From The Militant, Vol.18 No. 12, 22 March 1954.
Transcribed & marked up by Martin Fahlgren for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2012
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.
THE PROPHET ARMED, Trotsky: 1879 -1921, by Isaac Deutscher. Oxford. University Press, 1954, 540 pp., $6.
Next to Lenin, Leon Trotsky (1879 1940) was the greatest revolutionary thinker and fighter of the 20th century. At the age of 26 he was the outstanding leader of the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905. Twelve years later he and Lenin were co-leaders of the first successful working class revolution in history. He organized and led the Red Army to victory over Russian and foreign counter-revolution. In 1923 he and Lenin (soon to die) started a fight against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union represented by Stalinism. Expelled from the Communist International and exiled from the Soviet Union in the late 20’s, he kept the banner of revolutionary Marxism flying and gathered together the forces that formed the Fourth International in 1938, two years before he was assassinated by an agent of Stalin. A profound theoretician, he vastly enriched Marxist theory, illumined the major problems of our epoch, and pointed the road along which the international working class will march to socialist victory.
Isaac Deutscher, born in Poland and now a British subject, considered himself a Marxist in his youth. He is now a member of the editorial staff and “Russian expert” of the Economist. In 1949 he published the first part of a trilogy, Stalin: A Political Biography. In 1953, after Stalin’s death, he interrupted the trilogy with a book, Russia: What Next? The trilogy is resumed with the present book, the first half of a biography of Trotsky. After the second half, he plans to publish a study of Lenin.
Reaction to his books
Deutscher’s book on Stalin was widely hailed, especially in liberal circles, for its “objectivity.” The late John Dewey, for example, called it “a marvelous accomplishment” because of “the method by which he achieved an objective treatment,” which freed him from “the method of praise and blame.”
Our own review challenged this appraisal. We noted that Deutscher had borrowed liberally from Trotsky’s writings on the crimes of Stalin, while rejecting the Trotskyist analysis of Stalinism, and said: “He is well acquainted with the factual and documentary materials 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.”
The same thing has happened with. Deutscher’s book on Trotsky. While criticizing certain aspects, the liberal reviewers are impressed by its “objectivity.” Since this is its chief claim to serious attention, we must examine it more closely.
Just what do these people mean by “objectivity”? Most of the time, their ideal seems to be that, of the professor who devotes 15 minutes, to the pros of a question, 15 minutes to the cons, and 30 minutes to the wisdom of seeing both sides of the question and avoiding dogmatism. You ¥ start out with the notion that the truth generally lies somewhere in the middle, according to this conception, and that you are more likely to reach it when you are detached, impartial or even indifferent than when you are involved, passionate or partisan.
This is typically the view of the bystander (always ready to assure you that he is naturally a better judge of the rights and wrongs of a struggle than the participants in it) and it appeals most strongly to middle class thinkers.
Deutscher’s “Objectivity,” as we shall show, contains elements of the bystander conception.
Our conception is different. To us objectivity is a scientific presentation of problems in such a way as to correspond most closely to reality. It involves approaching a problem honestly and with a check on one’s prejudices, viewing it historically and in its relation to other problems.
It should never be confused with detachment or impartiality: partisanship is not necessarily a bar to objectivity, and-impartiality is no guarantee of objectivity. The fan in the tenth row or even the referee in the ring is not necessarily a better judge of what happened during a mixup between two pugilists than they are. The professor in the classroom, even when he finally arrives at a conclusion, may, with all the advantages of his hindsight and study, understand less about the French revolution than an 18th century illiterate peasant who helped make it.
Can mask bias
Furthermore, there is reason to be suspicious of people whose chief credentials are their alleged impartiality. The professor who prides himself on his detachment may be just as biased as the revolutionary French peasant, though in a different direction.
It is relatively simple to consider strictly on its own merits a controversy over the quality of clothing worn in China in 400 B.C.; this is not an issue that directly concerns us, our struggles and our aspirations today. But it is not so easy to do the same thing with questions of a social-political-economic character that affect us most intimately.
The professor may or may not know it, but even his attitudes toward a revolution that happened almost 200 years ago are influenced and colored by the fact that he too lives in an age of revolution. “Objectivity” can mask the most pronounced (though unconscious) bias and partisanship. This is specially true of something like the Russian revolution, toward which no person with political interests today can really have any feeling of neutrality.
Deutscher, we shall show, is grinding an axe behind his pose of objective historian.
Trotsky, who was a great historian himself, touched on these matters because he was writing about history in which he had played a prominent part and recognized that some readers would reject his treatment of history for that very reason. In his preface to The History of the Russian Revolution, 1930, he urged the serious reader to demand from historians not “the so-called historian’s ’impartiality’ “ but “a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies — open and undisguised — seeks their real support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their development.
”That is the only possible his, tonic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.”
A year before, in the foreword to his autobiography, My Life, Trotsky dealt with the question as it related to biographical writing. He said:
”This book is not a dispassionate photograph of my life, however, but a component part of it. In these pages, I continue the struggle to which my whole life is devoted. Describing, I also characterize and evaluate; narrating, I also defend myself, and more often attack. It seems to me that this is the only method of making an autobiography objective in a higher sense, that is, of making it the most adequate expression of personality, conditions, and epoch.
”Objectivity is not the pretended indifference with which confirmed hypocrisy, in speaking of friends and enemies, suggests in directly to the reader what it finds inconvenient to state directly. Objectivity of this sort is nothing but a conventional trick. I do not need it.”
But Deutscher needs this trick badly. Like Trotsky, like every historian, he writes in order to defend certain ideas. Unlike Trotsky, he does not avow these ideas openly and explicitly, but suggests them indirectly and cloaks himself behind the claim that he desires only to “restore the historical balance.” What his ideas are, and why he presents them in this way, will be discussed in subsequent articles.
Last updated: 23 September 2012