Walter Kendall 1992

Isaac Deutscher as a Prophet

Source: A chapter in New Interventions pamphlet, Isaac Deutscher 1907-1967 (Worthing, 1992); and New Interventions, Volume 11, no 4, Autumn 2004. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Somewhere in the voluminous tomes of his journalism and historical commentary (I believe in Heretics and Renegades but in a hurried search have been unable to unearth and confirm the precise text), Isaac Deutscher writes that our own age has been one analogous to that which followed the Great French Revolution:

One might see that the Revolution of 1789 had been ‘betrayed’, one might be unable to support the men and the monarch that now controlled the French state. Yet one could not oppose them either; for that would be to fall into the camp of reaction and (very often) absolutist monarchy. For the prescient man (or woman), political activism was no longer possible. One must remain ‘au dessus de la Mle’, seek to comment upon events and enlighten the combatants concerning the great issues of the day. [1]

Deutscher saw himself, it seems to me, very much in the same light, this the titles of his three-volume history of Trotsky’s life and times – respectively the Prophet ArmedUnarmed – and Outcast – themselves demonstrate.

Deutscher certainly saw himself as a prophet, and once he had been involuntarily expelled from the Communist Party of Poland, once he had subsequently broken (probably with good reason) from the nascent Trotskyist movement, finally freed himself from the moil and toil of day-by-day journalism, he certainly sought to act in the fashion that such a world-view might demand. There are two points at issue here: firstly, the extent to which Deutscher was genuinely an objective observer ‘au dessus de la Mle'; secondly, the validity of his expectations, the extent to which his own prophecies have been validated or invalidated by the subsequent course of events. Nor is this in any sense an idle exercise. Deutscher was very much a man of his time.

Deutscher’s writings were, I believe, immensely influential, they both shaped and in turn reflected the attitudes of a large part of ‘informed’ public opinion at the time in which they were published and written. A judgement on Deutscher is in large degree a judgement on a generation and seems worthwhile undertaking even for this reason and this reason alone. Given the limitations of time and space, I will restrict myself to two volumes, each readily accessible to the general reader. The first, from which I take a single text, is the very revealing volume of essays entitled Heretics and Renegades, which appeared in 1955. The second, from which I abstract more fully, is the work entitled The Great Contest: Russia and the West, which was published by the prestigious Oxford University Press in 1960.

Deutscher’s style is a fascinating one, at times orotund, always seemingly precise, appearing astonishingly well-informed, confident, secure, he gives the impression of one who has visited the very inner recesses of the soul of ‘History’, upon his return, out of sheer good will, tells us for nothing what he has there discovered, all unveiled and for the first time.

A clear judgement on the Russian Revolution which has dominated so much of our recent epoch is contained in a passage from the essay ‘Two Revolutions’ which appears in Heretics and Renegades. Few anticipations can have been more misplaced.

‘In the countries which France united with her territories’, Deutscher tells us that the historian Sorel found occasion to write, ‘she proclaimed her principles, destroyed the feudal system, and introduced her laws. After the inevitable disorders of war... this revolution constituted an immense benefit to the peoples.’ This judgement, two centuries later, the present author considers will be widely, although by no means universally, accepted. Deutscher now goes on to consider the case of the Russian Revolution which he considers analogous to that of France. ‘I do not believe that the verdict of history on the Stalinist system of satellites will be more severe than it has been on the Bonapartist system’, he opines.

Few anticipations can have been more misplaced. Over the last few years, we have seen the disintegration of the (’socialist’) command economies, the discrediting and final dissolution, then the banning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a headlong rush to ‘capitalism’ undertaken by the first elected Russian President backed by a whole galaxy of informal advisors, and with it would seem the tacit, if not explicit, support of the large majority of the population. The true ‘conquests’ of October, by contrast, melt like the winter snow before bright spring sunshine, in front of our very eyes.

Of the four essays which comprise the 86 pages of The Great Contest, three were specifically commissioned by the wealthy Dafoe Foundation, and delivered before specially invited audiences under the auspices of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs in turn at Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. The fourth was specially prepared for an audience at the University of Manitoba. One presumes therefore that Deutscher gave serious consideration to preparing these texts for his lectures, and yet more deliberation before deciding to give them final printed form. This their subsequent publication under the title The Great Contest: Russia and the West makes quite plain. The quotations which I intend to use originate in the main from Deutscher’s last chapter entitled ‘East and West: The Implications of Coexistence’, and deal with the probable outcome of ‘peaceful competition’.

The prehistory of the command economy, of Stalinist authoritarian ‘socialism’, can be briefly summarised. In 1920, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Stalin, Zinoviev, the whole party leadership at first believed that through ‘War Communism’ they could march directly to utopia, ‘rifle in hand’. The result was unparalleled disaster. Then population was reduced to beggary, cities became deserts, millions died of cold and hunger and disease. The New Economic Policy, a shamefaced return to capitalist methods of production, restored prosperity. Then in 1928 came the launch of the First Five-Year Plan. At the Seventeenth Congress in 1934, the party proclaimed ‘the foundations of socialist economy’ to be ‘built’.

The Eighteenth Congress in 1939 went further, and asserted that socialism had been achieved ‘in essentials’. Khrushchev, full of optimism, at a time in which it appeared that previous high growth rates would go on for ever, promised that full communism would be achieved ‘between 1975 and 1980, provided we have no war’. The Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 adopted a new programme which promised that by 1980 national income would increase four times over, industrial output go up six times, labour productivity increase three to five times, real incomes rise by 250 per cent. The long-suffering Russian people will be able to obtain enough consumer goods, ‘want will have been fully and finally eliminated’, and that even before this date ‘all sections of the population will get good and high-quality foodstuffs’. By 1981, ‘consumer demand will be met in full’, the working day would be down to 35 hours (spread over five days). Soviet workers ‘would have the shortest working day in the world’. Every family would have its own ‘separate, comfortable apartment’, ‘rent free’.

These changes would be made possible by a massive upsurge in the level of Soviet industrial production. ‘In 20 years’, the new programme declared, ‘Soviet industry will be producing nearly twice as much... as is produced by the whole non-Soviet world’. The average annual increase in Soviet industrial output would be ‘not less than nine or ten per cent’. By 1981, ‘the material and technical basis for communism’ would be well and truly laid, the productivity of labour in the Soviet Union would be the ‘world’s highest’. Output per head of the population would be unsurpassed. Soviet national income would overtake that of the USA in the 1970s; ‘by 1980 our country will leave the United States far behind'; ‘the socialist system will account for about two-thirds of the world’s industrial output’.

Isaac Deutscher, in these years a most highly regarded authority on Soviet affairs, wrote around this time that the Soviet Union would be ‘the wealthiest... [and] freest country in the world – at least as free as any country in the West’ well before the 1980s were out. In his widely acclaimed and highly influential Great Contest which appeared in 1960, Deutscher discovered in the Soviet Union ‘an extraordinary richness of thought... the approach of momentous changes... like an historic act of birth’. Russia was ‘pregnant with new world-shaking thoughts’. We were about to ‘witness another flowering of the Russian intellect and culture... worthy of the traditions of Mendeleyev and Pavlov, of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, of Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky, a flowering which will surpass these traditions and in which the world as well as the Soviet Union will rejoice’.

Russia was about to challenge the whole West in open economic competition. Thus ‘the economic ascendancy of the Soviet Union tends to place a huge question mark over the structure of Western society'; ‘Western capitalism will succumb... because of its inability to match the achievements of socialism.’ Thus ‘in their Committee for Economic Mutual Assistance [Comecon, now disbanded – WK]... the Russians have set up the nucleus of an international planning authority... [the] planned international division of labour... [begins] to move economically beyond the nation-state, towards some form of international society’. The ‘Communist Common Market’, Deutscher prophesied, ‘will form an entity which, in the last quarter of this century, may be four or five times as large as the North American market, and twice as large as a combined North American and Western European market would be’. Nor was this all. In ‘ten years from now’, that is to say in 1970, Deutscher quite specifically foretold that ‘Soviet standards of living... are certain to be above Western European standards, by 1984 the Russian working day would be down to ‘not more than four or even three hours’. The USSR would achieve economic parity with the USA in the 1960s; ‘by 1965 the Soviet Bloc will produce more than half the world’s economic output’, would end the state monopoly of foreign trade, ‘adopt a policy of Open Doors’, confident that it would triumph in free competition. In the Western world, ‘the popular appeal of communism will... become irresistible... by the time of the next social crisis in Western Europe communism... [will] place itself at the head of the peoples’. Revolution, one was left to assume, would naturally follow. The victory of Soviet-style Communism throughout the world would be assured.

None of this came about. Soviet growth rates, far from stabilising at around nine or ten per cent a year, steadily declined, were down to about a quarter of these figures by 1989, and were set to decline to zero well before the end of the century. Soviet real consumption in 1976 stood at around 35 per cent of US levels. Soviet Gross National Product in 1980 had still to surpass two-thirds that of the USA, let alone two-thirds of that of the capitalist world as a whole.

The overall situation in the former Eastern Bloc satellites was at this time, by and large, no better. In Poland, the economy was in a state of collapse, living standards had plummeted by around 25 per cent in the last few years. In Romania, the masses existed at a level of penury and deprivation unthinkable in Britain even during the worst of the wartime years of isolation and submarine blockade. Likewise Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the former Un-Democratic German Republic were each confronted with economic and political crises that it was beyond the wit of their self-appointed leaders to resolve. ‘The rest’, as they say in the movies, ‘is history.’ Gorbachev now indicated that in case of need the Brezhnev Doctrine no longer held, the Soviet military would no longer come to the aid of any satellite state threatened by internal disorder. The Hungarians opened their border to Austria. A trickle of East Germans fleeing the Un-Democratic German Republic by this route, became first a stream, then a torrent, finally a kind of tidal wave which in its consequences and concatenations, swept all the Eastern Bloc Communist regimes away. Nor was the Soviet Union for whole decades praised as the ‘Fatherland of all Toilers’ to be exempt.

The Gorbachev reforms finally outran their initiator altogether. The Soviet Union disintegrated into a series of largely independent states. The command economy has been abandoned. The Russian leadership of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the other smaller states no less, seek to build capitalism under the guise of the market economy, in its place. On 11 November 1992, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin lunched with the Queen in Buckingham Palace, and invited her to dine in the Kremlin in return, an offer which we understand was gratefully accepted.

So where stand the high hopes, the fulsome expectations which Deutscher boldly enunciated not so long ago? They are shattered and disproved by ‘History’, every one. Already, even now, barely a matter of months, a few short years from the time of the Soviet-Eastern Bloc collapse, it seems scarcely credible that such wildly misplaced expectations could ever have been seriously entertained at all.

If Deutscher genuinely believed himself an impartial observer ‘au dessus de la Mle’, he was most grievously mistaken. His work will increasingly be regarded less as ‘History’ and more as ‘Apologetics’. The new waves of students, of socialist activists, will find such triumphal self-delusion a matter for wonder, will be greatly puzzled to understand why so many of the best minds not just of one, but more nearly two whole generations could have been so wilfully self-deceived. For make no mistake, Isaac Deutscher was not alone. The fulsome Introduction to the 1969 reissue of Heretics and Renegades, written by one widely regarded as the veritable doyen of Soviet Studies, will serve as but one example to make this plain, stating that ‘in the last 15 years of his life’ Deutscher was ‘much more effective a student of Soviet affairs than the multitudes of critics who have sought discredit [what they termed] his Utopianism and optimism’. There existed ‘solid grounds for the faith and optimism of which Isaac Deutscher was so persuasive an expositor’.

The piece is signed, with proper modesty, EH Carr, Trinity College, Cambridge.


1. I finally found this extract, of which I have given my own paraphrase, but only after this article had closed for the press. It appears on pages 20-22 of Heretics and Renegades. Readers can decide for themselves whether I have properly given Deutscher’s sense. They may be surprised to observe, what I had forgotten, that Deutscher implicitly compares himself with Jefferson, Goethe and Shelley.