C.L.R. James 1963

Indomitable Rebel
Review of The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky: 1929-40 by Isaac Deutscher

Source: New Society, 28 November 1963;
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg.

In portraying Trotsky’s last years Mr. Deutscher worthily completes his particular view of a representative figure of our time. He takes us unsparingly through the political catastrophes and miasma of the thirties: the rise of Hitler, appeasement, the uninterupted defeats of democracy and socialism in Europe and elsewhere. Brilliant and so far unsurpassed is his picture of the causes, horrors and results of the Russian collectivization; he is almost as good on Stalin v the Trotskyist Opposition inside Russia; here the strenuous analysis and significant details are vivified by sympathetic but realistic apercus of men like Rakovsky and lesser but not unimportant figures like Blumkin, Ivan Smirnov, Preobrazhensky. It is against this record of almost unrelieved defeat and suffering that Mr. Deutscher sets what he considers to be one of the greatest personalities in the socialist record and in fact in all history.

He does not shirk failures and mistakes, he makes politically relevant not only Trotsky’s martyrdom but his personal relations with his son, his unshakeably steadfast wife, his family and his friends – there is a full and moving account of the apparently unpolitical life of his daughter Zina. It is difficult to disagree that nothing magnificently human was alien to Trotsky.

Mr. Deutscher’s structure is built on scrupulous use of an astonishing range of material. Thus his book itself provides the evidence for his unnecessary and quite unhistorical inflation of the exiled Trotsky’s political and prophetic roles. He notes that the Polish delegation (with which he was associated) opposed Trotsky’s decision to found a Fourth International. I well remember at the Founding Conference their somewhat effete objections. They failed because they, as well as every single delegate, lived in the faith that at the very outbreak of war, the Third International, like the Second International in 1914, would become national patriots and repudiate both the revolution and the USSR. This would immediately open the road for the Fourth International. Further, the main conference document asserted that the majority of the Russian leadership were preparing the restoration of private property in Russia. For us this ensured the revolutionary upheaval and adherence of the Russian proletariat to the Fourth International. That had been Trotsky’s thesis through the years and this grave error is what vitiates the undoubtedly brilliant insights and constant warnings of his political analyses. If, as Trotsky repeatedly asserted, the proletariat everywhere was being led to disaster by Stalinism, the conclusion could not be avoided that the proletariat was in some way unfitted for its tasks. Mr Deutscher does not show, because there is no evidence to show, that Trotsky ever concerned himself with the specific stage of social structure, new needs and new capacities, new perspectives of the proletariat, the basis on which Internationals like the First and Second were founded. Mr Deutscher somewhat wryly admits that the Fourth International was founded because the Third International had shown its inability to learn from its mistakes. Social organizations initiating new societies are not founded on such premises.

Mr Deutscher faithfully notes that in his last years Trotsky was pro-Ally against Hitler, that in an unfinished article he called on American workers to defend American capitalism in World War II, that in 1939 he stated in print that if the war did not result in the socialist revolution, then it would have to be accepted that Marxism was utopia. Mr Deutscher either palliates or deplores Trotsky’s departures from what he repeatedly describes as “classical Marxism.” By this he obviously means the doctrines of Lenin which Trotsky’s party “the Bolshevik-Leninists,” was founded to maintain and continue. Writing with 1945-1963 in mind, Mr Deutscher does not hesitate to conclude that on this type of Leninism, “Trotsky, the man of practical action, would hardly have found any effective role for himself in this whole post-war drama.” Politics has the last word. The conclusion, though politically a logical one, thus places an unconvincing epitaph on the indomitable revolutionary whom the world knew and this book so powerfully resurrects.