From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, pp.32-33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Oxford Paperbacks. 10s. 6d.
The appearance in paperback of the first of Deutscher’s classic biographies is a matter of unreserved congratulation to the publishers. This book is a permanent addition to historiography, not just because of the importance of Stalin but because Deutscher brought to the study of Stalin and the Soviet Union a new level of scholarly seriousness. It is important to remember that Stalin was first published in 1949; a measure of how far we have travelled since then is derived from a comparison of the scurrilous abuse with which this book was treated in Modern Quarterly when it first appeared with the caution with which this re-edition was treated in the Daily Worker. If therefore I dwell on my critical doubts about Deutscher, this is not from any lack of realisation that our debt to him is inescapable.
My first doubt is about the method of biography. Lives take shape in a social context and a social context is not the sum total of individual lives. To write the history of a revolution from the standpoint of the leadership is already to commit oneself to the view that leadership is all-important, that the decisive changes in human history are acted out at this point. And it is but a short step from this to Trotsky’s misguided diagnosis of the failure of the revolution as being due to a ‘crisis of leadership’.
My second doubt can be suggested by looking at Deutscher’s closing paragraph where he compares Stalin with Cromwell and Robespierre. The striking character of the parallel suggests strongly that Stalin’s revolution was what this was, a revolution in which one owning class supplants another. And, if this is so, the self-liberalisation of the Russian bureaucracy to-day is parallel to the self-liberalisation of the bourgeoisie. It is no part of a road to Socialism.
Thirdly, and linking these two earlier points, those who have read Deutscher’s various writings on the years 1924-34 in the Soviet Union should also read Max Shachtman’s The Struggle for the New Course. What Deutscher’s analysis never makes clear, and what Trotsky himself never understood, is why not only waverers like Radek, but brave, principled men like Christian Rakovsky made their peace with Stalin. What Shachtman’s narrative shows is the way in which the objective conditions of industrialisation in a beleaguered Russia presented the Left Opposition with no viable alternative to Stalinism. And this lack of an alternative is the only plausible explanation of the capitulation of not the worst, but the best men in the Soviet Union to Stalin.
Last updated: 2 March 2010