Victory in Defeat

Neal Ascherson

  • The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-21 by Isaac Deutscher
    Verso, 497 pp, £15.00, December 2003, ISBN 1 85984 441 3
  • The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 by Isaac Deutscher
    Verso, 444 pp, £15.00, December 2003, ISBN 1 85984 446 4
  • The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 by Isaac Deutscher
    Verso, 512 pp, £15.00, December 2003, ISBN 1 85984 451 0

Deutscher’s Trotsky was thought by two generations – his own and its successor – to be one of the great works of biography. The first volume emerged in 1954, soon after the death of Stalin. The last appeared in 1963, at a time when the Soviet Union still seemed strong and confident, and when there remained hopes (not only on the left) that reforms leading towards a Soviet version of democratic socialism might one day be resumed.

Times have changed, but those generations were right – about the book, if not about the Soviet Union. Reissued by Verso in three paperback volumes, Deutscher’s biography is still tremendous. The power and excitement of his prose knock the reader down. His command of the language, late Victorian in its freedom and in the absence of secondhand imagery, in some ways surpasses that of his fellow Pole Joseph Conrad. The scholarship is enormous and – given that the Moscow archives were closed to him – comprehensive. Above all, there is Deutscher’s own enthusiasm, a sort of majestic urgency. He believed that his subject mattered. Not just because of the tragic, even messianic shape of Trotsky’s life, but because Deutscher was convinced that in writing about this dead man, he was also writing about the future. He was rescuing and repairing the legacy of Lev Davidovich, which would one day be inherited by the Russian revolutionaries of a new October.

It’s impossible not to feel this excitement. But how many will now be able to share it? Anyone who rereads this book forty years on will peer at herself or himself across an abyss of change. It’s true that for years Deutscher’s trilogy was the most delicious gift to smuggle to an East European intellectual (difficult, too; the original volumes weighed three kilos and were hard to hide under one’s shirts). It’s also true that in the glasnost years leading up to 1991, many intelligent Russians were inspired when the suppressed truth about Trotsky’s life and ideas began to reach them. But these were people who still hoped for a new, plural, open Soviet democracy. They soon discovered that the tide was flowing in the opposite direction. Few episodes have been left as high and as dry as the Bolshevik Revolution. Like wrecks stranded on the desert which was once the Aral Sea, Lenin and Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev, even Khrushchev and Gorbachev, lie rusting and scattered across the sands. Only Stalin, for depressing reasons, still has some water round his feet.

Historians have gone with this tide. In Deutscher’s time, it seemed incontrovertible that the most significant event in the 20th century was the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Now it is highly controvertible. Thirteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the view is current that the Revolution achieved almost nothing of its original intentions. As Eric Hobsbawm has written, its one lasting success was the military defeat of Hitler, made possible by Stalin’s forced industrialisation of Russia. But the unintended consequences of that success defeated the Soviet experiment itself. ‘The most lasting results of the October Revolution, whose object was the global overthrow of capitalism,’ Hobsbawm wrote in Age of Extremes, ‘was to save its antagonist both in war and peace – that is to say, by providing it with the incentive, fear, to reform itself.’

Again, interpretations of 1917 and its aftermath have changed almost out of recognition. Most contemporary readers of history probably agree that the ‘real’ revolution was that of February 1917, and that the October power seizure by the Bolsheviks was little more than an opportunistic coup d’état. History has also taken an increasingly nasty view of Lenin. For so many decades, oppositional Communists and post-Stalinist leaders of the Soviet Union would condemn abuses of power by describing them as ‘departures from Leninist norms’. Now, however, the fashion is to dismiss this approach as intellectual comfort-fodder. Lenin, it’s said, in no way offered an alternative to Stalinism. In fact, it was Lenin who created the machinery of inhuman oppression which Stalin merely continued – admittedly, on a vaster scale – to operate in the way that it was designed to operate. It was Lenin who established the Bolshevik monopoly of political power, who set the precedent for denouncing all critics of that monopoly as ‘counter-revolutionaries’, who locked the Bolsheviks into the fatal claim of ‘substituting’ for a working class which by 1921 had almost ceased to exist. It was Lenin during the Civil War who licensed the Red Terror – executions, family hostage-taking – against the class enemy.

My own feeling is that this approach is too crude to last. The Bolshevik Revolution was more ‘authentic’ and popular than we currently admit; to see Soviet history merely as inherited homicide is an excuse for not thinking about it. But while these versions last, their sting affects Trotsky too. And there’s worse: the suggestion that Trotsky has become irrelevant. If Lenin had set up a political tradition which could only achieve its ends by force, would it have made any significant difference whether Trotsky or Stalin succeeded him? Given Trotsky’s impetuous nature and his practice of Red Terror during the Civil War, might he not have been even more ruthless? In terms of public attention, Trotsky’s stock has fallen even faster than Lenin’s. After all, if the three giants of the Revolution were, in the current view, ‘as bad as each other’, why should Trotsky – the one who never held the leadership – be of special interest?

‘As bad as each other’. The real abyss separating Deutscher from modern historiography is a moral one. An average British history graduate today will have been taught to evaluate revolutions on a simple humanitarian scale. Did they kill a lot of people? Then they were bad. Showing that some of those killed were even more bloodthirsty than their killers is no extenuation. Neither is the plea that violence and privation, the sacrifice of the present, may be the price of breaking through to a better future. George Kline dismissed this in The Trotsky Reappraisal (1992) as ‘the fallacy of historically deferred value . . . a moral monstrosity’. Monstrous or not, it’s a bargain with the future which, as anyone over 60 will remember, Europeans of all political outlooks were once accustomed to strike. But today ‘presentism’ rules, and the young read the ‘short 20th century’ as the final demonstration that evil means are never justified by high ends.

Isaac Deutscher saw history differently. His standards are not those of Amnesty International. Instead, he measures everything against the cause of the Revolution. The Trotsky trilogy has a spinal column of moral argument running through it which can be reduced to this question: did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose? In the value of that ultimate purpose, Deutscher has solid faith. Trotsky expressed it on many occasions. In Siberian exile at the age of 22, he wrote: ‘As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy and happiness!’

In Deutscher’s hands, Trotsky’s career becomes an epic narrative of the struggle for the Revolution’s soul, for its promise to end the ages of necessity and open a new millennium of universal human freedom and sovereignty. And this struggle, Deutscher believed, would continue even after the failure and death of his hero. It would burn on until the day when a new Russian generation arose to rescue ‘October’ from the mire of tyranny and exploitation into which Stalin had driven it. Given the internationalist flavour of his own Marxism, it is not surprising that Deutscher wrote of Trotsky as if he were not merely an actor in the Russian political drama but a Prometheus doing battle for the future of the human race.

But Deutscher was not a ‘Trotskyist’. He was an independent revolutionary Marxist, thrown out of the Polish Communist Party in 1932 for criticising Stalin (a lucky break; a few years later, Stalin invited the whole Polish leadership to Moscow and shot them). He never met Trotsky , and disagreed with a great many of his policies. But he saw embodied in Trotsky his own faith that Stalinist tyranny was not the only possible form of power which revolutionary Marxism could take. And in Trotsky’s dazzling analyses, he found the expression of all his own rage and horror at what had become of the Revolution.

Deutscher was not a disciple, but did he stop short of hero-worship?

I do indeed consider Trotsky as one of the most outstanding revolutionary leaders of all times, outstanding as fighter, thinker and martyr . . . I have done my best to do justice to Trotsky’s heroic character, to which I find only very few equals in history. But I have also shown him in his many moments of irresolution and indecision: I describe the embattled Titan as he falters, and boggles, and yet goes out to meet his destiny.

For the most part, that’s a fair claim about his own book. All the same, there are moments when he sails over the top. Talking of Trotsky’s ferocious treatment of the Revolution’s enemies as leader of the Red Army, Deutscher pleads that ‘even in this phase the socialist “libertarian” was alive and awake in him . . . In his most ruthless deeds and most severe words there still glowed a warm humanity which distinguished him from most other disciplinarians.’ Did it indeed? It may not have warmed those facing his firing squads.

As well as sharing Trotsky’s loathing for Stalin and his minions, Deutscher broadly shared his analysis of what the Soviet Union became in the 1930s. Trotsky continued to regard it as a ‘deformed workers’ state’. In other words, the basic achievement of the Revolution – the abolition of the power of capital and the ending of private ownership of the means of production – remained intact under the superstructure of bureaucratic dictatorship, state terrorism and censorship. Two things followed from that premise. First, the USSR was still reclaimable for the Revolution, though it would probably take a second revolution to achieve it. Second, the duty of all true socialists to defend the Soviet Union – even Stalin’s Soviet Union – against attack by a capitalist power remained absolute and unqualified.

Deutscher agreed with the ‘deformed workers’ state’ definition; he remained a revolutionary optimist about its future until his death in 1967. Like Trotsky, he refused to believe that Stalinism was simply a form of state capitalism for the benefit of a new exploiting class. But Deutscher was less impressed by the suggestion of an unconditional duty to defend Stalin’s state, not least because Trotsky eventually went even further. He asserted that Stalin’s invasions of foreign territories (e.g. eastern Poland in 1939) should be welcomed as objective liberations because the invaders abolished private property, although the struggle against Stalinism within Russia should continue. Deutscher found this reasoning contorted and absurd.

The titles of the three volumes come from Machiavelli, who observed (inaccurately) that ‘all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.’ He continued: ‘The nature of the people is variable, and while it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.’ Here was the moral dilemma which victorious Bolshevism faced, and which Trotsky never resolved for himself. This was not just about means and ends. The people – or the working class – had not only to obey but also to believe. When they stopped believing, their belief had to be fabricated in the shape of a Party which claimed to substitute for the proletariat and which could maintain control only by dictatorship.

Trotsky was one of the first revolutionaries to denounce the temptation of ‘substitutism’. Back in 1904, he had warned that if the Party substituted itself for the working class, then ‘the Party organisation would . . . substitute itself for the Party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organisation; and finally a single dictator would substitute himself for the Central Committee.’ Few prophecies have been fulfilled with such ghastly precision. But Trotsky himself was complicit in its fulfilment. Within a year or so of the Revolution, he adopted – with typical enthusiasm – the principle that in crisis the Party must substitute for the proletariat. In 1923, as he fought for ‘proletarian democracy’ against the triumvirate led by Stalin, he changed his mind again, but by then he was too involved to speak decisively.

As Deutscher writes, neither side in the controversy

could say that they were condemned to pursue the proletarian ideal of socialism without the support of the proletariat – such an avowal would have been incompatible with the whole tradition of Marxism and Bolshevism . . . Trotsky, while he sought to reverse in part the process of substitution and struggled to tear to shreds the thickening fabric of the new mythology, could not help being entangled in it.

Critical as he was, his commitment to the Bolshevik Party was total to the point of being romantic, possibly betraying the convert’s zeal of a man who had once been a leading Menshevik. In 1924, during the disputes which followed Lenin’s death, he told the Thirteenth Congress that ‘one can be right only with the Party and through the Party, because history has not created any other way for the realisation of one’s rightness.’ Here, a decade ahead of its time, is the language used in fiction by Arthur Koestler or Victor Serge to express the self-abasement of old Bolshevik victims of the Great Purges.

The Prophet Armed describes Trotsky’s rise and apogee, from his birth in a Jewish farming family near Odessa to the summit of his power and influence at the end of the Civil War in 1920. From his launch as a socialist agitator in Ukrainian cities, he had graduated through prison and Siberian exile, escaping to join Lenin in London and then, after feverish political wrestlings in the emigration, returning in 1905 to revolutionary Russia where he became the chairman of the Council of Workers’ Deputies – the Petersburg Soviet. A fresh spell of prison and exile; another escape; another sojourn in the West, mostly in Vienna, until the outbreak of war and then the February Revolution brought him back into action. Trotsky, rather than Lenin, drove on the Petrograd Soviet towards the second insurrection which brought the Bolsheviks to power. As Commissar for Foreign Affairs, he went to Brest-Litovsk and staggered the world by shutting down the war with Germany unilaterally – ‘neither war nor peace’. As Commissar for War, he created and led the Red Army which, against the odds, parried and then shattered the White armies and the forces of the Allied intervention.

If Lenin, hard and unbreakable, was the axle of the Revolution, Trotsky was the roaring wheel. In this heroic period, he revealed a kit of talents which few humans have possessed. He was a whirlwind organiser who could bring any chaos to order, a terrific orator who could swell the hearts of thousands, a literary intellectual whose writings on culture, history, political philosophy and military tactics are still fresh and brilliant, a rare military commander who combined mastery of mobile warfare with a charisma which roused exhausted soldiers to die for him. In almost any other country, a man with such talents and such victories would have dreamed of ‘mounting the white horse’ – of taking supreme power – and it would have been hard to stop him.

But Trotsky was different. It was not just that he regarded men on white horses as a vulgar joke. He seems never to have thought of politics in terms of personal power and he was incredulous and then merciless in his contempt when he found that some of his colleagues did so. At one level, this proved his revolutionary integrity and democratic commitment. But it also revealed his weakness. Trotsky had all the gifts except political instinct. It was not just that he disdained intrigue. He was genuinely baffled by it. All his imaginative powers seemed to switch off when party colleagues pulled at his sleeve and begged him to join this or that faction in the struggle to succeed Lenin.

The Prophet Armed is about Trotsky as Coriolanus. The Prophet Unarmed is about Trotsky as Hamlet. He was not a consistent prophet. About international affairs, he was often astonishingly clear-sighted – as long as he did not let his own particular Marxist analysis intrude too deeply. Well before the events, he foresaw the rise of European Fascism, the potential appeal of National Socialism to the German middle class, the inevitability of a Second World War and the attack on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. But he was wrong when he predicted that the Second World War would be followed, like the First, by a continental wave of revolution in Western as well as Eastern Europe. Here he was misled by his obstinate attachment to the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, the hypothesis which to this day is supposed to define ‘Trotskyism’.

In the ‘permanent revolution’ arguments, Trotsky confronted the ‘iron laws of historic development’ as laid down by orthodox Marxism, laws which stated that the bourgeois revolution must precede the socialist or proletarian revolution. As Russia, unlike France, Germany or Britain, had not yet experienced a bourgeois revolution, a socialist revolution there was unthinkable. Put another way, the orthodox view was that socialism could be achieved only in a developed and prosperous society. In a vast and backward peasant country, with almost no industrial working class, socialism had no class basis and no resources to redistribute, and was bound to fail.

In Deutscher’s day, left-of-centre historians and revisionist Communists explained the decline of the Bolshevik Revolution into dictatorship in just those terms. Many still do. Communism failed, they say, because Marxists tried to construct it in the least suitable nation in Europe. Lenin and Trotsky were well aware of the problem. But Trotsky could not bear to resign the prospect of Russian socialism in his own lifetime. His permanent revolution theory, put very crudely, proposed that in Russia the two stages could be collapsed into one. The middle-class revolution would overthrow the autocracy, and then the proletarian masses and their Party would carry it directly on to socialism through an alliance of workers and peasants (who would be won over by land reform).

But Trotsky was an orthodox Marxist at heart. He saw that this peculiar Russian hybrid could not long stand on its own. Either it would be overthrown by counter-revolution, or it would become (as it did) an isolated fortress ruled by fear. It could survive, he argued, only if ‘the international working class’ came to its rescue. In other words, if socialist revolution conquered the developed industrial states of Europe, above all Germany, in the approved Marxist manner. Trotsky persuaded himself that this was about to happen. At times – in 1917, for instance – he even persuaded Lenin that this was about to happen. And long after almost all his comrades had given up that hope and submitted to Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’, Trotsky in defeat and exile continued to look for signs that ‘permanent revolution’ was soon to break out across the world and rescue the Soviet Union from isolation and dictatorship.

The theory was coherent, but its assessment of European working-class militancy was quite wrong. There seemed to be no alternative to ‘socialism in one country’ by the mid-1920s; Stalin tightened his grip on the Party and Trotsky was slowly manoeuvred into opposition. He was revered, but as Deutscher says, an exhausted people was no longer in the mood for grand oratory and prophecy. And in politics at this period, he played his hand amazingly badly.

The missed opportunities piled up. He failed to finish off the disgraced Stalin back in 1924, when Lenin metaphorically handed him the dagger. He offended his allies by demanding the conscription of labour and pressure on the peasants to extract more food. He stayed silent when 46 party intellectuals demanded that the ban on inner-party groupings be lifted. In the Central Committee, he failed to oppose the suppression of Lenin’s will, with its devastating verdict on Stalin. When the ‘triumvirate’ leadership split in 1925, as Zinoviev and Kamenev tried to remove Stalin, Trotsky was apparently taken by surprise, although the revolt, long prepared, was based on his own principles. At the Fourteenth Congress, when the threat to party democracy finally came into the open and was passionately argued through for the first and last time, Trotsky sat there silent. In the final struggle against Stalin in 1926-27, Trotsky paralysed his followers in the opposition by forbidding any alliance with Bukharin against Stalin, on the grounds that Bukharin favoured peasant property (‘suicidal folly’, Deutscher says) .

This passivity remains the mystery of his life. After that Congress, his fate and that of the opposition were sealed; events moved slowly towards his exclusion, his deportation to Alma Ata in 1927 and his expulsion to Istanbul in 1929. In that crucial period of 1924-27, one of the most forceful, restless personalities in history behaved like a Hamlet. Why? A sort of pathological disconnection, perhaps, which distanced him from political intrigues he found revolting? Or intellectual arrogance: the refusal to compete against people he secretly considered his inferiors? He was certainly arrogant; to take a comic example, he probably had no idea of the resentment he caused by reading French novels during Central Committee sessions. In consequence, he was tactless on a grand scale. He called American socialists a collection of Babbitts who supplemented ‘their commercial activities with dull Sunday meditations on the future of humanity’, and named one of their leaders ‘that ideal socialist spokesman for successful dentists’. His negligent rudeness to Stalin, whom he despised, turned dislike into murderous hatred long before he finally told Stalin in public that he was ‘the gravedigger of the Revolution’.

The Prophet Outcast begins with Trotsky’s four-year exile on Prinkipo island, off Istanbul. There followed flights, refuges and expulsions in Denmark, France and Norway until he and his wife were offered asylum in Mexico in 1937. There, three years later, Ramon Mercader killed him with an ice-pick.

It makes sense to start reading the trilogy with this last volume. For one thing, it has a tragic structure of its own; the wanderings of a Lear-like fallen king through a hostile or indifferent world, his children and disciples perishing until death silences him too. Secondly, this was the period when Trotsky woke up the world with his denunciation of the insanity and lies of the Moscow trials (the list of famous names who begged him to shut up is shocking to read). It is also the period in which he wrote his best remembered books, above all My Life and The Revolution Betrayed, and in which – as Deutscher shows – he had the time to develop his own ideas and perceptions. In short, it’s in this last phase that one comes closest to Trotsky, to his thought and his personality. And yet, apart from the books, it is a phase of unbroken failure.

At home, the opposition disintegrated after 1928 when Stalin suddenly adopted its policies: a ‘Left Course’ towards industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture. Less than ten years later, its members were executed by the thousand, as the Moscow trials ‘unmasked’ the bestial Fascist saboteur and traitor Trotsky behind all the defendants. Abroad, Trotsky failed to prevent the Comintern wrecking anti-Nazi unity with its offensive against ‘social-fascist’ Social Democrats. The foundation of the Fourth International in 1935, against Trotsky’s better judgment, was futile and did nothing to stop the feuds eroding his small band of supporters. Stalin’s agents infiltrated his inner circle, and probably poisoned his devoted son Lev Sedov in 1938. Western rulers, who had been fascinated and terrified when he arrived as an exile, had mostly forgotten about Trotsky when he was murdered in 1940.

But Trotsky’s faith in the socialist future, and his exultant delight in life, survived all failure. The Deutscher trilogy is full of extraordinary moments: Trotsky happily hunting deer in the mountains near Alma Ata, or collecting cacti in Mexico, ‘his figure, in a blue French peasant jacket, sharply outlined against the rocks and his white thatch of hair torn by the wind’, or concentrating all his energies to learn net-casting from a young fisherman in the Sea of Marmara. This was a rare man, a master of pen and sword who plugged his own almost superhuman vigour into the power-source of revolutionary faith. Unlike some of his comrades, Trotsky understood revolution not as a building-job but as a long, rushing movement: ‘the passage from prehistory to history’, or ‘the great leap from necessity to freedom’.

What remains of him? The books, as an incomparable witness to his times. But no Soviet Union, either ‘deformed’ or restored to ‘proletarian democracy’. The Bolshevik Revolution, which he led and rescued from its enemies, no longer feels like the major event of the 20th century. The weighing of ends against means, future against present, which allowed Trotsky to order so many innocent deaths is now utterly ‘unacceptable’. So are some of Deutscher’s own judgments. His only criticism of the murder of the tsar and his family is that ‘the world was deprived of the spectacle of a most dramatic trial.’

Deutscher’s ‘victory in defeat’ summary to his trilogy rests, in the end, on the hope that Soviet Communism is reformable, and on simple awe. ‘It cannot be, it would be contrary to all historical sense, that so high an intellectual energy, so prodigious an activity, and so noble a martyrdom should not have their full impact eventually.’ No? All that can be said is that when the unimaginable climate of revolution returns, as in some shape it will, young men and women will read and understand Trotsky and Deutscher as we no longer can.