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Pierre Frank

Book Reviews

The Prophet Unarmed

(September 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 7, Autumn 1959, pp. 79–80.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921–1929
by Isaac Deutscher
Pp. 490. London (Oxford University Press), 1959. 38s

We very warmly recommend to our readers this second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, which has just gone on sale. As in the first volume – which concerned the previous years – we find here the same wealth of facts, testifying to very meticulous research work into numerous sources. What we have the right to expect of a historian is that he understand and demonstrate the concatenation of events, their internal logic, and – when it is a matter of the biography of a man like Trotsky, situated at the centre of gigantic political struggles – cast light on the place, the role, and the purposes of the man under study. From this point of view, Deutscher, without in the least indulging in apologetics, has written a very solid book.

It is true that the five years that have passed between the first and second volumes of Trotsky’s biography have been filled with events that have powerfully aided a better comprehension of years of the greatest and most fatal lacerations in the Bolshevik Party. Destalinization – however limited it still may be today – could not fail to cast a very vivid light on the years of the Stalinization of the Soviet Union. In his preface, Deutscher explains it thoroughly, and at the same time explains why Stalin’s epigones, after having taken two steps forward, take one step backward, and why they also are trying to conjure away the ghost of Trotsky. He also shows the hopelessness of this latter effort in the following lines of his preface:

What the Soviet Union and communism take over from Stalinism is mainly its practical achievement; in other respects, as regards methods of government and political action, ideas, and ’moral climate’, the legacy of the Stalin era is worse than empty; the sooner it is disposed of, the better. But precisely in these respects Trotsky has still much to offer; and the political development can hardly transcend him otherwise than by absorbing all that is vital in his thought and applying it to realities which are far more advanced, varied, and complex than those he knew.

These lines tie the past up with the present and the future. But Deutscher’s book is no more a political work than it is a work of apologetics: it is the book of a historian, but a historian who is treating past questions that retain a burning timeliness. And one of the most valuable aspects of the book is that history is laid open and demonstrated therein with so much cohesion that it cannot fail to lead the reader to draw conclusions about present-day events.

The historical narrative will be a revelation for the majority of readers, for since 1930 there has been such an accumulation of lies about this past that – with the exception of a tiny minority that was able to become acquainted with the truth in pamphlets printed in very small editions – even those who were far from believing in the Stalinist lies could hardly have a correct view of what had happened. Even for those who knew the truth and who really lived these years, so to speak – I refer to the communist militants outside the USSR, who, from this period on, were close to the Bolshevik-Leninists of the Soviet Union – this book will do more than just remind them of a story they already know. It will also permit them to re-examine it, on the one hand in a more complete way (for in that period only fragmentary information got through), and on the other from a distance that allows them to see better the concatenation of events.

The book’s first chapter, titled The Power and the Dream, gives a picture of the Soviet Union immediately after the end of the Civil War, of the dislocation of the economy and of the extraordinary depression of the proletariat. This chapter also gives a view of the problems which then faced the Soviet leaders, and how Lenin and Trotsky in particular reacted. Nobody today can doubt that Lenin and Trotsky were getting ready to lead a fight against the rising bureaucracy. Deutscher recalls this, with all proofs in hand, those furnished by Trotsky and those provided by Khrushchev & Co since the XXth Congress, which corroborate on all points the documents that Trotsky had published some 30 years before. But Deutscher carries his researches still further. He shows that Trotsky had been the first to become aware of the deterioration that was occurring among the top men in the party and the state, and that Lenin, for a period, busy with daily tasks and anxious to maintain the cohesion of the leadership, not yet having measured the current phenomenon at its correct value, resisted several proposals of Trotsky in the Political Bureau. Then he shows Lenin, become conscious of the gravity of the bureaucratic danger, carrying out a turn and decided to lead a resolute and implacable struggle: [...] he used his last ounce of strength to strike a blow at the over-centralized machine of power. He invoked the purpose of the revolution for its own sake, from a deep, disinterested, and remorseful devotion to it. And when at last, a dying man, his mind ablaze, he moved to retrieve the revolution from its heavy encumbrance, it was to Trotsky that he turned as his ally.

Another chapter of the greatest interest is that titled Not by Politics Alone ... – devoted to Trotsky’s position on cultural questions. It can be measured therein how greatly the bureaucracy disfigured Marxism in these questions, and how many intellectuals had their minds so beclouded by the material power at the bureaucracy’s disposal that they swallowed down a crude and indigestible mash of grain-husks which of itself could not hold its own on the plane of ideas. We should like to hope that these pages will aid numerous intellectuals who belatedly broke away from Stalinism to find their way back to the genuine path of Marxism.

We do not want to list in detail every chapter of a book which will instruct its readers and make them reflect. We should, however, like to say a few words about certain questions taken up in this book, on which, in our opinion, there still remains much to be said.

Deutscher on several occasions mentions Trotsky’s hesitation to start the struggle or to continue it. He stresses Trotsky’s silence at the XIIth Congress on the problems of democracy and the party regime, his silence at the XIVth Congress at the time of the break-up of the troika and the conflict between Stalin on the one hand and Zinoviev and Kamenev on the other. And he seeks an explanation therefor, all the more so in that, in volume one, he had highlighted Trotsky’s audacity in 1917. One point he raises is that of the relations between Trotsky and the Old Guard of the Bolshevik Party: Trotsky was, he said, “in it but not of it.” This is partly true and there is no doubt that it was a factor, especially at the beginning; but in 1926–27, the majority of the Old Guard – as Deutscher himself notes – was in opposition to the Stalin-Bukharin leadership and had rallied behind Trotsky and Zinoviev, because the political questions were the determinant ones. If a large number of them later capitulated, that was either because of political divergences, or because of exhaustion. Deutscher gives as the main reason for Trotsky’s attitude the fact that he took his position within the framework of the correlation of forces that existed at that period:

He placed his own person and action within the framework of social forces which determined the course of events; he saw his own role as subordinate to those forces; and his aim, the revival of proletarian democracy, dictated to him the choice of his means.

That would deserve to be considerably developed. Of all the Soviet Bolsheviks who lived through those years, Trotsky was unquestionably the one who had the closest grasp of reality and who was the most far-sighted. Now for a long time it was not against the danger of a stifling bureaucratic power, but against that of a restoration of capitalism, that he led the struggle. A few months ago, in a conversation, a young cadre-element of a “people’s democracy” brought up against us this “error” of Trotsky, for the danger of the restoration of capitalism proved to be non-existent. We do not think it was any error. First of all, Marxism makes no pretensions to astrology; what can be asked of it is, in the first place, a correct analysis of the social forces in presence; as for the correlation of forces between them, that is more difficult to measure. And especially, in the present case, nothing would be more incorrect than to deduce the correlation of forces in the USSR and in the world of nearly 40 years ago by – what the sputniks and luniks of today indicate. The bureaucratic phenomenon was occurring for the first time in a workers’ state, and the possibility of a regime of the Stalinist type was a priori difficult to imagine; but, before anything else, in those years the possibilities of a capitalist restoration were not at all just a product of Trotsky’s imagination. In case a civil war broke out, the pro-capitalist forces, still numerous in this period, would quickly and forcefully have come into the open. It is because Trotsky, more than anyone else, had made a keen appraisal of the dangers of this situation that, in the struggle against the bureaucracy, he had an attitude of extreme prudence that seems in contradiction with the audacity he demonstrated during the Revolution and the Civil War.

There was also, among the elements that weighed in his decisions, a highly complex question that was a stumbling-block for a large part of the Bolshevik cadres who participated in the Left Opposition of 1926–27; and on this point, in our opinion, Deutscher’s thought, although it has advanced compared to that in the first volume, has not succeeded in reaching a satisfactory clarification. It is known that Deutscher insisted on “substitutism,” an idea expressed by Trotsky in 1903 when he was fighting against Lenin, but which he never took up again after 1917. “Substitutism” would seem to be the party’s substituting itself for the class, thinking and deciding for it, and even acting or forcing it to act, it might be said, in spite of itself. After the Civil War, the Soviet working class was exhausted to a degree never experienced before; then the party substituted itself for the class; and that would be Stalinism – Bolshevism nationally and internationally isolated from the working class. Let us grant that Deutscher’s thought is more subtly shaded, and more subtly shaded in volume two than in the last pages of volume one and in other works he has written. But this idea is a quite widespread one in a form without any subtle shadings.

For many members of the Old Guard, the party remained the party, and that led them to capitulation for lack of prospects for a revival of the Soviet and international workers’ movement. In the ’20s it was difficult to determine to what a degree the party was still the Bolshevik Party and to what a degree it had been corrupted by the Soviet bureaucracy. A process, a struggle, were taking place: the party, from being the instrument of the proletariat, was tending to become the instrument of strata that had emerged from the proletariat and its revolution, strata whose specific interests were from the historical point of view distinct from and opposed to those of the proletariat. The Bolshevik Party did not “substitute” itself for the working class under Stalinism. A leading party, even a leading coterie, cannot take the place of a social stratum; they are always its expression, even if in certain cases this does not appear as clearly as was the case in the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik Party became the instrument of a social stratum other than the proletariat. The form of the Communist Party remained the same, but the content was profoundly changed – not only on the plane of ideology, but also on that of men: it was not only the Left Opposition that was physically crushed, not only the Right Opposition, but also (as Khrushchev mentioned at the XXth Congress) the majority of the “winners,” i.e., of the second-rank members who had ensured the victory of Stalin’s leadership. The objection will perhaps be raised that it was in the CP of the USSR that destalinization began. But under present conditions, since that party is the only political forum, it was inevitably there that the first signs of political renewal had to show themselves. But if the bureaucrats and Thermidoreans had every interest in using for their own ends the form of the Bolshevik Party, exploiting at that time its authority in order the better to put over an anti-Bolshevik policy, we are profoundly convinced that the new vanguard of Soviet society, at a given moment in its development, will – in a different way, even to the degree of organizational forms – oppose what has for long years now been only an instrument of oppression of the Soviet workers.


Deutscher’s book ends with Trotsky’s exile from the Soviet Union. A new chapter in Trotsky’s life was opening – the last chapter, also full of great events. Let us hope that we may be able to read with as much pleasure as this present volume the end of the biography announced by Deutscher. And let us conclude this hasty review of volume two by quoting the lines with which the author expresses his evaluation of Trotsky:

“Very few men in history have been in such triumphant harmony with their time as Trotsky was in 1917 and after; and so it was not because of any inherent estrangement from the realities of his generation that he then came into conflict with his time. The precursor’s character and temperament led him into it. He had, in 1905, been the forerunner of 1917 and of the Soviets, he had been second to none as the leader of the Soviets in 1917; he had been the prompter of planned economy and industrialization since the early 1920s; and he was to remain the great though not unerring harbinger of some future reawakening of the revolutionary peoples (to that political reawakening the urge to transcend Stalinism which took hold of the Soviet Union in the years 1953–56 was an important pointer; still faint but sure). He fought “against history” in the name of history itself; and against its accomplished facts, which all too often were facts of oppression, he held out the better, the liberating accomplishments of which one day it would be capable.”

September 1959

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