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Julius Jacobson

Isaac Deutscher: The Anatomy of an Apologist

(November 1965)

First Published: November 1965.
Transcription, Editing, & HTML markup: Tom Unterrainer and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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Issac Deutscher published his biography of Stalin 16 years ago. Since then he has produced a small book on Russian trade unions, several collections of essays and lectures, a three-volume biography of Trotsky and scores of newspaper and magazine articles analyzing contemporary developments in the Communist world. Not only is Deutscher a scholarly biographer and active political journalist, he also has had experience in the Polish Communist and Trotskyist movements. This combination of qualifications has helped him gain a position of special eminence in the expanding world of Kremlinology.

Deutscher’s image of himself, skillfully conveyed in his writing, is that of the objective historian concerned with the larger movements of social forces, the broad sweep of events. He shows an edge of disdain for “political philosophers and moralists” who venture judgements (other than his own), who see only the horror of Stalinism at the expense of a larger historical perspective. (When asked recently whom he blames for the deterioration of Russo-Chinese relations, Deutscher answered: “I don’t blame either of them – I am an outsider, I simply analyze a process without apportioning blame or praise.”)

It is, perhaps, this affected detachment that has enabled Deutscher to elude any precise political identification. Many anti-Communist radicals take it for granted that he shares their antitotalitarian passions – and not without apparent cause. After all, did he not author a sympathetic biography of Trotsky? And didn’t his earlier political study of Stalin expose the Vozhd’s falsifications of history and the monstrosities known as the Moscow Trials? Because of all this, expressed in a brilliant literary style laden with Western culture, Deutscher was widely seen as a Marxist historian in the authentic socialist, anti-authoritarian tradition.

This view is belied by a more thorough reading of his work.

It is Deutscher’s position that the special circumstances surrounding the Russian Revolution – cultural and economic primitiveness inherited from Czarism, exhaustion after seven years of war and civil war, defeat of the revolution in the West – necessitated the suppression of proletarian democracy in order to safeguard the basic social conquests of the revolution. This, for Deutscher, was the positive function of Stalinism, a function it fulfilled with excessive, historically superfluous brutality.

Moreover, Stalinism, according to Deutscher, did not arise solely because of the revolution’s adverse context. There is also operative, in his opinion, a law of revolution which dictates that the heroic period following all great revolutions must succumb to moral and physical fatigue. It then becomes the responsibility of a small elite to establish its dictatorial rule over the masses in order to smash the old order and consolidate the revolution, thereby permitting the eventual realization of the revolution’s long-term social objectives.

Stalinist terror, then, for all its excesses, preserved the basic conquests of October 1917, just as Cromwell’s dictatorship over the nation consolidated the social rule of the British bourgeoisie. (The analogy is Deutscher’s.) This historical rationalization for Stalinism is not confined to Russia. There is also the parallel apologia for the Stalinist conquest of Eastern Europe. Where Napoleon brought the revolution to much of Europe on the points of French bayonets, so did Stalin bring the promise of socialism to other lands – “in the turrets of Russian tanks,” as Deutscher puts it.

It becomes clear enough that the democracy Deutscher foresees has little to do with political freedom. What he proposes has the character of a benevolent dictatorship. This is not merely a critic’s deduction. For, as if mulling over the consequences of his restrictive reading of democracy, Deutscher, later in this interview, notes of his promised democratic socialist Russia: “It may well be that what is coming won’t take the form of a multi-party system.“

This discussion will document the charge that Deutscher’s well-deserved reputation as a talented writer stands in marked contrast to his unwarranted reputation as an insightful analyst of specific events and changes in the Communist world. Here his performance is replete with distortions, a biased selection of material, quotation marks around dialogue he never heard, unfulfilled predictions, statements which contradict the facts and sometimes each other.


In the United States we have liberals who extol academic freedom at the same time as they would deny Communists their right to teach. This is the mark of the Cold War “critic” whose liberalism collapses when confronted by threats to his basic social allegiances. It is also the mark of Isaac Deutscher. Often indignant over social injustice in Russia, he rushes to the defense of the “autocratic socialist” system whenever its viability is threatened. This happened during the June 1953 uprising of the Berlin workers; during the Hungarian Revolution and in the Polish upheavals of 1956–1957.

The Berlin barricades had hardly been overrun by Russian tanks on Stalinallee when Deutscher rushed into print with an article in the English paper, The News Chronicle (July 13, 1953), repudiating the action of the Berlin workers:

“The Germans who on June 16-17 descended on the streets, assailed the People’s Police and met Russian tanks with a hail of stones, may have had their genuine and long suppressed grievances which demanded an outlet. Nevertheless, their action had unfortunate consequences in Moscow. It compromised the men who stood for reform and conciliation. It gave fresh vigor to the die-hards of Stalinism and other irreconcilables ...”

Thus, the German workers not only committed a disservice to themselves, they compromised the movement for reform throughout the Communist world. They should have been more patient and trusted Deutscher’s assurances that there were men in Moscow now who were prepared to right justifiable grievances. Reform would come – from above and all in good time.

Deutscher describes the socialism he sees in Russia and East Europe as “autocratic” socialism (as contradictory a phrase as “totalitarian freedom”). However, the terror, by “raising Russia from the plough to the tractor,” planted and nourished the seeds of its own destruction, since terror becomes an obstacle to the continuing economic growth of an industrialized nation. The institutions of terror are dismantled and liberalization effectuated, though slowly and somewhat unevenly. Thus, democracy will come to Russia primarily from above, with the Party of socialist terror transformed into an instrument of socialist democratization. In an essay written in 1957 for his Russia In Transition, Deutscher wrote that in the immediate post-Stalin period political relaxation “could come only through reform from above” and that “reform from above could be the work of Stalinists only.” By 1957, Deutscher still feared that “a spontaneous mass movement” for freedom might only “become a factor of social disruption and chaos.” Mass pressure on the Kremlin could acquire “a very stormy momentum” not in accord with Deutscher’s delicate historical timetable, and the whole process of democratization reversed. History cannot be rushed. (It puts one in mind of those who urge gradualism and moderation in the American South. There, too, we are told that history cannot be rushed by impatient Negroes who want their Freedom Now.)

However, the “democracy” that Deutscher sees as the glorious culmination of reforms from above in Russia is somewhat lacking in democratic content. In a recent, remarkable interview appearing in The Review (Vol. V No. 3, 1963) published by the Imre Nagy Institute, some details of his vision of a democratic, socialist Russia are revealed:

“To speak about tolerating Socialdemocracy in Russia is a completely unreal question. In abstracto, I would say that after nearly fifty years, the Russian Revolution should be able to tolerate any party. But after nearly fifty years, a Social Democratic party can hardly exist in Russia. It is just as if you wanted to resurrect in the England of today the parties that existed before the Wars of the Roses! Social democracy makes sense only within the capitalist order, because the “ideological” difference between the Social democrats and the Communists is or was whether capitalism can be overthrown only by revolution, or whether it can be transformed peacefully into socialism. If what you [the interviewer] have in mind is freedom of debate, freedom of criticism, freedom of expression, freedom of association, well, I think this is what Communism must accept, will accept, and is driven to accept! ... I believe that Russia is ripe, or nearly ripe even for a multi-party system. By this I do not mean anything like a reproduction of the multi-party systems of the bourgeois West, but a political regime, in which there would be room for various trends and various programmes all based on the foundations of the revolution ...”

There is no room in Russia for bourgeois parties (since, obviously, they could not be “based on the foundations of the revolution” according to Deutscher in an interview from The Review, Vol.V, No.3, 1963), no room for a Russian equivalent of the British Labor Party or other social democratic parties, no room for “anything like” the multi-party system of the bourgeois West, and if, as is clearly implied, there is room only for various “trends ” based on his vague “foundations of the revolution,” what remains of his envisioned freedom of debate and criticism that is politically meaningful? Indeed, one of the “foundations of the [socialist] revolution” is precisely the right of opposition parties to exist and legally challenge the leading position of the party in power.

Deutscher overlooked a number of facts. The Berlin revolt, spearheaded by the building trades workers, began as a protest against a decree on May 10, 1953, increasing their production norms by 10%. This new oppressive order was put into effect several months after Stalin’s death, at a time when Deutscher assured readers of his Russia: What Next? (1953) that the new day of liberalization from above was already under way in the Communist world.

It is also important to note that on July 29, the intensified production quota was cut down and on July 31, two days after Beria’s fall (whose execution, according to Deutscher, was symptomatic of a new Stalinist resurgence brought on by the Berlin revolt), German reparations were sharply reduced. These concessions won by the German workers could hardly have been gained so readily had they passively awaited the benefits of Deutscher’s promised liberalization from above.

Partly to justify his opposition to the Berlin workers, Deutscher has written articles on Germany which, despite his talents, are simply bizarre. In 1962 (Observer, January 28, 1962), he wrote that Malenkov and Beria “advocated a unilateral Russian withdrawal” even if the Americans would not pull out of West Germany! Moreover, Malenkov and Beria “took it for granted that this (Russian withdrawal from East Germany) would mean the end of Communist rule in East Germany ...”

Deutscher’s fantasy includes “the partly hypothetical interpretation” that after Khrushchev was in power, and the rift with China already of several years duration, Khrushchev was “seeking to provoke Ulbricht into switching his allegiance” from Moscow to Peking which would permit Khrushchev to carry out “a withdrawal to the Oder and Neisse with relatively little loss of face.” [1]

There is method to Deutscher’s fantasy. He is not only minimizing the force of Russian imperialism, but is trying to bolster his thesis that it is self-defeating for those under the Russian yoke to defy the Kremlin. That is why he wrote, nine years after the Berlin events, that “the Berlin rising of June 16-17 saved Ulbricht.” It is now 12 years since the uprising and Ulbricht is still there although the German workers have made no break for freedom since 1953, not even during the Hungarian Revolution. How long must they be penalized for having flouted Deutscher’s dictum that they can be delivered from oppression only by their oppressors?

In October 1956 – the month of the Hungarian Revolution – an article by Isaac Deutscher described Kremlin-satellite relations as follows:

The Soviet worker [!] has begun to “finance” in all earnestness the industrialization of the underdeveloped communist countries; and he “finances” it out of the resources which might otherwise have been used to raise his own standard of living.... Here indeed two aspects of de-Stalinization – Russian domestic reform and reform in Russia’s relationship with the entire Soviet bloc – can be seen in actual conflict with each other. [Partisan Review, Fall 1956]

These euphoric lines about Russian benevolence (and sacrifices by Russian workers, no less) were written by Deutscher just before the Hungarian Revolution. They were in keeping with his glamorized view of Stalinist conquest of Hungary and Poland expressed earlier in Stalin: A Political Biography: “In Poland and Hungary the Communist-inspired land reform fulfilled, perhaps imperfectly, a dream of many generations of peasants and intellectuals” (p. 535). Now compare the quotation from Partisan Review (and from Stalin) with the following, written when the smoke of revolution was still smoldering in Budapest and the countryside.

“Yet the Poles and Hungarians struggled for political freedoms as well as for national emancipation, and they rose against the Stalinist police state through which Russia had dominated them. Last but not least, they revolted against an economic policy that had sacrificed their consumer interests to industrialization and armaments and had plunged them, into intolerable misery” (All emphases in quotations in this chapter have been added unless otherwise noted).

One could have bought, on the same day and from the same newsstand, both the Fall 1956 issue of Partisan Review and the November 15, 1956, issue of The Reporter. In the former he would have read with relief, or amusement, Deutscher’s statement that the Russian “workers” and a benevolent Kremlin were sacrificing themselves for the sake of raising the living standards in underdeveloped Communist nations.

Then the reader could have opened the pages of The Reporter and there have learned from the same Isaac Deutscher that the people of Poland and Hungary were in revolt because they were plunged into intolerable misery by a Russian-dominated police state.

Deutscher’s evaluation of Russo-satellite relations in his later Reporter article was not in the spirit of self-correction. He seldom admits to errors of judgement or analysis. Nor should the reader confuse his sudden compassion for the Hungarian people with support of their revolution. In the same article in which he admitted to the misery which provoked the Hungarian people to armed insurrection, he condemned the revolution itself. There he wrote that the revolution began as an effort to “regenerate the Communist revolution” but subsequent Hungarian Stalinist provocation and armed Russian intervention permitted anti-Communists to win the initiative in Hungary, at which point “a Thermidorean situation arose.” Of course, there was no Communist revolution in post-war Hungary for anyone to regenerate; only a dictatorship imposed by force of foreign Russian arms. But we will let this pass for the moment. More relevant at this point is Deutscher’s summary judgement which appeared in his Russia In Transition:

“... it may be said that in October–November, the people of Hungary in a heroic frenzy tried unwittingly to put the clock back, while Moscow sought once again to wind up with the bayonet, or rather with the tank, the broken clock of the Hungarian Communist revolution. It is difficult to say who it was who acted the more tragic, and the more futile or hopeless role” (p. 26).

The Hungarians, driven to heroic frenzy by justifiable grievances, were unwittingly turning back the clock of revolutionary progress as the insurrection moved into its counter-revolutionary “Thermidorean” phase; while the Russians sought to rewind the clock with bayonets. Not content with paradoxical clocks, Deutscher also repeated, in more civilized and temperate manner, some of the most malicious Communist canards against the Hungarian revolution.

“The ascendancy of anti-Communism found its spectacular climax with Cardinal Mindszenty’s triumphal entry into Budapest to the accompaniment of the bells of all the churches of the city broadcast for the whole world to hear. The Cardinal became the spiritual head of the insurrection. A word of his now carried more weight than Nagy’s appeals. If in the classical revolutions the political initiative shifts rapidly from Right to Left, here it shifted even more rapidly from Left to Right. Parties suppressed years ago sprang back into being, among them the formidable Smallholders’ Party” (The Reporter, November 15, 1956).

More slander could not be compressed into so few lines.

Deutscher notwithstanding, one of the more illuminating aspects of the Hungarian Revolution was the rapidity with which the persecuted clerical Prince of this overwhelmingly Catholic nation was eclipsed by a revolution which he could neither fully accept nor reject nor even understand. (Incidentally, does Deutscher think that winding up the clock of progress means keeping priests in jail regardless of charge or guilt?) Upon his release from prison, Mindszenty baptized the Revolution with the cold water of doubt, equivocation, confusion and contradiction. He realized that there could be no return to the old order (and, perhaps, he did not want it) so he told the people that he was in favor of a “classless society” and supported “justified historical development.” Yet, he could not speak in or accept the Marxist idiom so repugnant to him, so he spoke also of the need to return to “private ownership” but immediately qualified this with the stipulation that it would be private ownership “restricted by the interests of society and justice.” Listen for a moment to how Deutscher’s confused “spiritual head” addressed his revolutionary flock with the artificial voice of Christian charity and tolerance, so out of keeping with the temper of an embittered, imprisoned people locked in deadly combat with their jailers:

“Private revenge has to be avoided and eliminated. Those who have participated in the fallen regime carry their own responsibility for their activities, omissions, defaults, or wrong doings; I do not want to make a single denunciatory statement because this would retard the start of work and the course of production in the country. If things proceed decently according to promises made, this will not by my task” (La Revolte de la Hongrie d’Apres les Emissions des Radio Hongroise, October-November 1956, Editions Pierre Horay, Paris 1957, p. 179).

Do these lines sound like the militant call to arms of the ascending “spiritual head” of a “counter-revolution,” or are they the irrelevant pieties of a man soon pushed offstage into the wings of history by a revolution which gave him no more than an enigmatic nod?

The slander spread by Stalinists that Mindszenty finally presided over the Revolution was motivated by such malice that Jean-Paul Sartre – hardly an enemy of Communism – was moved to write the following:

“As regards Cardinal Mindszenty, the Stalinist press has made him into its bugbear, but it is not enough to reproduce the words of an old man worn out by suffering and strongly motivated by his resentments, to discover behind him an army of fascists ready to act. Which are the forces he relied upon or was believed to rely upon? He had been isolated from the world for 8 years, then suddenly freed. Can we believe that he had a clear idea of the situation? The Communist press wanted to see a deep connection between his dreary voice which drawled over the radio waves and the slaughter that went on in the sewers. Those who believed this were moved by emotion. Only Stalinist paranoia prevents them from seeing the truth; that is, that this old, isolated priest and those headhunters are separated by an immense gap.” (Temps Modernes, November–December 1956/January 1957, Whole Nos. 129–131)

The Revolution did move in October-November – steadily leftward, in a socialist, and therefore anti-Stalinist and anti-capitalist direction. The opposition of the revolutionary Workers Councils – the backbone of the Revolution, something which escaped Deutscher – to anything resembling a capitalist restoration in Hungary is, or should be, known to all. On October 28, the Workers Committee of Gyor declared: “We do not wish to return to the old capitalist system. We want an independent and socialist Hungary.” On the same day Radio Miskolc broadcast a revolutionary manifesto demanding “a new provisional government, one truly democratic, sovereign and independent, fighting for a free and socialist Hungary, excluding all ministers who served the Rakosi regime.” Two days later, Radio Szombathely broadcast the demands of the National Committee for County Vas: “... we want a free, independent, and Socialist Hungary headed by the government of Imre Nagy.”

These are a minute sampling of the demands made early in the Revolution. Had things shifted to the right by early November? The record is no less clear. On November 2, the Workers Councils of Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen County declared: “We will not return the land to landlords, nor the factories to the capitalists, nor the mines to the mining barons, nor the Army command to the Horthyist generals.” When the Russians called upon the armed Hungarian forces in Dunapentele to surrender, the revolutionary military command answered: “Dunapentele is the foremost Socialist town in Hungary. The workers will defend their own from fascist excesses ... but also from Soviet troops ... There are no counterrevolutionaries in the town ... .” The Revolutionary University Students Committee proclaimed: “We want neither Stalinism nor capitalism. We want a truly democratic and truly Socialist Hungary, completely independent from any other country.” In November, the Armed Revolutionary Youth called “For a neutral, independent, democratic and Socialist Hungary!” At approximately the same time, it became known that the Revolutionary Committee of Hungarian Intellectuals believed that “all of the factories and the mines are the property of the workers.”

One of the most moving Hungarian appeals was transmitted by Radio Kossuth on November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was directed to the Russian soldiers:


Your state was created at the cost of bloody fighting so that you could have freedom. Today is the thirty-ninth anniversary of that revolution. Why do you want to crush our liberty? You can see that it is not factory proprietors, not landowners, and not the bourgeoisie who have taken up arms against you, but the Hungarian people, who are fighting desperately for the same rights you fought for in 1917.”

Ordinarily, Marxists, socialists and democrats consider the legalization of Stalinist-repressed parties as one of the major achievements of the Hungarian Revolution and evidence of its radical maturity. It is interesting that Deutscher mentions by name only the “formidable Smallholder’s Party.” He conveniently overlooks the names of socialist and radical organizations which also sprang back to life. He also distorts the picture by describing the Smallholders Party as “formidable,” which was not exactly the case in October–November 1956. Moreover, he ignores the change in this Party (it had liberal and conservative wings before its suppression in 1918) which so sharply illustrates the progressive force of the revolution. In a speech to the reconstituted Smallholders Party on October 31, Bela Kovacs, one of its leading members and a minister in the Nagy government, noted:

“The Party has full rights to reassemble, but the question is whether on reconstitution the Party will proclaim the old ideas again. No one must dream of going back to the world of Counts, bankers and capitalists: that world is over once and for all.”

This is hardly the voice of bourgeois reaction, encouraged by a Thermidorean counter-revolution.

Deutscher also subjected anti-Stalinist militants of the Polish 1956 October to his unique style of abuse. In an interview conducted by Aleksander Ziemny which appeared in the Polish weekly, Swiat, October 7, 1957 (An Evening at Deutscher’s), he accused the liberalized (i.e., “revisionist”) Polish press of opening its pages to “writers who try to justify the mistakes of pre-September regimes.” To realize the enormity of this charge, one must understand that “pre-September regimes” refers to fascistic Polish regimes before September 1939! Of course, Deutscher does not – he cannot – name any Polish anti-Stalinist writers who were justifying anything that smacked of Pilsudskyism; just as he could give no documentation for his charge that a reactionary Church hierarch had become the spiritual head of the Hungarian Revolution. In the interview, he went on to speak contemptuously of the rebellious Polish youth who were attracted to Marxism because they viewed it as a “religion of social justice.” Instead of viewing Marxism in this humanist light, and acting accordingly, Deutscher urges them to spend their time studying the “scholarly treasures” of Marxism. This quietism which he advocates is logically followed by his rebuke to those young Poles who don’t realize, as he does, that “de-Stalinization is the work of people brought up in the Stalinist school – and with this fact one has to come to terms regardless of any subjective speculation.” As for Polish rebels who preferred self-reliance to Deutscher’s promised reform from above, he found many of them guilty of “cocky and loud-mouthed criticism.”

Deutscher’s real function as critical-rationalizer of totalitarianism did not escape Polish anti-Stalinists who followed his work. In a sharp rebuke to Deutscher for his advocacy of quietism [2], as against militant, active opposition to Stalinism, one Polish writer, Andrezj Braun, wrote a polemic in Nowa Kultura (March 7, 1957), which accurately accused Deutscher of proposing “a position alien to action” which “would mean here [in Poland] agreement with all the evil around us.”


There is a vast body of literature available on Russian concentration camps penned by former inmates, defectors from the Kremlin apparatus, and by scholars throughout the world. One student of Russian affairs, though, who has been reluctant to discuss the details of this singularly atrocious aspect of Stalinism is Isaac Deutscher.

Deutscher reserved his most detailed comments about the facts of the camps for a lesser work, Russia: What Next? It is worth quoting his discussion almost in its entirety.

“How much of Russia’s industrial expansion has been due to planning, and how much has been achieved by, for instance, the use of forced labor?

“It is important to make a distinction between the fundamental elements of the Soviet economy and its marginal phenomena. A few years ago the number of the inmates of Soviet concentration camps was most implausibly estimated by Western commentators at from 12 to 20 millions. If these figures were correct the whole Soviet experiment in planning would be only of negative significance to the rest of the world, for it would represent nothing but the recrudescence of slavery on a staggering scale. However, much laborious research and some evidence from inside Russia have reduced these speculative figures to more plausible proportions. Dr. M.N. Jasny, for instance, an able but also a most extreme Menshevik critic of Stalinist economic policies, has reached the conclusion that at the height of the deportations the total number of inmates to those camps may have amounted to three or four millions. Morally, this makes little difference: the use of forced labor is equally repugnant and its condemnation equally valid whether four or twenty million people are involved. But a more precise idea of the dimensions of the problem helps to bring the economic picture of the Stalin era into more realistic focus. It disposes of the theory that the Soviet economy could not function without forced labor.

“In an economy in which the total number of workers and employees is about 40 millions – it was over 30 millions before the Second World War – and in which further scores of millions work on collective farms, the labor of four million convicts is a marginal factor. The brunt of the industrialization has been borne by a working class which has been severely regimented, disciplined, and directed, but which is essentially a normal working class” (pp. 71–72).

Having duly registered his repugnance at the fact of slave labor, Deutscher promptly extenuates it out of any significance. The fact that slavery might account for a mere 10% of the labor force is morally deplorable, at least repugnant, but of little historical significance because the economy could function without it. (The naiveté of this dissociation between slave labor and planning is truly remarkable. If the number, function and location of slave labor was part of some plan, how is it possible to know whether the Soviet economy could have functioned without it?)

Was Russia a modern slave state as some have called it? No, says Deutscher; it only had 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 slaves. Give him a minimum of 12,000,000 and he is ready to recognize Russia as “nothing but a recrudescence of slavery on a staggering scale.” But if the difference between 4,000,000 and 12,000,000 slaves is so decisive for his evaluation of Russian society, how then account for his Olympian dismissal of the “Western commentators” with their big numbers, without as much as a nodding analysis or refutation of what he claims to be the fundamental fallaciousness of their figures? Deutscher prefers the 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 figure mentioned by “most extreme Menshevik,” Naum Jasny. [3] While Mr. Jasny is a Menshevik, he is not a “most extreme” (or an average extreme) Menshevik. Deutscher tacks this on for a clear enough purpose: if even a “most extreme” anti-Communist downgrades the number of slave camp inmates then surely he is closer to the mark than those who see much larger figures. If Deutscher were more concerned with truth than scoring an apologist’s point, he might have bothered to investigate Jasny’s method of arriving at his figures. In this case, he would have been obliged, also in the interest of truth, to report some basic flaws in Jasnys’ article.

One of the most glaring defects in Jasny’s calculations is that they were based on an economic report of 1941 – 10 years before his article appeared and 12 years before Deutscher’s. In the period immediately before, during and after the war, there were vast numbers, possibly millions, of East Europeans, Baltic peoples, national minorities in Russia, those from the Balkans, in addition to Russian soldiers who had to be re-educated after their contact with Western decadence, who were shipped off to slave labor camps. These numbers do not enter Jasny’s estimate. If we were to add the post-1941 recruits to slave labor armies, the figure would swell enormously. While Jasny did not estimate the number of those who flooded the slave labor camps after 1940, he did acknowledge that they arrived en masse.

Deutscher also fails to mention Jasny’s reservation that his estimated figure “does not include children, full invalids, people too old to work, etc. I have no evidence by which to estimate them.” Since Jasny is interested in arriving at the truth, he footnotes this failure to include children, invalids and old people in his estimates by noting that one of David Dallin’s [4] sources – a former chief of police of a large concentration camp – testified that only 50% to 60% of the inmates in his camp were engaged in productive labor. The rest were invalids, in hospitals, engaged in various services, etc. If this was typical of the Russian slave labor camps, then Jasny’s figures would indeed have been a serious underestimation.

Deutscher’s cursory discussion of slave labor camps is typical of his method. By omission and commission he misinforms his readers about the tangible realities of virtually every sensitive area of contemporary Russian life. In a 1959 lecture, printed in his collection The Great Contest, Deutscher could say that today the Russian worker “cannot be punished for minor industrial offenses or branded as an enemy of the people when he tries to speak out for himself.” This was said at a time when thousands of Comrade Courts had already been set up on factory levels and were zealously exercising their explicit authority to punish minor industrial offenders. At the same time many constituent union Republics had already adopted their “anti-parasite” laws – soon extended to all of Russia – for the purpose of inflicting major punishment for minor sins. Sentences of up to five years of prison, exile or “corrective” labor were given to industrial offenders, to those who believed that they could “speak up” for themselves, and for other “anti-social” behavior (e.g., writing poetry).

When glamorizing Russia’s economic growth, Deutscher (in The Great Contest) asserts that in 10 years, i.e., by 1969, Soviet standards of living “are certain to have risen above Western European standards.” Or he writes of the “new deal for the working class” with its “promise” of a 30–35 hour work week sometime in the sixties. He discourses about the Kremlin’s “continuous efforts to increase the output of consumer goods faster than had been planned and to mitigate the appalling housing conditions.” Deutscher is always guaranteeing the future to the Russian people (on condition that they don’t get too rambunctious and upset his calendar of reform). Why doesn’t he support his optimism with some facts about living standards today? What is the average wage? What is the price of milk, butter and meat? What are housing conditions actually like and how much will they improve if housing plans are met? He seldom deigns to report and analyze such “details” of Russian life. And on the rare occasions he does discuss facts, he usually accepts Russian sources at face value.

When he writes of Russian legal reforms, he usually produces an abbreviated rosy progress report without any detailed study of the statutes, debates and actual practice of the law. Surely, the large number of death sentences meted out for “economic crimes” deserve a serious, thoughtful article.

What about the charges of Russian anti-Semitism? Deutscher is certainly familiar with the facts from his reading of the Russian press. How do systematic anti-Semitic acts, sponsored by the “reformers” in power, fit his theory of Russia’s organic evolution to socialist democracy? Instead of an honest confrontation with reality, Isaac Deutscher informed a London audience, at a time when Russian anti-Semitism was already well documented, that the resurgence of Communist internationalism “must provide a source of hope to Jews of all political convictions” (quoted in Leopold Labedz’s excellent article on Deutscher in Survey, April 14, 1962). This news will hardly console the families of several hundred Jews who have since been executed in Russia.


Deutscher’s journalistic output reveals his talents as an historical novelist. He pretends access to closed councils of the Russian Communist Party, reports dialogue (quotation marks and all), discloses the inner psychic drive of Kremlin leaders in a manner that would put a Freud to shame. The unconscious yearnings of a Khrushchev or a Mikoyan – private thoughts which they could not even admit to themselves – are laid bare by Deutscher’s scalpel-like pen. To give Deutscher his due, his literary skill makes his little stories and vignettes spring to life; they are a veritable tour-de-force.

Below are selections from his writings about the Twentieth Congress, an event that easily lends itself to fictionalized dramatization.

Here is how Deutscher discussed Mikoyan’s speech at the Twentieth Congress in The Reporter (March 22, 1956):

“when Mikoyan urged the Congress to wage a ‘merciless struggle’ against ‘bureaucratic centralism’ and for a full reinstatement of Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism,’ he consciously borrowed these terms, as well as many other ideas and formulas, from none other than Trotsky, who coined them. And it was in an almost characteristically Trotskyist manner that Mikoyan hinted at Lenin’s testament ...”

How does Deutscher – here the psychological dramatist – know that Mikoyan “consciously borrowed” from Trotsky? He doesn’t. But it makes exciting reading and serves his political purpose to write such nonsense. And what, incidentally, are the other ideas “borrowed from Trotsky”? But never mind, here is more insight gained from Mikoyan’s speech and its reception:

“When Mikoyan finished, the Congress gave him an ovation such as it accorded no other leader, except Khrushchev and perhaps Bulganin. But while Khrushchev and Bulganin received the homage due their offices and ranks, Mikoyan was applauded for what he had said and for the manner in which he had said it.”

It is as though Deutscher were equipped with some ultrasonic applausograph device which not only measures the volume of clapping (from the Kremlin to Surrey!) but discloses the different motives behind each thunderous ovation. In the above quote, for example, Deutscher’s applausograph tells him that Mikoyan and Khrushchev received the same stormy ovations. But it was the same in volume only. For the applausograph is so sensitive that it revealed that Mikoyan was cheered “for what he had said” and “for the manner” in which he said it, while the same volume of applause for Khrushchev shows up on the applausograph’s screen as only respect for his high position. The marvels of (political) science! Of course, this reading fits in well with Deutscher’s political predilections. If Mikoyan is the real de-Stalinizer who “consciously borrowed” ideas from Trotsky, and is applauded for his views, it becomes confirming evidence of irresistible reforms from above. [5]

What raises Deutscher’s applause-analysis from the implausible to the absurd is his sentence which immediately precedes the above quotation.

“While many delegates certainly understood what Mikoyan was driving at and how far-reaching were the implications of what he said, the less informed missed the nuances and believed that Mikoyan merely toed the Khrushchev line, or that Khrushchev was in full agreement with Mikoyan.”

If the import of Mikoyan’s near-Trotskyist speech was missed by a number of delegates, that makes them near-idiots, and if Mikoyan’s differences with Khrushchev could only be detected by “nuances” that makes Khrushchev a near-Trotskyist. And how does this mesh with the applausograph’s recording? If the “less informed” – how many were there? – thought that Mikoyan and Khrushchev were in “full agreement” why should their applause for Mikoyan have a special significance as against their applause for Khrushchev?

There is more to the Mikoyan saga:

“Mikoyan’s speech is a remarkable political and human document if only because he himself had been an ardent Stalinist at least since 1922 ... and Khrushchev and Kaganovich owed their careers entirely to Stalin; Mikoyan had risen in the party in Lenin’s day, and his mind had been formed in Lenin’s school.”

These two sentences are to soften one for what follows:

“His speech was something of an old Leninist’s recantation of the part he had played in helping Stalin to ascendency. It was not a recantation in the familiar Stalinist style, but a seemingly genuine confession, if only implicit of grim and grave errors, and of a desire to undo some of the still rampant evils of Stalinism.”

The “ardent Stalinist” since at least 1922, becomes an “old Leninist” in just three miraculous sentences! This complex creature of Deutscher’s imagination offers the world a confession which is “seemingly genuine” although it is “only implicit.” How genuine was Mikoyan’s “desire to undo some of the still rampant evils of Stalinism” was exhibited seven months later when this penitent ardent Stalinist-old-Leninist-semi-Trotskyist played a special role in the slaughter of Hungarian revolutionaries.

The chief antagonists of the Twentieth Congress, our raconteur has told us, were Khrushchev and Mikoyan. The former feared too open and rash a break with Stalinism; the latter insisted upon it. Of this alleged controversy, Deutscher writes:

“That Mikoyan was permitted to state his views from the platform of the Congress is in itself an important precedent. Again, this is no evidence yet of any real reinstatement of Leninist ‘inner party democracy.’ In Lenin’s day, when there was disagreement in the Central Committee over an important issue, it was customary for the majority to express its views in the official report of the Congress, while a spokesman of the minority came out with a frankly controversial ‘counter-report.’ Mikoyan, it may be surmised, may have intended to come out with such a counter-report, but the Central Committee refused to permit at this stage any open clash between two members of the ‘collective leadership.’ A compromise was reached, under which Mikoyan was allowed to state his views in a positive form, without making it explicit where and on what points he dissented from Khrushchev.”

With this, Deutscher has taken us right into the closed sessions of the Russian Politburo. He speculates (“may be surmised, may have intended ...”) that Mikoyan considered coming before the Congress with a minority report. This speculation is only an immodest way of saying that he, Isaac Deutscher, has no evidence that this was actually the case. This doesn’t inhibit him from discussing his speculation in the very next breath as though it were a fact and telling us precisely how this surmised report was actually disposed of by the Central Committee. It is typical of Deutscher’s leap from the speculative to the assertive. It is not enough for him to tell us what the response to this surmised counterreport might have been on the Central Committee. With the storyteller’s skill, he takes us into the closed chambers of the Central Committee to tell us precisely how it decided to handle this breach in its ranks, how it effectuated a compromise and exactly what Mikoyan was permitted to do.

Deutscher, who has taken us on a guided tour of Mikoyan’s subconscious, is a novelist with a keen sense of balance. What is performed with Mikoyan’s psyche cannot be left undone with that of his (alleged) antagonist – Nikita Khrushchev. Thus, the Dostoievskian touch is supplied for him, too, in another chapter of his writings, also dealing with the Twentieth Congress. In Russia In Transition, he writes of Khrushchev:

“How is it, one must ask, that a man of so sturdy a character, of a mind so inherently independent, and of so eruptive and untameable a temper could at all survive under Stalin, and survive at the very top of the Stalinist hierarchy? How did Khrushchev manage to control himself, to keep his thoughts to himself, and to hide his burning hatred from Stalin? How did he behave under the dictator’s scrutinizing gaze when the dictator snarled at him: ‘Why do your eyes look so shifty today?’

“... in this miner and miner’s son risen to his present position one can still feel something of that tenacious, patient, yet alert and shrewd spirit which once characterized the old Russian worker when from the underground he bored under the Czar’s throne. To that spirit are now joined new mental horizons, a new capacity for organization, and an unwonted modernity. As one watches Khrushchev (even, as I have watched him, with a certain bias against him) one comes to think that he is probably still the Russian (or the Russo-Ukrainian) worker, writ large – the Russian worker who inwardly remained true to himself even in the Stalinist straitjacket, who has over the years gathered strength and grown in stature and grown out of the strait-jacket. One might even say that through Khrushchev the old repressed socialist tradition of the Russian working class takes a long-delayed and sly revenge on Stalinism.

“Yet, Khrushchev also makes the impression of an actor who, while he plays his own part with superb self-assurance, is only half aware of his own place in the great, complex, and somber drama in which he has been involved. His long, aggressive monologue is a cry from the heart, a cry about the tragedy of the Russian revolution and of the Bolshevik Party; but it is only a fragment of the tragedy.” (p. 34)

Khrushchev reminds Deutscher of the old Russian worker who bored under the Czar’s throne! He conveniently forgets that Khrushchev never bored under any throne; that although he was 23 years old at the time of the revolution he did not participate in it and did not join the Communist party until 1918. And his record in the Party? Deutscher knows it all too well, But he cannot tell it here for how would it fit into the picture of a man inwardly “true to himself,” with “so sturdy a character” and of a “mind so inherently independent.” He does not tell us that from the very beginning Khrushchev lined up with the Stalinists in the Party. That for his voluntary services to the Stalinists in the early twenties, he was promoted by Kaganovich and later taken under Stalin’s wing; that during the purges in the thirties, this Khrushchev was responsible for the deaths of thousands of real and imagined enemies of the Stalinist regime; that he was in charge of the purges in the Ukraine and soon became Party Secretary of the Ukraine and made a full member of Stalin’s Politburo in 1939. And he does not see here the assassin of the Hungarian working class. [6]

Khrushchev’s speech was a “cry from the heart, a cry about the tragedy of the Russian Revolution and of the Bolshevik Party.” This, however, is only “a fragment of the tragedy.” The other tragic fragment is soon unearthed:

“He himself [Khrushchev] did not expect to burst out with this cry. Only a few days before he made the secret speech, he did not know that he was going to make it; or any rate, he did not know what he was going to say.” (p. 35)

How does Deutscher know that Khrushchev did not know that he was going to burst forth this cry from the heart? The lyricist’s intuitive insights? How does this insight jibe with the story about Mikoyan’s alleged “counter-report” mentioned earlier? In that tale, the Central Committee refused to let Mikoyan make a report “counter” to Khrushchev’s, which can only mean that the Central Committee knew about Khrushchev’s report in advance and that certainly Mikoyan – Khrushchev’s antagonist, remember – had a preview of it.

Moreover, a few pages after Deutscher reveals Khrushchev’s tortured and indecisive frame of mind, he springs the following on us:

“Khrushchev builds his case against Stalin on three sets of facts: on Lenin’s denunciation, in his testament, of Stalin’s ‘rudeness and disloyalty’; on Stalin’s role in the purges; and on the faults of Stalin’s leadership in the war. Under each count of the indictment he treats the facts selectively so as to turn the evidence against Stalin rather than against the Stalinist faction.” (p. 42)

A legitimate and obvious point. But how does this “selectively” prepared speech correspond to the picture of Hamlet-Khrushchev torn by indecision, not knowing if he should make the speech, or what kind of speech it should be, until a few days or a few moments before his “impromptu” revelations?

Not content to lead us into closed Party meetings and take us on psychic tours of the Kremlin leaders, Deutscher probes and lays bare the mass psychology of the Russian people. To sell his readers on the Seven Year Plan, he assures them that “the new Plan undoubtedly gives the Soviet people the exhilarating sense of a tremendous social advance.” We suspect that Deutscher was more exhilarated than the Russian people. But if he can be so all-knowing about the emotional responses of the entire Russian people in some instances, he can also admit to a revealing ignorance of mass psychology at other times – an ignorance which he insists is not unique to him. Thus, in an article which tries to discuss the ill-fated super-collectivization in China in an objective tone, he confesses his ignorance of how the Chinese peasants might react to this “blow that Mao has struck against private property and the traditional way of life of rural China.” And what Deutscher claims not to know, no one can know, not even those in Peking: “It is difficult not only for outsiders and foreign travellers, but even for the rulers in Peking to judge what is going on in the hearts of a mass of half a billion people.”

How can Deutscher know what is going on in the souls of 200,000,000 exhilarated Russians and be so dense about the collective inner mind of 500,000,000 Chinese victims of a brutal collectivization program?


As this is written, Khrushchev has been removed and Mikoyan’s position is not certain. Less familiar names have come into new prominence: Brezhnev, Kosygin, Podgorny, etc. We await one of Deutscher’s romans de séance to disclose what these gentlemen really mean when they say things they don’t really mean, or only half mean; whether they are; sincere, genuine, corrupt; whether they “cry from the heart” and what makes their psyches tick.

While awaiting the benefits of his psychological wizardry, it can be reported that Deutscher did not wait more than 48 hours after Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (a man “of so sturdy a character, of a mind so inherently independent, and of so eruptable and untameable a character”) crumbled under a single blow from his colleagues, to predict one new (and certain) political course to be taken by his successors. In the October 18, 1964, issue of England’s Sunday Telegraph, he assures us that “they will certainly soon go to Peking on a pilgrimage of penance and reconciliation, just as Stalin’s successors went to Canossa – to Belgrade – in 1955. They will carry with them an offer to resume Soviet economic aid to China, the aid which Khrushchev had stopped abruptly and totally.”

Three months have gone by and the certain pilgrimage to Peking has not come to pass. Instead, there is the clinking of ideological armor as Moscow and Peking have renewed their duel over conflicting national and international interests. This prediction, almost immediately repudiated by events, leads us into a discussion of Deutscher’s worth as a prognostician and prophet, and what his analysis and predictions reveal of his political bias.

In both areas – as analyst and prophet – Deutscher has exhibited a degree of vanity as unmerited as it is extreme. In Russia in Transition, he boasts in his preface:

“Readers will find here developed even further the views I have expressed in my Stalin, A Political Biography (1949) and more particularly in my Russia: What Next? (1953). This last book appeared shortly after Stalin’s death and forecast explicitly and emphatically the whole chain of events, with all its twists and turns, which is now commonly described as de-Stalinization.

“... Readers are invited to check in every case the date of the original publication and to judge for themselves to what extent events have confirmed or refuted my analyses and anticipations.”

One difficulty in picking up this gauntlet and checking his “analyses and anticipations” is that critical and climactic paragraphs in Deutscher’s writings are peppered so often with such phrases as “it may be surmised,” “seems to have been,” “not quite groundless,” “it may be assumed,” “it is probable,” “it will almost certainly follow,” “it has so far proved,” “were apparently,” “it cannot be ruled out,” etc. We are not abusing the idea of caution. But if similarly massive dosages of hedging phrases were employed by a less skillful writer, his reputation would soon be confined to a small circle of tolerant family friends. Actually, these qualifying phrases are often used by Deutscher for either an unwarranted suggestion of democratization in the Russian camp or to rationalize a particularly obnoxious move by the Kremlin.

There is another difficulty in checking Deutscher’s analyses and anticipations. That is: which analysis and which anticipation about the same event? There are so many of them, inconsistent and contradictory, which undermine his self-claimed infallibility. They need to be sampled for what they show of his analytical talents and of his need to say different things at different times (sometimes at the same time) to shore up his defense of the totalitarian road to socialism.

Who stands for what, and what are the factional line-ups in the Communist world? This is one of Deutscher’s favorite subjects. The trouble is that his answers depend on which of his articles one happens to pick up, which page one happens to read and what he is trying to prove at the time.

Analysis: Who is Malenkov?

Version A: The De-Stalinizer and Precise Executor of Trotsky’s Will (all quotes in Version A are from Russia: What Next?).

“He [Malenkov] has come to the fore in the role of the rationalizer striving to put in order the Stalinist legacy and to disentangle its great assets from its heavy liabilities.” (p.152)

“... Russia’s urge to shake off the worst of Stalinism has become so strong that it compelled Stalin’s arch-devotee [Malenkov] to become the liquidator of the Stalin era.” (p.156)

“The masters of terror were themselves terrified, and the mass of the Soviet people must have been thrilled by the mere thought that henceforth they might be free to defend their rights against their persecutors. Malenkov’s government explicitly assured them of this.” (p.177)

“Malenkov’s first preoccupation was to free Soviet foreign policy from its irrational Byzantinism and to make it more worldly and subtle.” (p.186)

Version B: Opposed to Drastic de-Stalinization.

Several quotations in Version A originally appeared in an article in The Reporter, April 14, 1953. In using the article for his collection, Russia: What Next?, he omitted the following:

“Malenkov has come forward not as one of a triumvirate but as the autocrat’s autocratic successor.” [This version of Malenkov the “autocrat” was in turn contradicted by the same Deutscher who wrote in Russia In Transition (1957) that “it is nearly four years now since the USSR has ceased to be ruled by an autocrat.”]

In The Reporter (August 8, 1957), in the course of an apologia for the Khrushchev regime, Deutscher disposes of the now disgraced Malenkov in the following fashion:

“[Malenkov] favored a pro-consumer line in economic policy and a relaxation of tension in foreign policy; but he was opposed to drastic de-Stalinization and probably also to decentralization of industrial management.”

Analysis: Mao-Tse-Tung: Who and What Is He?

Vesion A: Anti-Stalinist and Socialist Democrat.

“... Mao’s words are giving a new and powerful impulse to de-Stalinization. He has come to the rescue of the intellectual opposition in Russia ... Now Mao tells the Russian workers that they have the right to strike, that if he downs tools not he but the bureaucrat must be blamed ... Mao’s address ... represents a most radical repudiation of Stalinism.

“Mao attempts in effect to redefine the whole concept of proletarian dictatorship and to restore to it the meaning Marxists generally gave to it before the onset of the Stalin era ... the collectivization of farming is progressing by slow degrees and subtle transitions; and confiscation of property and the use of coercion are avoided.” (New Statesman, June 29, 1957)

Version B: The Stalinist.

“The initiative to call this dramatic and bloody halt to de-Stalinization (the execution of Imre Nagy) has come from Peking – Mao Tse Tung has been the chief promoter of the drive against revisionism. Hesitantly and at first reluctantly, Khrushchev has toed Mao’s line.” (The Reporter, July 10, 1958)

“... there exist also undeniable affinities between Maoism in power and Stalinism, affinities rooted in the contradiction between the socialist strivings of the revolution and the primitive pre-industrial structure of society. [7] And so, despite all his deviations from Stalinism and a momentary determination to transcend it, Mao has not been able to go beyond Stalinism; and when he attempted to do so, he retraced his steps in a panic, and came to the fore as the defender of Stalinist orthodoxy. (New Left Review, January-February 1964)

Analysis: Molotov: Architect of Anti-Stalinist Foreign Policy or Symbol of Stalinist Diplomacy?

Version A (before he was purged by Khrushchev): Architect of Anti-Stalinist Foreign Policy and Nice to Neutrals.

“In Stalin’s day Moscow had only derision for the advocates of any ‘third force’ and treated them as hypocritical agents of the Atlantic bloc. In the last few months both Moscow and Peking have heaped praise on Nehru; they no longer treat India and the so-called Colombo grouping of nations as ‘puppets of western imperialism.’ On the contrary, the neutrals are now spoken of with sympathy and respect. ‘He who is not with us is against us’ seems no longer to be a guiding principle for Molotov or Chou-En-Lai; they have abandoned the slogan to certain politicians and diplomats in the West.”

Version B (after he was purged by Khrushchev): Symbol of Stalinist Diplomacy and Nasty to Neutrals.

“Molotov, indeed, viewed suspiciously the nations that remained neutral in the cold war, and he treated the governments of India, Burma, Indonesia, and Egypt as mere stooges of western imperialism.”

Version A (before he was purged): Force for World Peace.

“The cease-fire in Indo-China that was arranged last July in Geneva throws new light on Soviet foreign policy. This is the second armistice agreement concluded since Stalin’s death in March, 1953, the first being the agreement on Korea. Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov may be regarded as the prime mover of both.”

Version B (after he was purged): Isolationist Boor.

Molotov was almost a symbol of the isolationism of the Stalin era, with its obtuseness and lack of sensitiveness to the outside world; this was reflected even in his lack of fluency in any foreign language.”

Version A (before): Polite and Flexible.

“Freed from the paralyzing fear of Stalin, Molotov surprised the western ministers by a tactical elasticity and politeness of manner of which they had held him to be incapable.”

Version B (after): Rude and Aggressive.

“Molotov carried a rather short stick during most of the time when he spoke so rudely, but he found soft speech uncongenial even after the stick had become much bigger.”

Deutscher’s Version A can be found in The Reporter of September 23, 1954, the contradictory Version B, in the same magazine, June 28, 1956.

Analysis: Nikita Khrushchev: The Logic of His Actions: Toward Stalinism or Away From It?

Version A: Toward Stalinism.

“But Khrushchev has probably achieved more than he intended. He meant to defeat his rivals and to deprive them of all influence, but not to stage a purge in the old Stalinist style. Now, however, the logic of his actions drives him to do precisely this.” [The Reporter, August 8, 1957]

Version B (9 months later): Away From Stalinism.

“He [Khrushchev] has won [against the same Kremlin rivals as in Version A] at a price that makes it extremely difficult for him to use power in a tyrannical and autocratic manner.” [The Reporter, May 1, 1958]

Analysis: Is the Path Back to Stalinism Still Open or Barred?

Version A: The Path Back is Barred.

“... the Soviet Union today is in every respect a much freer country than it was five years ago, and it can hardly be robbed again of its newly won, though very limited, freedoms.” [The Reporter, May 1, 1958]

The road back to Stalinist orthodoxy and discipline is barred, because that orthodoxy and discipline belong to an epoch which has come to a close.” (Russia in Transition, p.55)

Version B: The Path Back is Open.

“The trend against de-Stalinization, which began after the Hungarian rising in October 1956 and continued with the drive against “revisionism” and the revival of the anti-Titoist campaign, has now reached a decisive point. Even now the Soviet bloc has not lapsed back into the full darkness of the Stalin era, but once again the phantom of the Stalinist terror and the threat of the purge haunt heretics from China to East Germany.” (The Reporter, July 10, 1958)

Analysis: Has Stalinism Atomized the Russian Working Class?

Version A: Yes (they are hardly capable of formulating demands).

“The workers have not yet been free enough to voice such demands (for equality) or to make their voices heard. They may not even been capable of formulating demands as people accustomed to autonomous trade union and political activity would do ... It is more than thirty years since as a class they had ceased to have any political life of their own. They could hardly recreate it overnight, even if those in power had put no obstacles in their way.” (Russia In Transition, pp.11-12)

Version B: No (the traditions of the Revolution are alive).

“With public ownership of the means of production firmly established, with the consolidation and expansion of planned economy, and – last but not least – with the traditions of a socialist revolution alive in the minds of its people, the Soviet Union breaks with Stalinism in order to resume its advance toward equality and socialist democracy.” (Partisan Review, Fall 1956)

Analysis: What Does the Intelligentsia Want?

Version A: They Dreamed of Overcoming the Social Inequalities of Stalinism (when Stalin was alive).

“The only relatively free debate which occurred in mid-century Russia was concerned with the ‘transition from socialism to communism.’ To outsiders this was bizarre scholastic quibbling over esoteric dogma; and this in part it was. But to those engaged in it the dispute offered an occasion for dreaming aloud, dreaming about the day when the nightmares of the present would dissolve, when the State with its all too familiar terrors would wither away, after all, when the social inequalities of the Stalin era would be overcome, and even the mastery of man over man would become a memory of the past.” (Russian In Transition, p.99, based on articles written in 1951)

Version B: Now They Want To Preserve the Social Status Quo (under Khrushchev).

“The men of the intelligentsia have been intensely interested in political ‘liberalization,’ but socially they are conservative. It is they who have benefitted from the inequalities of the Stalin era. Apart from individuals and small groups, who may rise intellectually above their own privileged position and sectional viewpoint, they can hardly wish to put an end to those inequalities and to upset the existing relationship between various groups and classes of Soviet society. They are inclined to preserve the social status quo.” (Russia In Transition, p.11)

Analysis: The Role of the Russian Military – Bloody Conquerors or Militant Reformers?

Version A: Bloody Conquerors.

“The day on which a Russian Bonaparte rises in the Kremlin may see the end of all self-containment, for the Bonaparte would disperse the party secretaries and ride in blood and glory to the English Channel.” (Russia: What Next? p.207)

Version B: Militant Reformers.

“It was no accident that in June 1957 Marshal Zhukov threw his weight behind Khrushchev. Perhaps more strongly than any other group, the officers’ corps had resented the Stalinist purges, and it was convinced of the urgency of economic and administrative reform.” [8] (The Reporter, November 19, 1959)

Version C: Opponents of a Tough Line.

“... Khrushchev himself adopted a tough line in foreign policy and spoke in a voice that sounded almost like Molotov’s ... Zhukov, who had backed Khrushchev against Molotov, was in no mood to go on supporting him when he began to speak in Molotov’s voice.” (The Reporter, November 14,1957)

Analysis: Dmitri T. Shepilov (Molotov’s momentary successor): Was His Middle East Course a Notable Success or a Fiasco?

Version A: A Notable Success (when Shepilov is in power).

“... Shepilov insisted on the need for Soviet diplomacy to encourage neutralism and to treat India, Burma, Indonesia, and the Arab states with the consideration and respect due to independent nations. He castigated Molotov’s tactical rigidity and lack of initiative. He carried the day within the Central Committee. His was to some extent the initiative for Khrushchev’s and Bulganin’s visit to India; he undertook to test his line in Egypt, which he did with notable success; and he had the satisfaction of being able to listen to Molotov’s ‘self-criticism’ at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.” (The Reporter, June 28, 1956).

Version B: A Fiasco (after the purge of Shepilov).

“This was his (Shepilov’s) first trip abroad in his new capacity. He was in fact the initiator of the Soviet diplomatic offensive in the Middle East. Consequently, by dismissing him the Soviet leaders have acknowledged that this offensive has ended in fiasco.” (The Reporter, March 7, 1957)

“What Malenkov’s government is carrying out now is precisely the ‘limited revolution’ envisaged by Trotsky.” (p.215)

Having sampled some of Deutscher’s “analyses” let us look at a few of his “anticipations.”

Anticipation: In Russia: What Next?, the book that “forecast explicitly and emphatically the whole chain of events” following Stalin’s death, he contemptuously dismisses those who predict dissension:

“In the weeks before and after Stalin’s death, the newspapers were full of speculation about the secret rivalries in the Kremlin, the many-sided plots in which now Beria was supposed to be trying to oust Malenkov and Molotov, now Malenkov and Beria were supposed to oust Molotov, while in still other versions Bulganin and Beria were preparing a coup against all the others. There were probably a few sparks behind this tremendous output of journalistic smoke.” (p.12)

To ridicule someone else’s prediction is a prediction in its own way. When Deutscher sneers at the journalists’ prediction of dissension as little more than a “tremendous output of journalistic smoke” he is denying the essential validity of their speculation of a struggle in which, specifically, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin and Molotov were trying to oust one another.

What is the proven reality? Beria, Malenkov, Molotov and Bulganin were all purged, the first executed, the others disgraced.

Anticipation: The End of Extracted Confessions.

“Officials who had the extraction of ‘confessions’ on their conscience must have read with a shudder the communiqué about the release of the Kremlin physicians. The shudder must have been felt in every dark office of the political police throughout Russia, Every man, high and low, in the service must have wondered whether, if he ever again tried to extort confessions, he would not be made to pay for it with his head or at least his freedom.” (Russia: What Next?, p.177)

Since writing these words in praise of the Malenkov government, Beria was framed up and shot, and confessions were extorted from Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich, Shepilov and Bulganin (the latter confessed twice; his first was not satisfactorily self-flagellating) and others. The world awaits Khrushchev’s.

Whether the confessions were extracted by physical torture or not is hardly the point. Even under Stalin, not all confessions were obtained through torture. The important point here is that Khrushchev succeeded in extracting ridiculous public confessions from real or imagined rivals in the Kremlin.

Anticipation: No Group in the Central Committee Would Have Dared Defy the Army.

“For some time past Marshal Zhukov had been a virtual umpire vis-à-vis the opposed factions; and he now threw his decisive weight behind Khrushchev. Whatever various groups at the Central Committee may have felt about it, none dared to defy the Army.” (The Reporter, August 8, 1957)

What is the proven reality? This analysis could not withstand the test of the next few months when the officer corps was clearly put in its hierarchical place by Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party, who not only defied the army but ousted Zhukov from political leadership and chose his own military chieftain.

Anticipation: If There Is Not “Collective Leadership” the Army Is Certain To Take Over.

“Malenkov, Khrushchev and Molotov would have to shelve their own differences and actually exercise ‘collective leadership’ in order to hold their ground jointly vis-à-vis the army. If they fail to do so, and if they try to preserve the party’s corporate predominance vis-à-vis the army and at the same time give free rein to their competition for autocratic party leadership then the outcome of this double contest cannot be seriously in doubt. A deep cleavage in a leadership not based on a democratic rank and file is a standing invitation to the army to step in and ‘safeguard law and order.’”

This prediction was made 10 years ago in an article in The Reporter (February 2, 1954). Since then:

  1. Malenkov, Khrushchev and Molotov failed to shelve their differences.
  2. Competition for autocratic leadership of the Party continues.
  3. The Communist Party has preserved its corporate predominance vis-à-vis the army.

Anticipation: The Old Bolsheviks Will Be Rehabilitated Soon.

“The inescapable conclusion is that the defendants in those trials, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Bukharin and others (perhaps even the absent and impenitent Trotsky) were innocent of the crimes attributed to them. The Soviet leaders have so far still hesitated to say this in public clearly and frankly. But the logic of de-Stalinization will soon compel them to muster courage and to carry out this most difficult act of rehabilitation.”

This anticipation is now six years old. We know that Deutscher has a broad historical view, but how soon is soon?

Deutscher’s most persistent and fundamental prophecy was his repeated forecast of a democratic flowering of Russian political, intellectual and cultural life. However, the Russia of today is so far behind his calendar of change that even he was obliged to admit to error. “I say frankly, I was mistaken on one point – I expected ten years ago that there would be more political freedom in Russia than there is now.” In the same (1963) interview he notes “the slow pace in intellectual, literary, cultural affairs, in the moral political atmosphere. I would have expected by now an open political debate to be possible in Russia. In this respect I was mistaken.”

It was an unusual concession on Deutscher’s part, but then he goes on to say: “I have misjudged the pace but not the direction that events have taken.”

It is this writer’s opinion that Deutscher has misjudged pace, direction, events and all. And these errors – reflected in his selective research, inconsistencies, half truths and apologetics – are encouraged by theories which we have touched only lightly here. It remains, then, to discuss Deutscher’s writings on the social nature of the Russian state, his comparison of Stalin to Cromwell, his “law of revolution,” industrialization as a force for democratization, the role of ideology and consciousness. What is involved is nothing less than a discussion of whether basic socialist concepts continue to have meaning in the modern world.


It is sometimes thought that Deutscher’s views on Communism are akin to Leon Trotsky’s. This misconception is due partly to Deutscher’s sympathetic three-volume biography of Trotsky, but it is also promoted by the surface resemblance of Trotsky’s definition of Russia as a “degenerated worker’s state” to Deutscher’s characterization of Russia as a form of “autocratic socialism.” The similarity is more terminological than political. For whatever this writer believes to be the flaws, inconsistencies and dangerous implications of Trotsky’s theory, it seldom served to compromise his opposition to the Kremlin. His politics were infused with a democratic, revolutionary consciousness absent in and alien to Deutscher. For Trotsky, the Kremlin was a totalitarian regime, “symmetrical to fascism.” He shared none of Deutscher’s illusions that a democratic socialist society could emerge from a totalitarian incubus. On the contrary, Trotsky believed that the socialist regeneration of the October Revolution was contingent on the ability of the Russian people to destroy the Stalinits political system. Where he viewed the liberation of the working class as the job of the working class alone, Deutscher assigns a major share of this mission to the autocratic masters themselves. It is the difference between one who would have hailed the Hungarian revolutionists and one who rationalized their “historically progressive” Stalinist assassins.

This difference was obliquely acknowledged by Deutscher himself in a remarkable passage in the last volume of his Trotsky biography (The Prophet Outcast). Trotsky wrote that if the Marxist program proved impracticable it becomes “self-evident that a new minimum program would be required to defend the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic system.” Deutscher comments:

“The passage was characteristic of the man: if bureaucratic slavery was all that the future had in store for mankind, then he would be on the side of the slaves, and not of the new exploiters, however ‘historically necessary’ the new exploitation might be. Having lived all his life with the conviction that the advent of socialism was a scientifically established certainty and that history was on the side of those who struggled for the emancipation of the exploited and the oppressed, he now entreated his disciples to remain on the side of the exploited and the oppressed, even if history and all scientific certainties were against them. He, at any rate, would be with Spartacus, not with Pompey and the Caesars.”

Here, Deutscher is not simply noting – and admiring – Trotsky’s idealism. He is also summing up the difference between himself and a revolutionary who identifies with slaves even should this fly in the face of “history and all scientific certainties.” For it is in deference to the alleged imperatives of history that Deutscher has fashioned his apologias for totalitarianism.


Deutscher’s reputation as a creative or original thinker has grown far out of proportion to his intellectual contributions. He has advanced no coherent conception of the Russian system and, in place of debate, he perfunctorily dismisses views which are uncongenial, to his teleological vision of Russia’s drive for socialist self-fulfillment.

In The Prophet Outcast it did appear that Deutscher would break tradition and confront the arguments of those socialists who have long maintained that the Russian system is a new form of class exploitation – a bureaucratic collectivist totalitarian society antithetical to both socialism and capitalism. According to this theory, the nationalization of industry is an economic form whose progressive or retrograde character depends on who “owns” the state that controls the nationalized economy. In summary fashion, the view is developed as follows: While economics is primary under capitalism, there is no simple one-to-one relationship of economic and political power. Fundamentally, the social power of the capitalist class inheres in the private ownership of the means of production in a profit-motivated market economy, but these narrower economic concerns can bring the capitalist class (or sections of it) into sharp conflict with a national (capitalist) political administration. In a nationalized economy this limited autonomy of (sometimes antagonism between) economic forms and political institutions is largely dissipated. Politics and economics tend to fuse in a state that owns, controls and plans the economy. Given this relationship, to describe a collectivized economy as being “economically democratic” but “politically dictatorial” becomes an illogical and reactionary notion. For the only manner in which a collectivized system can manifest any economic democracy is in the democratically organized political controls of that economy. A socialist state, then, presupposes the conscious political rule of the broad mass of people which can be established only through political democracy – the exercise of free elections, competing political parties, right of recall, genuine trade unions, guaranteed civil rights, full cultural freedom, etc. Conversely, in a state where the bourgeoisie has been expropriated and the economy nationalized but where the people are subjected to the domination and whims of a totalitarian ruling party, we are confronted with a new form of political, therefore economic, class oppression.

In The Prophet Outcast, Deutscher presents a detailed review of the bureaucratic collectivist position, attributing its origins to the Italian leftist, Bruno Rizzi, and its further development to a group of former American Trotskyists, led by Max Shachtman [9] and James Burnham. After his summary, one had reason to expect that Deutscher would try to expose what he believes to be the fallacies in their arguments. Not only does he fail to give battle or at least provoke a skirmish, he doesn’t even make contact with the enemy. Instead, he tries to dispose of the theory in a couple of sentences. In one sentence he writes:

“Implicitly or explicitly, they (Burnham and Shachtman) attacked national ownership of industry and national planning, saying that these served as the foundations for bureaucratic collectivism and totalitarian slavery.”

This is absolutely untrue. Deutscher simply transformed the idea that the value socialists give to nationalization should depend on the political nature of the ruling powers to read that nationalization per se is evil. I know of no socialist with the bureaucratic collectivist view who doubts that nationalization and planning, as the economic corollaries of a socialist society, are a necessary, but insufficient, condition for socialism.

His other sentence meant to be damaging to the bureaucratic collectivist view is:

“Burnham, Shachtman, and those who followed them, found themselves rejecting the Marxist programme point after point.”

Even if this were true, it is hardly a refutation of their views. In any case, it was not true. The bureaucratic collectivist view of Russia which so heavily accents the indivisibility of socialism and democracy is wholly in the Marxist-Leninist tradition and was presented in that light. It was Marx who wrote that the “first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to establish democracy.” Engels explained that to accomplish the socialist revolution “the proletariat seizes political power” and then “turns the means of production into state property.” And it was Lenin who wrote, as if anticipating Deutscher, that “whoever wants to approach socialism by any means other than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at absurd and reactionary conclusions.”

If Deutscher discusses neither seriously nor competently views which he finds distasteful, and if he doesn’t present any developed, coherent picture of Russian society, that does not mean he avoids all characterization of the Russian social system. In fact, his characterizations of Russian society during the Stalin era are somewhat less than enlightening. In Stalin’s defense of the nationalized forms of the Russian economy, Deutscher saw the progressive, Marxist aspect of Stalinism. In Stalin’s terrorism, he recognized aspects of barbarism. To define Russian society under Stalin, Deutscher simply adds socialism to barbarism and there you have it – Stalinism was a form of socialist barbarism. In his words, Stalinism was “the mongrel offspring of Marxism and primitive magic.”

Deutscher’s more recent contributions to an understanding of Russian society after Stalin are hardly more illuminating. In an article explaining The Failure of Khrushchevism (published in The Socialist Register, 1965) we are informed that what was a “mongrel offspring” only yesterday and which, I believe, he still considers a form of “autocratic socialism” is today a society free of the maledictions of “class” conflict. In that article, comparing the extent of police persecution under the Czar to police persecution today, Deutscher finds that “evidently the antagonism between rulers and ruled is now different in kind, and less fundamental, for it is not a class antagonism.” I doubt that the Russian poets and writers recently sent to Siberian camps would be considerably warmed by the thought that their persecution is less fundamental than the Czarist exile of Dostoyevsky to the same wintry region. But how less fundamental is this admitted antagonism between rulers and ruled? And if the antagonism is not a class conflict, what sort of antagonism is it? Is it possible that in the three decades of barbaric and autocratic rule, the barbarians and autocrats in the Kremlin have not been able to develop the necessary degree of social cohesion to justify their definition as a ruling class?

This disavowal of class conflict in Russia means, among other things, to displace the responsibility for conformity in Russian life from the shoulders of the rulers to those of the ruled. The conclusion is made by Deutscher, himself, in the same article: “It is not so much police persecution that has prevented any progressive Soviet opposition from crystallizing and acting on a national scale.” Instead it is the “apparent inability of those below (i.e., the masses) to exercise control” because they have not been able to overcome the stultifying effects that years of Stalin’s rule “have left in their political thinking and social initiative.”

How can Deutscher blame the Russian people for their oppressive circumstances? How can one so carelessly sweep under an historical rug the fact that, despite unquestioned relaxation, Russia is still governed by a single party with opposition parties excluded by law, that fundamental criticism if made publicly incurs the risk of jail or a madhouse, that free trade unions are prohibited and strikes outlawed, that cultural experimentalism is treated as subversive and criticism made abroad as treason; that tens of thousands of Russians have in recent years been sent to labor camps, jail or exile as “social parasites,” etc. In fact, in “The Failure of Khrushchevism” Deutscher admits that in Russian universities a number of clandestine opposition student groups were organized, “membership of which has been punished as high treason.” He also admits that “there has been no lack of industrial strikes, local street demonstrations, even food riots” in Russia, though he does not reveal that they were violently suppressed by the rulers of a country in which there “is not a class antagonism.”


The study of Lenin and Bolshevism has become a national industry. At least half a dozen well-published volumes on these subjects have been dumped on the market recently, ranging from Robert Payne’s hard-covered comic book called The Life and Death of Lenin to Louis Fischer’s ponderous misunderstanding of The Life of Lenin. Although the quality of these works varies, they usually share in their estimates of Leninism as a totalitarian doctrine, of the Bolshevik Revolution as a minority coup d’état and of the emergence of Stalinism and its concomitant barbarities as the natural heir to Leninism and the Russian Revolution. [10]

While Isaac Deutscher shows nothing but contempt for many of these Sovietologists he has far more in common with them than he would like to think. For Deutscher, too, believes that in basic respects Stalinism was continuous with Leninism, though his judgements and political conclusions may differ. To the bourgeois critic of Bolshevism, the insistence that Stalinism flows from Leninism is used to expose the dangers of socialism; for the right-wing socialist critic, it reveals the pitfalls of revolutionary socialism. But for Isaac Deutscher, who accepts the socialist legitimacy of the Russian Revolution, his qualified acceptance of the Leninism-Stalinism sequence is used as a qualified historical justification of Stalinism.

The relationship between Leninism and Stalinism is not an academic question. At stake is the political and moral worth of socialism itself. For if anything remotely resembling Stalinist terror can be proved to be a necessary accompaniment of socialism then socialism itself becomes an unworthy and evil objective.

However, nothing in Deutscher’s discussion of the Leninist-Stalinist relationship is sufficiently convincing to weaken one’s socialist convictions.

In his Russia: What Next? Deutscher demonstrated the terrible confusion that follows from arguing that the basic social conquests won by the Bolsheviks were continued and guarded by Stalinism:

“Stalinism developed out of Leninism, preserving some of the features of Leninism and discarding others. It continued in the Leninist tradition; but it also stood in a bitter and unavowed opposition to it.”

To stand in bitter and unavowed opposition to a tradition and at the same time to continue that tradition is another of Deutscher’s dialectical acrobatics. The proposition imposes the responsibility of clarification which he attempts later in the same book:

“In one fundamental respect Stalin did, of course, continue Lenin’s work. He strove to preserve the State founded by Lenin and to increase its might. He also preserved and then expanded the nationalized and State-managed industry, in which the Bolsheviks saw the basic framework of their new society. These important threads of continuity between Leninism and Stalinism were never cut.”

So there are threads (at least) of continuity. The first is that Stalin tried to preserve and strengthen the state. The question remains, however: what was the nature of that state? The term state is an abstraction, and the truism that all rulers try to strengthen their states hardly suggests a common bond or continuity between capitalist and socialist societies or between Leninism and Stalinism. The second thread that Deutscher spins (Stalin “also preserved ...“) is Stalin’s loyalty to nationalized property. No one can question this. Both Lenin and Stalin believed in the basic importance of state-managed industries. But why is this a continuity with Leninism or the Leninist tradition which implies ideas, principles, programs and methods which defined Lenin and his followers?

Deutscher cannot tell us concretely how Stalin preserved the Leninist state if only because in passing he does accurately note some of the essential elements of this same Leninist state:

“But Leninism also committed itself in 1917 and afterward to respect, to guard, to promote, and to extend in every possible way the political freedom of the working classes, who should have been the real masters in the new State. This was the meaning of ‘proletarian democracy,’ which should have supplemented, or rather formed the basis of, the dictatorship” (emphasis added).

Deutscher was never more correct. Leninism meant the political freedom of the working class and the “meaning” and “the basis” of proletarian democracy (or proletarian dictatorship) is that the politically free working class should be “the real masters in the new state.” In what respect then, did Stalin continue the Leninist state if he destroyed its very basis – proletarian democracy?

We should also point out that immediately after the passage informing the reader that Stalin preserved, in one fundamental respect, the Leninist state, Deutscher continues:

“But when Stalin took over the State its direction was in such a condition that it could be preserved only by being politically refashioned almost into its opposite.”

The picture is now complete – and utterly incomprehensible. For in a dozen pages Deutscher has flung the following contradictory propositions and conclusion at his readers without the slightest display of self-doubt:

  1. Stalinism continued in the Leninist tradition; Stalinism stood in bitter opposition to Leninism.
  2. The Leninist state was inseparable from proletarian democracy; Stalin politically refashioned the Leninist state “almost into its opposite.

  3. Stalin, in a “fundamental respect” preserved and extended the Leninist state.


Deutscher’s apologia for communist totalitarianism is firmly woven into an elitist philosophy which rejects the socialist conception that the broad mass of people can emerge triumphant from a revolutionary struggle, retaining its élan and ability to manage its own affairs. Instead, he promulgates a virtual law of revolution according to which “each revolution begins with a phenomenal outburst of popular energy, impatience, anger and hope. Each ends in the weariness, exhaustion and disillusionment of the revolutionary people.” While the people are exhausted,

“the Party of the Revolution knows no retreat. It has been driven to its present pass largely through obeying the will of that same people by which it is now deserted. It will go on doing what it considers to be its duty, without paying much heed to the voice of the people. In the end it will muzzle and stifle that voice.”


“The rulers acquire the habits of arbitrary government and themselves come to be governed by their own habits. What had hopefully begun as a great warm-hearted popular venture gradually degenerates into a narrow and cold autocracy.” (Stalin: A Political Biography, pp. 173–175)

Thus a “narrow and cold autocracy” would have arisen in Russia under the best of post-revolutionary circumstances; backwardness, primitivism and isolation only served to accelerate the degenerative process and to foreshorten the Revolution’s heroic period. It becomes utopian sentimentality not to realize that the “Calendar of Revolution” (one of Deutscher’s favorite expressions) required the rule of a dictatorial elite to govern Russia in the long-term interests of the people and to prevent the revolution from shifting into reverse gear. The weight of historic evidence is certainly on Deutscher’s side. The great revolutions of the past were made in the name of popular causes and gathered enormous mass support. Yet, in each case, in England, in France as well as in Russia, a victorious elite emerged which violated the revolution’s proclaimed democratic principles and institutions and eventually repressed the revolutionary peoples themselves.

If Deutscher is correct, that this is an inevitable historic pattern from which not even a socialist revolution can be excepted, then again socialism must be rejected as a hopelessly archaic, Utopian and dangerous package. For the very heart of Marxist politics is its reliance on the ability of the working class to regulate its own affairs.

Related to this law of revolution is the grand parallel Deutscher finds between the Russian Revolution and the English and French bourgeois revolutions. The parallel is repeated in each of Deutscher’s books and in many of his essays. In the French Revolution, above all, he finds “the passions, the spirit, and the language of the Russian Revolution. This is true to such an extent that it is absolutely necessary for the student of recent Russian history to view it every now and then through the French prism.” (Russia in Transition, p. 143)

Deutscher sees the French and Russian revolutions as having established the power of socially progressive forces. Both revolutions revealed initial egalitarian, democratic impulses and mass enthusiasm. But given the force of the law of revolution, neither the Jacobins nor the Bolsheviks could possibly meet the expectations of the multitudes they inspired and led. The frustrated French plebeians grew as disillusioned with the intangible results of their sacrifices as the Russian working class grew apathetic and even hostile toward a Bolshevik party that could provide it with none of the material benefits for which so much blood was shed. Consequently, the popular, democratic phase of the French Revolution, which reached its apex with the Jacobin triumph in 1793, inevitably succumbed, first to the Thermidor and then to Bonapartism. Similarly, the analogy goes, the Russian Revolution reached its inspirational heights in the first years of Bolshevik rule only to give way to one-party dictatorship and then to one-man tyrannical rule. The analogy continues: although Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, he neither wanted to nor could reverse the rising power of the French bourgeoisie established in the heroic period of 1789–1793; on the contrary, Napoleon defended the basic social objectives of the French Revolution at the necessary expense of its egalitarianism. Similarly, Stalin dissipated the egalitarianism of Russia’s October Revolution, emerging as a personally fiendish dictator who nevertheless defended the socialist interests of the very working class he brutalized by preserving, consolidating and extending nationalized urban property within and without Russian borders.

Therefore, in Deutscher’s view, “the Russian counterparts to the Jacobin, Thermidorean and Bonapartist phases of the [French] revolution have in a curious way overlapped and merged in Stalinism.” Thus Stalin becomes a curious sort of socialist Napoleon, and his political personality is even more complex since he also emerges in Deutscher’s writings as a barbaric kind of socialist Robespierre. (Or, depending on the specific national-historical focus of the analogies, Stalin is, always in a qualified and curious way, reminiscent of Cromwell, Bismarck, a blend of “the Leninist and Ivan the Terrible,” among other star billings including the Emperor Constantine.)

Deutscher acknowledges that there are limits to the analogy. In the first paragraph of his essay, Two Revolutions, wholly concerned with an analogy of the French and Communist revolutions, he counsels his reader that “in drawing any analogy it is ... important to know where the analogy ends.” And he hopes not to “offend badly against this rule.” This promising beginning is followed by a series of comparisons between the two revolutions, some interesting, others preposterous, but no indication of where the analogy finds its limits. Yet, it is the incongruities far more than the similarities which sharpen the socialist image by way of contrast. What these differences reveal is that the Russian (socialist) Revolution represented a much sharper and more profound break with the past than was the case with the French (bourgeois) Revolution. It is worth noting some of the important differences:

a) The revolution of 1789–1793 brought the conflict between bourgeois and aristocrat to a head and out of that contest the supremacy of capitalism was hastened and assured by the shattering of feudal restrictions to free competition, to the development of manufacturing, to the right to exploit both labor and partitioned lands; it relieved the bourgeoisie of the burden of intolerable tithes and discriminatory taxation and permitted the realization of the bourgeoisie’s dream of a French nation state. However, vast as these changes were, the French Revolution meant the triumph of one prop ertied class over another propertied class. By contrast the Russian Revolution witnessed, for the first time, the economic and political expropriation of property-owning classes by a propertyless working class.

b) The French bourgeoisie had established its economic and political beachheads within the old regime long before the call for the Estates General. “Creeping capitalism” was an irrepressible fact of life throughout the reign of Louis XVI. Bolshevism, on the other hand, could not establish any beachheads under Czarism (nor could socialism assert its authority within the framework of American capitalism in the future). For, under socialism, the individual worker remains propertyless but his class becomes the owner of the means of production through its political control of the state. It is patently impossible, then, for socialism to grow within capitalism since the working class cannot win political control of a nationalized industry in this or that sector of a capitalist economy.

If one accepts just these obvious differences between the two revolutions, the whole elegant structure of Deutscherism begins to sag, since one of its major underpinnings – his use of the analogy of bourgeois and socialist revolutions – turns out to be a numbing hallucination. There can be no curious sort of merging of Jacobinism-Thermidoreanism-Bonapartism, or their alleged “counterparts,” in a socialist society. While Bonaparte deprived the bourgeoisie of many of its political rights, he nevertheless contributed enormously to the consolidation of capitalism in that he continued to battle the remnants of feudalism, created more congenial conditions for the expansion of capital and in his wars of conquest performed similar services in foreign lands bringing them into greater harmony with the needs of French capitalism.

But – as Deutscher’s use of the analogy suggests – how could a socialist Bonaparte or a semi-socialist semi-Bonaparte deprive the working class of its political power and at the same time perform services for that class comparable to what Napoleon did for the French ruling class when the working class can be the ruling class only if it has political power? Deprive the workers of political power and they are once again an economically exploited class.

c) The French revolution – as with all bourgeois revolutions – was fought and won primarily by classes alien to the bourgeoisie. What there was of a French bourgeoisie was weak and vacillating though, for a brief period, sections of the Third Estate did develop a Messianic vision and fanaticism in the course of their struggle against the nobility. Left to their own resources, however, their triumph would have been much longer in coming. To break the back of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie was obliged to form temporary and uneasy alliances with elements it feared and upon whom it would turn in fury. The necessary violence with which the aristocracy was defeated within France and the armies raised to resist foreign invasions in defense of the bourgeois revolution were primarily the achievements of the revolutionary Jacobin left whose mass base was largely found among those insurrectionary plebeian elements who had far less to gain than the bourgeois class in whose historic interests they fought. Indeed, in the years immediately following the fall of Robespierre, with the victory of the revolution more or less secure, the Jacobin left and its plebeian supporters were subjected to a white terror at the hands of conservative bourgeois and aristocrats in tacit alliance that far outdid the violence of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety.

This contrasts sharply with a socialist revolution, which can be fought, won and sustained only by the working class and its natural allies – or not at all. The armies of socialism cannot possibly be recruited from the bourgeoisie, while the armies of the bourgeois revolution had to be plebeian in composition.

d) The decisive function of politics in a socialist society and the above-noted necessity for the self-mobilization of the oppressed implies a fourth difference between socialist and bourgeois revolutions: the role of consciousness. To achieve power the working class must be moved by an awareness that is on a qualitatively higher plane than that required of a bourgeois class (which had the economic leverage of expanding capitalist enclaves within the old feudal order). And the organized leadership of a socialist working class must be moved by an ideology that is clear, consistent with its objectives, sensitive to the needs of the working class and whose aims are never hidden from the people. On the other hand, the social rule of the capitalist class is not dependent on a comparable sustained high level of class consciousness.

Deutscher would rather not dwell on the importance of consciousness as a socialist criterion since he is anxious to pass Russia off as a form of socialism at the same time as he recognizes the absence of popular direction of Russian society and has repeatedly asserted that the people are lacking in class consciousness and must relearn the habits of political thinking.

e) The success of a bourgeois revolution is not contingent on the support of the majority of people; a bourgeois government represents the interests of a minority class which may or may not have majority support. A socialist revolution, on the other hand, must have the support of the majority of urban and agrarian wage earners or feel assured of such support in the course of a struggle for power. Napoleon could force bourgeois change down the throat of European society with bayonets; socialist revolutions and socialist societies cannot impose socialist systems on a hostile majority, either at home or abroad, with tanks, bayonets and armies, as Deutscher tells us Stalin did in Russia and Eastern Europe. Where Deutscher does point to dissimilarities between the French and Russian revolutions, they are seldom the basic ones and, more damaging, they are often used to demonstrate either implicitly or explicitly, the social superiority of Stalin as against Robespierre, and of Stalinism against the French Thermidor. An example from The Prophet Outcast:

“Another difference is even more important: Thermidor brought to a close the revolutionary transformation of French society and the upheaval in property. In the Soviet Union these did not come to a halt with Stalin’s ascendancy. On the contrary, the most violent upheaval, collectivization of farming, was carried out under his rule. And it was surely not ‘law and order,’ even in a most anti-popular form, that prevailed either in 1923, or at any time during the Stalin era. What the early 1920s had in common with the Thermidorean period was the ebbing away of the popular revolutionary energies and the disillusionment and apathy of the masses. It was against such a background that Robespierre had sought to keep the rump of the Jacobin Party in power and failed; and that Stalin struggled to preserve the dictatorship of the Bolshevik rump (i.e., of his own faction] and succeeded.”

First of all, the Thermidor did not bring to a close the revolutionary transformation of French society. It only brought to a close the Jacobin chapter in that transformation. In fact, the victory of the Thermidoreans over the Robespierrists assured the continuation of the basic social-economic changes in France. While the Robespierrists were committed to bourgeois property rights they also advocated democratic political and economic policies – such as universal suffrage and price ceilings – which galled the more conservative bourgeois elements, many of whom fell under the guillotine of Robespierre’s “reign of terror.” In bringing Robespierre to account after Thermidor, the bourgeoisie rejoiced not because the revolutionary transformation of French society and the “upheaval in property” ground to a halt, but because the bourgeois upheaval in property would be less constrained by restrictions imposed by the plebeian-based left wing of the revolution. In this decisive sense the Thermidoreans, despite their lessened vigilance vis-à-vis the aristocracy, were the continuants and consolidators of that revolution and those upheavals destined to establish the supremacy of bourgeois property relations.

By placing a period to the French upheavals in property after Robespierre’s fall and by implicitly (and falsely) equating the essence of the Russian Revolution with such upheavals as “collectivization of farming,” Stalin and Stalinism emerge as superior creatures (even if, admittedly, somewhat odious) ‘ in Deutscher’s analogous heap. Stalin “succeeded” where Robespierre failed, and Stalin carried out revolutionary upheavals where the Thermidoreans supposedly brought them to a halt.

Shortly after this revealing comparison, Deutscher gives forth in the same intellectual spirit with both a similarity and a difference between Stalin and Robespierre.

“The historically far more justified charge that Trotsky could have levelled against Stalin (i.e., that Stalinism represented the Russian Thermidor) was that he instituted a reign of terror like Robespierre’s, and that he had monstrously outdone Robespierre.”

That Stalin monstrously outdid Robespierre in the use of terror will be challenged by no responsible person. That Stalin’s reign of terror was anything “like Robespierre’s” is to monstrously abuse Robespierre and history.

There has been a tendency, perhaps, for socialists to overdress Robespierre in revolutionary democratic robes, to glamorize the man and the faction he led. Robespierre’s terror was not only directed against the aristocracy and the Gironde. It moved against his opposition on the left, Hébert and the Enragés, using false accusations, drumhead trials and the guillotine in a violent and futile effort to consolidate Robespierre’s power. Despite the similarities, to place Robespierre’s terror in a “like” category with Stalin’s terror is somewhat like comparing a gourmand to a cannibal because both are meat-eaters.

The fact is that the brunt of the French terror was felt by the aristocracy, by those who speculated in the welfare of the people, by bourgeois elements who grew to fear the sans-culottes more than the nobility and by those who gave aid and comfort to foreign armies fighting on French soil. Now, if Stalin’s terror was “like” Robespierre’s, only more thorough, then it would seem that Stalin’s terror was primarily and more effectively, directed against comparable elements in Russia – against Czarist restorationists, agents of foreign imperialism, swindlers, etc. But this was not the case, of course. Stalin’s terror was directed against workers, peasants, intellectuals, socialists, as well as against the top and secondary leadership and tens of thousands of rank and file members of the Communist Party. How was this like Robespierre’s terror?


Deutscher does believe in democracy and he does look forward to socialist democracy in Russia. At least he has so assured us in his writings. But when it comes down to the here and now, who one should support, which system is progressive, democracy becomes a secondary consideration, And in any conflict between democracy and what he believes to be the needs of industrialization in a nationalized and collectivized economy the former is denied any decisive merit, This is borne out, above all, in Deutscher’s treatment of “primitive socialist accumulation” in which his value judgements are evident.

The Russian economy, weak to begin with in 1914, was shattered by more than seven years of war and revolution. The defeat of the revolution in the West was an even heavier blow to the industrial needs of the Soviet regime. Confronted with famine, apathy and mounting hostility, the Leninist Party led the country into the New Economic Policy (NEP) period which was highlighted by a general relaxation of economic controls. Forced grain collections were eliminated and the market in the agrarian section of the economy was re-introduced to encourage the farmer to produce. This served to stabilize Russian society; anti-government violence subsided in the countryside, more food was produced by the profit-motivated farmer and famine was thereby averted among urban consumers.

The blessings of NEP, however, were of short duration and never unmixed. It was initiated by an already bureaucratized party that counterweighted economic relaxation with still tighter Party political controls. With the declining caliber of the party and Stalin’s ascendancy, it served the latter’s purposes to give the NEP, originally designed as a temporary stopgap, a more permanent place in Party ideology. A new class of more prosperous farmers (kulaks) was advised by the Stalin regime to “enrich yourselves.” This, of course, they tried to do, one technique being to withhold produce from the once again hard-pressed urban consumer in the late twenties. The farmers sought not only to keep the price of their produce at a profitable level but were incensed over the prospect of their profits being wiped out by the rising price of urban manufactured goods produced by an inefficient and neglected Russian industry. By 1929, Stalin was confronted by a hungry proletariat, a weak industry, an insurrectionary peasantry and a rising class of capitalist-oriented kulaks. Stalin set about to strengthen the Communist party and his position in it with a radical and sudden departure from the policies of 1923-1929. This was to be the period of forced collectivization and forced industrialization.

These objectives could be achieved by Stalin in only one way: through the most massive, systematized and historically unrivalled application of mass terror. Forced collectivization required a veritable civil war in which millions of peasants were killed by gunfire, famine and the rigors of labor camps. Industrialization was advanced in similar fashion. The political auxilliary of these new economic policies was the consolidation of totalitarianism, one-man dictatorship and mass purges.

The human misery wrought by Stalinist industrialization and collectivization is detailed by Isaac Deutscher. But for all his lamentation over Stalin’s barbarities, Deutscher’s final political judgement is essentially indifferent to totalitarianism’s deprivation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In his balance sheet of history, forced collectivization and industrialization are in the historical black, so to speak, since Stalin preserved and extended the “socialist” nature of the economy. It was Russia’s “Second Revolution” which, we are told, could only be carried out brutally and required the extirpation of democracy.

The logic of Deutscherism is inescapable. Given his views of socialism, which eliminate democracy as an integral part of socialism, and given his conviction that only the inevitably (“predetermined”) evolved system of Stalinism could bring this good about, there is no ground for repudiating Stalin’s methods other than an irrelevant squeamishness. Perhaps it was not necessary to slander the old Bolsheviks with the charge of being agents of foreign imperialism and on Hitler’s payroll, but whatever reasons might be advanced, from Deutscher’s point of view and analysis, if logic prevails, the old Bolsheviks had to be removed one way or another, since it can easily be established that their very existence was a serious menace to the consolidation of Stalinism politically and therefore an impediment to its historic “socialist” mission of raising Russia from the wooden plow to the tractor.

More generally, Deutscher has created a theoretical justification for terror whose practical significance today lies in its contribution to totalitarian tendencies which seek, on similar grounds, to justify the use of terror and the liquidation of democracy and democrats in Cuba, China, North Vietnam and elsewhere on the ground that such terror is historically conditioned and necessary for the sake of social progress.

A basic merit of industrialization in Deutscher’s view is that it provides the economic catalyst for Russia’s evolution from authoritarian socialism. This optimistic vision is presented in Marxistical terms, although what emerges is a crude form of economic determinism that shares nothing with Marxism.

In the Marxist view, political institutions, philosophical ideas, legal concepts, national customs and habits are shaped and influenced by the material conditions of life. These material factors include: a) all the limitations and propensities inherent in natural conditions – climate, waterways, topography, etc. – and b) the level and form of economic activity. Since the conditions of nature are relatively constant, it is to the variable factor, economic conditions, that the historian must turn to understand the complexities of social evolution. The changes in the level of productivity, the means whereby the product is exchanged, the economic relations into which men are obliged to enter with other men, become the underlying sources of social transformation.

Marxism did not limit itself to promulgating a philosophical view of the world. It sought to examine concretely the economic relations men entered into with one another; to establish the causes and consequences of economic conflict; to learn what is needed to permit man to overcome the limitations of nature. In the class struggle, Marxists found the “locomotive of history”; in the capitalist mode of production they found inner contradictions which would lead to the expropriation of the capitalist expropriators; and in the growth of the productive forces Marxism saw the prerequisite of man’s emancipation from exploitative class society.

It is in this latter condition for freedom – the growth of the productive forces – that the modern authoritarian socialist finds it possible to mask economic determinism with a protective Marxist cloak. Did not Marx find that capitalism, as against feudalism, was a progressive form of society because it meant a vast growth of the productive forces? And if capitalism was an historic advance because it meant the triumph of the machine process over feudal agrarianism, is not Stalinism a progressive form of society because in Russia it transformed an agrarian economy into a highly industrialized one and created a large industrial working class? In the words of the dean of authoritarian socialism:

“In spite of its ‘blood and dirt,’ the English industrial revolution – Marx did not dispute this – marked a tremendous progress in the history of mankind. It opened a new and not unhopeful epoch of civilization. Stalin’s industrial revolution can claim the same merit.” (Stalin: A Political Biography, pp.342-343)

There is so much wrong with this analogy between Stalinist industrialization in modern times and the growth of the factory system more than a century ago, that we must limit ourselves here to itemizing a few critical observations:

a) The victory of capitalism was achieved at the expenseof a retrograde feudal society. The victory of Stalinism had as its precondition the defeat of a socialistic Russia.

b) For all of its hesitations and misgivings about democracy, for all of its violence against the working class, even in its earliest days, the victory of the European bourgeoisie over the nobility witnessed an extension of individual rights and political freedom which was unthinkable under feudalism. And what the bourgeoisie would not willingly concede to the nation in the way of democracy could often be won by democratic forces within the framework of the bourgeois social order. What is disastrous for Deutscher’s analogy of capitalist and Stalinist industrialization is that the latter was effected under the auspices of a totalitarian force which can remain in power only as long as it can prevent the emergence of democratic institutions.

c) One progressive contribution of capitalism was the creation of a large, socially homogeneous industrial proletariat which is, in the Marxist view, the indispensable agent for liberating society. This class, unique to capitalist society, was “freed” from any ownership of the means of production but it was, of necessity, also freed from the political servitude of feudalism. This political freedom is atypical of Stalinism’s working class and would be inimical to its totalitarian collectivized economy. The Russian working class is not the same as the industrial proletariat described by Marx.

d) To increase the wealth of nations there was no alternative to a capitalist reorganization of society. The economic basis of socialism had to be developed and a working class of weight and experience had to appear. It has yet to be proved that despite the degree of Russia’s economic backwardness, and given the economically advanced character of the capitalist world, the only way to modernize Russia was through its Stalinization.

Moreover, Stalinization in Russia cannot be considered in isolation. It meant the corruption of the world Communist’ movement, reducing foreign parties to little more than adjuncts of the Kremlin. It meant sacrificing socialist principles and national revolutionary ambitions throughout the world for the sake of securing the degenerated Russian Communist party in power. Before dismissing the possibility of Russia industrializing in a democratic manner, one must consider the very real possibility that a genuinely communist, i.e., revolutionary socialist, movement in Germany might have taken power in 1932 which would have changed the political map of Europe and provided the technological assistance for which the Bolshevik leaders of 1917 thirsted.

e) The most telling difference between Marx’s treatment of England’s industrial revolution and Deutscher’s view of Stalinist industrialization is the following: Marx never used his view of capitalist industrialization to underplay the attendant horrors of British exploitation on the ground that England’s economic growth was largely contingent on the sun never setting on its empire; in Deutscher’s hands, by contrast, the alleged progressiveness of an industrializing nationalized economy is used to cloud reality and to cast Stalinist imperialism in a progressive mold.

But, it is said, forced industrialization is a thing of the past, and even if it was a nasty business, look at how it has . transformed Russia and improved the living standards of the Russian people today. However, even where these highly touted economic advances are concerned, we are less impressed than Isaac Deutscher and the whole coterie of Stalinoid aficionados of the statistic whose spirits soar with every new orbiting Sputnik or rise in the production of steel or pigs. The growth is certainly real, but the important thing for socialists, apart from the question of who controls the expanding economy, is to know who are its beneficiaries. One thing is certain – those benefitting least are the workers and peasants. The truth of the matter is that by American standards the vast majority of Russian wage-earners would qualify for assistance under the Washington Administration’s anti-poverty program and be eligible for supplementary relief from local welfare agencies.

In February of this year the USSR Central Statistical Administration, reporting on the final year’s achievement of the Seven Year Plan (1959-65), stated that the “average monthly earnings of workers and employees in the national economy increased from 90 rubles in 1964 to 95 rubles in 1965 or by 5.8%.” The higher figure means an average weekly wage of approximately $25.00 on the basis of the dollar-ruble exchange rate. What about the many fringe benefits that Russian workers are said to receive? The following figures given in the report reveal how modest they really are: “If the payments and benefits received from public funds are added in, the average earnings increased correspondingly from 121 rubles [in 1964] to 128 rubles per month [in 1965].” Even if these figures are not exaggerated the combined wage and public fund benefits would come to about $33.00 per week, or slightly over $1,700 a year.

What does the Five Year Plan (1966-1970) recently adopted at the Party’s 23rd Congress hold in store for the workers in Deutscher’s socialist Russia? Premier Kosygin’s report to the Congress on the Five Year Plan Directives lets us know: “The average monthly wages of production and office workers will go up during the five years by an average of not less than 20% and by the end of the new five-year plan will amount to about 115 rubles; if payments and benefits from the public consumption funds are included, the total will reach approximately 155 rubles per employed person.” In other words, after another five years of reaping socialism, the average workingman can look forward to a total income from pay and benefits of around $40 per week. And these are figures for urban industrial and white-collar workers. If we averaged in agricultural earnings, the figures would be still lower.

While this will be the average income (if the goal is fulfilled), whole categories of workers will receive considerably less. According to the section of the Five Year Plan concerned with “Raising The Material Well-Being and Cultural Level of the People” we are informed of the Party’s ambition “to raise the minimum wage in the (national) economy to 60 rubles a month.” Sixteen dollars a week – by 1970! As this is to be the minimum wage if the Plan is successfully completed, it is reasonable enough to assume – and there are statistics to bear it out – that today there are categories of unskilled workers who receive no more than $13 to $14 a week. How much culture and well-being can be raised on this pittance? While there has been some levelling of income in Russia, it is nonetheless the case that in Deutscher’s socialist economy there are top academicians and administrators who receive up to $10,000 a year (apart from such little extras as dachas and chauffeured limousines). Between high and low earnings, then, there is a differential of 14:1 compared to a spread of 5:1 in equivalent categories in Western bourgeois countries.

In Russia there is an income tax. It is not high by American standards, but high enough given the low wages. It begins with incomes of only 60 rubles a month and discriminates against the poor since it is not a highly graduated direct tax system. Instead, a family of four earning 50 rubles above the 60 ruble exemption pays 10% of those 50 rubles while a top administrator who earns 800 rubles above the 60 only pays 13%. A continuing major source of revenue is the turnover tax which continues to add about 30% to retail prices. This, too, discriminates against the poor who must pay the same 30% on the price of goods as the affluent professional or bureaucrat.

The situation for Russian worker-consumers is even more morbid than the above figures suggest since the prices they must pay for basic necessities of life are outlandish. The prices of butter and meats were raised 25 to 30% in 1962. The increases have not been rescinded. A pound of salted butter costs $1.75 in Moscow, and the average buyer must work well over three hours to earn enough for the purchase. In New York the comparable figures are $0.75 a pound and 19 minutes worktime for the average factory worker. The price of beef is approximately the same in Moscow and New York, but the Moscow worker must work five times as long as his New York counterpart to make the purchase. The story is the same for such items as sugar, bread, potatoes, eggs and milk, where the Muscovite must work from 400% to 1900% longer than the New Yorker to purchase these necessities. It is the same in clothing where, for example, an average Russian worker must be prepared to spend five weeks pay for a suit of moderate quality that would require 23 hours worktime for a New York worker. Other Moscow figures: four weeks work for a radio set, two months for a TV set, while even the lowest priced car is for bureaucrats only since it would require three to four years of worktime.

The statistics on food costs are based on state-fixed prices. However, since there is a continuing shortage of these basic goods, the consumer is often obliged to buy on the open market where farmers sell their goods for considerably higher prices. (It is true that on the positive side of the economic picture are the considerably lower rents in Russia compared to the United States. On the other hand, the Russian family gets considerably less for its money. Russian dwellings are notoriously inadequate in quality and terribly overcrowded with a total floor space per person of 100 square feet (10’ x 10’) including kitchen and bathroom.)

Compare these economic facts of Russian life with Deutscher’s “certainly]” of surpassing Western European standards (by 1969) and consider the moral enormity of a view that considers Russia to be reaping the benefits of socialism (as far back as 1959).


Deutscher’s obscuring of the full scope and criminality of Stalinist industrialization is matched by his presentation of Russia’s postwar conquest of Eastern Europe as if it were merely a distorted and unsophisticated application of the Marxist concept of the socialist revolution in permanence. In his introduction to The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, published less than two years ago, he found that just as Stalin was the manager of the ideas in domestic affairs developed by the man he murdered, so was he the executor of Trotsky’s will to world socialist revolution:

“... his (Stalin’s) single-country socialism was indeed, as Trotsky maintained, a pragmatist’s utopia. The Soviet Union abandoned it to all intents and purposes towards the end of the Second World War, when its troops, in pursuit of Hitler’s armies, marched into a dozen foreign lands, and carried revolution on their bayonets and in the turrets of their tanks.”

This socialism by foreign tanks and bayonets is one of Deutscher’s pet themes that deserves a more detailed view. In discussing the battle of the Vistula, which witnessed the decisive defeat of the Red armies at the gates of Warsaw in 1920, Deutscher wrote (in The Prophet Armed) that the battle “did not change the course of history, as its contemporaries believed – it only delayed it by a quarter of a century.” In other words, Stalin succeeded in Poland where Trotsky and Lenin failed a quarter of a century earlier! Of course, as Deutscher knows and acknowledges, the earlier Russian invasion of Poland took place under entirely different circumstances and with altogether different motives than Stalin’s military conquests.

In 1920, the Red Army invaded Poland as a continuation of a war which had begun as a defensive operation. Large sections of the Ukraine had already been occupied by Polish troops who amused themselves by inflicting all sorts of atrocities upon the Ukrainian people. The enmity of the Ukrainian peasant to Pilsudski’s troops facilitated the Bolshevik military victory in the Ukraine, and when the Red Army reached Polish borders it pursued the retreating Polish armies into Poland proper. This military venture, however, was undertaken against the advice of Trotsky, who did not believe that Russian bayonets were a proper substitute for an absent socialist consciousness of the Polish people. Lenin and the majority of the Bolsheviks did order the continuation of the war into Polish territory but even for them a victorious Red Army was not intended as an occupying force to stuff freedom down Polish throats with Russian bayonets. They were convinced that the Polish people would respond favourably to the Red Army; and perhaps an even greater consideration for the Bolshevik majority was its conviction that a Red Army on the Polish-German border would provide a moral and political impetus to the developing revolutionary consciousness of the German working class. In any case, the 1920 Polish adventure came to be looked on by Lenin and his party as a mistake for precisely those reasons advanced by Trotsky at the time of his minority opposition to the war – socialism cannot be advanced in foreign countries on the points of bayonets.

By contrast, the Russian occupation of Poland in 1945 did not follow the expulsion of Polish troops from Russian soil. (The fate of the Polish armies had been sealed five years earlier in the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.) And Stalin’s conquest of Poland had nothing to do with an anticipated rise of Polish socialist consciousness and nothing to do with providing the catalyst for a revolutionary upheaval from below of the West European working class.

Deutscher is actually aware of how removed his concept of socialism by foreign bayonets is from revolutionary socialist principles. He has written, for example, that “it had been a canon of Marxist politics that revolution cannot and must not be carried on the point of bayonets into foreign countries,” and that this canon “also followed from the fundamental attitude of Marxism which looked to the working classes of all nations as to the sovereign agents of socialism and certainly did not expect socialism to be imposed upon peoples from outside.”

Deutscher, with his foreign “socialist” bayonets, is privileged to violate what he recognizes to be fundamental Marxist attitudes. But he has no right to do so and simultaneously pose as a Marxist.

What term other than imperialism can more accurately describe the foreign politics of a country which, by the use or threat of armed force, imposes its will and, at times, its social system on weaker nations? This imperialism may not be generated by the economic drives peculiar to monopoly capitalism, but imperialism, generally defined, is not unique to capitalism. Caesar’s marauding imperial legions were not driven by a need to offset a falling rate of profit. Russia is a modern case in point of a non-capitalist imperialism. It was not impelled to export capital in postwar Europe. It merely exported its social system at bayonet point.

Deutscher frequently waxes wroth over the manner and consequences of Russian “expansionism.” But he is incapable of presenting a clear, consistent repudiation of this imperialism given his view that the Kremlin was exporting revolutionary progress along with some unsavory practices. Even his criticisms of Communist methods often prove to be disarming preludes to contradictory political conclusions rationalizing some of the cruder aspects of Stalinist imperialism. In his Stalin, where we find the most explicit and detailed apologetics, he wrote: “Between the two wars [World War I and II] nearly all those peoples [of Eastern Europe] had been stranded in an impasse; their life had been bogged down in savage poverty and darkness; their politics had been dominated by archaic cliques who had not minded the material and cultural retrogression of their subjects as long as their own privileges had been safe. That whole portion of Europe had emerged from the Second World War and from the hideous ‘school’ of nazism even more destitute, savage and helpless.”

This grim, sweeping canvas of Eastern Europe is drawn in somewhat exaggerated strokes, particularly if one includes Czechoslovakia. But there is method in Deutscher’s levelling postwar Eastern Europe to one pathetic, helpless, savage mass. He is actually preparing us for East Europe’s postwar liberation – by Stalin – who apparently was not a savage! by the Russian Communist Party – which we all know was neither a clique nor archaic! by Russia – which had so firmly established itself as a culturally enlightened nation!

In his words, following his chilling image of pre-Stalinist East European barbarism: “It may well be that for its peoples the only chance of breaking out of their impasse lay in a coup de force such as that to which Stalin goaded them.” Apart from the suggestion that Stalinist conquest of East Europe, with its executions, purges, deportations and overall savagery, provided the “only chance” for freedom, there is the insidious suggestion that Communist regimes were not actually installed by the Kremlin but by Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, etc., merely spurred on by Stalin.

Moved by his own rhetoric, perhaps, Deutscher next reveals more of his hand. “In Poland and Hungary the Communist-inspired land reform fulfilled, perhaps imperfectly, a dream of many generations of peasants and intellectuals. All over eastern Europe the Communists, having nationalized the main industries, vigorously promoted plans for industrialization and full employment such as were beyond the material resources and wit of native ‘private enterprise.’ ...”

The new Peoples’ Democracies “did much to calm nationalist vendettas and to promote co-operation between their peoples. In a word, they opened before eastern Europe broad vistas of common reform and advancement. It was as if Russia had imparted to her neighbors some of her own ways and methods of communal work and social organization. Considering the vastness and the radical character of the upheaval, it is remarkable that Stalin and his men brought it off not without terror, indeed, not without indulging in a long series of coups, but without provoking within the Russian orbit a real civil war such as that waged in Greece.”

Thus Deutscher’s vision. Ours is somewhat less euphoric. In Russia’s postwar aggrandizement we see armies of occupation; the threat and the use of force; trumped-up elections; mounting hatred by peasants, workers, intellectuals; political suppression; bureaucratic inefficiency in industry; low living standards; national indignities. We also see the mass graves of Hungarian revolutionaries – workers, peasants, intellectuals, children – who chose the path of armed resistance since they could nowhere find on totalitarianism’s political map the “broad vistas of common reform and advancement” conjured up by Deutscher.

To soften the imperial edge of Russia’s foreign policy Deutscher has offered some extraordinary explanations for Russian expansionism, including the theory that Stalin imposed Communist satellite regimes on Eastern Europe virtually against his will. In discussing the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam agreements, Deutscher, in his Russia: What Next?, wrote:

“It may, of course, be argued that Stalin’s behavior during the war was nothing but make-believe, and that all his solemn vows of non-interference in the internal affairs of neighboring countries were dust thrown into the eyes of his Allies. On the other hand, Stalin’s deeds at the time lent weight to his vows ... The point is that both Churchill and Roosevelt had solid evidence that Stalin’s policy was, in fact, geared to self-containment. They saw Stalin acting, not merely speaking, as any nationalist statesman would have done in his place – they saw him divested, as it were, of his communist character. He was approaching the problems of the Russian zone of influence in a manner calculated to satisfy nationalist Russian demands and aspirations and to wreck the chances of communist revolution in those territories.”

If we believe Deutscher, Stalin was committed to a policy of Russian self-containment and shrank from the prospect of imposing Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. What kind of governments did Stalin want in Eastern and Central Europe? Bourgeois governments! At least so Deutscher tells us: “He (Stalin) expected, of course, that victorious Russia would enjoy a position of diplomatic and economic preponderance in neighboring countries, ruled by ‘friendly governments,’ to quote the insipid cliché then fashionable. But he also expected that those governments would remain essentially bourgeois.”

If Stalin preferred friendly bourgeois governments why did he impose Communist regimes on Eastern Europe? Deutscher is quick to answer:

“... at least three factors combined to undo Stalin’s policy of self-containment: genuine revolutionary ferment abroad; the revolutionary urge in Stalin’s own armies; and the jockeying for position among allies rapidly turning into potential enemies.” (Russia: What Next?, p.106)

The first of Deutscher’s three factors is patently false since the regimes the Kremlin imposed on Central and Eastern Europe could in no sense have been a response – either positive or negative – to internal Communist ferment. In Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, etc., Communist parties existed in varying degrees of strength, but in no case, except Yugoslavia, were these parties in a position to take power relying solely upon their own resources. It is Deutscher himself who wrote (as we have quoted above) that Eastern Europe had emerged from the war and from the hideous school of Nazism “even more destitute, savage and helpless” than before the war. By what dialectical contortion is it possible to find, at the same time and the same place, both a state of barbarism (and helplessness) and a state of “genuine revolutionary ferment”? The contradiction is too apparent to dwell upon. The only consistent element is that Deutscher uses each part of his contradiction for the same purpose of rationalizing Russian imperialism.

The second reason offered for Stalin’s abandoning his alleged non-imperialist policy of self-containment – that it was a response to a global revolutionary urge welling up in the ideological breasts of Russian army personnel – is even less serious than the first. It is incredible to think that if Stalin really wanted to maintain capitalism in Eastern Europe after the war, he would succumb, on such a decisive matter, to the allegedly internationalist Communist aspirations of army officers. If these idealistic Communist generals could passively abide Stalin’s murderous purge of the armed forces in the 1930s and then swallow the Nazi-Soviet Pact, is it conceivable that they would be put in a mutinous frame of mind by Stalin’s supposed policy of self-containment?

The third reason given – that Russia abandoned its pre-war policy of self-containment because former war-time allies were becoming potential enemies – has merit. But this is in no way reduces the fact and culpability of Communist imperialism. (One can also point to Washington’s need for political or strategic defense to explain American intervention in Guatemala, Cuba and Vietnam. That would hardly vindicate Washington or absolve it of the charge of imperialism.)

Life and politics are complicated enough in the modern world without needlessly adding to them such exotic political motivations as Deutscher claims to find behind Russian expansionism. What the Kremlin successfully sought was to plunder the economies of East Germany, Central and Eastern Europe. It robbed these countries of enormous wealth (called reparations in the case of East Germany), forcibly imported thousands of workers and technicians to help rebuild Russia’s war-torn industry, and dictated terms of economic trade most favorable to Russia. Thievery was not Russia’s only objective. The Cold War was under way before the smoke of World War II had lifted in Europe and Asia. Only two great and inimical powers emerged from the war, the United States and Russia, and the Kremlin instinctively sought to secure its position, politically and militarily, in Europe. In addition, to achieve its immediate economic, political and military objectives, Russia was obliged to frustrate, whenever possible, the independent revolutionary potential that inhered in the anti-Nazi resistance movements throughout Europe.

Stalin understood that these ambitions and needs could not be met in deals with bourgeois governments, but through the direct annexation of foreign territories or the imposition of Russian-dominated Communist regimes wherever this could be done with some show of plausibility (such as trotting out old Czarist claims to parts of Poland) and a minimum risk of war with the United States. To believe that Stalin, out of conservatism or a dogmatic allegiance to his theory of socialism in one country, was reluctant to fulfill these imperialist ambitions is to be guilty of misreading history or of underplaying the venality of Stalinism or, as in the case of Deutscher, to be guilty of both.

A recent example of Deutscher’s apologia for Russian imperialism was his performance at the nationally televised Teach-in held in Washington, DC, in May 1965. There Deutscher rejected the reciprocal responsibility of Washington and Moscow for the Cold War, arguing, instead, that it was the exclusive, initial responsibility of Western imperialism. Evidence offered of Russia’s pacific intentions included his claim that Russian armed forces had been reduced to “less than three million men by the end of 1947.” This is an example of a man shaving a statistic to fit a theory, since by the end of 1947 Russia’s armed forces were closer to 4,000,000 than 3,000,000 men. But even accepting Deutscher’s pared figure, approximately 6% of the adult Russian male population was in the armed forces. The actual figure is closer to 8% and both figures are considerably higher if computed on the basis of able-bodied men under the age of 60, and further increased if we add the well-equipped armies of secret police and other paramilitary organizations.

Considering that this commitment to the forces of destruction was made by a country horribly drained of economic and human resources we have a better measure of Russia’s post-war militarism. And we get a clearer image of Deutscher’s design when we remember that he conveniently omitted from his picture of Russia’s military posture such factual details as the strength of Stalinist armies maintained in subjugated, occupied countries: 22 divisions in East Germany, two divisions in Poland, two in Hungary, two in Rumania, troops in Austria, Finland, Port Arthur and the Baltics (gobbled up in 1940) and other thousands of supply troops in these areas and in Russia to keep the imperial fighting legions in combat readiness.

In the same Washington speech and in the same spirit of apologetics, Deutscher went on to claim that the Kremlin never did “threaten to overrun Europe” and, what is more, “I don’t think that the attack on Stalin’s government on the basis of its alleged threat to peace of the world was ever justified.” One difficulty with the first statement is that Stalin did, in effect, overrun one-third of the continent outside of Russian borders – East Germany, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Baltics; and that Stalin had designs on West Germany is part of the historic record. That Russia did not directly threaten the rest of Western Europe does not mean that such fears had no basis in reality. As for his denial that Stalin’s government “was ever” a threat to the peace of the world, it is at such variance with history from the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (was this not a threat to world peace?) until Stalin’s death, that it is perhaps best to let the remark speak for itself.


An age-old device of apologists for reaction is to defend what exists, wicked as it is acknowledged to be, lest sudden upheaval bring on something worse. Deutscher is an old hand at the game. Whenever Communist imperialism has been threatened by revolution he admits that life was bad for the people but it would have been worse if the insurgents won. We would have had, among other things – bourgeois restoration! Accordingly, in The Prophet Unarmed, written shortly after the Hungarian Revolution, Deutscher wrote: “Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland, and Eastern Germany), however, found itself almost on the brink of bourgeois restoration at the end of the Stalin era; only Soviet armed power (or its threat) stopped it there.” (p.462) This is Deutscher – parentheses and all.

Earlier in this essay, in a summary of the actual program, objectives, leadership and conduct of the Hungarian revolution, we refuted Deutscher’s slander against the Hungarian people. Here let us look at Deutscher’s more general bugbear of “bourgeois restoration,” a hoax so untenable that he can do no more than mention it in footnotes and in passing although the thought is of the greatest theoretical and political significance.

Consider some relevant facts about Hungary. There, as in other Eastern European countries, the bourgeoisie was never strong. Much of Hungary was controlled by foreign capital. In part to protect what it could of its industry from this predatory grip of foreign financiers, the pre-war Hungarian governments nationalized a good deal of the native industry, thereby further undercutting the power of Hungarian capitalists.

During the war, Hungary was a German ally. As a result, about one-third of Hungarian industry fell into the hands of German capitalists and the Nazi state. Excluding land and buildings, around one-fourth of Hungarian wealth was German controlled. With Germany’s defeat, the power of Hungarian capitalism was further weakened since much of her industry, left ownerless, had to be taken over by the state. Other industries, owned by Hungarians who collaborated with the Nazis, were also taken over by the state.

That Hungary was a German ally became the legal basis for Russia to occupy that country. As conquerors, the Russians proceeded to destroy what was left of the Hungarian bourgeoisie, dismantling, looting and taking over outright ownership of considerable sections of Hungarian industry. When the Russians installed their puppet Communist government, the two forces combined to uproot and decisively destroy the residues of capitalism.

How can capitalism be restored in Hungary in light of the above? Capitalism requires capitalists. Who are they? Even if they could be brought back from the beyond how could they divide a nationalized Hungarian industry, much of it built during the past 20 years?

Capitalism in Hungary is dead. It is merely Deutscher’s Frankenstein, created to frighten the unthinking and to shore up his opposition to the Hungarian Revolution.

In The Prophet Outcast, Deutscher even tracks down bourgeois elements still operating in Russia itself! It is a discovery pertinent to our discussion of his apologia for Russian imperialism as can be seen in the first sentence of the following quotation:

“The Stalinist state [Russia], by promoting or assisting for its own reasons revolution in eastern Europe and Asia, created formidable counter checks to its own bourgeois tendencies. The post-war industrialization, the immense expansion of the Soviet working class, the growth of mass education, and the reviving self-assurance of the workers tended to subdue the bourgeois elements in the state; and after Stalin’s death the bureaucracy was compelled to make concession after concession to the egalitarianism of the masses. To be sure, the tension between the bourgeois and the socialist elements of the state continues; and, being inherent in the structure of any post capitalist society, it was bound to persist for a very long time to come.” (p.308)

After nearly 50 years of revolution, civil war, nationalization, collectivization, industrialization, terror, purges, slave labor camps, deportations and war, to discover bourgeois elements in Russia strong enough to produce tension in their conflict with the “socialist elements of the state” is no less astounding than if Deutscher had announced that he had unearthed descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel boring from within the Kremlin walls. (We assume that Deutscher has more in mind than peasants who prefer to work their own private plots to working on the collective or state farms, and that he will not bring up the Liberman plan as an example of bourgeois forces or plots in Russia.)

Yet 17 years ago, Deutscher wrote on the same subject in an altogether different vein:

“Finally, the whole structure of Russian society has undergone a change so profound and so many sided that it cannot really be reversed. It is possible to imagine a violent reaction of the Russian people itself against the state of siege in which it has been living so long. It is even possible to imagine something like a political restoration. But it is certain that even such a restoration would touch merely the surface of Russian society and that it would demonstrate its impotence vis-à-vis the work done by the revolution even more thoroughly than the Stuart and the Bourbon restorations had done. For of Stalinist Russia it is even truer than of any other revolutionary nation that “twenty years have done the work of twenty generations.” (Stalin: A Political Biography, p.569).

If Deutscher knew before 1949 that capitalism was reduced to impotence how can he find significant struggles with bourgeois elements after nearly another 20 years of that revolution (which presumably does the work of another 20 generations)? It all depends on what Deutscher wants to prove at a particular moment. In the earlier quotation from Stalin he is trying to demonstrate Stalin and Stalinism’s superiority to Hitler and Nazism, for which he finds evidence in the permanence with which Stalinism has destroyed capitalism, whereas Nazism proved to be a savage historic interlude that neither fundamentally nor permanently altered the German bourgeois order. In the more recent quotation, Deutscher reincarnates tension-producing bourgeois forces to show, among other things, the basically progressive feature of Russian expansion in Eastern Europe, since this expansion, he says, served to “countercheck” the alleged bourgeois elements in Russia itself.


The conception of a society’s democratic evolution through its massive industrial growth is not the original “socialist” contribution of Isaac Deutscher or the lesser apologists for totalitarianism. It is reminiscent, above all, of the Revisionist school which first made itself felt as a force in the socialist movement before the turn of the century. Under the tutelage of Eduard Bernstein, this school advanced the concept that capitalism would bow peacefully before the requirements of its industrial development, furthered in its natural evolution by reforming pressure from the mass of people, and finally emerging as a full-fledged democratic socialist society.

Where Marx saw industrial growth and concentration of capital sharpening the antagonism between capital and labor, Bernstein saw the opposite tendency in the growth of vast cartels and the credit system. In Bernstein’s estimate, the expansion of the modern corporation entailed the emergence of a new middle class of property-controlling shareholders which would continue to grow at the expense of the social power of the industrial magnate. This new middle class would be able to adjust itself to the needs of an expanding economy and, through the continued growth of trusts and the liberal use of credit, overcome the anarchy of production and eliminate economic crisis.

Economic growth and diffusion of wealth via the growth of the trusts would encourage the adaptive new middle class to discard the laissez-faire doctrine that that government is best which governs least. Government would learn to perform the role of mediator and benevolent regulator of society, and the middle class could permit, might even encourage, the extension of progressive social welfare legislation and political democracy. In the meantime, the working class through its political parties, trade unions and cooperative societies would assert itself as a democratizing influence on society as a whole.

Revisionism gained considerable strength in the German socialist movement after Engels’ death since its predictions of growing prosperity, democratic reform and peace corresponded to the experience of the past thirty years: after 1871, Germany’s industrial indices pointed upward; the ten-year periodic crises predicted by Marx did not occur; the Social Democratic party gained many adherents and victories at the polls; cooperative societies sprouted all over the nation; democratic and social reforms were effectuated; and there had been no major European conflict since the Franco-Prussian War.

Indeed, the case that Bernstein made for evolutionary socialism was a thousand times stronger than that presented by modern authoritarian “socialists.”

Bernstein’s basic revision of Marxian socialism, similar to Deutscher’s, was in his substitution of automatic laws attendant to industrial expansion for the mobilization of the mass I of people as the catalyst of social revolution. The working class would not have to emancipate itself; socialism was free to come from above (although Deutscher pays occasional lip service to the necessity of a developing socialist consciousness of the Russian people as a precondition for full democratization of communist society).

This schema had its predictable political effect. Since the laws of capitalist development insured its socialist negation, these laws were not to be interfered with by extremist anti-capitalist activities and there was no longer the need for a socialist party to wage a revolutionary struggle for political power. The socialist movement, perforce, need only be a responsible movement of reform. And, since Germany was the advanced capitalist vanguard of Europe, Revisionism, despite the pacifism of its leading personality, prepared the German socialist movement for its chauvinist course a decade later (just as Deutscherite revisionism, despite its predilection for the Marxist idiom, prepares sections of the left-wing world for totalitarian rationalization).

In place of the adaptation of a corporate middle class to social progress, the Revisionists adapted themselves to bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

Where the Bernsteinites followed their theories through politically to the advantage of capitalism, their modern methodological cousins come to the aid of Stalinism. If Russian totalitarianism is the precursor of socialism, then despite its moral shortcomings, Stalinism must be defended against all comers, be they the forces of Western capitalism or the rebellions of its oppressed.

Most striking – and damning – in the parallel between Bernstein and Deutscher is the consistent application of their respective theories to the point of crass apologetics for the imperialist ambitions of Kaiserism and Communism.

In his book, Evolutionary Socialism, Bernstein described Germany as a nation “which has indeed carried out, and is carrying out, its honourable share in the civilising work of the world.” This civilizing function of German colonialism was spelled out:

“If we take into account the fact that Germany now imports yearly a considerable amount of colonial produce, we must also say to ourselves that the time may come when it will be desirable to draw at least a part of these products from our own colonies. However speedy socialists may imagine the course of development in Germany towards themselves to be, yet we cannot be blind to the fact that it will need a considerable time before a whole series of other countries are converted to socialism (emphasis added). But if it is not reprehensible to enjoy the produce of tropical plantations, it cannot be so to cultivate such plantations ourselves. Not the whether but the how is here the decisive point. It is neither necessary that the occupation of tropical lands by Europeans should injure the natives in their enjoyment of life, nor has it hitherto usually been the case. Moreover, only a conditional right of the savages to the land occupied by them can be recognized. The higher civilisation ultimately can claim a higher right. Not the conquest, but the cultivation, of the land gives the historical legal title to its use.”

Bernstein’s brief for German imperialism is clear and direct. Deutscher’s rationalizations for Stalinist imperialism, wary and subtle. But the basic similarities are there.

In the earlier period, socialists were cautioned against excessive denunciations of Germany’s overseas adventures because her fate was related to the rest of the world: so long as “it will need a considerable amount of time before a whole series of other countries are converted to socialism” it was neither realistic nor desirable to demand that Germany abandon her imperialist policies. Similarly, today, the distance of Western countries from socialism is used to excuse Russian imperialism: so long as Western powers pursue a colonial policy, socialists have no right to demand of Russia that she voluntarily relinquish her East European sphere of influence and thereby weaken her status as a world power.

For Bernstein, the “right of savages” to their land is “conditional” upon the “higher right” of a “higher civilization.” Whoever has followed the authoritarian apologia for Stalinist imperialism knows that it is largely based upon almost identical reasoning: instead of the lower order of savagery, there is the lower order of capitalism whose national entities cannot be given priority over the higher right of a superior “socialist economy” brought by Russia to all of Eastern Europe and the Baltic lands at the point of Russian bayonets; the Polish bourgeoisie may have had a formal legal title to Poland but it is Russia which Deutscher implies had the historical legal title.

At least the gentle Bernstein was concerned with the method of German expansionism (“not the whether but the how” of colonialism is the “decisive point”) and his inexcusable defense of German imperialism was a defense of a culturally superior country’s exploitation of lower, sometimes savage, societies. The modern authoritarian revisionist, on the other hand, does not find the methods of Stalinist expansionism the “decisive point,” and no one can refer to pre-war Poland and Czechoslovakia as primitive societies; on the contrary, Poland had as great a cultural heritage as its Russian “liberators” and Czechoslovakia a more advanced technology.

The analogy between Bernstein and Deutscher, between Revisionist and modern “authoritarian socialism,” does not hold at every point. There are differences as well as similarities and the differences are illustrative, in their own way, of the intellectual and moral debilitation of the socialist movement today. One dissimilarity is a matter of deception. The earlier Revisionists presented their views as a criticism of Marxism; the authoritarian Revisionists feel compelled to pass off their apologias as the last word in Marxist thought.

The paramount difference can be found in a conflicting evaluation of democracy. To the extent that the socialist movement accepted the Revisionists’ reliance on the economic dynamism of modern capitalism, circa 1900, its revolutionary militancy was subverted and its capitulation to reaction potential. But the early Revisionists did not look upon political democracy as a luxury, expendable for a few decades or so. On the contrary, the primary practical concern of the Revisionists was social reform and political democracy at home; these, in fact, were the fetishes of Revisionism which induced Bernstein to shock the socialist movement with his famous cryptic declaration that for him the movement and the present means everything and the socialist future nothing. The modern authoritarian socialists, on the other hand, have adapted the Revisionist concept of a progressive, self-evolving economic system, but they have muted the Revisionists’ immediate concern with democracy. This emasculated Revisionism is then drawn to a consistent and pernicious conclusion and placed to the intellectual advantage of a politically uncivilized totalitarian regime. Bernstein’s dictum is, in effect, transposed by the authoritarian revisionists to read: the present is nothing and everything must be subordinated to Russia’s predestined socialist end.

Deutscher endows Communist ideology with the power to propel autocratic socialism onto democratic paths. Presumably, the distorted socialist trappings adorning Communist ideology and the circulation of selected, sometimes censored, socialist classics serve to effect a democratic transformation as industry continues to expand and undercut the economic rationale for totalitarian practices. However, the socialist texts and slogans are only a light travelling case in the Party’s intellectual baggage. While the Kremlin is obliged to incorporate much of the Marxist idiom in its propaganda, its major ideological thrust is, and must be, designed to tear the heart out of socialism in order to justify, morally and politically, the continuation of one-party rule with its concomitant suppression of democracy, denial of civil liberties, etc.

Nevertheless, there is some truth to Deutscher’s claim. For reasons which we need not elaborate here, the Kremlin is obliged to bring millions into contact with socialist ideas. This is one of the internal dilemmas – or contradictions – of Communism, since reading Marx and Lenin undoubtedly serves to heighten awareness of the contradiction between Communist reality and socialist theory. This nourishes democratic, oppositional moods from below which is an altogether different proposition from Deutscher’s vision of an ideologically fed, self-reforming ruling Party. There is reason to believe that those who are influenced by the socialist aspects of Communist ideology will be driven into more active forms of opposition to the Kremlin hierarchs.


Yet there is reform in Russia, and here the authoritarian “socialist” believes he has his trump as he plays the relaxation of terror and improved living standards to prove that his theories and predictions are in harmony with reality.

Reform is a fact in post-Stalin Russia and a welcome one. But to welcome reforms is not necessarily to welcome the society within which they are achieved. The Kremlin’s political relaxation does not imply relaxation of socialist opposition to the continuing totalitarian system in Russia.

The reforms are welcome for their own sake and for the additional specific reason that they are in part a response to pressure from below. In this we find confirmation of a fundamental humanist assumption that man is moved by an elemental instinct to gain and enjoy freedom and a further repudiation of the melancholy view that totalitarianism reduces man to an isolated atom, incapable of expression, pliant, terrified, demoralized, inept, adaptable. This theory received its most heavy-handed elaboration in the writings of Hannah Arendt. But it is also explicit and implicit in Deutscher’s elitism that the Russian people lost the ability to think and act as a result of Stalinist terror and therefore had to rely on dispensations from a self-reforming ruling circle.

We also welcome the reforms because we have learned from history that they do not always pacify a dissatisfied population but rather encourage people to demand more and act in their own behalf. In Russia we have reason to hope that this process will assume revolutionary proportions as the spiralling demands for reform rise above the theoretically permissive limits of a totalitarian society, drawn at the point where institutionalized democratic forms begin.

Also encouraging are those changes which are not strictly reforms in the sense of a direct and immediate alleviation of the hardships of life for the majority of people under totalitarianism. We have in mind, above all, the so-called economic reforms inspired by Yevsey Liberman, designed to streamline the nationalized economy through providing greater local autonomy for economic managers, money incentives and bonuses to managers and workers based on plant profit instead of production and permitting prices to shift in response to changes in the market. (The Liberman Plan has nothing to do with a reintroduction of capitalism as some writers think.)

Raising totalitarianism’s economic efficiency does not inspire any hosannahs in this corner, even if some economic benefits eventually filter down to the producers. But the struggle of economic administrators to overcome Party resistance to the Liberman proposals reflects a growing cleavage in Russian society between the men of the Party apparatus and the technicians and economic managers who are more concerned with efficiency and their own authority than with ideology and Party controls, although the division is not always clear and political and economic authority overlaps.

Since one-party control is the natural state of affairs in a totalitarian society, any move by any other segment of that society, be it the economic managers, the scientists, the military, the governmental administrators, to encroach upon the supremacy of the Party in a particular sphere places enormous stress on the monolithic character of the system. In this sense, the new authority which the economic managers have gained with the Liberman proposals tends to loosen important strands in the totalitarian fabric. And this we welcome most heartily; not because we think that economic managers are liberal or progressive, but because it tends to encourage resistance from below to the overall repressive policies of both the Party leaders and economic managers on top. Also, as competition of various bureaucracies with each other and with the ruling Party intensifies, each may feel obliged to seek wider support in lower social and political echelons thereby further weakening the system as lines are drawn more firmly and larger numbers become more directly involved in the struggles.

For all the changes and reforms in Russia, the system remains totalitarian. The Party is still firmly in control and not a single democratic institution is even on the horizon. Only the Communist party is permitted a legal existence. The law, despite additional reforms in the past year, remains, in the sum of its theory and practice, the most reactionary of any advanced Western nation. The “trade unions” despite a greater degree of automony have not lost their essential Stalinist function of supervising and disciplining the working class in the interests of Party control and greater productivity. Strikes are forbidden and the few recent spontaneous strikes we know of have been brutally suppressed. The manifestations of anti-Semitism have abated somewhat but are far from eliminated. Culturally, Party policy after Khrushchev still belongs to the dark ages despite concessions forced out of the regime by a restive and emboldened younger generation.

Russia remains a society where the people have less freedom and less to eat than in any industrialized capitalist nation. If it should be accepted in the left-wing world that such a nation can be defined as socialist in the spirit of Deutscherism, then socialism will have been crowned with the thorns of reaction and its humanist and democratic soul crucified on the cross of nationalisation and ideology.

November 1965


1. This view of Malenkov and Khrushchev prepared to sacrifice Communism in East Germany does not prevent the same Deutscher from writing the exact opposite elsewhere. Thus, in The Great Contest when discussing Eastern Europe (he explicitly includes East Germany as a part of Eastern Europe) he wrote: “To be sure, Stalin’s successors cannot and will not preside over the liquidation of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe” (p. 52). As we shall see, such blatant contradictions are an integral part of Deutscher’s special style of apologetics for totalitarianism.

2. As expressed in an earlier article by Deutscher in Nowa Kultura.

3. Deutscher did not footnote his source. It had to be uncovered. Naum Jasny’s article appeared in the October 1951 issue of The Journal of Political Economy, published by the University of Chicago Press. Deutscher does not mention that in the August 1952 issue of the same journal there is a critical review of Jasny’s essay by A. David Redding, which, in this writer’s opinion, was as effective as Jasny’s subsequent rejoinder was unconvincing.

4. In David Dallin’s The Real Soviet Russia (Yale University Press, 1944) and his Forced Labor In Soviet Russia, co-authored with Boris Nicolaevsky (Yale University Press, 1948), the number of camp inmates is placed within the 7–12 million range on the basis of exhaustive research and painstaking analysis.

5. Malenkov also addressed the Twentieth Congress. His speech, we can be sure, was not given a stormy ovation since he was already in disgrace and his confession in preparation. But according to Deutscher, in the same article quoted above, “it was in Malenkov’s heyday that the Stalin cult was in fact undermined.” If this is the case, what is to stop one from reading Deutscher’s applausograph as follows: the delegates to the Twentieth Congress applauded Khrushchev (the man who wanted to compromise the fight against Stalinism) as much as it applauded Mikoyan (practically a Trotskyist in his assault on Stalinism) and barely acknowledged the existence of Malenkov (in whose heyday the Stalin cult was undermined) because they wanted to call a halt to de-Stalinization!

6. In the New Statesman, April 17, 1964, Deutscher draws a more accurate portrait of Khrushchev that reads like a point by point refutation of his earlier glorified sketch.

7. Apart from the obvious contradiction in these two versions, there is a deeper, more fundamental methodological contradiction. Deutscher believes that because of Russia’s backwardness and isolation, political repressions were inevitable there. Now, China today is more backward, economically and culturally, than Russia of the late twenties and thirties, and was even more primitive seven years ago. How was it possible, then, for Deutscher to find a free, democratic socialist welfare state emerging in China in 1957 when, by his own reasoning, the “affinities between Maoism in power and Stalinism” should have been even closer than today? If there is a “contradiction,” as he calls it, between democratic socialist strivings and “China’s primitive pre-industrial structure of society” in 1964, how could that contradiction have been overcome seven years earlier?

8. There may be no logical contradiction between these two versions, since it is theoretically possible that a Russian general riding over Europe in blood and glory would also try to institute reforms at home. But it is only theoretically possible. Any such adventure, as Deutscher must understand, would bring on a full-scale atomic war. To think that in a total atomic war, a Russian Bonapartist regime either could or would want to ameliorate the harshness of Russian life is to lose contact with the realities of this world. The more obvious contradiction is in Version C where Marshal Zhukov, the chief “Bonapartist” contender who would ride in blood and glory (in Version A), turns out to be a bit of a pacifist who resented Khrushchev’s adoption of Molotov’s hard and militaristic foreign policy.

9. There is a note of special pique in Deutscher’s references to Max Shachtman. One reason may be that Shachtman is the individual most responsible, in this country, for developing the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Another explanation may be found in the fact that Shachtman is the author of a series of brilliant polemics directed against Deutscher and his theories. Needless to say, Deutscher never replied.

10. In this writer’s view, the Bolshevik Revolution was by far the most inspiring and democratic social revolution in all history. Its scope had no precedent, its heroism and aspiration not matched until the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. The Revolution’s relevance for socialists today is – or should be – in the evidence it afforded that even in backward Russia, the majority of the politically conscious and oppressed could be persuaded (not coerced) – even if only briefly – to accept the leadership of a sophisticated revolutionary socialist party which hid neither its program nor its aims. Never before did the majority of the class in whose interests a revolution was organized prove to be its major, active supporters and soldiers. This is not to deny that either Lenin or Leninism or the Soviet regime in its first years are deserving of critical review. The mistakes were many from the standpoint of revolutionary democratic socialism, but that is the subject for another article.

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Last updated: 17 July 2017