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George Breitman

Deutscher’s Biography of Stalin

(31 October 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 8 No. 44, 31 October 1949.
Transcribed & marked up by Martin Falgren and David Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Stalin: A Political Biography
by Isaac Deutscher
Oxford University Press, 1949, 600 pp., $5.

The publishers of this biography say, “It is not pro-Stalin; it is not pro-Communist. It is, rather, that rare creation – an objective book ...” Whether or not the book is genuinely objective, its complex character was certainly confirmed by the conflicting reviews it received from the different political schools.

The N. Y. Times reviewer, generally reflecting the sentiments of the capitalist press, thinks it will serve as “the classic biography and reference book” on Stalin until such time as the historians get access to the archives in the Soviet Union. But he refuses to offer a “final judgment” on this volume until he has had a chance to study Deutscher’s next two books, dealing with Lenin and Trotsky, presumably so that he can get a clearer idea of Deutscher’s attitude to. Lenin and Leninism.

The Social Democratic New Leader issued a pre-publication memorandum warning all reviewers that it is “the most adroit apology for Soviet domestic and foreign policy to be published in many years.” Its own review disparages Deutscher for “his evident ideological bias. in favor of the broad aims of the Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin experiment.”

For the Stalinist Daily Worker it is “a grotesque amalgam of concepts and phrases borrowed from Marxism, Trotskyism and the capitalists ... bristling with garbled quotations ... this spurious facade of balanced historiography ... veils a savage bias and an unscrupulous use of every slander and lie which, has ever been utilized against Stalin and the Soviet Union ... a pyramid of lies ... the same old smelly package.”

The Shachtmanite Labor Action ’finds it an “impressive achievement ... written from a generally Marxist point of view,” but marred by “a very poor final chapter” in which “Deutscher succumbs to a variety of ‘Cannonism’ – actually, that is, to a critical acceptance of the Stalinist myth.”

Deutscher himself says: “This book is intended as the first installment of a biographical trilogy to be continued and completed with a Life of Lenin and a study of Trotsky in Exile. The main study of pre-1917 Bolshevism and the history of such ideas as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Soviets, the ’proletarian vanguard,’ and so on, must have their place in the biography of Lenin. In the present volume the growth and evolution of these ideas have been sketched only in so far as it was necessary for an understanding of the chief character.”

Deutscher is a Polish journalist who broke with Stalinism in 1932 because he favored a united front with the Social Democrats against the Nazis; it is said that for a while he was sympathetic to Trotskyism. At the beginning of the war, however, he came to England, and served as a Russian expert on the editorial staff of The Economist and for the BBC.

He is well acquainted with the factual and documentary material available on his subject and handles them scrupulously on the whole, although in general his method is to question all charges or testimony adverse to Stalin that cannot be verified beyond question, and to give him, the benefit of the doubt in most such cases. It is this method, plus the curiously detached manner in which it is written, that has earned the book its reputation for objectivity in some quarters.

He also has the irritating habit, after detailing one of Stalin’s crimes against the revolution, of engaging in entirely uncalled for speculation about possible justifications for his acts which Stalin may have had in his mind. Thus, after reporting the Moscow Trials and showing them to be monstrous frameups, he adds: “It is not necessary to assume that he [Stalin] acted from sheer cruelty or lust for power. He may be given the dubious credit of the sincere conviction that what he did served the interests of the revolution and that he alone interpreted those interests aright.”

There is much in this book that no Marxist can accept. One of the worst is Deutscher’s evaluation of the period of industrialization and collectivization beginning with the first Five-Year Plan in 1929 as Soviet Russia’s “second revolution, which was directed solely and exclusively by Stalin” and “was even more sweeping and, radical than the first” in its scope and immediate effect on the masses.

But, as Trotsky pointed out ten years ago, the source of economic progress in the USSR was the revolution of 1917, which led to the nationalization of the means of production and the planned beginnings, and by no means the fact that the bureaucracy usurped command over the economy. On the contrary, bureaucratism, as a system, became the worst brake on the technical and cultural development of the country.

”This was veiled for a certain time by the fact that the Soviet economy was occupied for two decades with transplanting and assimilating the technology and organization of production in advanced capitalist countries. The period of borrowing and imitation still could, for better or for worse, be accommodated to bureaucratic automatism, i.e., the suffocation of all initiative and all creative urge. But the higher the economy rose, the more complex its requirements became, all the more unbearable became the bureaucratic regime. The constantly sharpening contradiction between them leads to uninterrupted political convulsions, to systematic annihilation of the most outstanding creative elements in all spheres of activity.”

In. short, Stalin, far from leading any revolution, “second?” or otherwise, clamped a bureaucratic grip on the Soviet economy. The viability of the economic foundations laid by the 1917 revolution enabled the economy to develop despite the bureaucracy, whose caste interests and police methods conflict with the needs of socialist development. Whatever achievements Stalinism can claim in the technological progress of Soviet economy are a thousand times outweighed by the bureaucratic chains in which it shackles the economy, by its exclusion of the workers from the planning process and by the heavy toll its parasitism exacts from the national income. The facts show that Stalinism, far from playing a progressive role in the economy, functions as the biggest internal obstacle to the Soviet Union’s harmonious economic development.

Records his crimes

Nevertheless, Deutscher does give a fairly complete picture of Stalin’s crimes, and the portrait of Stalin that emerges coincides on the whole with that drawn by Trotsky (from whose writings Deutscher has borrowed much).

It shows Stalin’s development into a professional revolutionary, whose grasp of Marxism was never more than superficial and who gravitated in the direction of Menshevism in every crisis. It describes his rise to dictatorial power after Lenin’s death as the representative of a bureaucratic caste which leaned on the more backward elements in Soviet society and was strengthened by the defeats of the world revolution. It explains why and how he invented the anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country.”

It discloses how he suppressed democracy in the Bolshevik Party, transformed the world communist movement into frontier guards for Soviet foreign policy, wiped out the Old Guard in the Moscow Trials. The later chapters, dealing with World War II, also tell of his pact with Hitler, his later relations with his Allied imperialist partners, and the empirical, opportunist policy he pursued throughout in his conduct of the war.

More books recounting Stalin’s crimes against socialism are certainly needed to help educate the new generations and to counteract the flood of volumes depicting Stalin as arch-enemy of capitalism and organizer of world revolution. But Deutscher’s book cannot fulfill this need. For whatever qualities one may be ready to concede its popularization of some major, historical events are wholly negated by the interpretation Deutscher gives to the role of Stalinism as a whole.

Is Stalinism revolutionary or counter-revolutionary? Does it, can it play a progressive role in the struggle for socialism, despite the reactionary methods it employs? Is Stalin’s position, in the modern scene comparable to that of Cromwell and Robespierre in the British and French bourgeois revolutions? No book on the subject that gives wrong answers to these questions can have any value for revolutionary workers, even if it contains accurate information on historical details. Deutscher gives the wrong answers. How they are wrong, and how they differ from those made by the Trotskyists, will be the subject of an article next week.

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