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Ascherson on Deutscher on Trotsky

[originally published on bat.blogspot.com]

Neal Ascherson works as a political journalist for the Observer, but he is also a seasoned political operator in his own right, being active on the right wing of the Scottish Labour Party in the 1970s and running for office as a Liberal Democrat today.

I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly taken by Ascherson’s work or his brand of left-tinged establishment-oriented liberalism. But his review of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky (recently reissued by Verso) in this week’s London Review of Books is a thoroughly impressive piece of scholarship.

What distinguishes Ascherson’s piece from typical liberal responses to Trotsky and the Bolshevik Revolution is its acute awareness of a certain fashionable moralistic consensus over the stakes of this exemplary historical event.

Ascherson deftly sketches the contours of the received wisdom:

Most contemporary readers of history probably agree that the “real” revolution was that of February 1917, and that the October power seizure by the Bolsheviks was little more than an opportunistic coup d’état… Lenin, it’s said, in no way offered an alternative to Stalinism. In fact, it was Lenin who created the machinery of inhuman oppression which Stalin merely continued… It was Lenin who established the Bolshevik monopoly of political power… It was Lenin during the Civil War who licensed the Red Terror – executions, family hostage-taking – against the class enemy.

He proceeds to personally distance himself from this cosy ideological consensus, while acknowledging its hegemonic force:

My own feeling is that this approach is too crude to last. The Bolshevik Revolution was more “authentic” and popular than we currently admit; to see Soviet history merely as inherited homicide is an excuse for not thinking about it. But while these versions last, their sting affects Trotsky too… if the three giants of the Revolution were, in the current view, “as bad as each other”, why should Trotsky – the one who never held the leadership – be of special interest?

Then, in a striking gesture that resonates with recent work by Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he spells out the link between the unthinking liberal caricature of 1917 and the “post-ideological” humanitarian dogma that underlies and sustains it:

The real abyss separating Deutscher from modern historiography is a moral one. An average British history graduate today will have been taught to evaluate revolutions on a simple humanitarian scale. Did they kill a lot of people? Then they were bad… Isaac Deutscher saw history differently. His standards are not those of Amnesty International. Instead, he measures everything against the cause of the Revolution. The Trotsky trilogy has a spinal column of moral argument running through it which can be reduced to this question: did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose?

The rest of the piece goes into detail about Deutscher and Trotsky – suffice to say it’s an astonishingly accurate and well-informed overview, right down to noting crucial details such as the distinction between the Trotsky/Deutscher “deformed workers’ state” view of Stalin’s USSR and the rival “state capitalism” theory.

Ascherson’s overall view of Trotsky is warm and generous, but by and large he absorbs Deutscher’s tragic outlook and accepts the pessimistic historical outlook that flows from it. Nevertheless, the final sentence of the article is unexpectedly sharp in its rejection of the “End of History”:

All that can be said is that when the unimaginable climate of revolution returns, as in some shape it will, young men and women will read and understand Trotsky and Deutscher as we no longer can.

Finally – anyone interested in a more detailed Marxist analysis of Deutscher should read Neil Davidson’s comprehensive and lucid article in the latest issue of International Socialism.

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This entry was posted on 1 December 2004 by in Marxism and tagged .