Trotsky and Deutscher

Submitted by Anon on 12 September, 2008 - 4:12 Author: Sean Matgamna

Post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” became known to a very large reading public in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky. Its three volumes were published over a decade up to 1963, when the last one, The Prophet Outcast, came out.

The trilogy was one of the most widely read biographies of the twentieth century. Deutscher’s work helped sweep away the mountains of Stalinist calumny under which Trotsky’s historical reputation had long been buried, though, as Deutscher himself acknowledged in an introduction to Volume 2, The Prophet Unarmed (1959), the main work in discrediting the Stalinist account of the history of communism, which had seemed impregnably established when The Prophet Armed appeared in 1954, was done by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, when, in 1956, he denounced Stalin as a paranoid mass murderer.

Yet, the “mountain of dead dogs” piled by Stalin on Trotsky and on Trotsky’s memory was not the only misrepresentation under which the dead Trotsky lay. Deutscher himself, following after the post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyists”, James P Cannon, Joseph Hansen, and others, buried the dead Trotsky under another mound of misrepresentations, less gross than Stalin’s but perhaps, for that reason, much longer-lasting. It is largely still in place.

Deutscher “constructed” a falsified picture of Trotsky, that might be called “Trotsky for the Sputnik Age”. It was a “Trotsky” for the time when the seeming achievement and the prestige of Russian “socialism” ran high, when its ability to compete with and outlast world capitalism was a widely uncontested “fact” of international life. The time was summed up in the launching of the first man-made satellite into space, the Sputnik, which went up on 1957, on the 40th anniversary of the October revolution.

This “Trotsky” was an undeviating Russian patriot, an unqualified defender of Russia and of the idea that it remained a workers’ state, on the road to socialism.

It was not the Trotsky that will be found in the writings of the last three and a half years of his life. That Trotsky considered the Stalinist state terminally unviable, and certain to be replaced soon either by a new working-class revolution, or by the restoration of capitalism.

The real Trotsky had shifted ground enormously in September 1939, when he had for the first time accepted that the USSR, as it was at the time, might have to be reconceptualised as some new form of exploitative class society. His sole argument against making that revaluation in September 1939 was that it was “too soon”. It would be wrong to make the revaluation, with all its implications for the Marxist theory of historical development, “on the eve” of the decisive test of world war. In that test, he thought, Stalinism would inevitably go under, before either a bourgeois onslaught or a new working-class revolution.

Deutscher and others, in the late 1940s and after, argued that figures like Mao and Tito, who had led Stalinist revolutions, were the legatees not of Stalin but of Trotsky, because Trotsky in the 1920s had argued for world revolution against Stalin’s “socialism in one country”. But Trotsky, a few days before he died in August 1940, had finished a long article, The Comintern and the GPU, in which he defined the leaders of the world’s Communist Parties as aspirants to become in their countries what the Stalinist autocracy was in the USSR.

Much of the politics attributed to Trotsky in the third volume (covering the years 1929-40) was not Trotsky’s, but Deutscher’s, and that of Trotsky’s political enemies, the international current of “right communism” named after one of its leaders, Heinrich Brandler.

Deutscher had been a Trotskyist from 1932 to 1940. Given to myth-making about himself as well as about Trotsky, Deutscher put it into circulation that he had broken with Trotsky in 1938 because he disagreed with the decision to declare the small Trotskyist current to be the Fourth International.

He did disagree on that, but he remained active — journalistically active, anyway — in the Trotskyist movement (in Britain) until the fall of France in May 1940, when he disappeared from the Trotskyist press (Workers’ Fight).

Deutscher then swung over to support for the anti-Nazi side in the World War, and to increasingly uncritical support for Russia. He functioned in the bourgeois press (The Economist, The Observer) as an apologist for the Russian regime, more sophisticated than the outright Stalinists. He even (in Tribune) played the role of apologist for the Katyn massacre.

He swung over to a version of the politics of the Brandlerites, who, while being critical, “liberal”, Stalinists, rejected the Trotskyists’ commitment to a new working-class revolution (“political revolution”) in the USSR. In 1949 Deutscher published a famous biography of Stalin. It drew very heavily on Trotsky’s work, but made an essentially positive appreciation of Stalin and Stalinism.

Deutscher became the apostle of the idea that the Stalinist bureaucracy would reform itself out of existence; that the bureaucracy would dissolve painlessly as the USSR developed its industry and its prosperity. He supported the “reforming” bureaucrats under Khrushchev. He backed the USSR against the risings of the East German workers in 1953 and of the Hungarians in 1956, both of which were repressed in the old Stalinist manner.

He published a number of slim volumes on current politics which were characterised by gawping naivety towards the claims and expectations of the Russian leaders. A series of lectures delivered just before Deutscher died (in 1967) struck a sharper note that, had he lived, Deutscher might have developed.

What Deutscher did in his third volume on Trotsky —and it had to be done consciously and deliberately — was “split” the real Trotsky and his real opinion on the USSR into two. He attributed most of Trotsky’s radical criticism of Stalinism, and much of Trotsky’s speculation about Stalinism as a new form of class society, to the strange Italian writer Bruno Rizzi, and by doing so severely trimmed back Trotsky so that he tallied more with Deutscher’s later views.

Most of Trotsky’s writings of the last three and a half years, in which the evidence for what I say here is to be found, were out of print for thirty years, available only in specialist libraries and in Trotsky’s own archives, sources to which Deutscher had ready access but most of his readers none.

Deutscher died suddenly at the age of 60, in November 1967, as a vastly popular and influential figure on much of the left, and savant-in-residence, so to speak, at the New Left Review. His main political role had been to blur and efface the distinction between working-class socialism and Stalinism — a malign role.

Yet Deutscher’s death impoverished the left in at least one important respect — on its attitude to Israel. Deutscher, who was of Jewish background, was an anti-Zionist — one of those Jewish socialists who had, in Poland and elsewhere, fought the Zionists and their project of migrating European Jews to Palestine.

But he was not, as such as Tony Cliff were, an unteachable political sectarian on this question. He looked with sympathy on the movement in international Jewry which, in response to Nazi and other anti-semitism, created Israel after World War Two. A valuable collection of his writings on this question, The Non-Jewish Jew, was published after his death.

In the aftermath of the June 1967 war, in which Israel defeated the Arab armies and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai, Deutscher was interviewed in New Left Review. Rightly denouncing Israel, he nevertheless gave signs that to me at least suggest that if he had lived, he would have worked against the development of the “absolute anti-Zionism” and demonisation of Israel that would engulf the left in the decades after his death.

Sixty-eight years after the death of Leon Trotsky, we print Max Shachtman’s assessment of Deutscher’s first volume.

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