David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Eros and Death

Perhaps you imagine that you are engaged in something that is terribly daring and original, that you are somehow opening up new vistas of radical thought with your demand that the International Committee adopt a utopian agenda: that we spend more time speculating about the future world, and less on accounts of the past and analyses of the present, that we shift our attention from politics to sex, and that we pay less attention to the objective processes of world economy and more to the subjective urges of the individual. In fact, Comrades Brenner and Steiner, there is nothing very original about your proposals. Marxists have heard it all before, and many times.

In an article “On Eros and Death,” written by Trotsky in 1908, he recounted a conversation in a Parisian café with a young Russian intellectual, a supporter of the Decadent movement in art, who expressed dismay with the tendency of Marxists to pay too little attention to the subjective feelings of human beings, to their sexual needs and their fear of death. Why did they not pay more homage to the two moments of existence that comprised the exclusive preoccupation of the Decadents: “the ecstasy of the union of two bodies, and the parting of the soul from the body?” These concerns were poorly and too infrequently addressed by Marxists, the intellectual complained. “At best, historical materialism seeks to explain the origin of this or that social mood (eroticism, mysticism) by the struggle between different forces in society. Whether it does this well or badly, I don’t care. But I, to whom you offer your dubious explanations, shall die nevertheless, and as for all the perspectives your historical materialism spreads before me, even if I believe in them for the sake of my spiritual life, I still set them in the perspective of my inevitable death.” For these existential problems, the intellectual protested, Marxism had no satisfactory answers. “But what do you offer me?” he asked Trotsky. “Objective analysis? Arguments about necessity? Immanent development? The negation of the negation? But all these things are so terribly inadequate, not for my intelligence, but for my will.” [107]

Trotsky, who had just given a lecture attacking the Decadents and their “anarchy of the flesh,” began his reply by protesting:

I find it essentially impossible to accept battle on the ground you have chosen. If you please—you are asking me to create, just in passing, a religious doctrine such as would help a member of the intelligentsia to transcend the shell of his individuality and overcome the terror of death and pretentious skepticism, a doctrine capable of linking mystically his “subconscious,” the soul of his soul, to the great epoch in which we live. But, please excuse me, this would make a mockery of my viewpoint. It would be as if I listened to a scientific lecture on the historical origins of the Bible, and then expected the speaker to tell me on the basis of the Apocalypse the date of the Second Coming. Mais ce n’est pas mon métier, messieurs, I could say to you, this is not my job, and that’s that. [108]

As I read your document, Trotsky’s conversation with the Decadents comes to mind. You want us to advance proposals for the family of the future, uncover means by which repressed libidinal drives may be released, work out new forms of gender identity, and campaign against the tyranny of genital-centered sexuality. To which the most appropriate reply is, Mais ce n’est pas mon métier, messieurs! All this is simply not part of the mission statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International.


Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky (London: Porcupine Press, 1999), pp. 54–55.


ibid., p. 57.