James D Young 1964

Deutscher’s Trotsky

Source: Political Quarterly, Volume 35, no 2, April-June 1964. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 (Oxford University Press, pp 543
The Essential Trotsky (Unwin Books), pp 251

The Prophet Outcast is the third and final instalment of Isaac Deutscher’s monumental biography of Leon Trotsky. Isaac Deutscher has taken a whole decade to complete this trilogy, and the result is a major biography in the tradition of bourgeois scholarship. In the Marxist sense, however, he is a brilliant chronicler rather than a major theoretician. Notwithstanding his great literary gifts, wide erudition and considerable partisan political experience as a Trotskyite fellow-traveller, Isaac Deutscher unwittingly betrays his theoretical inadequacy by persistently excusing his hero’s false prophecies and faults as ‘the faults of someone who was steeped in the traditions of “classical Marxism"’.

Being a prisoner of the classical Marxism he lauds in Leon Trotsky, he is simply incapable of bringing Marxism abreast of the contemporary scene. So, when he tries to vindicate the ‘people’s democracies’ in Eastern Europe by evoking classical Marxism, he flounders, pontificates and painfully shows up his theoretical dependence on Leon Trotsky’s now shattered and bankrupt concept of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’.

It seems to me that, though Isaac Deutscher places himself in the tradition of Marxist historical scholarship, the final volume of the biography of Trotsky lacks the scrutiny, independence and analytical brilliance that shines through Franz Mehring’s classic biography of Karl Marx or his historical study, The Lessing Legend. But then Franz Mehring was a major theoretician as well as an historian, and not just a brilliant chronicler.

Nevertheless, there is in Deutscher’s book the human interest of the story of a man who was hounded and exiled, and in quick succession expelled from Prinkipo, France, Norway and almost Mexico – only to end up as the victim of an assassin’s axe, yet all the time proudly and heroically struggling to uphold the truth as he understood it. To crown and lend authenticity to the story of an already overcrowded drama, Isaac Deutscher was given privileged access to the private correspondence and closed archives at Harvard University, and one can easily discern the enchantment mingled with the pathos and the tragedy revealed by the correspondence of the founder of the Red Army with his relatives and followers in ‘Soviet’ Russia.

The traditional Marxist concept that the ‘statification of industry equals socialism’ is the leitmotif of Deutscher’s biography, and he vividly chronicles ‘the prophet’s’ fidelity to the canons of classical Marxism throughout the turmoil and upheaval of the 1930s. That was the source of his undoing. For Trotsky, as Isaac Deutscher half admits, clung to the by then historically outmoded dogmas of classical Marxism, and by doing so he did untold damage to the ‘image’ and very concept of what socialism is.

But why was a revolutionary of the heroic stature and reputation of Leon Trotsky so afraid of ‘revisionism'? Perhaps it had something to do with his own past as a critic and belated adherent to Bolshevism. In 1914 he had, after all, written a brilliant and acid polemic against the Bolsheviks, saying: ‘Bolshevism may very well be an excellent instrument for the conquest of power, but after that it will reveal its counter-revolutionary aspects.’

By 1924 even Lenin was frightened by the bureaucratic machine he had created, and – on his death-bed – he set out to draft character analyses of ‘the committee men’. Anyway Trotsky’s ambiguity (almost, by the way, amounting to mysticism) about ‘the class nature of the Soviet state’ prevented him from providing the labour movement with the new political reorientation it so desperately needed – a new critique of modern industrial society. And that kept him from concretising the ‘permanent revolution’ he had dreamt and written of as a young man, and, moreover, undermined his herculean, permanent opposition and struggles against the more glaring aspects of Stalin’s totalitarianism.

During the raging controversy in the Fourth International in the late 1930s around the ‘state capitalist’ and ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ theories, ‘Trotsky asserted that whatever the resemblances between Hitler’s and Stalin’s methods of government, the economic and social differences were qualitative and not merely quantitative – this was the gulf between the regimes’. Karl Marx had, of course, written in his Critique of Political Economy that ‘the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life’. But within the framework of Marxist ‘dialects’ [1] Trotsky was able to write brilliant and fierce polemics against the bureaucratic totalitarian superstructure of Russian society and simultaneously insist that ‘Stalin alone exercised control over a truly post-capitalist order’.

In the final chapter of The Prophet Outcast, entitled ‘Victory in Defeat’, Isaac Deutscher argues that if Trotsky were alive today he would find no difficulty in recognising the ‘people’s democracies’ in Eastern Europe. But at the close of his days Leon Trotsky discussed the theoretical possibility of the working classes of Western Europe being incapable of seizing or holding political power, and he did so with his customary clarity and bluntness:

However onerous this... perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of accomplishing its mission... nothing else would remain but to recognise openly that the socialist programme, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, had petered out as a Utopia.

In that case, however, ‘he, at any rate, would be with Spartacus, not with Pompey and the Caesars’.

So alongside The Prophet Outcast I found The Essential Trotsky a disappointing footnote to a work which has taken Deutscher ten years of researching and writing. The Essential Trotsky consists of a dull, prosaic, and pedestrian introduction by RTC, and three booklets by Trotsky, ‘The October Revolution’, the ‘Lessons of October’, and ‘Stalin Falsifies History’. Nor does RTC inspire confidence in his scholarship. In the first footnote to his introduction, for example, he calls the second volume of Deutscher’s trilogy The Prophet Disarmed instead of The Prophet Unarmed. But any book which stimulates criticism and forces us to re-evaluate the contemporary significance of the Russian Revolution is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.


1. This should presumably read ‘dialectics’ – MIA.