Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky; drawing by David Levine

When on August 30, 1940, an agent of Stalin’s drove an ice-axe into Trotsky’s skull, the news scarcely caused a ripple of interest among intellectuals of the American Left. Except for the small group of Trotskyites—a group even then in the process of dissolution—most of them cared nothing for Trotsky and his ideas. Power is what they respected and Trotsky had none. His unique intellectual genius and his greatness as Marxist leader and strategist of revolution was of no interest to them; nor were they moved by his past achievements as the principal organizer of the October insurrection and victorious commander of the Red Army in the Civil War. They had attached their loyalty to the Soviet Union, and in no sense to Marxism. Insofar as they took Marxism into account at all, it meant merely what, at any given moment, Stalin said it meant.

This is what is not properly understood about the Thirties nowadays, and, by railing to stress it, most of the writing dealing with that decade is positively misleading. Consider the following a most unbelievable fact: in 1937, when the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Soviet charges against Trotsky was being organized, a considerable number of prominent American intellectuals published a manifesto warning “all men of good will” against assisting the Commission and declaring that critics of the Moscow Trials were slandering the Soviet Union and “dealing a blow to the forces of progress.” The manifesto was signed by Theodore Dreiser, Granville Hicks, Corliss Lamont, Max Lerner, Anna Louise Strong, Paul Sweezy and many other writers, artists, and professors. This statement—with its attempt to justify the blood-purges and its assertion of Stalin’s “integrity”—is to my mind far more revealing of the political atmosphere prevailing in the “radical” Thirties than most of the documents cited by historians and authors of memoirs.

The Thirties was a period of radicalization, to be sure, but it was mainly a radicalization controlled and manipulated by the Stalinist party-machine. Hence one can scarcely discuss this decade without also characterizing it as a period of ideological vulgarity and opportunism, of double-think and power-worship, sustained throughout by a mean and crude and unthinking kind of secular religiosity. No wonder that some of its survivors (joined, perhaps not too surprisingly, by a few ex-Trotskyites) have now turned into Cold Warriors of the “hard-nosed” variety whose endless exposures of Communism and the Soviet state, so simplemindedly Manichaean in political content, can hardly be said to serve any purpose except incitement to war.

How the radical intellectuals in the United States as well as in other Western countries accepted and spread the Stalinist mythology is one of the many themes Isaac Deutscher explores in this third and concluding volume of his biography of Trotsky. This volume, which comprises the years between 1929 and 1940, describes the critical social and political events of the period—the devastating effects of industrialization, collectivization and the Great Purges in Russia, the collapse of the socialist and communist movements in Europe under the onslaught of Nazism and the initial stage of the Second World War. During this time, Trotsky’s own dramatic life was moving towards its catastrophic dénouement—just as his mind was working at its highest pitch to define with theoretical precision and the insight gained from his singular experience, the causes and meaning of Communist degeneration and Russia’s decline into a totalitarian state.

But perhaps the word “biography” is quite inaccurate to describe Deutscher’s trilogy, for, though Trotsky was certainly a great personality, in a sense there was really nothing “personal” about his life. The idea of “the private life,” with all the perhaps extravagant values which we are accustomed to attach to it and in which our literature has long been steeped, was radically alien to him. Everything Trotsky did, everything he wrote, was politically motivated and had political consequences. To think of him, however, as a politician in the usual sense, that is, as a man above all involved in a power-game, is utterly to misconceive his role. With his devotion to principles and ideas, he could not but regard power in the sense of personal advantage and display as a vulgar temptation; to Trotsky politics was the conscious making of history for the highest ends. Therein lies his historic dignity and strength, even though in pragmatic terms his fidelity to principles and ideas weakened him considerably in his struggle against Stalin, whose cunning, toughness, and ruthlessness he always tended to underestimate.

Yet now that Stalin too is dead and his reputation as Lenin’s true heir is demolished, who is to say that Trotsky is not finally emerging as the victor whose apparently utopian faith in history is at last being vindicated? It is precisely to this possibility that Deutscher devotes the last pages of his book: in a postscript entitled “Victory in Defeat” he makes a statement of the utmost interest, even if it may strike a good many people as giving much too free a rein to his Marxist hopes. The fact is that we have a long way to go before the calumniation of Trotsky ceases to be standard practice in the Soviet Union. Deutscher remarks that when Trotsky’s “rehabilitation” comes, it will be carried out in a manner “free from cult, ritual and primitive magic.” If that time ever comes, however, it certainly won’t be during the ascendancy of Khrushchev and his generation who, even if they no longer conduct themselves as old-style Stalinists, are still quite unable to hold on to power without appealing to cult, ritual, and primitive magic. Even if they consider this appeal next in importance to police-terror, the ultimate resource, which they hold in reserve, it is none the less indispensable to them.


It is only when the historians of the revolution and its aftermath are liberated from the fetters of the party-line—or, to put it another way, when the party has been deprived of its monopoly of power—that the true role of Trotsky and the real nature of his political creed will become known to the people living under communism. In the long run Trotsky—at times in spite of himself—stands for the Western and libertarian and internationalist trend in the communist movement. Thus the logic of his position impelled him, in the last years of his life, to call for a political revolution in Russia against bureaucratic absolutism, a revolution inspired by democratic aims which would at the same time preserve and strengthen the basically social character of the Soviet state and the collective, planned nature of the economy. The need for such a revolution has by no means been nullified by Khrushchev’s wavering and contradictory attempts to reform Soviet society from above. If Trotsky is still regarded in the East as the supreme heretic (even though the grotesque charges of spy and traitor have been tacitly withdrawn), it is plainly because his programmatic ideas represent even now the greatest possible threat to the ruling bureacuracy, a far greater threat in fact than that represented by the capitalist West.

These are some of the issues, of far more than merely theoretical value, in which this concluding volume of Deutscher’s trilogy involves us. The trilogy as a whole is a work of enormous scope, written in a language at once lucid and eloquent, and it is scrupulously based on primary sources. Deutscher’s study is an extremely fine example of historical narration at its best, and of political analysis which is as percipient as it is comprehensive. I say this without necessarily agreeing with all its theses or judgments; in any case, sheer agreement or disagreement is not so important a test of value as the intellectual level on which it takes place—and in Deutscher’s trilogy the level is very high indeed.

One can nonetheless predict that The Prophet Outcast, like the two volumes that preceded it, will be read by few and given little serious attention. The reason for this is that Deutscher is an unrepentant Marxist whose approach acts abrasively on the sensibilities of most political intellectuals, some of our ex-Stalinists and ex-Trotskyites still enjoy a privileged status: their expertise is drawn upon and they are praised for their repudiation of Left-wing ideals. Having abandoned not only the theory of socialism but even the very notion of its desirability, they naturally have no use whatever for someone so stubbornly against the Left’s collapse into vague middle-class “liberalism” or an outright alignment with the status quo—if not worse. From their point of view Deutscher has committed the unpardonable sin of writing about Trotsky with admiration and not with the intention of exposing and degrading him. Moreover, he has compounded his sin by openly adopting the conviction, which Trotsky held all his life and which caused him to lose a good many of his followers, that it is necessary to distinguish in principle between the “socialist-progressive” and “bureaucratic-retrograde” trends in the Soviet Union. Ex-radicals find this position unacceptable. Thus both Trotsky and his gifted biographer are consigned to the outer darkness.

To this day Trotsky remains the great outsider that he became when he was deported from Russia in 1929. Deutscher’s explanation of this phenomenon is inherently plausible:

His ideas and methods were those of classical Marxism and were bound up with the prospect of revolution in the “advanced” West. His political character had been formed in the atmosphere of revolution from below and proletarian democracy, in which Russian and international Marxism had been nurtured. Yet in the period between the two world wars, despite the intense class struggles, international revolution stagnated. The staying power of Western capitalism proved far greater than classical Marxism had expected; and it was further enhanced as Social Democratic reformism and Stalinism disarmed the labor movement, politically and morally. Only in the aftermath of the Second World War was international revolution to resume its course; but then its main arena was to be in the underdeveloped East, and its forms, partly also its content, were to be very different from those predicted by classical Marxism. To eastern Europe revolution was to be brought, in the main, from “above and from outside”… In any case, the years of Trotsky’s exile were, from the Marxist viewpoint, a time out of joint…and the ground crumbled under the champion of classical Marxism. In the stormy events of the nineteen-thirties… Trotsky was to remain the great outsider.

In The Basic Writings of Trotsky Irving Howe has edited a sufficiently representative collection preceded by what is for the most part an excellent introduction. The book contains selections from Trotsky’s work before and after the revolution, and the subject-matter is not limited to politics alone. The essay on Céline is a masterpiece of brilliant insight and formulation. Of particular interest are Trotsky’s writings on the German situation in the immediate pre-Hitler years, in which he urged upon the communist movement the only possible strategy that might have prevented the Nazi assumption of power. Howe is right in remarking that “had his advice been followed (the Stalinists attacked him for ‘capitulating’ to Social Democracy!), the world might have been spared some of the horrors of our century; at the very least the German working class would have gone down in battle rather than allowing the Nazi thugs to take power without resistance.” (Deutscher is equally impressed with Trotsky’s diagnosis of the situation in Germany. He considers his attempt to arouse the workers of that country to the danger of Hitlerism to be “his greatest deed in exile,” observing that “like no one else and much earlier than anyone, he grasped the destructive delirium with which National Socialism was to burst upon the world.”)


Howe’s criticism of Trotsky’s ideas in his introductory essay is for the most part cogent enough. It is true, for instance, that Trotsky’s “class-analysis” of bourgeois democracy is insufficient, and even dangerous in its undervaluation of the meaningfulness of political freedom, however formal and limited such freedom may be under a system of class-domination. But I cannot see that anything is gained by stating that in terms of Trotsky’s theory of Hitlerism the murder of six million Jews in Europe cannot be “adequately explained.” If Trotsky’s theory does not explain this monstrous phenomenon, neither does any other theory that I know of. Perhaps the word “explain” is at fault here, for it assumes a rational structure in human reality which we have no grounds for assuming. Evil on so huge a scale is inexplicable, except perhaps by an appeal to the age-old mystification of “original sin,” which precisely by undertaking to explain everything that happens in human affairs ends up by explaining nothing. But there is nonetheless a significant difference between Trotsky’s theory of Nazism (formulated before the Nazis came to power) and that of competing theories. If Trotsky’s theory had been translated into practice, that is, into actual political action, the crime of genocide would surely have been averted. One cannot say as much for the other theories, which are chiefly ex post facto constructions, theories pure and simple, involving no commitment to action and therefore powerless to produce operative procedures of prevention. The authors of such theories are still in the stage of those “philosophers” whom Marx once dismissed as merely interpreting the world differently, the real point being to change it.

This Issue

January 23, 1964