The Risks of Prophecy

Ironies of History

by Isaac Deutscher
Oxford, 296 pp., $5.75

Of all those who have written about Soviet affairs since the Second World War, Isaac Deutscher is one of the most widely read and interesting. In spite of an inclination towards hagiography, his three-volume study of Trotsky is the definitive work on the subject and, at the same time, among the best contemporary political biographies. His Stalin made the Soviet leader and the whole period of his rule come to life as no other book has done. The style is forceful, the sentiment not artificial; and there are striking historical analogies and literary allusions. Considering the heat of the passions generated by the Stalin-Trotsky controversy in the Twenties and Thirties (in which Mr. Deutscher was much involved), it is remarkable that he has managed to do justice to both his heroes. There is an indestructible optimism in all of Mr. Deutscher’s writings and none of the narrow dogmatism which so often disfigures and vitiates the writings of the more orthodox Marxist-Leninists.

How to explain then that Mr. Deutscher is also such a controversial political writer? That, with all their achievements and virtues, his books have provoked more heated polemics than those of anyone else in the field—including some whose views have been far more extreme? Part of the answer can be found in the present collection of essays written on various occasions since 1955; it is not one of Mr. Deutscher’s major works. Some of the essays have already been published in book form, others are minor pieces, adequate for the occasion on which they were published (such as the Stalin obituary in the Manchester Guardian) but hardly worth preservation. On some subjects Mr. Deutscher is clearly out of his depth—his essays on China, for instance, make strange reading:

It is this, the Leninist element in Marxism, that is at present asserting itself more strongly than ever and that seems to be transforming the outlook of Chinese communism. If Bolshevism after some years in power was morally declining, its enthusiasm withering and its ideas shrinking, Marxism is on the ascendant, discovers new horizons, and enlarges its ideas…the Marxists, whatever their ulterior motives and limitations, are impressing ideas of revolutionary internationalism on the minds of millions, as no one has done since Lenin’s days. Therein lies the world historical significance of their stand against Khrushchev.

What can we make of all this in the light of the “cultural revolution”? Then there is a long article on Pasternak, whom Mr. Deutscher criticizes sharply for failing to see the progressive role of the Russian revolution. He dislikes the weaknesses and incongruities of Dr. Zhivago (“clumsy, labored, embarrassingly crude”), the archaism of the central idea and the style. The new modern and educated Soviet society (Deutscher says) is growing beyond Pasternak. It is easy to imagine how Mr. Deutscher, had he been a contemporary, would have put Goethe in his place for writing Hermann and Dorothea and other ideologically weak pieces instead of reflecting on the progressive role of the French revolution.

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