November 30, 2004

Their Morals and Ours

Neal Ascherson writes in the London Review of Books about Isaac Deutscher's three-volume Trotsky biography:

LRB | Neal Ascherson : Victory in Defeat: Deutscher’s Trotsky was thought by two generations – his own and its successor – to be one of the great works of biography. The first volume emerged in 1954, soon after the death of Stalin. The last appeared in 1963, at a time when the Soviet Union still seemed strong and confident, and when there remained hopes (not only on the left) that reforms leading towards a Soviet version of democratic socialism might one day be resumed.

Times have changed, but those generations were right – about the book, if not about the Soviet Union. Reissued by Verso in three paperback volumes, Deutscher’s biography is still tremendous. The power and excitement of his prose knock the reader down. His command of the language, late Victorian in its freedom and in the absence of secondhand imagery, in some ways surpasses that of his fellow Pole Joseph Conrad. The scholarship is enormous and – given that the Moscow archives were closed to him – comprehensive. Above all, there is Deutscher’s own enthusiasm, a sort of majestic urgency. He believed that his subject mattered. Not just because of the tragic, even messianic shape of Trotsky’s life, but because Deutscher was convinced that in writing about this dead man, he was also writing about the future. He was rescuing and repairing the legacy of Lev Davidovich, which would one day be inherited by the Russian revolutionaries of a new October.

It’s impossible not to feel this excitement. But how many will now be able to share 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. Showing that some of those killed were even more bloodthirsty than their killers is no extenuation. Neither is the plea that violence and privation, the sacrifice of the present, may be the price of breaking through to a better future. George Kline dismissed this in The Trotsky Reappraisal (1992) as ‘the fallacy of historically deferred value . . . a moral monstrosity’. Monstrous or not, it’s a bargain with the future which, as anyone over 60 will remember, Europeans of all political outlooks were once accustomed to strike. But today ‘presentism’ rules, and the young read the ‘short 20th century’ as the final demonstration that evil means are never justified by high ends.

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? In the value of that ultimate purpose, Deutscher has solid faith. Trotsky expressed it on many occasions. In Siberian exile at the age of 22, he wrote: ‘As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy and happiness!’

In Deutscher’s hands, Trotsky’s career becomes an epic narrative of the struggle for the Revolution’s soul, for its promise to end the ages of necessity and open a new millennium of universal human freedom and sovereignty. And this struggle, Deutscher believed, would continue even after the failure and death of his hero. It would burn on until the day when a new Russian generation arose to rescue ‘October’ from the mire of tyranny and exploitation into which Stalin had driven it. Given the internationalist flavour of his own Marxism, it is not surprising that Deutscher wrote of Trotsky as if he were not merely an actor in the Russian political drama but a Prometheus doing battle for the future of the human race....

On this most important point, however, Ascherson is simply wrong. The rejection of Trotsky's project today is not because "today ‘presentism’ rules, and the young read the ‘short 20th century’ as the final demonstration that evil means are never justified by high ends." The rejection of Trotsky's project is because we all recognize today that Trotsky deployed evil means not for high ends but for no worthwhile ends at all. The right attitude to take toward the Bolsheviks is that of Willard to Colonel Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now: Willard: "They told me that you had gone totally insane, and, uh, that your methods were unsound." Colonel Kurtz: "Are my methods unsound?" Willard: "I don't see any . . . method at all, sir."

The Bolsheviks had no more idea of how to build a utopian society of abundance, democracy, and liberty than America's Silliest DogTM has of how to install a printer driver.

This is not a retrospective judgment. Smart people recognized it at the time. Consider John Maynard Keynes's riposte to Trotsky:

Notes: Keynes on Trotsky: Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation. He assumes further that Society is divided into two parts the proletariat who are converted to the plan, and the rest who for purely selfish reasons oppose it. He does not understand that no plan could win until it had first convinced many people, and that, if there really were a plan, it would draw support from many different quarters. He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for. If we pressed him, I suppose he would mention Marx. And there we will leave him with an echo of his own words "together with theological literature, perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation."

Trotsky's book must confirm us in our conviction of the uselessness, the empty-headedness of Force at the present stage of human affairs. Force would settle nothing no more in the Class War than in the Wars of Nations or in the Wars of Religion. An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things. We lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait.

Posted by DeLong at November 30, 2004 12:37 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Sensible people at least seek evidence of omelette-making ability before allowing eggs to be cracked. Its true you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, but you can break an awful lot of eggs without making an omelette.

These days the cries of "history will vindicate us!" now mainly comes from the right - the warbloggers, for example, are quite explicit about this ("Yes, Iraq is not perfect, but democracy isn't built in a day").

Posted by: derrrida derider at November 30, 2004 07:30 PM

Sensible people at least seek evidence of omelette-making ability before allowing eggs to be cracked. Its true you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, but you can break an awful lot of eggs without making an omelette.

These days the cries of "history will vindicate us!" now mainly comes from the right - the warbloggers, for example, are quite explicit about this ("Yes, Iraq is not perfect, but democracy isn't built in a day").

Posted by: derrrida derider at November 30, 2004 07:31 PM

Well said, Brad - it can't be said too often that Trotsky was a mass murderer. There was nothing noble or utopian in the Bolshevik rule in Russia, nothing at all, and only ignorance can argue otherwise. As I have pointed out elsewhere, just because he wasn't directly complicit in Stalin's worst horrors doesn't mean that he wasn't an awful criminal, whose tally of innocent people puts the Green River Killer or Ted Bundy to shame. The same with Che Guevara and other people idolised by deluded (or criminal) idiots. We are very lucky today in having the leisure, freedom and security to be able to study him dispassionately at all, and that's only because the free world beat Nazism and Communism in the last century.

Posted by: PJ at November 30, 2004 10:02 PM

Keynes's use of the word "gospel" is critical here. Messianic dreams are dreams of, not merely a better world, but a perfect world. When the benefit becomes infinite the cost is irrelevant.

Posted by: larry birnbaum at December 1, 2004 07:59 AM

The lesson the "presentists" have learned is that the person killed today to advance the Revolution tomorrow is actually dead; the Revolution, meaning the justice that is supposed to flow from such determined and "moral" killing never seems to arrive. Just more killing till the killing burns itself out (as in Cambodia).

I disagree that only ignorance can be behind attributing utopia to the Bolshevik movement. It's dishonesty! I don't know why Neal Ascherson has chosen to be a cheerleader for the mass murderers of yesterday today, and tomorrow, but if he's not an arm-chair fantasist, he's an accomplice.

Posted by: sm at December 1, 2004 08:34 AM

Compared to the Belgians, the British, the Japanese, or the French, what was so bad about the Bolsheviks? They killed far fewer people than the deranged pre World War One 'White Man's Burden' lunatics in Africa and Asia. They killed far fewer people than the post World War One fascist lunatics of Europe and Japan. And at least they were fighting a foreign subsidized civil war at the time. If the Communists had not fought, they stil would not have had democracy. They just would have had a right wing dictatorship instead of a left wing dictatorship. Granted, right wing dictatorships tend to kill people of the 'wrong' ethnic groups rather than people of the 'wrong' social classes, but does that make a difference?
Democracy and an open society was not given the Russians as an option. They were forced into their path by the British, French, Japanese, and American armies, and their allies. If the British and French navies had not mutinied and forced an end to the war, and the Americans not elected a sensible President and left Russia, we might have found out what a Russia right wing dictatorship would have done to the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Chinese of Manchuria and Port Arthur, and the Moslems of the 'Stans.

Posted by: wkwillis at December 1, 2004 09:00 AM

A good post to which I would add
1. We owe so much to the English philosophers. Those continentals just love to kill for a cause.
2. The Menshivicks were right in 1916. And arguably on a Hegalian "world-historical scale" they have been right ever since. Meaning that the domocratic regulation of capitalism is better than the revolutionary overthrow.
3. Trotskyism as an ideology is dead, but as a moral outlook, a method of thinking a way of approaching the world it is alive and kicking. Who are the Trotskites of today? Where does this ends-justifies-the-means-for-utopia pathology reside today? Where they reside you will find danger.
4. To take the Hegalian dialectic further. If we are conclusive that Bolshevism is a radical failure and Menshevism was a better path, then what are we to make of the intellectual anti-Bolsheviks: the austrian economists? Their ideas are the product of a violent rejection of a violent idea. Private property uber alles againts the abolishment of property. Intuitively, you would think that the violence of the anti-thesis must be overcome as well. I would argue that we are in the this process right now. The Bolshevik thesis was spent in Russia, the anti thesis is overplaying its hand in America as we speak both domestically and abroad. The new thesis lies in a greater Europe and it is a form of menshevism.
Paging Francis Fukuyama.

Posted by: Nemesis at December 1, 2004 09:33 AM

Larry,

"When the benefit becomes infinite the cost is irrelevant."

Nicely put.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at December 1, 2004 09:48 AM

So, wkwillis, what's the point of this comparison? That there's always a worse criminal? That wouldn't get you very far as a defense attorney in a court of law. Unrealistic as this may seem to some, that's the kind of comparison I think is appropriate.

I think the new, presentist, morality that Ascherson seems to denigrate is that mass murder is a bad thing, and not something to be praised with pie in the sky when you die logic.

In fact a close look at these mass murderers makes it clear that they have simple desires: they want to be masters of all they survey, they want millions of slaves, and they don't care how many millions they have to kill to get them. Arguing about what precise point they got sick of, or afraid of, killing and opted for stable overlordship, or precisely how many casualties there were or what color they were, or what their objective position in the class structure of society was, is not the best use of our time.

There were millions of people in Russia in the 1910s and 20s who left alone never would have killed anyone. Nonetheless, the country fell under the control of a gang which was perfectly happy to kill. Yes, there were competing gangs.

There are a lot of happy killers out there right now. It makes sense for us to try to discourage them, and certainly not create conditions where it is easier for them to kill.

Demythologizing such killers is a good step in the right direction.

Posted by: sm at December 1, 2004 10:36 AM

So, wkwillis, what's the point of this comparison? That there's always a worse criminal? That wouldn't get you very far as a defense attorney in a court of law. Unrealistic as this may seem to some, that's the kind of comparison I think is appropriate.

I think the new, presentist, morality that Ascherson seems to denigrate is that mass murder is a bad thing, and not something to be praised with pie in the sky when you die logic.

In fact a close look at these mass murderers makes it clear that they have simple desires: they want to be masters of all they survey, they want millions of slaves, and they don't care how many millions they have to kill to get them. Arguing about what precise point they got sick of, or afraid of, killing and opted for stable overlordship, or precisely how many casualties there were or what color they were, or what their objective position in the class structure of society was, is not the best use of our time.

There were millions of people in Russia in the 1910s and 20s who left alone never would have killed anyone. Nonetheless, the country fell under the control of a gang which was perfectly happy to kill. Yes, there were competing gangs.

There are a lot of happy killers out there right now. It makes sense for us to try to discourage them, and certainly not create conditions where it is easier for them to kill.

Demythologizing such killers is a good step in the right direction.

Posted by: sm at December 1, 2004 10:42 AM