Issue 104 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 2004 Copyright © International Socialism

The prophet, his biographer and the watchtower1
Neil Davidson

The materialist conception of history was once described by a notable practitioner, the late Edward Thompson, as 'perhaps the strongest discipline deriving from the Marxist tradition'.2 Of all the different modes available to that discipline, biography is the least commonly employed. Why? One reason is that, while Marxism does not deny the role of individuals in the historical process, the balance required by Marxist biographers in relation to their subjects is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that there are very few biographies among the classics of Marxist historiography.3 The exceptions, such as Thompson's own William Morris (1955 and 1977), tend to be excursions into the genre by writers whose reputations rest on works of broader scope than any one individual. Given these difficulties, the achievements of Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) are all the more remarkable. Of all the great Marxist historians, he was unusual, perhaps unique, in making biography his primary mode of expression. With the exception of a handful of substantial essays, most of which were posthumously collected in Marxism, Wars and Revolutions (1984), Deutscher's biographies of Stalin (1949 and 1966) and Trotsky (1954-1963) are his central and most enduring legacy.

Not everyone shares this opinion, including many of his erstwhile admirers. David Horowitz, former US student radical, author of From Yalta to Vietnam (1965) and subsequent convert to neo-conservatism, wrote in the course of a recent dispute with Christopher Hitchens, 'When all is said and done the Trotsky biography must be seen as an incomparably sad waste of a remarkable individual talent'.4 Horowitz has, at any rate, read it. Others have suggested that even this effort is unnecessary. Martin Amis informs us, in the course of yet another dispute with Hitchens, that he has fairly definite views about Trotsky ('a murdering bastard and a fucking liar') and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that 'No, I haven't read Isaac Deutscher's The Prophet Armed and The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast, but I have read Volkogonov's Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary'.5 Martin, we had guessed as much.

Horowitz, Amis and Hitchens are a trio of political corpses in search of a decent burial. We can safely leave them to their literary dance of death. What can those who still want to oppose the new rulers of the world rather than grovel at their feet learn from these books? Whatever the problems with Deutscher's political judgements--and as we shall see these are considerable--any criticism of them must start from the simple recognition that they represent not only a model of Marxist biography, but also two of the essential histories of the Russian Revolution written in any historical mode. Verso are therefore to be congratulated for republishing the Trotsky trilogy and making one of the classic works of socialist literature available to a new generation of activists.

The qualifications of a biographer

A general level of imaginative sympathy is, of course, necessary for any biographer to engage with their subject. In Deutscher's case, this faculty seems to have been heightened in relation to Trotsky because of four specific personal characteristics or experiences which the two men had in common.6

First, they shared a political commitment. Deutscher joined the Communist Party of Poland in 1926 or 1927, when the factional struggle within Russia was reaching its climax. He was quickly elevated to the leadership and remained there until his expulsion in 1932 for opposing, in the party press, the disastrous Stalinist policy in Germany. He was, in other words, one of the very few Communists who both accepted and was prepared to act on Trotsky's analysis. Deutscher helped form the Polish Trotskyist organisation and led it throughout the 1930s. Furthermore, unlike most of the Trotskyist leaders of the time, he was capable of independent thought: the Polish delegates to the founding conference of the Fourth International in September 1938 carried his--essentially correct--arguments against proclaiming the new organisation at that time.7

Second, they shared the experience of exile. While in London seeking work as a journalist in 1939 Deutscher was stranded by the outbreak of the Second World War and the partition of his country between the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia. His political opposition to the regime imposed by Stalin after 1945 meant that he was never able to return to Poland. Deutscher once wrote of Trotsky that, 'Like Thucydides, Dante, Machiavelli, Heine, Marx, Herzen, and other thinkers and poets, Trotsky attained his full eminence as a writer only in exile'.8 These sentiments equally apply to their author.

Third, they shared exclusion from academic life. A lectureship would have saved Deutscher from relying on journalism for a living, since his writing in this capacity is by far the weakest part of his output. There is no doubt that his work as a Sovietologist was often highly speculative and his predictions mostly wrong. Nevertheless, as Peter Sedgwick wrote in an obituary for this journal, it is misguided to criticise Deutscher on the basis of what he wrote while carrying out what was, in effect, his day job: 'It is as if Marx's theoretical standing was to be criticised on the basis of the rubbish he wrote against Palmerston in the Tory press'.9 When he could have benefited from a university position in Britain, to enable him the time and a regular income to complete his unfinished Life of Lenin, he was denied one on political grounds.10

Fourth, they shared a command of literary expression.11 Like another Pole from an earlier generation of exiles, Joseph Conrad, Deutscher mastered the English language rather better than many a native. In his major works, socialist commitment and first-hand knowledge of the labour movement are combined with a technical skill in handling primary source materials. Indeed, his abilities in this sphere put to shame many of those academics who spent their professional lives doing little more than warming the professorial chairs that he was denied. One advantage he retained from being denied access to university employment, however, was the freedom to write for a general audience, unconstrained by the bloodless conventions of British academic propriety. His work shows how irony--now mainly used as a self-congratulatory sign of one's postmodern sensibility--can be an essential part of the historian's repertoire.12

Although the politics of the Russian Revolution are at the heart of his books, they never display the tendency towards depersonalisation which is often a feature of 'political' biography. At the beginning of The Prophet Armed we are introduced to the proud and impetuous youth who is prepared to follow any idea of which he is convinced to its logical conclusion; we still recognise him at the end of that volume in the leader determined to impose militarisation of the trade unions if that is what it takes to preserve the revolutionary state. Equally, Deutscher can suggest analogies between the fate of individuals and societies, and the connection between the two, without extending these into absurdity. A chapter in The Prophet Outcast called 'Reason and Unreason' deals, among other things, with the rise of fascism in Germany. Here Deutscher gently draws a parallel between the psychological collapse and suicide in Berlin of Trotsky's eldest daughter, Zina, and the descent into madness of the German society in which she vainly sought refuge.13

Let us explore one example of his approach. Trotsky was universally recognised as one of the great orators of the socialist movement--as great as Jean Jaurès, it is said. Throughout the trilogy Deutscher takes the relationship of Trotsky as a public speaker to his audience as both a barometer of the health of the revolution and an index of his personal fate. To begin with, between February and October 1917, we see Trotsky addressing the thronging crowds at the Cirque Moderne in Petrograd as an agitator and member of a Bolshevik Party still contesting for leadership of the working class. Later, in 1921, after the Civil War, the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the introduction of the New Economic Policy, we find Trotsky addressing the crowds in an official capacity, as a senior member of the ruling party. Later still, in 1926, as Stalin and his faction consolidate their grip on power, Trotsky and the other leaders of the Opposition are depicted attempting to take their case to the rank and file in party cells and workplace meetings. Finally, we observe the circumstances of Trotsky's last public meeting, late in 1932. Now three years into his last exile, and under the threat of attack from Stalinists or fascists or both, he speaks at the invitation of Danish Social Democratic students whose politics were distant from his own (he describes them as 'opponents' in the speech).14 In each of these successive incarnations, from agitator to statesman to oppositionist to exile, Trotsky's oratorical powers remain the same, but their effect is conditioned by the circumstances in which he is called upon to use them. Thus Deutscher, while unravelling the specifics of Trotsky's life, illustrates the truth of the general Marxist proposition that human beings not only make history under conditions unchosen by themselves, but that these conditions also determine whether it is possible to make history at all.

The revolutionary as tragic hero

For nearly a decade the only work which stood comparison in scale with Deutscher's was E H Carr's History of the Bolshevik Revolution. But Carr wrote like the senior civil servant which, for at least part of his life, he was; Deutscher wrote, in Peter Sedgwick's phrase, as a 'tragedian'.15 What does tragedy mean in this context? The distance between human aspirations and the material conditions which might allow them to be realised is necessary, but insufficient. Also required is the attempt to overcome that distance, 'to beat against history with one's fists', no matter how unyielding the stuff of history might be. Trotsky rejected the notion of tragedy as illegitimate with respect to his own life. In 1929, at the end of the first year of his third and final exile from Russia, he wrote in his autobiography that he had 'more than once read musings in the newspapers on the subject of the "tragedy" that has befallen me'. Against these musings he declared, 'I know no personal tragedy'.16 At the time when he wrote this passage, the point seemed doubly justified. On the one hand, the fate of the Russian Revolution was the collective experience of the Russian people. Trotsky had no wish to elevate his own share of that experience to a special category simply because of his fall from political pre-eminence. On the other, it was by no means clear to Trotsky at this time that the Russian Revolution had been lost. He still believed that, degenerated though it was, the state which had exiled him could still be reformed through working class pressure. Consequently, he thought that there was no need in either case to invoke the notion of tragedy. In the first it was self-aggrandising and in the second premature. These judgements reflect both his personal modesty as a historical figure and--in his refusal to abandon established positions until they had been conclusively proved redundant--his sobriety as a theorist. Nevertheless both judgements were to be proved wrong.

Russia was ready for communism in 1917 only as part of an international movement, not isolated and devastated in the way that it emerged from the civil war in 1921. The bureaucratic degeneration which these conditions engendered culminated, by 1928, in a counter-revolution which was as complete as it was unacknowledged by the perpetrators--perhaps even to themselves. Trotsky never accepted that the counter-revolution had triumphed in Russia. Indeed, he was only prepared to contemplate it, even as a theoretical possibility, at the very end of his life. No matter. Whatever the weaknesses in his analysis--and it is only our position on Trotsky's shoulders that allows us to see what he could not--it is from the struggle which Trotsky conducted against Stalinism, particularly during his last exile, that his status as tragic hero derives. Deutscher was therefore right to speak of 'the truly classical tragedy of Trotsky's life, or rather a reproduction of classical tragedy in secular terms of modern politics'.17 No other biography or work of art has ever captured the nature of that tragedy so well.18

New facts have obviously come to light since Deutscher wrote, and in some cases they mean that some of his specific conclusions must be revised. Deutscher argues, for example, that prior to the twelfth party congress in 1923 Trotsky failed to argue in the Politburo for the publication of Lenin's Testament attacking Stalin, and abstained during the vote. According to Deutscher this was because he felt secure in his own position, was contemptuous of Stalin and was unwilling to jeopardise the compromise which he thought had been reached with his rivals.19 We now know that Trotsky voted for publication in the Politburo: his refusal to carry the argument into the Central Committee was not the result of complacency, but out of his respect for the decision-making process of the party, and unwillingness to take any action which might have given the impression that he was acting from personal motives.20 Similarly, Deutscher tends to downplay the level of Left Opposition support and to portray it as essentially passive, at least beyond the core membership. There is at least some evidence, from contemporary participants and the memoirs of witnesses like Victor Serge, that it was more significant than Deutscher allows, and his failure to take account of their testimony (of which he must have been aware) indicates an attitude towards Stalinism which--as we shall see--was different from that of Trotsky. We now know that the Left Opposition had far higher and more active levels of support in both the Bolshevik Party and the working class more generally than was conceded by Deutscher.21 However, neither of these examples, or any of the others that could be cited, fundamentally alter our view of Trotsky. Nor do the materials that have become available in the Russian archives since the fall of Stalinism in 1989-91. Trotsky's most recent Russian biographer, the late, Martin Amis--approved General Dimitri Volkogonov, lists 'the former Central Party Archives, the Central State Archives of the October Revolution, those of the Soviet Army, the Ministry of Defence, the Committee for State Security' as new sources.22 But these have not led even to the type of marginal modifications discussed above. As Daniel Singer wrote of Volkogonov's own book, 'What is important is not new and what is new is relatively unimportant'.23 Deutscher's books therefore remain indispensable for an understanding of the period they discuss and unsurpassed in bringing their hero alive.24

Problems of Deutscherism

An honest assessment of these three volumes cannot, however, restrict itself to highlighting their many positive qualities. Deutscher had been a leading figure in both Polish Communism and Polish Trotskyism. But he came to suffer from the same pessimism about the revolutionary potential of the Western working class that affected most socialists after the Second World War and drove them, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, into the arms of either Washington or Moscow. Deutscher was severely critical of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but his own position was in many respects the mirror image of Orwell's reluctant embrace of the Western side of the Cold War.25 I suggested above that there were four reasons why Deutscher might have been particularly empathetic towards Trotsky as an individual. Against them, however, his pessimism led to two major political differences with Trotsky. These both distorted Deutscher's account of Trotsky's life--particularly in the final volume--and gave many of the thousands of radicals who read his books a basic orientation towards Stalinism which, in some cases at least, was to prove deeply disabling for their politics.

The first difference was in relation to revolutionary socialist organisation and activity. After the outbreak of the Second World War--or rather, after Russia's entry into the Second World War--Deutscher never again seems to have considered active participation in a political organisation. In 1951 Deutscher reviewed The God That Failed, a collective confessional by ex Communist Party writers justifying their abandonment of revolution for various forms of social democracy. His revealing alternative to Stalinism or capitalism was that ex-Communists should withdraw to 'the watchtower'.26 Tony Cliff argued that Deutscher was effectively describing his own situation, and that in practical terms his position in the watchtower was no different from one in the ivory tower that he ostensibly rejected.27 As we shall see, there is evidence that Deutscher did descend from the watchtower towards the end of his life, but during the period in which his biographies were written there is no doubt that Cliff's criticism was substantially correct. Deutscher joined neither the Fourth International nor of any of the dissident organisations which split from it after Trotsky's death. Indeed, his attitude to Trotskyism was deeply dismissive and Trotskyists paid him back in the same coin.28

Deutscher had first-hand personal experience of the weaknesses of Trotskyism. The endless arguments which preoccupied many of the small groups were usually unproductive. The activities which they undertook in the breaks between arguing were often unrewarding. Yet Trotsky regarded it as essential to establish, with whatever human material was available, organisational and theoretical continuities with the early years of the Third International and the traditions of classical Marxism which it embodied. During 1935 he wrote in his diary that 'my work is now "indispensable" in the full sense of the word', rightly adding that there was 'no arrogance' in this statement.29 Very little of this emerges in Deutscher, creating, at the very least, a severe imbalance in The Prophet Outcast. We learn that, for Trotsky, 'neither his character nor his circumstances permitted him to resign from formal political activity. He would not and could not contract out of the day to day struggle'.30 Yet the impression is given that all of the energy which Trotsky expended during the 1930s attempting to resolve the internal disputes of his followers, all of the effort which he spent trying to guide them towards more productive activity in the labour movement, really involved so much wasted time. The only dispute discussed in any detail is the one which split the American Socialist Workers Party at the end of decade, and even here Deutscher focuses almost solely on the aspect which turned on the class nature of the USSR, rather than the debate over the political direction of the organisation within which this issue arose. Why is Deutscher so uninterested in the issue which preoccupied his hero for virtually the entire period between his exile and his murder? The answer seems to be that he considered organisation unnecessary because another mechanism existed which could bring about socialism. This brings us to the second difference between the two men: their attitude to Stalinism.

What was Trotsky's position? This changed at least four times between 1923 and 1940, but always in increasingly radical directions.31 His initial approach to reversing the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, before Stalin had consolidated his power, envisaged workers reforming the apparatus through the medium of the existing soviets. His final position, recognising that soviet democracy had long been completely suppressed, advocated working class political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy. Why only a political as opposed to a social revolution? Because, according to Trotsky, the continued existence of nationalised property meant that Russia remained a workers' state; the bureaucracy represented a caste which was parasitic on these property relations rather than a new ruling class. Now, as Cliff noted in 1948, this definition of a workers' state is not the one Trotsky originally held. On the contrary, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he had believed, along with Lenin and the entire Bolshevik Party, that a workers' state was defined by the political rule of the working class through its representative institutions, regardless of whether property initially remained in private hands or not--and between 1917 and 1928 most of it did remain in private hands, particularly in the countryside. It is possible, of course, to debate the extent to which the working class exercised political rule between these dates, but the basis of the definition itself is unambiguous.32 On this basis of his revised definition, Stalin's 'Second Revolution' after 1928 could be deemed far more revolutionary than October 1917 because it introduced the nationalised property relations upon which the 'workers' state' was supposed to depend. Furthermore, if the decisive criterion was nationalised property, then why did it matter which class or social force introduces it? What need was there for the revolutionary party, the working class or indeed any of the tenets of classical Marxism? The Red Army would be sufficient.

The anti-Marxist implications of shifting from working class power to nationalised property relations were largely held in check in Trotsky's own work. He was careful to emphasise in his last writings that nationalised property was a remnant, a last remaining vestige of the workers' state, and that the progressive content of nationalisation would only be realised after the overthrow of the bureaucracy. Moreover, he did not expect the Stalinist regime to survive the Second World War. He regarded it as a deeply unstable formation which would either be overthrown by working class revolution or bourgeois restoration--and imminently, not in 50 years' time. If it survived, let alone expanded the territory under its control, then the Stalinist bureaucracy would have demonstrated that it was indeed a class.33

The war ended. Russian Stalinism survived. Russian Stalinism expanded. Worse, indigenous Stalinist movements founded new states based, in all essentials, on the Russian Stalinist model. Yet the vast majority of orthodox Trotskyists continued to hold fast to a position which had been proved inadequate by events, and even extended it to Eastern Europe and China. Like them, Deutscher accepted that Russia, its satellites and imitators were all 'workers' states' because they were based on nationalised property. Yet his description of how The Revolution Betrayed (1937) became 'the Bible of latter-day Trotskyist sects and chapels whose members piously mumbled its verses long after Trotsky's death' conveys his impatience with the religious veneration they accorded Trotsky's last writings. Why? Not because they clung to its definition of a 'workers' state', but because they refused to abandon their formal commitment to political revolution.34 Even the dominant tendency within the Fourth International, associated with Michael Pablo, which had successfully argued that the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and China were 'workers' states', assumed that future revolutions would be led by Stalinist parties under 'exceptional circumstances', 'pressure from the masses', and the like. Deutscher described himself as 'free from loyalties to any cult', by which he meant Trotskyism as much as Stalinism.35 He was therefore able go much further than orthodox Trotskyists could (without rendering their existence completely redundant) and claim that Stalinist Russia was not only capable of internal self-reform, but that, even unreformed, it was the major force for world revolution. At one level this is, of course, merely the logic of orthodox Trotskyism taken to its conclusion. For many Trotskyists, therefore, their rage at Deutscher was that of Caliban at seeing his face in the mirror.

Deutscher's position does at least have the benefit of consistency. Unfortunately it is consistently wrong. 'We need not doubt', he wrote, 'that...the logic of [Trotsky's] attitude would have compelled him to accept the reality of the revolution in Eastern Europe, and despite all distaste for the Stalinist methods, to recognise the "People's Democracies" as workers' states'.36 I do doubt this, for the simple reason that it is entirely incompatible with Trotsky's view of Stalinism. Deutscher undoubtedly thought it would be desirable for these property relations to be supplemented by democracy, but that was not decisive. 'No one can foresee with certainty whether the conflict will take violent and explosive forms and lead to the new "political revolution" which Trotsky once advocated, or whether the conflict will be resolved peacefully through bargaining, compromise, and the gradual enlargement of freedom'.37 This leaves the question open, but effectively concedes that the bureaucracy is capable of self-transformation, of bringing the degenerate political superstructure into line with the socialist economic base, so to speak. At no point, even before his last exile, did Trotsky ever believe that the bureaucracy could reform itself. Even more damaging, Deutscher believed that the working class should refrain from any activities which might threaten this self-reformation by opening the door to the restoration of capitalism: 'Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland and eastern Germany)...found itself almost on the brink of bourgeois restoration at the end of the Stalin era; and only Soviet armed power (or its threat) stopped it there'.38

The theoretical roots of these attitudes are suggested by Deutscher's inability to distinguish between different types of revolution. In The Unfinished Revolution (1967) Deutscher actually makes several sensible observations on the nature of bourgeois revolutions. In particular, he notes that their class nature does not depend on the presence of the bourgeoisie in the revolutionary process, but rather on whether the outcome of the revolution 'was to sweep away the social and political institutions that had hindered the growth of bourgeois property and of the social relationships that went with it'. In this respect, as he rightly remarks, 'bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish'.39 These remarks are perfectly compatible with the views of several contributors to this journal, including those of the present reviewer. The problem is when Deutscher begins to extend his model from bourgeois to proletarian revolutions, whose structures are necessarily quite different.40

In several places Deutscher argues that all of the 'great revolutions' (English, French, Russian) follow the same pattern, even down to role of the leader who eventually emerges. 'What appears to be established is that Stalin belongs to the breed of the great revolutionary despots, to which Cromwell, Robespierre, and Napoleon belonged'.41 If Hegel saw Napoleon as the World Spirit mounted on horseback then, reading this passage, one has the impression that Deutscher saw Stalin as the World Spirit mounted on a tank. We are therefore lucky that Trotsky set down his own thoughts on Stalin's despotic lineage, for they are very different from Deutscher's: 'In attempting to find an historical parallel to Stalin, we have to reject not only Cromwell, Robespierre, Napoleon and Lenin, but even Mussolini and Hitler.' His own preferred comparisons are with Kemal and Diaz, the Turkish and Mexican modernising dictators.42 Deutscher was evidently disturbed by the fact that Trotsky did not support his view of Stalin: 'Here the lack of historical scale and perspective is striking and disturbing'.43 In fact, a parallel with the bourgeois revolutions is relevant, but not the one Deutscher imagined. Stalin's historical role was in fact unique. The 'Second Revolution' from 1928 was both a counter-revolution in terms of socialism and the functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution in terms of (state) capitalism. Any serious parallel for Stalin would have to embrace, not the political leaders of the bourgeois revolutions, but the individual landowners, capitalists and imperialists who carried out the original process of primitive accumulation, a process that took nearly 250 years to accomplish in the case of Britain but only 25 in the case of Russia--with all that implies in terms of compressed suffering. Deutscher's confusions between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions lead him to make two central distortions in relation to the Russian experience.

One concerns the role of the working class. Discussing the History, he notes of Trotsky that, 'he does not...overstate the role of the masses'.44 At first this seems an odd sentence: Trotsky allocates to the masses their rightful--that is, pre-eminent--place in the revolutionary process. When one understands, however, that Deutscher has very little confidence in the masses then it becomes far more comprehensible:

There is a difference between 'exhaustion' and 'incapacity'. A class can recover from exhaustion, but to be described as incapable suggests a permanent condition. Deutscher occasionally tries to enlist Trotsky in support of the latter contention, but only by basing himself entirely on the temporary solutions to which Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks were driven as a result of economic collapse and Civil War.46 Now it is true that Trotsky wrote some dire stuff--mostly in Terrorism and Communism (1920)--about the necessity for the centralised authority of the one-party state under all circumstances. The way in which he, to put it mildly, made a virtue out of necessity during this period may well be the least glorious episode in his political life. But it was not his final position. In his writings on Germany from the 1930s, for example, Trotsky writes of the period of dual power, before the victory of the working class, that 'the worker's control begins with the individual workshop. The organ of control is the factory committee.' After the conquest of power, 'the organs of management are not factory committees but centralised soviets'.47 'Management' is a higher form of activity than 'control', indicating that the soviets will be making the decisions, not merely checking decisions made elsewhere. Deutscher's attitude towards the Russian working class is of a piece with his attitude towards the European working class as a whole after the First World War, which he claims never rose above reformism.48 Again, this was not Trotsky's view. His position--admittedly often exaggerated to the point of absurdity by some of his followers--was that working class failure to consistently take the revolutionary road was in part due to a crisis of leadership which it was the task of communists to overcome. Deutscher underestimates the role of revolutionary leadership to an even greater extent than he underestimates the revolutionary capacity of the working class. His treatment of Lenin during 1917 is instructive here.

In The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky argues that the arrival of Lenin in Russia in April 1917 was decisive in pushing the Bolshevik Party towards the socialist revolution and the seizure of power:

Trotsky is not saying that the Bolsheviks would never have arrived at the correct strategy without Lenin, or that the revolutionary opportunity would never have come again, simply that in revolutionary situations time is of the essence and that without Lenin it would have been allowed to pass. 'Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole past of Russian history'.49 Deutscher finds this intolerable and devotes several pages (far more than Trotsky's original discussion) to an attempt to refute it. For Deutscher, such a lapse from 'the Marxist intellectual tradition' can only be explained by Trotsky's psychological response to his own isolation: 'He needed to feel that the leader, whether Lenin in 1917 or he himself in the 1930s, was irreplaceable--from his belief he drew the strength for his solitary and heroic exertions'.50 These are among the very worst passages in the entire trilogy and they are rather more revealing of Deutscher's 'needs' than they are of Trotsky's.

If both the masses and the individual leaders are irrelevant to the accomplishment of socialism, what remains? What forces can take their place? Deutscher often claimed to uphold what he called 'classical Marxism' against the 'vulgar Marxism' practised by Stalin, Mao and their epigones, and the virtues of his works confirm that this was no idle boast. Yet within the category of 'classical Marxism' he included many of the thinkers of the Second International, like Kautsky and Plekhanov, whose work was characterised--to different degrees--by an extreme determinism. For them, socialism was inevitable given a certain level of development of the productive forces. 'Classical Marxism' was therefore divided between the determinists and those (like Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Lukács or Gramsci) who understood the relationship between material circumstances and human activity. Reading Deutscher's trilogy it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the experience of the defeat of the Russian Revolution led him to revive the determinism of the Second International. If defeat is too overwhelming, if the prospect of starting again is too difficult, then the temptation can be to present it, through the application of pseudo-dialectical voodoo, as a victory--or at least as being in the process of being transformed into a victory. Hence the title of the postscript to The Prophet Outcast: 'Victory in Defeat': 'The very preconditions of socialism which classical Marxism had seen as existing only in the highly industrialised countries of the West were being created and assembled within Soviet society'.51 There is a name for the social system which produces 'the preconditions of socialism': it is capitalism. Yet this was the conclusion which Deutscher wished so much to avoid that he dedicated his considerable powers to persuading his readers of the opposite.

Deutscher's influence

The trilogy exerted a great influence over the New Left when it emerged after 1956, an influence which was as contradictory as the books themselves. To understand it, we need to envisage the context in which they were first read and discussed.

When Trotsky was murdered in 1940 Stalinist rule was restricted to Russia itself and its immediate western border regions. By 1954, when the first volume of the trilogy appeared, Stalinism had encompassed the whole of Eastern Europe, China, North Korea and North Vietnam. It also held the allegiance of the most militant sections of the world working class. Some threats to the stability of the Stalinist ruling class had, of course, already appeared: the first internal split came with the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform (the Comintern's successor) in 1948 and the first serious opposition from below came with the rising of East German workers in 1953. It was only retrospectively, however, that these events were generally seen as exposing the inherent problems of state capitalism. For all practical purposes, in the early 1950s Stalinism appeared to offer the only real alternative to Western capitalism and imperialism. Against the seemingly unstoppable rise of the system established by his arch-enemy, Trotsky seemed irrelevant, a figure from another time or another world--perhaps 'the lost world of Atlantis' which Deutscher invokes on more than one occasion. As he notes in the Preface to The Prophet Armed, 'For nearly 30 years the powerful propaganda machine of Stalinism worked furiously to expunge Trotsky's name from the annals of the revolution, or to leave it there only as the synonym for arch-traitor'.52 There was little effective defence against this onslaught.

Few of Trotsky's own works were in print at this time, except for a handful of pamphlets produced by the nominally Trotskyist organisations which, during this period at least, had few members and little influence. The three biggest groups in the West--the American, French and British--had maybe 3,000 members between them. Even if we apply the label of 'Trotskyist' beyond adherents of the Fourth International to such dissident groups as the Workers' Party in the US and the Socialist Review Group in the UK, their total memberships would have been less than that of, for example, the relatively small Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Asked whether he was aware of Trotsky's writings during and immediately after the Second World War, Raymond Williams--perhaps the leading academic socialist thinker of his generation and one who organisationally broke with Stalinism during the late 1940s--replied:

This is somewhat disingenuous, since Williams would of course have learned something from his days in the CPGB about 'the socialist opposition in Russia', namely that it was composed of class traitors in the pay of MI6 and the Gestapo. But Williams is correct to describe the existence of a 'generational block'.53 The point is confirmed by John Saville, a Marxist historian and member of the CPGB until 1956, who writes that 'before the war or after I personally never met a Trotskyist, or was confronted with one at any meeting I addressed; and the same was true, with only a very few exceptions, of members of the ILP'.54 And even if Saville or Williams had chanced to meet a Trotskyist, he would have found that their relationship to Trotsky's own theory and practice was increasingly distant. For all the brilliance of many of the individuals associated with Trotskyism, Alasdair MacIntyre was right to say in his review of The Prophet Outcast that:

Nor did Trotsky's non-revolutionary admirers keep his memory alive. During the 1930s several centrist groups and individuals had independently arrived at interpretations of Stalinism, particularly its international role, which were compatible with that of Trotsky--George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938) is perhaps the best example--but it soon became apparent that, for the majority, the political conclusions which they drew were quite different and in most cases, quite unrevolutionary. More generally, many intellectuals, particularly in the US, were attracted to Trotsky not only by his anti-Stalinism, but because of his literary and theoretical abilities, and what they saw as the romance of the revolutionary exile--the superficial aura of tragic heroism that Trotsky himself rejected. Some went so far as to join Trotskyist organisations, but most were unwilling to adopt the life of political commitment which membership entailed. Deutscher himself vividly describes their gradual retreat.56 Nor were his ideas sustained by academics, since, as Deutscher rightly points out, the Stalinist version of history 'strongly affected the views of even independent Western historians and scholars'.57 As late as 1967 the New Left Review--later to be the vehicle for the super-Deutscherism of its editorial board--could publish, as its first serious consideration of Trotsky's work, an article by Nicolas Krasso which concluded, 'In practical political struggle, before and after the revolution, his under-estimation of the specific efficacy of political institutions led him into error after error'.58

It was onto this scene, where Trotsky was regarded, at best, as a harmless icon of non-specific anti-Stalinism or, at worst, as a counter-revolutionary renegade from the socialist cause, that the first volume of Deutscher's biography exploded in 1954. Not the least of our debts to Deutscher is that, in spite of his own disagreements with Trotsky, he played a major role in transmitting the legacy of his hero to subsequent generations. His timing was fortuitous. Two years after his first volume appeared, the revelations in Khrushchev's Secret Speech and upheavals in Eastern Europe, culminating in the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, blew apart the Stalinist myth. Deutscher was not the first person to refer to Trotsky or his role in the Russian Revolution. Orwell had done so through the characters of Snowball in Animal Farm (1945) and Emmanuel Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), whose book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism is--as Deutscher himself acknowledged--clearly derived from The Revolution Betrayed.59 Nor was his the first biography: Bertram D Wolfe had published his triple biography of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Three Who Made a Revolution, in 1948. Nevertheless, the impact of Deutscher's trilogy was qualitatively different.

For virtually the first time, revolutionary socialists had in their hands a substantial, documented history which broadly supported their arguments about the respective roles of Trotsky and Stalin in the Russian Revolutions. More importantly, open-minded socialists who had no contact with Trotskyists--which at this time would have meant most of them--had an independent source of information from which to construct an alternative to the disintegrating orthodoxies of Stalinism. As David Widgery once noted, 'Even [in 1968], the range of readable socialist literature didn't overtax a table top'.60 From 1956 to 1968 Deutscher's three volumes would have accounted for quite a large part of the table's surface. The Scottish miners' leader Lawrence Daly, who broke with the CPGB in 1956, wrote of Deutscher, 'His books on Stalin and Trotsky certainly enlightened thousands of active trade unionists, people who were not only trade union conscious but politically conscious, and they undoubtedly played a very important role in rescuing some thousands of people in this country, dedicated workers in the labour movement, from a kind of mummified Marxism, within the narrow and stultifying confines of which they had been ideologically asphyxiated'.61 Tariq Ali, for example, wrote, 'My own political formation has been greatly influenced by Isaac Deutscher, Leon Trotsky and Ernest Mandel (in that order)'.62 Now, the fact that Ali places Deutscher before Trotsky may indicate nothing more than the order in which he read these authors, but in many cases newly radicalised workers and students read Trotsky through Deutscher's interpretation. From Widgery's account, Deutscher's Trotsky anthology, The Age of Permanent Revolution, was one of three main sellers on bookstalls at the London School of Economics during the student rebellions of the late 1960s.63 And for some radicals at least, it was possible to be a Deutscherist without becoming a Trotskyist. In 1989, David Horowitz, whom we have already encountered, confessed to a Polish audience:

In his autobiography Tony Cliff recalled his concern over the dominance which Deutscher began to exert over audiences during the 1960s:

Cliff thought that because Deutscher's position did not involve a complete break from Stalinism it was easier for people from that tradition to accept than one based on a harder Trotskyist analysis, let alone that associated with International Socialism. The claim has some validity for the period in which the books first appeared--it clearly explains Lawrence Daly's enthusiasm, for example. But it cannot explain why people with no previous history of Stalinism, who were becoming socialists for the first time, found Deutscher's arguments so compelling. Nor can it explain why they continued to do so long after the nature of Stalinism was accepted even by the majority of Communist parties. The answer is that, as I have already suggested, Deutscherism was a theory of consolation. It was--and here the cliché really is inescapable--no accident that Deutscherism reached its maximum influence between the onset of the downturn in international class struggle from 1975 and the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe in 1989. No matter how difficult the current situation may have been in Western Europe or the US, no matter how few papers were sold on the high street of a rainy Saturday morning, socialism--or societies 'transitional' to socialism--already existed in the world and their number was being added to year on year: Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (where the phenomenon of a genocidal 'workers' state' was shortly to be discovered) and Afghanistan.

The main vehicle for spreading these views was a journal in which Deutscher's work had regularly appeared: New Left Review. The apotheosis of 'theoretical Deutscherism' was attained in an essay of 1983 by Perry Anderson, somewhat misleadingly called 'Trotsky on Stalinism'. After a brilliant summary of Trotsky's changing analysis of the Soviet Union, Anderson discusses the limitations of Trotsky's analysis, which supposedly led to failures in prediction. All are derived from Deutscher.66 The key example of what might be called 'applied Deutscherism' is Fred Halliday's The Making of the Second Cold War (1983 and 1986), about which Anderson wrote, 'It is fitting that the best work confronting the current Cold War should have been produced out of direct inspiration of [Deutscher's] example'.67 Deutscherism was perhaps best summed up by Mike Davis as the proposition that 'the Cold War between the USSR and the United States is ultimately the lightning-rod conductor of all the historic tensions between opposing international class forces'.68

The fall of the Soviet bloc destroyed all the assumptions upon which Deutscherism was based. Some of his acolytes had already changed sides before the debacle of 1989-91, but after it became apparent that that the USSR would neither economically compete with the US nor politically reform itself in a socialist direction. Horowitz explained to a Polish audience in 1989 how he 'waited in vain' for the self-reform of the Stalinist states, before concluding, 'Deutscher was wrong. There would never be a socialist political democracy erected on a socialist economic base'.69

For those, like Fred Halliday, who had essentially seen the Soviet bloc as the bearer of socialist progress, the debacle 'means nothing less than the defeat of the communist project as it had been known in the 20th century and the triumph of the capitalist'.70 Incredibly, some writers who had previously accepted International Socialism's position on the nature of Stalinism began to endorse a Deutscherist position after the USSR had collapsed.71 It would be going too far to say that every Deutscherist has now switched sides to support the US, capitalist globalisation, 'liberal values' and the invasion of awkward Third World states. For every Halliday or Hitchens there is a Davis or an Ali. Nevertheless, Deutscherism made it easy, for those who had no countervailing belief in the ability of the working class to sustain them, to transfer their allegiance from Moscow to Washington.

Conclusion

Towards the end of his life Deutscher began, in response to the Vietnam War, to engage in political activity for the first time in decades. In 1965 he was invited to speak at the National Teach-In about the war in Washington, and then at the far more political event of the same name in Berkeley. He said of the latter event, 'This is the most exciting speaking engagement I have had since I spoke to the Polish workers 30 years ago.' More important, perhaps, was his address to the Socialist Scholars Conference the following year ('On Socialist Man'), when he criticised the assembled ranks of the left academy (much smaller in those days, of course) for their failure to connect with the American working class:

These remarks, and his involvement in the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, do not suggest the attitude of a man contemplating the world from a watchtower. And why should that come as a surprise? The present crisis over the invasion and occupation of Iraq has not only had the effect of smoking out of the closet supporters of US imperialism, but of revitalising socialists who had previously appeared lost to activity. Deutscher, a product of the finest traditions of European socialism before Stalin and Hitler had done their worst, was scarcely likely to be unaffected by the revival of struggle which surrounded him.

Changed circumstances enabled Deutscher to re-engage in political activity, but it was the circumstances which prevailed for decades beforehand which shaped both the strengths and weaknesses of the trilogy. The Deutscher who resisted Stalinism gave us what is most valuable in it; the Deutscher who capitulated gave us those aspects most redolent of that epoch of defeat. Now that the false alternative of Stalinism is itself history, the latter will diminish in significance, but the virtues of Deutscher's great work are likely to endure for as long as we still need to discuss the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution. And of how many other books of the period can that be said?

NOTES

  1. A review of I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed. Trotsky: 1879-1921, The Prophet Unarmed. Trotsky: 1921-1928 and The Prophet Outcast. Trotsky: 1929-1940 (London, 2003), £15 each.

  2. E P Thompson, 'The Poverty of Theory: or an Orrery of Errors', The Poverty of Theory And Other Essays (London, 1978), p193.

  3. But see M Perry, Marxism and History (Houndmills, 2002), p9, for an alternative judgement.

  4. D Horowitz, 'David Horowitz Versus Christopher Hitchens', History News Network, hnn.us/articles

  5. M Amis, Koba the Dread (London, 2002), pp251, 252.

  6. Where not otherwise specified, details on Deutscher's life are taken from D Singer, 'Armed with a Pen', in D Horowitz (ed), Isaac Deutscher: The Man and His Work (London, 1971); P Anderson, 'Preface', in I Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions (London and New York, 1984), ppi-vi; and T Deutscher, 'Isaac Deutscher, 1907-1967', www.deutscherprize.org.uk

  7. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p341.

  8. As above, p176.

  9. P Sedgwick, 'The Tragedy of a Tragedian: An Appreciation of Isaac Deutscher', International Socialism 31, First Series (Winter 1967/8), p11.

  10. See M Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (London, 1998), pp 93, 235.

  11. Deutscher variously compared Trotsky as a historian to Marx, Churchill and Carlyle. See I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp177-178, 189. In fact, Marx apart, the most appropriate comparison for Trotsky is Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose The History of England from the Accession of James VII to the Revolution (1848-53) bears a startling structural resemblance to The History of the Russian Revolution.

  12. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, p428; The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp94-95.

  13. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp141-146, 157-158.

  14. For two outstanding examples, see I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, pp216-217, and The Prophet Unarmed, as above, pp22, 235-236; The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp148-149.

  15. P Sedgwick, as above.

  16. L Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, 1975), p604.

  17. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, pix.

  18. There are two great exceptions: Meaghan Delahunt's novel In the Blue House (London, 2001), which reconstructs Trotsky's life during his Mexican exile, and Ken McMullen's film Zina (1985), which focuses on the fate of Zinaida Lvovna.

  19. I Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, as above, pp76-77.

  20. P Broue, 'Trotsky: A Biographer's Problems', in T Brotherstone and P Dukes (eds), The Trotsky Reappraisal (Edinburgh, 1992), pp20-21.

  21. Compare I Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, as above, pp308-310; and The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp49-65, with M Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the 'Second Revolution' (London, 1987), pp22, 27-28, 54-55; V Z Rogovin, 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror (Oak Park, 1998), pp374-392; and B Starkov, 'Trotsky and Ryutin: from the History of the Anti-Stalin Resistance in the 1930s', in T Brotherstone and P Dukes (eds), as above.

  22. D Volkogonov, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary (New York, 1996), pxxiv.

  23. D Singer, 'The Prophet Vulgarised', The Nation, 25 March 1996.

  24. I am unable to say to what extent P Broue, Trotsky (Paris, 1988) has advanced beyond Deutscher, since this potentially important work by a serious Trotskyist historian still awaits translation into English.

  25. I Deutscher, '1984: The Mysticism of Cruelty', in Heretics and Renegades (London, 1955) and Marxism, Wars and Revolutions, as above.

  26. I Deutscher, 'The Ex-Communist and His Conscience', in Heretics and Renegades, as above, p20; Marxism, Wars And Revolutions, as above, pp57-58.

  27. T Cliff, 'The End of the Road: Deutscher's Capitulation to Stalinism', International Socialism 15, First Series (Winter 1963), p20; Trotsky, vol 4, The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star, 1927-1940 (London, Chicago and Melbourne, 1993), pp304-307.

  28. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp45-49, 342-328. See, for example, his response to criticism from the American SWP in I Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, as above, p449, n 64.

  29. L Trotsky, Trotsky's Diary in Exile (London, 1958), p54.

  30. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p210.

  31. A MacIntyre, as above, pp54-55; P Anderson, 'Trotsky's Interpretation of Stalinism', New Left Review I/139 (May/June 1983), pp49-54.

  32. T Cliff, 'The Nature of Stalinist Russia', Selected Writings, vol 3, Marxist Theory After Trotsky (London, 2003), pp3-4. See also V I Lenin, 'Left Wing Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality', Collected Works, vol 27 (Moscow, 1972), pp335-336.

  33. L Trotsky, 'The USSR in War', In Defence of Marxism (Against the Petty-Bourgeois Opposition) (London, 1966), pp9-11.

  34. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p266.

  1. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, px.

  2. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p241.

  3. 37: I Deutscher, The Great Contest (London, 1960), pp21-22.

  4. I Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, as above, p429, n69. See also I Deutscher, 'Russia in Transition', Ironies of History (Berkeley, 1971), pp44-46.

  5. I Deutscher, The Unfinished Revolution (London, 1967), p22.

  6. The point was very forcibly made at the time by Max Shachtman in 'Isaac Deutscher's Stalin', The Bureaucratic Revolution: The Rise of the Stalinist State (New York, 1962), pp229-234. See also N Davidson, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (London and Sterling, Virginia, 2003), pp9-15, 290-295 and A Callinicos, Making History (Houndmills, 1987), pp229-233, and 'Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism', International Socialism 43, Second Series (Summer 1989), pp122-127. I pursue this topic in greater depth in the 2004 Deutscher Lecture, 'How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?', forthcoming in Historical Materialism.

  7. I Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (London, 1949), pp565-566.

  8. L Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, edited and translated from the Russian by C Malamuth (London, 1947), p413.

  9. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, p372.

  10. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p369.

  11. As above, p189.

  12. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp80-81.

  13. L Trotsky, 'What Next?', Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front, 1930-34, International Socialism Special Double Issue 38/39, First Series (August-September 1969), p43; The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany with an Introduction by E Mandel (Harmondsworth, 1975), p228.

  14. I Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, as above, p368.

  15. L Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London, 1977), pp343-344. See also L Trotsky, Trotsky's Diary in Exile, as above, pp53-54.

  16. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, pp197, 198, 201.

  17. As above, pp422-423.

  18. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, pviii.

  19. R Williams, Politics and Letters (London, 1979), pp49, 402.

  20. J Saville, 'The Communist Experience: A Personal Appraisal', The Socialist Register 1991 Edited by R Miliband and L Panitch (London, 1991), p21.

  21. A MacIntyre, 'Trotsky in Exile', Against the Self-Images of the Age (London, 1971), p59. One assumes that when MacIntyre wrote this he included the members of the International Socialists, to which he still more or less belonged, among the 'genuine' few hundred.

  22. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p353. For an excellent account of this group, see A Wald, The New York Intellectuals (Chapel Hill and London, 1987).

  23. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, as above, pviii.

  24. N Krasso, 'Trotsky's Marxism', New Left Review I/44 (July-August 1967, p85. The same issue also contains a perceptive interview with Deutscher: 'On the Arab-Israeli War'.

  25. I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p261.

  26. D Widgery, 'Ten Years for Pandora', Socialist Review 2 (May 1978), p21.

  27. L Daly, 'A Working Class Tribute', D Horowitz (ed), as above, p89.

  28. T Ali, Revolution From Above (London, 1988), pix.

  29. D Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth, 1976), p525. Apparently the others were The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Hal Draper's Berkeley: The New Student Radicals.

  30. D Horowitz, 'Reality and Dream', www.frontpagemag.com

  31. T Cliff, A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary (London, Chicago and Sydney, 2000), p67.

  32. P Anderson, 'Trotsky's Interpretation of Stalinism', as above, p57. Compare I Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, as above, p373.

  33. 67: P Anderson, 'Preface', Marxism, Wars and Revolutions, as above, pxix.

  34. M Davis, 'Nuclear Imperialism and Extended Deterrence', New Left Review (ed), Exterminism and Cold War (London, 1982), p44.

  35. D Horowitz, 'Reality and Dream', as above.

  36. F Halliday, 'The Ends of the Cold War', New Left Review I/180 (March/April 1990), p12.

  37. C Hitchens, 'Left-Leaning, Left-Leaving', Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2003. Mercifully, the introduction by Hitchens to The Prophet Armed which was once threatened in the advance publicity has not materialised.

  38. Quoted in S Unger, 'Deutscher and the New Left in America', in D Horowitz (ed), as above, pp215, 218-219.


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