Isaac Deutscher

Isaac Deutscher (1907–1967) was a Polish-Jewish Marxist writer who moved to the UK before the outbreak of WW2 (which probably saved his life). He is apparently best known for the biographies he wrote of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, but I first encountered him as the writer of a brilliant little essay, The Tragic Life of a Polrugarian Minister, which describes the trajectory of a (fictional) one-time socialist who winds up a senior minister in an Eastern European Stalinist state.

Deutscher was born to an observant Jewish family in Chrzanów, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now in Poland). As a child he was acclaimed as a prodigy in his studies of the Torah and the Talmud, but by the time of his bar mitzvah he had lost his faith and become an atheist. He attracted notice as a poet, having works in Polish and Yiddish published in literary periodicals from the age of sixteen. He moved to Kraków to study literature and history, then on to Warsaw where he studied philosophy, economics and Marxism.

In 1927, he joined the illegal Communist Party of Poland, and became the editor of its underground publication. He toured Moscow in 1931, and turned down an offer to become a university professor there; instead, he returned to Poland. Displeased with the Stalinist line that social democracy (“social fascism”) was exactly equivalent to actual fascism, Deutscher co-founded the anti-Stalinist current in the Communist Party of Poland, calling instead for a united front between “socialists” and “communists” to combat fascism, for which he was pretty swiftly expelled from the party.

In April 1939, Deutscher moved to London as a correspondent for a Polish-Jewish newspaper. When the Nazis invaded Poland a few months later, his connection to that newspaper was severed. He stayed on in London, never returning to Poland or seeing his family again; he became a British citizen (or the contemporary equivalent) in 1949. He started writing for English-language periodicals and joined a Trotskyist party; he was therefore interned as a “dangerous subversive” in 1940, but released again in 1942 and allowed to take up a job as a “Soviet affairs” and “military issues” expert for The Economist. He was a member of a “Shanghai Club” of left-leaning and emigre writers that also included George Orwell; however, Orwell subsequently named him on a list of “pro-communist” writers that he provided to the British government.

Around 1946–47, Deutscher left journalism to write books, including the biographies of Stalin and Trotsky for which he’s apparently most notable. It’s also in this period that he wrote the Polrugarian minister essay (in 1952). He became a popular guy during the period of heightened radicalism in the 1960s, speaking at numerous university campuses, particularly in the US. His death in 1967 was unexpected.

In the 1920s and 30s Deutscher was an anti-Zionist; however, the Holocaust made him change his mind, and he mourned that: If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were to be extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers. He saw Israel as a “historic necessity”, and added that his anti-Zionism, which I have, of course, long since abandoned … was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, a confidence in European society and civilisation which that society and civilisation have not justified. However, by the 1960s he’d begun to be more critical of Israel again, mostly due to its complete failure to reckon with the reality that they had dispossessed Palestinians to create their country. After the Six-Day War (and shortly before his death) he called on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, and argued that “Israel’s wars against the Arabs” were bad for Israel’s own security. He had this whole analogy between Israel and Palestine and a man who jumps out of a burning building (that’s Israel) who crushes a man on the street down below (that’s Palestine). He said that if both parties were thinking rationally, neither would blame the other for their predicament, but both sides are not behaving rationally so instead, the crushed man swears to make the other pay for his injuries, while the man who jumped is scared of the other man’s threats of revenge and decides to beat him up preemptively every time they meet.

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