Alex Callinicos




3 Orthodoxies

3.3 Into the watch-tower: Deutscher and Anderson

The contradictions discussed in the previous section all derive from the effort to uphold Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR as a workers’ state, at the price of effectively recognizing Stalinism as a revolutionary force, while seeking at the same time to maintain an independent Trotskyist movement. There were two ways out of the dilemma involved – to abandon the theory of degenerated and deformed workers’ states, as the tendencies discussed in Chapters 4 and 5 did, or to give up the project, formulated by Trotsky in 1933, of building revolutionary organizations independent of Stalinism and social democracy. The most distinguished representative of the latter alternative is Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher’s formidable literary gifts – Perry Anderson (1984b: i) calls him “one of the greatest socialist writers of this century” – were demonstrated above all in his classic biography of Trotsky, which played a major role in preserving the latter’s reputation and introducing the generation radicalized in the 1960s to the classical Marxist tradition. Yet the thrust of Deutscher’s writings was fundamentally opposed to the political direction taken by Trotsky after 1933. Active in the Polish Trotskyist group in the 1930s, Deutscher drafted the arguments on which their opposition to the formation of the Fourth International at the 1938 founding conference was based (Reisner 1973: 296-7; Deutscher 1970c: 421, n.1). During wartime exile in Britain he drifted out of the Trotskyist movement. Whether cause or consequence of this decision, Deutscher’s mature analysis certainly provided it with a rationale.

Shachtman (1962: 270) observed: “Deutscher is overwhelmingly fascinated – you might also say obsessed – by ... analogies between the bourgeois revolutions (the French in particular ...) and the Bolshevik revolution”. These analogies play the function of establishing a broad identity of structure between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. This identity thus posited is politically important for two reasons. First, Deutscher postulates a general historical law according to which revolutions move from a phase of popular mobilization in which the revolutionaries enjoy mass support to one in which they are compelled by events to establish a minority dictatorship that preserves the conquests of the revolution at the price of repression aimed at, among others, an extreme Left which denounces the betrayal of the original uprising’s ideals, The emergence of Stalin, like that of Cromwell and Napoleon before him, was historically inevitable. Moreover, he represented, not the betrayal of the revolution but its continuation. Discussing the methods of compulsion and armed expansion used by the Bolshevik leaders during the Civil War, Deutscher (1970a: 515) traced

the thread of unconscious historic continuity which led from Lenin’s hesitant and shamefaced essays in revolution by conquests to the revolutions contrived by Stalin the conqueror. A similar subtle thread connects Trotsky’s domestic policy of these years with the later practices of his antagonist. Both Trotsky and Lenin appear, each in a different field, as Stalin’s unwitting inspirers and prompters. Both were driven by circumstances beyond their control and by their own illusions to assume certain attitudes in which circumstances and their own scruples did not allow them to persevere – attitudes which were ahead of their time, out of tune with the current Bolshevik mentality, and discordant with the main themes of their own lives.

Stalin’s peculiar virtue lay precisely in his lack of scruple and of sympathy with the classical Marxist tradition, which allowed him to act as “the guardian and the trustee of the revolution” in its conservative phase, launching at the end of the 1920s the “second revolution” of collectivization and industrialization (Deutscher 1949: 361,294) and transforming Eastern Europe after 1945 “‘from above and from outside’ – by conquest and occupation” (Deutscher 1970c: 257). Here we may note a second aspect of the analogy Deutscher drew between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. The English and French Revolutions were bourgeois, not because capitalists led them – on the contrary, “[t]he leaders were mostly ‘gentlemen farmers’ in England and lawyers, doctors, journalists and other intellectuals in France” – but because of the benefits they brought the bourgeoisie: “Bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish” (Deutscher 1967: 22). Anderson (1966: 232) drew out the implication of extending this feature of bourgeois revolution to its socialist counterpart: “Capitalism does not automatically or everywhere require a victorious industrial bourgeoisie to launch it – any more than socialism requires a victorious industrial proletariat to impose it.” Much more explicitly than was usual in the orthodox Trotskyist mainstream, Stalinism was thus acknowledged as a revolutionary force and the classical conception of socialism as proletarian self-emancipation abandoned. Deutscher’s Trotskyist critics were quick to challenge his identification of bourgeois and socialist revolutions and to argue that the working class, because of its separation from the means of production under capitalism, can only become economically dominant by taking political power (Shachtman 1962: chs.12 and 13; see, more generally, Callinicos 1989).

Stalin becomes, on Deutscher’s interpretation of the Russian Revolution, not the aberration which Trotsky regarded him to be, but an instrument of historical necessity. In a revealing passage, Deutscher (1970c: 241-7) invoked Plekhanov, the great theorist of Second International Marxism, to refute Trotsky’s “startling conclusion” that without Lenin the October Revolution would not have occurred. Alasdair MacIntyre (1971: 59) commented: “[W]e can see why this is necessary for [Deutscher’s] ... whole argument. If from time to time history presents us with real alternatives, then I am not just part of an inevitable historical progress” (see also Callinicos 1987a: 79-82). Whereas Trotsky’s Marxism, even when he came closest to predicting the inevitable economic breakdown of capitalism in the late 1930s, laid great stress on the “subjective factor”, the role of conscious human agency in transforming society, (see Section 1.3 above), Deutscher preferred to explain events in the light of an unfolding historical necessity. This had direct political consequences. In the post-war world, Deutscher (1970c: 518) argued, “the class struggle, suppressed at the level on which it had been traditionally waged”, was “fought at a different level and in different forms, as rivalry between power blocs and as cold war”. Though Deutscher’s sympathies were with the Soviet bloc in this struggle, he preferred to any form of organized political activity withdrawal to “a watch-tower” from where to “watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world, to be on a sharp lookout for what is going to emerge from it, and to interpret it sine ira et studio” (Deutscher 1984: 57-8). The most positive development Deutscher detected from his watch-tower was the emergence in the USSR after Stalin’s death of reformers who he expected would carry out from above the political revolution which Trotsky had believed would come from below: Deutscher cast first Beria, then Malenkov, and finally Krushchev in the role of leaders of this revolution (see Cliff 1982: 166-91). Deutscher (1984: 145-6) thus condemned the 1953 Berlin rising – which was concentrated in the working-class areas which had supported the Communists in the Weimar era – as “objectively counter-revolutionary” because it compromised the idea of a gradual relaxation of the Stalinist regime” advocated by such “reformists” as Beria.

Though Deutscher’s adopted role as a critical observer of events ruled out any attempt on his part to build a political organization, his ideas have continued to exert an influence since his death in 1967 as a result of their impact on the gifted group of young British intellectuals who took over the New Left Review (NLR) in 1962 and transformed it over the following two decades into perhaps the major journal of social theory in English (see, on NLR’s history, Birchall 1980) Perry Anderson, editor of NLR till 1983, is best known for the two volumes of his genealogy of the modern state so far to have appeared (1974a; 1974b). But he is also the main exponent of a Deutscherite version of orthodox Trotskyism. He contrasted Trotskyism to Western Marxism as the continuation of the classical tradition (Anderson 1976: 96-101), and praised it for having “alone ... proved capable of an adult view of socialism on a world scale” (Anderson 1980: 156). Nevertheless, Anderson maintained a critical distance from the Trotskyist movement – though other NLR editors (notably Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, and Quintin Hoare) were for much of the 1970s leading members of the USFI’s British section, the International Marxist Group. While describing Trotsky’s “fundamental hypotheses” as “unsurpassed to this day as a framework for investigation of Soviet society” (Anderson 1980: 117), Anderson criticized them for depicting Stalinism as “merely an "exceptional" or "aberrant" refraction of the general laws of transition from capitalism to socialism”. On the contrary, “[t]he structures of bureaucratic power and mobilization pioneered under Stalin proved both more dynamic and more general a phenomenon on the international plane than Trotsky ever imagined” (Anderson 1984a: 125-6). Indeed,

Stalinism ... proved to be not just an apparatus, but a movement – one capable not only of keeping power in a backward environment dominated by scarcity (USSR), but of actually winning power in environments that were yet more backward and destitute (China, Vietnam). (Anderson 1984a: 127)

In line with the contrast between East and West which is one of the main themes of Anderson’s historical writings, it seems that, while a classical revolutionary strategy remains appropriate in the bourgeois democracies of advanced capitalism (Anderson 1976-7), Stalinism is the normal form taken by anti-capitalist movements in the Third World (see, for example, the suspiciously Andersonian tones of the criticism of the “sectarian workerism” of the Workers’ Party of Brazil in Sader 1987).

Other NLR editors drew eminently Deutscherite conclusions from this analysis. Thus Fred Halliday (1983) argued that the Second Cold War that broke out in the late 1970s was a continuation of Deutscher’s “Great Contest”, an “inter-systemic conflict between capitalism and communism” in which the sympathies of the Western Left should be with the Eastern bloc as the embodiment, however bureaucratically distorted, of the world proletariat in the global class struggle between capital and labour. And, as tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact were at least temporarily alleviated in the era of glasnost and perestroika, Tariq Ali, who acknowledged the influence of “Isaac Deutscher, Leon Trotsky and Ernest Mandel (in that order)”, hailed Gorbachev as the agent of “the political revolution (which is already under way)” in the USSR, a “revolution from above” dictated by the dependence of the Soviet Union’s survival on the “abolition of the bureaucratic caste” (Ali 1988: ix, xiii). The connection between these conclusions, which depict the Stalinist states globally and the reform wing of the Soviet bureaucracy domestically as progressive forces, and the orthodox Trotskyist theory of bureaucratic workers’ states should be clear in the light of the present and preceding chapters. Let us now consider the ideas of those Trotskyists who, in order to avoid such conclusions, rejected the theory.


Last updated on 13.3.2001