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Isaac Deutscher Edit Profile

historian , journalist , political activist , writer

ISAAC DEUTSCHER was a Marxist historian, journalist and political activist who moved to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of World War II. He is best known as a biographer of Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin and as a commentator on Soviet affairs.

Background

He was brought up in Cracow, Poland, in an Orthodox Jewish household. He earned a name for himself as a child genius and was famed for his great knowledge of the Talmud.

Education

Against his own wishes, his father sent him to the Hasidic rabbi of Ger to study. He was ordained as a rabbi by virtue of his brilliant speech on the occasion of his bar mitzvah.

Career

His first poems, published in Polish literary periodicals when he was sixteen years old, still had strong Jewish ties. He left Cracow for Warsaw at age eighteen, making a gradual transition from poetry to literary criticism, philosophy, and finally Marxism and his ultimate rejection of Judaism.

In 1927 he joined the banned Polish Communist party, soon becoming the chief editor of the clandestine Communist press.

In 1932 he was expelled from the Communist party, ostensibly for “exaggerating the threat of Nazism and spreading panic in the Communist ranks.” This was due to his having formed, upon his return from the Soviet Union, an anti-Stalinist splinter group within the Polish Communist party. His publication of an article entitled “The Danger of Barbarism over Europe" led to his expulsion.

He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934, rejecting a number of academic positions that had been offered to him.

In 1939 Deutscher became the London correspondent for a Polish Jewish newspaper. When the war broke out he was forced to find a way of earning a living in England. He devoted himself to learning English with the same zeal he had applied as a child to his Talmudic studies. His first article in English appeared in The Economist; this marked the beginning of his career in English-language journalism.'He joined the Polish army in Scotland in 1940, but during a large part of his service he was considered a “subversive element” due to his protests against anti-Semitism in the army.

In 1942 he became The Economist’s expert on Soviet affairs and its chief European correspondent. At the same time he wrote for The Observer under the pseudonym “Peregrine.”

Deutscher’s first book on Soviet affairs, "Stalin: A Political Biography" (1949), was widely translated. It was followed by a trilogy on Trotsky, " The Prophet Armed"( 1954), "The Prophet Unarmed" (1959) and "The Prophet Outcast" (1963). Much of the material for his trilogy was gleaned from the closed section of Harvard University’s Trotsky archives, which is to remain closed until the end of the twentieth century, and to which he obtained access by special permission of Trotsky’s widow.

Deutscher died in Rome before he was able to fulfill his ambition to write a biography of Lenin.

Religion

He called himself a “non-Jewish Jew,” and his autobiography, published posthumously, bears that title.

He was opposed to any form of nationalism, viewing it as an historically retrogressive movement. His attitude toward Zionism was no different, although he conceded 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 later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.”

Membership

Member of Polish Communist Party, editor of Communist Press, 1926-1932. Member of editorial staff The Economist, 1942-1949, The Observer, 1942-1947, European Corr.

Personality

His first poems, published in Polish literary periodicals when he was sixteen years old, still had strong Jewish ties. He left Cracow for Warsaw at age eighteen, making a gradual transition from poetry to literary criticism, philosophy, and finally Marxism and his ultimate rejection of Judaism.

Despite being an atheist, 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, a Jewish heretic of the 2nd century CE. But he had little time for specifically Jewish politics. In Warsaw, he joined the Communist Party, not the Jewish Bund, whose "Yiddishist" views he opposed.

His definition of his Jewishness was: "Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. 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, Deutscher opposed Zionism as economically retrograde and harmful to the cause of international socialism, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust he regretted his pre-war views, and argued a case for establishing Israel 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 recognise the dispossession of the Palestinians, and after the Six-Day War of 1967 he demanded that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories. "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."

However, he had already begun to question some of the religious tenets of his forefathers. Of his bar mitzvah ceremony he recalled, “I was putting on an act and I was pleased with the theatrical side of my performance.” His rebellion began one year later with a symbolic act of protest. Accompanied by a friend, he ate a ham sandwich with butter at the graveside of a rabbi on the Day of Atonement. He recalled, “I half hoped and half feared that something terrible would happen... but nothing did.” At the meal marking the end of that day of repentence and fast, he felt remorse at having deceived his parents, but not at having deceived God.