Monday, December 23, 2013

The Side of “Progress”
Deutscher and Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

Perhaps the most telling indication of someone’s ideological bent is how they face up to what would happen if their ideas were fundamentally wrong.

Here I will briefly discuss thought experiment played out by Trotsky. In it Trotsky considered what would be the case if his ideas of “History” were wrong; and Deutscher’s consideration of Trotsky’s thoughts on the matter.

Leon Trotsky is a well-known twentieth century political figure. He was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and subsequent to that organizer and leader of the Red Army that won the civil war that followed. He was also a prolific writer and political theorist. He ended up losing the political struggle that followed Lenin’s death to Stalin and was forced into exile. After living in various countries he ended up in Mexico where he was assassinated by an assassin sent by Stalin in 1940.1

Politically Trotsky was bluntly a fanatic and true believer, whose political philosophy was basically a irrationally held “religious” belief that was quite impervious the great majority of the time, to reality. Also Trotsky helped to build and justify the transformation of Lenin’s Bolshevik government into an oligarchic dictatorship. Trotsky was quite vehement in denying, repeatedly almost to the point of hysteria, any responsibility for the development of Stalinism in Russia. That these denials fly in the face of readily observable facts is of course clear and obvious.2

That Trotsky was a dyed in the wool sectarian thinker and true believer is of course obvious along with the fanatical faith he had in his beliefs. However has we shall see his faith was different from Deutscher’s.

Isaac Deutscher was a follower of Trotsky although not, by a long shot, a worshipper of him. Deutscher wrote a voluminous three volume biography of Trotsky.3 Deutscher was in his own way a true believer, although considerably less polemical than Trotsky. Deutscher accepted many of Trotsky’s rather dubious political / economic opinions. Including the rather dubious point of view that in some sense the Soviet Union was a “Worker’s” state.4

But perhaps the most interesting feature of Deutscher’s political thinking was that he believed in “Progress” with a capital P and this was allied to the idea that history as in “History” had a goal and purpose. Deutscher believed that what was progressive was “right”, even if it was accompanied by much brutality.

This is most apparent in his biography of Stalin. Deutscher describes the purges and terror of the Stalinist regime in the 30s and does not justify them as being “necessary”. However overall Deutscher believes that Stalin was serving “progress” and “History”; even if his methods were brutal. Deutscher believes that Stalin was laying the foundations to the true “Socialist” society and that it would emerge at least in part because of Stalin’s brutal methods. So Deutscher was at least in part an apologist for Stalin.5

So what was Trotsky’s thought experiment? Well in a letter Trotsky wrote in 1940 he says the following:

The Present War and the Fate of Modern Society

By the very march of events this question is now posed very concretely. The second world war has begun. It attests incontrovertibly to the fact that society can no longer live on the basis of capitalism. Thereby it subjects the proletariat to a new and perhaps decisive test.

If this war provokes, as we firmly believe, a proletarian revolution, it must inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the USSR and regeneration
of Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural basis than in 1918. In that case the question as to whether the Stalinist bureaucracy was a "class” or a growth on the workers’ state will be automatically solved. To every single person it will become clear that in the process of the development of the world revolution the Soviet bureaucracy was only an episodic relapse.

If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilization.

An analogous result might occur in the event that the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries, having conquered power, should prove incapable of holding it and surrender it, as in the USSR, to a privileged bureaucracy. Then we would be compelled to acknowledge that the reason for the bureaucratic relapse is rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class. Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale.
We have diverged very far from the terminological controversy over the nomenclature of the Soviet state. But let our critics not protest; only by taking the necessary historical perspective can one provide himself with a correct judgment upon such a question as the replacement of one social regime by another. The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class.

However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended in Utopia. It is self-evident that a new "minimum” program would be required — for the defense of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.

But are there such incontrovertible or even impressive objective data as would compel us today to renounce the prospect of the socialist revolution? That is the whole question.6

Trotsky, the true believer, then goes on to dismiss the notion as a nightmare fantasy mainly through repeated incantations and prayers of Trotsky’s faith. Still the very fact he even considers this as a possibility indicates a certain openness that is interesting in itself.

What is of interest aside from Trotsky’s admission, at least as a thought experiment that his ideas of historical inevitability might be wrong is that faced with such a prospect he would still protect the interests of the exploited from the new historically inevitable and presumably progressive ruling / exploiting class.

Deutscher is different after quoting large sections of the above Deutscher says:

The passage was characteristic of the man: if bureaucratic slavery was all that the future had in store for mankind, then he and his disciples would be on the side of the slaves and not of the new exploiters, however 'historically necessary' the new exploitation might be. Having lived all his life with the conviction that the advent of socialism was a scientifically established certainty and that history was on the side of those who struggled for the emancipation of the exploited and the oppressed, he now entreated his disciples to remain on the side of the exploited and the oppressed, even if history and all scientific certainties were against them. He, at any rate, would be with Spartacus, not with Pompey and the Caesars.7

The writer Irving Howe noted that this comment indicated that just maybe Deutscher with his belief in “historical inevitability” and the “progressive” value of Stalin’s brutal coercion just might not be an ally of the exploited but instead resign himself to the inevitability and “progressive” nature of the new exploiting regime.

This of course fitted into Deutscher’s partial apology for Stalinism. Certainly it is as Howe notes entirely revealing that Deutscher would not necessarily be an ally of the oppressed and exploited. Instead Deutscher would likely have defended the Caesar’s and Pompey's as “historically necessary”. Not for him, it appears, the Sisyphusian labours of a Spartacus against a “progressive” necessity.8

But then it is hardly surprising many of Deutscher’s work are half apologies not just of Stalin but of authoritarian politics and as Howe claims much of Deutscher’s three volume biography of Trotsky seeks to justify Soviet authoritarians by emphasizing Trotsky’s authoritarianism and ignoring / downplaying those features in Trotsky’s thought which don’t quite jell with it.9

Of course Trotsky was in many respects, as evidenced by the record, a thorough going authoritarian. Certainly the record while he was in power does not permit any other conclusion. However it does appear that his basic motive was indeed a desire to help those oppressed. That this particular road to hell was paved with good intentions seems clear.

Deutscher instead seems even more, than Trotsky, a worshipper of “historical necessity” and the bastard God known as “History” and if the bastard God consigns the teeming multitude to exploitation and oppression that is just the way things are. Deutscher will remain on the side of “History”. So in his own way Deutscher was even more of a fanatic than Trotsky.

Frankly in this Trotsky seems both more human and humane that Deutscher.

Isaac Deutscher and
his wife Tamara Deutscher

1. I briefly mentioned in a past posting Deutscher in quoting Irving Howe’s comment that:

He [Deutscher] never learned that unpredictable as human history may be, History is a bitch. (Howe, Irving, Trotsky, Penguin Books, London, 1979, p. 198.)

The post can be located Here. For more on Trotsky’s life see Kolakowski, Leszek, Main Currents of Marxism, v. III, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. 183-219.

2. See Kolakowski, pp. 194-201. For Trotsky’s denial of a link between his and Lenin’s practices and Stalinism see Trotsky. Leon, The Revolution Betrayed, at Marxist Internet Archive Here.

3. The three volumes are Deutscher, Isaac, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1954, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1959, The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky 1929-1940, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1963.

4. See Deutscher, Isaac, Stalin, Vintage Books, New York, 1960, (Originally pub. 1949), pp. 549-570, and Caute, David, Isaac & Isaiah, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2013, pp. 70-78, 159-169.

5. IBID.

6. Trotsky, Leon, In Defence of Marxism, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1942, pp. 8-9. It can be found on the web at Marxist Internet Archive  Here.

7. Deutscher, 1963, p. 379.

8. Howe, pp. 195-198.

9. IBID.

Pierre Cloutier

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