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George Breitman

Exchange of Views on Deutscher Biography

[Critique of Joseph Hansen’s Review
of Vol.3 of Deutscher’s Trotsky]

(Summer 1964)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.3, Summer 1964, pp.66, 90.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


I strongly disagree with Joseph Hansen’s review of the final volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky (ISR, Winter 1964). Although Comrade Hansen lists many of the points on which Deutscher is wrong and misleading, and answers some of them, he is on the whole too soft, too conciliatory An example of what I object to is his footnote about Deutscher’s reference in The Prophet Outcast to an attack on his views by James P. Cannon in 1954. Hansen attempts to “clear this up” in the following way:

“Some harsh and even unjustified things were said of Deutscher.” His explanation is that “at the time Deutscher’s theory about the possibility of the self-reform of the Stalinist bureaucracy figured in an internal crisis of the Socialist Workers Party.” A minority, which eventually split away, was strongly influenced by Deutscher’s theory.

“To many Trotskyists, Deutscher’s position appeared as an alternative program which could be a bridge to Stalinism. It therefore was viewed with hostility. It turned out, however, that Deutscher was not interested in recruiting from the Trotskyist movement or in organizing a sect of his own, still less a cult. This spoke strongly in his favor.”

After the Hungarian uprising, Hansen continues, “another phenomenon” became noticeable. Many Communist Party members, still afraid to read Trotsky’s writings, began to read Deutscher. “Having begun dipping into Trotskyism in this way, they thirsted for more. Through Deutscher, some of them eventually found their way to Trotskyism.” Thus Deutscher’s position proved to be “a bridge from Stalinism to Trotskyism. Trotskyists could not be against that kind of public facility. They therefore began undertaking their own self-reform – in relation to Deutscher.”

Deutscher and the Cochranites

But it is simply not true that “harsh things” said about Deutscher in our press can be attributed to the undoubted fact that the Cochranite minority of the Socialist Workers Party embraced Deutscher’s views in 1953. That embrace and its consequences were the main reason why Cannon attacked Deutscher’s position at that time, as he himself pointed out (Fourth International, Winter 1954), but harsh things had been written about Deutscher long before then. In 1949, when his Stalin biography appeared, I wrote two articles in The Militant sharply condemning it, despite its positive features, for its false analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy as fundamentally progressive. This had nothing whatever to do with any internal situation in the SWP.

In 1953, The Militant printed two more articles by me on the development of Deutscher’s ideas after Stalin’s death (in Russia: What Next?). By this time Deutscherism was an internal issue, but I would have written exactly the same criticism if it hadn’t been. In the spring of 1954, when the first volume of Deutscher’s Trotsky biography appeared, the Cochranites had broken with revolutionary Marxism completely and were no longer of interest to me. But The Militant printed six more articles by me on the pernicious errors and distortions of Deutscher. They were harsh, all right, but I cannot find anything unjustified in them, even ten years later; and I see that I correctly predicted then just what position Deutscher would take now in the final volume on the formation of the Fourth International.

Hansen now makes it appear that our common hostility to Deutscher 10 and 15 years ago was based on a belief that he was interested in “recruiting” Trotskyists to a sect or cult of his own. This was never my opinion at that time, nor did I hear of anyone expressing such an idea until, after the publication of the second volume of the biography in 1959 Hansen began to revise his attitude toward Deutscher. It never occurred to me 10 years ago because, on the face of it, Deutscher was essentially a commentator and bystander. He could not have any interest in recruiting anybody to any organization because he thought and thinks organization is useless or harmful. All he was interested in doing was refuting Trotsky’s ideas, while praising Trotsky was a genius and prophet.

What Deutscher wanted to recruit members of the Fourth International to was not another organization but to the conception that it was a waste of time to build such organizations. Personally, I think it would speak more “strongly in his favor” if he had tried to build an organization to put his ideas into effect, as Trotsky did. In this connection, I do not understand why Hansen finds it “hard to know exactly what Deutscher thinks” Trotsky and his followers should have been doing. Everything Deutscher writes testifies to his belief that Trotsky and his supporters should have been writing against fascism, Stalinism, imperialism, etc., and that’s all. Analysis and propaganda, yes; building a revolutionary party or international, no.

I also have serious reservations about Hansen’s contention that “through Deutscher, some of them (Communist Party members) eventually found their way to Trotskyism.” It is true that some of them found an introduction to Trotsky’s ideas in Deutscher, but in a distorted form. To find “their way to Trotskyism,” they would have had to go around or over Deutscher, not through him, and, in this country at least, few did. For most of them, Deutscher served as a stopping point; as a justification for breaking with Stalinism, but also as a justification for rejecting Trotsky’s conclusion on what to do.

For most readers of the Trotsky biography, I believe, the conclusion will be that Trotsky was a great man but that “Trotskyism” is Utopian and impractical. As a “public facility,” Deutscher is more like a detour or dead end than a bridge, and I not only could be against that kind of facility, but am. If this is what led Hansen to “reform” his attitude to Deutscher, I would recommend that he take another and closer look at where this facility has led most readers.

Finally, I question the use of Hansen’s analogy of Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky with a portrait that might be painted of Trotsky by an artist. (“Let us not ask too much from them (artists), but take gratefully what they can give.”) If Deutscher gives a portrait, that is only incidental. His is a political biography, that is, political analysis, not art (however well Deutscher writes). Perhaps Hansen’s review would have been better if he had treated it primarily as false political analysis rather than as a work of art marred by the obtrusiveness of a gesticulating brush.


George Breitman
Detroit, Michigan


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