Deutscher was born in Chrzanw, a town in the Galicia region of Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a family of religiously observant Jews. He studied with a Hasidic rebbe and was acclaimed as a prodigy in the study of the Torah and the Talmud. By the time of his bar mitzvah, however, he had lost his faith. He "tested God" by eating unkosher food at the grave of a tzadik (holy person) on Yom Kippur. When nothing happened, he became an atheist.
Deutscher first attracted notice as a poet, when at 16 he began publishing poems in Polish literary periodicals. His verse, in Yiddish and Polish, concerned Jewish and Polish mysticism, history and mythology, and he attempted to bridge the gulf between Polish and Yiddish culture. He also translated poetry from Hebrew, Latin, German, and Yiddish into Polish.
Deutscher studied literature, history, and philosophy as an extramural student at the Jagellonian University in Krakw. At 18 he left Krakw for Warsaw, where he studied philosophy, and economics and became a Marxist. Around 1927 he joined the illegal Polish Communist Party and became the editor of the party's underground press. In 1931 he toured the Soviet Union, seeing the economic conditions under the first Five Year Plan. Here Moscow University and Minsk University offered him posts as a professor of the history of socialism and of Marxist theory. He declined these offers and returned to his underground work in Poland. On his return Deutscher co-founded the first anti-Stalinist group in the Polish Communist Party, protesting the party line that Nazism and Social Democracy were "not antipodes but twins". This contradicted the then official Communist line, which saw the social democrats, or "social fascists", as the greatest enemies of the Communist Party. In 1933 Deutscher published an article called "The Danger of Barbarism over Europe", in which he urged the formation of a united socialist-Communist front against Nazism. Deutscher was expelled from the party for "exaggerat[ing] the danger of Nazism and ... spreading panic in the Communist ranks.".
In April 1939 Deutscher left Poland for London as a correspondent for a Polish-Jewish newspaper for which he had worked as a proof reader for fourteen years. This move saved his life and paved the way for his future career. He never returned to Poland and never saw any of his family again. In London he worked as a correspondent for the Polish newspaper, and for a while he joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers League.
When Germany occupied Poland in September 1939, and his connection with his newspaper was severed, he taught himself English and began writing for English magazines. He was soon a regular correspondent for the leading weekly The Economist. In 1940 he joined the Polish Army in Scotland, but was interned as a dangerous subversive. Released in 1942, he joined the staff of The Economist and became its expert on Soviet affairs and military issues, and its chief European correspondent. He also wrote for The Observer as a roving European correspondent under the pen-name "Peregrine".
He left journalism in 1946-7 to write books. Deutscher's name (with the remark "Sympathiser only") subsequently appeared on Orwell's list, a list of people (many writers and journalists) which George Orwell prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department, a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government. Orwell considered the listed people to have pro-communist leanings and therefore to be inappropriate to write for the IRD.
Deutscher published his first major work, Stalin, A Political Biography in 1949. Deutscher was still a committed Trotskyist, but in the book Deutscher gave Stalin what he saw as his due for building a form of socialism in the Soviet Union, even if it was, in Deutscher's view, a perversion of the vision of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
The Stalin biography made Deutscher a leading authority on Soviet affairs and the Russian Revolution. He followed it up with his most ambitious work, a three-volume biography of Trotsky: The Prophet Armed (1954), The Prophet Unarmed (1959) and The Prophet Outcast (1963). These books were based on detailed research into the Trotsky Archives at Harvard University. Much of the material contained in the third volume was previously unknown, since Trotsky's widow, Natalia Sedova, gave him access to the closed section of the Archives. British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in 2006 that the trilogy "made a very deep impression on me and gave me a love of political biography for the rest of my life." Deutscher planned to conclude his series with a study of Lenin, but Life of Lenin remained incomplete at the time of his death, partly due to a politically-motivated denial of a university position to Deutscher.
In the 1960s the upsurge of left-wing sentiment that accompanied the Vietnam War (see The Sixties) made Deutscher a popular figure on university campuses in both Britain and the United States. His Trotskyism had by then become a form of Marxist humanism, although he never renounced Trotsky. In 1965 he took part in the first "Teach-In" on Vietnam at the University of California, Berkeley, where thousands of students listened to his indictment of the Cold War. He was G. M. Trevelyan Lecturer at Cambridge University for 1966-67, and also lectured for six weeks at the State University of New York. In spring 1967 he guest lectured at New York University, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia. The G. M. Trevelyan Lectures, under the title The Unfinished Revolution, were published after his sudden and unexpected death in Rome in 1967. A memorial prize honouring him, called the Deutscher Memorial Prize, is awarded annually to a book "which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition".
Despite being an atheist and a life-long socialist, Deutscher emphasised the importance of his Jewish heritage. He coined the expression "non-Jewish Jew" to apply to himself and other Jewish humanists. Deutscher admired Elisha ben Abuyah, a Jewish heretic of the 2nd century C.E. But he had little time for specifically Jewish politics. In Warsaw, he joined the Communist Party, not the Jewish Bund, whose "Yiddishist" views he opposed.
His definition of his Jewishness was: "Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews."
Before World War II, Deutscher opposed Zionism as economically retrograde and harmful to the cause of international socialism, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust he regretted his pre-war views, and argued a case for establishing Israel as a "historic necessity" to provide a home for the surviving Jews of Europe. In the 1960s he became more critical of Israel for its failure to recognize the dispossession of the Palestinians, and after the Six Day War of 1967 he demanded that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories. "This 'six day wonder'", he commented, "this latest, all-too-easy triumph of Israeli arms will be seen one day... to have been a disaster... for Israel itself."
His most famous statement regarding Israel is "A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person–s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man–s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds."
In "The Israeli Arab War, June 1967" (1967), Deutscher, a Marxist of Jewish origins whose next-of-kin died at Auschwitz and whose relatives lived in Israel, wrote:
–Still we must exercise our judgment and must not allow it to be clouded by emotions and memories, however deep or haunting. We should not allow even invocations of Auschwitz to blackmail us into supporting the wrong cause.– (Quoted in Prophets Outcast, Nation Books, 2004, p. 184)
"To justify or condone Israel–s wars against the Arabs is to render Israel a very bad service indeed and to harm its own long-term interest. Israel–s security, let me repeat, was not enhanced by the wars of 1956 and 1967; it was undermined and compromised by them. The –friends of Israel– have in fact abetted Israel in a ruinous course.– (Quoted in Prophets Outcast, Nation Books, 2004, p. 184)
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