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.
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF ESSAYS on the Khrushchev era, some of them patronizing but most sharply critical; Mr. Deutscher is far more severe on poor Mr. K. than he was on Stalin during his lifetime. Then there are a lecture at the Washington Vietnam teach-in in 1965, some radio talks about Menchevism, a review of Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko, all of small importance in comparison with the biography of Lenin which he is now completing. For Deutscher is more than an historian; he is a prophet, and like all prophets he takes himself very seriously. There is a constant insistence that events have always confirmed his prognostications and that various famous people, named and unnamed, have so admitted to him. Mr. Deutscher has an unshakable confidence in himself and his hypotheses, enviable no doubt in this world of uncertainties, but often somewhat irritating. This is a minor annoyance but it touches on a major question. Ideologists have all too often a sovereign disdain for facts that do not fit into their preconceived pattern; Mr. Deutscher is no exception. He has not been anywhere near Russia for the last thirty years; his comments on topical events (as distinct from his historical writings) are purely speculative. They may show brilliant flashes of insight—or they may be hopelessly wrong. It is all a matter of creative imagination unimpeded by confrontation with unwelcome facts.
The devices used are sometimes a little startling. On one occasion he gives an account of the exchanges at a Politburo meeting. Khrushchev, pointing to Kaganovitch and Molotov, exclaims: “Your hands are stained with the blood of our party leaders and of innocent Bolsheviks.” “So are yours,” Molotov and Kaganovitch shout back to him. The reader is impressed, but on second thought realizes that since Mr. Deutscher was not present at that meeting such verbatim quotation is somewhat suspect. It may have happened that way, or it may not. In the present volume there is a similar attempt to read the mind of Marshal Rokossovski: “Rokossovski must have told himself…” All very well, but did he? There are far too many statements in this book that are half-truths, such as the argument that Stalin would never have succeeded in blackmailing the Soviet people and the foreign Communists into obedience, but for relentless foreign military pressure. Or his assertion that Stalin rarely if ever permitted himself an open violation of agreements with bourgeois diplomatic partners. Or when Mr. Deutscher maintains that no Western nation provides its citizens with free education at all levels (which, as a little research would have shown him, is not even a half-truth). “In 1947,” he writes,
…the leaders of the anti-communist parties still sat in the governments of Eastern Europe, just as the communists did in Western Europe, in more or less subordinate positions. It was only after the communists had been ejected from the French and Italian governments…that Stalin began to eject the anti-communists from the East European governments and to establish the single party system.
This is a central argument in Mr. Deutscher’s book; it means that a large, perhaps decisive, part of the responsibility for the Cold War rests with the West, most of all the United States. But do the facts bear this out? The Communists were ejected from the West European governments in May 1947. But what about the “anti-Communists” in the East European governments? Anti-Communists, for obvious reasons, were not given a chance to join the governments in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. Mr. Deutscher presumably means “non-Communists” willing to cooperate with the Communists. But where? Hardly in Yugoslavia or Albania, because these were purely Communist regimes from the very beginning. Nor East Germany. Perhaps he has in mind men like Maniu in Rumania, Petkov and Dr. Dimitrov in Bulgaria. But they were about to be arrested, and, anyway, were not in government. Or Bela Kovacz in Hungary, who had been a minister arrested in January 1947. Or Mikolaiczyk in Poland, who had also been a minister ousted in February 1947. The non-Communist groups in Eastern Europe had been virtually brought into line by 1947 following the application of the famous salami tactics; the case of the smallholders party in Hungary is a perfect illustration. The one man who remained in power a little longer was poor Benes in Prague. And I doubt that even Mr. Deutscher would call him an “anti-Communist.” (Nor is it true, strictly speaking, that Stalin introduced the single party system after June 1947. Formally, the governments of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and for all we know, China, remain coalition governments to this very day.) On closer inspection not much remains of Mr. Deutscher’s thesis.
THE FACTUAL BASIS of Mr. Deutscher’s arguments is often extremely shaky. This has led several critics to dismiss Deutscher—not only the political commentator but also the historian—as unreliable, as a mere propagandist. But this is unfair to the political commentator, who after all has not always been wrong, and, in fact, sometimes serves as a useful corrective. As for the historian, similar strictures have been made against most of his colleagues in all ages: they all had some important axe to grind. What Taine said about Michelet also applies to Mr. Deutscher—that his history had all the qualities of inspiration, grace, spirit, color, passion, and eloquence—but not objectivity, justice, or measure: “It is admirable and incomplete.” It was a fair judgment, but it applies equally well to Taine himself.
Somewhere in his book Mr. Deutscher regrets that the Mensheviks have not found their Lamartine. Historical parallels are never perfect, but, come to think of it, Lamartine and Deutscher have something in common quite apart from their fondness for historical abstractions that have a life and personality quite apart from the struggles of men. The Revolution, or History, or what you will, decides, justifies, forgives, accuses, is understood, or misunderstood. A sentence such as “The shocks and crimes do not detract from the sanctity of the Revolution; they were due to the imperfections of men” could be the motto of Mr. Deutscher’s work. Lamartine’s predilection for the Girondins does not prevent him from admiring Robespierre. He abhors, as Mr. Deutscher does, but invokes in his justification salut public and revolutionary necessity. He is firmly convinced that Robespierre died for the future of mankind and that, purified by History from its shortcomings and excesses, the Jacobin spirit will guide the way to a better future for France and all mankind. Lamartine was read for many years, and so in all probability Mr. Deutscher will be. A doctrinaire approach does not necessarily disqualify a historian; there is no monopoly of historical truth. Mr. Deutscher’s orthodox Marxism, anyway, is diluted by a strong romanticism and by hero-worship. I do not suggest that a marxist should write economic history only. But what about a Marxist who writes only biographies? Political biography is a genre distinct from history. It has to rely more on empathy, insight, and understanding; it is not subject to the rigid laws and taboos of historiography.
Mr. Deutscher is most vulnerable when he claims, simultaneously, both militant partisanship and scientific objectivity. He makes no secret of his political convictions: Stalin, when all is said and done, though not uncritical, is an apologia for its subject, and to some extent an idealization. Mr. Deutscher’s political comments are usually one-sided, which, for a political partisan, let it be said for the last time, is perfectly legitimate. But now and again the propagandist dons a new hat, that of a man above the struggle, looking at the human scene from Olympian heights. In this role, Mr. Deutscher is not only objective—he has a monopoly of objectivity. The paradox becomes easier to understand when we learn that he regards Lenin as his model of a “critical student in the laboratory of thought,” a “free and disinterested mind.” Lenin no doubt was a great man, but scarcely a “free and disinterested mind.” “Ironies of history” indeed.
April 20, 1967