Revolutionary Morality

In addition to being the centenary of Weber’ Protestant ethic, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first installment of Isaac Deustcher’s trilogy on the life of Leon Trotsky: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast.  It’s one of my favorite political biographies, and it covers much of the history of the political fault line that defined most of the 20th century. 

Deutscher was sympathetic to Trotsky, except for Trotsky’s attempt to establish a 4th International, and writes from a sympathetic perspective.  He wasn’t ignorant of the horrors of Stalinism, which he opposed, Lenin’s use of terror, or even the objections that a vanguard party would lead to a dictatorship.  But he did believe in the project.  Neal Ascherson explains it this way.

“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.”

Brad  Delong  raises an objection to this.

“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.”

But is that all there is to the problem of this moral justification?  There’s certainly no “‘A’ for effort” in politics and ends certainly justify means . . . but are ends the only constraint on means?  What if people didn’t recognize the limits of the project at the time?  Would that have made it more palatable?  Defenders of Bolshevism do point to Stalinist industrialization and the defeat of the Nazis as achievments.  But can this absolve say the engineered famine in the Ukraine?

The standard “did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose?” which admits of no doubt and no value to revision seems a road to brutality since it must reject the idea that we do not know what we will know in the future.  Karl Popper’s objections still ring true.  Even Rosa Luxemburg recognized this in her chapter on The Problem of Dictatorship in her pamphlet, The Russian Revolution.  And note that the objection came from someone who thought the project could and, in the end, would work.

“The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook.”

But read the review.