I mentioned Robert Service’s new biography of Trotsky before. I haven’t bought it or read it yet, mainly because I don’t have time and I’m waiting for something like summer or a prolonged debilitating decease disease to read some books I’ve set aside. But also because I’ve read some mixed reviews of the book’s intention and style. Here‘s the review of it by David North that raises a number of larger issues.
The review begins with a different story, a reaction to the now class three-volume biography of Trotsky by Deutscher:
In 1955 James Burnham, the intellectual godfather of modern American neo-conservatism, reviewed The Prophet Armed,the first volume of Isaac Deutscher’s monumental biography of Leon [Lev Davidovich] Trotsky. Fifteen years had passed since Burnham had resigned from the Fourth International at the climax of a political struggle in which he had crossed polemical swords with Leon Trotsky. It had been a difficult experience for Burnham, who felt somewhat overmatched in this political and literary contest.
Burnham noted that Deutscher’s portrait of Trotsky was not one-sided; that he “conscientiously displays, also, Trotsky’s weaknesses…” But despite the many literary virtues of the biography, Burnham denounced it as an “intellectual disaster.” Burnham’s reason for his condemnation was that “Mr. Deutscher writes from a point of view that accepts and legitimizes the Bolshevik revolution.” The biography was “organically warped” and unacceptable. “Not all the scholarly references from all the libraries are enough to wash out the Bolshevik stain.”
Burnham confessed his horror that Deutscher had received “all the courtesies of our leading research institutions, the aid of our foundations, the pages of our magazines, publication and promotion by the great Anglo-Saxon Oxford Press.” Did the establishment not recognize the danger in allowing, and even encouraging, the details of Trotsky’s heroic life and revolutionary ideas to reach the broader public, and especially the youth?
Burnham concluded his review with a cry of despair: “The minds of many of our university students and opinion-makers are being deeply formed, on the supremely important issues with which he [Deutscher] deals, by his ideas. It is surely one more among the many indications of the suicidal mania of the western world.” The conclusion that implicitly flowed from this review was that Deutscher’s book and others like it, which portrayed the October Revolution and its leaders sympathetically, should not be published.
So it was not the quality of Deutscher’s research, it was the attitude he had toward the person he was writing about and, most importantly, toward the events that we supposedly must condemn. There are several favorite conservative issues here, of course, and the one that always annoys me is the theme of “we must protect our children/students from X, Y, and Z because they are no mature enough to get deal with it themselves,” there’s however a sense in which I wonder if it’s things can be solved in some easy way: think about research topics like terrorism or religious extremism – we only like those if they are aimed at fighting terrorism/extremism, if a terrorist-sympathizing author did the best research possible and wrote a great book about it, should it be reviewed only based on its scholarly qualities? If reviewer hates everything the discussed figure stands for, should his efforts to maintain objectivity be considered good scholarly style?
Robert Service’s book is, according to David North, a character assassination:
Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility.
It again raises a number of interesting questions: is it possible to write a good scholarly book about a person you despise? is it possible to write an objective account of what you admire? what is the general purpose of supposedly objective biography? All of this (read the rest of the review, it’s really interesting and goes where I would not go with certain ideas) leads me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately: can you criticize a philosophical position without criticizing a person that holds it?
There’s some discussion of this over at Dead Voles. My question here is simple: is it possible to have an open mind, an objective attitude toward a book or a body of work and then, after engaging it, discover that it is either worthy of appreciation or is just a bunch of baloney? My experience tells me that it is not. Here’s why: every book we read, every idea we approach, we approach from a very particular position that has its own unique history and its unique structure; I only read books I find interesting because someone else told me (either explicitly or by citing it favorably) that they are worth my attention. I firmly believe that all that stuff about “I was at the bookstore and I picked up this book and I started reading it and it changed my life” is such an exception that to take it as a rule is simply foolish. Most of us, I think, to a certain extent, always already like the books we are about to read and hate the books we are told are not coherent and stupid. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “principle of charity” when it comes to reading – we read with intention to accept or with intention to reject while some objectivity of some principle implies that we can “make up our mind as we read” – it’s just not the case. Here, I said it.
Is there then any sense in which one can avoid ad hominem attacks? Sure. Just because objectivity is not easily achieved does not mean we should not strive for it, right? Wrong. Objectivity as a value in scholarly discourse is one gigantic myth that serves this sort of idealized vision of knowledge as a perfect collections of correct statements/propositions/facts. Supposedly neutral, self-professedly objective, desperately scientific – we should use these more. Ad hominem implies that one can easily separate the person from the argument – “it is ridiculous” is somehow different from “you are a fool for thinking this is not ridiculous” – but if we look at any serious philosophical discussion, we see that it always involves passions. The logic of prohibition of ad hominems is the logic of repressed emotion “deal with the argument, repress your feelings about the discussed position, remain sober and calm, remain objective” – no one ever does that and yet we strive for it. Even the occasional person we praise for staying objective and balanced is under suspicion: do they stay calm because they have a disposition of a true scholar or simply because they do not give a shit about the issues? do they ask “what do you think about it?” because they don’t care to inquire “how do you feel about it?” and therefore get to the real core of the philosophical experience, that is, the emotion of grasping some aspect of reality?
Tea time. Rant over. Grandpa out.