The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921–29. Isaac Deutscher. Oxford University Press, 1959. 38/-.

this is a unique work of brilliant scholarship, alive with human interest and of profound political significance. It carries forward the story of the Russian Revolution, and of Trotsky, from the moment when he descended from the armoured train as the architect of victory, to the point where he is deposited on a boat at Odessa—an unwilling and protesting exile from the first socialist state which he had helped to create and which he would never see again.

Here is no “this-side-idolatry” biography. On the contrary, Deutscher is aware of Trotsky’s many weaknesses as a political leader—his vanity, his temporising at crucial moments, his misjudgements of men, his lack of decision in the struggle against Stalin. Trotsky emerges as a credible, if not wholly sympathetic figure; human in a way Lenin is not, scholarly as Stalin never is, and with a degree of principle lacking in most of the top leadership of the revolutionary dictatorship. The pathos, or sympathetic horror, with which one apprehends the Greek progress by which the hero encompasses his own final and irrevocable doom, gives the narrative an epic quality. This biography succeeds at the highest level, as a work of art.

Paradoxically, however, this aesthetic quality is the product of a close scrutiny of the conflicting policies of the main leaders of the Revolution, and of the actions of those various characters who stood for the alternatives confronting the victorious revolutionary party in the period 1921–29. Deutscher achieves his effect by the restraint and objective commitment of his writing, and by his method of contrasting, with a minimum of explicit comment, the personalities of the main contenders for leadership of the revolutionary dictatorship. Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek are major figures portrayed in their engagement with the same forces and, at a later period, suffering the same tragic fate as the central figure, bringing about their own undoing by their tragic weakness and same lack of understanding of the powers with which they have to deal. The account of the internecine struggles within the central leadership—with Stalin using now this faction, now another, and discarding each instrument when no longer of value; master of the intrigue and the techniques of slander and vilification; using Lenin as a sacred figure and reviving the fact of pre-revolutionary disagreements between Trotsky and Lenin, Bukharin and Lenin, Radek and Lenin, Zinoviev and Lenin to question their loyalty to the Party at crucial moments of the factional struggle—is given in all necessary detail, with documentation from the Trotsky Archives, now in America. We see the cult of personality from the very moment of its inception—at the funeral of Lenin. The details of the inner struggles of Krupskaya, Lenin, Trotsky against the development of the Stalinist hegemony are resurrected from the limbo to which the “Stalin school of falsification” has relegated them since 1928. The political content of the struggle against Trotsky’s policies of “permanent revolution”, of “controlling the kulak”, of “primitive Socialist accumulation”—with their subsequent regeneration and degeneration in their Stalinist anti-humanist form of “liquidation of the kulak”, of “Socialism in one country”—are dealt with in masterly form. Deutscher is uniquely equipped to rehabilitate Trotsky’s reputation as a humane, intelligent and cultured Bolshevik from the mountain of dead dogs cast on his murdered name. The Party emerges in this period as a monster to which all must be sacrificed. The allembracing, bureaucratic, machine-minded Stalin faction, prepared to stick at nothing to gain political ascendancy, is shown in stark detail in its successful capture of the Central Committee, Politburo and other Party machinery. Here we see worked out those techniques which were used subsequently, and with nauseating fidelity to detail, by the willing dupes and accomplices of the leaderships in Communist Parties throughout the world. The techniques of lies, evasions, rigged elections, open threats of political character assassination, isolation of the individual critic by the utterly unprincipled ignoring of constitutions and customs on the part of the dominant faction, the making of pacts which are unilaterally violated, the gangster mentality whose closest parallel is Murder Inc.—were developed initially by Stalin in the struggle against Trotsky on the Central Committee. It is all here with chapter and verse from Trotsky’s papers now at Harvard University, from the reports of Party conferences (subsequently suppressed in some cases), from accounts published in exile by leading comrades. Deutscher is intimately acquainted with the literature—manifestos, memoirs, reports—in Russian, German, Yiddish, Polish, French and English; he knew many of the participants personally and has since consulted with large numbers of expatriate Communists about incidents in which they played leading parts. He was himself involved in factional struggles in the Polish Communist Party. Through all this he has kept an admirable sense of balance and a remarkable objectivity.

Trotsky had a wonderful power of prevision. He foresaw the development of nuclear energy. He saw earlier than anyone (1905) the need for a proletarian revolution in Russia which would continue the bourgeois revolution, with the proletariat assuming state power. Lenin saw this only in April 1917 when the revolution had already broken out. He foresaw the problem of “primitive socialist accumulation” in an agricultural country setting out on the road to socialism. He foresaw the whole political development under Bolshevism, in which the people were first substituted for by dictatorship of the working class; the working class by the “Party as vanguard”; the “Party as vanguard” by the leading cadres of the Party (“the General Staff of the Revolution”); the Party leadership by one man. He foresaw the development of “the cult of leadership”. He foresaw the stages by which he would be expelled, first from all leading positions in the Party, then from the Party itself, from his homeland, from life. He foresaw the way in which his erstwhile allies—Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek—would betray him and be in turn betrayed.

This man lacked the ruthless will to take the necessary steps to safeguard his own future. At crucial moments of the factional struggle in the Central Committee he was not even there. When he had the opportunity to defend and save himself and, at an earlier period, factions which could have served him as allies, he did not even speak up. Even when he agreed with their principles he failed to defend their right to express them: the same processes were later turned against himself. His twin errors would seem to lie in his belief in the sovereign power of human reasonableness, and a gross over-estimation of his own ability and right to survive because of his own superior reasoning powers. He emerges from the struggle against the unprincipled demonic forces of Stalinism with political honour (almost) untarnished, but condemned to failure because of a basic lack of decision. We cannot say that his fatal mistake was a lack of faith in the masses—the history of Europe since 1917 has shown conclusively that the slogan “Revolutionaries! Put not your trust in the mass movement!” is the beginning of political wisdom. But he failed to try the only policy which might have succeeded: resignation from the higher Party committees, where he was bound to secrecy about his disagreements with the majority, and an appeal to the Party membership on the basis of political principle. When he did finally attempt an appeal to the people it was an abortive and ridiculous occasion with a total lack of comprehension on the part of his audience. His differences on policy were never seriously discussed outside a very narrow circle of about a dozen people. Stalin used the right wing as allies in the destruction of Trotsky, before adopting the left course which Trotsky had advocated, thus crushing the right wing and gaining supreme control. The fight in the Central Committee was carried on around conflicting policies rather than on the basis of a fight between policies rationally considered. Stalin manipulated his opponents by threats, by packing party posts with his own adherents, by packing congresses, by suppressing crucial documents (e.g. Lenin’s testament) and obtained artificial majorities in these ways. The kind of pressures he could bring to bear are shown by his threat to Krupskaya that he would appoint someone else, presumably a mistress of Lenin, as “Lenin’s widow” if she continued to support Trotsky!

Apart from the interest in Trotsky’s personal tragedy, the main interest of this volume lies in the complex story of the progress of the Revolution after the fighting is over. We see this progress not only in its domestic and social setting, but also in its international context. Here we have the inner history of the abortive German revolution, the reasons for the failure of the Hungarian revolution, the debacle of the first Chinese revolution, and the political disarming of the Left in the General Strike of 1926 in this country. This is the least original part of Deutscher’s narrative since the results of Stalin’s “leadership” of world revolution are already well known from accounts by the chief protagonists. The subservience of the Comintern to Stalin’s policies, and the direction of the Russian Party in international affairs in terms of “Socialism in One Country”, with the tacit writing off of the European working classes—this is clarified by Deutscher’s narrative. Stalin’s disastrous policies, coupled with Trotsky’s ineffectiveness in the Central Committee and Comintern Executive, appear as malign influences in the domestic affairs of all national Communist parties throughout this period.