Historical analogies cannot take the place of historical analysis � Leon Trotsky
Jay Bergman, in an fascinating article on Trotsky published two decades ago in the Journal of the History of Ideas, noted Trotsky�s borrowing of terms and phrases from the French revolution, and the way the neurotic recapitulation of this reference misshaped and ultimately falsified his analysis of Stalin. It is Bergman�s thesis that one of the intellectual causes of Trotsky�s failure on the level of practical politics was his habit of casting the contemporary history in terms of the French Revolution. Marx had already mocked the French revolutionists habit of clothing their every act in the language of Republican Rome, as if they could exchange their button up trousers for togas. Bergman has some fun in showing how the scare-word �Thermidor� was thrown around in the early years of the Russian Revolution. The Mensheviks, in exile, poked at Lenin�s NEP as a pernicious backsliding to capitalist norms. For them, here�s the proof that Bolshevism was descending into its Thermidor. When Trotsky was still close to the center of power, he dismissed the analogy out of hand. However, once he was clawed out of the center of power, the old black magic of analogy appealed to his mind like that last pipeful to a pothead. Suddenly, the the Thermidor analogy seemed golden. This was a product of the fateful historical experience of the counter-revolution, i.e. Trotsky's being kicked out on his can, in the Soviet Union. One should always ask, when an historical analogy is offered, who benefits -- for usually it aggrandizes the image of its maker in some way. In any case, as out of Thermidor grew the context in which Napoleon emerged, so too, in Russia, out of the counter-revolutionary bureaucratic forces within the Bolshevik party grew the context in which the Soviet Bonaparte, Stalin, emerged.
There are serious problems with treating Stalin as a species of Bonaparte. Stalin himself thought he was a species of Ivan the Terrible. What is most interesting about the analogy, perhaps, is that both Bonaparte and Stalin came from peripheral cultural zones � Corsica and Georgia � to dominate the hegemonic center. So did Hitler, for that matter. But such insights into historical states of affairs afforded by analogies have to shuck off the analogic form in order to become serious. In other words, suggestion has to cede to hypothesis, and hypotheses are brutal.
Bergman is damningly succinct about Trotsky�s problem.
�� Trotsky, desperately seeking for something from the past that would make sense of the present and promise vindication in the future, failed to recognize (except on rare occasions) that historical analogies, especially inappropriate ones, can often obscure more than they clarify, particularly when the object of one�s analysis � in Trotsky�s case, Stalinism � proves to be far more rooted in a nation�s history and culture than any transnational comparison or analogy might suggest. Indeed, the categories Trotsky borrowed from the French Revolution � Jacobinism, Thermidor and Bonapartism � were too much the product of one historical epoch and national history to be useful in explaining, or even in helping to explain, the evolution of another. �
LI has been irritated, and often expressed our irritation, by the use of analogy by the defenders of our irrational policy in Iraq. There is another analogy that is floating around that also irritates us � Dean to McGovern. In both cases, analogy doesn�t really operate to illuminate, but to disguise � and to disguise for unavowed purposes. In the case of Iraq, the struggle that the Bush administration has publicly set itself is to create a free Iraq, but the struggle it is really engaged in is to create a free enterprise Iraq. In the case of Dean, the analogy to McGovern has operated as a codeword, among D.C. establishment Dems who fear the party edging out from under their control. These are the consultants, commentators, and networked political operatives whose collective record has been one of almost unalloyed failure since 2000. These are liberals who are quite comfortable giving with giving up the principles of liberalism � in fact, they feel quite daring and contemporary as they do so.
That said, there is a place for analogy in understanding and proceeding with any social action. What that place is is a topic for a future LI.