The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Prophet Reissued

Via Marc, via Norm, Christopher Hitchens' review of a new edition of Isaac Deutscher's biography of Trotsky. Hitchens' reflections are worth reading, but I think Marc Mulholland's own are more to the point:
I approached the biography convinced of the moral and political superiority of Trotsky to Stalin. I have no reason to change my mind on this, and I'm eternally grateful that my ultra-left enthusiasms were in the Trotskyist rather than the official Communist or Maoist modes.

But the very arcane nature of the struggle in the USSR in the 1920s, as a piratical cadre in command of the listing Russian hulk groped for a way forward in ignorance of the disasters to come, highlighted for me the terrible difficulty of plotting one's way though political morality. There were no pain-free options for the Soviets in the 1920s, and Deutscher brought home the 'reasonableness' of Stalin's rejection of dependence on world revolution and his stolid willingness to practically build socialism with the resources at hand.

I could empathise with the Stalinists, the Rightists, and the renegades of the Left Opposition. More to the point I could see that, in the same circumstances, I could not be sure of my own unimpeachable probity. I appreciated anew that the road to hell is paved, if not necessarily with good intentions, then with indeterminacy, caution, uncertainty and fear.
Deutscher's other great biography, that of Stalin, calls forth like reflections with even greater force. His writings on Stalin and on his successors, and on conditions in the Soviet bloc and China, are clear-eyed and plain-spoken. Sometimes he let his hopes run away with him, but their conditionality was always evident in a closer or wider reading of his work. Deutscher is unfashionable these days, partly because some people read into him illusions they harboured but he did not, and blamed on him their subsequent disappointments.


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