Joseph Hansen

Exchange of Views on Deutscher Biography

[Reply to George Breitman]

(Summer 1964)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 25 No. 3, Summer 1964, pp. 90, 95.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

If I understand Comrade Breitman correctly, it is his opinion that the third volume of the biography calls for an attack on the political and theoretical views of Isaac Deutscher – not only an attack, but a “harsh” one; and that any other way of proceeding signifies an unjustifiable concession. I disagree, of course.

The immediate problem, it appears to me, is to decide whether Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, especially the third volume, is in over-all balance, an asset to the world Trotskyist movement or not. Comrade Breitman fails to state his opinion on this.

The question could scarcely arise, of course, if it were not for Deutscher’s handling of Trotsky’s relation to the Fourth International and his depreciation of the movement and its members. There is, I am well aware, anger in the Fourth International over this aspect of the third volume, particularly among young comrades who see with clear vision the historic import of Trotsky’s work in founding the movement. But then anger is not the best counselor in politics.

The truth is, in my opinion, that the biography is a valuable, even monumental contribution, but that it has flaws. These stem from Deutscher’s own theories which he frankly states. For the Trotskyist movement, a first review, it appears to me, should indicate in what way and to what degree the flaws affect the portrait that is offered of Trotsky, but that it should leave no doubt on the main point – that the biography as a whole is a very positive contribution. This is what I sought to do in the review.

Importance of the Biography

If I may venture a prediction, Trotskyists throughout the world will give this biography a prominent place in their bookstores and literature racks and advise contacts to read it. They will also indicate their differences with the biographer, particularly on the question of the Fourth International, undoubtedly engage with him in further polemics, and suggest that those who are interested will find it fruitful to consult other writings, not least of all Trotsky’s own works. And this attitude, I am sure, will prove sound.

Comrade Breitman and I obviously disagree on the possible effect of Deutscher’s biography on the growth of the Trotskyist movement. No doubt a good many readers, in the United States “at least” – under present political conditions – will accept Deutscher’s estimate of the Fourth International uncritically. But I do not believe that this will hold to the same degree elsewhere, or that it will hold in the United States with a rise in the class struggle. If I judge the biography correctly, it will provide rebel youth with a sufficient appreciation of Trotsky to want more; to arouse interest in going to original sources; and, as the question of constructing a revolutionary party grows still more acute, they will be less and less inclined to pay attention to what Deutscher thinks should or should not have been done in 1938.

The possible influence of the biography must be judged on a wider basis than is provided by the United States. Countries like Italy and Japan where Deutscher is widely read should at least be brought in, not to mention some of the workers states where his writings have become known and where they constitute a first introduction to Trotsky.

* * *

On a couple of specific points related to the footnote which Comrade Breitman questions:

I made the statement, with specific reference to an article written by James P. Cannon in 1954, “Some harsh and even unjustified things were said of Deutscher.” Taking issue with this statement, Comrade Breitman defends the “harsh” things which James P. Cannon said in his article of 1954 and widens the defense to include things said by Breitman in many articles beginning in 1949. I do not understand why Comrade Breitman feels it necessary to take in so much territory unless he feels something fundamental is involved.

But this is not the case, as I think can be shown without great difficulty. First of all, as to my failure to use a “harsh” tone in considering Deutscher’s views. I see no factional fight in the Fourth International today which involves Deutscher’s views in the way some of us thought they were involved in 1953-54, a feeling which I am convinced was reflected in Comrade Cannon’s article of 1954. Am I mistaken in this estimate of the situation in the Fourth International today? I do not think so.

Secondly, on Comrade Cannon’s article as an expression of Trotskyist programmatic positions – I think that it stands up well if it is borne in mind that the harsh tone was due to special circumstances. But, thirdly, I believe that it must be admitted that the article included some “unjustified” statements. These were not deliberate, since Cannon’s standard in the sharpest conflict – it long ago became even his style – is to maintain scrupulous fairness toward an opponent even if he feels that political harshness is demanded in a situation. Inaccurate information was involved in the “unjustified” remarks. My footnote was intended as a rectification for the record since Deutscher had called attention to it in the biography.

Possible Deutscher Cult?

Comrade Breitman considers that I am mistaken in the view that there was a fear in the Socialist Workers Party during the faction fight with the Cochranites that a sect or cult might form around “Deutscherism.”

“This was never my opinion at that time,” Comrade Breitman writes, “nor did I hear of anyone expressing such an idea until, after the publication of the second volume of the biography in 1959, Hansen began to revise his attitude toward Deutscher.”

All I can say to this is that it was my own opinion at the time that the danger existed. I came to this opinion in the New York local where the fight first flared up in an acute way and where I had some influence from the beginning in shaping its development and final outcome. At the time I was under the impression that others shared this opinion, especially those involved in the brunt of the struggle in New York. Evidentally Comrade Breitman neither shared this view nor heard about it at that time. As to the change in my views on this specific point, it began in 1955 – not 1959 – and was due in part to what happened in the faction fight and to new evidence which by 1958 had become definitive in my mind. This involved no change on basic political and theoretical questions; I saw certain individuals and tactical questions differently.

I still think it speaks in Deutscher’s favor that he did not respond to any overtures or opportunities to sponsor a sect based on his special views. I am looking at this from the standpoint of the political interests of the Trotskyist movement. On the other hand, I share Comrade Breitman’s view that Deutscher’s depreciation of the launching of the Fourth International and the effort to build it has nothing in common with Trotskyism. I sought to voice this in the review:

“Deutscher’s deep skepticism was not to be found in Trotsky, not a trace of it. On the other hand, Trotsky was thoroughly familiar with the skeptical attitude, considered it without foundation objectively, held it to be a deadly danger and did his best to immunize his youthful followers against this disease.”

This is “too soft, too conciliatory?” All right, but the political position is evident, isn’t it?

As for the objection about considering the portrait of Trotsky created by the biographer, I fail to get it. What’s a biography for if not to give

us a portrait as well as a history? Is art necessarily at war with politics? How apt Deutscher is when he says of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution:

“Whereas Marx towers above the disciple in the power of his abstract thought and gothic imagination, the disciple is superior as epic artist, especially as master of the graphic portrayal of masses and individuals in action. His socio-political analysis and artistic vision are in such concord that there is no trace of any divergence.”

Trotsky as “epic artist!” Well, why not? And in the same way it is perfectly legitimate and proper to apply the same criterion to the work of his biographer and ask how well he meets it. I think that on the whole, he did very well; save that when it came to Trotsky and the Fourth International his “artistic vision” failed him.

Joseph Hansen


Last updated on: 3.7.2013