Chris Harman


Success and Failure

(Winter 1967/68)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, p.37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Unfinished Revolution
Isaac Deutscher
Oxford, 25s

Isaac Deutscher was a great historian. Unfortunately this achievement was not carried through to analysis and interpretation of current events. Yet one fears that it is to the latter rather than the former that much of his present popularity is due.

Deutscher’s critical failing was that he refused to accept the immensity of the counter-revolution carried through by the bureaucracy of Stalin. This is clearly brought out in this book when he appears to suspend judgment upon the central issue of whether Russia is a class society. Yet even this suspension of judgment is ambiguous. He describes the ‘elements of power’ of the bureaucracy as having their ‘origin in an act of liberation,’ as if there was any real continuity between the centralised bureaucracy of today and the workers’ councils, between Lenin’s party and Kosygin’s. He writes that ‘the privileged groups have not solidified into a class,’ not because they have not succeeded in acting as a cohesive force (few classes in history have shown the same cohesion in acting ‘for themselves’ as, say, the Russian bureaucracy did in Hungary), but because they have not ‘obtained ... the sanction of social legitimacy.’

In appearance Deutscher’s views on these issues coincide with those of Trotsky. In reality the different context in which they appear makes them vitally different. Trotsky’s basic reaction was against the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. His central concern was to refute all its pretentions, while continuing to assert the achievements of 1917. He could carry out this polemic against the deformation of the revolution without giving any positive characterisation of the bureaucracy and of its relation to the social forces of production. His failure to grasp adequately the inner dynamic of Russian society did not impede him in his revolutionary critique.

Thirty years later the same characterisation cannot have the same meaning. Rather than being a part of a movement away from the bureaucracy it becomes part of a movement towards it. Much of Deutscher’s current comments reflected this movement. At points he seemed to identify the rationalisation of its rule that the bureaucracy carried through in the mid-fifties with Trotsky’s ‘political revolution.’ He never understood the revolutionary significance of the risings against the bureaucracy in 1956. He never grasped the real depths of the divisions between the state capitalist countries; for him the ‘socialist’ nature of these meant that policy differences could only be ephemeral.

This not only made much of what he said politically suspect, it also meant that his unparalleled ability to describe the development of history was not matched by a grasp of its inner dialectic. This was even true of his magnificent biography of Trotsky. For instance he described in full detail the decimation and destruction of the Russian working class in the civil war (in The Prophet Unarmed), yet failed to see this fundamental balance of class forces as determining what followed. In the present book this is even more so. The difficulties in his interpretation are not obscured here by the lucidity of the presentation of historical material. At points the split within the dialectic between conceptual schema (e.g. the ‘fate of every revolution’) and disjointed empirical observations becomes complete. Hence a tendency towards that apparent willingness to discuss isolated points within a dogmatically held world view that characterises so much liberal empiricist sociology.

This perhaps explains the appeal of the book to a wide variety of audiences. He can appeal to liberal Stalinists because he accepts Stalin as carrying forward the historic mission of the revolution (even if peace, bread and land do turn into permanent war, hunger and collectivisation). He can appeal to would-be Trotskyists by showing that at many points the policies of the opposition would have made this task easier. Above all he can appeal to the academic leftists of the New Left Review sort. For here is exactly the sort of analysis needed if one is to succeed in both being with the bureaucracy and being liberal, in obtaining vicarious pleasure from the successes of different ‘socialist rulers’ and remaining safe in Hampstead. For revolutionary socialists there is little of interest in all this. By reading Deutscher’s biographies one can begin a re-evaluation of Russia, Stalin and Trotsky, but it will be very different from the one provided by Deutscher here.

Last updated on 15 November 2009