Brian Pearce


The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921–1929

(October 1959)

From The Newsletter, 10 October 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

The Prophet Unarmed is the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of the man he calls ‘the representative figure of pre-Stalinist Communism and the precursor of post-Stalinist Communism’. It carries the story from the end of the civil war and commencement of the New Economic Policy to Trotsky’s deportation from Russia as the first Five-Year Plan was beginning.

The book runs to over 470 pages and is full of meat. Much new material has been used, especially papers in the Trotsky archives now at Harvard University. It is hard to select what to comment on in particular in a book which is so obviously a ‘must’ for every student of Soviet affairs, of the international labour movement or of Marxism.

Deutscher shoots down the legend of Trotsky the romantic and shows us how it was Trotsky who faced most hard-headedly the objective necessities facing the Soviet economy in the early 1920s. He was the pioneer of planned industrial expansion, which he saw as the only solution both to the problem of strengthening the worker-peasant alliance and to that of making Soviet Russia a firm basis for the world revolution.

His fight for workers’ democracy was closely connected with his fight for planning. He saw that democracy was no luxury, but an essential, and this awareness saved him from the terrible mistake made by some of his followers in 1928-1929, when they imagined that Stalin’s turn to industrialization meant that all was now as they had striven for it to be. Trotsky understood that, in his own phrase, in politics it is not only what is done but who does it, and how, that matters.

In contrast, however, to the Workers’ Opposition leaders, Trotsky in tackling the economic problems of Soviet Society, ‘wrestled with a real dilemma’, whereas they ‘seized only one of its horns and clung to it’. He was never a believer in telling the workers what they might like to hear regardless of whether it was true or not. ‘Say what is’ was a principle he tried to follow steadily, whatever the temporary disadvantages.

Demagogic reform

Thus, in 1927, Stalin suddenly introduced the seven-hour day, though no basis existed for it and all current planning assumed a longer working day. The Trotskyists pointed out the demagogic character of this ‘reform’ – and this frankness of theirs was used to discredit them among the unthinking sections of the working class.

But Trotsky did not always adhere to his principle. During the period 1924–1926, after, the defeat and disbandment of the original Left Opposition, he ‘lived to fight another day’ in the party, and that meant making such concessions as repudiating Eastman’s book Since Lenin Died, with its pioneer exposure of Stalinism for Western readers.

Deutscher’s pages on the reasons for Trotsky’s passivity in these years are of exceptional value. He shows that Trotsky was fully aware, after his experiences of 1922–1923, that the apathy into which the Soviet working class had sunk was not something that would soon wear off, and that the power of ‘the machine’ to kill incipient opposition movements was immense; and he refused to share the heady optimism with which Zinoviev and Kamenev, new-baked oppositionists, embarked in 1926 on their short-lived struggle in alliance with him.

Additional factors in his passivity were his recurrent ill-health and his alarm at the ‘support’ any sally by him against the leadership received from anti-Bolshevik elements. And when the break of Zinoviev and Kamenev with Stalin did at last enable him to escape from isolation, the needs of this alliance compelled him to keep silence for a whole year on the key questions of the Chinese revolution.

Another important section of the book discusses Trotsky’s reconsideration of the ‘Soviet Thermidor’ idea, a process not completed until after the end of the period with which this volume deals. All through the 1920s he and his adherents had fought the bureaucracy for its tendency to yield to the rich peasants and the new bourgeoisie, and had indeed seen the bureaucrats as objective agents of those social forces, who might lead Russia back to capitalism. Stalin’s ‘left turn’, with the liquidation of the rich peasants and final crushing out of the private sector by the State sector, cut clean across this conception as a continuingly valid one.

The emergence of the ex-worker bureaucrats as a social force in their own right (so far as internal Russian factors were concerned) necessitated a new look at the Marxist analysis of what had gone wrong with the revolution and how it must be put right. This Trotsky was to complete in 1936 with his classic study The Revolution Betrayed.

‘Not by politics alone’

Several reviewers have already drawn attention to the chapter called Not by politics alone ... (after an essay of Trotsky’s) in which Deutscher reviews his subject’s ideas and activities in the cultural field. Trotsky’s amazing many-sidedness and the respect in which he was consequently held by writers and scientists was a potent cause of envy and resentment among those of his colleagues who ‘prided themselves on their narrowness as on their virtue’.

His defence of artistic freedom and exposure of the half-baked idea of ‘proletarian culture’ made him deadly enemies amongst the parvenu officials for whom the revolution meant first and foremost power to dictate their will on all matters to all and sundry and to set up their pet notions as idols to be worshipped with a straight face even (and especially) by those who knew better.

Last updated on 13.10.2011