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International Socialist Review, Winter 1960


Joseph Hansen

Deutscher’s Life of Leon Trotsky


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.1, Winter 1960, pp.24-26.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark up: Andrew Pollack for ETOL.


THE PROPHET UNARMED: Trotsky: 1921-1929
by Isaac Deutscher
Oxford University Press, New York. 1959. 490 pp. $9.50.

After completing the first volume of his biography of Leon Trotsky, The Prophet Armed, covering the period from 1879 to 1921, Deutscher indicated his intention to tell “the whole story of Trotsky’s life and work from 1921 onwards in a single volume entitled The Prophet Unarmed.” A reviewer doubted that it could be done on the appropriate scale in one volume. “His doubt has proved justified,” Deutscher says in his preface to this volume. He needed almost 500 pages to cover the eight-year period that ended with Trotsky’s banishment from the Soviet Union. The author has projected a final volume, The Prophet Outcast, “to cover the stormy twelve years of Trotsky’s last exile and to give the final assessment of his role.”

Two reasons evidently influenced Deutscher in this fortunate decision. The eight-year period was the most fateful in the life of his subject; it involved “what was probably the fiercest and the most momentous political controversy of modern times.” On the outcome of this controversy hinged the course of Soviet affairs for decades to come, and along with this the course of class struggles and revolutions throughout Europe, Asia, Latin America, even the United States. The seemingly obscure issues in dispute between Stalin and Trotsky ultimately involved, too, whether or not mankind had to undergo such catastrophes as the triumph of Nazism and a second world war.

Indeed, the controversy is still alive, for it posed or adumbrated all the current theories about the character of the Soviet Union, the nature and function of the bureaucracy, the meaning of Stalinism, the role of a vanguard party, what policies revolutionary socialists should follow in relation to the Soviet bloc countries and to their own domestic perspectives. Even Deutscher’s own view that Stalin played a progressive role despite the horrors of his personal dictatorship finds its forerunner in the thinking of one of the big figures of the time, Preobrazhensky, who held that Soviet officialdom had no choice but to undertake the progressive task of “primitive socialist accumulation.” Any socialist alive to the continuity of theory and its role in the politics of the working class will grasp the import which this great struggle of the twenties in the Soviet Union still holds for the future. With such considerations in mind, this volume reads like a short, even overly condensed, account.

To wish for a presentation in greater detail and of more commanding sweep is not to deny the power of this book or its usefulness. It is the first anywhere near adequate history of these decisive years in the political history of the Soviet Union. It is the first book-length study of the Left Opposition, its brilliant constellation of leaders, the disciples of Lenin, and their heroic struggle to maintain the tradition of Leninism against the counterrevolutionary reaction that propelled Stalin to power. The volume gives us a taste of the riches to be tapped in the Trotsky Archives at Harvard University, and of the wealth of as yet unpublished material produced by the Left Opposition. Deutscher’s contribution should help shake those who have tended to dismiss Trotsky as now a “dead dog.” Those who have scorned to read the writings of Lenin’s comrade-in-arms because of Stalinist-inspired prejudices may find the book a bridge to a more objective attitude. Among the general reading public where Trotsky’s works have begun to enjoy something of a revival in the past few years, the story told by Deutscher will undoubtedly inspire still further interest in the co-founder of the Soviet Union. In the socialist movement, The Prophet Unarmed will in all likelihood serve as a standard work for some time to come — perhaps until the ban on Trotsky’s books and the study of his role and contributions is lifted in the Soviet Union itself and the government archives become available to scholarly research.

The book is not without shortcomings. These do not involve facts, however. Deutscher has presented his material with scrupulous concern for accuracy. It is doubtful that even Stalin’s heirs will dare to challenge the book on these grounds. Yet they have a vested interest in presenting a totally different version of historic fact. They founded their careers in those decisive years by demonstrating their eagerness, energy and capacity at helping Stalin to bury Trotsky under a mountain of slander. Since new political currents have made it increasingly difficult in the Soviet Union to maintain the big lie, the propagandists of the Kremlin will probably try to say nothing about the book.

What is open to criticism, I think, are some of Deutscher’s interpretations, beginning with his central concept of Trotsky. I am not referring to his admiration of Trotsky’s genius, universality of interest or firmness of character, all of which have fascinated Deutscher as they must anyone who approaches this revolutionary titan objectively. What seems out of place is the element of caricature apparent in the portrait he draws.

Deutscher sees Trotsky as a “prophet” — first “armed,” then “unarmed,” and finally “outcast.” Deutscher developed this from an observation by Machiavelli that ’all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.” There is some truth to this, of course. It is of a kind with what Thucydides said, “The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.” The comment appears sage but it does not tell us much. What is meant by “strong” and “weak,” by “armed,” “unarmed” and “outcast”? From Trotsky’s viewpoint it was Stalin who became unarmed and finally an outcast. History, it would seem, has already offered considerable confirmation of Trotsky’s viewpoint.

To begin with, it is incongruous to view Trotsky primarily as a “prophet.” True, he made some startling forecasts and predictions. But he made these as a scientist. From Trotsky’s own outlook, his point of reference in all he did, the success of these forecasts testifies not so much to his intuition, which was powerful, as to the validity of the science that guided that intuition, dialectical materialism. Should we regard Marx, Engels and Lenin as “prophets” subject to the peculiar ups and downs of the occupation of prophecy? Machiavelli, the father of modern political science? Or, in not too remotely related fields, Galileo, Darwin and Pasteur? Then why Trotsky?

Perhaps the answer lies in a simplification that appears to guide Deutscher. A revolutionary of Trotsky’s “prophetic” capacity displays an almost infallible political insight in periods of great mass upsurge, but when the masses withdraw from the arena, he becomes peculiarly fallible, almost blind, certainly helpless game for a cunning machine politician like Stalin. The extra credits that Deutscher grants Trotsky as a prophet, he balances up with discredits for his capacity as a politician. But this misses the level of Trotsky’s politics and the inadvisability, on this level, of competing with Stalin for leadership of the reaction.

Trotsky’s plane as a politician covered the entire transition period of our society on a global scale from the death agony of capitalism to the construction of socialism. (Is it necessary to add, worldwide socialism, not “socialism in one country”?) Viewing his work from this height, which was Trotsky’s height as it has been of every revolutionary socialist since Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, it was of decisive importance to carry the October 1917 Revolution to victory. But it was equally decisive, perhaps historians will eventually say that it was even more decisive, in the ebb of that revolution to maintain the integrity of Marxist science; that is, the key principles already worked out plus what had been added in the colossal experiences since 1917. Trotsky was concerned about the prerequisites for the eventual world-wide success of socialism. As a revolutionary-socialist politician, Trotsky had no choice but to act as he did.

Granted that tactical errors may have been made in the struggle against the rise of Stalin, granting too, if you insist, that Stalin never made a tactical error. What does this prove, that Stalin had an infallible instinct as a “prophet” of degeneration? Was it a battle between good and evil prophets? The problem was to see the class forces in motion, not only the immediate ones, but the still more important ones to come later, and to orient oneself in the struggle in such way as to facilitate the eventual victory of socialism. Trotsky conducted his politics with that goal in sight; he fitted his means to that end; while Stalin confined himself to seeking personal power at the head of forces that eventually turned him into a gravedigger of socialist revolutions. We should add that Trotsky carried out his political responsibilities under unprecedented difficulties, not least of which was the little he had as theoretical guide in circumstances unencountered by the Marxist masters in whose tradition he stood. It is surprising that Deutscher does not see Trotsky’s politics clearer in view of the excellent description he provides in his book of the class forces in motion at the time in the Soviet Union.

Deutscher’s preoccupation with the “prophet” theme and his depreciation of the “prophet’s” political capacities, leads him to failure to appreciate the growth of Trotsky as a politician. A main theme in this, as in the first, volume of the biography is taken from Trotsky’s well-known polemic against Lenin in 1904 in which the 25-year-old revolutionary declared in the heat of factional struggle, “Lenin’s methods lead to this: the party organization at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally a single ’dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” Deutscher believes that such a tendency of “substitutism” was apparent among the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution and that it reached its culmination in Stalin’s personal dictatorship. In brief, the seeds of Stalinism can be found in Bolshevism; and they consist of Lenin’s democratic centralist method of organization. Trotsky therefore saw more clearly at the age of 25 than he did in later years. His acknowledgment of a mistaken view on Lenin’s party-building methods was itself, so we must believe, a mistake. The youthful prophet was more clairvoyant than the mature politician.

But Trotsky’s 1904 prediction turned out to be no more than what it was, an exaggerated statement in a factional dispute. To have made it meaningful Trotsky would have had to add the conditions under which it might come true — the degeneration of a proletarian revolution in a backward country surrounded by hostile capitalist powers, a degeneration that would so affect Lenin’s party as to alter it qualitatively; in brief, a centralized party dragged down a national spiral can eventually become Stalinized. Trotsky did not and could not have foreseen this. That is not all. To have given full meaning to his prediction, he would have had to foresee and include an opposite possibility: Lenin’s methods of party building would assure the means to win a proletarian victory in Russia; under conditions of the revolution thereupon spreading to other countries, Lenin’s party would expand on an international spiral; moreover, as means of assuring fresh proletarian victories, Lenin’s methods would eventually assure the flowering of proletarian democracy on a world-wide scale.

Trotsky did not see this in 1904. Like most leading socialists of his time, he did not see it until 1917. When empirical experience convinced him, he acknowledged his error. This was a decisive step in his development as a mature revolutionary-socialist politician. Having grasped the true meaning of Lenin’s “arms” he never gave up this acquisition, this deeper insight into the politics of our epoch. It would have been better judgment on Deutscher’s part, one thinks, to consider this as part of the source of Trotsky’s incomparable leadership in the 1917 Revolution rather than to ascribe it all simply to his energy and intuition as a “prophet.” The insight was even more important in the later struggle against Stalin. Where was the Left Opposition to get its “arms”? It is a pity that as a biographer of Trotsky, Deutscher should not have developed his own political insight on this subject beyond the abstractions Trotsky offered in a faction fight in 1904.

If it is an error of commission to have used the theme of “substitutism” in explaining the defeat of the Left Opposition and Stalin’s successful usurpation of power, I would urge that it is a sin of omission not to have included Trotsky’s final views on the Soviet Thermidor. Deutscher, it is true, conscientiously recounts the efforts of the Left Opposition to find a historical analogy in the degeneration of the French Revolution for what was occurring in the Soviet Union. He indicates that it was a matter of considerable pondering and dispute and that Trotsky returned repeatedly to the problem, modifying or altering his position on it. The reader is left with the impression that Trotsky never did reach a satisfactory position on the issue.

Now this may be Deutscher’s view of Trotsky’s final words on the subject, but Trotsky seems clearly enough to have had a different opinion. The question was not unimportant. For Trotsky’s politics, in fact, it was in the final analysis decisive. The search for an analogy was part of the effort to achieve theoretical clarity on what the struggle in its fundamental aspects was about. It involved the character of the Soviet Union and therefore its defense and the nature of that defense, not to mention the ultimate socialist perspective. During the struggle itself, one grouping held that Thermidor, meaning by this the loss of proletarian power and the restoration of a bourgeois regime had already occurred. Trotsky agreed that the danger was great but that the facts showed such a restoration had not yet occurred. In 1935 he admitted a mistake in application of the historical analogy although not in the political positions taken at the time by the Left Opposition. The correct analogy, he concluded, was that the proletariat had lost political power as in the French Thermidor, but again as in the French Thermidor no restoration of the old regime had occurred — the class that had won the revolution still ruled, although vicariously. One could therefore set the date of the Soviet Thermidor as about 1924, when the triumvirate of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin defeated the 1923 Opposition and entrenched themselves in power.

It appears to me that the analogy as Trotsky finally developed it could have proved useful in Deutscher’s review of the events with which he deals in this volume. It would have been especially illuminating in showing what forces the Left Oppositionists were up against and why it was so difficult for them to find the “correct” (winning) tactic which Deutscher speculates about at each turn of events (as if a correct factional tactic could substitute for the masses!) It offers, too, a profound, materialist explanation of why the form of rule, as the degeneration set in, tended towards personal dictatorship. Standing at the opposite pole to Trotsky’s 1904 “prediction,” it is richly concrete, one of his most suggestive contributions to understanding the Soviet Union in its Stalinist phase.

Deutscher, of course, disagrees with Trotsky on the Thermidor analogy. It plays hob with all variants of the dogma that Stalinism is the logical outcome of Leninism. More immediately it conflicts with Deutscher’s own theory that a period of “primitive socialist accumulation” was inevitable, no matter how it might reek with blood and dirt, and that Stalin with his barbaric ruthlessness was peculiarly fitted to play the progressive role of carrying it out. This is the theoretical source of Deutscher’s tendency to overlook the parasitism of the bureaucratic caste and to find much good in Stalin’s rule despite the horrors which he freely recognizes.

Trotsky, on the other hand, while agreeing that the Stalinist bureaucracy was forced to defend and even to develop much that was bequeathed by the Russian Revolution, including entire planks of the platform of the Left Opposition, held that the Stalinist regime, as the Thermidorean reaction, the political regime of the parasitic caste, was the worst domestic brake on progress, the greatest internal source of danger to the workers state, and an absolute obstacle to socialist revolutions outside the Soviet Union.

In the final analysis, the difference between the two views is one of methodology. Trotsky, the dialectician, had no difficulty in combining conceptually such warring concepts, while Deutscher does not seem able even to see such a combination. The progressive aspect to be found in one of the foulest abominations in history seems to gain ascendancy when he balances accounts, although he appears to have modified his position since Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Congress.

But then our political and methodological norms are not Deutscher’s. It is unrealistic to demand that he should be a revolutionary-socialist politician as well as a conscientious historian and writer capable of telling an enthralling story well. We are grateful for his book and do not hesitate to recommend it highly.

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