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George Breitman

Deutscher Worthless as Guide to Action

(Spring 1954)

From The Militant, Vol.18 No. 15, 12 Arpil 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 .

Deutscher Worthless as Guide to Action

In the fall of 1917 the Bolsheviks began to discuss whether or not to organize an uprising to turn all power over to the Soviets. Lenin and Trotsky favored the uprising and pushed for it Zinoviev and Kamenev, frightened and doubtful, drew back and opposed it.

”Regardless of its immediate conclusion, history has perhaps not said the last word” on this historic argument, says Isaac Deutscher in his biography of Trotsky; The Prophet Armed. “After the event, it is easy and natural to say that the advocates, of the insurrection were right, and its opponents wrong. In truth; each side presented its case in such a way that the rights were strangely blended with the wrongs and the realistic assessment of historical prospects was offset by momentous errors.”

Lenin and Trotsky, he judges, were right in estimating that the insurrection would be easily accomplished, and Zinoviev and Kamenev were wrong in foreseeing a disastrous adventure. But on the other hand, among the chief motivations of Lenin and Trotsky was their belief in the imminence of the European revolution, which they predicted and expected and looked to for support in their own revolution. Zinoviev and Kamenev, Deutscher pays, correctly scoffed at this contention as a harmful exaggeration.

”It may be wondered”.

As any fool knows, the European revolution did not take place during or after World War 1. And Deutscher, who knows it too, sums up the situation this way:

”Thus those who were supreme realists When summing up the Russian situation (Lenin and Trotsky) became illusionists when they turned towards the broader international scene, and those who saw Russia only dimly through a mist of timid skepticism (Zinoviev and Kamenev) became then the realists ... it may be wondered whether Lenin and Trotsky would have acted as they did, or whether they would have acted with the same determination, if they had taken a soberer view of international revolution and foreseen that in the course of decades their example would not be imitated in, any other country.”

Deutscher, at any rate, is still wondering about it. Being “sober” himself, and not an “illusionist” like Lenin and Trotsky, isn’t it fairly safe to conclude that if the decision had been up to him, the Russian revolution would not have taken place?

We mention this because it illustrates, the difference between the “objective” bystander commentator and the active revolutionary fighter. To Deutscher the Bolshevik attitude toward European revolution in 1917 and later was “the great illusion,” “a veil of dreams and fantasy” whose “frustration was subsequently to break and crush” Trotsky, etc. Hindsight makes Deutscher look awfully smart.

Didn’t merely predict

But for Lenin and Trotsky, European revolution was neither an academic question nor the theme of a few pages in a book. For them it was an aim. They didn’t merely predict a European revolution — they worked for it, conducted all their diplomacy to facilitate it, used all their resources to promote it. Zinoviev and the other skeptics, including the Russian Deutschers, could do nothing to speed the European revolution they did not believe could happen; Lenin and Trotsky did everything that was possible.

Was the prospect of a European revolution a fantasy in 1917? The capitalist rulers of Europe did not consider it fantastic a year or two later; the armies of counter-revolutionary intervention they sent to Soviet Russia were intended to crush the revolution before it would spread to other countries, as they “soberly” expected it to do. Was the German revolution of 1918 a fantasy? Or the revolutionary situations in Germany in 1919, in 1921, in 1923, to say nothing of the postwar collapse of capitalist governments in other European countries?

How they viewed it

In addition to expecting the European revolution, Lenin and Trotsky viewed the question as one that settled in action, in the class struggle. That’s what actually happened. The revolutionary situation they forsaw in Europe broke out at the end of the war, and they tried by their example, and whatever aid they could extend, to help transform those revolutionary situations into successful revolutions.

It is true that these revolutions which threatened, and some of which began, were defeated. But guarantees of victory are seldom available on the eve of revolutionary struggles; and even when proffered should not be accepted as final; such questions are settled only in the struggle. The revolutionary optimism of Lenin and Trotsky and, even more, their revolutionary activity were, from the viewpoint of socialism and the working class, a thousand times more correct, productive and realistic than the doubts and abstentionism of their faint-hearted critics.

Their policy destroyed capitalism in Russia, shook European capitalism so badly that counterrevolutionary intervention against Soviet Russia after World War I was paralyzed, and created conditions which led to the abolition of capitalism in other countries during and after World War II. The policy of their opponents, in which Deutscher is still looking for merits in 1954, would have been disastrous to everyone but the capitalists.

On the Comintern

If Deutscher is still wondering about the 1917 uprising in. Russia, he has no such doubts about the formation of the revolutionary Communist International in 1919. The whole business was an egregious error to him.

The error, as he sees it, flows again from the Bolsheviks’ simple-minded misreading of the European situation at the end of the war. They just couldn’t get it into their thick heads that there wasn’t going to be a successful revolution outside of Russia. Anyhow, Lenin called an international conference in Moscow in 1919, “either to proclaim the Third International or to make preliminary arrangements for this.”

The Bolsheviks, according to Deutscher, wanted to set up the International at once but awaited the opinions of the other delegates before making a decision. The German delegates said it was too soon to form an. International — they were still too weak. But an Austrian delegate, who arrived in the middle of the debate, “gave a startling description of Europe seething with revolution.” That settled it:

”Thus, fathered by wish, mothered by confusion, and assisted by accident, the great institution came into being.”

”It is doubtful”

Deutscher’s sympathies are clearly with the German delegates who wanted to wait: “It is doubtful whether Lenin and Trotsky would have founded the International at this stage if they had had a clearer perception of the condition of Europe.” (But there is nothing doubtful about the outcome if Deutscher had cast the deciding ballot.)

”Nothing,” he assures us, “had been further from (their) thoughts than the intention of giving an assortment of small political sects the high-sounding label of the International.” (Deutscher, who prides himself on his unique ability to count although he neglects to indicate exactly how big an organization must be before he will consent to dignify it with the label of International, here telegraphs the attitude that he is going to express in his next book toward the formation of the Fourth International by Trotsky in 1938.)

And yet, one page later, Deutscher tells us calmly: “Even their expectations were not altogether groundless; within a year the new International did, in fact, gain a formidable hold on the European labor movement.”

How it could have Alone so without having been formed year before, Deutscher does not explain.

Strangely enough, the “confusion” of the Bolsheviks is demonstrated in real life to be the best and most effective kind of revolutionary realism, and the “objective” Deutscher, for all his hindsight, is shown to be a rather worthless guide to any reader interested in participating in revolutionary politics.

More next week.

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