Theodor Bergmann 1999

Rosa Luxemburg and Isaac Deutscher: Two Jewish Communist Heretics

Source: New Interventions, Volume 9, no 3, Autumn 1999. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

‘He who wants to reach the spring, must swim against the stream.’ This Japanese proverb could be written as a symbol of the life and death of two non-dogmatic Marxists and revolutionaries. These two people do not fit into the framework of present-day bourgeois historiography, which equates Stalinism and communism, and claims the responsibility of Marx and Marxism for all the errors and crimes committed in the name of communism. It seems to me that the heretics in a large movement who speak their mind fearlessly are much more important and useful than the yes-men, who only applaud the rulers of the moment. There are many analogies between these two heretics in communism who are analysed here, a line of tradition of critical solidarity goes from Rosa Luxemburg to Isaac Deutscher, and continues further from him too. There is also, however, at least one clear difference. When Isaac Deutscher is dealt with in the second part of this paper, Tamara Deutscher should be not forgotten.

Main Elements of Luxemburg’s Thought

Luxemburg stands in the first row of the great creative theoreticians of Marxism. She elaborated ideas which correspond to the actual strategic and tactical problems of the socialist movement. For her, Marxism was not a closed system, rather it was a tool for analysis, a means for independent thinking, and an open philosophy of life, which cannot deliver ready-made replies and recipes for all times and places. Her principle was:

Marxism is a living revolutionary philosophy, which must strive steadily for new perceptions, and which above all abhors the torpidity of static forms; a philosophy that best authenticates its living power in the clash of weapons of self-criticism, and in the thunder storms of history. [1]

Of her works concerning the strategy of the German labour movement, the following seem to be particularly relevant and thought-provoking.

Against Reformism, For Democratic Communism

From the start of her activities in the German Social Democratic Party, she fought against the revisionism that permeated all areas of the movement. She opposed socialists joining bourgeois governments and voting for the state budget, and criticised any overestimation of the significance of reforms and of success in trade union struggles, and she advocated the mass strike. In spite of her pugnacious fighting spirit at congresses of the party and the Socialist International, at mass meetings, during election campaigns and in her letters to Clara Zetkin, she saw very clearly that reformism was making gains in the unions and in the party, and that merely amending congress resolutions was of little value. She fought for democratic election laws, but at the same time she refuted her comrades’ overestimation of the value of parliamentary activities, because she recognised that these comrades were being integrated into the bourgeois state. Luxemburg saw no contradiction between work in parliament and the class struggle outwith it; they complemented each other. Against the inertia of the apparatus, she looked to the fighting spirit of the working class, whose spontaneity she had seen in the Russian revolution of 1905.

For Luxemburg, the strategic task of communists was to win over the majority of the working class, which still was under the influence of reformism which dominated both ideology and organisation. This winning of this majority was the decisive prerequisite for the victory of the revolution in Germany. The long-term task of persuasion was to be carried out through election campaigns and participation in elections, in the daily struggle of the trade unions, in the fight for reforms, and in political education. She dedicated a large part of her work to education, as it helped workers better to understand their experience of the daily class struggle. Workers’ education and the class struggle were for her the main factors which finally would lead the workers into a revolutionary challenge to the bounds of the capitalist state.

Consistent Internationalism

Economic studies, theoretical perception and her own personal experiences led Luxemburg to become a consistent internationalist, the most resolute opponent of German militarism and imperialism. Long before 1914, she lashed out in public against the armaments, expansionist objectives and abuses of the Prussian-German military establishment. She thus became the leading figure in the struggle against war and war-mongers, and particularly those in her own party. Since she knew intimately the leadership of the party and the trade unions, their decision in July 1914 to join the war lobby should not have taken her by surprise. But she had not expected such a fast and open mockery of the hallowed resolutions for which they had voted at the Socialist Internationals’ congresses in Stuttgart in 1907 and Basle in 1912, and their entirely undemocratic ignoring of the will of the membership. Her early reaction is known: shock, deep depression and thoughts of suicide.

The gulf between the two main currents in the SPD was further deepened by the events of August 1914. The theoretical and political separation had to be followed sooner or later by a split within the organisation. Very soon the old fighting spirit took hold again. Luxemburg became the theoretical leader and the driving motor of the Marxist current, and therefore also became the main target of state persecution. Although she was in jail during most of the four years of the First World War, she was able – largely due to the support of Mathilde Jacob – to contribute substantially to the formation and strengthening of the Marxist left.

Critical Solidarity with the October Revolution

Luxemburg was still in jail in October 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power. Her clear position can be summarised as follows:

1: Sympathy and enthusiasm for the successful revolution, which rang in the end of international mass murder.

2: Concern about the effects of isolation for the internal development of Russia, particularly in respect of socialist democracy.

3: Solidarity with the Russian working class, the isolation of which had to be overcome by the German revolution. An appeal to the German workers to free the Russian Revolution from capitalist encirclement.

4: Criticism of the SPD leadership for its policy against party dissidents and continued support of German imperialism, which was responsible for the isolation of Russia.

Luxemburg criticised the Bolsheviks’ organisational principles, although she understood how they arose with their need to work in clandestinity, the Okhrana’s persecution, and the illiteracy of the young industrial proletariat. She analysed the danger to proletarian democracy in both the Bolshevik party and the Soviet state. She rejected the Bolsheviks’ methods as unsuitable for the labour movement with its democratic experience and constitution in highly-developed industrial societies. At different junctures, she outlined her model of working-class spontaneity and initiative from below. After all her criticisms, however, she clearly and unambiguously declared her solidarity with the Russian Revolution. The last words of her booklet on the revolution, written in jail, are:

This [to have staged the revolution] is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’. [2]

The anti-communists who otherwise are so eager to quote Luxemburg don’t ever cite these sentences. Solidarity and criticism are inextricably interlinked for Luxemburg. She understood that it would have been harmful for revolutionaries both within and outwith the Soviet republic if one desisted from criticising and warning whenever negative developments were in the offing, as it would imply foregoing one’s sovereignty, showing submission and thus repudiating independent revolutionary activity, which is no proof of genuine friendship.

The booklet about the Russian Revolution is amongst the works which proved to be strongly controversial in the communist movement. It was used in factional struggles, and for a long time it was hushed up in the German Communist Party. It was officially published for the first time in 1974 – 56 years after it was written! Today we know that most of the leading comrades of the left of that time shared Luxemburg’s misgivings, but they shied away from publishing them, because they wanted to avoid providing grist for the capitalist propaganda mills. The controversy about this booklet cannot be dealt with here, as neither can her economic works, although these are closely related to her strategic positions.

Brief Freedom

The revolution of November 1918 liberated Luxemburg from jail. But only a few weeks were left, which she devoted entirely to the rebuilding of the Marxist left. Of the positions which she adopted in that period, the following must be mentioned. At the founding conference of the German Communist Party, she implored the impatient revolutionary delegates to participate in the elections for the German National Assembly, but her advice was rejected. She emphasised that it was necessary to win the majority of the German working class for communism before the revolution. She opposed the founding of a new revolutionary International at that juncture, because she anticipated that there would be an imbalance amongst the affiliating parties and an inevitable dominance of the Russian comrades.

The Jewess

Rosa Luxemburg never denied her origins in a family of Jewish rationalists in the town of Zamosc in south-eastern Poland. But the Jewish issue stood on the fringe of her interests and concerns. Like almost all Marxists of her time, she thought that socialism would solve all national problems, and thus solve the Jewish question and put an end to the omnipresent persecution of the Jews. All oppressed and persecuted people on earth, irrespective of their nationality, were equally close to her heart. [3]

When one considers the legacy of Luxemburg, one must mention the circle of her political friends Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Franz and Eva Mehring, Moritz, August and Bertha Thalheimer, Hermann and Kate Duncker, Wilhelm Pieck and Friedrich Westmeyer, to mention just a few.

Isaac Deutscher – The Outsider

Isaac Deutscher, the second heretic to be analysed here, had the courage and the power to be an outsider. He was a communist (albeit mostly without a membership card), a non-dogmatic Marxist, a critical admirer of Leon Trotsky who was shunned by those who have pledged eternal fealty to him, a non-Jewish Jew, an unpatriotic fellow. The Stalinists called him a Western agent, the Trotskyists called him an apologist of Stalinism. He was an historian who published several great enduring works, a political writer, a journalist who commented on current events and who sometimes erred. Ten years after Stalin’s death, he declared in self-criticism:

I confess honestly that I have erred in one point – 10 years ago I expected that today there would be more political freedom... I had expected that an open political debate would be possible in Russia at this point in time. [4]

At certain times when the socialist movement came to a standstill, the revolutionary retreated into the watch-tower, only to rejoin the struggle as soon as the socialist movement began to move again and he was needed. His status reminds us of Albert Einstein’s ironical anecdote. When was asked about his nationality, Einstein replied that there were two alternatives. Should his theory prove right, the Germans would claim him as German, the Americans as an American, and the French would say that he was a cosmopolitan, that he belongs to all of us. If, however, his theories prove wrong, the Germans would call him a Jew, the French would call him a German, and the Americans would call him a communist.

Becoming an Anti-Stalinist

Already in his youth, Deutscher had left the pious atmosphere of his Orthodox Jewish parents’ home, and joined the socialist movement. When he was 20, he joined the Polish Communist Party. He edited a socialist journal in Yiddish, and contributed to the communist press. In 1931-32, an opposition emerged in the party against the slogans of ‘social fascism’, the ‘united front from below’, etc, and the inner-party regime led to the rise of the demand for the self-determination for the Polish party and to a critical attitude towards the regime in both the Communist International and the Soviet Communist Party. [5] Thus, the problems were similar to those in the German Communist Party, which pushed many members into opposition against the international turn to an ultra-left strategy. In 1932, Deutscher was expelled from the party because he recognised the seriousness of the fascist threat. The reason given for his expulsion was that ‘he exaggerated the Nazi danger and spread panic in the communist ranks’. [6] In April 1939, he left Poland and went to England as correspondent for a Polish newspaper. When the war broke out, he did not hesitate to criticise Stalin’s foreign policy and war aims from a socialist position:

His conduct was not more reprehensible than that of any other leader of a great power holding fast to or seizing strategic bases. But in appearance it was more odious, because it contrasted so sharply with the principles he professed, and because he resorted to such crude tricks to cover up that contrast. [7]

Deutscher also condemned Stalin for being so unprepared in 1941 when the fascists invaded the USSR. Stalin had ignored all warnings about the impending German attack. But he also recognised the difference between Stalin’s strategy after the war and the strategy of the capitalist powers:

True, this was a revolution brought on the points of bayonets, a revolution achieved by barbarous means in an atmosphere of a bizarre mixture of socialism and Asiatic methods. But a revolution brought on bayonets and carried out by barbaric means is still a revolution... [8]

From World War to Cold War

After the end of the war, he travelled several times with his wife Tamara over the war-ravaged continent. In his eyewitness accounts, he gave a Marxist analysis of the problems facing postwar Europe. He was glad that German fascism had been defeated, but he remained critical about the effects of this victory and the methods of the victors. On the one hand, he positively regarded the expansion of Russia as a revolution, but, on the other, he condemned it as an occupation which trampled rough-shod over the right of self-determination of the proletariats of the occupied countries, and thus offended and intensified their national feelings. He was equally critical of the capitalist Allies, which promoted the restoration of capitalism. As an internationalist, he protested against the expulsion and resettlement of German peasants and workers: ‘No doubt the Germans deserved punishment, but not by this type of torture. If Poles and Czechs want to be held in higher esteem for their civilisation than the Nazis, they will immediately call off the expulsions.’ [9]

When Churchill rang in the Cold War with his speech in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946, Deutscher retreated from journalism, as he felt that his freedom as a socialist writer would be heavily circumscribed in the leading bourgeois journals, and he wanted to avoid being corrupted. Instead, he started his great historical research. With hindsight, he wrote in 1965 about the Cold War:

It has often been said that in war truth is the first victim. In Cold War, the truth without which men cannot lead any purposeful and fruitful existence is the main and total victim as it has never been before. And the weapons designed to crush and reduce to ashes the human mind are as potent as any of the weapons designed for physical destruction. And in yet another decisive respect, the Cold War has already given us the foretaste of the fully-fledged nuclear war: its fall-out cannot be confined to enemy territory; it hits our own lands, it even hits primarily our own lands and our own people, it contaminates the moral texture, it destroys and warps the thinking processes of the popular masses in our countries, in all the countries engaged in waging the Cold War. [10]

Even the Marxist heretic lived in his time, and was influenced in his work by the dominant trends – the Zeitgeist – in one or the other direction. In the introduction to the second edition of his biography of Stalin, he wrote:

When I began planning the work, the public and the press in this country [Britain] had not yet quite recovered from their wartime adulation of Stalin; when I was putting the finishing touches to it, the airlift to Berlin roared on and Stalin was the villain of the Cold War. These violent changes in the political climate did not, I think, affect my treatment of Stalin. I had never been a devotee of the Stalin cult, and the Cold War was not my war. [11]

In the postscript to the 1966 edition of Stalin, Deutscher confessed that he would have placed a different stress in his book, were he to write it again. On the whole, the 1966 postscript was less friendly and harsher in its criticism of Stalin.

The Trotsky Trilogy

After his Stalin and a large essay, ‘Russia after Stalin’, in which he expressed his hope for political reform after Stalin’s death, he began a biography of Trotsky. For this purpose he planned to visit the Trotsky archives in Harvard and the archive of pre-revolutionary Russian publications in the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Two difficulties arose. The ‘Trotskyists’ considered him as an enemy of their Trotsky and as an apologist for Stalin. They tried to persuade Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s widow, to prevent him from working in the archives. Deutscher succeeded to obtain Sedova’s permission. Later, an understanding and friendship between them materialised. The second hurdle was set by the US authorities, which were then in the throes of the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism. Communist researchers were undesirable, and former members of the communist parties were asked to profess their anti-communism in writing, and to abjure Marxism. Deutscher did not want to do that. Finally, he formulated this declaration:

It is true... that at the age of 19 I could not have known anything about the uglier features of the Communist Party. But I do not want to plead this circumstance... I do not regret my joining the Communist Party, nor do I want to give even the vaguest impression of regret, for I acted as I did from honest conviction. I still think that the experience of my association with the Communist Party was on the whole a valuable one for my own mental development and further work. One reason for my strong opposition to the Communist Party has been disgust with the practice of recantations in its ranks. This disgust has remained very strong with me, and it applies to all sorts of recantations by whomever and for whatever reasons they may be required. [12]

The Trotsky biography became a huge work in three volumes. The human tragedy of the real Trotsky was presented as a drama in three acts: the prophet armed, the prophet unarmed, the prophet outcast, altogether about 1500 pages. Both from the point of view of science and literary style, it remains a masterpiece. Deutscher admired the great revolutionary, the organiser of the Red Army, the victor of the Civil War, the outstanding writer. At the same time, there was on Deutscher’s part sufficient historical and academic distance from his hero, to describe critically Trotsky’s errors and human weaknesses. After the brutal and criminal murder by a Stalinist assassin, and after the victory of the Red Army over fascism, which Stalin claimed for himself, Deutscher rediscovered Trotsky for a new generation. He rescued him from the past and from oblivion. Deutscher wrote about his Trotsky trilogy:

My account of Trotsky’s role in the Russian revolution will come as a surprise to some. For nearly 30 years the powerful propaganda machines of Stalinism worked furiously to expunge Trotsky’s name from the annals of the revolution, or to leave it there only as the synonym for arch-traitor. To the present Soviet generation, and not only to it, Trotsky’s life-story is already like an ancient Egyptian sepulchre which is known to have contained the body of a great man and the record, engraved in gold, of his deeds; but tomb-robbers and ghouls have plundered and left it so empty and desolate that no trace is found of the record it once contained. The work of the tomb-robbers has, in the present instance, been so persistent that it has strongly affected the views even of independent Western historians and scholars. [13]

The Soviet Union After Stalin

Time and again, Deutscher dealt with the future of the USSR and the perspectives of its development after Stalin’s death. His general position was optimistic. He saw Stalinism and its methods as historically obsolete, inadequate for the mature Soviet Union. In 1949, he declared the police state as an anachronism, because it had become a barrier to further development, and that for the post-Stalin era, the most important task was the separation of the revolution from the police state. However, when after Stalin’s death de-Stalinisation finally became the order of the day, Deutscher initially did not take a clear distinction between Stalin’s followers and the reformers. He saw in Khrushchev a man, who ‘no doubt led the true followers of Stalin in their attack on Malenkov’, and continued:

Every step in Khrushchev’s rise has been accompanied by an attempt to galvanise the Stalin cult and to restore Stalin’s political methods. Even his ascendancy looks like a deliberate repetition of Stalin’s rise to power from the obscure inner recesses of the general secretariat of the party. [14]

Deutscher’s judgement upon Khrushchev, written one year before the Soviet communist party’s twentieth congress and Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ seems wrong and unfair, and was invalidated by subsequent developments.

The Socialist Revival

Deutscher was often torn between his desire for scientific analysis of the great problems of the revolutionary movement, and the temptation to join its struggles and to offer his personal contribution to its renewal. Thus he supported the new socialist periodical, the New Left Review, participated in Bertrand Russell’s tribunal against US intervention in Vietnam, supported the student movement when it started in the USA in 1965-66. This meant that his biography of Lenin was destined to remain but a fragment. His basic optimism about the socialist movement and the unfinished mission of the proletariat compelled him time and again to join in the struggle. He recognised the harmful effects of the Stalin era on the theory and practice of the socialist movement, but he was sure about the task of Marxists:

Marxists in the West need not resign themselves to wait at the end of the queue for the fulfilment of a historical promise. They have to work for the rehabilitation of their school of thoughts and to raise the level of socialist consciousness in the labour movement. [15]

During his lecture tour in the USA in early 1966, he criticised in a lecture to radical students in Berkeley the Soviet slogans of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism and about ‘peaceful coexistence’. The latter might be valid for ruling communist parties, but not for the class struggle in capitalist countries. He called on the students not to ignore the sleeping giant of the American labour movement, if they aimed at broadening the basis of the movement. Unity with this giant was necessary if the movement were to be led to success:

But when I say go to the working class, I do not mean you should turn to the bureaucrats of your trade unions... who are part of the capitalist-imperialist establishment... Go rather to the young worker, who is not corrupted, who takes the world of electronics and television sets as a matter of course, and definitely feels that, in spite of all that, he is an oppressed, alienated and exploited creature. Turn to the young worker, appeal to him, bring socialism to him! [16]

With this call he contradicted the Marxist Herbert Marcuse, who was very popular amongst radical US students at the time, and who opined that the working class had lost its historical mission and had become bourgeois.

In this lecture, Deutscher also discussed the character of the Soviet Union. He did not believe that the ‘new socialist man’ had emerged there and that he was dominating the social scene. For Deutscher, the Soviet Union was not a socialist society, rather it was a society in transition:

Although in recent years the conditions have been greatly mitigated, the poverty, the inequality, the lack of political and intellectual freedom and the bureaucratic terror are still there... Consequently the Soviet Union is even today a transitory society, finding itself some way between capitalism and socialism, combining features of the one and of the other, and showing marks even of its more primitive pre-capitalist heritage. [17]

Last Thoughts on De-Stalinisation

In 1967, the final year of his life, he gave a series of lectures in Cambridge, which appeared after his death under the title of The Unfinished Revolution. In these six lectures, Deutscher analysed the Russian Revolution and its consequences, and professed his hope for the success of de-Stalinisation, which would lead to socialist democracy and thereby complete the great process of transformation that began in 1917. He also openly and radically criticised the deficiencies of Soviet development. And he saw a socialist future:

Socialism has still some decisive revolutionary act to perform in the West as well as in the East, and nowhere will history come to a close. The East has been the first to give effect to the great principle of a new social organisation, the principle originally conceived in the West. Fifty years of Soviet history tell us what stupendous progress a backward nation has achieved by applying that principle, even in the most adverse conditions. By this alone these years point to the limitless new horizons that Western society can open for itself and to the world if only it frees itself from its conservative fetishes. [18]

By now, Deutscher was more sceptical about the prospects for de-Stalinisation. It was so far only partial, indeed, almost a failure. Eastern Europe was still Stalinist. The bureaucrat continued to rule: ‘The ideological edifice of Stalinism has been exploded, but, with its foundations shattered, its roof blown off, and its walls charred and threatening to come down with a crash, the structure still stands, and the people are required to live in it.’ [19] A short time after this analysis, which was outstanding both in content and style, Deutscher suddenly passed away on 19 August 1967 during a trip to Italy.

Luxemburg and Deutscher

I have tried to sketch out the thinking of Rosa Luxemburg and Isaac Deutscher. How do we see today the position of these two outsiders, Jewish communists, heretics beyond the bounds of all camps? I will summarise their thinking in six points.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Deutscher was the most important Western Marxist of the post-1945 period, as Luxemburg was one of the most important after the turn of the century up to her death in 1919. For both of them, Marxism was no bible, canon or book of recipes for class struggle; it was rather an excellent, authenticated instrument of analyses which might help to understand the actual situation and to elaborate the appropriate strategies for the class struggle. Deutscher wrote about his Marxism:

Marxism has become part of my existence... Naturally, I am a Marxist. The critics, who say I am unable to learn, are mostly persons who once were well taught by Stalin, and later became anti-communists. I was not taught by Stalin, by Khrushchev, or by Mao Zedong, and definitely not by Western anti-communism. For me Marxism is no infallible theory – such a thing cannot exist. But as a conception of the world and as a method of thinking, I don’t think that Marxism is any way antiquated or outmoded. [20]

As we have seen, Luxemburg defined her position in a similar way.

Secondly, Deutscher’s main sin in the eye of the true guardians of Leon Trotsky’s thoughts was that he tried to dissuade Trotsky from founding the Fourth International. Deutscher understood that none of the preconditions for it existed – and he was right. He did not believe in a renaissance of orthodox Trotskyism. Writing to Alfred Rosmer in May 1954, he said:

It is extremely difficult ‘to believe’ in a revival of a revolutionary labour movement on the basis of Trotskyism, or of the first four congresses of the Comintern plus the later additions by Trotsky. In spite of that I think that by method and spirit I am much closer to Trotsky than most of his confessing followers. [21]

Luxemburg’s position can be defined in a similar way. Once Stalin discovered the threat of ‘Luxemburgism’, her standing within the Stalinist parties declined rapidly. Although Stalin was called ‘the Lenin of our time’ by his underlings, there is no doubt that notwithstanding all their controversies, Lenin saw Luxemburg as ‘an eagle’, and she was intellectually much closer to Lenin than Stalin had ever been.

Thirdly, Deutscher made a clear distinction between heretics in communism and renegades from communism. Renegades had largely been uncritical, enthusiastic, almost believing followers of ‘really existing communism’, that is, of Stalinism or Maoism. They were entirely unprepared for the reality of Soviet or Chinese society, they were disappointed and become anti-communist. The renegade:

... is an inverted Stalinist. He continues to see the world in white and black, but now the colours are differently distributed. As a communist he saw no difference between fascists and social democrats. As an anti-communist he sees no difference between Nazism and communism. Once he accepted the party’s claim to infallibility, now he believes himself to be infallible. Having once been caught by the ‘greatest illusion’, he is now obsessed by the greatest disillusionment of our time. [22]

Quite the contrary with the heretic, he remains a Marxist and a revolutionary, and tries to learn from the inevitable mistakes, unavoidable errors and crimes that cannot be excused. His criticism is open – even at the price of threatened excommunication. Deutscher strongly advised the heretics not to join the anti-communist camp, rather to retire for a time:

It seems that the only dignified attitude the intellectual ex-communist can take is to rise au-dessus de la mêlée. He cannot join the Stalinist camp or the anti-Stalinist Holy Alliance without doing violence to his better self. So let him stand outside any camp. [23]

Fourthly, Deutscher observed the national and international split of communism into different directions, nationally into rightists, ultra-leftists, conciliators, etc, and on the international level into the Soviet and Chinese camps, and the smaller states (Yugoslavia, Cuba, Vietnam, Romania) and parties between them. He understood this as historically necessary and rational, as a step away from Stalin’s simple monolithism towards Marxist pluralism and lively variety: ‘Everybody who understands the course of historical development must recognise that the recrudescence of splits is natural and inevitable. It is a sign of vitality, not of morbidity. It corresponds to the natural rhythm of history.’ [24] The start of a free and honest debate without taboos and anathemas was for him the only way to create a new unity of communism on a higher level. Deutscher advised the Western Marxists to maintain their distance and independence from the quarrelling camps of communism:

We communists and socialists in the West should consider it our task to identify neither with the Russians nor with the Chinese; it is clear that the actual positions of both sides cannot please anyone who has grown up in the Marxist school of thought and who has the interests of socialism in the developed capitalist societies at heart. We should maintain an independent position. [25]

Deutscher hoped that a process of de-Maoisation, analogous to de-Stalinisation, was on the order of the day in China: ‘No doubt, one day China will grow out of these crude forms of ritualistic ideology, as the USSR is growing out of them.’ [26] He believed that sooner or later the objective logic of the situation would drive the USSR and China into a united front. On the first point, Deutscher was right; on the second the leadership of both the Chinese and Soviet communist parties were too late.

Fifthly, Deutscher remained a revolutionary internationalist, just like Rosa Luxemburg. Although he supported the liberation struggle of the colonial nations, he maintained his own position as he saw nationalist forces active within the liberation movements. He explained his attitude towards the Algerian independence struggle:

I am not sure whether it is right that a French Marxist identifies fully, without any reservation, with the policy of the FLN. Naturally, it is the duty of every French Marxist and of all leftists to defend the Algerians’ right of self-determination. But even in this issue we cannot act without class criteria. Before one offers unconditional support to the FLN, the question must be asked: What is the class character of the FLN? ... Therefore, it is also the duty of a Marxist to maintain his own position in a united front (with the FLN) and to maintain a critical position vis-à-vis his allies, in this case nationalist allies. [27]

In the controversy with Lenin over the national question, Luxemburg took a similar position, gave priority to class issues over national ones, and demanded to know the class character of a national independence movement.

Sixthly, being Jewish communists, Deutscher and Luxemburg were confronted with the Jewish question. Here we find a remarkable difference between them. In February 1917, she wrote to Mathilde Wurm, one of her best friends:

What do you want with the particular Jewish pains? To me the poor victims of the rubber plantations in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa, with whose bodies Europeans play ball, are equally close... I have no special corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel at home in the whole world, where there are clouds and birds and human tears. [28]

Deutscher had to define his own attitude to the Jewish question in the labour movement and his position in the Middle East conflict. He conceived of himself as a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ – this is the title of an essay written in 1958. Thus he professed his origin, but saw himself as an internationalist. However, he did not shy away from the Jewish question. Luxemburg, too, might have been called a ‘non-Jewish Jewess’. But two important developments of entirely different content and entirely different impact upon our century of extremes, after Luxemburg’s death, compelled Deutscher repeatedly to define his attitude to the question. One was the planned, systematic, mechanised annihilation of six million Jews in many European countries by German fascism. The other was Stalin’s anti-Semitism. Socialists had earlier accepted the axiom that socialism would solve all national issues, including the Jewish question. But cruel brutality has taught us a bitter lesson. Deutscher thus recognised the Jewish people’s historical title to their own state, but he remained critical about the policies of the Israeli government. On 19 September 1953, he wrote to David Astor: ‘Millions of murdered Jews give the state of Israel a convincing, though only a negative title (justification).’ [29] And on 15 February 1958, he wrote to Jon Kimche: ‘As I emphasised explicitly, nobody is entitled to blame the Jews because of the foundation of their state, Israel is the product of Hitler’s gas chambers.’ [30] He sought a new attitude towards Zionism:

Naturally, I repudiated my anti-Zionism long ago, which was based on my trust in the European labour movement, or, more generally, on my trust in European society and civilisation, because this society and this civilisation have given the lie to that. If in the 1920s and 1930s I had called upon the European Jews to go to Palestine instead of opposing Zionism, I might have helped to save a few human lives which later were annihilated in Hitler’s gas chambers. For the remnants of European Jewry – really only for them? – the Jewish state has become an historical necessity. Furthermore, it is a living reality... Nevertheless, today I am no Zionist. [31]

Deutscher had another angle on the Jewish question. Deutscher was proud of the contribution of outstanding Jews to human culture and the socialist movement. He asked why so many Jews had shown such outstanding qualities, and why so many became revolutionaries. He rejected the idea of a particular ‘Jewish genius’, but considered that as Jews lived on the margins of their societies – anti-Semites see them as noxious outsiders, and seek to marginalise them within society – they were able to rise in their thinking above their society, above their nation, above their time and generation, and open up new horizons, and push forward intellectually far into the future. He said of the radical Jewish thinkers:

All these thinkers and revolutionaries have had certain philosophical principles in common... Finally, all these men, from Spinoza to Freud, believed in the ultimate solidarity of man... These ‘non-Jewish Jews’ were essentially optimists; and their optimism reached heights which it is not easy to ascend in our times. They did not imagine that it would be possible for ‘civilised’ Europe in the twentieth century to sink to a depth of barbarity at which the mere words ‘solidarity of man’ would sound as a perverse mockery to Jewish ears. [32]

The difference between our two Jewish heretics resulted from the different epochs of their life and activities. There was anti-Semitism during the rise of capitalism, but there was the hope of a slow assimilation and integration of people of different origin and creed. German fascism, however, raised anti-Semitism to a new level, or, to put it better, plumbed the very depths of barbarism. One of the early victims of this barbarism was Rosa Luxemburg.

No doubt that both Luxemburg and Deutscher made errors in some of their daily analyses of events. That is inevitable in the task of writing large numbers of articles about new events in a situation in which background information is obscured. Luxemburg and Deutscher belong to those erring Marxists and revolutionaries who were critical towards themselves, recognised their errors, and tried to correct them as early as possible.

Deutscher’s Comrades

Some of Deutscher’s errors were mentioned above. It seems more important to say a few words about two people very close to Deutscher. The circle of Luxemburg’s friends and comrades is known from historical research and from her correspondence, published in six volumes.

When Heinrich Brandler wanted to return to Germany after the end of the Second World War, he was obliged to stay for two years in London. He got to know Isaac and Tamara Deutscher, and an intensive exchange of views and a close friendship developed, which ended with the death of the two men in 1967. Although they lived far apart after 1949, Brandler in Hamburg, Deutscher in London, their correspondence, published by Hermann Weber under the title Independent Communists, is a moving document of intellectual and personal closeness. [33]

Tamara Deutscher later remembered their long debates until late in the night, and how a cordial bond of mutual respect, admiration and affection between the two men developed. Both were impressive personalities. In spite of different political origins, a close congeniality emerged. Each corrected the other’s errors. They tried jointly to interpret both current events and historical developments. Tamara Deutscher, as mentioned earlier, was a socialist personality in her own right. I had the privilege to meet her together with Gretel Bergmann in London, and admired her hospitality and culinary skills, and to have lively debates about past, present and future of the socialist movement.

Our last visit was on 10 October 1987, more than 11 years ago. I had been in Moscow in May 1987, and had met the widow and daughter of Nikolai Bukharin, both of whom had been rehabilitated. Optimistically, I said to Tamara that Mikhail Gorbachev would probably officially rehabilitate Bukharin in his speech commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Tamara remained sceptical, and was not won over by my mood. She wanted to see it in black on white before she would believe it. My prophecy was wrong by only three months. In February 1988, Bukharin was rehabilitated by Gorbachev.

The Will to Fight

Finally, a few words have to be said about the dilemma of all revolutionaries, which was shared by the communist heretics Rosa Luxemburg and Isaac Deutscher. Revolutionaries are not only cool analysts, they are also people of action. They want to understand and explain the world, but they also wish to transform it. This leads to tensions and a serious problem. Revolutionary impatience leads to a blurring of the cool analyses, the perspectives are shortened, they hoped for an early revolution before the great catastrophes of the First and Second World Wars, and before Hitler’s coup d'état. And every refugee had hoped for the earliest possible end to fascist rule. There is no doubt that many of the revolutionaries’ hopes have not materialised. But man cannot live without hope, and the revolutionary cannot fight without the hope for a better, humane world.

Furthermore, there exists a particular connection between analysis and action. That is a problem for the fighting revolutionary – how to combine the fair and cool analysis with the call to battle, even in the most difficult conditions? This permanent tension between cool analysis and the determined will to fight should not be ignored. And Hitler’s victory on 30 January 1933 in Germany has taught us that there is nothing worse than defeat without resistance. If a class loses in the course of a battle, it learns from that defeat. Surrender without resistance, on the other hand, can only result in demoralisation.


1. R Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Volume 5, p 523.

2. R Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Volume 4, p 365.

3. Letter to Mathilde Wurm, 16 February 1917, R Luxemburg, Gesammelte Briefe, Volume 5, p 177.

4. Cited in Ludger Syré, Isaac Deutscher – Marxist, Publizist, Historiker. Sein Leben und Werk 1907-1967 (Hamburg, 1984), p 393.

5. T Deutscher, ‘Isaac Deutscher 1907-1967’, in I Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (London, 1981), p viii.

6. Deutscher, ‘Isaac Deutscher 1907-1967’, p viii.

7. I Deutscher, Stalin (Harmondsworth), 1966, p 437.

8. I Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions: Essays From Four Decades (London, 1984), p 23.

9. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 110.

10. I Deutscher, Ironies of History (Oxford, 1966), p 148.

11. Deutscher, Stalin, p 11.

12. Cited in D Horowitz (ed), Isaac Deutscher: The Man and His Work (London, 1971), p 67.

13. I Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (Oxford, 1979), pp v-vi.

14. I Deutscher, Russia, China and the West 1953-1966 (Harmondsworth, 1970), p 38.

15. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 252.

16. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 258.

17. Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions, p 274.

18. I Deutscher, The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967 (Oxford, 1967), pp 114-15.

19. Deutscher, The Unfinished Revolution, p 104.

20. I Deutscher, Reportagen aus Nachkriegsdeutschland (Hamburg, 1980), p 228.

21. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 61.

22. Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions, p 53.

23. Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions, p 57.

24. Tribune, 14 July 1961.

25. Tribune, 14 July 1961.

26. Deutscher, Ironies of History, p 119.

27. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 265.

28. Letter to Mathilde Wurm, 16 February 1917, Gesammelte Briefe, Volume 5, p 177.

29. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 174.

30. Cited in Syré, Isaac Deutscher, p 370.

31. I Deutscher, Die ungelöste Judenfrage. Zur Dialektik von Antisemitismus und Zionismus (Berlin, 1977), p 73.

32. Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew, pp 35-37.

33. Hermann Weber (ed), Unabhängige Kommunisten. Der Briefwechsel zwischen Heinrich Brandler und Isaac Deutscher 1949-1967 (Berlin, 1981).