Review- Deutscher, “The Prophet”

Isaac Deutscher, “The Prophet” (1954-1963) – Trotsky! The man, the myth… the maverick! You have to do a lot in life to justify a biography weighing in at nearly 1600 pages, and Leon Trotsky certainly did. A lot of people have had a lot of opinions about the man. Praise came from the bodies ranging from the crowds of Petrograd to liberals who thought him the great lost hope of the Russian revolution; condemnation as the devil incarnate from Stalin’s throne and these days, the altright spreads the meme that Trotsky invented the concept of racism to undermine the west. In short, he was kind of a big deal.

Isaac Deutscher went a long way to cementing the picture we have of Trotsky with the “Prophet” series. It consists of three volumes: “The Prophet Armed,” covering the period from Trotsky’s birth as Lev Davidovich Bronstein through the Revolution to his victory in the Russian Civil War; “The Prophet Unarmed,” concerning the period during which Trotsky struggled and failed to define the direction the nascent Soviet Union would take; and “The Prophet Outcast,” dealing with his exile and eventual death. He started in the earlier fifties, when Stalin was still alive and the world by and large saw Trotsky either as one or another kind of ogre — the ogre of revolution, too dangerous to allow sanctuary in most democratic countries, or the ogre of counterrevolution, the cause of all the Soviet Union’s ills — or as plain irrelevant.

Deutscher’s Trotsky is human- a grand human, massive in his abilities and in his failings, a classic tragic hero. Maybe this is just me in the current climate talking, but what impressed me the most about Trotsky was just his sheer energy. The man could get a lot done! This is true from early times, as the young Trotsky managed a harsh student career with all sorts of extracurricular learning and political activism in the fledgling Russian socialist scene of the end of the nineteenth century. It continued right through his first periods of exile, both internal and external- even shipped to Siberia, he’s still organizing, agitating, learning math and science, getting married, having kids, escaping and fleeing across the tundra, doing literary reviews- hell, sometimes getting these reviews out is all I can do!

Trotsky danced an intricate dance with Vladimir Lenin in the period before the Russian Revolution. He was a Menshevik — a believer that Russia had to go through a bourgeois revolution before a vanguard party could propel it to socialism — in all but name, while Lenin of course ran the Bolshevik side of things. Deutscher depicts Trotsky as ever hewing to classical Marxism, which at the time of the Second International seemed more Menshevik. But Trotsky and Lenin converged once the Revolution broke out in Russia- I don’t recall if Deutscher put it exactly this way, but one thing that could move Trotsky away from his attachment to the classical formulae was the action of the people. Detached from them, as he would eventually be… but in Petrograd in 1917 he was in his element, leading the workers, speechifying, outwitting the Cadets and Mensheviks and whoever else. Here, it’s well worth reading Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution,” because Trotsky was a capable historian on top of everything else.

Once the Bolsheviks established control with the October Revolution, it was time for the Civil War. Deutscher deals with this in a relatively short spread of pages, but it’s arguably Trotsky’s most impressive achievement. Entirely self-taught in military arts, he built up the Red Army from a collection of worker militia, trained and disciplined them, and fought a multi-front war against opponents with foreign (including American) backing and actual military experience, and beat them all. In the way of ideological civil wars, this one was bloody and brutal, with hostage takings and executions (for instance, that of the Czar and his family) on both sides. This has been called the “heroic” period of the Soviet secret police (the Cheka, in this incarnation), but I’m not sure I believe that to be a real thing. Maybe I’m just a soft touch, but even if necessary, I don’t see a lot of heroism in it. I’m not a heroism-seeker in any event, I guess.

With victory in the Civil War came that “oh shit” moment when the Bolsheviks had to govern their ravaged country and build socialism, and that’s where things started to come apart for Trotsky. While he was winning battles, his rivals in the Politburo were winning the war of position inside the bureaucracy. Trotsky had the keen ability to figure out what needed doing — concessions to the peasants, loosening of market restrictions, bootstrapping of industrial labor — just before the political winds shifted to make them possible. Stalin, with whom Trotsky shared a mutual distaste from the beginning that only curdled in time, again and again seized on Trotsky’s ideas after condemning them, and Trotsky, a few months or a year earlier. There’s a certain horror-movie element to the middle book, where you’re screaming at Trotsky to do something — mobilize the army, kill Stalin, just get out — but of course, he doesn’t do it. His confidence in himself and in the revolutionary process, his loyalty to the party of Lenin, and his underestimation of Stalin led him to stay in a situation where he and his allies were gradually maneuvered out of positions of power and influence and the public was rallied against them.

I never was good at following lines of doctrine. I mark Christian sects largely by their social following and aesthetic feel, and I get lost in the minutiae between leftoid groups- one of the reasons I’m in DSA (and not in any ideological caucuses therein), no need to follow a specific line. What I can make out is that Trotsky, Stalin, and Bukharin were the left, center, and right of the Bolshevik party for a while, and Trotsky’s left was weak and divided, dealing as he was with the likes of Zinoviev in his coalition. Before reading this book, many of these names were just names to me, but Deutscher deftly brings out their characters- Bukharin’s brilliance tempered by a certain arrogance, Zinoviev’s pusillanimity and overconfidence, looming behind it all Stalin, personality-less and ominous. Trotsky couldn’t ally with Bukharin’s right, which he saw threatening to reinstate capitalism, so he was isolated and forced out. As far as I can tell, that’s a decent capsule of what happened, but there was a lot of back and forth that Deutscher makes interesting, if not easy to encapsulate.

Finally, Trotsky is at loose ends, first in Turkey, then France, Norway, and finally Mexico. This part is just sad. He strives mightily to get some kind of opposition to Stalin off the ground, but within Russia Stalin is amping up the Great Terror and outside Trotsky was faced with fecklessness, division, indifference, and the issues caused by his own sometimes impossible standards. It proved an impossible balancing act, to criticize Stalin (as his cult of personality blossomed internationally) without condemning the Soviet experiment and the Bolshevik party. Even once he allowed, in the last few months of his life, that the Soviet Union wasn’t in any meaningful sense a “worker’s state” that needed to be defended to the last, he ran into bad timing- it soon did become imperative to defend the Soviet Union from fascism, even as Stalin undermined antifascism by treating with Hitler. Trotsky’s efforts to create a Fourth International were riddled by Stalinist spies and infighting, and continues to be a near-impossible organizing hobby horse to this day. His kids either committed suicide or were killed by Stalin’s agents. Finally, he himself was assassinated.

The end? Not quite. The fact that Stalin felt the need to have assassinated a man he had so thoroughly marginalized speaks to the power that Trotsky had as a symbol and as an organizer against all odds. With the help of the Deutscher biography, Trotsky had a revival after his death, and Trotskyite groups sprang up the world over. We’re little closer to international revolution or a Fourth International, but many of them do valuable organizing work all across the world- speaking as someone who has organized with (and occasionally been frustrated by) Trotskyite groups. More than anything Trotsky represented ideas and a vision of a way in which the people could take power. Both have experienced… it feels picayune to call them “setbacks,” massive body blows is more like it… but both continue to inspire. *****

Review- Deutscher, “The Prophet”

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