Isaac Deutscher

Isaac Deutscher

Ask a question about 'Isaac Deutscher'
Start a new discussion about 'Isaac Deutscher'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
Isaac Deutscher was a Polish
thumb|right|180px|The state flag of [[Poland]] as used by Polish government and diplomatic authoritiesThe Polish people, or Poles , are a nation indigenous to Poland. They are united by the Polish language, which belongs to the historical Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages of Central Europe...

-born Jewish Marxist writer, journalist and political activist who moved to the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 at the outbreak of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. He is best known as a biographer of Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky , born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and theorist, Soviet politician, and the founder and first leader of the Red Army....

 and Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 and as a commentator on Soviet
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 affairs. His three-volume biography of Trotsky, in particular, was highly influential among the British New Left
New Left
The New Left was a term used mainly in the United Kingdom and United States in reference to activists, educators, agitators and others in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to implement a broad range of reforms, in contrast to earlier leftist or Marxist movements that had taken a more vanguardist...


Early life, Poland

Deutscher was born in Chrzanów
Chrzanów is a town in south Poland with 39,704 inhabitants . It is situated in the Lesser Poland Voivodeship and is the capital of Chrzanów County.- To 1809:...

, a town in the Galicia region of Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a family of religiously observant Jews. He studied with a Hasidic rebbe
Rebbe , which means master, teacher, or mentor, is a Yiddish word derived from the Hebrew word Rabbi. It often refers to the leader of a Hasidic Jewish movement...

 and was acclaimed as a prodigy in the study of the Torah
Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five books of the bible—Genesis , Exodus , Leviticus , Numbers and Deuteronomy Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five...

 and the Talmud
The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history....

. By the time of his bar mitzvah, however, he had lost his faith. He "tested God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

" by eating non-kosher food at the grave of a tzadik
Tzadik/Zadik/Sadiq is a title given to personalities in Jewish tradition considered righteous, such as Biblical figures and later spiritual masters. The root of the word ṣadiq, is ṣ-d-q , which means "justice" or "righteousness", also the root of Tzedakah...

 (holy person) on Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur , also known as Day of Atonement, is the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jews. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue...

. When nothing happened, he became an atheist
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...


Deutscher first attracted notice as a poet, when at 16 he began publishing poems in Polish literary periodicals. His verse, in Yiddish and Polish
Polish language
Polish is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, used throughout Poland and by Polish minorities in other countries...

, concerned Jewish and Polish mysticism
Mysticism is the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, i.e. levels of being, beyond normal human perception, including experience and even communion with a supreme being.-Classical origins:...

, history and mythology, and he attempted to bridge the gulf between Polish and Yiddish culture. He also translated poetry from Hebrew
Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Culturally, is it considered by Jews and other religious groups as the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish languages had originated among diaspora Jews, and the Hebrew language is also used by non-Jewish groups, such...

, Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

, and Yiddish into Polish.

Deutscher studied literature, history, and philosophy as an extramural student at the Jagellonian University in Kraków
Kraków also Krakow, or Cracow , is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life...

. At 18 he left Kraków for Warsaw
Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland. It is located on the Vistula River, roughly from the Baltic Sea and from the Carpathian Mountains. Its population in 2010 was estimated at 1,716,855 residents with a greater metropolitan area of 2,631,902 residents, making Warsaw the 10th most...

, where he studied philosophy, and economics and became a Marxist
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

. Around 1927 he joined the illegal Communist Party of Poland
Communist Party of Poland
The Communist Party of Poland is a historical communist party in Poland. It was a result of the fusion of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and the Polish Socialist Party-Left in the Communist Workers Party of Poland .-1918-1921:The KPRP was founded on 16 December 1918 as...

 (KPP) and became the editor of the party's underground press. In 1931 he toured the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

, seeing the economic conditions under the first Five Year Plan. Here Moscow University and Minsk University offered him posts as a professor of the history of socialism and of Marxist theory. He declined these offers and returned to his underground work in Poland. On his return Deutscher co-founded the first anti-Stalinist group in the Polish Communist Party, protesting the party line that Nazism and Social Democracy were "not antipodes but twins". This contradicted the then official Communist line
Third Period
The Third Period is a ideological concept adopted by the Communist International at its 6th World Congress, held in Moscow in the summer of 1928....

, which saw the social democrats, or "social fascists", as the greatest enemies of the Communist Party. Deutscher published an article called "The Danger of Barbarism over Europe", in which he urged the formation of a united socialist-Communist front
United front
The united front is a form of struggle that may be pursued by revolutionaries. The basic theory of the united front tactic was first developed by the Comintern, an international communist organisation created by revolutionaries in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.According to the theses of...

 against Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

. Deutscher was expelled from the party for "exaggerat[ing] the danger of Nazism and ... spreading panic in the Communist ranks."

Move to UK and journalism (1939 - 1947)

In April 1939 Deutscher left Poland for London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 as a correspondent for a Polish-Jewish newspaper for which he had worked as a proof reader for fourteen years. This move saved his life and paved the way for his future career. He never returned to Poland and never saw any of his family again. In London he worked as a correspondent for the Polish newspaper, and for a while he joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers League.

When Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 occupied Poland in September 1939, and his connection with his newspaper was severed, he taught himself English and began writing for English magazines. He was soon a regular correspondent for the leading weekly The Economist
The Economist
The Economist is an English-language weekly news and international affairs publication owned by The Economist Newspaper Ltd. and edited in offices in the City of Westminster, London, England. Continuous publication began under founder James Wilson in September 1843...

. In 1940 he joined the Polish Army in Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

, but was interned as a dangerous subversive. Released in 1942, he joined the staff of The Economist and became its expert on Soviet affairs and military issues, and its chief European correspondent. He also wrote for The Observer
The Observer
The Observer is a British newspaper, published on Sundays. In the same place on the political spectrum as its daily sister paper The Guardian, which acquired it in 1993, it takes a liberal or social democratic line on most issues. It is the world's oldest Sunday newspaper.-Origins:The first issue,...

as a roving European correspondent under the pen-name "Peregrine".

He left journalism in 1946-7 to write books. Deutscher's name (with the remark "Sympathiser only") subsequently appeared on Orwell's list
Orwell's list
Orwell's list, prepared in 1949 by the English author George Orwell, shortly before he died, comprises names of notable writers and other individuals he considered to be unsuitable as possible writers for the Information Research Department's anti-communist propaganda activities.-Background:The...

, a list of people (many writers and journalists) which George Orwell
George Orwell
Eric Arthur Blair , better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English author and journalist...

  prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department
Information Research Department
The Information Research Department, founded in 1948 by Christopher Mayhew MP, was a department of the British Foreign Office set up to counter Russian propaganda and infiltration, particularly amongst the western labour movement....

, a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government. Orwell considered the listed people to have pro-communist leanings and therefore to be inappropriate to write for the IRD.

Biographer and academic (1948 - 1967)

Deutscher published his first major work, Stalin, A Political Biography in 1949. Deutscher was still a committed Trotskyist, but in the book Deutscher gave Stalin what he saw as his due for building a form of socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 in the Soviet Union, even if it was, in Deutscher's view, a perversion of the vision of Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

, Lenin
Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and communist politician who led the October Revolution of 1917. As leader of the Bolsheviks, he headed the Soviet state during its initial years , as it fought to establish control of Russia in the Russian Civil War and worked to create a...

 and Trotsky.

The Stalin biography made Deutscher a leading authority on Soviet affairs and the Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 1917...

. He followed it up with his most ambitious work, a three-volume biography of Trotsky: The Prophet Armed (1954), The Prophet Unarmed (1959) and The Prophet Outcast (1963). These books were based on detailed research into the Trotsky Archives at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

. Much of the material contained in the third volume was previously unknown, since Trotsky's widow, Natalia Sedova
Natalia Sedova
Natalia Ivanovna Sedova is best known as the second wife of Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary. She was, however, also an active revolutionary in her own right and wrote on cultural matters pertaining to Marxism...

, gave him access to the closed section of the Archives. British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair
Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is a former British Labour Party politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2 May 1997 to 27 June 2007. He was the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield from 1983 to 2007 and Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007...

 declared in 2006 that the trilogy "made a very deep impression on me and gave me a love of political biography for the rest of my life." Deutscher planned to conclude his series with a study of Lenin, but Life of Lenin remained incomplete at the time of his death, partly due to a politically-motivated denial of a university position to Deutscher.

In the 1960s the upsurge of left-wing sentiment that accompanied the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

 (see The Sixties) made Deutscher a popular figure on university campuses in both Britain and the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. His Trotskyism had by then become a form of Marxist humanism
Marxist humanism
Marxist humanism is a branch of Marxism that primarily focuses on Marx's earlier writings, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 in which Marx espoused his theory of alienation, as opposed to his later works, which are considered to be concerned more with his structural...

, although he never renounced Trotsky. In 1965 he took part in the first "Teach-In" on Vietnam at the University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

, where thousands of students listened to his indictment of the Cold War. He was G. M. Trevelyan Lecturer at Cambridge University
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

 for 1966-67, and also lectured for six weeks at the State University of New York
State University of New York
The State University of New York, abbreviated SUNY , is a system of public institutions of higher education in New York, United States. It is the largest comprehensive system of universities, colleges, and community colleges in the United States, with a total enrollment of 465,000 students, plus...

. In spring 1967 he guest lectured at New York University
New York University
New York University is a private, nonsectarian research university based in New York City. NYU's main campus is situated in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan...

, Princeton
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

, Harvard and Columbia
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

. The G. M. Trevelyan Lectures, under the title The Unfinished Revolution, were published after his sudden and unexpected death in Rome in 1967. A memorial prize honouring him, called the Deutscher Memorial Prize
Deutscher Memorial Prize
The Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize is an annual prize given in honor of historian Isaac Deutscher and his wife Tamara Deutscher for new books published in English "which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition." It has been on-going since...

, is awarded annually to a book "which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition".

In relation to Judaism and Zionism

Despite being an atheist and a life-long socialist, Deutscher emphasised the importance of his Jewish heritage. He coined the expression "non-Jewish Jew" to apply to himself and other Jewish humanists. Deutscher admired Elisha ben Abuyah
Elisha ben Abuyah
Elisha ben Abuyah was a rabbi and Jewish religious authority born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 CE. After he adopted a worldview considered heretical by his fellow Tannaim and betrayed his people, the rabbis of the Talmud refrained from relating teachings in his name and referred to him as the...

, a Jewish heretic
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

 of the 2nd century C.E. But he had little time for specifically Jewish politics. In Warsaw, he joined the Communist Party, not the Jewish Bund
General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland
The General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland was a Jewish socialist party in Poland which promoted the political, cultural and social autonomy of Jewish workers, sought to combat antisemitism and was generally opposed to Zionism.-Creation of the Polish Bund:...

, whose "Yiddishist" views he opposed.

His definition of his Jewishness was: "Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist
Internationalist may refer to:* Internationalism , a movement to increase cooperation across national borders* Internationalist, socialists opposed to World War I* The Internationalist Review, an e-journal founded in Maastricht...

. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews."

Before World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, Deutscher opposed Zionism
Zionism is a Jewish political movement that, in its broadest sense, has supported the self-determination of the Jewish people in a sovereign Jewish national homeland. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zionist movement continues primarily to advocate on behalf of the Jewish state...

 as economically retrograde and harmful to the cause of international socialism, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust
The Holocaust
The Holocaust , also known as the Shoah , was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi...

 he regretted his pre-war views, and argued a case for establishing Israel
The State of Israel is a parliamentary republic located in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea...

 as a "historic necessity" to provide a home for the surviving Jews of Europe. In the 1960s he became more critical of Israel for its failure to recognize the dispossession of the Palestinians, and after the Six Day War of 1967 he demanded that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories
Israeli-occupied territories
The Israeli-occupied territories are the territories which have been designated as occupied territory by the United Nations and other international organizations, governments and others to refer to the territory seized by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967 from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria...

. "This 'six day wonder'", he commented, "this latest, all-too-easy triumph of Israeli arms will be seen one day... to have been a disaster... for Israel itself."

His most famous statement regarding Israel is "A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds."

In "The Israeli Arab War, June 1967" (1967), Deutscher, a Marxist of Jewish origins whose next-of-kin died at Auschwitz and whose relatives lived in Israel, wrote:

“Still we must exercise our judgment and must not allow it to be clouded by emotions and memories, however deep or haunting. We should not allow even invocations of Auschwitz to blackmail us into supporting the wrong cause.” (Quoted in Prophets Outcast, Nation Books, 2004, p. 184)

He believed,

"To justify or condone Israel’s wars against the Arabs is to render Israel a very bad service indeed and to harm its own long-term interest. Israel’s security, let me repeat, was not enhanced by the wars of 1956 and 1967; it was undermined and compromised by them. The ‘friends of Israel’ have in fact abetted Israel in a ruinous course.” (Quoted in Prophets Outcast, Nation Books, 2004, p. 184)

Selected works

  • Stalin: a Political Biography (1949)
  • Soviet Trade Unions (1950)
  • Russia After Stalin (1953)
  • Russia, What Next? (1953)
  • The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (1954)
  • Heretics and renegades: and other essays (1955)
  • Russia in transition, and other essays (1957)
  • The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (1959)
  • Great contest: Russia and the West (1960)
  • The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940 (1963)
  • Isaac Deutscher on the Israeli-Arab War: an interview with the late Isaac Deutscher (1967)
  • The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967 (G. M. Trevelyan lectures) (1967)
  • Non-Jewish Jew and other essays (Edited by Tamara Deutscher) (1968)
  • An Open Letter to Władysław Gomułka and the Central Committee of the Polish Workers Party (1968)
  • Russia, China, and the West 1953-1966 (Edited by Fred Halliday) (1970)
  • Marxism in our time (Edited by Tamara Deutscher) (1971)
  • Marxism, Wars, and Revolutions: essays from four decades (Edited by Tamara Deutscher) (1984)


  • Cliff, Tony
    Tony Cliff
    Tony Cliff , was a Trotskyist who was a founding member of the Socialist Review Group which went on to become the Socialist Workers Party...

    , "The End of the Road: Isaac Deutscher's Capitulation to Stalinism", 1963.
  • Horowitz, David, Isaac Deutscher: The Man and his work. London: Macdonald, 1971.
  • Labedz, Leopold
    Leopold Labedz
    Leopold Labedz was an anti-communist Anglo-Polish commentator on the Soviet Union.Labedz was born to a Polish Jewish doctor in Russia. The family soon returned to Warsaw and the young Labedz decided to follow his father into the medical profession. He studied medicine in Paris...

     "Issac Deutscher: Historian, Prophet, Biographer" pages 33–03 from Survey, Volume 30, Issue # 1-2, March 1988.
  • Laqueur, Walter
    Walter Laqueur
    Walter Zeev Laqueur is an American historian and political commentator. He was born in Breslau, Germany , to a Jewish family. In 1938, Laqueur left Germany for the British Mandate of Palestine. His parents, who were unable to leave, became victims of the Holocaust...

    The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet History from 1917 to the Present, New York : Scribner, 1987 ISBN 0-684-18903-8.
  • Neil Davidson, "The prophet, his biographer and the watchtower", International Socialism 104, 2004.

External links