining nationalized property. That is why his charge that I was urging the use of “tanks at Waterloo” is invalid. It was literally impossible under the then social and scientific conditions to use tanks at Waterloo; but it was not analogously impossible for Trotsky to have had a more valid conception in the period from the opening of the struggle until Stalin’s consolidation of power.

b) The question of whether Trotsky “should have foreseen the possibility of bureaucratic collectivism” was not raised by me with an eye to passing a moralistic judgment. [1] I tried to establish the possibility of such foresight by Trotsky in order to examine the consequences of his not foreseeing. This is not a “should” statement.

In any case Erber’s venture in historiography in describing my views as Carlylian is inaccurate. My views may be wrong but they are not Carlylian. For Carlyle would have declared that Trotsky, if a “great” enough man, would have pushed through to triumph. Carlyle virtually denied social limitations on individuals and insisted on the history-making powers of great men. I considered, rather, Trotsky’s understanding of the situation, but never said that no matter how perfect his understanding, he could have surmounted the historical limitations of his situation in Russia.

3) Democracy and Revolution – The Central Question

Wherever Erber drops his adumbrations on historical method, he says a few words about the problems I raised, but in a manner that can only be described as skittish. From the context of his article one suspects that he too feels that these problems require consideration and that some of the comparatively simple answers with which we contented ourselves in the past no longer suffice; and so he fulfills his task as defender of orthodoxy with more relish when he can wander in the mazes of historiography than when he turns to the Russian experience itself. However, a few of his remarks on the latter are of interest:

a) Erber charges that I didn’t sufficiently consider that not only bureaucratic degeneration, but also capitalist restoration, was a danger.

“Howe’s method,” he writes, “leads to an indiscriminate rejection of everything that proved of value to Stalin in his fight for power. Implicit in this is the danger that the indiscriminate attempt to avoid the risk of bureaucratic degeneration can lead to disarming the revolution in the face of the bourgeoisie.”

Exactly what “an indiscriminate rejection of EVERYTHING that proved of value to Stalin” means I do not know; nor, I suspect, does anyone else; it is, however, an “impressive” statement. Disciplined organization, for example, proved of value to Stalin; by what process of ratiocination can Erber prove that my remarks led to a rejection of disciplined organization. Such emotively charged but difficult-to-prove charges do not add light to the polemic.

But, more important, I wish to challenge Erber’s implication – his central implication – that the emphasis on a democratic struggle to prevent bureaucratic degeneration would have led to “disarming the revolution in the face of the bourgeoisie.” For it seems to me that every democratic measure calculated to oppose bureaucratic degeneration would have simultaneously strengthened the resistance of the most advanced and conscious revolutionary elements to the danger of capitalist restoration.

b) Erber is willing to grant that mistakes were made by Trotsky, but he insists that, if an examination of them is to have any value, they must be “traced back to flaws in Trotsky’s theoretical conceptions.” So he suggests that we decide Trotsky underestimated the danger of prohibiting factions in 1920 and that this error flowed from “his conception of the relationship of democracy to centralism,” then “we must proceed to rectify our conception of this problem ...” By all means ... but not enough. For errors flow not only from theoretical conceptions; such an opinion betrays a far too formalized and rationalistic conception of history. Errors flow concretely from the emergence of current contingencies to which theoretical conceptions may be inappropriately applied or may no longer be relevant and often from the fact that new theoretical conceptions cannot be evolved in sufficient time. Which is why I, for one, would be far less interested in any revision of the formal conception of the relation of democracy to centralism (“the rules”) than in the open, frank admission of past mistakes and the real emphasis and orientation of our present thinking.

c) Erber questions my suggestion of a possible bloc between the Trotskyists and the Bukharin Right Opposition after the latter became the target of Stalinist suppression. He offers three arguments:

Such a bloc would have been legitimate only if “bureaucratic collectivism was inevitable” and “capitalist restoration could never be realized.” Ergo, my argument means that bureaucratic collectivism was inevitable. But nothing of the kind is true. The possibility of such a bloc – leaving aside tactical considerations irrelevant to this discussion – was justified not because bureaucratic collectivism was “inevitable” but because by 1930 it was much more of a danger than capitalist restoration, which became, after a while, a Stalinist-inflated bogeyman to inhibit all oppositions.

Such a bloc Erber sees as “fantastic” because the Rights were lithe most rabid anti-Trotskyists in the party.” But so were Zinoviev and Kamenev rabid anti-Trotskyists and Trotsky didn’t hesitate to consummate a bloc with them after their break with Stalin. A bloc is not an ideological agreement; it is an agreement for certain specific objectives, in this case first and foremost the joint defense against Stalinist repression.

Finally, Erber trots out what seems to me by now the old chestnut about the Right Opposition being “capitalist restorationist.” What does that characterization mean? If seriously and literally applied, it means that a victory for the Right Opposition would have led to a capitalist restoration. Is that view now tenable? If so, Erber would have been logically required to support Stalin’s expulsion of Bukharin from the Russian Communist Party, even if disapproving Stalin’s methods. And Erber should have himself an interesting time explaining what Trotsky meant when he wrote in 1938 that “the Right group of the old Bolshevik Party, seen from the viewpoint of the bureaucracy’s interests and tendencies, represented a Left danger.” But if Erber means merely that a Right Opposition victory might have increased the danger of capitalist restoration, he has still to explain why a bloc for the joint defense against the encroaching Stalinist terror and for at least a return to internal party democracy, would have favored the Right as against the Trotskyists.

d) One of my central points was that the problem of democracy can now be seen to have been the pivotal question of the Russian experience. Erber then asks the me: why were not the “anarchists, Left Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks correct on this question as against Trotsky? ... Even if we assume that their program would not have led to Stalinism, was it preferable to risk a bourgeois counter-revolution? Would a Russian Gallifet (a Russian Himmler was more likely) have been preferable to a Yagoda?”

No, neither a Gallifet nor a Himmler was preferable to a Yagoda; but neither was a Yagoda preferable to a Gallifet or a Himmler. Why does Erber insist on this choice? Why does he assume that when one believes soviet democracy to have been the “burning question” and Trotsky, even though its great historical defender, to have made certain mistakes, that such an opinion has anything in common with the belief that the anarchists, SR’s and Mensheviks were right “as against Trotsky” ... especially when my article specifically indicated that I believed them wrong. For these groups went beyond the bounds of soviet democracy; they took up arms against the soviet state-that has always been the traditional Bolshevik answer to the criticism against their suppression, with which my article registered agreement. Why does a belief that Trotsky made certain errors mean support of the Mensheviks?

It is true that, as Erber says, one cannot draw up in advance statutes of limitations. But the recognition of the errors of the past, even while defending the general historical legitimacy of Trotskyism, does serve to orient us for the future, even if it gives us no “statutes.” It rein forms us that democracy is an inalienable aspect of a workers’ state, that the preservation of democracy is a central task of the revolutionary vanguard in such a state, that no parties basically loyal to a workers’ state should be suppressed no matter how harsh their criticism, and that for proper workers’ democracy all workers’ parties must be subordinate and responsible to the soviet or council which is the supreme organ of workers’ rule. To say this is not yet to say what is going to happen; but it is to make a statement of what we want to do.


I do not believe that my article was a definitive statement on the problem or that it was even a sufficient beginning. It was rather an expression of concern with some of the things in Trotsky’s book, The New Course, as reflections of his historical role. Since my piece was in the nature of a “flyer,” it was necessarily speculative. Erber, who has assumed the mantle of the more traditional point of view, agrees however that, even if I am guilty of all the “errors” he has enumerated, a serious consideration of the problem is necessary. Very well, then. At least he sees the problem. I hope. that he will therefore not content himself merely with exposing my methodological “errors” – a task comparable to Sisyphus’ burden – but will himself directly approach the problem.


1. Which is why Erber’s insistence that my approach must lead to a denigration of Trotsky’s genius – since, you see, Trotsky didn’t foresee what happened – is at best irrelevant, unless he is trying to suggest, or imply that I suggested, that geniuses never make mistakes. Can’t Erber’s strictures against me on this point just as well be used against him for criticizing Trotsky for maintaining the “workers’ state” theory, and have not the Cannonites done so?

Be it noted that Erber assigns the word “should” to me: it is not so used in my article.

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