In May of 1965, two years before his sudden death from a heart attack, Isaac Deutscher addressed a mammoth antiwar rally in Berkeley, California. In a recording of the occasion, you can hear him say that he is going to skip the subject of Vietnam, which the previous speakers had covered so well, and talk instead about the Cold War, which provided the makers of US foreign policy with the political cover they needed to stumble into the quagmire. In the speech, Deutscher’s polished timing and slight Polish accent might make you think of a Jewish comedian, but by and large his tone is grave and his language perhaps even a bit more sonorous than necessary. He may have worried that his audience would not see the relevance of that world-historical event to which he related so many other issues: the Russian Revolution.
Born in 1907, in a small Polish village that was then part of the soon-to-vanish Austro-Hungarian Empire, Deutscher was 10 when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. He would later chronicle their story, in incredibly gripping detail, in his monumental three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, but his preparation for that work started with a sense that many of the solid things around him were at or near the point of melting into air. His Orthodox Jewish family was strictly observant, and as a child (and something of a prodigy) he was sent to study with a Hasidic rabbi. At the age of 13, Deutscher was consecrated as a rabbi himself. But as we learn from the beguiling biographical sketch that his wife and longtime collaborator, Tamara Deutscher, appends to The Non-Jewish Jew, a collection of Deutscher’s essays now republished by Verso Books, his father—a printer—also passed along his fervent, if religiously troublesome, passion for modern German writers, including the poet Heinrich Heine. If you write in Polish, Deutscher’s father repeatedly advised him, no one will understand you beyond Auschwitz. At that point, Auschwitz was merely the name of a nearby town.
In November 1918, the first week of Polish independence brought to the region where the Deutschers lived not one but three pogroms. Yet as Poland and other new nations emerged from the ruins of shattered empires after the First World War, the young Deutscher became something of a Polish patriot. At 14, he repudiated his family’s Judaism as a vestige of feudalism. At 16, he began publishing poetry in Polish that was influenced by Jewish mysticism and Polish romanticism, and he translated German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Latin verses into Polish. At 20, he joined the Polish Communist Party.
In 1931, Deutscher was sent by the party to Soviet Russia to report on the economic results of the first Five-Year Plan. He learned more about the trajectory of the revolution than the party was comfortable with him knowing. A year or so later, he was expelled for “democratic deviations,” including his refusal to treat Western social democracy as the moral equivalent of Nazism. He got a job with a Jewish newspaper in Poland and, in April 1939, was sent off to London, where he set about learning English. The move saved his life: The Nazis invaded Poland around five months later, and Deutscher never saw his parents again.
Exile spelled the end of the Eastern European phase of Deutscher’s career, but he didn’t allow it to define him. In his own eyes, he was rooted—and proudly so—in the tradition of Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud, the “non-Jewish Jews” he discusses in the title essay of this still-sparkling reprint. He was also rooted in leftist internationalism, a tradition that provided him with a home wherever he happened to live.
Deutscher’s political commitments and his experiences with the Polish Communist Party also gave him an activist’s sense that timing was at least as important as principle, a sense that subtly relativized his judgments and clearly informed everything he went on to write, whether it was his journalism as a Russian-speaking commentator on the Kremlin, his political criticism, or the works of history that subsequently made him famous.
Though England took him in, Deutscher remained an exile from the world of the English university. Unlike many of his leftist peers, he wrote his long, richly documented books on Trotsky and Stalin without the benefit of an academic post. Deutscher’s chance at a university job and a stable income was stopped cold by no less than Isaiah Berlin, according to Michael Ignatieff’s biography of the Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, whose considered opinion when consulted on the hire was: Over my dead body. Perhaps this was owing to political differences; perhaps it was the result of a bitingly negative review of Berlin that Deutscher had published some years earlier. Once Deutscher was out of the picture, Berlin insisted that his evaluation had not been decisive, but this claim has not stood up to scrutiny. Deutscher’s name also figured on the list of communist sympathizers that George Orwell secretly gave to the British Foreign Office in 1949, the year when Deutscher’s biography of Stalin was published.
In “Components of the National Culture” (1968), Perry Anderson argued that some of the most influential intellectuals who fled to Britain from political violence on the continent—people like Berlin, Karl Popper, Bronislaw Malinowski, Melanie Klein, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—had elective affinities with Britain’s very uncontinental tradition of nonviolent continuity and relative social stability. Once established in Britain, Anderson said, they reinforced and expanded that tradition, leaving Britain more conservative still.
In Anderson’s view, Deutscher was the most prominent exception to this “White emigration.” Perhaps because of the idiosyncrasies of his radicalism—one that did not quite conform with either British communist or social-democratic politics—Deutscher was ignored by Britain’s academic world. Or perhaps it was because his intellectual independence, his journalistic flair and polemical style, didn’t conform with England’s cloistered and sometimes stodgy university culture. In any case, Anderson never ignored him—in fact, anyone searching for evidence of Deutscher’s intellectual afterlife would need look no further than Anderson’s brilliant accomplishments as a historian and political analyst.
Like Deutscher, Anderson has proved over the years to be a polyglot polymath; like Deutscher, he recognizes no appeal above or beyond what Gregory Elliott calls, in his book about Anderson, “the merciless laboratory of history.” Both were drawn to the “olympian universalism” of Marx and Engels, although perhaps not equally so.
Anderson related an anecdote that suggested a small but telling difference between the two men. In the 1960s, Anderson was loudly indignant at England’s lack of political dynamism. Why, he asked, could France boast of so many revolutions, while modern England had had none? In a foreword to the volume in which “Components” is reprinted, he recalled Deutscher informing him that he could not fully approve of Anderson’s disengagement from political possibilities on the ground, imperfect as they might be. Borrowing a term from Rosa Luxemburg’s misguided refusal to support Polish independence before World War I, Deutscher said that Anderson’s position was guilty of “national nihilism.”
In saying no to nihilism even about nationalism, of which he was no fan, Deutscher was passing on some practical wisdom—wisdom intended in particular for anyone trying to stretch political commitment beyond the heady enthusiasm of youth. To judge everyday politics by the high standard of revolution is to make oneself vulnerable to despair, or at least apathy. It can also be self-defeating, parachuting a set of abstract standards into a community that might be receptive to a politics’ goals but is either confused or alienated by the language in which those goals are pursued. As a longtime revolutionary, Deutscher was well-placed to insist that there are other paths toward social justice.
Unlike more mainstream critics of Soviet Russia, Deutscher was not a liberal. He was committed to democracy, and his objections to the Soviet regime overlapped in places with the standard liberal objections, but one of the things he appreciated in Trotsky was the latter’s firm belief that, despite Russia’s social and economic backwardness, the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 should not aim for a liberal government that would leave private property untouched. Instead, as Trotsky argued, he believed that the revolution could leap over the constitutional stage, seeking to satisfy the material demands of workers and peasants. Of course, no one reflecting on what would ultimately happen to the revolution under Stalin is likely to conclude that this question has been resolved in Trotsky’s favor. Was Russia too backward to skip liberal capitalism? And, more to the point, would a constitutional system that protected bourgeois rights have created the necessary impediments to the terror that followed once Stalin secured power? Trotsky himself was to change his mind on these issues, and to Deutscher’s credit, he didn’t pretend that he possessed a higher or privileged knowledge.
Deutscher’s open questions about the subsequent course of the Russian Revolution—a revolution he never entirely gave up on—also help explain his extraordinary moral generosity, what one might even call the Tolstoyan quality of his historical writing. Strident advocacy was something that Deutscher just could not seem to pull off. Every sentence he wrote as a historian bore some mark, however faint, of ongoing self-disputation.
This was true even when it came to Stalin, and it was perhaps one reason why many found his biography of Stalin so troubling. Stalin had ordered the murder of Trotsky, along with so many others, and in Deutscher’s hands, Stalin is a monster—but he is not simply a monster and Deutscher tried to understand Stalin’s motives. “It is not necessary to assume that he acted from sheer cruelty or lust for power,” Deutscher wrote in his biography. “He may be given the dubious credit of the sincere conviction that what he did served the interests of the revolution and that he alone interpreted those interests aright.”
This was never intended as a defense of Stalin, but rather as an argument that even his most appalling actions did not lie beyond the possibility of historical explanation. To put them beyond historical explanation would be to pretend that the revolution did not embody its own contradictions, which predated Stalin’s years of monomaniacal dictatorship and (as Deutscher didn’t fail to note) marked Trotsky’s political career as well.
It might seem that accepting the existence of those contradictions—contradictions that Deutscher believed were baked into the very soul of leftist revolutionism in general and the Russian Revolution in particular—would lead him to opt for fatalism. But somehow it did not. Deutscher was able to make the contradictions very clear (and make a life outside the Communist Party) without giving up on the hope of revolution itself, whether in Russia or as a planetary goal that must continue to take heart from the initial triumphs of 1917. The peoples of the West needed to be reminded, Deutscher thought, that when the Russians fought the Nazis in World War II, it was not out of primal patriotism alone; they were engaged in “a battle for the existence of the workers’ movement.” His audience at Berkeley in 1965 needed to be reminded that the threat of aggression from the Soviet Union, which supposedly justified America’s Cold War mission in Vietnam, was in his view ludicrous. There was no parity of power between the United States and the USSR: One was a superpower, while the other had emerged from World War II “prostrate and bled white.”
Now the Russian people were trying to shake off that nightmare along with the memory of Stalin. Progressives in the West had the obligation to help them do it. This meant viewing the Cold War not only from the standpoint of the West but also from that of the East. The Vietnam War exacerbated the Cold War, thereby making Russian life worse. What Deutscher was trying to offer to the crowd of antiwar protesters in 1965 was a Russia-centered case against the Vietnam War. It was almost certainly not what the audience had been expecting to hear, but somehow it was at once both politically inspiring and bracingly independent from the simple moral binaries that antiwar protest seemed to demand.
In 1903, at the Brussels congress where Bolsheviks and Mensheviks first laid out their differences of opinion, Trotsky made one of the rare speeches in which he referred to himself as a Jew. He did so in order to speak with personal authority against the Jewish Bund, which was demanding the right to “cultural autonomy,” including the ability to elect its own governing body and set its own policy with regard to the Jewish population. Of course the Jews should have the right to be educated in Yiddish, Trotsky explained, but how could socialism—which was interested in overcoming the barriers that divided countries, religions, and nationalities—turn its hand to erecting its own barriers to this vision of universal emancipation?
Deutscher had been raised at the very heart of Yiddish culture in Polish Austro-Hungary and had played an active and creative part in it. For him, Yiddish was a language and culture that was always entangled with the labor movement. Like Trotsky, he tended to think of himself as a revolutionary first and a Jew only afterward. But Deutscher also did think of himself as a Jew, and in ways that encourage a variation on the question in Anderson’s essay: What are the components of Jewish identity?
As the title of this collection suggests, Deutscher’s own sense of Jewish identity is completely disconnected from the Jewish religion. As an adult, he announced his atheism without apology, finding no virtues in the Hasidism of his youth and describing as Kafkaesque “the fashionable longing of the Western Jew for a return to the sixteenth century.” But his secularism was not merely negative; it was also positive, active, emancipatory, and above all sociable. For Jews, it entailed a gesture of trust in the gentiles around them, trust that they and non-Jewish progressives could make common cause and share in its victories.
From this positive, humanist view of secularism, Deutscher asserted that Jewish identity could never be a matter of Jewish control over territory. “I have nothing in common with the Jews of, say, Mea Sha’arim,” he declared, “or with any kind of Israeli nationalists.” The obsolescence of the nation-state had been proven in the meaningless slaughter of World War I. There was thus a terrible irony for him in the founding of Israel: Jews were investing in the nation-state just as it had gone into what Deutscher thought (prematurely) was a state of terminal decline.
And what of the Holocaust, which might well have shaken Deutscher’s trust in the possibility of Jews finding common cause with the gentile world? Though it more or less bisected his life, the Holocaust did not lead him to defect from the camp of the secularizers and believers in modernity. The Nazis were the reason, after all, why the Eastern European Jewish culture in which he was raised no longer existed. But when Deutscher talks about that culture, he quotes a conversation he had with the Yiddish satirist Moshe Nadir in the 1920s. Nadir was already predicting that in the future Yiddish would no longer be spoken, perhaps because the Jews, now happily assimilated, would be speaking Polish or Russian. Nadir looked to that day with equanimity, because when Yiddish became a dead language like Latin, his satires would be read as classics, on a par with those of Horace and Ovid. By invoking this old line from Nadir, Deutscher seemed to be saying that the Yiddish culture the Nazis took away would have been lost in any case to a history that was both merciless and progressive. What should be mourned, therefore, was not the culture but the lives that had disappeared into the immense maw of World War II. About history itself, which he’d always imagined as shared between Jews and non-Jews, he remained confident that despite its brutalities, humanity would emerge from it better off. One of the less obvious qualities he attributes to the line of “non-Jewish Jews” running from Spinoza to Freud is optimism. Yes, he saw Freud too as an optimist.
If Deutscher had gone to New York instead of London, his anti-Stalinist leftism, his literary verve, and his liveliness in debate would no doubt have earned him speedy entrée into the talkative circles of the New York intellectuals. Trotsky had admirers there, and Deutscher did make a couple of visits. But keeping up his membership might have required some negotiation among that rancorous crowd. As these essays show, Deutscher wasn’t shy about expressing his contempt for Jewish intellectuals in the West, who, he believed, had become conservative during the Cold War, championing the so-called liberal “way of life” of Britain and the United States, and he would have also become uncomfortable with those who shed the radical, universalistic impulses of Jewish culture in favor of a more particularist one.
For Deutscher, geographical and class differences among Jews were pronounced enough to make him skeptical of any such thing as a “Jewish community” that currently exists or could come into being as religious observance fades. In his lifetime, the history of persecution had not yet quite replaced Judaism at the center of Western Jewish identity. But his own thoughts on Jewish identity did center on the Holocaust, perhaps inevitably so. “I am a Jew,” he says in a piece discussing the Holocaust, “because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy.” It was the Holocaust that caused Deutscher to unbend toward Zionism, if only slightly. “If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s,” he wrote, “I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have saved some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.” But even here, he is careful to make clear his aversion to any form of Jewish nationalism: “Even now, however, I am not a Zionist.”
The book contains two versions of a famous parable of Israel’s founding in the wake of the Holocaust, a parable that is sometimes all that people remember of Deutscher. In the first telling, from 1954, a man jumps from a burning ship onto a raft. Deutscher’s point is that any nation-state is merely a raft, a temporary solution that should not be turned into a permanent (nationalist) program, as Israel seemed to be doing. In the second telling, from 1967, written in response to the Six-Day War, the man jumps from a burning building and survives, but he lands on a person on the sidewalk below (who stands in, of course, for the Palestinians) and breaks his arms and legs.
“If both behaved rationally,” Deutscher comments, “they would not become enemies.” But rationality does not prevail. “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.”
I don’t imagine that many will be entirely happy with this parable. Still, it offers an interesting alternative to the concept of settler colonialism, and it did not stop Deutscher from remaining sharply critical of Israel, reminding his readers that David Ben-Gurion referred to non-Zionist Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans”—Stalin’s favorite euphemism for the Jewish Bolsheviks and intellectuals he wiped out. Or, in Deutscher’s commentary on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, written two months before his death, that he saw in Israel’s “victory” a prophecy of disaster and in Moshe Dayan a kind of Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, then the preferred tool of the Americans in Vietnam. It also didn’t stop him from criticizing Israel’s collusion with American foreign policy during the Cold War and its refusal to be a neighbor to its neighbors. Israel’s future depended, Deutscher believed, on the ability of the Israelis “to find a common language with the peoples around them.”
Deutscher was not a fanatically consistent voice of principle, but for him this inconsistency became something of a politics. As a historian, he believed that timing always mattered, especially when formulating one’s view of the world. He was faithful to the disarray that he described so well after 1917, when Trotsky adopted Lenin’s positions (such as the need for absolute discipline in the party), and Lenin adopted Trotsky’s (such as the need for the New Economic Policy), and everything was moving too fast for anyone to notice. Politics, for Deutscher, ultimately involved this kind of principled flexibility, a view of political action that understood that one’s commitments and one’s conditions were dependent on each other. Nothing—not even politics—could place itself outside the chaos and uncertainty of history.
As Deutscher wrote in the collection’s final essay, the Holocaust was the one event that transcended historical explanation. By historicizing his internationalism, it changed his mind about his programmatic anti-Zionism, albeit without making him a Zionist. But it did not shake his core conviction that for Jews, as for everyone else, history does not demand the purity of an ethnocentric utopia—or any kind of utopia, for that matter. Instead, history demands of us the harder work of change in the nations we live in and with the neighbors we’ve been given. It also requires a careful attention to timing.