Joseph Hansen

Deutscher on Trotsky

(Winter 1964)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 25 No. 1, Winter 1964, pp. 11–16.
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.

The Prophet Outcast
by Isaac Deutscher
New York: The Oxford University Press. 1963. 543 pp. $9.50.

The final volume of the trilogy tells the story of Trotsky in banishment from the workers’ state which he, together with Lenin, had founded. It describes the great intellectual contributions made by this giant revolutionist in these years, his final political battles, and the bitter personal tragedies that befell him before he was slain by Stalin’s emissary. The volume was obviously not an easy one for the biographer. The central issues of our time, in which Trotsky stood as the continuator of Marx, Engels and Lenin, are still with us, have grown in acuteness in fact, and it is impossible to deal with Trotsky without also dealing with these. To talk about Trotsky means to talk about the capitalist system in its period of decay and violent resistance to social and economic change, about reviving the proletarian democracy destroyed by the reactionary bureaucratic caste that appeared in the Soviet Union, about the as yet unresolved problem of creating a leadership capable of leading humanity forward to a new and better order.

No matter how Deutscher chose to handle these topics, what he said was bound to be controversial. An additional hazard was that the Trotsky of these years was the Trotsky most familiar to the present generation, the man who still exists in living memory and whose image seemed to become engraved on all who met him, if only briefly.

The biographer met these challenges very well indeed. As in the previous volumes, he remains scrupulous toward facts [1], seeks the truth, and does not hide his own views and predilections. The disagreements one may have with him thus center on points in which his judgment and political views affect the final portrait he offers of Trotsky. The merit of the biographical material he has assembled can be questioned by no one, unless ill will enters in. It is a precious contribution to knowledge of Trotsky, his ideas, and the character of the time he lived in.

The general plan of the volume is the same as the two previous ones. Deutscher presents summaries of Trotsky’s main writings during the years under consideration, plus excerpts to give the reader a taste of the original. These are nearly always well chosen and constitute a valuable part of the book. But since, unlike the earlier years, most of the original sources are readily available, the biographer has legitimately reduced the proportion of anthology to the necessities of historical narrative.

Conscientious work in the Trotsky archives at Harvard has enabled Deutscher to present new material of the greatest interest. He was particularly fortunate to obtain the special permission of Natalia Trotsky before her death to examine family correspondence. The revelation thus provided of the family life of the Trotskys, particularly when it was caught up most tensely and tragically in the tempestuous public struggles of the final years, adds a new dimension to the image of Trotsky hitherto available to the public. Deutscher even permits us to glimpse over his shoulder a few lines related to Trotsky’s love-life with Natalia, words written only for her. Finally, Deutscher has interviewed many people who met Trotsky or who worked closely with him. From their reports he has selected what he felt he needed or had room for.

Out of these rich and varied sources a picture of Trotsky emerges that is the most life-like of the three volumes, although, to be completely frank, the finished portrait does not quite catch Trotsky, in my opinion, at least as he was known to his closest collaborators in the final years, and calls attention rather too much to the biographer. I will return to this.

* * *

Deutscher considers the Prinkipo period, from 1929 to 1933, to be by far the most productive and fruitful of Trotsky’s final years. He devotes half the volume to it. Trotsky’s literary production at Prinkipo was indeed enormous and of the highest quality: the three-volume History of the Russian Revolution; an autobiography, My Life; a series of profound and stirring articles on the most crucial issue of the day – the rise of Nazism; continuation of his current appreciations of developments in the Soviet Union, the only original Marxist contribution on this subject at the time; occasional writings of first-rate importance on such topics as the beginning of the Spanish revolution; and a wide correspondence on an international scale related to the task of reconstructing the revolutionary-socialist movement.

Deutscher does an excellent job of inventorying and assessing these treasures. His praise of Trotsky as a historian is especially warm and appreciative.

“Like Thucydides, Dante, Machiavelli, Heine, Marx, Herzen, and other thinkers and poets, Trotsky attained his full eminence as a writer only in exile, during the few Prinkipo years. Posterity will remember him as the historian of the October Revolution as well as its leader. No other Bolshevik has or could have produced so great and splendid an account of events of 1917; and none of the many writers of the anti-Bolshevik parties has presented any worthy counterpart to it.”

Deutscher does not hesitate to estimate it as the greatest work of its kind:

“His historical writing is dialectical as is hardly any other such work produced by the Marxist school of thought since Marx, from whom he derives his method and style. To Marx’s minor historical works, The Class Struggle in France, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and The Civil War In France, Trotsky’s History stands as the large mural painting stands to the miniature. 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. His thought and his imagination take flight together. He expounds his theory of revolution with the tension and the elan of narrative; and his narrative takes depth from his ideas. His scenes, portraits, and dialogues, sensuous in their reality, are inwardly illumined by his conception of the historical process.”

Trotsky’s autobiography, in Deutscher’s opinion, is less satisfactory because of a certain unevenness. One can agree with Deutscher in this without sharing the reasons he offers for finding the latter part of the book not up to what can be expected from Trotsky at his best. Deutscher holds that Trotsky’s explanation of the struggle with Stalin is defective. Trotsky “does not go to the root of the matter and he leaves Stalin’s ascendancy only half explained.” Deutscher feels that Trotsky pictures Stalin as too much villain and that he “virtually ignores the intrinsic connexion between the suppression by Bolshevism of all parties and its self-suppression, of which Stalin was the supreme agent.” The flaw, in Deutscher’s view, is thus due to faulty political vision – a considerable weakness in the man whom Deutscher otherwise views as a supreme political genius. However, Trotsky was quite familiar with the theory for which Deutscher argues, concerning the alleged organic connection between Bolshevism and Stalinism. He specifically rejected it on more than one occasion, and with arguments that I find still convincing.

Trotsky’s defective political insight, if such it is, is not peculiar to My Life; it is common to everything he wrote, touching this subject, in his final years. What really gives the autobiography its unevenness is the shift away from personal material. The first chapters are on the level of great autobiographical literature. The latter parts shift to political polemic. Excellent as this may be in its own right, it clashes increasingly with the autobiographical form in which it is cast. In contrast to his openness in the first parts in offering absorbing intimate material, Trotsky, in the final parts, becomes more and more reticent.

The reasons for this are perfectly understandable and, in fact, do Trotsky credit. His primary interest was not psychological self-revelation but political action. He remained to the end of his life a leader who necessarily subordinated all other considerations to the interests of the political wars he was engaged in. Deutscher, one must agree, is right in saying about the autobiography that “if he had not written it in 1929, or shortly thereafter, he might not have written it at all.”

In unity of form and content, Deutscher’s biography contrasts favorably with the final sections of My Life. As we follow Trotsky’s thought and the course of his political battles, we participate at the same time in his personal fortunes. We catch some of the pleasures, the more common emotional stress and the searing tragedies. We get to know something of Zina, the daughter who suffered a nervous breakdown under Stalin’s persecution, who resisted psychoanalytic treatment and who finally committed suicide. Leon Sedov, the devoted son comes to life for us – Leon, who had such a close political and personal relationship with his father that he became the receptacle for explosive paternal tensions that could find no other safety valve and which Leon could not understand but only brood over in the final days before his own death at the hands of the implacable common foe. Natalia emerges as a granite figure. To Deutscher she is the heroine of the epic and all who read this biography are bound to share his admiration for her. She was truly of the stature required to share to the end the fortunes of the prophet outcast.

As the titles of the trilogy indicate: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky’s capacity to see into the future was, for Deutscher, his most irresistible gift. He cites examples of Trotsky’s almost uncanny accuracy. Two of them in the final volume will undoubtedly impress everyone who reads them. The first one, on the grand level of the international class struggle, illustrates the contrast between Trotsky’s clear vision of the meaning of the rise of Hitler and the blindness of the Stalinists, represented in this case by Thaelmann:

As late as September 1932, a few months before Hitler became Chancellor, Thaelmann, at a session of the Comintern Executive, still repeated, what Münzenberg had said: “In his pamphlet on how National Socialism is to be defeated, Trotsky gives one answer only, and it is this: the German Communist Party must join hands with the Social Democratic Party ... This, according to Trotsky, is the only way in which the German working class can save itself from fascism. Either, says he, the Communist party makes common cause with the Social Democrats, or the German working class is lost for ten or twenty years. This is the theory of an utterly bankrupt Fascist and counter-revolutionary. This is indeed the worst, the most dangerous, and the most criminal theory that Trotsky has construed in these last years of his counter-revolutionary propaganda.”

“One of the decisive moments in history is approaching”, Trotsky rejoined, “... when the Comintern as a revolutionary factor may be wiped off the political map for an entire historic epoch. Let blind men and cowards refuse to notice this. Let slanderers and hired scribblers accuse us of being in league with the counter-revolution. Has not counter-revolution become anything ... that interferes with the digestion of communist bureaucrats ... nothing must be concealed, nothing belittled. We must tell the advanced workers as loudly as we can: After the ‘third period’ of recklessness and boasting the fourth period of panic and capitulation has set in.’ In an almost desperate effort to arouse the communists, Trotsky put into words the whole power of his conviction and gave them once again the ring of an alarm bell: ‘Workers-communists! There are hundreds of thousands, there are millions of you ... If fascism comes to power it will ride like a terrific tank over your skulls and spines. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. Only a fighting unity with social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, communist workers, you have very little time to lose’.”

The second example is Trotsky’s admonition of Trygve Lie, who later became head of the United Nations. The then Minister of Justice in the Norwegian government put Trotsky under house arrest, barred him from answering the charges in the infamous 1936 Moscow frame-up trial, and even cut him off from correspondence. Lie attempted to force Trotsky to sign a shameful agreement not to make any statements referring to the Moscow frame-up trial, in which Trotsky and his son were principal victims, and to submit the mail, telegrams and telephone calls of himself, his wife and secretaries to censorship. “Twenty years later eye-witnesses of the scene still remembered the flashes of scorn in Trotsky’s eyes and the thunder of his voice as he refused to comply.” He levelled a series of damaging questions at Trygve Lie.

“At this point Trotsky raised his voice so that it resounded through the halls and corridors of the Ministry: ‘This is your first act of surrender to Nazism in your own country. You will pay for this. You think yourselves secure and free to deal with a political exile as you please. But the day is near – remember this! – the day is near when the Nazis will drive you from your country, all of you together with your Pantoffel-Minister-President.’ Trygve Lie shrugged at this odd piece of soothsaying. Yet after less than four years the same government had indeed to flee from Norway before the Nazi invasion; and as the Ministers and their aged King Haakon stood on the coast, huddled together and waiting anxiously for a boat that was to take them to England, they recalled with awe Trotsky’s words as a prophet’s curse come true.”

* * *

There is justification in singling out this aspect, in emphasizing Trotsky as prophet. It helps create interest in what he had to offer the world. Nevertheless, a certain amount of reduction occurs. At worst, the image, with its undue connotation of extra-sensory intuitive powers, tends to obscure the image of Trotsky as scientist. It contributes to an imbalance in the portrait. Before coming to that, however, it is perhaps advisable to say something about Deutscher’s differences with Trotsky, which come to the fore in this volume.

Throughout the biography Deutscher stresses the continuity of Marxist thought represented by Trotsky, evaluates to the best of his ability what Trotsky added to the body of Marxist literature and offers accurate and readable presentations of Trotsky’s special contributions. In previous volumes he considered Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, his brilliant work in the field of literary criticism, his outstanding role in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, his program for the first workers’ state as it stood isolated in the twenties, his opening of the struggle against Stalinism. In this volume, Deutscher calls special attention to Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of fascism and how to fight it – an addition to Marxism that is little appreciated today, primarily because of the unending campaign of slander against Trotsky.

Most of Trotsky’s followers would add to this list, and even put it in the top rank of his achievements, the analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state, particularly Trotsky’s estimate of the roots and nature of Stalinism. Deutscher has strong reservations on this. He feels that Trotsky, while making the fundamental contribution, did not see altogether clearly on the subject:

The Revolution Betrayed occupies a special place in Trotsky’s literary work. It is the last book he managed to complete and in a sense, his political testament. In it he gave his final analysis of Soviet society and a survey of its history up to the middle of the Stalin era. His most complex book, it combines all the weakness and the strength of his thought. It contains many new and original reflections on socialism, on the difficulties with which proletarian revolution has to grapple, and on the role of a bureaucracy in a workers’ state. He also surveyed the international position of the Soviet Union before the Second World War and tried to pierce the future with daring and partly erroneous forecasts. The book is a profound theoretical treatise and a tract for the time; a creative restatement of classical Marxist views; and the manifesto of the “new Trotskyism” calling for revolution in the Soviet Union. Trotsky appears here in all his capacities; as detached and rigorously objective thinker; as leader of a defeated Opposition; and as passionate pamphleteer and polemicist. The polemicist’s contribution forms the more esoteric part of the work and tends to overshadow the objective and analytical argument. Because of the wealth of its ideas and its imaginative force, this has been one of the seminal books of this century, as instructive as confusing, and destined to be put to adventitious use more often than any other piece of political writing. Even its title was to become one of the shibboleths of our time.

Deutscher follows with a summary of the book which is quite good. (However, “Stalinist state” for “Stalinist regime” in a “workers’ state” is scarcely a happy condensation.) He finds himself in agreement with Trotsky’s program against bureaucratism and for proletarian democracy and considers it still relevant “over a quarter of a century after its formulation.” Then he indicates one of his main disagreements with Trotsky:

From the tenor of The Revolution Betrayed it is clear that he saw no chance of any reform from above; and there was indeed no chance of it in his lifetime and for

the rest of the Stalin era. But during that time there was no chance in the Soviet Union of any political revolution either. This was a period of deadlock: it was impossible either to cut or to untie the Gordian knots of Stalinism. Any programme of change whether revolutionary or reformist, was illusory. This could not prevent a fighter like Trotsky from searching for a way out. But he was searching within a vicious circle, which only world-shaking events began to breach many years later. And when that happened the Soviet Union moved away from Stalinism through reform from above in the first instance. What forced the reform was precisely the factors on which Trotsky had banked: economic progress, the cultural rise of the masses, and the end of Soviet isolation. The break with Stalinism could only be piecemeal, because at the end of the Stalin era there existed and could exist no political force capable and willing to act in a revolutionary manner. Moreover, throughout the first decade after Stalin there did not emerge ‘from below’ any autonomous and articulate mass movement even for reform. Since Stalinism had become an anachronism, nationally and internationally, and a break with it had become an historic necessity for the Soviet Union, the ruling group itself had to take the initiative of the break. Thus, by an irony of history Stalin’s epigones began the liquidation of Stalinism and thereby carried out, malgre eux memes, parts of Trotsky’s political testament.

But can they continue this work and complete it? Or is a political revolution still necessary? On the face of it, the chances of revolution are still as slender as they were in Trotsky’s days, whereas the possibilities of reform are fare more real. [2]

In The Prophet Outcast Deutscher still holds that “continuous reform” is more likely than “a revolutionary explosion.” However, he agrees that this can be only a tentative conclusion. There can be “little or no certitude.” He says finally, “At any rate, the present writer prefers to leave the final judgment on Trotsky’s idea of a political revolution to a historian of the next generation.”

It is not my intention to get into a dispute at this time with Deutscher on “self-reform” or “political revolution,” a complicated question. I will only indicate the central issue. The immediacy of a political revolution is not at stake – the disagreement is not about that. What is involved in principle is the character of the ruling caste in the Soviet Union. In Trotsky’s view it was not just a bureaucracy but something more, somewhat like a class in its rapacity and its need to monopolize power but lacking the economic roots and economic stability of a true class. Will such a social formation, out of self-volition, eventually offer the masses effective forms of proletarian democracy? Trotsky held the view that the answer was no, since the effective operation of proletarian democracy would signify liquidation of the bureaucracy as a social formation enjoying special privileges, A negative answer, in turn, implied that political revolution was the only means left to the masses to intervene in their own rule. This did not necessarily mean a “violent explosion,” although it would certainly signify a thoroughgoing shakeup undertaken at the initiative of the masses.

None of the concessions granted by Stalin’s heirs up to now have affected the political monopoly held by the bureaucratic caste. Trotsky’s conclusions would thus seem to have received corroboration from the pattern of the reforms themselves.

From the viewpoint of the world Trotskyist movement, Deutscher’s agreement on the validity of Trotsky’s program establishes the possibility in principle of practical collaboration with him, even though action, so far as he is concerned. might never go beyond working for “continuous reform.” Since advocates of “continuous reform” and political revolution” have the same end in view – the establishment of proletarian democracy in the workers’ states – a rather wide basis for co-operation exists. To this it can be added that it will doubtless be in the process of seeking to obtain reforms of increasing importance that the Soviet masses will eventually prove in life who saw most clearly and who suffered to some degree from illusions as to the means by which Stalin’s alteration of the political structure will eventually be rectified.

* * *

In addition to inability to prophesy correctly how the workers’ state would be regenerated, Deutscher holds that Trotsky failed to forecast correctly the pattern which the world revolution actually took in the postwar period. I would not deny that there is an element of truth in the latter assertion. The specific pattern of the Chinese Revolution – organization of the peasantry into armies and their advance from the countryside to the city – offers the most spectacular example of a mode foreseen by no one. The Cuban Revolution offered powerful confirmation of what could be deduced in the case of China – that there is much still to be learned about potentialities in the revolutionary process, in particular about the increasing role of revolutionists of action (foreseen by Trotsky) in contrast to the earlier predominance of the pioneers of theory.

To say that these revolutions deviated from the pattern forecast by classical Marxism does not bring us to the heart Of the matter, however. The October Revolution in its time likewise deviated from the forecasts of classical Marxism (Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was not yet part of “classical” Marxism), yet in the final balancing of accounts the October Revolution offered the most powerful confirmation of classical Marxism. The problems in theory offered by China and Cuba are not qualitatively different. What they point to is the importance of the method to be used in approaching them. This was already indicated by Trotsky – if not as prophet, then as scientist.

In a postscript, Deutscher offers some contributions in relation to this. What he says is interesting but not exactly new to the Trotskyist movement, which has been discussing these questions since the downfall of capitalism in eastern Europe.

* * *

In passing, Deutscher notes certain physical characteristics of Trotsky. The likeness grows to photographic accuracy. (Photography always misses somewhat.) This is all the more notable since Deutscher never happened to meet Trotsky and had to rely on the impressions of others besides, of course, the written record.

The portrait as a work of art, one must also agree, is quite good. A reservation, however, must be registered. Deutscher’s preoccupation with accounting for the apparent discrepancies between Trotsky’s program of political revolution in the USSR and the actual post-Stalin concessions; Trotsky’s program of socialist revolution in the industrially advanced countries and the actual advance of the world revolution in the colonial sector; Trotsky’s program for rebuilding the revolutionary-socialist movement and the actual organizational weakness to this day of the Fourth International; lead him, in my opinion, to miss something very important. I am not interested here in debating these questions, but in considering how Deutscher’s positions affect his finished portrait.

Trotsky was enormously attractive to not a few intellectuals. His power of prediction, his range of intellect and culture showed his mind without the slightest doubt to be one of the greatest the West has produced.

To follow Trotsky’s thought in all its ramifications is an absorbing study, as Deutscher’s biography proves. It is a challenge to measure Trotsky’s theory against the historical reality. The temptation can even be strong to vie with the master by attempting a better construction where it may seem he went wrong. This is perfectly legitimate and one cannot quarrel with such ambitions. They can prove to be productive. A trap does exist, however. The very subtlety, range and depth of Trotsky’s thought and the quantity of his productions, which make him so magnetic to intellectuals, can lead one to overlook Trotsky’s essential simplicity.

In working closely with Trotsky, one soon noted an extraordinary combination of qualities: enormous energy, unbelievably quick perception and rapport, extraordinary memory, and the mobilization of these gifts in a most efficient and businesslike way. Mobilized for what? A very simple task – the establishment of planned economy in place of the anarchic relations of capitalism. This was the elementary chore which this genius set for himself as a youth when he decided to choose Marxism as his field. It was the job to which he stuck steadily through the years. He was still working at it when he was struck down.

If you wish to question the wisdom of how Trotsky directed his genius, as Deutscher does in the instance of his seeking to build a new international, it would seem in order to begin by questioning the wisdom of this primary decision.

A case can be made out concerning the abysmal waste of taking humanity’s very greatest intellects and compelling them to become occupied with bringing order into our way of organizing the production and distribution of food, clothing, housing and taking care of the rest of our basic social needs. Trotsky’s answer to that is that we do not choose the time we are born into. Our problem as individuals in finding our niche is to grasp the main tasks facing mankind, and, as members of the human race, do what we can to help accomplish them. From Trotsky’s viewpoint this also offers a human being the greatest possible satisfaction.

All the rest follows, including the burning importance which Trotsky placed upon organization of the Fourth International.

But like all great men Trotsky had his foibles! Of course. But having granted this can we in all consistency maintain that the biographers of great men, including the biographer of Trotsky, are free from them? If we concede to Deutscher the saving grace of having his own foibles, perhaps it will not be considered out of order to suggest that one of them was failure to see the importance of probing deeply into the meaning of the kind of human relations that Trotsky advocated, sought, instigated, enjoyed, and participated in organizing, above all at the close of his life, in the light of his enormous experience and when he was at the very height of his intellectual powers. To bring the inner Trotsky into full light, he must be seen, I would judge, in the setting of his active pursuit of these human relations and as they fitted into his own great guiding purpose in life.

Our biographer’s usually keen insight deserts him at this crucial point, and in place of all the threads falling satisfyingly into place to disclose the coherence of Trotsky’s intelligence and will, the threads fray out into loose ends. Deutscher shows his prophet with eyes growing dim.

How such a clear-sighted genius could fail so lamentably to see things which Deutscher considers obvious remains an unresolved contradiction in the biography. Deutscher seems to sense this He grants that Trotsky remained unfailingly optimistic about revolutionary perspectives to the very end; yet he suggests that doubts had begun to creep in. He makes much of Trotsky’s argument in the factional struggle that broke out in the Socialist Workers party in 1939 that if the working class proved incapable of meeting its historic obligation then Burnham’s anti-Marxist theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” would prove to be the wave of the future, socialism a mere Utopia and all of Marxism wrong. He suggests that Trotsky at bottom discounted the movement he had founded: “his real last will and testament” contains “not a single mention of the Fourth International.” Deutcher bears down rather heavily on the theme:

Thus at the close of his days Trotsky interrogated himself about the meaning and the purpose of all his life and struggle and indeed of all the struggles of several generations of fighters, communists, and socialists. Was a whole century of revolutionary endeavour crumbling into dust? Again and again he returned to the fact that the workers had not overthrown capitalism anywhere outside Russia. Again and again he surveyed the long and dismal sequence of defeats which the revolution had suffered between the two world wars. And he saw himself driven to the conclusion that if major new failures were to be added to this record, then the whole historic perspective drawn by Marxism would indeed come under question.

I think that Deutscher is wrong in believing that Trotsky “interrogated himself.” He was answering the interrogations of others, and with the most powerful arguments at his command. Trotsky was as hard as diamond and completely flawless in his view of the long-range course of history. What did Trotsky really do “again and again?” He posed the alternative facing mankind: barbarism or socialism. He did not hesitate to pick up the arguments raised by those who had really begun to doubt and to sicken of the struggle. He spun them to logical absurdity and exposed their theoretical bankruptcy – their bankruptcy.

Commenting on the “overemphatic and hyperbolic” argument which Trotsky levelled against Burnham, Deutscher comments: “Perhaps only Marxists could sense fully the tragic solemnity which these words had in Trotsky’s mouth.” It is true that this was the way they sounded to some of the leaders of the opposing faction, but they hardly sounded that way to Trotsky or his closest collaborators.

We can perhaps better appreciate Trotsky’s meaning by considering the same basic alternative which he posed as it stands today, almost a quarter of a century later. If the acuteness of the alternative had grown less, without the action of the working class, then the founding of the Fourth International would have turned out to be a Utopian project because its aim – the mobilization of the working class to avert barbarism – proved to be not necessary. Or if we faced the opposite situation – an actual perspective of centuries of barbarism, the project likewise would have proved to have been Utopian. What is the truth? Neither situation holds. The alternative is still posed, but the delay in determining its outcome has enormously increased its acuteness.

The alternative, socialism or barbarism, has become the alternative, socialism or nuclear ruin. Physicists now tell us – Trotsky’s followers only repeat it – that war with atomic weapons can signify the suicide of mankind and even the destruction of all the higher forms of life. Trotsky’s picture of the possibility of a barbarism in which mankind would have to crawl painfully forward on all fours is idyllic compared to the “tragic solemnity” of the picture now facing us – a barren planet in which life itself might have to crawl up again from the amoeba or, if lucky, some of the lower vertebrates.

Does this mean that we must abandon hope or that there is room for more doubt than in Trotsky’s last years before the outbreak of World War II? On the contrary! The need for socialism is posed all the more imperatively.

This leads us directly to the point of sharpest difference with Deutscher. Who is to be credited with this “success” in intensifying the acuteness of the historic dilemma facing the world? The Second and Third Internationals! The life-and-death importance of Trotsky’s final efforts to construct a new international has received sufficient confirmation we should think.

A pure pragmatist will demand “All right, where are the revolutions in the West?” The question lacks the intended force because it leaves out the great postwar upsurge, especially in Italy and France, a phenomenon which Deutscher does not consider although it is surely relevant in any discussion of Trotsky’s forecasts. Is another upsurge, of even greater potential power, ruled out? In questions relating to the decline of a system and the rise of a new one, sufficient range must be taken; exactly how much range is not easily determined even by a genius like Trotsky.

Deutscher is so concerned to prove the hopelessness of Trotsky’s project of rebuilding the world-wide revolutionary socialist movement that he puts in question a different thesis which he proffers; namely, that Stalin was much more capable than Trotsky estimated him to be. Stalin, as Deutscher proves, was infinitely afraid of the Fourth International. He displayed an obsession over it. Was this merely paranoia, the counterpart to Trotsky’s grotesque foible, or did the capable Stalin have a certain amount of reason in his efforts to exorcise the phantom? Why Stalin’s extraordinary concern over the sectarian squabbles and impotent goings-on of Trotsky’s followers? (Other rulers, too, have shown strange disinclination to accept the view that the Trotskyist movement can be dismissed as a “failure.”)

It is hard to know exactly what Deutscher thinks Trotsky and his run-of-the-mill followers should have done in the years when they were fighting the spread of fascism, struggling against Stalinism and the reformism of the Social Democracy, warning of the danger of World War II, posing the historic dilemma facing mankind and seeking to build a revolutionary-socialist leadership.

Trotsky’s work in collaboration with the “vulgar” followers who rallied to his program provides one of the best keys to a deeper understanding of his character. Deutscher is grievously blind to this. If you view Trotsky primarily as a prophet, as Deutscher does, this blind spot becomes understandable. It is not easy for a prophet to transfer his gifts; it is even quite a foible to try it. If you look at Trotsky just a bit differently, however, his efforts come into better focus. Let me resort to analogy. In an epidemic it is necessary for a physician to take a leading part in the community defense, utilizing his special knowledge to help organize, with whatever means are available, a campaign to stem the epidemic and eventually eliminate the possibility of its recurrence. In his novel La Peste, Camus offers us the figure of Dr. Bernard Rieux, who finally succeeded in mobilizing his home town against the disease first noticed in the abnormal behavior of the rat population. The team assembled by Dr. Rieux learned a great deal about bubonic plague and how to meet it at the risk and even cost of their own lives. Dr. Rieux, a genuine humanist, offers his highest tribute to these comrades and collaborators in the fearful work they had to undertake together. A certain symbolism is evident in this remarkable novel. The perceptiveness displayed by Camus in the case of his main figure is instructive and well worth pondering.

Deutscher condemns the human material Trotsky had to work with, implying that this was one of the basic reasons for the “failure” of the Fourth International. He feels that the human material which Lenin and Trotsky had at their disposal before the October Revolution was better. In the West, particularly, the quality was poor.

The question, however, is not that simple. As the Spanish Revolution – to name an outstanding instance – proved, the raw human material was adequate to the task at hand. The cadres that came to Trotskyism at the time were far from being the worst fighters, the least self-sacrificing, or the least intelligent. The Stalinists, anyway, feared them to an uncommon degree and with good cause because they were of the same rebel type that staffed the ranks of the Communist parties, men and women who were loyal to those parties by mistake, because they had not yet had time or opportunity to understand the difference between the Soviet state and its Stalinist regime.

The tempo of developments, which in general favored the swift growth of Trotskyism, particularly in relation to the Communist parties, turned against the movement in two supreme instances, the outbreak of war and the victory of the Soviet Union. The first event temporarily deferred everything, laying the foundation, of course, for explosive developments later on. The second, a completely progressive outcome, had the contradictory effect of temporarily strengthening Stalinism (as the Trotskyist movement clearly saw at the time) while preparing even more certain conditions for its ultimate liquidation (as the Trotskyist movement predicted).

In any case, on the exceedingly difficult, complex and challenging problem of building a revolutionary-socialist movement, Trotsky and Deutscher are of different schools. 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.

Having said this, we can grant that the Trotskyist movement did have many difficulties, had its share of temperamental personalities who exercised undue weight in the small organization and who no doubt offered the great teacher problems of little novelty or intrinsic interest. Trotsky’s attitude toward his pupils, for his movement was also a training ground, was one of infinite patience. And, we repeat, while he could be acidly ironic he never displayed skepticism, if we may make exception of his well-known reservations concerning followers of petty-bourgeois origin, especially the “intellectual” variety, a subtlety in Trotsky’s thought which Deutscher does not examine, since he dismisses the whole subject.

The strangest part is that Deutscher shows the highest regard for Trotsky’s followers in the Soviet Union who were butchered by Stalin down to the last man and woman he could lay hands on. Deutscher also indicates Trotsky’s feelings toward them. But the emotion Trotsky felt for his Russian followers was not qualitatively different from the warmth he displayed toward all who shared the vicissitudes of the struggle with him, his comrades in China, the rest of Asia, in Latin America, in Africa, in Western Europe, in Canada and the United States.

Trotsky’s feelings could not be much different towards them because they, too, to the best of their abilities, were fighting the plagues of fascism, Stalinism, “democratic” witch-hunting and the approaching war. They too shared with him the conviction that what is required to right things in this foul time we live in is basically rather simple. In short Trotsky and his followers, many of them at least, understood each other.

Instead of this unity, Deutscher presents a grotesque mismatch between Trotsky and his followers. And instead of the unity of Trotsky’s Marxist outlook and his action in founding the Fourth International, Deutscher presents an irrational contradiction between the lucid vision of a prophet and the ludicrous bungling of a dabbler in petty sectarian politics. In studying the finishing touches to the portrait, where we have been led to expect a standard worthy of the subject, we suddenly become overly aware of the artist. We notice the brush in his hand and hear him arguing his special points of difference with the subject.

Just the same, the portrait is good enough so that looking at Trotsky on Deutscher’s canvas, we suspect the Old Man of winking at us over the gesticulating brush. “We have always had trouble with our artists. Let us not ask too much from them, but take gratefully what they can give.”



1. Even such a biased reviewer as Carleton Seals was reduced to pointing to the listing of “Almazar,” a right-wing general involved in Trotsky’s political break with Diego Rivera, as “proof” of Deutscher’s “pseudo-scholarship.” “No such general has ever existed or been a presidential candidate,” Carleton Beals assures us in the October issue of The Independent. “Such is Deutscher’s notable scholarship.” Beals, evidently emotionally upset by the passing reference in the biography to his strange role in the Dewey Commission, displays such ill will that he does not even offer to make the necessary correction about the Mexican general. The name should be spelled Almazan. The petulance of Beals, of course, could be due to Deutscher’s “pseudo-scholarship” in another unfortunate matter: “Deutscher does not even spell my name correctly. His account is a sham, and a distortion. Save your money.” (Deutscher spelled the name of His Royal Highness “Carlton.”) Beals’ own pseudo-scholarship in relation to Mexico showed up, however, when he failed to note the most obvious error in Deutscher’s biography. In the photographs facing page 480, the caption reads: “Two views of the ‘little fortress’ at Coyoacan.” The top view is of the home owned by Frida Kahlo where Trotsky first stayed after coming to Coyoacan. The bottom view is of the house which Trotsky had to buy after the break with Diego Rivera.

2. In connection with this, Deutscher refers in a footnote to an attack on his views levelled by James P. Cannon in 1954. Perhaps it is opportune to attempt to clear this up. Some harsh and even unjustified things were said of Deutscher. At the time, Deutscher’s theory about the possibility of the self-reform of the Stalinist bureaucracy figured in an internal crisis of the Socialist Workers Party. A sector of the cadres and leaders were strongly influenced by Deutscher’s theory. A split occurred and some of them capitulated to Stalinism. The crisis was not confined to the SWP but affected other sectors of the world Trotskyist movement. To many Trotskyists, Deutscher’s position appeared as an alternative program which could prove to be a bridge to Stalinism. It was therefore viewed with hostility. It turned out, however, that Deutscher was not interested in recruiting from the Troskyist movement or in organizing a sect of his own, still less a cult. This spoke strongly in his favor. After the Hungarian uprising another phenomenon soon became noticeable to the Trotskyist movement. Many members of Communist parties, shaken by the events, began reading forbidden literature. Not prepared to touch the works of the devil himself, Deutscher’s writings appeared less “counter-revolutionary” to them. Having begun dipping into Trotskyism in this way, they thirsted for more. Through Detuscher, some of them eventually found their way to Trotskyism. Deutscher’s position under these circumstances proved to be a bridge from Stalinism to Trotskyism. Trotskyists could not be against that kind of public facility. They therefore began undertaking their own self-reform – in relation to Deutscher.


Last updated on: 3.7.2013