A ‘Wrong-Headed Review’ of Isaac Deutcher’s Biography of Leon Trotsky
By Louis Proyect
I want to draw attention to a long, serious but profoundly wrong-headed review of the new edition of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky on the Nation magazine website: It is written by Wayne University professor Ronald Aronson who has committed himself to writing and lecturing about Marxism throughout his academic career. Like many tenured radicals, Aronson started out as a 1960s activist. His most recent work is Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, a book that appears much more charitable toward Camus than I would be.
As an undergraduate in the 1960s, I had Camus’s books jammed down my throat by Heinrich Blucher at Bard College. Blucher was married to Hannah Arendt and shared her libertarian, anti-Communist prejudices. I hadn’t thought much about Camus in recent years, but was reminded of how put off I had become by some of his ideas after reading the late John Hess’s evisceration of the French existentialist in Monthly Review, one of his crowning achievements.
Aronson’s review starts off on a rueful note:
“It is impossible to read Deutscher’s Trotsky biography today without being struck by how remote these hopes now seem. The Soviet Union is gone, and revolutionary projects aiming at human emancipation seem to have exhausted themselves.”
I would tell the good professor to take heart since Cuba is alive and well and, as an added bonus, Hugo Chavez has just declared himself in favor of socialism. I sometimes wonder why the USSR occupied such a large place in the hearts and minds of the academic left, since it obviously was already beyond hope when we were all young and gay. Is it possible that the USSR plays the same role for these good people as Jane Austen novels play for Modern Language Association (MLA) members?
After making some very charitable comments about what a positive inspiration Leon Trotsky was, Aronson rolls up his sleeves and begins working over his subject. Getting down to brass tacks, Aronson writes that “Trotsky’s Marxism was of little use in negotiating the new situation created by the Bolshevik Revolution.” Why? Because:
Stalin sought power; Trotsky did not. In the void of backward Russia in which the Bolsheviks ruled in the name of the workers but stood above all social classes, the “base” of workers so trusted by Trotsky mattered less than the “superstructure” of increasingly self-interested party officials appointed by Stalin. The reality that sealed Trotsky’s and the Soviet Union’s fate was not Marxist at all.
I am not exactly sure whether a reality, one way or another, can be described as “Marxist” or not. Soviet history teaches us that a social layer drawn from the party hierarchy, plant management, military officers, etc. assumed power and ruled as a kind of intermediate layer between the Russian working class—which had been decimated by civil war—and world imperialism. If there is some other analytical tool that can describe the logic of these events with more acuity than Marxism, then let’s hear it. What are we talking about? Foucault? Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel? The Amherst neo-Althusserians? Aaah, no thanks.
Continuing along his rueful way, Aronson shakes his head in disappointment over the foolishness of the Bolshevik leaders who thought that the Russian revolution could unleash a world revolution. Didn’t they know that such a move was premature? Echoing Kautsky, without having the honesty to mention his name, Aronson cites Engels, who supposedly warned that a leader coming to power before the time is “ripe for the domination of the class which he represents” is “irrevocably lost.” This comes from The Peasant War In Germany, an 1850 work that examines the career of 16th century peasant leader Thomas Muenzer. I would think that a more immediately relevant text is Marx’s 1881 letter to Zasulich, which argued that a peasant-led revolution in backward Russia could lead to a generalized European working-class uprising. Then, again, revolution is not like buying real estate in Manhattan. A certain amount of risk is inevitable.
Aronson thinks that the prospect for revolution in Europe during the 1920s was dim at best. “What, after all, were the grounds for thinking that the Russian Revolution would trigger a European revolution that would support the Soviet Union and transform the world? Hadn’t French and German workers marched off to war proudly and spent four years killing one another at the behest of their rulers?”
With his busy schedule, I am not sure whether Aronson has delved into the fascinating history of the German working-class of the 1920s, but the preponderant evidence is that those four years of war turned them into fierce opponents of the capitalist system. The Communist Party of Germany had 350,000 members in 1921. That’s a lot of revolutionary minded workers, methinks. And the non-Communist workers were just as uppity.
In the state of Saxony a Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. But maybe the Bolsheviks were doomed to failure until the CP had recruited 700,000 members? Or, if Zeigner had not only called for a proletarian dictatorship, but for the annexation of Germany to the USSR as well? We don’t want to go off half-cocked, do we?
(The German revolution failed not because the workers were not ready for basic change, but because a revolutionary party had not been built. For those still committed to Marxism, those tragic days are still worth studying.)
Aronson’s review concludes with the observation that Marxism leads to a single-party state and warnings against “the belief that radical acts of will can transform the world without degenerating into brutality” and a prudent reminder “that force cannot create a humane society.” I would have expected him to mention the need to wear rubbers in the rain.
I don’t know. That sounds a lot like Camus to me. What people like Camus and Aronson don’t seem to understand is that revolutions are not made as a matter of choice. They are events that are as inexorable as childbirth. When such events are on the horizon, all that one can hope for is a good midwife. That requires a strong stomach. For those with refined sensibilities, it might make sense to choose another vocation than revolutionary politics.