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George Breitman

An ’Objective’ Biographer ‘Restores’ Leon Trotsky

From The Militant, Vol.18 No. 13, 29 March 1954.
Transcribed & marked up by Martin Fahlgren for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2012
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive ( 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 .

In the preface to his new book, The Prophet Armed, Isaac Deutscher undertakes to explain why he wrote the biography of Leon Trotsky, of which this volume is the first half.

”For nearly thirty years,” he says, “the powerful propaganda machines of Stalinism worked furiously to expunge Trotsky’s name from the annals of the revolution, or to leave it there only as the synonym for arch-traitor ... The work of the tomb-robbers has, in this present instance, been so persistent that it has strongly affected the views even of independent Western historians and scholars.”

To counteract the lies of Stalinism and the neglect of Western historians — this is indeed a worthy and commendable aim. But there are many ways of accomplishing it. One way would be to reprint the many works of Trotsky himself, including his autobiography, and to get printed in English for the first time his many works, that have never been translated. After all, Trotsky was among other things a literary genius.

Couldn’t Deutscher have prevailed on some publisher to do this, and couldn’t he have used his influence as a “Russian expert” to start a campaign along these lines, even perhaps a money-raising program for such publication?

Whether such a thought ever occurred to him, Deutscher does not say. But he admits to feeling a trifle “apologetic” for covering material that Trotsky himself wrote about so voluminously, “for after a close and critical examination I still find Trotsky’s My Life as scrupulously truthful as any work of this kind can be. Nevertheless . . .” (This is Deutscher’s favorite technique: every statement that can be construed as favorable must be followed at once, wherever possible, by a “Nevertheless” or a “But.” That is the very essence of “objectivity” in the eyes of his liberal admirers.)

”Nevertheless, it remains an apologia produced in the middle of the losing battle its author fought against Stalin.” An “apologia” — that sounds bad, not the kind of thing any self-respecting “objective” person writes. Furthermore, an apologia produced in the middle of a battle in which the author was involved. That also doesn’t sound too good — everyone knows how hard it is to avoid subjectivity in the middle of a life-and-death battle — and detracts considerably from the favorable effect of the admission that Trotsky was scrupulously truthful in his autobiography.

”In its pages,” Deutscher continues, “the living Trotsky wrestled with his tomb-robbers. To wholesale Stalinist denigration he responded with a peculiar act of self-defense which savored of self-glorification.” We will return in a short while to the “self-glorification” charge, although we must admit that we have been utterly unable to figure out what “peculiar act” Deutscher is talking about. Anyhow, his next lines are:

”He did not and could not satisfactorily explain the change in the climate of the revolution which made his defeat both possible and inevitable; and his account of the intrigues by which a narrow-minded, `usurpatory’, and malignant bureaucracy ousted him from power is obviously inadequate.”

Here we must pause to examine another of Deutscher’s cute little tricks. Trotsky, he says, didn’t and couldn’t explain why Stalinism triumphed. Is that true? No, it is one of the biggest falsehoods of the year. Then how could Deutscher hope to get away with it? Because he is very cleverly referring to My Life, written in 1929, and expecting that most readers will take it to be a reference to all of Trotsky’s writings.

Trotsky began the explanation in the 1920’s, that is, when Stalinism was coming to power in the Bolshevik party, and part of it is contained in My Life. Then Trotsky continued and completed the job of uncovering the international and domestic social, economic and political causes for the rise and victory of Stalinism in several of the most important of his books during the next eleven years. Here we need cite only The Revolution Betrayed, Stalin, and In Defense of Marxism.

No one in the whole wide world did more than Trotsky to clarify the Soviet degeneration; this was one of his greatest contributions to Marxist theory. Deutscher himself unwittingly testifies to this fact on almost every page he writes, for almost everything he writes on this subject is borrowed from Trotsky’s analysis (a stronger word than “borrowed” could be used because he usually borrows without giving credit to the: source) — so much so, that he is sometimes mistaken for a “Trotskyist” by uncritical readers who do not realize that he bowdlerizes and distorts most of what he borrows so that it will serve his anti-Trotskyist purposes.

Deutscher, we repeat, adds nothing or nothing of value to Trotsky’s analysis, but he is not above using a device to make it appear that he, Deutscher, supplying the theoretical explanations that Trotsky “did not and could not” satisfactorily make. (The Stalinists, as we can see, are not the only ones in the tomb-robbing business. But at least they don’t make the pretense of “restoring” Trotsky’s reputation.)

His critique continues: “In My Life Trotsky sought to vindicate himself in terms imposed upon him by Stalin and by the whole ideological situation of Bolshevism in the 1920s, that is in terms of the Lenin cult. Stalin had denounced him as Lenin’s inveterate enemy, and Trotsky was consequently anxious to prove his complete devotion to, and his agreement with, Lenin. His devotion to Lenin after 1917 was undoubtedly genuine, and the points of agreement between them were numerous and important. Nevertheless ...”

In other words, Trotsky, who was a Leninist from 1917 on, and the outstanding defender of Bolshevism from Lenin’s death to his own, refuted Stalin’s lies by telling the plain truth. After Trotsky became a Bolshevik, he regarded Lenin as his comrade, teacher and leader, and acted accordingly. He never was a hand-raiser, and he had no more use for cults than Lenin had. He generally reached the same conclusions as Lenin during their six years of collaboration in the Soviet leadership, because they had a common approach to problems; when in the course of discussion they differed, Trotsky the not hesitate to express his opinions frankly in the Bolshevik tradition. He never concealed the truth about his differences with Lenin before 1917, or after; they are there in black and white for everyone to read in his books.

”Nevertheless, Trotsky blurred the sharp outlines and the importance of his controversies with Lenin between 1903 and 1917, and also of later differences.”

By this Deutscher really means that he and Trotsky have different evaluations, of the significance of Trotsky’s differences with Lenin. What those differences are, whose evaluation is correct and the political meaning of Deutscher’s evaluation will be dealt with in next week’s article.

”But,” he continues, “another and much estranger consequence of the fact that Trotsky made his apologia in terms of the Lenin cult was that in some crucial points he belittled his own role in comparison with Lenin’s, a feat extremely rare in autobiographical literature. This applies especially to the account of the part he played in the October uprising and the creation of the Red Army, where he detracted from his awn merits in order not to appear as Lenin’s detractor, Free from loyalties to any cult, I have attempted to restore the historical balance.”

Thus Trotsky, accused on the previous page of some unnamed “peculiar act of self-defense which savored of self-glorification,” is here indicted for the opposite sin of belittling himself. How fortunate the modern age is in having this even-handed dispenser of justice to set Trotsky straight on both these distortions!

After this shocking exposure, in which Trotsky is caught, red-handed and barefaced, actually attributing the first place in the leadership of the Russian revolution to Lenin (just as Engels attributed the primary in their collaboration to Marx), how can anyone doubt any longer that Deutscher is more “objective” than Trotsky? And how can anyone now doubt that Deutscher was driven to write this book by the stern necessities of historical balance?

Free from what?

But amusement over these ludicrous pretensions should not lead us to overlook the serious side of Deutscher’s preface — namely, his assertion of freedom from “loyalties to any cult,” including “the Lenin cult.”

In his book on Stalin, Deutscher also used this expression, “the Lenin cult.” In the context there it referred to Stalin’s disloyal, factional misuse of Lenin’s mantle to silence and crush the opponents of Stalinism. Understood in this sense- — as the Stalinist perversion of Leninism the term was not wholly objectionable.

But now Deutscher seems to be giving it a broader meaning (or maybe he is only explaining the meaning he originally had in mind) when he uses the term against Trotsky as well as Stalin. Since Trotsky was genuinely a Leninist, and not one who twisted quotations from Lenin to mask an anti-Leninist policy, Deutscher’s declaration of independence from “the Lenin cult” must be understood as his declaration of independence from Leninism itself.

This judgment is supported by many other passages in the book, and we will return to it in a future article. Up to now Deutscher has been careful not to state explicitly the standpoint from which he approaches his trilogy and, so far as we know, he has not answered anywhere the stupid claims of stupid reviewers that he is a “Leninist” or “Trotskyist.” His present declaration is useful because it helps the reader in “placing” Deutscher’s true standpoint.

This is a matter not only of historical but also of current political importance. Deutscher’s books can be better understood if we bear in mind that right now, while the struggle against the Stalinist perversion of Leninism is still being waged in and out of the Soviet Union, Deutscher declares his freedom of all “cults,” that is, of all groups engaged in the struggle, including the Leninists.

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Last updated: 6 August 2012