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R. Fahan

Newest Biography of Stalin
Gives a Balanced Portrait

(3 October 1949)

Source: Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 40, 3 October 1949, p. 3.
“R. Fahan” was a pseudonym used by Irving Howe.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Isaac Deutscher
Stalin: A Political Biography
Oxford University Press, $4.00

Except for a very poor final chapter on the social role of contemporary Stalinism, this book is an impressive achievement. In essential respects, it adds little to either Souvarine’s or Trotsky’s biographies of Stalin, but it is a carefully documented book, solid and thorough if not original and brilliant. It is also distinguished by what is for these days an important virtue: it does not succumb to the anti-Bolshevik hysteria and, in fact, punctures a good many of the anti-Bolshevik legends.

Written from a generally Marxist point of view, Deutscher’s book leans heavily, though not uncritically, on Souvarine and, to a still greater extent, Trotsky; but at the same time it provides a more balanced and credible portrait of Stalin than either of the other two more incisive biographies. To Marxists, the book will seem largely derivative but nonetheless valuable. And while written with neither Souvarine’s patience nor Trotsky’s acuteness, it is stylistically competent.

Deutscher places the young Stalin against his social background in much the same manner that Trotsky does. He too emphasises the backwardness of the Georgian setting, the family heritage of serfdom, the half-education inflicted by the Tiflis Seminary and the sense of intellectual inferiority bred in Stalin during his early relationships with educated Marxists, an inferiority he could never quite shake off. Deutscher diverges from Trotsky on an interesting but minor point: he thinks there is no evidence for Trotsky’s assertion that Stalin was a probably a Menshevik at the beginning of his political career.

A Balanced Portrait

The portrait of Stalin that emerges from Deutscher’s book seems to this reviewer more balanced and credible than Trotsky’s, though in many respects based on it. Deutscher admits that there is great difficulty in finding personal information about Stalin, that his personal life spreads across the century like a grey film. In fact, in his book there is only an occasional comment on Stalin’s personality. But that too adds up to a picture of the man, the ‘committee man’ who followed Lenin with slavish shrewdness and scorned the intellectuals in exile while working in the Russian underground; the wretched writer and stumbling speaker whose clumsy sentences betray the slowness and poverty of his mind; the crafty factionalist thriving in a period of bureaucratisation, using the shibboleths of ‘party loyalty’ to win the support of all the party ‘machine men’ and appealing to the most primitive of prejudices and the most backward of minds.

Stalin’s personality is nonetheless seen by Deutscher as a rather complex one – once, that is, no attempt is made to think of him as a thinker or intellectual. While serving in a czarist prison in Baku, he would watch fellow prisoners be led away to the gallows and then ‘fall sound asleep, astonishing his comrades by his strong nerves, or else he would go on with his unsuccessful attempt to master the intricacies of German grammar’. For him, as Deutscher neatly puts it, Marxism became a labour-saving gadget, a simple mechanism for providing ready-made formulas.

At the same time Deutscher is careful to point out that Stalin seems to have been a highly capable organiser, a man of undoubted devotion to the Bolshevik cause during its most trying years, and a secondary leader ready to suffer extreme hardships and punishments for that cause.

It is curious, and significant, that in Stalin’s clumsy socialist rhetoric there always creeps in a semi-religious note, inherited from his early seminary training; for him, socialism is always ‘the promised land’. And in his devotion to the movement there is much of the believer’s zeal – so vivid a contrast to the thought-out commitment of the other Bolshevik leaders.

Not a Mere Mediocrity

Deutscher, I think, quite adequately disposes of Trotsky’s view that Stalin was a mere mediocrity, as well as his unfortunate and introspective speculation that Stalin poisoned Lenin. Of course, there is a great deal of semantic legerdemain behind the dispute as to whether Stalin was a mediocrity. No one could seriously say that he was more than a mediocre thinker or writer; but as an organiser, a party manipulator, a leader who could exact fear and loyalty from his followers, be they of his faction or later of the entire state machine, Stalin undoubtedly had a touch of genius, a perverse sort of genius if you wish.

At a time when most of Lenin’s most brilliant associates, in the post-1905 period, seemed to be wavering, Stalin stood firm in the party; he was the reliable bureaucrat who clung to his post because it meant more to him than anything else. That he was a man of ‘unscrupulous rancour and insensible spite’, as Deutscher says, does not in the slightest detract from this estimate of his remarkable talents; to the contrary, rancour and spite were useful qualities for the kind of talent he had.

Deutscher’s description of Stalin occurs in his section on the forced industrialisation of the first Five-Year Plan: Russia ‘was lured, prodded, whipped and shepherded into that surrealistic enterprise by an ordinary, prosaic, fairly sober man, whose mind had suddenly become possessed by a half-real and half-somnambulistic vision, a man who established himself in the role of super-judge and super-architect in the role of a modern super-Pharaoh’.

There is one gruesome incident in Stalin’s career, as reported by Deutscher, which reveals everything about him:

His own wife, Nadia Alliluyeva... began to doubt the wisdom and rightness of his policy. One evening, in November 1932, Stalin and his wife were on a visit to Voroshilov’s home. Other members of Politbureau were there too, discussing matters of policy. Nadia Alliluyeva spoke her mind about the famine and discontent in the country and about the moral ravages which the terror had wrought on the party. Stalin’s nerves were already strained to the utmost. In the presence of his friends he burst out against his wife in a flood of vulgar abuse. Nadia Alliluyeva left Voroshilov’s house. The same evening she committed suicide.

Bolshevism and Democracy

Deutscher is particularly interesting on the general significance of Bolshevism, and his book provides valuable substantiation for the view that the Bolshevik Revolution was a genuinely working-class act, based on the mass support of the workers. It is interesting, by the way, to learn that in the 1905–06 period ‘the Bolsheviks were not alone in practising guerrilla warfare and “expropriations” ... Even the Menshevik Georgians, loud in denouncing the Bolshevik raids, were not averse to sharing the booty of Bolshevik forays. In Poland it was the right rather than the left wing of the Socialists that specialised in revolutionary terrorism’.

In several instances Deutscher substantiates the view that the Bolshevik regime, within the limits of its possibility and before its degeneration into Stalinism, was essentially democratic. Thus we read of the post-revolutionary period:

The course of events was such that the Bolsheviks could not help becoming the country’s sole rulers after their partners [the Left Social-Revolutionaries] had refused to share responsibility for the peace. Alone in office, they still refrained from suppressing their opponents, except for the extreme right, the initiators of the civil war. Only in June 1918, when the civil war was already in full swing, were the Mensheviks and the right-wing Social-Revolutionaries temporarily outlawed on the grounds that some of their members sided with the White Guard. The Mensheviks were again permitted to come into the open in November of the same year when they pledged themselves to act as a loyal opposition within the framework of the Soviet regime.

And again we read: ‘The libertarian spirit of the revolution survived the climax of the civil war well into the year 1920.’ And again:

The idea that a single party should rule the Soviets was not at all inherent in the Bolshevik programme. Still less so was the idea that only a single party should be allowed to exist. The proscription of the other parties, wrote Trotsky, was ‘obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy’ and ‘the leaders of Bolshevism regarded it not as a principle but as an episodic act of self-defence’.

Deutscher has some rather interesting things to say about the role of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin. He rightly sees the decision of the tenth party congress prohibiting factions as a major blow to Soviet democracy:

The party was gradually transforming itself into a bureaucratic machine. It was true enough that concern for the revolution compelled Bolshevism to take the road chosen by the tenth congress; but it was also true that as it moved along that road Bolshevism was losing more and more of its original self.

In order to save the revolution the party ceased to be a free association of independent, critically minded and courageous revolutionaries. The bulk of it submitted to the ever more powerful machine... Those who handled the levers of the machine and were most intimately associated with it, those to whose upbringing and temperament the new bureaucratic outlook was most congenial automatically became the leaders of the new era. The administrator began to elbow out the ideologue, the bureaucrat and committee-man eliminated the idealist. Who could be favoured by this evolution and who could favour it more strongly than Stalin, the committee-man par excellence, the committee-man writ large?

In this situation, then, of the early 1920s, Trotsky was wrong, Deutscher believes, to have conducted for so long as he did his struggle against Stalin within the upper circles of the Bolshevik Party. [1] By doing so ‘he had been burdened with responsibility for a policy to which he had been opposed; and he had done nothing to rally in time those who might have supported him’.

In Deutscher’s opinion Trotsky should have taken the necessary risk of quickly appealing to the Russian people at large and thereby perhaps forcing a split in the Bolshevik Party – a risk because it might have, as Trotsky feared, opened the way to counter-revolutionary action; necessary, because his failure to do so meant that counter-revolution, if of a different kind, would spring from within the party. But while he disagrees with certain of Trotsky’s tactics, Deutscher makes it perfectly clear that Trotsky’s faction fought to preserve the original ideals of the revolution.

A Poor Ending

In view of these excellences in Deutscher’s book, it is painful to close this review with a comment on his last chapter. Deutscher succumbs to a variety of ‘Cannonism’ – actually, that is, to a critical acceptance of the Stalinist myth. He speaks of both ‘the tyranny of Stalinism’ and ‘its progressive social performance’, by which he means ‘a fundamentally new principle of social organisation, which, no matter what happens to him [Stalin] personally or even to the regime associated with his name, is certain to survive to fertilise human experience, and to turn it in new directions’.

In other words, we have here the old tragic error about the ‘progressiveness’ of nationalised property in the abstract, quite apart from the fact that it is in the hands of a reactionary dictatorship that has done more than any other regime in modern history to destroy the proletarian revolution.

It would be useless here to argue this question with Deutscher, since our views on this matter have appeared often enough in this paper and The New International. Suffice it to notice how, even in so splendid an analyst and critic of Stalinism as is Deutscher, this last inverted form of the Stalinist myth still maintains its hold!

* * *


1. The word ‘solely’ (or something similar) seems to have been omitted after ‘Stalin’, otherwise the text implies that Deutscher felt that Trotsky was wrong to have opposed Stalin; it is clear from Deutscher’s original text that he felt that Trotsky’s mistake lay in his refusal to take the discussion of his criticisms from solely within the Politbureau into the party membership as a whole – MIA

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