notes and links from bat020
Ascherson on Deutscher on Trotsky
Neal Ascherson works as a political journalist for the Observer, but he is also a seasoned political operator in his own right, being active on the right wing of the Scottish Labour Party in the 1970s and running for office as a Liberal Democrat today.
I can't say I've ever been particularly taken by Ascherson's work or his brand of left-tinged establishment-oriented liberalism. But his review of Isaac Deutscher's biography of Leon Trotsky (recently reissued by Verso) in this week's London Review of Books is a thoroughly impressive piece of scholarship.
What distinguishes Ascherson's piece from typical liberal responses to Trotsky and the Bolshevik Revolution is its acute awareness of a certain fashionable moralistic consensus over the stakes of this exemplary historical event.
Ascherson deftly sketches the contours of the received wisdom:
He proceeds to personally distance himself from this cosy ideological consensus, while acknowledging its hegemonic force:
Then, in a striking gesture that resonates with recent work by Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he spells out the link between the unthinking liberal caricature of 1917 and the "post-ideological" humanitarian dogma that underlies and sustains it:
The rest of the piece goes into detail about Deutscher and Trotsky – suffice to say it's an astonishingly accurate and well-informed overview, right down to noting crucial details such as the distinction between the Trotsky/Deutscher "deformed workers' state" view of Stalin's USSR and the rival "state capitalism" theory.
Ascherson's overall view of Trotsky is warm and generous, but by and large he absorbs Deutscher's tragic outlook and accepts the pessimistic historical outlook that flows from it. Nevertheless, the final sentence of the article is unexpectedly sharp in its rejection of the "End of History":
Finally – anyone interested in a more detailed Marxist analysis of Deutscher should read Neil Davidson's comprehensive and lucid article in the latest issue of International Socialism (not yet available online, unfortunately).