Review of “The Prophet” by Isaac Deutcher

“Until we are done with the ironies of history (because they will never be done with us), the image of Trotsky will not dissipate.”
~Christopher Hitchens

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with socialism, communism and the Cold War. This probably springs from having grown up during the Cold War at nuclear ground zero for World War III. Also contributing was that I came of age near the end of the Vietnam War, a proxy war between the US and the USSR into which I very nearly was drafted. My quest to understand this 20th century bipolar world into which I was born has most recently brought me to Isaac Deutcher’s monumental biography of Leon Trotsky, “The Prophet.”

In fact, The Prophet is really three volumes published separately: “The Prophet Armed” (1952, 540 p.) “The Prophet Unarmed (1956; 448 p.)” and “The Prophet Outcast (1963; 543 p.).” The first volume was published while Stalin was still alive and Trotsky’s memory was actively suppressed by the Soviet Union. The later volumes benefit from the release of materials from Soviet archives during the years after Stalin’s death. Also, Trotsky’s papers conserved at Harvard provided important content, as well as Deutcher’s personal memories of the time. Deutcher was a former Polish Troskyite who lived from 1907 to 1967. While his sympathies with Trotsky are obvious, he is nevertheless willing to point out Trotsky’s many flaws and failings.

Leon Trotsky was born Lev Davidovitch Bronstein to a Jewish family in Ukraine. His father was a relatively prosperous farmer of a class that Stalin would later persecute as Kulaks. Trotsky was well-educated and spoke French, German and English, as well as Russian. Once radicalized into Marxism, Trotsky started out as a Menchavik before being seduced by Lenin to become a Bolshevik. He was a voracious consumer of Marxist theory, as well as eventually becoming a leader in the Red Army.

While the details of Trotsky’s biography are thoroughly and ably recounted in these volumes, what interested me most was the way Deutcher situates Trotsky in relation to Lenin and Stalin, with whom he worked closely between 1905 and Lenin’s death in 1924. Far from being the holy trinity of Russian communism, the three had a fractious relationship, which, after Lenin’s death, progressed to Stalin’s deportation and eventual assassination of Trotsky.

Underlying this biography is the story of how Marxism morphed, in the hands of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, into pseudo-Marxist humbug. Already by 1920-1, Boshevik Russia pivoted from the model of revolution from below to attempting to impose revolution by conquest in Poland and Georgia (which Lenin supported but Trotsky opposed). Trotsky was prescient in anticipating the communist evangelism of the USSR under Stalin: “. . . that national revolutionary Messianic mood which prompts one to see one’s own nation-state as destined to lead mankind to socialism.”

Not only were the political and economic tenets of Marx and Engels violated and turned on their head to fit the circumstances of post-Tsarist Russia, but the Marx brand was hijacked to justify phony claims of Marxist art and Marxist science, with deplorable and sometimes fatal consequences. Trotsky at least made some attempts to argue in writing and speeches against political meddling in science, but with little effect since he was already marginalized by Stalin and his cult.

In the nascent Bolshevik state, ironies abound. “For itself, the Bolshevik government stood for open covenants openly arrived at; and it would therefore publish and declare null and void the secret imperialist treaties concluded by previous Russian governments.” This was in 2017. By 1939, the Russian government under Stalin was happy to sign the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact with a secret clause dividing Poland between Russia and Germany.

The third volume gets bogged down as the narrative moves from biography to a dense and tedious discussion of Trotsky’s writings. We end up being treated to the author’s struggles to salvage Trotsky from being hoist on his own petard: “The outcome of the second world war was to be far less clear cut than this alternative; and nothing would be easier than to compile from “The Revolution Betrayed” a list of Trotsky’s errors in prognostication. Yet each of his errors contain important elements of truth and follow from premises with retain validity; and so more can still be learned from his mistakes than from the correct platitudes of most political writers. Trotsky is in this respect is not unlike Marx: his thought is ‘algebraically’ correct, even when his ‘arithmetical’ conclusions are wrong. Where his forecasts were erroneous, they were so because too often he viewed the second world war in terms of the first; but his general insights into the relationships between war and revolution were deep and are still essential to an understanding of the revolutionary aftermath of the second world war.” This is bafflegab. Trotsky made predictions based on erroneous assumptions about the world he lived in. He was wrong. In this respect, and in many aspects of Trotsky’s (and Marx’s) writing, he was just bloviating. In science, if you base your hypotheses on bad data, they won’t survive. Not because they were ‘algebraically’ correct but because they were just wrong, full stop. All of which makes a mockery of the book’s title.

The picture of Trotsky that emerges is one of an energetic and articulate zealot, devoting a lifetime to propping up a failed theory of humanity and economics. Even as his followers, fellow Bosheviks and his own children are systematically murdered by Stalin, Trotsky confronts the barbarity with an unshakable belief that the dictatorship of the proletariat must eventually succeed. Even as Europe is engulfed in the Franco/Hitler/Mussolini/Tojo-led maelstrom of slaughter, Trotsky expected the workers to lead a successful uprising from below against the mechanized warfare of the fascist war machine.

An old joke goes: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” In his book “La Bureaucratisation du Monde,” Bruno Rizzi maintains that the Russian revolution had merely replaced one form of economic exploitation and political oppression by another. Trotsky failed to see that the Soviet bureaucracy was simply a new class, since it didn’t own the means of production and didn’t accumulate profits. But as Rizzi says, “In Soviet society, the exploiters do not appropriate surplus value directly, as a capitalist does when he pockets the dividends of his enterprise, they do it indirectly, through the state, which cashes in the sum total of the national surplus value and then distributes it among its own officials.” Deutscher’s Trotsky never grasped this fundamental truth.

From a Christopher Hitchens (himself a former Troskyite) review of Deutcher’s book in Atlantic: “Thus this mighty work of reflection and engagement is to a large extent the record of great debates that apparently no longer matter to us. The split between Menshevik and Bolshevik, the dispute over collectivization and industrialization, the polemics concerning Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov and Otto Bauer—all of these have come to appear as arcane as the strife over the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.” Hitchens isn’t wrong here; in today’s world, the looming enemy Western democracy is fascism and right-wing dictatorship, aided and abetted by oligarchic Mafiosi. Communism has collapsed and apart from the mindless blather of the GOP, has been relegated to history’s dustbin.

Prior to reading this lengthy book, I’d read biographies of Marx, Stalin, Lenin and Mao. Deutcher’s biography of Trotsky does an effective job of knitting these figures into the fabric of Trotsky’s life. He shows how Trotsky’s thinking was shaped by these leaders and the events that they presided over. If you have an appetite for a long voyage, this book will repay the effort.