FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: The Clash of Ideas

Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century

Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Lev Kamenev, 1920.

Anyone desiring a quiet life has done badly to be born in the twentieth century.--L. Trotsky.

HISTORIANS of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern. To say this is not necessarily to subscribe to any form of Hegelian dogma about the dominant rôle of laws and metaphysical principles in history -- a view increasingly influential in our time -- according to which there is some single "explanation" of the order and attributes of persons, things and events. Usually this consists in the advocacy of some fundamental "category" or "principle" which claims to act as an infallible guide both to the past and to the future, a magic lens revealing "inner," inexorable, all-pervasive historical laws, invisible to the naked eye of the mere recorder of events, but capable, when understood, of giving the historian a unique sense of certainty -- certainty not only of what in fact occurred, but of the reason why it could not have occurred otherwise, affording a secure knowledge which the mere empirical investigator, with his collections of data, his insecure structure of painstakingly accumulated evidence, his tentative approximations and perpetual liability to error and reassessment, can never hope to attain.

The notion of "laws" of this kind is rightly condemned as nothing but a metaphysical mystery; but the contrary notion of bare facts -- facts which are nothing but facts, hard, inescapable, untainted by interpretation of arrangement in man-made patterns -- is equally mythological. To comprehend and contrast and classify and arrange, to see in patterns of lesser or greater complexity, is not a peculiar kind of thinking, it is thinking itself. And we accuse historians of exaggeration, distortion, ignorance, bias or departure from the facts, not because they select, compare and set forth in a context and order which are in part, at least, of their own choosing, in part conditioned by the circumstances of their

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.