Created 6/20/1997
Go to
Brad DeLong's Home Page

Armed Prophets

Brad DeLong
Professor of Economics
U.C. Berkeley

I was reading Isaac Deutscher's biography of Leon Trotsky, wondering if there is space for a short, potted biography of Trotsky--as someone at the intersection of a number of important strands of twentieth century history: socialism, the fall of Russia into totaliarianism, attempted resistance to the rise of Nazism, trying to understand and deal with the Great Depression--in my Slouching Towards Utopia. I came across the epigraph to Deutscher's biography, a passage from Machiavelli's The Prince (chapter 6):

... there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has far enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new...

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, they are rarely endandered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.

If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long--as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believer.

Deutscher writes in his preface that one way to understand his book is as a "somewhat ironical commentary" on Machiavelli's passage: "What may be doubted is whether the distinction between the armed prophet and the unarmed one, and the difference between conquest and destruction is always as clear as it seemed to the author of The Prince... [T]he chapter portraying [Trotsky] at the very pinnacle of power bears the title 'Defeat in Victory'. And when [in subsequent chapter] the Prophet Unarmed is contemplated, the question will arise whether a strong element of victory was not concealed in his very defeat."

I think Edmund Wilson put it better, in his book on Marxism, To the Finland Station, where he writes of the:

...remarkable scene at the first congress of the Soviet dictatorship after the success of the October insurrection of 1917, when [Leon] Trotsky, with the contempt and indignation of a prophet, read [the socialist] Martov and his followers out of the meeting. "You are pitiful isolated individuals," he cried at this height of the Bolshevik triumph. "You are bankrupt; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on--in the garbage-pile of history!"

These words are worth pondering for the light they throw on the course of Marxist policy and thought. Observe that the merging of yourself with the onrush of the current of history is to save you from the ignoble fate of being a "pitiful isolated individual"; and that the failure to so merge yourself will relegate you to the garbage-pile of history, where you can presumably be of no more use.

Today [in the late 1930s], though we may agree with the Bolsheviks that Martov was no man of action, his croakings over the course that they had adopted seem to us full of far-sighted intelligence. He pointed out that proclaiming a socialist regime in conditions different from those [of advanced industrialization, high technology, and material abundance] contemplated by Marx would not realize the results that Marx expected; that Marx and Engels had usually described the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as having the form, for the new dominant class, of a democratic republic, with universal suffrage [for the working class] and the popular recall of officials; that the [Bolshevik] slogan "All power to the Soviets [workers' councils]" had never really meant what it said and that it had soon been exchanged by Lenin for "All power to the Bolshevik Party."

There sometimes turn out to be valuable objects cast away in the garbage-pile of history--things that have to be retrieved later on. From the point of view of the Stalinist Soviet Union, that is where [Leon] Trotsky himself is today [in the late 1930s]. He might well discard his earlier assumption that an isolated individual must needs be "pitiful" for the conviction of Dr. Stockman in Ibsen's [play] An Enemy of the People that "the strongest man is he who stands most alone. (pp. 436-7)

Another passage from To the Finland Station (pp. 431-2):

We who of recent years have seen the State that Trotsky helped to build in a phase combining the butcheries of the Robespierre Terror with the corruption and reaction of the Directory, and Trotsky himself figuring dramatically in the role of Gracchus Babeuf, may be tempted to endow him with qualities which actually he does not possess and with principles which he has expressly repudiated. We have seen the successor of Lenin undertake a fabulous rewriting of the whole history of the Revolution in order to cancel out Trotsky's part; pursue Trotsky from country to country, persecuting even his children and hounding them to their deaths; and at last, in faked trials and confessions more degrading to the human spirit than the frank fiendishness of Ivan the Terrible, try to pin upon Trotsky the blame of all the mutinies, mistakes and disasters that have harassed his administration--till he has made the world conscious of Trotsky as the accuser of Stalin's own bad conscience, as if the Soviet careerists of the thirties were unable to deny the socialist ideal without trying to annihilate the moral authority of this one homeless and hunted man. It is not Trotsky alone who has created his role: his enemies have given it a reality that no mere self-dramatization could have compassed. And as the fires of the Revolution have died down in the Soviet Union at a time when the systems of thought of the West were already in an advanced state of decadence, he has shown forth like a veritable pharos, rotating a long shaft of light on the seas and the reefs all around.






Created 6/20/1997
Go to
Brad DeLong's Home Page

Professor of Economics Brad DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax