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.