Isaac Deutscher 1967

Germany and Marxism

Source: Marxism in Our Time, The Ramparts Press, Berkeley, 1971. A translation of an interview Isaac Deutscher gave to Hamburg Television on 23 July 1967. The English translation was first published in New Left Review, January-February 1968. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

HTV: How do you judge the present trend in Germany towards the possible eruption of a new nationalism, as evidenced by the NPD [1], and the electoral successes which the party has scored in several of the Länder? Do you really see in this a genuine, and acute, danger for our young Western democracy?

Deutscher: A genuine danger, yes; an acute one, perhaps not as yet. I remember a remark of Leon Trotsky’s: in 1919 or 1920 he said of the Weimar Republic that it would prove to be merely an interval between two dictatorships. One now wonders with real anxiety: is not this – I do not know whether I should say democracy – is not the West German parliamentary regime of the last seventeen or eighteen years, too, merely an interval between two dictatorships, between two waves of nationalism? There are grounds for this anxiety. Probably the danger is not immediate; the situation may well be similar to that of the years 1927-28, when National Socialism still stood on the fringe of German political life, a marginal phenomenon. That could be the case today as well with the new nationalism. It was in 1929-30 that Nazism first thrust itself, with a sudden leap, into the foreground of German political life. However, it seems to me that a simple rebirth of National Socialism in Germany is unlikely. History never repeats itself in such uncomplicated ways. It is said that generals in every war tend to fight anew the battles of the previous war. Something similar happens in politics too: people imagine new dangers taking old forms. But the waves of nationalism, of reaction, of counter-revolution always assume new forms. In the years of the Weimar Republic, most people on the left thought that democracy in Germany was threatened by a restoration of the Hohenzollerns and of the ancien régime. But Hitler’s party was republican, and even called itself ‘socialist’. The new wave of authoritarian reaction and of nationalism now appearing on the horizon will most probably also differ in many of its features from National Socialism. Naturally there will be a certain continuity, but it will not be a direct one.

HTV: But what do you see as the basis for a possible new wave of reaction?

Deutscher: A great deal depends on the stability of social relations and on the economic situation. Also the problem of the division of Germany remains unresolved; this is a great open wound in the life of the nation, even if it is not at the present moment so painfully sensitive as it might be. Here are contained really dangerous possibilities.

HTV: Do you believe then that the NPD is a reservoir for this reactionary wave?

Deutscher: That I do not know. It is hard to say. To take up once again the analogy with the 1920s: Nazism was crystallised and formed from various fermenting groups and competing ultra-nationalist sects. Whether a similar development lies ahead of the present nationalistic ferment necessarily remains uncertain. But the thought that the nationalistic insanity – the perennial tragedy of Germany – is once again spreading its shadow must cause us grave anxiety.

HTV: But is not the danger of a new nationalistic insanity, as you put it, really banished by our NATO links, and our Friendship Treaty with France? Or do you believe that all these...

Deutscher: I am afraid those links are quite fragile, if I may say so. No, I believe that a guarantee against this nationalism can only come from a deep inner transformation of Germany, and not through external, diplomatic arrangements.

HTV: How do you see this transformation? What do you understand by it?

Deutscher: This is a large and rather difficult question. I think that since the Reformation the tragedy of Germany consists in the fact that it has not advanced with the times, and that Germany has never fought through its own revolution. The French had their great revolution. The English carried theirs through in the seventeenth century and then experienced a long process of reform, democratisation and progress. Germany in many respects has remained fixed in the sixteenth century and at the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War. Every revolution has failed. Germany did not merely invent the ersatz industrially, it produced it socio-politically as well: the ersatz-revolution of a Bismarck, the ersatz-revolution of 1918 and the ersatz-revolution of 1945 – none of them were made by Germans, but by conquering foreign armies. That is the tragedy, the guilt and the misfortune of Germany.

HTV: Of course you were here in West Germany in 1945, as a correspondent for English newspapers. What impression did you have then, and what was at that time your opinion as to what should be done with the German state and people, lying in ruins?

Deutscher: Yes – I was in Germany as correspondent of the Economist and of the Observer, and wrote quite a lot about this question. During the war, and in the period immediately after the war, I was one of the few in the Anglo-Saxon press who criticised the policy of so-called de-industrialisation of Germany, and the Potsdam decisions. In the spring of 1946 I wrote, under the title ‘The Modern Luddites’, a detailed study directed against the Potsdam economic policy. The Economist published my essay as a special supplement; later Lord Beveridge brought it out as a pamphlet. At that time, the time of the dismantling, the essay made a real impact in Germany too: it was sold in the streets, on the black-market for almost astronomical sums. I was myself offered a copy of my essay by a street-hawker in Hamburg for the equivalent of almost twenty-five pounds. That impressed on me deeply the misery of Germany, the physical and the moral misery; the terrifying misfortune of a people which had been twice defeated: by its own insane nationalism, and by the foreign armies.

HTV: In 1945 did you hope for a revolution of our own, a German revolution, to defeat National Socialism from within? If so, in what form?

Deutscher: I must admit I did not for a minute imagine that Nazism could be defeated otherwise than by a German revolution. I remember that on 21 July 1944, that is to say on the day after the attempt on Hitler’s life, I published an article in the Observer in which I treated the attempt as ‘Prelude to the German Revolution’. I hoped that 20 July might give the impulse – from above – for a revolution – from below. Of course I was over-optimistic. But in an historical sense my line of thinking was not false: without a revolution from below – well, has National Socialism been defeated in its roots? Here one can discern a certain revenge on the part of history. In the Germany always spurned by its own revolution, the Germany which rejected the socialism of Marx and Engels, of Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht – in other words the socialism which was a product of German thought and philosophy – in this Germany a kind of bastard socialism has now been decreed in the East by a Russian army of occupation and by Ulbricht.

HTV: Had you ever concerned yourself previously with Germany and German problems?

Deutscher: Yes, naturally, I have always been conscious of the fact that the destiny of Europe and of mankind necessarily depends on what happens in Germany, in the heart of Europe. In my youth, as you know, I was active not only as a writer but also as a Polish Communist. I was expelled from the Polish Communist Party in the spring of 1932, because I had published an essay under the title ‘The Danger of a New Barbarism in Europe’, an essay concerned exclusively with the German question. That is how I already termed Nazism in the year preceding Hitler’s seizure of power. I called for common action on the part of Communists and Social-Democrats against Nazism in Germany and against the Piłsudski dictatorship in Poland. I wrote that Nazism, should it be victorious, would smash both parties, the Social-Democratic and the Communist, and would raise the spectre of a second world war. That was an offence against the current party line. The party, and the entire Comintern, underrated the destructive dynamic and the totalitarian logic of Nazism, and imagined that Hitler and the Social-Democrats (whom they termed social-fascists) would coexist and reach a compromise. I was the spokesman of an anti-Stalinist group, the first opposition of this kind in the Polish party; and we considered it as our main task to warn the party, the Comintern and the working class of the Nazi danger. The official reason for my expulsion from the party was that I exaggerated the danger from Nazism and spread panic in the workers’ movement. In a certain sense that was true: in the years 1931-32 Nazism had cast me into such a state of feverish agitation and anxiety. Those who at that time felt no such ‘panic’ were, of course, blind.

HTV: You then came to the forefront, in the period following your expulsion from the Polish Communist Party, as an author. Tell us something about the tasks you set yourself as a writer, and what you wrote.

Deutscher: I set myself the task of being the interpreter of the Russian Revolution, for I was, and still am, convinced that the world had not grasped the full magnitude and the many complex facets of the revolution. In many writings, but above all in my biography of Stalin, in my three-volume biography of Trotsky and in an as yet unfinished two-volume study on Lenin and Leninism, I have endeavoured to make a contribution to the understanding of this, the greatest event of our century. I am glad that these books have met with a friendly and understanding reception in Germany, on the part of many critics.

HTV: Tell us something about your home background, the influence which it had upon you, the time in which you grew up, and the intellectual movements which made a Marxist out of you.

Deutscher: I really acquired my lively interest in German questions in my parents’ house. I spent my childhood and early years in and around Cracow, in the so-called Three Emperors Corner of Poland. On one side there was Russian Poland, on the other German Poland, and we lived in Austrian Poland – Jews and Poles, among Czechs and Hungarians. A multi-coloured corner of our part of Europe. The great year of my childhood was of course 1918, when the three monarchies collapsed. We lived through the landslide of three revolutions. Then came the years of the galloping inflation, of the pogroms, of acute social, political and intellectual ferment, the time of the great confusion. I grew up under the strong influence of my father, but I also differed from him rather violently. My father was an Orthodox Jew, in love with German culture, philosophy and poetry. He had chosen for me the career of rabbi, but I resisted this. I was really brought up in a state of suspension between two orthodoxies, the Jewish and the Roman Catholic. I went to two schools, one Polish and one Jewish-rabbinical. The Polish school and the high school (Gymnasium) where I passed my examinations as an external pupil were strongly Catholic. The two orthodoxies neutralised each other in my thinking and reciprocally annihilated each other. I became an atheist. I wrote precociously. My father was always wanting to read German literature and German periodicals with me. He had himself, in his youth, published essays in the Neue Freie Presse, the best-known Viennese newspaper; had been correspondent of the Warsaw Hazefira, the first daily to appear in the Hebrew language; and had also written a little book in Hebrew about Spinoza, with the Latin title Amor Dei Intellectualis. Spinoza was one of his heroes; Heine the other. My father also had a great respect for Lassalle, but the highest intellectual ideal for him, apart from Hebrew writers, was of course Goethe. I did not share my father’s partiality for German poetry. I was a Polish patriot. Mickiewicz [2] and Słowacki [3] were incomparably dearer and closer to me. For this reason I never learned the German language thoroughly either. My father often used to say to me: ‘Yes, you want to write all your fine poetry only in Polish. I know you will be a great writer one day.’ For my father had a quite exaggerated idea of my literary talent, and wanted me to exercise it in a ‘world language’. ‘German’, he would say, ‘is the world language. Why should you bury all your talent in a provincial language? You only have to go beyond Auschwitz’ – Auschwitz was just near us, on the frontier – ‘you only have to go beyond Auschwitz, and practically nobody will understand you any more with your fine Polish language. You really must learn German.’ That was his ever-recurring refrain. ‘You only have to go beyond Auschwitz, and you will be totally lost, my son.’ Impatient as I was, I often interrupted him: ‘I already know what you are going to say, father – “You have only to go beyond Auschwitz, and you will be lost."’ Unhappily my father never went beyond Auschwitz. During the Second World War he disappeared into Auschwitz. Later on I did indeed reconcile myself with the German language and culture, and what brought about this reconciliation was precisely the works of Marx and Engels.

HTV: Were you hostile to German literature then?

Deutscher: You really must, please, understand that I was a Polish child, brought up in a Polish school. For us the Germans, like the Russians, were oppressors, who had robbed us of our independence for a century and a half, and against whom we had struggled in numerous insurrections. In school we sang the song of Maria Konopnicka, [4] a great and celebrated poetess, with the following refrain: ‘The German will not spit in our faces, nor will he make Germans of our children.’ And here was my father wanting to ‘make a German of me’. [5] This attempt went against all my sensitivity to Polish lyrical poetry and all my romantic notions of Polish independence. I was an adult before I read Marx and Engels, Lassalle and Bebel, Franz Mehring and Rosa Luxemburg – Rosa Luxemburg who was a Pole too, and who wrote German so wonderfully – for the first time. In this way, Marxism reopened for me the path to German literature, and naturally to German philosophy too – to Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach, whose heir Marxism was. As a very young literary critic I was enthralled by Thomas Mann; [6] I spent many hours with Mann in Warsaw, in 1926 or 1927 and – in German – discussed his work with him. When, in an interview, he spoke with high praise of my understanding for his work, I was quite overcome with pride. Later came the other influences, especially the Russian. After I finally left home at the age of eighteen and came to Warsaw, I associated with a circle of much older people, who were steeped in Russian literature and under the influence of Russian thinkers and revolutionaries. They awoke in me my passionate interest in the Russian Revolution. I began to read the works of Lenin, Plekhanov, Bukharin and then Trotsky too. I first came under the influence of the great English historians very much later. Indeed I first learned English when I was over thirty, after I arrived in England in the year 1939. English historical writing, with Gibbon, Macaulay and Trevelyan, seems to me to be pre-eminent in European literature. Finally, I also found in English my ‘world language’. It gives me great satisfaction when English critics, even those who are politically hostile to me, sometimes compare my prose with that of Churchill or Macaulay, and that the University of Cambridge chose me this year to be its George Macaulay Trevelyan lecturer.

HTV: When did your early political involvement really begin?

Deutscher: When I entered the illegal Polish Communist Party as an eighteen-year-old. In that too I was rather precocious, but I was something of an infant prodigy. I was quite well-known as a poet in Cracow, when I was seventeen. Like all infant prodigies, naturally I disappointed the hopes which friends placed in me.

HTV: In what way disappointed?

Deutscher: Well – I do not really think that I am still an infant prodigy, nor have I become a prodigy as an old man.

HTV: After your expulsion from the party in 1932, did you withdraw from active political involvement?

Deutscher: I remained active for some years in the independent left in Poland. I was a heterodox Communist; I was a Trotskyist. I was seeking a way out of the impasse into which reaction and Stalinism had driven us, and I could not find one. Then I gave up direct party-political activity, in order to devote myself to theoretical and scientific-literary work.

HTV: Critics have called you an ‘unrepentant Marxist’. What do you answer to such critics?

Deutscher: I am a Marxist, of course. Those critics who call me ‘unrepentant’, or say that I ‘will never learn’, are for the most part people who once allowed themselves to be well taught by Stalin, and who later became anti-Communists. I did not allow myself to be taught by Stalin, nor by Khrushchev, nor even by Mao Tse-tung, and certainly not by Western anti-Communism. Marxism for me is no infallible theory – such a thing cannot exist. However, as a view of the world and a method of analysis, Marxism in my opinion is in no sense outdated or ‘surpassed’. Probably this will happen one day to Marxism too, but we are still a long way away from that. The people who talk today about ‘anachronistic Marxism’ have not yet offered us anything which is intellectually and politically superior to Marxism.

HTV: In recent years you were invited to America to take part in a teach-in, a great public discussion on the Vietnam war – you, the ‘unrepentant Marxist’. Is this not in your opinion a notable sign of freedom in so great a democracy as America?

Deutscher: Yes, I often travel to the United States, speak there at mass meetings and give lectures in the universities. I took part in the great debate on the Vietnam War in Washington, in which we spoke directly to an audience of five thousand university professors and lecturers, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, heard us on radio and television. I have appeared repeatedly as a speaker at the giant rallies of Berkeley students. Last year I opened the nation-wide Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. In the mass meetings, I spoke as an opponent and critic of the American government. I value this freedom of criticism very highly, since it bears witness to how strong, deeply rooted and vital the democratic tradition is among the people. Perhaps that comes from the fact that the Americans did once carry through their own revolution, and even fought in a Civil War for the abolition of slavery. These experiences have probably remained alive in popular memory; they give nourishment to the democratic tradition, which survived even McCarthyism. I have a great admiration for this other America, the unofficial one, which offers resistance to the official, conservative, neo-colonialist America. I believe in the vitality of the American democratic tradition. So I can see the contradiction in the political character of the United States, the clash between the inert conformism of the bourgeoisie and the social and political radicalism of the young intelligentsia. I hope that this radicalism will finally seize the working class too.

HTV: So, if I may put it that way, you are politically involved once more. But, coming back to the Vietnam War, what are the basic lines of your criticism?

Deutscher: In the Vietnam War, the great, decisive international conflicts have found their focus, just as was once the case in the Spanish Civil War. This dictates my position on the Vietnamese question. I am on the side of the Vietnamese people, against American imperialism or neo-colonialism. I have no doubt about that, just as during the Second World War I had no doubts about which side I was on in the struggle, let us say, between the Yugoslav partisans and the Nazi occupation forces. I believe that the role of gendarme of neo-colonialism and counter-revolution which the American ruling class has taken upon itself is catastrophic for America itself, and for the world brings nearer the danger of a nuclear war. But even someone who does not share my attitude, even someone who wishes to consider the situation quite unpolitically, could not help asking himself: ‘How does it come about that the greatest power in the world is waging a life-and-death struggle against a small, hungry, Asian peasant people, and cannot win it? Where, then, does the strength of the Vietnamese partisans lie? It must, surely, be a moral and political strength – it certainly cannot depend on physical, military factors. Could the partisans generate such a moral strength if they were not supported by the overwhelming majority of the people, of a people inspired with the conviction that it is fighting for a just cause?’

HTV: But do you not also think that the military tactics now employed in Vietnam, the tactic of the guerrilla war, the tactic of the jungle, have until now facilitated survival against the great material power of America?

Deutscher: The jungle does not fight. The jungle is neutral. It only assists the partisans because the support of the population permits them to make use of the jungle, while the Americans and their South Vietnamese puppet army cannot do this. In the areas controlled by the partisans, the estates of the big landowners are divided among the peasants. The entire peasantry supports the partisans, since for them the victory of the partisans is the guarantee against a return of the feudal landlords. Here a national war is fused with a class struggle – ‘a war of the cottages against the palaces’ to quote Bebel, the great champion of German socialism.

HTV: You belong to a tribunal [7], composed of free authors, which concerns itself with so-called war crimes in Vietnam. What do you see as the task of this tribunal?

Deutscher: The tribunal certainly does not consist only of authors. They are probably in a minority. We have seven or eight professors, juridical specialists in international law. Differing points of view and shades of political opinion are also represented within the tribunal. Two or three members belong to small, independent, socialist parties; except for these, we are all without party. We set ourselves the task of ascertaining, on the basis of a thorough analysis of the factual material, whether the United States is guilty of aggression and war crimes in Vietnam. Naturally, we are not a conventional, legal institution. We are able to pass no legally binding sentence. We do not wish to consign anybody to prison or to the gallows. Of course we do not represent a victorious power. We only represent men, who have no power and yet sit in judgement over those who wield power.

HTV: Let us take a look into the future. What vision do you have of political development, of social development, from now until the year 2000? How does our world appear in your vision of the year 2000?

Deutscher: Vision – I am afraid that if I reveal my vision to you, it may disconcert our viewers. I imagine that by about the turn of the century something like a United States of Socialist Europe will exist. A timid and conservative prefiguration of these United States is naturally the Common Market, for even conservative, bourgeois politicians are beginning to sense that the nation state, at least in Europe, if not in Asia and Africa, has become an anachronism. In order to live, Europe must unite in an international body, but not on the basis of imperialism, not on the basis of a capitalist economic expansion of one empire or another, but on the basis of the equality of socialist peoples. I am convinced that this will come about. The United States of Socialist Europe will probably be closely linked with the Soviet Union. I assume that the Soviet Union by then will have entirely overcome the heritage of Stalinism, that in fact a free socialism will have developed there, and that economic and cultural progress will by then have made possible a working day of three or four hours and higher education for all. I believe that the Soviet Union and Socialist Europe will then live together in real equality, and will perhaps be able to help the peoples of Asia and Africa too to come together in such ‘united states’. I hope that such a development will not drive Europe and the rest of the world into a conflict with the United States of America, although I am afraid that – if the United States becomes petrified in a state of social conservatism – certain theoreticians, let us say in Harvard, will have to construct a theory of ‘capitalism in one country’, just as once the theory of socialism in one country was proclaimed in Russia. But that was only a phase in Russian development, and in the same way capitalism in one country would only be a phase of American development. Since mankind has embarked on the conquest of interplanetary space, it must unite on its own planet; and I can see no other social and moral power which could unite mankind, other than a socialism based on freedom.


1. The Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD – National Democratic Party of Germany) is an extreme right-wing organisation. Formed in 1964, it has never been able to obtain the necessary five per cent of the vote to win seats in the national parliament, but it has been successful in state assemblies, obtaining 15 seats in Bavaria, 10 in Lower Saxony, eight in Hesse and several elsewhere during 1966-67, the successes alluded to in this interview. It continues to have a certain level of support, particularly in the former East Germany, where it currently holds eight seats in the Saxony assembly. The NPD won its first seat in the European parliament in 2014.

2. Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was born into a noble family in Zaosie, near Nowogródek, now in Byelorussia. He joined the Philomath Society, which called for independence from the Russian Empire, whilst studying at Wilno university. Arrested in 1823 for political activities, he was exiled to central Russia in 1824, and later moved to Germany and then to Italy, settling in Rome. He then moved to Paris, and was appointed in 1840 to the chair of Slavic studies at the Collège de France. In 1853, he travelled to Istanbul to help organise Polish troops to fight against the Russians in the Crimean War. He died of cholera, which he contracted whilst in Turkey. His two most famous works are Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), with the title referring to an ancient Slavic feast commemorating the dead; and Pan Tadeusz (Master Tadeusz), a portrait of Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon’s venture into Russia. Other works include Konrad Wallenrod, a poem describing the battles between the Teutonic Knights and the Lithuanians, with obvious parallels with the relationship between Poland and Russia; and the Sonety Krymskie (The Crimean Sonnets).

3. Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) was born into a noble family in Krzemieniec (now Kremenets in Ukraine), and met Mickiewicz as a teenager. He was writing nationalist poetry at the time of the 1830 Uprising, and he worked for the National Government’s diplomatic service from 1831, and stayed in exile after the government’s collapse, living mainly in France and Switzerland. In 1842 he joined Andrzej Towiański’s religious-philosophical group, Koło Sprawy Bożej (Circle of God’s Cause), but left it in 1843, subsequently elaborating his own mystical philosophy. He wrote extensively, his 17-volume collected works contain 25 dramas and 253 pieces of poetry, he also wrote novels and literary criticism. He died of tuberculosis before he could complete his final work Król-Duch (King-Spirit), a major work covering Polish history and the country’s current political and literary trends.

4. Maria Konopnicka (née Wasiłowska, 1842-1910) was born into a middle-class family in Suwałki, and started writing poetry in her late twenties. She started writing for children in 1884. Her poetry and prose raised the questions of Polish nationalism, national and religious oppression (particularly of the Poles in Prussia, but also more broadly, including a poem in memory of the Irish Republican Robert Emmett), and the plight of Poland’s peasants, workers and Jews.

5. These lines are from Konopnicka’s poem Rota (The Oath), a protest against Germanisation policies in the Polish areas of the German Empire.

6. Paul Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was born into a middle-class family in Lübeck. His first major work, the novel Buddenbrooks (1901), tracing the decline of a merchant dynasty from Lübeck, was based upon his own family. His works investigated German social mores and drew upon the ideas of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He left Germany upon Hitler’s victory in 1933, settling first in Switzerland and from 1939 in the USA, where he produced anti-Nazi propaganda. He took a conservative patriotic stance during the First World War, but subsequently supported the Weimar Republic from at first a liberal then a left-wing standpoint.

7. This was the War Crimes Tribunal that was organised by Bertrand Russell.