Peter Sedgwick

Tragedy of the Tragedian:
An appreciation of Isaac Deutscher

(Winter 1967/68)

Peter Sedgwick, The Tragedy of the Tragedian: An appreciation of Isaac Deutscher, International Socialism (1st series), No.31, Winter 1967-68, pp.10-17.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The sudden death of Isaac Deutscher on 19 August last tore a deep, for some an unexpectedly deep, wound in the hearts of all of us who prize Marxist thought and practice. Until we lost Deutscher, we did not know what we owed him; while he was alive, the forbidding armoury of his scholarship and his international rank shielded, not only him from us but us from him. We strove hard to ‘place’ Deutscher, to align his contribution against the template of the tradition we had rejected: something still poked out from beyond the outline we had framed for him, an obstinate penumbra which now lingers, or rather expands, in his absence. He would not fit. In life we had to make sense of him by amalgamating him ‘with a threat; in death he is all too solitary, and we must now sum up his life’s work as the truncated radiation from a single being. It is to be hoped that those who address themselves to the collection of writings that is his monument, will avoid making it their own fetish. Deutscher loathed all fetishism; and if this tribute has some of the overtones of a polemic, it is because in no other way can we do justice to the spirit of his work.

The intellectual career of Isaac Deutscher mirrored, with an extraordinary exactness, the fortunes of an internationalist, revolutionary heritage in an age of impasse, of nationalist and counter-revolutionary ascendancy. Joining the Communist Party of Poland as a young man in 1926, he was at once catapulted into a world of total theoretical and tactical confusion. In the May of that year the Polish CP leadership gave its active support to the dictator Pilsudski’s coup d’état against the gentry government headed by Witos. The subsequent disputes among rival Zinovievist and Bukarinist leaders of the Polish party was, as he later put it, no more than ‘a quarrel of damned souls imprisoned within the enchanted circle of Stalinism;’, when the ultra-Left switch in Comintern policy came in 1929, a sizeable opposition to the current social-fascist’ slogans crystallised from sections of the membership who had detached themselves from the sterile squabble of the old guard. At first, Trotsky’s call for a united workers’ front against Fascism found a sympathetic hearing in this group (numbering about a third of the Warsaw membership); but as the party bureaucracy began to hound its dissidents with the usual smears of ‘Pilsudskist-Trotskyist-fascist agents,’ the hard core of the opposition (including the young Deutscher) was speedily reduced to isolation, entering the wilderness as the Polish wing of the diminutive world Trotskyist movement. Deutscher was expelled from the Polish CP in 1932.

According to his talk on the centenary of Marx’s Capital published in the Listener shortly before his death, he spent much of his time in this period in acquiring a fundamental grasp of Marxist economic and political theory; he also earned his living as a professional journalist on the Jewish daily paper in Warsaw. This was a Zionist newspaper, and it is perhaps of some interest that even as a young man Deutscher found himself obliged to keep his intellectual existence running in two separate compartments, one as a journalist intelligently fulfilling the obligations of the liberal press, the other as a theoretician of Marxism without a regular outlet for his ideas. (While he remained in the Communist Party he was able to integrate his skills in the pages of the Polish CP’s literary organs.) By 1938 he found himself faced with an isolation so catastrophic as to make the pains of exclusion suffered by the average ex-Communist seem derisory. The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party, who had fled to Moscow from Piludski’s police, were imprisoned on Stalin’s orders and shot as traitors. The Polish Party was dissolved outright by the Comintern. Although the executed leaders had been guilty of many errors, Deutscher still retained a bond of old memories and associations with them:

‘I remember the image of Warski at Theatre Square on 1 May 1928. He was marching at the head of a huge banned demonstration, through the hail of machine-gun fire and rifle shots with which we were greeted (by Pilsudski’s militia). While tens or hundreds of wounded were falling in our ranks, he held up his white grey head, a high and easy target visible from afar; and he indomitably addressed the crowd. This was the image of him I had in my mind when some years later, he was announced from Moscow as a traitor, a spy, and a Pilsudski agent.’ [1]

One of the most moving passages in Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy deals with the extermination of thousands of Stalin’s opponents in the Vorkuta camps in 1938; reading over this passage now, one wonders whether the author was not perhaps thinking, half-consciously, as much of the fate of Marxism in Poland as in Russia, and, in its peroration, as much of Deutscher’s own situation at the time as that of Trotsky:

‘All anti-Stalinist forces had been wiped out ... Trotskyism, Zinovievism, and Bukharinism, all drowned in blood, had, like some Atlantis, vanished from all political horizons ... and he himself was now the sole survivor of Atlantis.’ [2]

Not yet quite alone. But, in the September of that year, the founding congress of Trotsky’s ‘Fourth International’ took place in Paris. The two Polish delegates, with a thesis prepared by Deutscher, presented the objections of their section to the proclamation, at this time, of the Comintern’s intended heir: ‘No significant section of the working class will respond to our Manifesto... It is necessary to wait ...’ The Poles were heard with incredulity by the other delegates; their arguments were heavily outvoted and they were denounced, by Shachtman, as ‘the Mensheviks in our midst.’ [3] The entire subsequent history of ‘Trotskyism’ has vindicated the good sense of Deutscher’s warnings. At the time however, the price that such dissidents had to pay, in terms of links with what was still the most numerous and most unyielding centre of international Marxism was rather heavy.

A year later, Hitler moved the Wehrmacht into Poland, and Stalin’s forces followed suit from the Ukraine: the land of the ‘Luxemburgist-Trotskyites’ was liquidated by partition. Deutscher was in England at the time. He took the same course of action that was followed by the brilliant writer of the French CP, Paul Nizan, after the shock of the Hitler-Stalin Pact: he enlisted, as a fighter in the ranks, with the nearest available anti-Fascist military forces. (In Deutscher’s case this was Sikorski’s Polish Home Army.)

Writing of his friend Nizan’s decision, Sartre has remarked that over the two decades that followed this juncture of history no effective independent role was accessible for the revolutionary intellectual. [4] To take up a gun in 1939 was a conscious renunciation of politics, a suspension of real work until better times might come. It was a decision that cost Nizan his life, in the fighting at Dunkirk in 1940. For Deutscher, there was not even this way out of the impasse: the Polish military authorities in this country had him arrested as a subversive, and he was confined in a camp in Scotland. At this time he could hardly speak a word of English.

In judging Deutscher’s development from this point, I believe that we must accept Sartre’s evaluation of the subsequent years of world war and cold war, roughly the period from the late thirties to the late fifties: they have to be written off, they were political junk. With few exceptions, Socialists in this period wasted their energies and ideals either in roseate hopes of impending radicalisation or in apologetics for one or an other repulsive and conservative social system. Some useful solidarity actions were conducted, there was some brave propaganda, and one or two serious works of theory. Deutscher’s abandonment of the militant’s role, for that of the chronicler, was a personal way out of a collective catastrophe. It was, in the event, justified by the sheer quality of the work he succeeded in producing. When the better times came and public action was possible for him, he no longer stood aside. Deutscher’s adjustment to political isolation was termed by him (in a famous passage in Heretics and Renegades) the position of ‘the man on the watch-tower.’ The watch-tower was not the same as an ivory tower: from it he watched not only the world landscape of powers and classes, but also for the small signs of movement which, he sensed, would one day permit him again to establish a living link with a Socialist generation. Meanwhile, he wrote on: 1939, 1949, 1959 – from a very undistinguished Pole in a very inglorious hole he became an outstanding Marxist historian, a master of English prose, an inexhaustible, brilliant reserve for the whole new Left of Europe and America.

Various riders must of course be added to this judgment. There is the extraordinary discrepancy in Deutscher’s writings between the level of thought and research in his scholarly writings and the standards he adopted as a journalist and commentator. Through all the two decades and more when he was working on his permanent output (Soviet Trade Unions, Stalin and above all the Trotsky trilogy) he had to earn his bread (and the means of travelling to distant places to see archives and witnesses) by means of ephemeral journalism of the instant-Kremlinology variety. Deutscher was never beholden to private capitalist foundations, and he had no university base behind him. (Towards the end of his days, when he sought an academic position in a British university in order to complete his Life of Lenin free from journalistic chores, he was at first offered a full professorship, and then abruptly blackballed, under pressure from certain senior dons.) It was therefore easy to pick out examples of hasty reasoning, unbridled speculation and outright bias in favour of the Russian status quo from his journalism and semi-journalism (such works as The Great Contest falling, despite their weighty style, into the latter category rather than that of scholarship). Bitching at Deutscher, usually with the aid of miscellaneous clippings from these works, became a favourite pastime both on the independent Left [5] and (more expectedly) in the press of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It is as if Marx’s theoretical standing was to be criticised on the basis of the rubbish he wrote against Palmerston in the Tory press. (Not that Deutscher’s Sovietology was as ill-judged as some of his critics have made out; in this field he was the first to make several estimates which are pretty well accepted now, e.g., that Beria wanted a conciliatory policy in Germany involving if necessary the liquidation of the GDR, that the effect of the East Berlin workers’ rising of 1953 was to interrupt a process of de-stalinisation-from-above in the SED, and – of course – that Stalin’s death would speedily unleash forces tending towards relaxation and liberalisation in the USSR.)

The second comment on Deutscher’s retreat from politics relates to the effect it had upon his own state of commitment. After the debacle of Trotskyism in the late Thirties, Deutscher withdrew for many years into a fierce and protective pride which insulated him not only from the criticism but also from the fraternity of the Marxist Left. In himself he mortified the essential motives of Socialist action: the desire to solidarise publicly with the oppressed, the desire to share in the activity of other comrades fighting for the same cause, the urge to win over and convince through a personal bond that is also a challenge. Somebody who knew Deutscher fairly well once said to me that one sensed in him an awareness of wearing ‘the mantle.’ It was not (as he may have thought) the mantle of Trotsky or Marx, the fighters for liberation, so much as that of Tacitus or Gibbon, the great historians of social irony but it served its purpose, that of shielding its wearer in an age that was cold, so cold.

It would be pointless to give many details of this stance of Deutscher’s. ‘Dear Comrade Deutscher,’ one would write to him, ending ‘yours fraternally. ‘ ‘Dear X—’ or ‘Dear Mr X—’ he would write back, ending ‘yours sincerely.’ Of course the spikiness was not all one-sided (though it often nearly was). A state of mutual paranoia grew up between him and the fragments, continuations and mutations of the old Trotskyist movement. A trip to the United States, chatting up some old faces; and he was accused of engineering a split in the Fourth International. The journals of the Marxist Left ask for review copies of his books; and then, conspicuously fail to review them. [6] From time to time, particularly in later years, Deutscher would take a few steps gingerly down from the isolation complex of the watchtower and into the public arena; once he was at ground-level somebody with a grudge would throw little lumps of old crap at him, and back he would go into the defences.

In two separate phases, in my knowledge, he was able to emerge into the world of active politics and feel at home. In 1956 he became very enthusiastic for the young Utopian militants around the now-defunct journal Universities and Left Review. He feted them, wrote for them, and spoke to a packed meeting of the ULR Club: ‘Forward to the Red Sixties!’ he proclaimed to the throng. Alas, it was not to last; at least not this particular expression of the independent Socialism of the late Fifties and Sixties. More recently he was establishing what looked to be a more viable and permanent intimacy with the collective of the Left. An affectionate inner circle of Socialist friends had grown up around him over the years.

(Those outside this circle sometimes sensed that for Deutscher there were always certain tests which one had to pass if any further liaison was to be permissible: tests which most of us failed with ease.) From this base, his sallies forth into the arena of public commitment became more frequent and more magnificent.

We had his speeches at the conventions of Socialist university youth in the USA (On Socialist Man and Origins of the Cold War). There was that extraordinary semi-comic incident not long ago in which he summoned to his home the leadership of a certain British ‘Trotskyist’ organisation which had connived at the brutal beating up of a rival militant: once he was satisfied of the evidence in the affair, ‘Deutscher’s curse,’ magisterially invoking the dishonoured name of Trotskyism, rang through the house as he sent them packing. There was, as his last article published before his death, his sensitive but biting indictment of Israel’s chauvinism and aggression during the Middle East crisis this summer. Deutscher was one of the few notable Jews who held fast to internationalism in this small but crucial turning point (and, in so doing, revealed himself as a participant in the heritage of ‘the non-Jewish Jew,’ the bearer of the universal human aspirations of Judaism, which he had apostrophised so brilliantly in 1958). [7] Most moving of all was his active participation this year in the International War Crimes Tribunal on the atrocious actions of American imperialism in Vietnam. The bloody crimes let loose by the Pentagon upon a small and heroic people burst through the last of Deutscher’s defences against involvement. Laying aside his monumental preparation of the Life of Lenin, he answered Bertrand Russell’s appeal and took his place in the sifting, clashing, niggling, indispensable work of the committee for the defence of the oppressed. He had been a long time away: but, by 1967, Deutscher was working back to the International. [7a]

What we have lost in the work that would have come from Deutscher, we will of course never know. To him belongs the rare merit of having exposed and undermined one of the two great fables which dominated Western ideology around the median of this century: that of the unshakeable, crisis-free, monolithically baneful character of ‘totalitarianism’ in the USSR. (The other myth which mirrored it, that of the unshakeable, crisis-free, monolithically benevolent character of welfare capitalism in the West, is now being refuted, not by scholarship, which gave up the attempt long ago, but more convincingly by the dole-queues.) Deutscher’s explanation of the ‘de-Stalinisation’ process was at once too simple and too complicated. On his theory, industrialisation leads to democracy via mass education, hence democratic pressures will arise in Russia. Now it could be (and was) demonstrated that this theory will not do as stated, because the relationship between industrialisation and the rise of democracy is not a linear, continuous, one of perfect correlation, but rather more spotty and jerky; also that the education system in Russia has strong elitist currents as well as tendencies towards mass enlightenment. [8] Nonetheless, Deutscher’s thesis was good enough as a first approximation. Indeed, a similar approach towards problems of liberalisation and Stalinism in the East was generated even in the writings of those who had disagreed with Deutscher. Why is Russia getting less Stalinist, and China more Stalinist? Because Russia is becoming industrialised, with an educated management-stratum that has to use the ‘soft sell’ for a more cultured and confident working class. Because China is still at the stage of ‘forced-march’ industrial growth, with a backward mass of toilers who have to be kept galvanised by a state-of-siege mentality in order to make them work harder. [9] The variables are much the same as Deutscher’s, even though their permutations may have been improved. And he said it before the event (at least before the main event, 20th Congress CPSU), not after. [10]

Having chalked up one scoop by prophesying de-Stalinisation-from-above (as opposed to the re-Stalinisation-from-above or revolutionisation-from-below that everybody else was predicting before 1953), Deutscher apparently thought that he could safely repeat the prediction and get the same fortunate results. Most of his worst journalism occurs in this phase of tactful (too tactful) hope, of lenient expectation aimed towards the post-Stalinist officialdom. He grew out of this. In 1957 he could still give patronising lectures in propriety to the young rebels of his former Party in Poland. By 1963 he is comparing Gomulka with Kadar, two members of ‘the same family’ displaying ‘the marks of the product: Made in Stalinism.’ [11] He then admitted that he had been wrong in his anticipations of the likely pace and extent of de-Stalinisation in Russia [12], and confessed some doubts of his gradualist perspective for Eastern Europe. [13] For some time afterwards, he flirted with the notion that Mao’s achievement might represent some kind of continuation of Trotskyism, or at least of revolutionary internationalism. [14] The inward-turning fever of the ‘great Cultural Revolution’ was a savage blow to that hope, and he laid aside this commitment in another memorable interview. [15] Fifty years after the triumphant Bolshevik mobilisation, all the substitutes for it had gone, collapsed. What remained, except the International?

Would it have lasted? Why not; the age of impasse was over. In any case, it is striking, in tracing the personal development of political folk, to note the frequency with which they return, perhaps after long wanderings through glamour and rationalisation, back to their first position, the position of their awakening in youth. Deutscher’s first position (as a young vanguard poet in the ghetto of Cracow, as a young oppositional militant in an illegal Party) was an honourable, courageous and independent one. From the instant when it expires, every life forms a pattern. We read the bereaving announcement, and immediately know the themes of the consciousness that has gone. The moment and the manner of death describe and fix the pattern; from the melody’s terminus, the score is composed in reverse, then gathered in and played back, in the same flash, to astounded ears.

We can know now, too, when the themes were first displayed. In Deutscher’s music, the main motifs were poetry and collectivism. Both were introduced early. In 1928, an intellectual crisis, on a scale of enormity, struck at the Communist Opposition in Russia. It was the hour at which Stalin at last ditched the Bukharin policy of agrarian appeasement which he had pursued for the last few years, and entered on a course of forcible enclosure (collectivisation) and breakneck industrial accumulation. The Left Oppositionists were caught with their ideological trousers flopping down to the ankle. They had three possible alternative reactions to the new turn: 1) to say that it was all a blind, a temporary cover for some kind of retreat which would re-instate the rich peasants and even capitalism; 2) to welcome the new forced march, as a vindication of their own old demands for collective ownership and accumulation, and to join it as marshals and pace-setters; 3) to denounce it as an attack on the workers and the peasant masses. The last course, if it was not to be a simple defensive reaction, would have necessitated a total re-appraisal of the most fundamental tenets of Marxist and Bolshevik doctrine as they had been understood by thousands of its most experienced adherents: everything would have had to go into the melting-pot, the glorious programmes of Party and Opposition, the memories of battles against awkward comrades and awkward multitudes, the alignments, attachments and identifications of a great lifetime. At this stage, few could begin so drastic a renewal of the self; very few could complete it, and if they did, the world was not allowed to know about them. Most of the Oppositionists, therefore, at first undertook the first strategy (that of denial), with several possible variations: as time wore on, Stalin’s collectivism was not to be discredited as a ‘temporary manoeuvre’ which he himself would soon abandon for the Right, but as an ultra-Left adventure which would doom an enfeebled USSR to collapse before pressure or invasion from the capitalist world.

Trotsky himself stuck to this last prognosis up till his death; hence the gloom of his predictions as to the likely fate of Stalin’s USSR in the event of a world war. The Georgian marauder, however, maintained the crash course without actually crashing, by means of a further series of reckless improvisations in which circuses (see the amazing Show Trials, thrill to the hair-raising Yezhovschina, join us, ladies and gentlemen, in the Greatest Cult on Earth) offered a temporary consolation for the bread that was in such short supply. The resistance that ensued, whether from peasants or party members; never showed the slightest risk of ushering in the Thermidor of private-property restoration: the camps and the machine-guns were enough to forestall that possibility. No wonder that the strategy of denial, of the great Kulak Bogey, became less and less operable. There remained the second alternative, that of capitulation and absorption. This was to be followed, in the end, by most of the prominent Oppositionists in Russia. The tiredest and the most administrative among them (Radek and the Oppositional economists) [16] went over to the machine in 1928 and 1929, joining the ‘capitulators of the first draft,’ Zinoviev and his allies, who had surrendered even before the collectivist turn. By 1934, even Khristu Rakovsky, one of the outstanding leaders of European Socialism, had gone under, worn by the combined pressures of age, deprivation and the knowledge of Hitler’s victory. Thousands still withstood, in the camps and the prisons; these were to be joined by hundreds of thousands more whose ideology had crystallised in no era but that of Stalin. Their fate was, straightforwardly, extermination. Abroad, the Old Man remained. His life was threatened, his children murdered. At the .Moscow ‘trial’ of 1938, the defendant Bukharin (whose young wife and children were still completely vulnerable to police action) managed to slip a sentence of truth into his testimony: ‘One must be a Trotsky not to lay down one’s arms.’ [17]

Deutscher was not a Trotsky – who of us is? He made his peace with the Stalinist State at some time (we may never know how or when) during the blackest years of Marxism, in the recesses of that dank isolator that has cracked so many of our own oppositionists: the Britain of the nineteen-forties. The logical moment of his disavowal can be dated with some precision: it was, again, Stalin’s ‘Left turn’ of 1928 which, in this instance through retrospection in the ample solitude of exile, broke Deutscher’s commitment to rebel. In virtually every work in which he discusses Stalin, Trotsky or the development of Russia, the same crux, the same date recurs: we are told that the 1928 turn initiated Russia’s ‘second revolution,’ a transformation comparable with the Soviet seizure of power in 1917. It meant the wholesale destruction of private property, hence it was a revolution; it qualitatively enlarged State property and influence, and created a proletarian class, hence it was Socialist. In The Prophet Outcast [18], Trotsky is actually chided for not acknowledging Stalin’s anti-peasant terror as the historic fulfilment of the thesis of ‘permanent revolution.’ A strange fulfilment, when the massacre and starvation of rural toilers ‘in one country’ is regarded as an effective substitute for the international radicalisation of the urban working class (which was, after all, what the theory of Permanent Revolution was about). Such, however, was Deutscher’s basic theoretical decision, in which he was followed by the bulk of the New Left in Europe and the USA, and more recently by the Khruschevised CP intellectuals. (The concept of the ‘Socialist crime’ was invented expressly to classify Stalin’s policies of the late Twenties and Thirties. [19])

Once he had reached this decision, Deutscher moulded his entire intellectual system, as a historian and thinker, around it. Alone among Marxist ideologues, he regarded the concept of ‘State capitalism,’ as applied to a whole society, not simply as a contingently non-existent (or existent) variant of social structure, but as a theoretical impossibility, a kind of nonsense or babble. [20] Exploitation and class proceeded from private ownership of the means of production, ergo any form of State owner-ship tended towards the abolition of exploitation and class, ergo the USSR was still the same transitory society; advancing towards Socialism, which had been instituted in October 1917. All expansion of Russian borders and Moscow influence represented the extension of collectivist (and hence revolutionary) hegemony: Deutscher therefore regarded the installation of Stalin’s banana republics in the Balkans after 1945 as yet another vindication of ‘Permanent Revolution,’ in which ‘by a feat of history’s irony, Stalinism itself malgré lui-même [21] broke out of its national shell.’ [22]

Deutscher therefore, either in historiography or commentary, supported every insult directed by the Kremlin against national or proletarian self-determination in Russia’s borderlands, from Stalin’s claim against China over possession of the Manchurian Railway (1929) [23], through the attack on Poland, Finland and the Baltic States (1939-40) [24], down to the crushing of the Hungarian workers’ rising (1956). [25] So convinced was he of what he himself termed ‘the revolutionary dynamic of the Stalinist state’ [26] that he even ascribed the victory of the Chinese CP’s nationalisation programme, after 1949, to ‘the gravitational pull of the Soviet Union.’ [27]

In all this, Deutscher was completely open and consistent. Strange, and even odious, as his judgements might be on these and similar topics, he never concealed his alignment, or its theoretical foundation. On pp.460-1 and 518-19 of The Prophet Outcast he summarised the possible alternative standpoints with extreme clarity: either Russia is a ‘workers’ state’ (playing a role of revolutionary expansionism through ‘arms and diplomacy’), and so also are Albania, Rumania, etc ‘workers’ states;’ or Russia is a counter-revolutionary agency which has liquidated the heritage of October.) His position was thus several times more honourable than that of Left-wingers from other generations who will, for instance, uphold Stalin’s dispossession of the peasantry while condemning Rakosi’s, or who, the same time as they parrot Trotsky’s arguments in support Red Army suppression of Kronstadters or Finns, extol the Hungarian people’s epic resistance to Russian cannonades. [28] Much of the polemical fire directed so obsessively against Deutscher by internationalist machine-guns should, with a better discrimination, have been aimed against his disciples. Deutscher’s own evaluations in this field were so thoroughgoing that they were utterly harmless. Not ‘Deutscherism,’ that papertoothed tiger hiding in Khruschev’s tanks, the darling of sectarian animal-teasers, but rather a sort of demi-Deutscherism (if even that) was the real culprit on the Left. From the pronouncements of the great Pole, his demi-readers selected only as much they required to prevent them thinking any further about Russian issues and CPSU history. The rest of the matter they triply did not want to know. And now that ‘the Russian question,’ that long analysis of heroism and its betrayal, has vanished in the miasma of stale goulash that rises up (monotonously, except for the occasional ping of a space-probe) from the Red Square, there is all the more reason to give credit to those in the West who did want to know, and stopped at nothing in order to know it. Of course, Deutscher was one. There were not many.

Up till now, we have discussed Deutscher as if he had been a theoretical writer, operating within an explicit framework of political suppositions and arguments: this frame is bolted together, at all its major junctures, by an invincible, unanalysed commitment to the State ownership of wealth. He was not, of course, simply or even plainly this type of writer; he was, above all, a superb historian, excelling in the description of sequence, situation and character. In the majestic counterpoint of Deutscher’s prose, the harsh Jehovah of collectivism is always assailed, softened and transmuted by the benign ceremonies of drama and lyricism. Every reader of Deutscher will have his own store of remembered excerpts; the artistic achievement (more accomplished in its range and in apparent naturalness even than that of Conrad, its most obvious parallel) needs no noting here. It can be argued however, that Deutscher actually wrote too well and too powerfully to succeed at the level of the first rank, in his chosen purpose of political analysis. His extraordinary dramaturgical and poetic gifts led him to operate within a group of concepts that have absolutely no place in any analytical work of social history or social theory: particularly those of tragic irony, tragic destiny, tragic hero. The contradiction between the demands of theoretical and of dramatic writing (ultimately, between the criteria of politics and those of art) can scarcely be better illustrated than from a consideration of Deutscher’s successes and failings as a historian of Bolshevism.

The concept of tragedy is totally alien to politics. Politics is nothing else than a military exercise, conducted over institutions as its battlefield, and designed for one sole purpose: conquest. This defining aim holds good for the politics of reform (where a partial struggle is delimited as the contendants’ terrain) no less than for the politics of revolution or counter-revolution (where the conquest in question relates to the central citadels of power). As there are no tragedies in war (although there is surely a tragedy of war) but only casualties, victories, stalemates, losses, successful or failed operations [29], so there are no tragedies in politics; though again there is a tragedy of politics, which we usually forget while in it, and another tragedy when politics is impossible for the politicals. It could be argued that the fate of Russian Communism cannot be treated in so armoured and rationalist a spirit, that some sense of tragedy must inhere in any re-telling of the tale. Virtually the same ground as Deutscher, however, is covered in the writings, fictional and historical, of Victor Serge, and from these the tragic sense is almost completely absent. In Serge, as in the politics we know of in our own lives or on the news, there are: victories, losses, massacres, deadlocks, retreats, advances; those who stay, those who fall out, those who sell out; those who push, those who cringe, those who try to postpone the choice whether to push or to cringe; in groups and in individuals, there are hopes, hesitations, excitements, evasions, triumphs, fatalities; there is endurance and there is fatigue. None of these elements is in the least tragic. Does tragedy reside in the gap between intention and result, the bad act of a good man? Well, so it appears that there is a gap between intentions and results, so good men in certain social pressures commit bad acts: put it down, it is all material, to be comprehended and accepted. Does tragedy reside in the purging of pity and horror through the perfection of form? Well, what business has the revolutionary historian to purge the pity and the horror: let him preserve it all, how else will his readers be able to stand on the shoulders of the dead to continue their fight?

Tragedy, it seems, results from the incomplete combustion of our ruined hopes. We are bound, when we consider the life and death of a person, to recover a sense of tragedy from whatever loss or failure we see, since it is possible in the individual case to construct the alternative options that might have fared for the better. In the case of dramatic tragedy, too, audience participation in the play’s development seems to depend on its sharing, at least to the point of sympathy, in an old order of values whose crisis is enacted in the clash of the characters: values of god-endorsed piety with the Greeks, of royal rank and obligation with Shakespeare, of bourgeois decency with Ibsen and his successors. If this sympathy were to be lacking, then the characters on the stage would appear as no more than dithering or raving fools who hadn’t got their complexes sorted out; as in certain productions and in certain plays, once held in high regard, they do.

The biography of a political leader should therefore exclude tragedy, since his failures will reflect the exhaustion of certain social possibilities, not simply his own chances. If the biographer’s skill can relate his subject’s fortunes to the flux of his times (as political biography must at least attempt to do), no indeterminate quality can attach itself to the choice-points of his career, and so the reader should be able to harbour no sense of loss at the outcome. (To take another case: the destiny of Martov, the most able and dedicated leader of Russian Menshevism, does not seem to me to be tragic; he said what he had to say, most of it very clear-sighted and apt, and the fact that he never achieved power and died in absolute obscurity is not a tragedy, but the condition for his having said it.) The model of dramatic tragedy is inapplicable in politics except in the case where the subject’s crisis reflects the passing of an ancient code of honour. Again, if the reader can’t accept the old code, even residually, there is no tragic sense in his reading of the tale. Lassalle’s death is an item in the case against the entirely stupid hobby of duelling, and Parnell’s ruin argues for better divorce laws. That’s all.

Now the pattern which Deutscher attempts to develop around Trotsky in the three Prophet books depends, for its tragic effect, upon the dramatic concept of tragedy. The hero’s consciousness, drawn from the defunct categories of ‘classical Marxism,’ is out of joint with the times; and yet he fights on. But in defeat there is victory, because the collectivist State has, in ways unbeknown to the founders of Bolshevism, spread abroad after all. Yet if one compares the third volume of the trilogy with its predecessors, an extraordinary disparity at once appears in the scale and quality of the writing. In the first two volumes, poetry and collectivism march in step. The lyricism is placed in the service of the sequence of revolution and battle; there is a briskness, and an unrivalled control integrating subject with background, the personal deed with the statistical dossier. The author’s interest in the ideological issues of the time is clearly intense but balanced: while some may cavil at Deutscher’s handling of this or that issue (as one should, most seriously, over his treatment of the Kronstadt revolt [30]), he is not to be rivalled as a historian of the period, even though some (like E.H. Carr) may be better at giving a compendium of developments, or others (like Leonard Schapiro) at providing a sort of blow-by-blow politico-military history of the period from a liberal standpoint. Where Deutscher wins out is clearly in the empathy that he brings to his material, which enables him to do justice to the intentions of actors, and (except for the St Antony’s school of romantics, who however usually write only at monograph length, and some more recent American scholarship, which probably owes a lot to Deutscher’s concerns) this has been a quality in very little evidence in Sovietology (especially in its Leninological and Trotskological specialisms). But, in The Prophet Outcast, the approach became completely different. Apart from the discussion of Trotsky’s theory of fascism, and of the nature of the Russian State, we were given virtually no information on the key controversies that dominated Trotsky’s mind in the Thirties: the nature of the Popular Front, the nature of ‘defence’ against fascism, the appropriate tactics in relation to a Social-Democratic mass Party, the role of leadership in struggle, the role of a new International. Even if one admits (as many of us would) that Trotsky’s final suggestions on these and many other topics were largely inept, and certainly of no practical consequence in the age in which he formulated them, the fact is that in them we have the rare spectacle of a revolutionary genius coping, to the utmost of his intellectual and moral resources, with issues that must engage the heart of any Socialist. Instead of politics, what was presented in the third volume was very largely tragedy of the personal kind: the recounting, over pages and pages, of Zina Bronstein’s melancholia, at the end the surgical print-out from the mortuary file. [31] There are many wonderful passages in The Prophet Outcast: usually when the social antagonism is drawn in firmly enough to brace the individual loss, as in Trotsky’s battle with the faithless Norwegian authorities or the haunting, brilliant pages on the massacre of the Trotskyists at Vorkuta. But, in the end, the judgment on the third volume will have to be, I think, that it is only an initial homage, a preliminary insistence upon the name and nature of the deceased, in opposition to those who forbade him any memorial.

What I have said earlier indicates that Deutscher had it within himself to transcend tragedy: both that of his subject-matter and that of his own role. The chronicler-witness of the ‘unfinished revolution’ left too much, far too much unfinished in his own life and work, for us to greet his departure without a kind of fury.

Forward to the Red Sixties, he said. The, beginnings are there, and for the rest it is still not too late.




1. Deutscher, The Tragedy of Polish Communism Between the Wars, Temps Moderne, XIII, pp.22-23, republished Socialist Labour League (trans. F.K. Girling), n.d.

2. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast (hence PO), 1963, p.419.

3. Ibid., p.422.

4. J.-P. Sartre, introduction to P. Nizan, Aden-Arabie, Maspero edition, 1960. See also M. Merleau Ponty’s comment on Sartre’s Signes, 1960: ‘Sartre, in a fine reminiscence of our youthful years, has for the first time discovered the tone of despair, of rebellion ...’ Nizan, a vicious slanderer of Trotskyism and the POUM as well as a brilliant anti-fascist writer, was posthumously denounced as a police spy and tool of fascism by Louis Aragon (in Les Communistes) and Henri Lefebvre (in L’Existentialisme). See Ariel Ginsbourg, Paul Nizan, Paris, 1966.

5. Commentaries upon Deutscher’s errors became an extraordinarily regular feature of literary-political journals during his lifetime. The following list is doubtless incomplete: Andrew Rothstein, Stalin: A Novel Biography, Modern Quarterly, 1950 (‘... the latest, perhaps the best-written, version of the “Trotskyite Encyclopaedia.” ... As such, it is called upon to play its part in the propaganda for a third world war – to which Mr Deutscher may himself be discreetly alluding on his last page, when he writes of “history” having to “sternly” reshape and “cleanse” Stalin’s work’); Trotsky or Deutscher, special issue of Fourth International, SWP, New York, 1954 (‘Bernstein of Trotskyism ... revisionist’: thus wrote James P Cannon); two chapters of Max Schachtman, The Bureaucratic Revolution, New York, 1962; Tony Cliff, The End of the Road: Deutscher’s Capitulation to Stalinism, International Socialism, London, 1963/4 ‘Bauer and Deutscher both have more in common with 19th century bourgeois liberalism than with revolutionary socialism ... Deutscherism is acceptable to all who defend the status quo’); Julius Jacobson, Isaac Deutscher: The Anatomy of an Apologist, New Politics, New York, 1964 and 1966 (65 pages long, most of it in small print); William Ash, Is Isaac Deutscher A Marxist?, Progressive Labor, New York, 1966 (‘... empty nonsense ... has not grasped the motive force of dialectical materialism ... does not really understand classes ... is talking about the freedom of petty-bourgeois intellectuals ... essentially anti-Marxist and anti-communist attitude ... what is the “cultural tradition” of China that Deutscher cherishes so? Is it the feudal Peking Opera? ... Is it the degradation of Chinese women? ... Racial arrogance ... darling of the Trotskyites ...’); Robert Black, The Ironies of Isaac Deutscher, Fourth International, London, SLL, 1967 (‘The tracing through of the methodological, philosophical and political features of Deutscherism will assist in the preparing of the Fourth International to lead decisive class battles of tomorrow’). For the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s offerings, see Leopold Labedz, Deutscher as Historian and Prophet?, Survey, London, 1962, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s attack on Deutscher in Encounter, London, 1963; both put out at a time when the Congress and Encounter were cold war organs financed by the CIA.

6. Deutscher’s last book, The Unfinished Revolution, London, 1967, is his only general Sovietological work which is immune from journalistic and evolutionist distortions. Significantly, it concludes with a prospect of ‘decisive revolutionary acts’ to come in the West. ‘Among all the dark images of declining capitalism ever drawn by Marxists, not a single one was as black and apocalyptic as the picture that reality is producing. About sixty year, ago Rosa Luxemburg predicted that one day militarism would become the driving force of the capitalist economy; but even her forecast pales before the facts’ (op. cit., p.113). In this work, Deutscher places his main hope for future Socialist developments in the USSR in the ‘worker-intellectuals’ within the factories and education system rather than m the Party bureaucracy (pp.58-60).

7. The Wandering Jew as Thinker and Revolutionary, Universities and Left Review, London, 1958.

7a. I am here thinking of ‘the invisible International’ spoken of by Victor Serge rather than of any formal claimant to the organisational heritage of world Socialism.

8. See T. Cliff, op. cit.

9. See T. Cliff, The 22nd Congress of the CPSU, reprinted in A Socialist Review, London. 1965.

10. In his letter to the editor of Nowa Kultura, April 1957; cited by Labedz, op cit.

11. Interview with Isaac Deutscher, The Review, Brussels, 1963.

12. Ibid. ‘What surprised use was the disproportion between the tempo of de-Stalinization in various fields ... The slow pace in intellectual, literary, cultural affairs, in the moral-political atmosphere. I would have expected by now an open political debate to be possible in Russia. In this respect I was mistaken.’

13. Ibid.: ‘... I was often wondering whether it was possible that a revolution brought from above or imposed upon a country from outside, something that was semi-conquest, semi-revolution, should gradually develop into a revolution acceptable to society? I hope it can, but it hasn’t done so yet.’

14. E.g., in Maoism – Its Origins, Background and Outlook, Socialist Register, London, 1964. In this article, Deutscher maintained, in opposition to other dissident Marxist chroniclers of the Chinese Revolution, that Mao’s line in 1926-7 on the Kuomintang and on independent leadership of the peasant movement was close to that of the Left Opposition in Russia. See also PO, p.32. (The contrary view, which would situate Mao in the lineage of Stalin even at this stage, is upheld by Cliff in his article on Deutscher cited above, with the aid of references from Harold Isaacs, M.N. Roy and Trotsky’s own later writings on China.) Deutscher came to this conclusion by means of a comparison between Mao’s articles at the time and the documents in Trotsky’s Problems of the Chinese Revolution, which ‘shows the complete identity of their views on this point.’ Further evidence on Deutscher’s side is to be found in the series La Lutte des Classes dans la Revolution Chinoise published by Victor Serge in Clarté, Paris, 1927. Serge was a member of the International Commission set up by the United Opposition in Moscow, and in 1927 was a well-informed Oppositional publicist on China (cf. his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1963 edition, p.216). In the Clarté series he writes: ‘I have before me now a document of the greatest importance about the peasant movement in Hunan, by the communist student Mao Tse-Tung ... I have read many texts on the Chinese revolution. Nowhere have I found better Communist thinking than this, produced by this young, unknown militant Mao Tse-Tung. His striking formulations irresistibly recall those of Lenin in 1917-18. Here are his conclusions, which are also mine ...’ (Serge then summarises Mao’s propositions, including the one, to be omitted from later editions of the Report on the Hunan Movement, which allots an imaginary sum of ten for ‘the accomplishment of the democratic revolution,’ of which three points are given to ‘the towns and the army’ and seven to ‘the peasants who make the revolution in the countryside.’) Serge concludes: ‘If the leaders of the Chinese revolution had been inspired by as clear a conception of class-struggle, every victory would have been possible for then. Alas, that has not happened.’ Brandt, in his study Stalin’s Failure in China 1924-1927 (1958) points out that Mao’s mathematics of national revolution differed sharply from the position of Stalin (pp.109-110); hence the omission of the formula from future editions of the text. (I am grateful to Richard Freeman for lending his microfilm of Victor Serge’s writings on the Chinese Revolution.)

15. Isaac Deutscher on The Chinese Cultural Revolution, London, 1966.

16. The early surrender of the bulk of Britain’s ‘New Left’ economists to the corporatist notions of ‘incomes policy’ forms another interesting Instance of the effects of a State apparatus upon administrative minds. The present-day capitulators offer, of course, more in the way of farce than of tragedy.

17. See PO, pp.62-83.

18. Ibid., pp.110-111.

19. Perry Anderson, in Towards Socialism, London, 1965, p.227. Here the horror of collectivisation and the purges is held up as ‘a violence consciously decided and willed’ in contrast to the ‘liberal violence’ of the Great War, for which ‘no one was responsible.’ A comparison with Nazi violence would have been more illuminating

20. The relevant excerpts from Marx, Engels, Bukharin, Lenin and Trotsky can he found in T. Cliff, Russia – A Marxist Analysis, London, 1964. For none of these did the mere fact of national State ownership signify a Socialist economy or ‘workers’ State’ – except in Trotsky’s later writings on the USSR.

21. In spite of itself.

22. PO, p.516. It is now of course arguable that Stalin’s Balkan policy failed to internationalise Socialism even in the deformed terms of State ownership; a clutch of fresh national shells has been laid and hatched, very alien in their competitive consumer sovereignties, from the ‘Socialist Commonwealth of Nations’ envisaged by Deutscher in The Great Contest.

23. Ibid., 55-7. In this summary of Trotsky’s views on the question, the biographer’s sympathies are fairly clear. ‘... the Soviet Government was obliged to act as the trustee of revolutionary China and keep for it the Manchurian assets.’ Six years later Stalin sold the railway to Japan’s puppet State of Manchukuo.

24. Ibid., pp.458-471. On p.470 Deutscher concluded that in the favourable side of his judgement on the Russian invasions of 1939-40, ‘Trotsky tacitly revised the notion about the “wholly counter-revolutionary” character of Stalin’s foreign policy.’

25. See the passage in his Russia in Transition, Universities and Left Review, 1957, cited by many critics, where he stated that ‘Nagy and his faction played the role which Trotsky at one time assumed Bukharin and Rykov would play in Russia,’ i.e. that of counter-revolution. In the 1963 interview with The Review, he remarked that in Hungary ‘what was revolution and what was counter-revolution was determined by the balance of international power, not by the balance of social forces in the country.’

26. PO, p.460.

27. Ibid., p.520: ‘With the Chinese proletariat almost dispersed and absent from the political stage, the gravitational pull of the Soviet Union turned Mao’s peasant armies into instruments of collectivism.’ The Unfinished Revolution, however, credits the nationalisation measures of Mao’s government to their ‘far safer foundation for national independence and a unitary state, for industrialisation and China’s re-emergence as a great power,’ as well as to ideological and foreign-policy considerations (p.88).

28. A fascinating example of this selective Trotskyism may be found in Nicolas Krasso’s article Trotsky’s Marxism, in the July issue of New Left Review this year. Despite its many inspired insights into the ‘sociologism’ of Trotsky’s thought, one is left with a curious sense of indecency after reading Krasso’s catalogue of Trotskyist errors. Krasso, it seems, objects to Trotsky because he failed: ‘The superiority of Stalin’s perspective over Trotsky’s is undeniable ... utterly failed to see that Stalin was determined to evict him from the party ... his efforts to forge political organizations – a Fourth International – were destined to failure ... how lost and disoriented he was in the unfamiliar context of the West.’ Nicolas Krasso, as many readers will know, was an active militant in the Hungarian Revolution; he personally convened the first meeting of the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest, and had to flee his homeland after the Russian tanks and secret police re-established control. Has Krasso perhaps been guilty of the ‘underestimation of the specific efficacy of political institutions’? Would he admit the ‘superiority’ of a Kadar because the latter won? Yet you choose to live in London, Nicolas.

29. There are also atrocities in war (as well as the atrocity of war); similarly, there are brutalities in prison as well as the brutality of prison. The apologists for a particular side in a war have a tough time nowadays with atrocities. They used to call them simply ‘atrocity stories,’ but ever since the end of World War One, with the opening of the era of revolution and counter-revolution, all atrocity stories have been true (the last untrue ones were those about the Germans in Belgium in 1914-15). All that an apologist can do now with an atrocity is to try and make it into a tragedy.

30. The recent publication in English of Ida Mett’s The Kronstadt Commune (2s6d from Solidarity, 53A Westmoreland Rd, Bromley, Kent) should do much to rebut the many myths about Kronstadt that have been current on the large section of the Left that ‘derives itself’ from Lenin. The facts about the Kronstadt rising are very simple: at the beginning of 1921 with the end of the Civil War, there was a wave of strikes in the main factories of Petrograd, and the Kronstadt Soviet of sailors, soldiers and workers rose in sympathy with the Petrograd workers and for a programme of simple political and economic demands that were aimed at throwing off the intolerable pressures of ‘War Communism.’ Contrary to Deutscher (Prophet Armed, p.510), the rising was not ‘led by anarchists.’ Contrary to Chris Harman (IS30) and to many others, the revolutionaries never demanded ‘Soviets without Bolsheviks’ or even ‘a free market in agriculture.’ The first demand was lifted by the CP from an emigré White newspaper at the time, and passed on to the rebellion by the technique later to become familiar in the handling of other dissidents. The agrarian demand of the Kronstadters was: ‘the granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour.’ Contrary to Harman and others, there is no evidence that ‘the class composition’ of the Kronstadt sailors had ‘changed’ since 1917. Katkov (The Kronstadt Rising, St Antony’s Papers, 1959) sums up the statistical arguments of Soviet authors: ‘They show that the actual proportion of peasants serving in the Baltic Navy in 1921 was at that time rather smaller than the proportion of peasants in the Red Army in the same year.’ In any case, of course, peasant-become-sailors are not exactly peasants; a naval garrison is, if anything, a super-urban environment, and the whole consciousness of the proclamations of Kronstadt is proletarian, democratic and collectivist.

Deutscher makes the repression into an epic drama, ladling on the panoramic vistas (‘... fresh columns stumped and fumbled and slipped and crawled over the glossy surface until they too vanished in fire, ice and water,’ ibid., p.513) and the ironically misplaced ideals: ‘the rebels ... whose only aim it was to allow the revolution to imbibe the milk of human kindness ... fought a battle which in cruelty was unequalled throughout the civil war’ (p.514). (Unequalled? Kronstadters shot no civilians, tried to fraternise with the invading rank-and-file, and treated prisoners leniently; the Bolsheviks massacred the defenders wholesale, both on the spot and after capture.) Trotsky’s mendacious and evasive apologia (Hue and Cry over Kronstadt, cited as an authoritative source by Harman) is skated over in The Prophet Outcast (‘There was no need to accept Trotsky’s version to see that the critics greatly inflated the importance of the Kronstadt rising ...’, p.437). Deutscher was clearly incapable of retailing the inaccuracies and smears of Trotsky’s account (according to which the Kronstadters ‘included a great percentage of completely demoralised elements, wearing showy bell-bottom pants and sporty hair-cuts’); instead, Kronstadt (as Hungary later) became grist to the tragic mill, in which noble, pure intentions (hence ‘anarchists’, ‘milk of human kindness’) became sullied in action. Only a literary Socialist is capable of adjusting himself to atrocity through such a pitch of detachment and artistic sublimation; the less gifted stick to cruder forms of rationalisation and denial, whether through the fanciful Right-wing amalgam (‘supported by the capitalist press ... the Whiteguards ... the UN,’ etc., etc.) or by the purposeful sociology (‘peasants ... petty-bourgeois ... impregnated with fascist traditions’) or the even more purposeful reportage (‘directed by a White General ... by Cardinal Mindzenty ... we have the confessions ...’). The cheaper forms don’t create literature, and are in other ways ephemeral. Tragedy has a habit of enduring; but as Wittgenstein said about Freud, when you read him, hang on to your brains.

31. PO, pp.146-51, 176-9, 188-9; 508. However. Deutscher’s brief discussion of Trotsky’s switch from ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in 1940, just before his death, is trenchant and enlightening (ibid., pp.501-2). In this last, incomplete article, Trotsky supported the introduction of conscription in the United States. Quite obviously, this is a complete change away from the symmetrical internationalism of Marxists in the first World War, where opposition to war and to armament was laid down as an identical tactic for every country. Trotsky’s new position was not symmetrical with respect to the contending camps; he would not have supported conscription in Nazi Germany. So fundamental a change, in principle and in logic, constitutes more than a tactical turn, and certainly more than a ‘continuation’ of 1914-18 defeatism (which in any case Trotsky had never endorsed at the time). Nor is it a continuation of his own tactics in the first World War, which were not ‘defeatist’ but still symmetrical. If Trotsky’s arguments of 1940 were to be applied to the years preceding World War Two, they would contradict much of his case against ‘the Left of the Popular Front,’ who also supported military preparations against fascism by the capitalist democracies, though without following the CP into abandonment of the class struggle. This inconsistency is one of the many that gives one leave to doubt whether there is or has been a coherent ideology of ‘Trotskyism.’


Last updated on 19.10.2006