Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Tamara Deutscher (1913-1990)

The death of Tamara Deutscher on 7 August 1990 closes a chapter in Marxist scholarship which began in the early 1930s. It was Isaac Deutscher who began this work as a Polish Communist Oppositionist with his essay on the Moscow Trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1936. Both Tamara and Isaac had fled Poland with the onset of war, and had met as exiles in London. Isaac as an ex-member of the pre-war Polish Communist Party had broken with Stalinism and for a time had been a member of the Polish Opposition group. Tamara seemed set for a career as a writer and was associated with the Polish Government in Exile, so they appeared to be an ill-matched partnership. Yet from the time of their marriage Tamara demonstrated an unswerving devotion to Socialism and the ideas to which Isaac held. This, however, was not a case of a woman subordinating herself to her husband. At every turn it was clear that she was totally committed to Socialism in her own right.

Their marriage became a true intellectual partnership, the products of which began to appear with the publication of Isaac’s biography of Stalin which was published in 1949. Tamara subordinated her own career as a writer to that of Isaac, acting as his research assistant and, more importantly, as his collaborator in the fullest sense. It is clear that without her active, dedicated help the Isaac Deutscher that we knew from his writings would not have existed. Isaac acknowledged the part Tamara played in his preface to the Stalin biography, when he wrote: “More than anyone else I am indebted to my wife, whose devoted assistance has made this work possible arid whose critical sense has contributed to the shaping of every paragraph in it”. There was physical evidence of this close collaboration in the Demscher study. Two desks faced each other that enabled an easy flow of materials and ideas between them. Isaac’s desk remained in place after his death, obviously giving support and comfort to Tamara in the years of widowhood that followed.

And these years since Isaac died in 1967 were filled with work for Tamara. She was an able linguist and incisive writer, but above all she was a critical scholar (but not a scholastic), and E.H. Carr was to benefit from collaboration with Tamara in the writing of the final volume of his History of Soviet Russia. In the years after 1967 Tamara still made it her, main priority to ensure that Isaac’s writings remained in print, editing new editions, and new collections of his essays. Yet she still found time to publish her own writings and help many people who went knocking on her door for aid in many causes. The partnership of Isaac and Tamara which had begun in wartime London was continued after Isaac’s death, and it is true to say that he only finally died when Tamara drew her last breath.

The actual products of this remarkable partnership have, inevitably, been the source of some disagreements. What can be said on this score is that whatever criticisms one may have of some aspects of their joint work they remained firmly committed to Socialism, the fight against bureaucracy and to classical Marxism. Equally it can be said that the Trotskyist movement would have been much poorer intellectually than it was without the joint efforts of Isaac and Tamara. Their joint works reached a standard of scholarship and breadth of vision which was rarely, if ever, matched by Trotsky’s latter-day followers. Considering that English was a second language for both of them, their mastery of its prose was of the highest order. Both Tamara and Isaac refused to become caught up in the internecine factional fighting of the left. This was not a refusal to commit themselves. Rather it was an understanding that their contributions would have been less had they become embroiled in the many small sects claiming Trotsky's inheritance.

Tamara was never a mere gramophone repeating Isaac’s ideas. She had her own ideas, and was able to accept criticism of his and her own ideas without rancour. And in this matter I can write from personal experience.

Tamara was tenacious in her commitment to Socialism and the truth right up to the day she died. A few days before she died Tamara participated in a television programme which was marking the fiftieth anniversary of Trotsky’s death. She said that “it is no accident that Trotsky has not been rehabilitated in the Soviet Union”, and then added, “Trotsky was for proletarian democracy”. She understood quite well that what was on offer from Gorbachev had nothing in keeping with what Trotsky would have understood by democracy, and in this she demonstrated a surer instinct and understanding than many of those around her. Later on in the programme she was asked “what was the single most important message one could draw from Trotsky today?”. She replied “what is most needed from Trotsky today is his analysis of bureaucracy” and added a saying of Alfred Rosmer: “We cannot go forward unless we know our yesterdays”. These were some of the last words she spoke in public, and they can stand as a fitting epitaph.

Ken Tarbuck

Updated by ETOL: 22.7.2003