A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Good Kirsty (the uptight one in charge of academic stuff): Some chance, I know. Well, I for one have been lured out of hiding by the chance to talk about Trotsky. Specifically, his 1933-1935 notebooks, translated, annotated and introduced by Philip Pomper (Russian text annotated by Yuri Felshtinsky).
BK: Nice segue.
BK: Isn’t this where you usually say that this book might be published by an academic press (Columbia, this time) but is in fact perfectly accessible to a general audience?
GK: Not this time. Even I have to admit this is one for the Trotsky nerd.
BK (wide-eyed): What? You mean to say this isn’t actually easier than it looks?
GK: ’Fraid not. In fact, I rather feel it looks easier than it is. Philip Pomper’s essays are eminently readable, and he knows his intellectual history. They’re a decent introduction to the notebooks themselves for any reader who’s really interested and has more than a smattering of knowledge about Trotsky’s preoccupations (specifically Hegel, Lenin and Darwin). In terms of the subject matter, they’re good preparation for tackling a passage like this:
Cognition begins with the differentiation of things, with their opposition to each other, with a classification of their qualitative differences. The quantitative definitions operate with independent particulars, consequently they depend on qualitative definitions (five fingers, ten years, 100 amperes).
Practical thought lives within these limits. For a cattle trader a cow is a cow; he is interested only in the individual qualities of its udder. From his practical point of view he is indifferent to the genetic links between the cow and an amoeba.
It’s an excellent translation, too; and Felshtinsky’s treatment of the original text, with all its abbreviations and omissions, is sensitive and inspired.
BK: D’you know, when I read really interesting philosophy, I have the oddest feeling as if my brain is trying to escape through the top of my head.
GK: I know what you mean. Sort of a light, fluid feeling. Good, innit?
BK: So what’s your problem with it all, then? Why not recommend this to all and sundry?
GK: Well, it’s a historiographical problem, and I have no problem admitting that it’s entirely mine. Pomper’s great specialism is psychohistory. It’s a fascinating angle, and one well worth engaging with, but — showing my own methodological bias here — I think that his analysis of Trotsky’s personality, intellect and career should not be left to stand alone. Since these are essays, and concise ones, his assessments sometimes appear rather like snap judgements, schematic and arbitrary. This kind of character analysis really needs to be approached from an informed standpoint.
BK: Of course, if you were into psychohistory yourself, you’d probably say it was a good albeit schematic introduction (or something like that).
GK: Possibly. But I’m not, so I don’t. And above all, a statement such as “Between 1922 and 1924, Trotsky failed to arrest the growth of Stalin’s power…” merits serious interrogation, whether the reader ultimately agrees with Pomper or not.
BK: Then again, if your hypothetical reader happens to pick up this book because he or she is deeply interested in, say, Hegelian philosophy or Darwinist thought rather than Trotsky per se, then it might not matter quite so much.
GK: Wash your mouth out, young lady!
BK: Your final verdict, then?
GK: Definitely one for the Trotsky geeks, or the philosophy nerds. Enjoy it, but not passively.
BK: Fair enough. Until next time!
GK: Do svidaniia, comrades!
iUniverse (1999), 188 pp., ISBN 978-1583481158. Originally published by Columbia University Press (1986)
If you want more Trotsky — and who wouldn’t — why not check out our Trotsky Week feature from 2010?