Isaac Deutscher is fading into memory, his name recognised chiefly those who have made a study of the Soviet Union’s apologists and enablers. For the unfamiliar, he was one of those slippery sorts who could not quite decide if mass murder in the right hands serves the interests of humanity
A century after the great October putsch, it is interesting to return to what was written fifty years afterwards rather than a hundred years afterwards, so I dug out Isaac Deutscher’s book of essays Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism, published by Oxford in 1966. Such books have now gone the way of antimacassars and whalebone corsets, but that does not mean that they are entirely uninstructive. Indeed, there is probably no such thing as an entirely uninstructive book.
At the time Deutscher (above) published his Ironies, the Soviet Union seemed as permanent a feature of the modern world as, say, global warming. Deutscher himself had by then entered his brief phase (he died a year later) as superstar of the New Left, partly on account of his three-volume biography of his hero Trotsky, which offered willing dupes the hope of a humanistic totalitarianism, and more importantly because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, during which he formed a tactical alliance with the draft-avoiding students of what, in other circumstances, he would no doubt have called the offspring of the petty bourgeois and kulak class.
In a certain way, Deutscher was admirable: how many of us could make our way in the literary world of our fourth or fifth language, as did he? But linguistic talent is not the same as intellectual probity, and here, I think, Deutscher was deficient, to put it mildly. He believed in something called the dialectic; and the dialectic is to moral and intellectual dishonesty what Freud said dreams were to the unconscious, namely the royal road.
Deutscher was one of those Marxists who could not quite make up his mind whether mass murder in the right hands did or did not serve the long-term interests of humanity. And in these essays, at least, his prose style is the man himself: evasive, slippery, an equivocator with evil and with the soul of an NKVD apparatchik.
What he writes is chillingly impersonal: if he had been writing of the extermination camps, he might have done so by reference to their carbon dioxide emissions. It was as if he believed that if you were cold-hearted and impersonal enough, you thereby became scientific. He always saw classes of men, not men themselves. His own convoluted abstractions were more real to him than anything as concrete or vulgar as a bullet in the back of someone’s head. I take a sentence at random to illustrate his style, by no means the worst or most morally obtuse, written at the end of 1956:
The Soviet peoples take the measure of their problems, view critically themselves and the world around them, and are getting ready for another world-shaking historic experience.
When one reads such prose, one can only wonder whether the words correspond to any actual thoughts running through the head of the man who wrote them, and if so how terrible it must have been to be such a man, how dull and boring, how maddeningly tedious.
His judgments might have been laughable if they had not been so horribly detached from any vestige of human feeling. The essay from which I have quoted continued:
A society which has gone through as much as Soviet society has gone through, which has achieved so much and suffered so much, which has seen, within the lifetime of one generation, its whole existence repeatedly shattered, and which has again and again ascended the highest peaks of hope and heroism and descended to the lowest depths of despair—such a society cannot fail to draw from its rich and uniquely great experience equally great generalizing ideas and practical conclusions and to embody these in actions worthy of itself. Nor can it fail to produce sooner or later the men and women strong enough in mind and character—a new “phalanx of heroes reared on the milk of the wild beast”—to transform ideas into deeds.
I am not sure I would care much to meet a phalanx of heroes raised on the milk of the wild beast—in fact, I think I would cross to the other side of the street if I did so (the quote, incidentally, comes from Alexander Herzen)—but Deutscher’s prose here is that of the romantic revolutionary bureaucratic mass-murderer. It is also that of the regular correspondent of and contributor to the Economist, the Observer, the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement, which were certainly among the most important British journals of the time (and long afterwards). Nor should we forget that one of the great university presses of the world saw fit to republish acres of such stuff.
No one’s prognostications are unfailingly accurate, but Deutscher had the gift of unfailing negative foresight, as it were: possible only for someone as learned as he in the dialectic. To be always wrong, at least in so far as any definite meaning at all could be attached to his predictions, implied knowledge of a kind. Here, for example, he speaks of the future of the Russian proletarian:
Any political revival in the working class of the U.S.S.R. is almost certain to lead to a revival of the Soviets which will once again become the resting ground of political programmes, groups and leaders, and the meeting place of spontaneous movements and political consciousness.
In the same essay, Deutscher wondered whether the revolution in Eastern Europe brought “on the point of [Stalin’s] bayonets … can ever be accepted by the people on the spot and gain their wholehearted support and devotion?” And he then went on to wonder whether “such a revolution must collapse the moment the conqueror has withdrawn his bayonets?” The questions alone, without his answers to them, show Deutscher to have been a fool, though a learned, intelligent and gifted one. It is possible to study something all one’s life and understand nothing whatever about it, despite an immense accumulation of learning.
What was Deutscher’s answer to his own idiotic questions?
There is perhaps no single answer to these questions. At any rate, the October  upheavals in Poland and Hungary gave two different answers, perhaps neither of them final.
While the Polish “proletarian movement … kept the Thermidorean forces at bay” in Poland, “the people of Hungary in a heroic frenzy tried unwittingly to put the clock back, while Moscow sought once again to wind up with the bayonet, or rather with the tank, the broken clock of the Hungarian Communist revolution”.
This is all very slippery: the image of the Hungarian communist revolution’s clock, for example, is rather difficult to grasp. What is meant by it? Is the clock ticking towards the inevitable Hungarian communist revolution, whereupon time itself, like history in Francis Fukuyama’s erstwhile opinion, will come to a stop, at least in Hungary? And were the Hungarian revolutionaries trying unwittingly to put the clock back, as if they did not know (unlike Deutscher) what they were really doing? Were they not merely rebelling as strongly and effectively as they knew how against the horrible communist tyranny under which they lived?
In 1957, Deutscher published an essay in the New Statesman, a journal which my father read as holy writ, titled “Four Decades of the Revolution”. One reads it now and wonders how such a man could ever have been taken seriously. Describing the historical trajectory of the Soviet Union, he wrote:
Then the Second World War inflicted the prodigious losses which threatened to throw it a long, long way back; and in the aftermath of the war came chaos and famine.
What, no chaos or famine in the Soviet Union before the war? That period calls forth from Deutscher no such words, but rather is described as “the sombre, heroic and cruel drive of industrialization”. It would have been difficult not to convict Deutscher of outright lying had his mind not been so warped by the dialectic: the denial of the principle of non-contradiction rendering truth-telling impossible for him, and therefore also lying.
It is curious, but significant, that a moral imbecile such as Deutscher should ever have commanded such respect and rapt attention (though not from George Orwell, who included him on his list of communist sympathisers, or from Isaiah Berlin, who did everything he could to stand in the way of any academic appointment for Deutscher). But perhaps—to use Deutscher’s favourite adverb—it is easier to perceive moral imbecility in retrospect than contemporaneously: in which case, the important question for us is, Who is the Isaac Deutscher de nos jours? There must be one—or many.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published in August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.