The Impermanent Revolution

The Impermanent Revolution

Isaac Deutscher stands out among the early intellectual mentors of the New Left as the only one who expounded classical Marxism. On a mid-1960s “must read” authors list that included C.


Isaac Deutscher stands out among the early intellectual mentors of the New Left as the only one who expounded classical Marxism. On a mid-1960s “must read” authors list that included C. Wright Mills, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, Deutscher alone stressed class conflict, the progressive movement of history and proletarian revolution. For those of us who were anti-Stalinist Marxists, reading Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy was a rite of passage. It was simultaneously a sympathetic, critical and reflective biography of Trotsky and a full-blown history of the Russian Revolution. In his Trotsky trilogy and other books and articles on Stalin, the contemporary Soviet Union and China, the cold war, Marxism, ex- Communists and Jewish history, Deutscher offered a living Marxism that was both unashamed of its revolutionary commitment and able to grasp historic ironies and tragedies.

Many of us who read Trotsky in study groups trying to puzzle through the “what might have beens” in the Bolshevik Revolution and Communism became practiced at arguing every major turn of Soviet history as we struggled to discover what went wrong. Paradoxically, the tragic story of Trotsky’s rise and fall gave us a profound sense of hope, even as Deutscher showed at every turn the historical logic behind Stalin’s victory and Trotsky’s defeat. After all, Deutscher argued passionately that the logic of history would also demand the fulfillment of socialism’s vision of equality, democracy and workers’ power in an advanced industrial society freed from class rule and the market. Trotsky embodied the “good” Communism, destroyed by Stalin, that became a revolutionary inspiration for many in the New Left.

It is impossible to read Deutscher’s Trotsky biography today without being struck by how remote these hopes now seem. The Soviet Union is gone, and revolutionary projects aiming at human emancipation seem to have exhausted themselves. In a world reconfigured by Islamist terrorism and the “war on terror,” dreams of social justice are no longer propelled by mass social movements of the secular left. So how does one read Deutscher, for whom being a Marxist historian and political mentor were one and the same?

Deutscher was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Galicia, Poland, in 1907. A brilliant student of Torah and Talmud, he had already ceased to be a believer by the time of his bar mitzvah. He was soon publishing Polish and Yiddish poetry and translating poetry into Polish. At university in Krakow and then Warsaw, Deutscher studied literature, philosophy, history and economics, and became a Marxist. After joining the banned Polish Communist Party he soon became chief editor of its press. “For years,” he wrote, “I was busy editing literary journals, writing political commentaries, illegal manifestoes, conducting as a soldier underground propaganda in Pilsudski’s army, and all the time dodging the gendarmerie and the political police.”

He traveled in 1931 to the Soviet Union, where he declined a position teaching socialist history and Marxist theory at Moscow University. Organizing an anti-Stalinist opposition upon his return to Poland, Deutscher was expelled from the party. In 1938 he wrote the Polish Trotskyists’ statement urging their comrades not to initiate the Fourth International prematurely, which led to his break with organized Trotskyism. A journalist in London at the outbreak of World War II, he immersed himself in English in order to write for British publications, notably The Economist. His first book, Stalin: A Political Biography, appeared in 1949, and his Trotsky trilogy was published between 1954 and 1963. Irving Howe criticized its Marxism, while the British Trotskyist Tony Cliff accused him of “capitulation to Stalinism.” Deutscher spoke at one of the first great anti-Vietnam War teach-ins, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. At the height of his powers and renown, Isaac Deutscher died suddenly at 60 in 1967.

Numerous English-language biographies of Trotsky have been published since the 1960s, most recently Cliff’s four- volume work, which seeks to recapture Trotsky for the Trotskyists, and Ian Thatcher’s more scholarly account, which aims to correct Deutscher’s and others’ biases by incorporating four decades of research. But none of these biographers rivals Deutscher as a storyteller. Alas, the new publisher of Deutscher’s greatest achievement appears to have brought it out with some ambivalence, reprinting it without so much as an introduction to help the reader locate Deutscher’s trilogy today. The photographs are omitted from all but the third volume, Deutscher’s extensive, indispensable indexes have been replaced with a handful of name references, and the books are littered with dozens of typos. So we encounter the new version stripped down and unsituated, in a cheapened format that does little honor to publisher or author.

To read Deutscher’s trilogy today is to undertake one of those several-month journeys that we begin with pleasure, and then continue joyfully and even obsessively until we reach its gripping end. Its protagonist, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, was born in southern Ukraine in 1879 to an illiterate but enterprising Jewish farmer and his more cultured and religious wife. Raised in a world of hard work and upward striving, the boy was sent to a cosmopolitan school in Odessa, where he lived with literary-minded cousins who belonged to that city’s small and timid liberal intelligentsia. Eagerly absorbing their culture, the country cousin excelled in school, displaying the competitiveness and sense of superiority that would mark the man.

Sent in 1896 to Nikolayev to complete his secondary schooling and study mathematics at the university, Bronstein first encountered socialist ideas and soon became enamored of the fading Narodnik socialism that romanticized the peasantry and endorsed acts of terrorism by intellectuals. Joining old and young radicals in a discussion group meeting at an orchard near town, he met his first serious intellectual interlocutor and future wife, a young Marxist named Alexandra Sokolovskaya. Within a year, Russian students and workers were in rebellion and the 18-year-old had converted to Marxism, confidently assuming the leadership of the Southern Russian Workers’ Union. The group of old Narodniks, Marxists, students and workers grew to more than 200 members and feverishly engaged in agitation in the port city until the czarist police crushed them. Imprisoned for the next two and a half years, Bronstein was then carted off to Siberia along with his bride.

The precocious revolutionary had also discovered the power of the written word. Prison and exile now became his university, and he began to shape himself into one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century–reading the Bible and religious tracts, studying Marx and Lenin, and writing self-assured essays on Nietzsche, Zola, Ibsen, Ruskin and Gorky. Like Deutscher, Bronstein believed that “revolutionary socialism was the consummation, not the repudiation, of great cultural traditions” in which he made himself at home. Leaving his wife and two daughters behind in Siberia and traveling under the name of a jailer, “Trotsky” found his way to the exile colonies of London. There he joined Lenin, his wife, Krupskaya, and Martov in the leadership of the Social Democratic Party. Addressing audiences of fellow exiles, he discovered a new gift, as a master of the spoken word. Deutscher writes:

He appeared, as it were, with the drama in himself, with the sense of entering a conflict in which the forces and actors engaged were more than life-size, the battles Homeric, and the climaxes worthy of demi-gods. Elevated above the crowd and feeling a multitude of eyes centered on him, himself storming a multitude of hearts and minds below–he was in his element.

In unabashedly grand prose Deutscher captures the people, movements and events that resulted in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. At their center was the Russian working class, “one of history’s wonders”:

Small in numbers, young, inexperienced, uneducated, it was rich in political passion, generosity, idealism, and rare heroic qualities. It had the gift of dreaming great dreams about the future and for dying a stoic death in battle. With its semi-illiterate thoughts it embraced the idea of the republic of the philosophers, not its Platonic version in which an oligarchy of pundits rules the herd, but the idea of a republic wealthy and wise enough to make of every citizen a philosopher and a worker. From the depth of its misery, the Russian working class set out to build that republic.

Twelve years after the rehearsal of 1905, in which Trotsky chaired the St. Petersburg Soviet, czarism collapsed. After a spring and summer of upheaval the workers and Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, were ready to seize power in what soon became known as the October Revolution. Trotsky served as the revolutionary government’s first foreign minister and then, as the civil war began, he created and led the Red Army. After four years of battle the Bolsheviks vanquished their White Russian enemies, but the country lay in ruins, and, as Deutscher notes, another side of the working class had begun to assert itself, “side by side with the dreamer and the hero…the lazy, cursing, squalid slave, bearing the stigmata of his past.” Mired in backwardness, the revolution’s ostensible constituency sank into the passivity that made it possible, by Lenin’s death in 1924, for the “batlike” Stalin, the Communist Party secretary, to slowly gain control. Despite Lenin’s warnings to remove him, it was already too late by Lenin’s death: The great revolutionaries of the Politburo–Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin–ultimately supported the unassuming Stalin over the brilliant and voluble Trotsky. (Remarkably enough, during the crucial months of struggle with Stalin, he drafted one of the major works of Marxist literary criticism, Literature and Revolution.) Although sidelined by Stalin, he continued to publish essays on every conceivable topic, from culture to science to Soviet development to foreign affairs. In 1928, however, the great revolutionary hero was sent into internal exile. A year later he was expelled from Russia and forced to wander the world.

In exile, Trotsky struggled to organize a Communist opposition to Stalin, to comment on world events such as the rise of fascism, to defend himself against Stalin’s ever more bizarre accusations and to explain developments in the Soviet Union. As his name and stature grew in defeat he became a magnet for radicals, some serious, others dilettantes, notably Max Eastman, the editors of Partisan Review, Victor Serge, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (with whom he famously had an affair). And Trotsky continued to write, under near impossible conditions, producing the memoir My Life, the great History of the Russian Revolution, prescient essays on the rise of fascism and the classic indictment of Stalin, The Revolution Betrayed. As ever, these writings displayed an immense range, self-confident sweep, appreciation of detail, descriptive flair and interpretive power; in the most pathetic and humiliating circumstances Trotsky continued to think and act as if he was shaping history. He reached deeply into himself again and again for the courage to lead, write and analyze, although he was constantly preoccupied with finding a place to live and protecting his family, which was not spared Stalin’s wrath. Harassed and hunted down, his children were murdered by Soviet agents or died prematurely, while his daughters’ spouses ended up in concentration camps and their children vanished.

This is a spellbinding tale, told by a great storyteller, and each reader will have a saddest moment. Mine is in 1935: In a cottage in a remote French village, Trotsky and his second wife, Sedova, hear two men pass by singing the Internationale. Although drawn to the song by a powerful compulsion, they have to stay hidden because these proud Communists might discover who they are and denounce them to the party, causing their death or deportation.

Still, Trotsky never gave up on Communism, refusing to side with bourgeois governments against the state led by Stalin, his sworn enemy, even as the purges targeted anyone suspected of Trotskyist sympathies. (One of the most interesting and curious documents of this period is Their Morals and Ours, an exchange about violence and political morality with John Dewey, who had taken it upon himself to investigate, and eventually reject, the accusations made against Trotsky at the Moscow trials of the late 1930s.) Trotsky’s refusal to declare that the Soviet Union was no longer a workers’ state ultimately drove away many of his intellectual fellow travelers, including Eastman and Serge.

Deutscher keeps the reader on tenterhooks as the story reaches its horrifying conclusion in 1940. Stalin had long since become absolute ruler, most Old Bolsheviks were dead, millions were in labor camps and primitive Russia had been brutally dragged into the modern world. Refusing “to let his existence become cramped by fear and misanthropy,” the exiled onetime leader of the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolshevik insurrection, the Soviet Union’s first foreign minister and first commander of the Red Army, sits down at his desk in a Mexico City suburb to read an amateurish article by a shadowy character who, posing as his bumbling follower, had wormed his way into Trotsky’s household. After reading one page, “a terrific blow came down upon his head” from an ice pick. “His skull smashed, his face gored, Trotsky jumped up, hurled at the murderer whatever object was at hand, books, inkpots, even the dictaphone, and then threw himself at him. It had all taken only three or four minutes.”

The word “tragedy” comes to mind again and again in reading Deutscher’s Trotsky biography, not only because Trotsky’s death was part of the enormous human catastrophe that was Stalinism but also because he helped call up and contribute to the very force that destroyed him and his followers. And, as in classical tragedy, Trotsky’s strengths are inseparable from his weaknesses. Our appreciation of the trilogy as literature thus entails a political and historical understanding of where the man, and the Bolshevik Revolution, went wrong.

Deutscher notes Trotsky’s puzzling unwillingness to combat Stalin until it was too late, attributing it to a sense of superiority that kept Trotsky from taking the party secretary seriously as an antagonist. But there are deeper reasons for Stalin’s victory over Trotsky. Much earlier, during the famous Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1903, Trotsky had denounced Lenin’s notion of a vanguard party as “substitutism” and had accused him of “trying to force the pace of history.” Indeed, he only reconciled with Lenin and decided to join the Bolsheviks in July 1917, three months before the Revolution. During the crucial next few years Trotsky’s high position derived from his élan for analysis, public persuasion and organization under crisis, Stalin’s from his capacity to create a network of loyalists and install them in positions of privilege and power. The party man easily outmaneuvered the brilliant revolutionary.

Trotsky’s reliance on his powerful mind and his relative disinterest in creating personal relationships and networks take us deeper into the heart of the matter, namely that Trotsky’s Marxism was of little use in negotiating the new situation created by the Bolshevik Revolution. Stalin sought power; Trotsky did not. In the void of backward Russia in which the Bolsheviks ruled in the name of the workers but stood above all social classes, the “base” of workers so trusted by Trotsky mattered less than the “superstructure” of increasingly self-interested party officials appointed by Stalin. The reality that sealed Trotsky’s and the Soviet Union’s fate was not Marxist at all.

An effort to understand where the October Revolution went wrong leads us to the illusion that made it possible. Deutscher observes that Lenin and Trotsky fervently hoped that Bolshevik success in Russia would set off revolutions throughout Europe, and that they could not have acted to seize power without their “world- embracing hope to embrace a world-shaking deed.” But what was the origin of this belief at the heart of Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution”? “History produced the great illusion and implanted it and cultivated it in the brains of the most soberly realistic leaders when she needed the motive power of illusion to further her own work.” She? Needed? Her work? In a strange Hegelian twist Deutscher makes history with a capital “H” the active force, rather than Lenin or Trotsky or the Russian workers–as if these people were merely its vessels, as if History’s hidden rationality could be discerned in Bolshevik irrationality.

Like that theoretical cornerstone of Bolshevism, Lenin’s vanguard party, Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” was an effort by revolutionaries to solve the deep contradiction between the dreamer and the slave–between the limits imposed by their Marxism, on the one hand, and their intoxicating grasp of the possibilities of seizing power, on the other. Although Russia was not remotely ripe for socialism, a determined group of revolutionaries sensed how vulnerable it was to a radical shift of power. They knew that no social class but the proletariat, led by them, was able to act decisively. But, as Deutscher also reminds us, Engels had warned that a leader coming to power before the time is “ripe for the domination of the class which he represents” is “irrevocably lost.” The Bolshevik leaders accordingly pinned their hopes on socialist revolutions in one or more advanced countries, especially Germany. (As it turned out, Communism’s abbreviated future lay, for the most part, in the least advanced countries of the colonial world.)

Making a proletarian revolution in Russia thus turned on clearheaded analysis of real possibilities–and wishful thinking. What, after all, were the grounds for thinking that the Russian Revolution would trigger a European revolution that would support the Soviet Union and transform the world? Hadn’t French and German workers marched off to war proudly and spent four years killing one another at the behest of their rulers? Perhaps some of the survivors might be radicalized by the war, but Russia could hardly count on them. Deutscher leads us to, but does not draw, the obvious conclusion: The Bolshevik Revolution was a leap into the blue, a radical act of will. Its tragedy was not produced by “History” but by revolutionary zeal that flew in the face of sober Marxist analysis–that of Martov and the Mensheviks, for example. Recasting Marxism into the Bolshevism of 1917, Lenin and Trotsky abandoned Marxism’s insistence on democracy and a high level of economic development and implicitly acknowledged this by dropping “Democratic” from their name and becoming the Communist Party. Martov, who refused to follow suit, was cast into Trotsky’s “dustbin of history.”

The leader of the revolution, creator of the army that defended it, soon came face to face with its result: the suffering, demoralization and even opposition of many of those workers who had been its backbone. The gifted but often abstract theorist now proposed a forced-labor system; the fiery workers’ leader now demanded state control of trade unions. For the moment, both of these ideas were defeated. And then, in March 1921, with the civil war nearly won and the ruling party congress meeting in Petrograd, the radical sailors of nearby Kronstadt, once his greatest admirers, rose up against “Trotsky the hangman,” calling for the Bolsheviks’ overthrow and the fulfillment of the shelved promises of Soviet democracy. Commissar of War Trotsky ordered the murderous assault that, however necessary to protect Bolshevik power, effectively extinguished the revolution’s dreams.

Writing a generation after these choices were made, Deutscher focused above all on the situation they created. To a point, his Marxism allowed him to produce forceful explanations of the revolution’s fate–by 1921 the working class was exhausted, the cities depopulated and the economy destroyed by the civil war; rural Russia was backward and indeed “barbarous,” and the new country found itself surrounded by hostile powers. But behind this litany of conditions in which the all-powerful Soviet state was constructed and Stalinism emerged, Deutscher discerned, once again, the logic of History: Russian modernization could be led only by a crude creature rising from its primitive depths, not by a sophisticated, cultured, Europeanized Jew.

Irving Howe argued thirty years ago that “Deutscher suffered from a modern disease: the infatuation with history.” It is if anything even more obvious today that this was an occupational disease–Marxists usually focus on objective factors in such a way as to hide their own point of view, illusions and all. As if by some law of compensatory repression and displacement, the more Bolshevism came to depend on human will, the more fixated its analyses became on the “objective situation.”

To be sure, such an approach can be coherent and persuasive, since almost everything can be explained by this logic: Stalin’s role in the Communist Party, his ascent to power, his need to sideline first Trotsky, then Zinoviev and Kamenev, then Bukharin, then his decision to expel Trotsky and the opposition, to exile all of them, and so on, right up to the purges and murders. And it is this very objectivism that gave Trotsky’s writings in exile such force, especially his powerful understanding of how Russian backwardness fostered Stalinism. Yet why did he proclaim to the end that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state and that only the leadership needed changing? Obviously this belief, and Deutscher’s similar sense of the tragic necessity of Stalinism, directly fed each man’s optimism about the future. Even as Deutscher explored, in more than 1,200 pages, what went wrong with the Soviet Union, he presented a considered sense of future Soviet possibilities based on the Bolshevik Revolution’s and, more controversially, Stalin’s accomplishments. Despite the brutality and human hecatombs, not only did a modern industrial society emerge but, Deutscher suggested, this was the only way it could have emerged in Russia. Building on its significant socialist accomplishments, including a nationalized and planned economy, Deutscher believed, the Russian working class in whose name the Communist Party ruled would eventually claim its rights, democratizing the Soviet Union and transforming it into a genuine socialist society.

Since Deutscher died in 1967, before the full scope of the post-Khrushchev sclerosis was evident, he did not live to see the Soviet suppression of “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia or of Solidarity in Poland, let alone the end of the cold war, the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. In predicting that the post-Stalin Soviet Union would find its way to a more democratic form of socialism, Deutscher’s sense of the dialectic of history was stunningly wrong.

Yet despite this bedrock optimism, Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy helps us grasp why in 1991 the people of the Soviet Union lacked the will and desire to create a democratic socialist alternative to Communism. The basso ostinato in Deutscher’s trilogy is that the one-party state–the fundamental constitutional principle emerging from the Bolshevik Revolution, installed by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin–is a “contradiction in terms.” Deutscher shows both the “objective” necessity and the nightmarish consequences of the Communist monopoly of power. He traces its logic in The Prophet Armed, and then in The Prophet Unarmed he returns often to two themes: why the triumphant Bolsheviks, Trotsky among them, “now thought themselves unable” to relinquish their monopoly of power, and how they began to fulfill Trotsky’s dire 1903 prophecy: “The party organization [the caucus] at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally a single “dictator” substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”

Deutscher concludes the trilogy with the hope, long shared by many on the left, that “a Marxism cleansed of barbarous accretions” would soon encourage “struggle against bureaucratic privilege, the inertia of Stalinism, and the dead-weight of monolithic dogma.” But he failed to see that the “traditions of Marxism and of the October Revolution” had become inseparable from single-party rule. In the minds of its citizens, this had become the decisive–and detestable–feature of Soviet socialism. It has always been tempting, in the 1930s, in the 1960s and again today, to look for the original sin of the Bolshevik Revolution. But what if it was the revolution itself? Not its radicalism and not its use of violence but rather the vanguard party’s determination to assume power over a backward society in the first place, and in the single-party state that followed?

Despite so much about it that seems to belong to the past–Trotsky’s and Deutscher’s belief in history, their faith in the revolutionary role of the working class, their Leninism–Deutscher’s Trotsky biography is not yet ready to join Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as a classic. Read it and see: It is too alive, too close to us, too much about our world. Trotsky and Deutscher’s universe is essentially the same as ours, minus one decisive feature: their movement and its incarnation in the Soviet Union. The twenty-first-century world is still driven by the capitalist system’s revolutionary dynamism; its main problem is the absence of any significant counterweight. While there is resistance to “globalization” and American hegemony today, it no longer comes principally from the socialist left but–violently, hellishly and uncomprehendingly–from radical Islamists and other fanatics fired by dreams of an imaginary past rather than visions of an egalitarian future.

What, then, do we make of Trotsky’s hopes, Deutscher’s hopes? It turns out that hope based on illusion is no more than a false hope, and has led, time and again, to disaster. But that is the easy lesson. The more difficult one is that sometimes it takes a lifetime, even generations, to dispel the power of illusion. Earlier generations of the left fell under its spell; gone today is our faith in history, gone today is the belief that radical acts of will can transform the world without degenerating into brutality. Perhaps the illusion that we have most recently abandoned is, as the late Nation writer Daniel Singer (himself a Deutscher protégé) said, the kind of thinking that misses “the connection between ends and means.” To put it crudely, but in a way that indicts Trotsky and some of the wilder spirits of the New Left no less than Stalin, we have learned that force cannot create a humane society. It is a lesson that the neoconservative architects of the Iraq War and their liberal hawk fellow travelers have yet to absorb.

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