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On rereading Isaac Deutscher

Rereading is a process that tells us as much about our times and ourselves as it tells us about a book. Indeed, the reason that we find previously undiscovered aspects to a book is not so much because we missed them the first time, but rather that as our values and beliefs shift over time, so too does our focus.

Incapacitated by back pain in recent weeks, I searched around for something to read. The criterion was simple: it had to be something engaging enough to keep me interested, but familiar enough for my codeine-addled brain. I settled on Isaac Deutscher’s magisterial biographies – The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, The Prophet Outcast – of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. More than fifteen years had passed since I’d read them, and I found them to be entirely different books to the ones I remembered.

Trotsky’s story – his precipitous rise and fall – could only occur during a time of historic upheaval, when the order of things is shaken, when people are tossed up and thrown down by powerful historic currents. For sheer drama, it is may be without historic counterpart. Born on a Ukrainian farm, Trotsky joined the revolutionary movement, becoming the President of the St Petersburg Soviet in the defeated Russian Revolution of 1905 and its later victorious sequel of 1917. Widely recognised as the second leader of 1917 after Lenin, Trotsky became leader of the Red Army during the civil war and the wars of intervention, as British and other troops (including Australian, who fought with the British contingent, I believe) sought to overthrow the Bolsheviks. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky became the chief opponent of Stalin, whose rise signalled a great counterrevolutionary movement that was to signal the crushing soviet democracy. Exiled first to Kazakhstan, then thrown out of the Soviet Union, Trotsky spent his years in exile desperately attempting to return the international communist movement to what he saw as its original ideals. By the time a Stalinist assassin pierced his skull with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940, Trotsky had written a wide array of surveys of the socialist movements fortunes in Europe, scores of denunciations of Stalinist policy in Russia and abroad, and at least one historical masterpiece of his own, the monumental History of the Russian Revolution.

Issac Deutscher’s legacy will rest on his biographical trilogy chronicling this dramatic life. Indeed, Deutscher’s books rank among the greatest of political biographies, a fact which surely daunted later biographers. Subsequent attempts to write Trotsky’s life focused on either partial aspects of his life, such as Patenaude’s excellent Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky, reconstructions from a particular political vantage-point, like Tony Cliff’s trilogy, or vapid denunciations like the unpalatable Trotsky by Robert Service, whose miscomprehension of the inner political and psychological life of the Russian revolutionary can only be explained as the political point scoring of a cold-war warrior.

Deutscher’s triumph is the ease in which he marries the story of an individual with the complex currents of history. There are few historians with so sure a sense of the interplay between the different levels of social life and the way that they work themselves out in the psychological needs and desires of different groups. Deutscher is masterful in his depiction of the irony of historic events and the political positions taken by his protagonists. He shows us that rarely was any one political outlook wholly right or wrong, and that those which seemed correct contained within themselves either irresolvable contradictions or the seeds of their own destruction.

What has perhaps been overlooked, though, is the way this mastery of content is a mastery of form. Historical reconstructions are notoriously difficult: Where does one begin? When writing biography, how are the intersections individual and the social to be articulated? What causes an idea – think most recently of the ‘Occupy’ movement – to catch on and become a material force?

Here Deutscher stands as a signal example of such reconstructions. There’s a thesis to be written somewhere – perhaps there is already one? – about Deutscher as historiographer and writer, examining his choices in the construction of the narrative. Where does he start? How does he move from individual to social? How does he conceive social groups and their psychologies? Surely the planning of these was as complicated as the planning of any of the most intricate of crime novels.

None of this is to say that Deutscher’s trilogy is a perfect chronicle of Trotsky’s life, or even of the rise and subsequent disintegration of the Russian Revolution.

Indeed, what struck me as I reread the series were the moments when Deutscher’s biography drifted briefly into hagiography, in particular those where he presents Trotsky as the sole voice of the revolution. Here Deutscher falls prey to that great danger of biographies – individualism. (Indeed, this may well be a structural flaw of the biographical form itself, able only to be partially overcome by carefully considering the ways a life intersects with those around it.) At these points, Deutscher’s writing itself suffers and he descends into the kinds of language one might expect from a fantasy novel, in which the hero’s voice rings out with ‘fire and steel’.

When I first read the books, the story of Trotsky’s rise to power excited me most. Recently, I found this the least attractive of the books, for Trotsky was an arrogant and domineering personality; throughout his life, he retained few close friends. In the 1930s, even Trotsky’s son complained to his mother, Natalya Sedova, about his father’s harshness. My earlier attraction to Trotsky’s youthful phase, then, most likely reflected my own values and attitudes as an overly certain young man.

Now it seems to me that once Trotsky was marginalised from the leadership of the USSR, his egotism receded into the background and his struggle against the tide of history became truly heroic, despite his many errors and oversights. Embattled, exiled, his children dying around him, facing a dictatorial monster in the Kremlin as an enemy, supported by only a handful of adherents, Trotsky held to his principles when most would have collapsed under the weight of events.

When the trilogy was rereleased by Verso some years ago, several commentators mentioned that the books seemed like works from a different age. In a fine piece in the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson explained that ‘Anyone who rereads this book forty years on will peer at herself or himself across an abyss of change’. But since this judgment, things have once more altered. After the GFC, events in Europe – especially Greece and Spain – have brought about political polarisation and crises of traditional liberal democracy. Debates on the left – about political forces like Syriza in Greece – have returned to questions that Trotsky wrestled with in the 1930s: the strategies of united front and popular front. Perhaps, then, we are returning to a world much more like the one that preceded the Second World War. In that context, Deutscher’s books are not only fascinating, but are pertinent reading as well, for they are not only about Trotsky himself, but about an epoch of historic crisis. If there has indeed been an abyss of change – and this is incontrovertible – history herself might revisit upon us the ghosts of the past, changed utterly, as Yeats might have said, appearing in different configurations and with new and unforeseen aspects, but still calling out the same haunting moans.

Rjurik Davidson is a freelance writer. Rjurik has written short stories, essays, reviews and screenplays. His novel, Unwrapped Sky, was published by Tor Books in 2014. PS Publishing published his collection, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. Rjurik’s screenplay 'The Uncertainty Principle' (co-written with Ben Chessell) is currently in development. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets at @rjurikdavidson

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  1. Thanks so much for this review, and for the discussion of the books you had with myself and Liz over breakfast a few weeks ago.

    I’ve not read Deutscher’s books, but have read Trotsky’s autobiography and Tony Cliff’s four volumes (which relied on Deutscher’s account as the main inspiration and foil).

    The most interesting question for me is when during the 1921-9 period Trotsky’s position moves from being an individual who can shape the course of history to having that influence torn from his grasp. My view is that in late 1923, with the failure of the German Communist Party to seize the opportunity to take power, the balance of forces within the USSR’s leadership shifts decisively away from the revolutionary internationalist position which Trotsky consistently pursued. This then solidifies the more “sensible” heads who want to consolidate the bureaucratic state, around the leadership of Stalin. This then further impacts on the degeneration of the Comintern (already led by people who effectively helped sabotage possibilities in Germany).

    No matter how brilliant Trotsky could have been after this (and, TBH, he made mistake after mistake), the writing is on the wall because wider social forces now weigh decisively against any recovery of the revolutionary tradition within the Soviet state.

  2. I really recommend reading them, Tad. Deutcher had a massive affect on the New Left (and the people around NLR), and he’s really interesting, among other things – particularly in the last book – on Trotsky’s predictions for the socialist movement.

    That question of the individual in history makes its way in an a series of points, and Deutcher’s interesting on that also. You comment, “The most interesting question for me is when during the 1921-9 period Trotsky’s position moves from being an individual who can shape the course of history to having that influence torn from his grasp.” I wonder about the best way to formulate this issue. The categories individual/social or control/no control seem inadequate. To say that any one person can shape history is to assume a whole structure of social relations and praxis which supports and interweaves with their goals. In which case, the individual is part of “an ensemble of social relations”. The social is of course made up of multitudes of individuals. Is there a better way to think about this? Gramsci’s praxis helps us overcome the subjective/objective binary. I suspect it may be of help here too.

    Anyway, it seems clear that by 1923, Stalin has already placed his people in all the key positions of power. He controlled the debate (making sure it was limited to the politbureau or the CC). It is not until 1928-33 that Trotsky comes to this conclusion, and so his struggle inside the party before this realization is for the most part ineffective and – I’d say – a mistake. But he is relying on the ‘objective’ situation to pick up, and it never does.

    All this makes one reflect a great deal on what “we” can do as leftists. What effect might we have in a situation where there is such a dominant right, such low levels of politicisation. One of the great things about Deutcher’s books (particularly the last two) is that they make one reflect on the broader sweeps of history and where we sit in them.

  3. I’m in the process of writing a lengthy look at the trilogy, looking especially at where ID was critical of LDT. I was spurred to this by the repetition in Robert Service’s biography of the line that ID was too uncritical of LDT.

    Apart from the commonly known variations between LDT and ID — the Fourth International, the possibility of the reform of Stalinism — there are lots of other topics where ID is critical of him.

    One of the most interesting parts of the trilogy is where ID outlines how and why the Bolsheviks established a political monopoly and started to rule in the name of the working class. He does it in a way that few if any writers in the Trotskyist tradition have done so, and it raises questions about party and class that socialists need to address.

  4. Dr Paul: I totally agree. That section at the start of The Prophet Unarmed is exactly the part I was thinking about when I wrote:

    ‘Deutscher’s triumph is the ease in which he marries the story of an individual with the complex currents of history. There are few historians with so sure a sense of the interplay between the different levels of social life and the way that they work themselves out in the psychological needs and desires of different groups. Deutscher is masterful in his depiction of the irony of historic events and the political positions taken by his protagonists. He shows us that rarely was any one political outlook wholly right or wrong, and that those which seemed correct contained within themselves either irresolvable contradictions or the seeds of their own destruction.

    What has perhaps been overlooked, though, is the way this mastery of content is a mastery of form.’

  5. Like Tad, I’m embarrassed to admit that I never read Deutscher, just the Cliff bio and My Life. I have heard a criticism of Deutscher, though, that he at some point advocated a fatalistic theory that lumped Stalin in with Napoleon and Cromwell as a sort of inevitable, indeed archetypal figure – the dictator who takes over when the dust settles from a revolution, makes compromises but consolidates some of the gains. Is there any sign of such a theory in his Trotsky biography? Of course he may have made that argument instead in his Stalin bio.

  6. Robert: that fatalism features much more strongly in Deautcher’s book on Stalin, though there are elements of it in his book on Trotsky. Perhaps ‘historical necessity’ is a better way of thinking about it. But historical necessity is one thing. Another is determinism, and in Deutcher the line between the two blur at points. He argues, in essence, that in the 1930s there is no basis for the Fourth International. That much of Trotsky’s time spent on the little ‘chapels’ and ‘sects’ was wasted. It’s an argument which is quite compelling from where we stand, but still tends towards fatalism at points. Having said that, he is brilliant at making these arguments without making them crude: this fact alone means that there is space for the reader to really think these issues through.

  7. I have read this trilogy ironically three time just like I have re read Capital many times and Rjurik is correct that you comprehension changes dramatically as you politically mature. While any book including IC’s has weaknesses I think that we forget that we look at these events over 90 years later and that in itself makes it difficult for us to comprehend the times. I don’t think it is an exagerattion or fantasy to say Trotsky was the voice of the revolution or that by saying this IC negates the 1000’s of other voices. Trotsky’s voice was clearest and if you read Carr book on the revolution you understand that those 1000s of other voices took there lead from Trotsky and Lenin’s speeches. Idea begin with specific individuals and then spread. While it is vital to understand the broad sweep of History in situations like Russia, Cuba etc the role of the individual due to material circumstances is greatly magnified and undeniably decisive. It was no throw away line that Trotsky said without Lenin their would of been no October. Just re read the collection of Lenin’s writings that Zizek compiles in his ‘Profit at the gates’. Lenin at key points was a minority of one. Would there have been a Cuban revolution without Che or Fidel once again no. The otherside of this can be demonstrated with the countless failed revolutions in which key leaders were murdered or died. Our first world eyes 21st century eyes can blind us to this. Everyone including large section of Bolsheviks themselves thought would loose the civil war, without Trotsky this would of been the case even his enemies are clear on this, read the battle of St Petersburg as just one example. What do we take from this today as first world revolutionaries ? Exceptional individuals will still be needed to overthrow capitalism and end human prehistory but in the first world we have the material condition to produces 100’s if not 1000’s of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s, central commitee’s not of 13 but of 300. We must do everything we can to insure that history does not turn on handful’s of individuals or we will fail. To say Trotsky made mistake after mistake is in itself a mistake, maybe this view comes from Cliff’s books which having read a few I avoid like the plaque. All revolutionaries makes mistakes it is an essential part of Marxist practice to make mistakes we can learn no other way. The working class will test and replace its leadership many times before one up to the task is consolidated. Trotsky mistakes derive from his revolutionary optimism that international events would enable the reversal of the Russian thermidor. IC’s real fantasy comes (this is not say that there are no elements of haliography in the prophet series, even the title is problematic,I just disagree where), in his later writings in which he posits the economic development of the Stalinist states leading in reformist manner to a return to socialist democracy has shown Trotsky with his hands on experience had a much better understanding of Stalinism and role political consciousness. Revolutionary consciousness enabled majority of workers and peasants in Russia to struggle through almost the complete collapse of there economy after the revolution when the Bolshevic were forced against there will to nationalise on scale that they and the working class couldn’t manage, Cuba for all its bureaucratic distortions was also able to survive economic collapse without civil upheaval due to political consciousness. It was IC who divorced himself from party building who fell prey to economic determinism in my opinion. I believe IC is fundamentally wrong on Trotskys attempts to re build genuine Bolshevik parties despite all the nonsence that has gone on and continues to go on from parties from the Trotkiest tradition. These very attempts just like the writings of the Left opposition echo down the alleys history to inspire those of us today. Without these attempts then Stalinism would have truly made the ability of new generations of marxists to distiguish genuine Lennism from Stalinism far more difficult. They failed but there heroic attempts laid down invaluable markers for future generations. Dispite IC’s flaws his writing are always a pleasure to read like Victor Serge. The prophet series it a must read for any serious Marxist, there brilliance reflects the subject matter which is more relevant than ever. Well done Rjurik for once again bringing these vital books to peoples attention.

  8. HERE IS A BETTER VERSION OF MY PREVIOUS COMMENT WHICH REMOVES THE GRAMMATICAL ERRORS ADDS A NUMBER OF EXTRA POINTS.

    I have read this trilogy ironically three time just like I have re read Capital many times, Rjurik is correct, your comprehension changes dramatically as you politically mature. While any book including IC’s has weaknesses I think that we can forget that we look at these events over 90 years later which in and of itself makes it difficult for us to correctly comprehend the times.

    I disagree with Rjurik, I don’t think it is an exageration or fantasy to by Issaac Deutsher (I.D.) to say that Trotsky was the voice of the revolution or that by saying this I.D. negates the 1000′s of other voices or vital role of material conditions. Trotsky’s voice was more often than not the first to articulate/voice the immediate tasks of the revolution, look at his role at the circus.

    If you read Carr’s books on the revolution you understand through a more detailed but drier documentation that those 1000s of other voices in most cases took their lead from Trotsky and Lenin’s speeches and writings. Ofcourse the contant interplay between the masses and the party is key in determining how the revolution unfolds. Right makes might, the right idea’s at the right time. But material conditions in Russia mean’t that the layer of actual Marxists able to both see and understand the unfolding events was paper thin.

    While the masses role and the thousands of nameless workers who are the body of the revolution are absolutely essential a locked door still cannot be opened without a key. Idea’s begin with specific individuals at specific times and then spread. While it is vital to understand the broad sweep of history and how it moves, because the first revolutions broke through in ecomically underdeveloped semi feudal countries like Russia, and later Cuba the role of the individual due to material circumstances is greatly magnified and undeniably decisive. Doubly so in Russia where we are talking about the first full scale worker’s revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871 while a vital precursor was comparitvely tiny in scale.

    It was no throw away line and one that Trotsky repeatly stated that without Lenin their would of been no October. Just re-read the collection of Lenin’s writings that Zizek compiles in his ‘Profit at the gates’. Lenin at key points was a minority of one. Would there have been a Cuban revolution without Che or Fidel once again no. The negative side of this can be demonstrated by the many failed revolutions in which key leaders either died were murdered or made crucial political errors. Our first world eyes 21st century eyes can blind us to this.

    Everyone including large section of Bolsheviks themselves thought they would loose the civil war. Without Trotsky and his often unmentioned secretary Skylansky this would of been the case. Even his enemies are clear on this, study the defense of St Petersburg as just one example. All the leading books and memoirs on the Civil War back this up from Bruce Lincoln’s ‘Red Victory’ to Tukhachevskii’s writings.

    What do we take from this today as first world revolutionaries ? Exceptional individuals will still be needed to overthrow capitalism, once again doubly so if socialism is to finally triumph for the first time in a first world country and begin proper the historical process of ending human prehistory internationally. The revolutions that follow once the back of capitalism is broken should be far easier. But there are qualitative differences to the Russian Revolution, in the first world we have the material conditions to produces 100′s if not 1000′s of Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s. Mass parties will have central commitee’s not in the ten’s but hundreds. Modern day Leninist’s must do everything we can to insure that history does not turn on handful’s of individuals or we will fail.

    To say as Dr Tad does in his comments that Trotsky made mistake after mistake is in itself a mistake, maybe this view comes from reading Tony Cliff’s books (having read a few myself I now avoid them like the plaque). All revolutionaries make mistakes it is an essential part of Marxist practice to make mistakes we can learn no other way.

    The working class will test and replace its leadership many times before one up to the task is consolidated. Marx and Engles made many incorrect predictions, Trotsky’s mistakes inpart derive from his revolutionary optimism, he hoped that international events would enable the reversal of the Russian thermidor. In my opinion the emergence of fantasy in I.D’s (Issaac Deutscher) writings (this is not say that there are no elements of haliography in the prophet series, even the title is problematic, I just disagree with Rjurik where and to what degree), appears clearly in his later writings in which he posits that the economic development of the Stalinist states will provide the overwhelming material basis for a return to the norms of socialist democracy; while ID’s formulations are never explicitly reformist they have all the vaqueness of someone divorced from party building and class combat, Chomsky is the same but even weaker. History itself has shown that Trotsky with his hands on experience had a much better understanding of Stalinism, it’s negation and role political consciousness. The DSP hopes and illusions around Gorbachev before the fall of the USSR would I believe have been echoed by ID if had been alive.

    Comrades from the DSP tradition now split between SA and the RSP are repeating the same mistakes with Chavez. If you cannot distinguish between an actual worker’s state and the limited form of duel power that exists today in Venezuela you are in deep political strife as your ability to properly apply Marxist catergories has vanished. Once more you are mislead by words and the often genuine intentions of leaders themselves rather than correctly comprehending overarching nature of reality itself.

    Did Gorbachev secretly want to see a capitalist restoration in Russia, of course not. Does Chavez want to see a fully socialist Venuzuela of course he does. But here’s the kicker, Marxist don’t judge individuals, especially those who are in power by what they call themselves or their personal motivations. If Venuzuela is a worker state in a sea of capitalist property relations then so was the popular front government of Leon Blum in France back in 1936, or Indonesia under Surkarno from 1949, a government who hosted the Bangdung conference in 1955, and I could quote dozens more examples. It’s not only a matter of what class hold’s key state’s positions but what program they are carrying out. Just as it is vital to look at who is carrying out the political program of the day as Trotsky famously wrote to Radek when he returned to Stalin during the left turn. The Kuomintang locked up thousands of Capitalists and ransomed them but was in the final analysis a capitalist political party through and through. History is damn tricky. If you have either permantly or temporarily lost the ability as an organisation to comprehend what stage the class struggle is actually at then your ability to politically intervene through correct programmatic demands and practice is dramatically if not fatally compromised. Put more simply a revolutionary who cannot recognise a workers revolution is in deep shit.

    Revolutionary consciousness enabled majority of workers and peasants in Russia to struggle through the almost complete collapse of the Russian economy after the revolution. The causes are clear and well documented. The Bolshevic’s were forced against their will to nationalise on a scale that they and the working class couldn’t manage as the capitalist class, and their priviledged underlings the managers, engineers, technicians etc either fled, or refused to work under the new soviet regime. Then the Civil War tops it off.

    Cuba for all its bureaucratic distortions was also able to survive economic collapse without widespread civil upheaval due primarily to political consciousness and the reality that the burden was in the main, dramatically so by capitalist standards, being shared. The nationalised property relations still enabled
    everyone to be fed and housed, for food shortages to be overcome by the widespread use of permaculture, city gardens and other methods, there was also the planned development of new industries and the shift from the sugar mono culture. A new Cuban crisis due to debt is a huge threat to gains of the 1959 revolution.

    It was I.D who divorced himself from party building who fell prey to economic determinism in my opinion. I believe I.D was also fundamentally wrong on Trotskys attempts to re build genuine Bolshevik parties despite all the nonsence that has gone on and continues to go on and the generalised failure of this tradition to fill the vacuum left by both the Stalinist and Social Democratic Parties. I believe this is finally going to change in the coming period. The writings of the Left opposition whose faint echo down the alleys of history still inspire those of us today will turn into roar. Books like Trotsky’s ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ were absolutely key to me taking on Marxist thinking. The early Cannon lead US SWP and its role in building the Teamsters, the flawed but heroic role of the POUM in Spain, the British and Scottish Militant’s leadership role in fighting the pole tax. The Trotskiest left in France. Without these past and present attempts to build a party built for the express purpose of over throwing capitalism by leading the working class and its allies to political power then Stalinism would have truly made the ability of new generations of
    Marxists to distinguish genuine Lennism from Stalinism far more difficult. While there are ofcourse revolutionary currents outside the M-L tradition and no matter how complex and contradictory the road to freedom and socialism is the ability to articulate the truth even though it’s relative and incomplete is still absolutely vital.

    The early Trotskiest parties while failing to either lead revolutions or build mass workers parties did through their heroic attempts lay down invaluable markers for future generations. The CWI and other anti Stalinist Marxist-Leninist tendencies would most likely not exist today having accumulated decades of experience without that early history. To conclude, despite ID’s flaws his writing are always a pleasure to read like Victor Serge. The prophet series is a must read for any serious Marxist, there brilliance reflects the subject matter which is more relevant than ever. Well done Rjurik for once again bringing these vital books to peoples attention.

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