[Marxism] Deutscher trilogy reviewed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 26 12:03:22 MST 2004

LRB | Vol. 26 No. 23 dated 2 December 2004
Victory in Defeat
Neal Ascherson

The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-21 by Isaac Deutscher
Verso, 497 pp, £15.00

The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 by Isaac Deutscher
Verso, 444 pp, £15.00

The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 by Isaac Deutscher
Verso, 512 pp, £512.00

Deutscher’s Trotsky was thought by two generations – his own and its 
successor – to be one of the great works of biography. The first volume 
emerged in 1954, soon after the death of Stalin. The last appeared in 
1963, at a time when the Soviet Union still seemed strong and confident, 
and when there remained hopes (not only on the left) that reforms 
leading towards a Soviet version of democratic socialism might one day 
be resumed.

Times have changed, but those generations were right – about the book, 
if not about the Soviet Union. Reissued by Verso in three paperback 
volumes, Deutscher’s biography is still tremendous. The power and 
excitement of his prose knock the reader down. His command of the 
language, late Victorian in its freedom and in the absence of secondhand 
imagery, in some ways surpasses that of his fellow Pole Joseph Conrad. 
The scholarship is enormous and – given that the Moscow archives were 
closed to him – comprehensive. Above all, there is Deutscher’s own 
enthusiasm, a sort of majestic urgency. He believed that his subject 
mattered. Not just because of the tragic, even messianic shape of 
Trotsky’s life, but because Deutscher was convinced that in writing 
about this dead man, he was also writing about the future. He was 
rescuing and repairing the legacy of Lev Davidovich, which would one day 
be inherited by the Russian revolutionaries of a new October.

It’s impossible not to feel this excitement. But how many will now be 
able to share it? Anyone who rereads this book forty years on will peer 
at herself or himself across an abyss of change. It’s true that for 
years Deutscher’s trilogy was the most delicious gift to smuggle to an 
East European intellectual (difficult, too; the original volumes weighed 
three kilos and were hard to hide under one’s shirts). It’s also true 
that in the glasnost years leading up to 1991, many intelligent Russians 
were inspired when the suppressed truth about Trotsky’s life and ideas 
began to reach them. But these were people who still hoped for a new, 
plural, open Soviet democracy. They soon discovered that the tide was 
flowing in the opposite direction. Few episodes have been left as high 
and as dry as the Bolshevik Revolution. Like wrecks stranded on the 
desert which was once the Aral Sea, Lenin and Trotsky, Bukharin and 
Zinoviev, even Khrushchev and Gorbachev, lie rusting and scattered 
across the sands. Only Stalin, for depressing reasons, still has some 
water round his feet.

Historians have gone with this tide. In Deutscher’s time, it seemed 
incontrovertible that the most significant event in the 20th century was 
the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Now it is highly 
controvertible. Thirteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 
the view is current that the Revolution achieved almost nothing of its 
original intentions. As Eric Hobsbawm has written, its one lasting 
success was the military defeat of Hitler, made possible by Stalin’s 
forced industrialisation of Russia. But the unintended consequences of 
that success defeated the Soviet experiment itself. ‘The most lasting 
results of the October Revolution, whose object was the global overthrow 
of capitalism,’ Hobsbawm wrote in Age of Extremes, ‘was to save its 
antagonist both in war and peace – that is to say, by providing it with 
the incentive, fear, to reform itself.’

Again, interpretations of 1917 and its aftermath have changed almost out 
of recognition. Most contemporary readers of history probably agree that 
the ‘real’ revolution was that of February 1917, and that the October 
power seizure by the Bolsheviks was little more than an opportunistic 
coup d’état. History has also taken an increasingly nasty view of Lenin. 
For so many decades, oppositional Communists and post-Stalinist leaders 
of the Soviet Union would condemn abuses of power by describing them as 
‘departures from Leninist norms’. Now, however, the fashion is to 
dismiss this approach as intellectual comfort-fodder. Lenin, it’s said, 
in no way offered an alternative to Stalinism. In fact, it was Lenin who 
created the machinery of inhuman oppression which Stalin merely 
continued – admittedly, on a vaster scale – to operate in the way that 
it was designed to operate. It was Lenin who established the Bolshevik 
monopoly of political power, who set the precedent for denouncing all 
critics of that monopoly as ‘counter-revolutionaries’, who locked the 
Bolsheviks into the fatal claim of ‘substituting’ for a working class 
which by 1921 had almost ceased to exist. It was Lenin during the Civil 
War who licensed the Red Terror – executions, family hostage-taking – 
against the class enemy.

My own feeling is that this approach is too crude to last. The Bolshevik 
Revolution was more ‘authentic’ and popular than we currently admit; to 
see Soviet history merely as inherited homicide is an excuse for not 
thinking about it. But while these versions last, their sting affects 
Trotsky too. And there’s worse: the suggestion that Trotsky has become 
irrelevant. If Lenin had set up a political tradition which could only 
achieve its ends by force, would it have made any significant difference 
whether Trotsky or Stalin succeeded him? Given Trotsky’s impetuous 
nature and his practice of Red Terror during the Civil War, might he not 
have been even more ruthless? In terms of public attention, Trotsky’s 
stock has fallen even faster than Lenin’s. After all, if the three 
giants of the Revolution were, in the current view, ‘as bad as each 
other’, why should Trotsky – the one who never held the leadership – be 
of special interest?

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n23/asch01_.html

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