Isaac Deutscher is most famous for his biographical trilogy about Leon Trotsky. After reading the first volume (‘The Prophet Armed’), I searched in vain for the sequel but noticed instead his earlier 1949 biography of Stalin. Both books are extremely readable and engaging, it is impossible not to be impressed by Deutscher’s elegant and clear prose style. If you are like me and also sympathetic to the ideals of socialism which motivated people like Lenin and Trotsky, Deutscher provides an insightful alternative to the typical narratives of the Russian revolution. There are of course many narratives which have crossed their swords over various interpretations of the Russian revolution and the nature of Stalinism, providing us with an historical battlefield littered with a variety of ideological corpses. Deutscher’s place within this battlefield is itself a subject with its own idiosyncratic story. He is remembered principally as the author who made Trotsky famous again in the late 1950s, and who had a massive impact on the ‘New Left’ of the 1960s. But although he was sympathetic to Trotsky he was never a “Trotskyist”, and while he told truths about Stalinism which helped to disillusion and educate many misguided Stalinists in the west, he also placed hopes on the future of Stalinist Russia which appear quite deluded from our position of hindsight.
Isaac Deutscher was never a member of any academic institution. He made a living as a journalist, and wrote books aimed at an educated western audience. Although he is a very good writer, and avoids many of the stylistic pitfalls of academic historical writing, there are a few drawbacks. The most obvious is the almost complete lack of references. There are a handful of footnotes sparsely scattered throughout the text, but for the most part you just have to maintain faith in Deutscher’s scholarship, because it is simply not visible in the text. I’m not a specialist in this particular area of history, but I would still appreciate some pointers towards a larger literature. As an interested but casual reader I’m not too bothered about primary sources, but it seems weird that such an eloquent and frequently insightful text is something of an island, unconnected to a wider tradition of secondary sources.
I found the book hard to put down, and compared to the only other Stalin biography I have read – Martin Amis’ “Koba the Dread” – Deutscher’s is the best by a very large margin. All I can remember of Amis’ book to be honest is a massive litany of Stalin’s crimes, together with a petulant and barbed attack on his father (how could he have embraced socialism if Stalin was so evil) and Christopher Hitchens (how could he have embraced Trotsky if Stalin was so evil). I don’t remember any kind of analysis of why Stalin did the incredibly awful deeds laid out by Amis beyond a recourse to the most obvious moral psychology: Stalin was simply insane and evil. Neal Ascherson, in his 2002 review of Amis’ book, pretty much backs up my memory of this almost complete lack of analysis:
Surprisingly, the weakest element in the book is its handling of Stalin. A brilliant novelist reaches into the dark for this creature but fails to reconstruct a character out of the slimy bits he can feel. Amis falls back on the weak idea that he was mad, an envious loner driven into homicidal lunacy by the taste of power, and argues that when he did sensible things, like defeating Hitler, he stopped being mad. "... The invasion [of 1941] pressed Stalin into a semblance of mental health. Certainly, in August 1945, remission ended and the patient's sanity once again fell apart". Unhappily, Stalin was not mad. He was sane, but callous and cruel on a scale so staggering that hopeful views of human nature crumple.
To be fair to Martin Amis, putting aside his questionable political motives, it is surely impossible to deny that Stalin committed monstrous crimes, and that any decent biography should grapple with the enormity and hideousness of his actions. Deutscher also has political motives, but these (as I will attempt to outline below) are far more complex than those of Amis, and result in a much more interesting - if head-scratchingly contentious - book. His tone throughout is the complete opposite of Amis, rather than sustained moral outrage Deutscher is cool and consistently dispassionate. His explanation for this approach deserves to be quoted:
Some critics have remarked on my ‘cool and impersonal’ approach to Stalin. Yet the work on this book was to me a deeply personal experience, the occasion for much silent heart-searching and for a critical review of my own political record. I had belonged to those whom Stalin had cruelly defeated; and one of the questions I had to ask myself was why he had succeeded. To answer this question the partisan had to turn into an historian, to examine dispassionately causes and effects, to view open-mindedly the adversary’s motives, and to see and admit the adversary’s strength where strength there was. (from 1961 Introduction)
Here is an example of Deutscher’s analysis, in which he explains Stalin’s motives for the 1936 purges:
‘His charges against them were, of course, shameless inventions. But they were based on a perverted ‘psychological truth’, on a grotesquely brutalised and distorting anticipation of possible developments. His reasoning probably developed along the following lines: they may want to overthrow me in a crisis – I shall charge them with having already made the attempt. They certainly believe themselves to be better fitted for the conduct of war, which is absurd. A change of government may weaken Russia’s fighting capacity; and if they succeed, they may be compelled to sign a truce with Hitler, and perhaps even agree to a cession of territory as we once did at Brest Litovsk. I shall accuse them of having entered already into a treacherous alliance with Germany (and Japan) and ceded Soviet territory to those states.
No milder pretext for the slaughter of the old guard would have sufficed. Had they been executed merely as men opposed to Stalin or even as conspirators who had tried to remove him from power, many might still have regarded them as martyrs for a good cause. They had to die as traitors, as perpetrators of crimes beyond the reach of reason, as leaders of a monstrous fifth column. Only then could Stalin be sure that their execution would provoke no dangerous revulsion; and that, on the contrary, he himself would be looked upon, especially by the young and uninformed generation, as the saviour of the country. It is not necessary to assume that he acted from sheer cruelty or lust for power. He may be given the dubious credit of the sincere conviction that what he did served the interests of the revolution and that he alone interpreted those interests aright. (p.377 – 378)
I have highlighted the last two sentences because they represent one of the moments of ‘head scratching’ I mentioned above. Even if Deutscher’s description of Stalin’s motives is correct, isn’t it at least logically possible that these motives were accompanied by a sadistic and cruel psychology? Is Deutscher trying too hard to be objective, and are we involving ourselves in apologetics for the hideous crimes committed in the name of the revolution if we accept the attribution of “dubious credit”? It is worth noting the reaction of George Breitman, a Trotskyist contemporary, who in a 1949 review focused his outrage on those same sentences:
He also has the irritating habit, after detailing one of Stalin’s crimes against the revolution, of engaging in entirely uncalled for speculation about possible justifications for his acts which Stalin may have had in his mind. Thus, after reporting the Moscow Trials and showing them to be monstrous frameups, he adds: “It is not necessary to assume that he [Stalin] acted from sheer cruelty or lust for power. He may be given the dubious credit of the sincere conviction that what he did served the interests of the revolution and that he alone interpreted those interests aright.”
We must remember and recognise the fact here that Stalin was still very much alive in 1949, so Deutscher’s cool objectivity was understandably offensive to many – including Trotskyists. There is also the fact that Deutscher had restricted access to relevant sources, and may have changed his mind had he known the full extent of Stalin’s murderous tyranny. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Deutscher had access to more sources, including the testimony of Nikita Khruschev. He updated the 1949 version with a ‘postscript’ written in 1966, which includes the following passage:
‘Khrushchev points out that Stalin had become especially wilful and tyrannical since the liquidation of the Trotskyists and Bukharinists (in which Khrushchev and his like had eagerly assisted him). “Stalin thought that henceforth he could decide all things alone; he now needed only extras; he treated all in such a way that they could only listen and praise him”. In fact, after he had destroyed the anti-Stalinist opposition, Stalin proceeded to suppress his own faction, the Stalinists. Khrushchev’s revelations bear precisely upon this, the last stage of the great purges, when Stalin suspected his own adherents of crypto-Trotskyism or crypto-Bukharinism. Consequently, he ordered the arrest and execution of the great majority – 1,108 out of 1,966 – of the members of the Central Committee elected at that Congress. These were all Stalinists – the textbooks referred to the Seventeenth Congress as the “Victor’s Congress”, because at it the Stalinists had celebrated their final triumph over all inner-party oppositions. After the annihilation of over two thirds of the leading Stalinist cadres, the survivors trembled for their lives. ‘In the situation which then prevailed,’ Khrushchev relates, ‘I often talked with Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin; once when we two were travelling in a car, he said: “It happens sometimes that a man goes to Stalin, invited as a friend; and when he sits with Stalin he does not know where he will be sent next, home or to jail.”’ ‘Stalin was a very distrustful man, diseased with suspicion … He could look at you and say: “Why are your eyes so shifty today?” or “Why are you turning so much today and trying to avoid looking me directly in the eyes?”’ ‘He indulged in great wilfulness and choked one morally and physically.’ After the war ‘Stalin became even more capricious, irritable, and brutal. …. His persecution mania reached unbelievable dimensions.’
Since Khrushchev made these statements it has become common to refer to Stalin’s paranoia. Yet it is not necessary to assume that he became insane in the strict sense. His quasi-paranoiac behaviour followed from his situation; it was inherent in the logic of the great purges and in their consequences. The suspicion with which he treated even his own adherents was not groundless. They had been with him and had abetted him during the persecution of the Trotskyists, Zinovievists, and Bukharinists; but as the persecution turned into the great massacre of 1936-8, many of the most faithful Stalinists were shocked and became remorseful. They had accepted the premises of Stalin’s action, but not the consequences. They had agreed to the suppression of the opposition, but not to physical annihilation. Postyshev, Rudzutak, Kossior, and others dared to express their remorse or doubts and to question Vyshinsky’s procedures. In doing so they at once incurred Stalin’s suspicion of disloyalty; and, in truth, they were becoming ‘disloyal’ to him. Questioning the need for the extermination of the Trotskyists and Bukharinists, they were not disputing any of Stalin’s ordinary political decisions; they were impugning his moral character and suggesting that he was guilty of an unpardonable enormity. If they were to behave consistently, they were bound to work henceforth for his overthrow. In that case, they could become more dangerous to him than the Bukharinists or the Trotskyists, for they could use against him the influence and power they still exercised as the leading men of his own faction. He had to assume that their actions would be consistent with their words. He could not afford to wait and see whether they were actually going to use their power against him. For the sake of self-preservation he had to forestall them. And he could forestall them only by destroying them. (p. 610 – 611)
This is a compelling analysis: Stalin creates a social reality in which paranoia is a perfectly logical and rational response to the political conditions. Sitting at the apex of this political system, Stalin is like a spider which is caught inside its own web. Like a murderous snowball, the terror of the purges creates its own hideous reality, and Stalin must keep on killing to ensure that he too does not become a victim. Is Deutscher involved in apologetics? Surely not – how could anybody even begin to think that such a political system could include anything worth defending? I don’t think Deutscher is involved in apologetics in these passages, even if they provoke debate about the nature of insanity and totalitarianism. Which is not to say that Deutscher is innocent of apologetics. The most outstanding example is the concluding paragraph of the 1949 edition:
Hitler was the leader of a sterile counterrevolution, while Stalin has been the leader and the exploiter of a tragic, self-contradictory but creative revolution. Like Cromwell, Robespierre, and Napoleon he started as the servant of an insurgent people and made himself its master. Like Cromwell he embodies the continuity of the revolution through all its phases and metamorphoses, although his role was less prominent in the first phase. Like Robespierre he has bled white his own party; and like Napoleon he has built his half-conservative and half-revolutionary empire and carried revolution beyond the frontiers of his country. The better part of Stalin’s work is as certain to outlast Stalin himself as the better parts of the work of Cromwell and Napoleon have outlasted them. But in order to save it for the future and to give to it its full value, history may yet have to cleanse and reshape Stalin’s work as sternly as it once cleansed and reshaped the work of the English revolution after Cromwell and of the French after Napoleon. (p. 569 – 570)
How can we understand this strange synthesis of insightful critique and dated apologetics? The best explanation for the apologetics I could find is contained in an article by Neil Davidson, writing for the International Socialism journal:
……orthodox Trotskyists continued to hold fast to a position which had been proved inadequate by events, and even extended it to Eastern Europe and China. Like them, Deutscher accepted that Russia, its satellites and imitators were all ‘workers’ states’ because they were based on nationalised property. Yet his description of how The Revolution Betrayed (1937) became ‘the Bible of latter-day Trotskyist sects and chapels whose members piously mumbled its verses long after Trotsky’s death’ conveys his impatience with the religious veneration they accorded Trotsky’s last writings. Why? Not because they clung to its definition of a ‘workers’ state’, but because they refused to abandon their formal commitment to political revolution. Even the dominant tendency within the Fourth International, associated with Michael Pablo, which had successfully argued that the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and China were ‘workers’ states’, assumed that future revolutions would be led by Stalinist parties under ‘exceptional circumstances’, ‘pressure from the masses’, and the like. Deutscher described himself as ‘free from loyalties to any cult’, by which he meant Trotskyism as much as Stalinism. He was therefore able go much further than orthodox Trotskyists could (without rendering their existence completely redundant) and claim that Stalinist Russia was not only capable of internal self-reform, but that, even unreformed, it was the major force for world revolution. At one level this is, of course, merely the logic of orthodox Trotskyism taken to its conclusion. For many Trotskyists, therefore, their rage at Deutscher was that of Caliban at seeing his face in the mirror.
So to what extent does this dubious political orientation undermine or distort Deutscher’s analysis of Stalin? Again, my response is a mixture of admiration and wariness. One of the most fascinating aspects of Deutscher’s narrative is his treatment of Stalin’s relationship with Lenin. When Stalin meets Lenin for the first time in 1905, he is already an avid and committed disciple. Deutscher quotes Stalin’s own words to describe the impact Lenin had on the 26 year old Stalin:
I had hoped to see the mountain eagle of our party, the great man, great physically as well as politically. I had fancied Lenin as a giant, stately and imposing. How great was my disappointment to see a most ordinary-looking man, below average height, in no way, literally in no way, distinguishable from ordinary mortals …. Usually, a great man comes late to a meeting so that his appearance may be awaited with baited breath. Then, just before the great man enters, the warning goes round: ‘Hush … silence … he is coming.’ The rite did not seem to me superfluous, because it created an impression and inspired respect. How great was my disappointment to see that Lenin had arrived at the conference before the other delegates were there and had settled himself somewhere in a corner and was unassumingly carrying on a conversation, with the most ordinary delegates. I will not conceal from you that at that time this seemed to me to be rather a violation of certain essential rules. (p.78, quoted from J. Stalin, Sochinenya, vol. vi, p.54)
Stalin wants to see Lenin as a Great Man and has a strong attachment to traditional protocols around hierarchy, masculinity and leadership. Duetscher provides a convincing picture of the young Stalin which explains the character of this hero-worship. Unlike the majority of Bolshevik leaders, Stalin’s parents were serfs. His early years are shaped by the incredibly strict and harsh conditions of the Theological Seminary of Tiflis, a town in the southern part of Russia close to the modern day state of Armenia. He rebels against the stifling authoritarian discipline of the Jesuits, and joins Messame Dassy, a social democratic organisation which is ‘tinged with Georgian patriotism[i]’. Stalin learns from a young age the art of secrecy and undercover maneuvers, taking on various pseudonyms to evade the watchful eyes of the monks. The implications Deutscher draws out of this background of cultural “backwardness” involve a series of inter-related descriptions of Stalin which neatly stack up against the exact opposite characteristics of his arch nemesis, Leon Trotsky. Stalin remains psychologically attached to the traditional mentality associated with orthodox religious practices, whereas Trotsky is a true atheist (in spite of his Jewish background). Trotsky is brilliant and highly educated, Stalin is mediocre and relatively uneducated. Trotsky finds his spiritual home in the metropolitan and cosmopolitan atmosphere of big European cities, Stalin rarely leaves Russia and retains the rural and ‘Asiatic’ influence of his native Georgia. It isn’t hard to join the dots and contrast the internationalist politics of Trotsky with Stalin’s later doctrine of ‘Socialism in one country’.
Deutscher describes how Stalin cleverly out-maneuvers Trotsky in the period after Lenin’s death by helping to create a ‘Lenin cult’ which prevents the Bolsheviks from revoking or changing any decision made by Lenin in the previous years of the revolution. Stalin succeeds in codifying Lenin’s political doctrines into an ossified system of dogma, not at all unlike the authoritarian belief system of the Jesuits. Deutscher’s description of Lenin’s funeral brings all these elements together:
The elaborate ceremony was altogether out of keeping with the outlook and style of Lenin, whose sobriety and dislike of pomp were almost proverbial. The ceremony was calculated to stir the mind of a primitive, semi-oriental people into a mood of exaltation for the new Leninist cult. So was the Mausoleum in the Red Square, in which Lenin’s embalmed body was deposited, in spite of his widow’s protest and the indignation of many Bolshevik intellectuals. To myriads of peasants, whose religious instincts were repressed under the revolution, the Mausoleum soon became a place of pilgrimage, the queer Mecca of an atheistic creed, which needed a prophet and saints, a holy sepulchre and icons. Just as original Christianity, as it was spreading into pagan countries, absorbed elements of pagan beliefs and rites and blended them with its own ideas, so now Marxism, the product of western European thought, was absorbing elements of the Byzantine tradition, so deeply ingrained in Russia, and of the Greek Orthodox style. The process was inevitable. The abstract tenets of Marxism could exist, in their purity, in the brains of intellectual revolutionaries, especially those who had lived as exiles in western Europe. Now, after the doctrine had really been transplanted to Russia and come to dominate the outlook of a great nation, it could not but, in its turn, assimilate itself to that nation’s spiritual climate, to its traditions, customs, and habits. Imperceptibly, the process had been going on for some time. Nobody had had a deeper insight into it and felt more embarrassed by it than Lenin. His own death was the catharsis, which relieved many of his disciples from the inhibitions of pure Marxism. It revealed the degree of the mutual assimilation of doctrine and environment that had taken place so far. (p. 269)
The only references Deutscher provides in this entire section are to Stalin’s autobiography, plus a couple of Lenin quotes. The idea that Stalin took Lenin’s ideas and codified them into rigid and mechanical set of dogmas, infused with an authoritarian religious aura, is to me unproblematic. The problem I have with Deutscher’s Stalinism-as-religion narrative is the hinted at, yet not quite explicit idea, that Stalin’s message was received by a credulous and fully ‘backward’ Byzantinian peasantry. Deutscher is not alone in referring to the cultural ‘backwardness’ of Russia, and there is surely a great deal of truth in the consensus that the vast majority of Russian peasants were uneducated and religious. But the idea that Stalin could easily sell them a cultified Lenin does not follow from this fact in an a priori fashion: where is the evidence? We might easily point to the ‘cult of personality’ which grew up around Stalin, but this was a much later development. What did everyday workers and peasants think of Lenin’s embalmment, how did they respond to Stalin’s crudely manipulative ‘oath to Lenin’, including lines such as “In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordained us to hold high and keep pure the great title of member of the party. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that we shall honourably fulfil this thy commandment”? It isn’t hard to speculate about a range of distinct reactions, from credulous emotional acceptance to suspicious distrust of Stalin’s motives. Deutscher seems far too content to rely uncritically on the familiar tropes about the backward, superstitious Byzantinian masses.
My mental alarm bells sounded off again when I came to Deutscher’s description of Stalin’s role in the early 1920s as the ‘Commisariat of Nationalities’:
Apart from the Ukraine, ruled by an independent-minded government under Christian Rakovsky, the Commissariat of Nationalities faced primarily Russia’s vast, inert, oriental fringe. None of the leaders who had spent most of their adult life in western Europe was as fit to head that Commissariat as Stalin. His first-hand knowledge of the customs and habits of clients was unsurpassed. So was his capacity to deal with the intricacies of their ‘politics’, in which blood feuds and oriental intrigue mixed with a genuine urge towards modern civilization. His attitude was just that mixture of patience, patriarchal firmness, and slyness that was needed. The Politbureau relied on this and refrained from interfering.
The Asiatic and semi-Asiatic periphery thus became his first undisputed domain. Immediately after the revolution, when the leadership of the nation belonged to the turbulent and radical cities of European Russia, in the first place to Petersburg and Moscow, the weight of that periphery was not much felt. With the ebb of revolution, the primitive provinces took their revenge. They reasserted themselves in a thousand ways, economic, political, and cultural. Their spiritual climate became, in a sense, decisive for the country’s outlook. The fact that so much of that climate was oriental was of great significance. Stalin, who was so well suited to speak on behalf of Russian communism to the peoples of the oriental fringe, was also well suited to orientalise his party. During his years at the Commissariat he made and widened his contacts with the Bolshevik leaders of the borderlands, on whose devoted support he could count, and of whom so many were to be found in his entourage at the Kremlin later on. (p.229 – 230)
Those wily and cunning Orientals! The only way to deal with them is to send out our hard man Stalin, he knows how they think and plot! This crude example of Orientalism only crops up a few times in the 600 odd pages of Deutscher’s book, but unfortunately it does play a role in answering the original question he poses about the reasons for Stalin’s success. According to Deutscher Stalin succeeds not just because of his murderous bureaucratic talents, but because he knows how to play to his audience. Uneducated, psychologically predisposed towards tyranny by hundreds of years of Tsarist rule, religious, Oriental, Byzantinian, superstitious, nationalistic – all of these aspects of ‘backwardness’ match up comfortably with Stalin’s totalitarian endeavours. Deutscher is never fully explicit about this claim, although it is a fairly clear subtext running throughout his narrative. It has a very peculiar and awkward corollary: if it is true, then the Stalinist state is not completely undemocratic. To the extent that Stalin succeeds by ‘playing to his audience’ (rather than killing people, for example), his power is gained through consent rather than force. From a western, educated and liberal perspective, Stalin’s rule appears cruel and tyrannical. But if you know the ‘truth’ about the natives, you will see that it is what they want, what suits their culture and undeniable ‘backwardness’.
Having made these critical remarks, mention needs to be made of the numerous threads in Deutscher’s biography which are compelling and insightful. The standout sections for me were his portrait of Stalin’s early years, his description of the devastation wrought by forced collectivisation, and the complex web of political strategy surrounding Hitler and ‘Third Period’ Stalinism. Deutscher’s biography has the virtue of opening up a window revealing the contours of both Stalin’s life and the political history of the first half of the twentieth century. Read critically, Duetscher’s text helps to make sense of the weird and chilling impact of Stalinism.