Isaac Deutscher stands out among the early intellectual mentors of the New Left as the only one who expounded classical Marxism. On a mid-1960s “must read” authors list that included C. Wright Mills, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, Deutscher alone stressed class conflict, the progressive movement of history and proletarian revolution. For those of us who were anti-Stalinist Marxists, reading Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy was a rite of passage. It was simultaneously a sympathetic, critical and reflective biography of Trotsky and a full-blown history of the Russian Revolution. In his Trotsky trilogy and other books and articles on Stalin, the contemporary Soviet Union and China, the cold war, Marxism, ex- Communists and Jewish history, Deutscher offered a living Marxism that was both unashamed of its revolutionary commitment and able to grasp historic ironies and tragedies.
Many of us who read Trotsky in study groups trying to puzzle through the “what might have beens” in the Bolshevik Revolution and Communism became practiced at arguing every major turn of Soviet history as we struggled to discover what went wrong. Paradoxically, the tragic story of Trotsky’s rise and fall gave us a profound sense of hope, even as Deutscher showed at every turn the historical logic behind Stalin’s victory and Trotsky’s defeat. After all, Deutscher argued passionately that the logic of history would also demand the fulfillment of socialism’s vision of equality, democracy and workers’ power in an advanced industrial society freed from class rule and the market. Trotsky embodied the “good” Communism, destroyed by Stalin, that became a revolutionary inspiration for many in the New Left.
It is impossible to read Deutscher’s Trotsky biography today without being struck by how remote these hopes now seem. The Soviet Union is gone, and revolutionary projects aiming at human emancipation seem to have exhausted themselves. In a world reconfigured by Islamist terrorism and the “war on terror,” dreams of social justice are no longer propelled by mass social movements of the secular left. So how does one read Deutscher, for whom being a Marxist historian and political mentor were one and the same?
Deutscher was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Galicia, Poland, in 1907. A brilliant student of Torah and Talmud, he had already ceased to be a believer by the time of his bar mitzvah. He was soon publishing Polish and Yiddish poetry and translating poetry into Polish. At university in Krakow and then Warsaw, Deutscher studied literature, philosophy, history and economics, and became a Marxist. After joining the banned Polish Communist Party he soon became chief editor of its press. “For years,” he wrote, “I was busy editing literary journals, writing political commentaries, illegal manifestoes, conducting as a soldier underground propaganda in Pilsudski’s army, and all the time dodging the gendarmerie and the political police.”
He traveled in 1931 to the Soviet Union, where he declined a position teaching socialist history and Marxist theory at Moscow University. Organizing an anti-Stalinist opposition upon his return to Poland, Deutscher was expelled from the party. In 1938 he wrote the Polish Trotskyists’ statement urging their comrades not to initiate the Fourth International prematurely, which led to his break with organized Trotskyism. A journalist in London at the outbreak of World War II, he immersed himself in English in order to write for British publications, notably The Economist. His first book, Stalin: A Political Biography, appeared in 1949, and his Trotsky trilogy was published between 1954 and 1963. Irving Howe criticized its Marxism, while the British Trotskyist Tony Cliff accused him of “capitulation to Stalinism.” Deutscher spoke at one of the first great anti-Vietnam War teach-ins, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. At the height of his powers and renown, Isaac Deutscher died suddenly at 60 in 1967.