Category Archives: Deutscher, Isaac

Imbecility of Isaac Deutscher

A learned, intelligent and gifted fool

Dalrymple writes that

it is curious, but significant, that a moral imbecile such as Isaac Deutscher should ever have commanded such respect and rapt attention (though not from George Orwell, who included him on his list of communist sympathisers, or from Isaiah Berlin, who did everything he could to stand in the way of any academic appointment for Deutscher).

Deutscher’s prose

is that of the romantic revolutionary bureaucratic mass-murderer,

and when one reads it,

one can only wonder whether the words correspond to any actual thoughts running through the head of the man who wrote them, and if so how terrible it must have been to be such a man.

Deutscher’s judgments

might have been laughable if they had not been so horribly detached from any vestige of human feeling.

He also

had the gift of unfailing negative foresight, possible only for someone as learned as he in the dialectic. To be always wrong implied knowledge of a kind.

Deutscher demonstrates, Dalrymple observes, that

it is possible to study something all one’s life and understand nothing whatever about it, despite an immense accumulation of learning.

It would have been difficult

not to convict Deutscher of outright lying had his mind not been so warped by the dialectic: the denial of the principle of non-contradiction rendering truth-telling impossible for him, and therefore also lying.

Dalrymple points out that it is easier to perceive moral imbecility in retrospect than contemporaneously, and asks:

Who is the Isaac Deutscher de nos jours? There must be one—or many.

Some heroes are best avoided

Leafing through Isaac Deutscher’s Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (1966), Dalrymple lights on this passage:

A society which has gone through as much as Soviet society has gone through, which has achieved so much and suffered so much, which has seen, within the lifetime of one generation, its whole existence repeatedly shattered, and which has again and again ascended the highest peaks of hope and heroism and descended to the lowest depths of despair—such a society cannot fail to draw from its rich and uniquely great experience equally great generalising ideas and practical conclusions and to embody these in actions worthy of itself. Nor can it fail to produce sooner or later the men and women strong enough in mind and character—a new ‘phalanx of heroes reared on the milk of the wild beast‘—to transform ideas into deeds.

Dalrymple comments:

I am not sure I would care much to meet a phalanx of heroes raised on the milk of the wild beast—in fact, I think I would cross to the other side of the street if I did so. (The quote, incidentally, comes from Alexander Herzen.)

Deutscher’s convoluted abstractions and chilling impersonality

Dalrymple points out that Isaac Deutscher was, to put it mildly, deficient in intellectual probity. He

believed in something called the dialectic; and the dialectic is to moral and intellectual dishonesty what Freud said dreams were to the unconscious, namely the royal road.

Deutscher was

one of those Marxists who could not quite make up his mind whether mass murder in the right hands did or did not serve the long-term interests of humanity.

Dalrymple notes that Deutscher’s prose style

is the man himself: evasive, slippery, an equivocator with evil and with the soul of an NKVD apparatchik.

What Deutscher writes

is chillingly impersonal: if he had been writing of the extermination camps, he might have done so by reference to their carbon dioxide emissions. It was as if he believed that if you were cold-hearted and impersonal enough, you became scientific. He saw classes of men, not men. His convoluted abstractions were more real to him than anything as concrete or vulgar as a bullet in the back of someone’s head.

Dear man held out hope of humanistic totalitarianism

Dalrymple finds that a century after the great October putsch, it is interesting to return to what was written 50 rather than 100 years afterwards, so he digs out Ironies of History. He notes that at the time of publication (1966) of Isaac Deutscher’s collection of essays,

the Soviet Union seemed as permanent a feature of the modern world as, say, global warming.

Deutscher had entered his phase as superstar of the New Left, on account of

  • his three-volume biography of his hero Trotsky, which offered willing dupes the hope of a humanistic totalitarianism
  • his opposition to the Vietnam War, during which he formed a tactical alliance with draft-avoiding students, the offspring of what, in other circumstances, he would no doubt have called the petty-bourgeois and kulak class

Such books as Deutscher’s Ironies, Dalrymple points out,

have gone the way of antimacassars and whalebone corsets.

Soul of an NKVD apparatchik

Isaac Deutscher, writes Dalrymple, ‘was one of those Marxists who could not quite make up his mind whether mass murder in the right hands did or did not serve the long-term interests of humanity. His prose style is the man himself: evasive, slippery, an equivocator with evil.’