Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin


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It could not even exercise control over those who ruled in its name. Having exhausted itself in the revolution and the civil war, it had almost ceased to exist as a political factor. There is a difference between 'exhaustion' and 'incapacity'. A class can recover from exhaustion, but to be described as incapable suggests a permanent condition.

Deutscher occasionally tries to enlist Trotsky in support of the latter contention, but only by basing himself entirely on the temporary solutions to which Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks were driven as a result of economic collapse and Civil War.

The way in which he, to put it mildly, made a virtue out of necessity during this period may well be the least glorious episode in his political life. But it was not his final position. In his writings on Germany from the s, for example, Trotsky writes of the period of dual power, before the victory of the working class, that 'the worker's control begins with the individual workshop. The organ of control is the factory committee.

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Deutscher's attitude towards the Russian working class is of a piece with his attitude towards the European working class as a whole after the First World War, which he claims never rose above reformism. His position--admittedly often exaggerated to the point of absurdity by some of his followers--was that working class failure to consistently take the revolutionary road was in part due to a crisis of leadership which it was the task of communists to overcome.

Deutscher underestimates the role of revolutionary leadership to an even greater extent than he underestimates the revolutionary capacity of the working class. His treatment of Lenin during is instructive here. In The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky argues that the arrival of Lenin in Russia in April was decisive in pushing the Bolshevik Party towards the socialist revolution and the seizure of power:.

Without Lenin the crisis, which the opportunistic leadership was inevitably bound to produce, would have assumed an extraordinarily sharp and protracted character. The conditions of war and revolution, however, would not allow the party a long period for fulfilling its mission. Thus it is by no means excluded that a disorientated and split party might have let slip the revolutionary opportunity for many years. Trotsky is not saying that the Bolsheviks would never have arrived at the correct strategy without Lenin, or that the revolutionary opportunity would never have come again, simply that in revolutionary situations time is of the essence and that without Lenin it would have been allowed to pass.

For Deutscher, such a lapse from 'the Marxist intellectual tradition' can only be explained by Trotsky's psychological response to his own isolation: 'He needed to feel that the leader, whether Lenin in or he himself in the s, was irreplaceable--from his belief he drew the strength for his solitary and heroic exertions'. If both the masses and the individual leaders are irrelevant to the accomplishment of socialism, what remains?

What forces can take their place? Deutscher often claimed to uphold what he called 'classical Marxism' against the 'vulgar Marxism' practised by Stalin, Mao and their epigones, and the virtues of his works confirm that this was no idle boast. Yet within the category of 'classical Marxism' he included many of the thinkers of the Second International, like Kautsky and Plekhanov, whose work was characterised--to different degrees--by an extreme determinism. For them, socialism was inevitable given a certain level of development of the productive forces.

Reading Deutscher's trilogy it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the experience of the defeat of the Russian Revolution led him to revive the determinism of the Second International. If defeat is too overwhelming, if the prospect of starting again is too difficult, then the temptation can be to present it, through the application of pseudo-dialectical voodoo, as a victory--or at least as being in the process of being transformed into a victory. Hence the title of the postscript to The Prophet Outcast : 'Victory in Defeat': 'The very preconditions of socialism which classical Marxism had seen as existing only in the highly industrialised countries of the West were being created and assembled within Soviet society'.

Stalin's Revolution: Stalin and the Revolution

Yet this was the conclusion which Deutscher wished so much to avoid that he dedicated his considerable powers to persuading his readers of the opposite. The trilogy exerted a great influence over the New Left when it emerged after , an influence which was as contradictory as the books themselves. To understand it, we need to envisage the context in which they were first read and discussed. When Trotsky was murdered in Stalinist rule was restricted to Russia itself and its immediate western border regions.

It also held the allegiance of the most militant sections of the world working class. Some threats to the stability of the Stalinist ruling class had, of course, already appeared: the first internal split came with the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform the Comintern's successor in and the first serious opposition from below came with the rising of East German workers in It was only retrospectively, however, that these events were generally seen as exposing the inherent problems of state capitalism.

For all practical purposes, in the early s Stalinism appeared to offer the only real alternative to Western capitalism and imperialism. Against the seemingly unstoppable rise of the system established by his arch-enemy, Trotsky seemed irrelevant, a figure from another time or another world--perhaps 'the lost world of Atlantis' which Deutscher invokes on more than one occasion. As he notes in the Preface to The Prophet Armed , 'For nearly 30 years the powerful propaganda machine of Stalinism worked furiously to expunge Trotsky's name from the annals of the revolution, or to leave it there only as the synonym for arch-traitor'.

Few of Trotsky's own works were in print at this time, except for a handful of pamphlets produced by the nominally Trotskyist organisations which, during this period at least, had few members and little influence.

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The three biggest groups in the West--the American, French and British--had maybe 3, members between them. Asked whether he was aware of Trotsky's writings during and immediately after the Second World War, Raymond Williams--perhaps the leading academic socialist thinker of his generation and one who organisationally broke with Stalinism during the late s--replied:. That was a crucial lack. It wasn't until much later that I really learnt of the existence of a socialist opposition in Russia. This is somewhat disingenuous, since Williams would of course have learned something from his days in the CPGB about 'the socialist opposition in Russia', namely that it was composed of class traitors in the pay of MI6 and the Gestapo.

But Williams is correct to describe the existence of a 'generational block'.


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For all the brilliance of many of the individuals associated with Trotskyism, Alasdair MacIntyre was right to say in his review of The Prophet Outcast that:. So called Trotskyism has been among the most trivial of movements. It transformed into abstract dogma what Trotsky thought in concrete terms at one moment in his life and canonised this.

It is inexplicable in purely political dimensions, but the history of the more eccentric religious sects provides revealing parallels. The genuine Trotskyism of [Alfred] Rosmer and Natalya [Sedova] must have at most a few hundred adherents in the entire world. Nor did Trotsky's non-revolutionary admirers keep his memory alive. During the s several centrist groups and individuals had independently arrived at interpretations of Stalinism, particularly its international role, which were compatible with that of Trotsky--George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is perhaps the best example--but it soon became apparent that, for the majority, the political conclusions which they drew were quite different and in most cases, quite unrevolutionary.

More generally, many intellectuals, particularly in the US, were attracted to Trotsky not only by his anti-Stalinism, but because of his literary and theoretical abilities, and what they saw as the romance of the revolutionary exile--the superficial aura of tragic heroism that Trotsky himself rejected.


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Some went so far as to join Trotskyist organisations, but most were unwilling to adopt the life of political commitment which membership entailed. Deutscher himself vividly describes their gradual retreat. It was onto this scene, where Trotsky was regarded, at best, as a harmless icon of non-specific anti-Stalinism or, at worst, as a counter-revolutionary renegade from the socialist cause, that the first volume of Deutscher's biography exploded in Not the least of our debts to Deutscher is that, in spite of his own disagreements with Trotsky, he played a major role in transmitting the legacy of his hero to subsequent generations.

His timing was fortuitous. Two years after his first volume appeared, the revelations in Khrushchev's Secret Speech and upheavals in Eastern Europe, culminating in the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, blew apart the Stalinist myth. Deutscher was not the first person to refer to Trotsky or his role in the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, the impact of Deutscher's trilogy was qualitatively different. For virtually the first time, revolutionary socialists had in their hands a substantial, documented history which broadly supported their arguments about the respective roles of Trotsky and Stalin in the Russian Revolutions.

More importantly, open-minded socialists who had no contact with Trotskyists--which at this time would have meant most of them--had an independent source of information from which to construct an alternative to the disintegrating orthodoxies of Stalinism.

Trotsky’s Struggle against Stalin

As David Widgery once noted, 'Even [in ], the range of readable socialist literature didn't overtax a table top'. The Scottish miners' leader Lawrence Daly, who broke with the CPGB in , wrote of Deutscher, 'His books on Stalin and Trotsky certainly enlightened thousands of active trade unionists, people who were not only trade union conscious but politically conscious, and they undoubtedly played a very important role in rescuing some thousands of people in this country, dedicated workers in the labour movement, from a kind of mummified Marxism, within the narrow and stultifying confines of which they had been ideologically asphyxiated'.

From Widgery's account, Deutscher's Trotsky anthology, The Age of Permanent Revolution , was one of three main sellers on bookstalls at the London School of Economics during the student rebellions of the late s. In , David Horowitz, whom we have already encountered, confessed to a Polish audience:. It was Deutscher who devised the theory out of which we hoped to revive the socialist dream. In his autobiography Tony Cliff recalled his concern over the dominance which Deutscher began to exert over audiences during the s:. I remember going to lectures by Deutscher at which there were 1, or more present.

Twice I spoke from the floor in the discussion criticising Deutscher's position, but I hardly cut any ice with the audience Our puny group, offering a tough approach to Stalinism, could not overcome Deutscher's soft soap. Cliff thought that because Deutscher's position did not involve a complete break from Stalinism it was easier for people from that tradition to accept than one based on a harder Trotskyist analysis, let alone that associated with International Socialism. The claim has some validity for the period in which the books first appeared--it clearly explains Lawrence Daly's enthusiasm, for example.

But it cannot explain why people with no previous history of Stalinism, who were becoming socialists for the first time, found Deutscher's arguments so compelling. Nor can it explain why they continued to do so long after the nature of Stalinism was accepted even by the majority of Communist parties.

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The answer is that, as I have already suggested, Deutscherism was a theory of consolation. No matter how difficult the current situation may have been in Western Europe or the US, no matter how few papers were sold on the high street of a rainy Saturday morning, socialism--or societies 'transitional' to socialism--already existed in the world and their number was being added to year on year: Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia where the phenomenon of a genocidal 'workers' state' was shortly to be discovered and Afghanistan. The main vehicle for spreading these views was a journal in which Deutscher's work had regularly appeared: New Left Review.

The apotheosis of 'theoretical Deutscherism' was attained in an essay of by Perry Anderson, somewhat misleadingly called 'Trotsky on Stalinism'. After a brilliant summary of Trotsky's changing analysis of the Soviet Union, Anderson discusses the limitations of Trotsky's analysis, which supposedly led to failures in prediction. All are derived from Deutscher. The fall of the Soviet bloc destroyed all the assumptions upon which Deutscherism was based.

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Some of his acolytes had already changed sides before the debacle of , but after it became apparent that that the USSR would neither economically compete with the US nor politically reform itself in a socialist direction. Horowitz explained to a Polish audience in how he 'waited in vain' for the self-reform of the Stalinist states, before concluding, 'Deutscher was wrong. There would never be a socialist political democracy erected on a socialist economic base'. For those, like Fred Halliday, who had essentially seen the Soviet bloc as the bearer of socialist progress, the debacle 'means nothing less than the defeat of the communist project as it had been known in the 20th century and the triumph of the capitalist'.

For every Halliday or Hitchens there is a Davis or an Ali. Nevertheless, Deutscherism made it easy, for those who had no countervailing belief in the ability of the working class to sustain them, to transfer their allegiance from Moscow to Washington. Towards the end of his life Deutscher began, in response to the Vietnam War, to engage in political activity for the first time in decades. In he was invited to speak at the National Teach-In about the war in Washington, and then at the far more political event of the same name in Berkeley.

He said of the latter event, 'This is the most exciting speaking engagement I have had since I spoke to the Polish workers 30 years ago. Can't you approach the young worker and tell him that the way to live is to work for life and not for death? Robert Gellately. The Russian Revolution. Richard Pipes. Revolutionary Russia, Orlando Figes. Timothy Snyder.

Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin
Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin
Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin
Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin
Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin

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