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Isaac Deutscher

Isaac Deutscher
Born (1907-04-03)3 April 1907
Chrzanów, Galicia, Austria-Hungary
(today Poland)
Died 19 August 1967(1967-08-19) (aged 60)
Rome, Italy
Nationality Polish
Ethnicity Jewish
Occupation Historian, biographer
Known for Studies in Soviet history; biographies of Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin
Spouse(s) Tamara Deutscher

Isaac Deutscher (3 April 1907 – 19 August 1967) was a Polish writer, 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. His three-volume biography of Trotsky, in particular, was highly influential among the British New Left.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Move to Britain and journalism (1939–47) 2
  • Biographer and academic (1948–1967) 3
  • In relation to Judaism and Zionism 4
  • Selected works 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Sources 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Deutscher was born in Chrzanów, a town in the Galicia region of Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a family of religiously observant Jews. He studied with a Hasidic rebbe and was acclaimed as a prodigy in the study of the Torah and the Talmud. By the time of his bar mitzvah, however, he had lost his faith. He "tested God" by eating non-kosher food at the grave of a tzadik (holy person) on Yom Kippur. When nothing happened, he became an atheist.

Deutscher first attracted notice as a poet, when at 16 he began publishing poems in Polish literary periodicals. His verse, in Yiddish and Polish, concerned Jewish and Polish mysticism, history and mythology, and he attempted to bridge the gulf between Polish and Yiddish culture. He also translated poetry from Hebrew, Latin, German, and Yiddish into Polish.

Deutscher studied literature, history, and philosophy as an extramural student at the Jagellonian University in Kraków.[2] At 18 he left Kraków for Warsaw, where he studied philosophy and economics and became a Marxist. Around 1927, he joined the illegal Communist Party of Poland (KPP) and became the editor of the party's underground press.[2] In 1931, he toured the Soviet Union, 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.[2] 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."[2] This contradicted the then official Communist line, which saw social democrats as "social fascists", 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 against Nazism. Deutscher was expelled from the party for "exaggerat[ing] the danger of Nazism and ... spreading panic in the Communist ranks."[2]

Move to Britain and journalism (1939–47)

In April 1939, Deutscher left Poland for London as a correspondent for a Polish-Jewish newspaper for which he had worked as a proof reader for fourteen years.[2] 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 occupied Poland in September 1939, and his connection with his newspaper was severed, he taught himself English and began writing for English magazines.[2] He was soon a regular correspondent for the leading weekly The Economist.[2] In 1940 he joined the Polish Army in Scotland, but was interned as a dangerous subversive.[2] 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.[2] He also wrote for The Observer as a roving European correspondent under the pen-name "Peregrine".[2]

He left journalism in 1946–47 to write books.[2] Deutscher's name (with the remark "Sympathiser only") subsequently appeared on Information Research Department, 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.[3]

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 in the Soviet Union, even if it was, in Deutscher's view, a perversion of the vision of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.

The Stalin biography made Deutscher a leading authority on Soviet affairs and the Russian Revolution. 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. Much of the material contained in the third volume was previously unknown, since Trotsky's widow, Natalia Sedova, gave him access to the closed section of the Archives. British Prime Minister Tony Blair 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."[4] 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.[5] As later revealed, when he was asked to evaluate the academic credentials of Deutscher, Isaiah Berlin argued against such a promotion, because of the profoundly pro-communist militancy of the candidate.[6]

In the 1960s, the upsurge of left-wing sentiment that accompanied the G. M. Trevelyan Lecturer at Cambridge University for 1966–67,[2] and also lectured for six weeks at the State University of New York.[2] In spring 1967 he guest lectured at New York University, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia.[2] 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, is awarded annually to a book "which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition". Isaac Deutscher made the distinction between classical Marxism and vulgar Marxism.[7]

In relation to Judaism and Zionism

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."[8]

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."[9]

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."[10]

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, London: OUP, 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) (London:Cape, 1972)
  • Marxism, Wars, and Revolutions: essays from four decades (Edited by Tamara Deutscher) (1984)

See also


  1. ^ Neil Davidson, "The prophet, his biographer and the watchtower", International Socialism 104, 2004
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Tamara Deutscher (1968), "Isaac Deutscher 1907 – 1967", Preface to The Non-Jewish Jew & Other Essays
  3. ^ "Orwell's List" by Timothy Garton Ash. The New York Review of Books Volume 50, Number 14. 25 September 2003
  4. ^ Cahal Milmo, The Independent, 3 March 2006, "Blair reveals an unexpected influence: Trotsky"
  5. ^ M Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (London, 1998), pp 93, 235; cited in Neil Davidson, "The prophet, his biographer and the watchtower", International Socialism 104, 2004
  6. ^ For this incident, see David Caute, Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013).
  7. ^
  8. ^ Deutscher, Isaac. "Who is a Jew?" In The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays. Tamara Deutscher, ed. and Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. P. 51.
  9. ^ Deutscher, Isaac. An Interview: On the Israeli-Arab War. New Left Review I/44 (July–August 1967): 30–45.
  10. ^ Deutscher, Isaac. The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays. London: Oxford University Press, pp 136–137


  • Cliff, Tony, "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 "Issac Deutscher: Historian, Prophet, Biographer" pages 33–03 from Survey, Volume 30, Issue # 1–2, March 1988.
  • Laqueur, Walter 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

  • Isaac Deutscher Archive at
  • "Russia in transition", Universities & Left Review, 1957
  • "The Failure of Khrushchevism", Socialist Register, 1965
  • "Maoism-Its Origins, Background and Outlook", Socialist Register, 1964
  • "Marxism in Our Time" A Lecture given in 1965
  • "The Tragedy of the Polish Communist Party", Socialist Register, 1982
  • The Lubitz TrotskyanaNet provides a biographical sketch and a selective bibliography of Isaac Deutscher
  • Isaac Deutscher Speaks! (English) "I still believe!": Berkeley Anti-war Teach-in, 1965 — this is a YouTube recording of Deutscher's speech at this event (audio only)
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