Isaac Deutscher 1954

Ferment of Ideas in Russia

Source: The Times, 3 December 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. Deutscher’s three articles under the title ‘Ferment of Ideas in Russia’ were commented upon by John Clews and Lionel Bloch on 20 November, Henry Hellmann on 22 November, Thomas Barnes and George Katkov on 25 November, Hugo Dewar on 26 November, and D Singer on 27 November. The article below is Deutscher’s response.

Sir – The critics of my articles on ‘The Ferment of Ideas in Russia’ have raised so many points that you will excuse me, I trust, if I try to answer only a few of their major criticisms.

To begin with, I cannot recognise as mine the philosophy which some of the critics attribute to me. Mr Hellmann writes that in my description ‘Stalin becomes an instrument of fate to struggle against which has been futile...’, and that ‘humanity is only allowed to admire, together with Mr Deutscher, the giant stature of the monster which history has chosen as its tool’. May I say that I have been a persistent critic of Stalin and Stalinism for nearly a quarter of a century, even in the years when to admire Stalinism was almost a patriotic duty in Allied countries. Had I, as Mr Hellmann says, any axe to grind ‘in the field of generalisations and theoretical explanations’, I should be grinding the anti-Stalinist axe together with some of my critics.

It is perhaps a distaste for axe-grinding that induces me to study impartially, without regard to any view I may have held hitherto, the chain of causes and effects that led to the ascendancy of Stalinism and also to weigh the achievements of Stalinism as well as its failures. The assertion that the ascendancy of Stalinism was under certain circumstances ‘an historic inevitability’ implies by itself neither moral acceptance nor rejection and does not prevent me from considering opposition to Stalinism to have been quite as ‘inevitable’ as Stalinism itself.

Mr Clewes and Mr Bloch cannot see ‘really anything fundamentally new’ in the present Russian controversies (and in this respect their view curiously coincides with what the Daily Worker says about my articles in The Times). Similar controversies allegedly occurred in Zhdanov’s days and in 1934. That this is not true about the Zhdanov period has already been pointed out by Mr Singer. As to 1934, the mere need to look for a precedent so far back should indicate that something new is happening now. But even in 1934 there was nothing like the present controversy. I cannot remember when in the last 25 years words like these appeared in Pravda: ‘The dogmatic attitude... is our mortal enemy... Our academic circles are far from having lived down that attitude... Some trends and words are given testimonials of political loyalty. Others get the standard labels “reactionary” or “idealistic.”’ (My italics)

The quotation is from Professor Sobolev’s article to which I have referred. One could quote tens and hundreds of similar statements relating to the most diverse aspects of Soviet life; and it is their cumulative effect that adds up to the present ferment of ideas. Mr Katkov argues that there are no ‘symptoms of political change’ because the intelligentsia were discontented even under Stalin, only that their discontent has ‘now been allowed to come into the open’. It is a curious logic that is not able to grasp the political difference between a government which allows discontent to ‘come into the open’ and one which does not do so.

Yet those who say that there is nothing ‘fundamentally new’ are up to a point right: the Communist Party is still what it is, and parliamentary democracy has not become Moscow’s political creed. But within the Soviet framework many ‘fundamentally new’ changes do occur. We may well imagine that the ferment of ideas which marked the inception of the Reformation or the rise of the Counter-Reformation represented nothing ‘fundamentally new ‘ to a Muslim who viewed them from Constantinople: the infidels persisted in the rejection of the Prophet and remained infidels. Mr Clewes and Mr Bloch will not be much wiser if they refuse to view recent Soviet developments against the Soviet background and in the Soviet context.

What seems to me politically disquieting is a certain reluctance, not confined to my critics, to grasp the reality of that ‘profound movement of feeling’ in post-Stalin Russia, which Sir Winston Churchill (whatever one may think about his latest, much debated ‘revelation’) grasped with such acute intuition and as early as in his famous speech of 11 May 1953. Some of my critics seem to be seized with panic at the mere thought that the grim background of Stalinist totalitarianism, to the righteous denunciation of which they have become so comfortably accustomed, may be dissolving, as if they were at a loss to know what to do without it. Would it not be wiser and more realistic to welcome every step Russia makes in a progressive departure from Stalinism, without losing sight of the slow, timid, confused and contradictory nature of that departure and of signs of bad relapses?