Peter Sedgwick

A Prophet Revealed

(13 May 1972)

From Socialist Worker, 13 May 1972. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxism in Our Time
by Isaac Deutscher
Cape £2.95

THE LATE Isaac Deutscher, author of two fine volumes of Trotsky’s biography (and a disappointing third volume), found it impossible for much of his life to relate to practical political involvement.

As he says in an interview published here:

‘I was a heterodox communist; I was a Trotskyist. I was seeking a way out of the impasse into which reaction and Stalinism had driven us, and I could not find one.

‘Then I gave up direct party-political activity, in order to devote myself to theoretical and scientific-literary work.’

This phase of withdrawal lasted from 1939 to around 1960, and produced several fine books – as well as some tedious Kremlinology in Sunday newspaper type journalism.

But as the student New Left gathered strength in Britain and the United States, Deutscher found a role as a marxist teacher for young radicals without previous contact with marxism. Many of the essays gathered in this posthumous book convey this passionately-played role, in which Deutscher, often in simple and telling language, conveys old lessons to new audiences.

He writes on the necessity of revolutionary violence – but that must never be made into a virtue; on the urgency of socialist internationalism – but the bankruptcy of the Fourth International, and, most passionately of all, of the indispensability of a working-class orientation in politics.

‘Your working class remains the most decisive agency of socialism ... You may smash your head against goodness knows how many iron walls if you ignore your working class ... Your only salvation is in carrying back the idea of socialism to the working class and coming back with the working class to storm – to storm, yes to storm – the bastions of capitalism.’

The American Left ignored Deutscher’s warnings, to its own destruction shortly afterwards in hysterical student factionalism. Fortunately others in the US, such as the News And Letters group, Soldier And Worker, and the International Socialists (USA), share this essential working-class perspective.

There are many other interesting essays here, some of them popular and casual in their approach to knotty problems such as the nature of the bureaucracy under capitalism and in the USSR.

Here too is one of Deutscher’s most intense and moving pieces, The Tragedy of Polish Communism Between the Wars, and his greatly perceptive essay The Poet and the Revolution, which has been until now inaccessible.

The introduction, by Tamara Deutscher, is apt and vivid. Mrs Deutscher, a researcher and co-worker with her husband throughout his literary career, has only since his death emerged as a profound and sensitive revolutionary writer.

Her writing is lucid and, one feels both more radical and less constricted than that of her husband.

More than any other book by Deutscher, Marxism in Our Time deserves paperback circulation as an educational text for the thousands of recent recruits to marxism who need its sober experience.

Peter Sedgwick

Last updated on 15.9.2012