Ken Tarbuck   |   ETOL Main Page

Ken Tarbuck

Ten Years Without Deutscher

(Autumn 1977)

From International, Vol. 4 No. 1, Autumn 1977.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Isaac Deutscher died on 19 August 1967, yet his influence and achievement still illuminate modern Marxism. How should we remember him? Merely as the biographer of Stalin and Trotsky? No, for to remember Deutscher merely for his historico-biographies would deny us the pleasure and education which can be derived from his many other writings. Nor should we solely remember him as a writer, for in his early youth he was a political activist and leader who worked in illegal conditions in pre-war Poland, and in his later years he also became an active political educator. The pleasure that we can derive from his writings arises from the clarity, precision, richness and culture with which he used the English language. Moreover, even in his English prose there is at times a lyricism that hints at his success as a poet in his very early youth. Inevitably, comparisons can be made between Deutscher and Conrad – both were Polish by birth and both wrote their finest works in English. But Deutscher’s achievement is the greater of the two since he not only gave (and gives) us pleasure, he informed and taught – a rare combination. Moreover, his achievement has to be set against the fact that he had to hew his way forward, not only against the Stalinist perversions of Marxism, but also against the bourgeois environment that grudgingly tolerated him.

Deutscher was born in Chrzanów, which is nearly 20 miles from Cracow. The year was 1907, 10 years before the Bolshevik revolution, the study and interpretation of which was to become the major, but not only, focus of his mature writings. The place of his birth was near the point of congruence of three empires, Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary. His parents were Jewish and his father ran a printing business, given the overall situation he had a relatively educated environment in which to grow up, although he and his family were subject to all the disabilities and pogroms that befell the Jews. In this respect there is an affinity between Deutscher and Rosa Luxemburg. Both of them came from a cultural background that was truly European, and both extended their influence far beyond their original homelands. Moreover, both Deutscher and Luxemburg had more than a touch of the heretic in their personality and works.

I personally first became aware of Deutscher with the publication of his biography of Stalin in 1949. It was a major event in many respects, it marked his emergence as a writer of international significance and was the first appraisal of Stalin’s career (up to that point) which came from an avowed Marxist who did not worship in Stalin’s church. (I say this in spite of Trotsky’s earlier book on the same subject, since it is incomplete and its published form is marred by its fragmentary nature and the long and politically vulgar incursions of the translator.) This is not to say, of course, that one was uncritical of Deutscher’s work on Stalin. It has always seemed to me that in his desire for objectivity Deutscher was often prepared to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt when it was not warranted. However, this did not detract from the overall value and importance of the work. We should appreciate the courage of Deutscher in publishing this work when he did. The times were hardly propitious for scholarly and objective works about Stalin and the Soviet Union. With the outbreak of the Cold War in 1946, initiated by Churchill’s Fulton speech, there was released a flood of vulgar and shallow writings on Soviet life, lies being judiciously mixed with the undoubted truth about the horrors of Stalin’s rule. Moreover, all aspects of – and adherents of – Marxism were subjected to renewed assault by professional Kremlinologists. The more debased forms of this flood have only abated within the last decade. In this respect Deutscher stood out in stark contrast to the intellectual warriors of the Cold War. With his Stalin he firmly nailed his Marxist colours to the mast. He not only manned the ‘watch-tower’ – as he modestly put it – but he also helped to keep alight the torch of Marxist scholarship in a world that seemed to be all but totally dominated by imperialism and Stalinism.

However, it was with the publication of the first part of his Trotsky trilogy, The Prophet Armed, in 1954 that Deutscher could be seen in his full maturity. I will not go into the disputes on this or that point in his work, since such disputes could only be marginal to his overall achievement. Stalin was by now dead, but he had yet to be dethroned by his acolytes, and the myths created in earlier times still subsisted. But Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky began clearing away the ‘mountain of dead dogs’ which had been heaped on his grave. For those of my generation this book was both a fulfilment and a promise. It fulfilled our needs at many levels, it presented an overall account of Trotsky’s titanic contribution to Marxism and the Russian revolution (up to 1921) and gave a panoramic view of the times in which Trotsky lived and moved. Deutscher also gave promise that Trotsky’s ideas and struggles were neither irrelevant nor in vain. The account given was like a window being suddenly opened on a world that had almost been forgotten. It was the world of classical Marxism, of a truly Euro-Marxism that existed before 1914. The heirs to this classical Marxism had been the Bolsheviks and for the most part they had perished at the hands of Stalin. Moreover, the Euro-Marxism of this era was not intellectually bounded by the geographical contours of Europe but rather drew its sources from and analysed these on a world scale. It was also fitting that this biography of Trotsky should have been published in the year that French imperialism was decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu (in North Vietnam), since this event – coming five years after the victory of the Chinese revolution – was a striking confirmation, if in an unforeseen manner, of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

Furthermore, this book restored Trotsky’s rightful place in the history of the Russian revolution. In years to come Stalinist falsifiers, in the capitalist world at least, would have to try to come to terms with Deutscher’s account. On this point Deutscher said:

My account of Trotsky’s role in the Russian revolution will come as a surprise to some. For nearly 30 years the powerful propaganda machine 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 ... Trotsky’s life story is already like an Egyptian sepulchre which is known to have contained the body of a great man and the record, engraved with gold, of his deeds; but tomb-robbers 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 this present instance, been so persistent that it has strongly affected the views even of the independent Western historians and scholars. [1]

Deutscher had originally intended to write a one- or two-volume biography of Trotsky; in the event, as he later explained, the complexity and scale of his subject’s life forced him to extend the work to a trilogy. We can see the foundations being laid in the above passage, taken from the preface of the first volume. Nearly a quarter of a century later it may, in turn, now seem strange and come as a surprise that Deutscher had to make these points, so changed has the intellectual climate become. Yet his work can be seen as part of the process of change itself, since it initiated innumerable young militants into the true history of their inheritance.

The trilogy was completed in 1963, and the last volume – The Prophet Outcast – was probably the most controversial as far as the Trotskyist movement was concerned. Deutscher had actually participated in some of the events he described in the book. He had been expelled from the Polish Communist Party in 1932 for his opposition to the suicidal ‘Third Period’ policies of the Comintern, and for his attempts – like Trotsky – to sound the tocsin against the advance of the Nazi barbarians in Germany. For a period Deutscher was associated with the International Left Opposition, forerunner of the Fourth International. However, he and the other Polish oppositionists disagreed with the founding of the Fourth International in 1938 and thus they parted company. But this disagreement did not mean a retreat from Marxism as in many other cases. The disagreement stemmed basically from a different evaluation of the viability of such a new International in a period of working-class defeats, since the previous Internationals had been founded in periods of rising working-class activity.

It is a curious contradiction in Deutscher’s make-up that he should have failed to understand the necessity for the Fourth International precisely because of the working-class defeats of the period, since in many ways it had to try to do collectively what he had tried to do individually by his withdrawal into the ‘watch-tower’. The Fourth International could never be a mere repeat – even in a different form – of any of the other three Internationals. This is not to say, of course, that Trotsky and the other founders of the Fourth International started out with the intention of such a withdrawal, but this was to be its historic role for many years. Nor did Deutscher understand that without such an organisation his own work would have been largely shouting in the wind, since those young people who were stirred by his writings could not have turned their message into meaningful activity without the prior existence of a political organisation.

Given his own evolution it comes as no surprise that Deutscher was highly critical of the last period of Trotsky’s life, seeing all his efforts doomed to failure. One wonders if Deutscher’s view of Trotsky’s last struggle – to found and build the Fourth International – was not coloured by a desire, unconscious no doubt, to justify his own retreat from active politics into the ‘watch-tower’. Such a justification was hardly necessary since the corpus of his writings are ample testimony to his prodigious efforts and his unswerving commitment to socialism. Nor was his retreat complete or long-lasting; his activities, speaking, teaching and encouraging young people in their attempts to cleave a way towards a scientific understanding of the world they lived in, were manifold. In his last years Deutscher was a powerful catalyst upon the American scene and the burgeoning anti-Vietnam War movement in particular. Nor should his work upon the International War Crimes Tribunal be overlooked, since participation in that body meant an unequivocal stand against imperialist barbarism.

The only time I heard Isaac Deutscher speak was revealing of the man and his power. It was in the winter of 1963–64, and he had been invited to speak at a student meeting in Oxford. This was, of course, before the big surge forward in student activity that occurred a few years later, so there were probably only 50 to 75 people present. (In later years he was to address audiences of thousands.) Deutscher stood up after the chairperson had introduced him and apologised for not coming as well prepared as he thought he should have. He told us he had been suffering, and still was, from a heavy cold. He asked our indulgence and read us the script of the introduction to the Trotsky anthology he had recently completed. [2] Despite the obvious handicap he was under, his voice, slightly hoarse, gradually swept up and along his audience as he gave an incisive survey of Trotsky the man and his ideas, and their relevance to the modern world. We all sat rapt as Deutscher took us in our collective mind’s eye out of that small room, away from the pervading dampness of an English winter, into the world of Trotsky, the man of action, of ideas and of classical Marxism. When he stopped there was a slight pause, as though no one wanted to break the spell that Deutscher’s words had woven, and then enthusiastic applause which seemed to last a long time. He sat down and rather deprecatingly blew his nose. The lecture and the gesture seemed to sum up the man: immense intellectual power, the use of language that enchanted, and modesty.

There was a passage in the lecture that struck me forcibly as being a powerful, yet simple exposition of Trotsky’s theory of, and vision of, permanent revolution:

Trotsky’s theory is in truth a profound and comprehensive conception in which all the overturns that the world has been undergoing (in this late capitalist era) are represented as interconnected and interdependent parts of a single revolutionary process. To put it in the broadest terms, the social upheaval of our century is seen by Trotsky as global in scope and character, even though it proceeds on various levels of civilisation and in the most diverse social structures, and even though its various phases are separated from one another in time and space. [3]

I am not suggesting that the above contains the whole of Trotsky’s theory, but I feel that it does contain the essence. It brings out the essentially visionary quality of Trotsky’s theory, but indicates that the vision is based on the grasp of the real and material processes taking place in the world system.

Needless to say, the book to which Deutscher referred has had a place among my own books ever since I was able to buy it. I doubly value it for Deutscher’s contribution and Trotsky’s.

If I seem to have mentioned classical Marxism several times so far, it is because it is a recurring theme in Deutscher’s writings. Given his own intellectual roots this is hardly surprising. He explained what he meant by classical Marxism as follows:

I hope I have explained in what sense I am using these terms – classical Marxism and vulgar Marxism. I shall perhaps sum up my argument: classical Marxism offers deep historical insight into the working of capitalism, into the prospects of the dissolution of capitalism, and, broader still, into man’s relation under this system with other men, with his own class and other classes, his relationship and attitude to the technology of his age. Vulgar Marxism does not need all that insight; it is fully satisfied with a small fraction of all that understanding, which it places in the severely limited orbit of practical needs, practical striving, and practical tasks. We have here an historic hypertrophy of practice and an atrophy of thought. [4]

Here, again, Deutscher was able to convey in simple, concise language both the essentials and panorama of classical Marxism and contrast it with the withered and desiccated ideology that is embodied in vulgar Marxism. As is clear from all his writings, neither the warp nor the weft on their own can make the cloth whole. In this way he imparted a surer, deeper and more subtle understanding to what he undertook to analyse and explain.

Some clue to Deutscher’s concern to ensure some unity in the traditions of classical Marxism can be apprised from his essays The Non-Jewish Jew and Who is a Jew?. [5] There he touches upon the liquidation of the Yiddish-Jewish culture of Poland and Central Europe by the extermination programme of the Nazis. Perhaps he worried that Stalinism would have the same effect upon the Marxist tradition that he drew his resources and inspiration from – and was a part of, enlarging it and endowing it with his own works. Deutscher’s own understanding of the historical processes would, of course, have provided him with an assurance on this point, since the material foundations upon which the Yiddish culture grew could not be recalled from the dead; while the material foundations of Marxism are re-created every day under capitalism. Nevertheless, it must have been as agonising for him as for Trotsky to witness the destruction of the Bolshevik old guard and of the foreign exiles in Moscow by Stalinism; and at the same time the equally destructive rampage of fascism throughout the rest of Europe. Deutscher was also to witness the obscene trials that took place in the so-called ‘People’s Democracies’ in the late 1940s and early 1950s of alleged ‘Titoists’. He certainly had an understanding of the terrible dilemmas and traumas inflicted upon many others by this period. He says, for instance, of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four is in effect not so much a warning as a piercing shriek announcing the advent of the Black Millennium, the Millennium of damnation.’ [6] Perhaps in his dreams he also gave such a shriek. If he did, he did not listen to it in his writings.

Given the nature of the times, Deutscher and the tradition that he cherished were driven into the margins of history. However, he was fortunate enough to live to see those margins once more begin to widen. Deutscher’s own margin was particularly narrow at certain times in his life. Whilst working upon the research for and writing his books he had to earn his living as a journalist. This seemed to be his loss, since such work took him away from his major preoccupations, but to some extent it was our gain, since even the most hurriedly written articles had his particular stamp on them. Had he not been forced by circumstances he probably would not have written as much of the analysis of current events that he did, but against these gains we have to set the unwritten biography of Lenin.

Despite the apparent ease with which he used the tools of Marxist analysis he only came to his understanding and skill through an essentially auto-didactic process, as he told us in Discovering Das Kapital. [7] Like many others who tread this path his first approach was not fruitful, since he attempted to study Capital more as a duty than a necessity. And, like many others, he failed at his first attempt, but later, when it did become a political necessity because of his expulsion from the Polish Communist Party, Marx’s work began to fall into place:

I felt the need to re-examine my own political thinking and the principles of communism and Marxism. I decided to take nothing for granted. Could Stalinist policies and practices be justified in terms of Marxism? Has Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism stood up to the events of our time? These were the questions which troubled me. I made up my mind to plough through the whole of Das Kapital, all three volumes of it, and also the many-volumed Theorien über den Mehrwert, Marx’s history of economic doctrines. I was determined to scrutinise this whole intellectual structure coolly and sceptically and keep my eyes open to its possible flaws and cracks. [8]

It was with this questing need for solutions to burning problems that Deutscher came to grapple with Marx. In reality there is no other way to do this, Marxism cannot be understood as a mere academic study – it has to be situated within the class struggle. Without the class dimension and the quest for answers, the visions of Marx elude one and the ‘boundless horizons’ that Deutscher found are constricted by academic anaemia. Whilst it may be possible to appreciate the soaring architectonics of Marx’s writings as a work of art, a full appreciation can only come about by using them as a tool to unlock past, present and future. This Deutscher did. Moreover, if we are to unlock the future we must engage the present in unremitting struggle; and it is a measure of Deutscher’s commitment to the socialist future that the present continually called him away from his interrogation of the past:

The study of Das Kapital did not merely confirm me in my Marxist conviction ... It also revealed to me the full depth of the gulf that lay between classical Marxism and the cynical expediences, the dull scholasticism, and the inquisitorial methods of Stalinism. Ever since, it has seemed as incongruous to blame Marx for Stalin as it would be to blame the Bible and Aristotle for the dogmas of the mediaeval church and the Inquisition. It was as a Marxist that I went on opposing Stalinism. [9]

How apt that Deutscher should draw the parallel between the Inquisition and the methods of Stalinism. In so doing he illustrated the power of the tool that Capital becomes when its methodology is mastered. And, in addition, Deutscher also discovered another essential truth when at a later stage he went back to re-read parts of Capital:

Only in the last few weeks have I begun reading it anew. I have so far gone through the first three chapters, those reputed to be exceptionally involved and abstruse ... I still find myself fascinated by the old familiar pages; but what strikes me about them now, as it never did before, is their essential simplicity. [10]

The truth of this simplicity is something each reader, or rather those who are questing, discover with the same surprise. The puzzle is why is Marx considered to be difficult? The difficulties that new readers encounter are well known, they often quail when confronted with Capital. Yet the essential simplicity that Deutscher perceived is also evident. How do we explain these apparent contradictions? A part of the problem for English readers was offered by Deutscher when he maintains that Marx is not easily translatable: ‘Marx’s style and language cannot easily be anglicised, although existing translations are far more clumsy and stiff than they need have been.’ [11] However, this cannot be the whole explanation for these problems. We must also seek them in the dominance of bourgeois ideology, with its reified forms of intellectual activity.

Deutscher was able to extract what he saw as the essence of Marxism from his study. He claimed that it was:

... not in this or that aspect of his [Marx’s] analysis of the trade cycle or even in his views on the impoverishment, relative or absolute, of the working class, important though these views were politically ... for me the essence of his analysis lay in what he says about the central contradiction of our social system, the conflict between the socialised process of production and the unsocial character of the control which capitalist ownership exercises over the process. Inherent in this is the worker’s estrangement from his own labour, from the products of his labour, and from the structure of society which his labour perpetuates. [12]

Here he gets to the heart of the matter, since he emphasises the totalising capacity of Marx’s theory, its ability to combine numerous aspects and different levels into a comprehensible whole, including the contradictions within that whole. This stands in sharp contrast to bourgeois ideology, which tries to atomise scientific thought, as the bourgeoisie continually tries to atomise the working class. Since no one arrives on the scene as a fully-developed Marxist (not even Marx did) the difficulties of Capital resolve themselves into the problems of the struggle to subvert and cast off bourgeois ideology. Moreover, this subversion can only take place through practical as well as intellectual struggle. If, today, looking at Deutscher’s life with the ‘superior’ wisdom of hindsight we feel that he did not always seem able truly to combine these two aspects, we should remember this ‘superior’ wisdom is due in part to his own efforts.

Despite his proven anti-Stalinism there was an undoubted ambiguity in Deutscher’s attitude towards the Soviet bureaucracy. By this I do not mean that he in any way doubted its reactionary essence, rather that he seemed to suggest at times that this bureaucracy might be peacefully put aside. In 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, he wrote:

The economic progress made during the Stalin era at last brought within reach of the people a measure of well-being which should make possible an orderly winding-up of Stalinism and a gradual democratic evolution. [13]

This evolutionist-cum-reformist perspective of the restoration of Soviet democracy has been confounded by the course of events in the last 24 years. In fact it had been largely confounded in Deutscher’s lifetime, yet he never wholly gave up his hopes for this type of solution. In his last book which was published before he died he still said: ‘What seems possible in the near future is that society should be able to retrieve its civil liberties and establish political control over the state.’ [14]

What Deutscher did not face up to was how these civil liberties were to be retrieved; it was not as though they had been accidentally mislaid and were just waiting for someone to come along and pick them up, there was the no small matter of the whole repressive apparatus of the bureaucracy to be dealt with. Where he was correct was to understand that the growth, education and consolidation of the Soviet working class, along with an extension of revolution, provide the material base for the destruction of the bureaucracy. However, as we have seen, these are necessary conditions for political revolution but in and of themselves they are not sufficient. Here we can see the other issues which divided Deutscher from Trotsky. While Trotsky had firmly set his face against the possibility of such a peaceful evolution, Deutscher clung to this idea as though afraid of the effects of a new revolution. His problem was that despite some very perceptive insights he was unable either to accept or to reject Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy. There is an undoubted change in nuance between his formulation of 1953 and that of 1967, but this basic ambiguity remains.

Despite his brilliance and scholarship Deutscher was firmly barred from an academic post that would have given him the financial security and conditions that he needed, so he worked on – praised but shut out. [15] Perhaps the academics really understood that Deutscher was a dangerous man – he was a man of principles, Marxist ones to boot, a rare combination in the wintry days of the Cold War. It was a measure of Deutscher’s magnanimity that when the academic world finally deigned to give him token recognition – he gave the George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures in Cambridge in 1967 – he did not spurn it.

The title of these Cambridge lectures, when published, was The Unfinished Revolution and it is also perhaps a comment upon Deutscher himself. He was working on a biography of Lenin when he died, and in this respect his own life’s work was unfinished. All that we have of this work is the fragment that was published as Lenin’s Childhood. [16] It can only give the faintest hint at what the completed work would have been like. Had he finished it there is no doubt that it would have equalled his Trotsky trilogy, and probably been the pinnacle of his endeavours. He was not an old man when he died – at least by today’s standards – and still had a great deal to contribute to both history and politics. Revolutionists make sacrifices in many ways, some die in heroic circumstances, others suffer great physical pain and hardship, still others sacrifice careers and families. Deutscher, also, paid the penalty for his devotion to Marxism, partly by the lack of security in his career, and partly by the intolerable strains created by the constant struggle against the stream – very often in isolation – in a hostile environment. He saw many of his family disappear in the death camps of Hitler, and was to be an exile from 1939 to the year of his death; and in the end his heart gave out.

The 10 years that have passed since his death have only served to emphasise the debt we owe to Deutscher for his long years in the ‘watch-tower’. They have underscored the unique place he had, and still does have, in modern Marxism. It will be a long time before we see his like again. Meanwhile let us not mourn him, let us celebrate him in our individual and collective efforts.


1. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Trotsky: 1879–1921 (Oxford University Press, London 1954), pp. v–vi.

2. See [Introduction], The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology (Dell Publishing, New York 1964).

3. [Introduction], The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology (Dell Publishing, New York 1964), p. 19.

4. Isaac Deutscher, Marxism in Our Time, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972), pp. 19–20.

5. Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Who is a Jew?, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (OUP, London 1968).

6. Isaac Deutscher, 1984 – The Mysticism of Cruelty, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish Hamilton, London 1955).

7. Isaac Deutscher, Discovering Das Kapital, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972).

8. Isaac Deutscher, Discovering Das Kapital, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972), pp. 257–58.

9. Isaac Deutscher, Discovering Das Kapital, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972), p. 260.

10. Isaac Deutscher, Discovering Das Kapital, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972), p. 263.

11. Isaac Deutscher, Discovering Das Kapital, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972), p. 263.

12. Isaac Deutscher, Discovering Das Kapital, Marxism in Our Time (Cape, London 1972), p. 260.

13. Isaac Deutscher, Russia After Stalin (second edition with an introduction by Marcel Liebman, Cape, London 1969), p. 168.

14. Isaac Deutscher, The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967 (OUP, London 1967), p. 107.

15. See the reference to the offer and then withdrawal of the offer of a post at Sussex University in Daniel Singer’s essay Armed with a Pen, in David Horowitz (ed.), Isaac Deutscher: The Man and his Work (Macdonald, London 1971). There is also a useful select bibliography of Deutscher’s works in this volume.

16. Isaac Deutscher, Lenin’s Childhood (OUP, London 1970).

Ken Tarbuck   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 14 October 2014