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Remembering Daniel Singer

Percy BrazilL was a longtime friend of Daniel Singer, as well as his personal physician.

My friend Daniel Singer, in a piece he wrote for The Nation six years ago, said that he often felt like a deserter from the army of the dead because he escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews in Paris by walking across France to Switzerland.

Daniel cheated death again five years ago when he was hit with a life-threatening illness. But this time the Parisian medical profession came to his rescue and he was cured and able to resume his busy life as a journalist, author, radio commentator, and lecturer.

Daniel’s luck and the old millennium ran out together; in December 2000 he died after a year-long battle with cancer. We are going to have to find our way in the new millennium without him, although he did leave his last book as a sort of vade mecum to help us at least head in the right direction. Fittingly, its title is Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?

Daniel was born in 1926 in the Warsaw ghetto. His father, Bernard Singer, was a poet, a journalist, and poor. His mother, Esther (affectionately known as Eschuchia), was the pride and joy of traditional and wealthy Jewish parents who were dead set against her marriage to Bernard. He was, after all, a dreamer, a scribbler. By what means short of divine intervention would he ever earn enough zlotys to support their daughter? But marry they did. Asked years later if Esther had come with a dowry, Bernard laughed. “Dowry? That’s what they offered me if I’d go away.”

Daniel was born at home, as was the custom. Upstairs in the same apartment house lived another young poet, Isaac Deutscher. Daniel liked to say he’d been close to Deutscher from the day he was born until the day Deutscher died. Indeed, Deutscher was like a father to Daniel and it was Daniel who delivered the eulogy at Deutscher’s funeral in London.

Eschuchia was the intellectual of the Singer family. She was serious in her convictions, deeply philosophical, and cherished the unforgettable experience of having heard Rosa Luxemburg speak. While still at university, she became a Marxist. Bernard was more of a romantic. István Mészáros has said that Bernard Singer’s writing was like a nightingale singing and that Daniel’s ability to present complicated ideas with grace and coherence was the combined influence of both parents. It was Eschuchia who urged Deutscher to read Marx. He did and went on to become one of the leading Marxist historians and scholars of the twentieth century. So the Marxist triple play was Eschuchia to Isaac to Daniel.

In time, Bernard’s scribblings defied prediction by bringing in enough money to permit him to move his family out of the ghetto. Eschuchia was able to give up teaching to stay home and raise and educate her children who, by this time, numbered three. Daniel was the only Jewish boy in his class at school and, despite the fact that antisemitism was a way of life in Poland, he was popular, albeit in the condescending manner of, “We don’t like Jews, but you’re different.” (And, as the joke used to go, especially in the bathroom.)

When he was twelve, Daniel developed a severe form of sinusitis. By now Bernard could afford to send his son to a warm climate for his health. Eschuchia packed up Daniel and his sister and headed for Antibes in the south of France. It was the summer of 1939.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed on August 24 of that year. Deutscher hurried to Antibes to tell the Singers war was coming, they mustn’t return to Poland but instead should try to get to England. Eschuchia hoped to book passage on one of several Polish ships docked in Marseilles. When two of the ships were sunk by the Germans, the Singers decided the prudent thing to do was head for Paris where they might be able to arrange a Channel crossing to England. Daniel sold his stamp collection so they’d have money for a place to live. Soon after the arrival of German troops in Paris, the police came for the Singers. Daniel’s sister jumped from a window and broke both legs. Esther was allowed to take her daughter to a hospital and it was then decided that Daniel should try to escape to Switzerland. With another Polish lad, he walked and hitchhiked some four hundred miles across France, slipped past German border patrols, and made his way to Geneva. Swiss authorities at first put him in a concentration camp but then released him into the custody of the Polish consul in Berne. He enrolled in school. Two years later, he was able to pass the baccalaureate exam in French. He studied philosophy at the university in Geneva where he was eventually joined by his mother and sister.

With the war drawing to a close in 1944, Daniel, his mother, and sister were able to leave for London where they joined Bernard. Arrested in Riga as an undesirable writer in 1940, Bernard had been held for two years in an icy Soviet gulag before being permitted to travel to London. Daniel told me he’d been saved from going through a Stalinist phase in his political development because of the thuggery and dacoitage of both the Soviet and Polish Communist parties. The Soviets jailed his father and the Polish party expelled Deutscher for daring to think independently. Daniel had nothing but contempt for the Georgian seminarian and his coterie. I can also add here that Daniel never belonged to any political party. In England he entered the University of London to continue his studies in political science and economics. He graduated with a B.Sc. in economics. Deutscher, too, was in London, building his reputation with articles for the Economist and theObserver. In 1949, Daniel began writing on politics and economics for the New Statesman. His work brought him to the attention of the Economist, where he remained on staff for nineteen years.

Jeanne Kerel worked for the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris and was at the London School of Economics writing her doctoral thesis on “The Cost of Living in Paris 1840–1954” when she met a young man who not only had brains and charm but, more to the point, spoke fluent French. She and Daniel married in 1956 with Isaac Deutscher serving as best man. Jeanne received her Ph.D. in economics the following year. In 1958 the young couple settled in Paris where, as Daniel’s reputation grew, their home became a haven for visitors from around the world. The Singers were intellectual partners and made a formidable team. She was a critical participant in his work and traveled with him wherever his investigations and speaking engagements took him. At the same time, she continued her own studies in preparation for publication of a major study in economics. They had a marvelous, loving marriage for forty-four years.

While Jeanne continued her work at the National Center, Daniel reported on Gaullist France for the Economist and provided radio and television commentary for the national networks in Britain and Canada. When Cable News Network (CNN) tried repeatedly to interview him, he finally told them, “Look, I’m a professional journalist. This is how I make a living.” He was saying that if they wanted to hear what he had to say, they had to hire him. It sometimes takes a socialist to remind the capitalists how the game is played.

It was during this time that he developed a healthy scepticism regarding the objectivity of the British press, as best exemplified by his favorite ditty:

But if you knew what he can do
Unbribed: there’s no occasion to.

A defining moment, perhaps a watershed in Daniel’s life, was the French student-worker revolt of May 1968. Daniel covered it as a journalist and was so moved by the experience that he took six months off from the Economist to write what became the authoritative book on the events of that period. The book was Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968. He offered it to the Economist for publication, but obviously it was not their cup of tea. It was snapped up in the United States by Hill and Wang and published in 1970. The New Republic reviewer wrote at the time, “If Marx had been living in Paris during May 1968, he might have written this book.” Daniel was now firmly established as a major political writer.

The Road to Gdansk, a book about the Polish uprising in 1980 that produced Solidarnosc, was published by Monthly Review Press in 1981. Daniel had a deep attachment to this democratic and exciting moment in the land of his birth and was saddened but not surprised when its revolutionary fervor was undercut and then betrayed. This book also included a prescient analysis of the “seeds of change” in the Soviet Union.

Also in 1981, Daniel was invited to become European correspondent for The Nation. He dictated his final column for the magazine from his hospital bed a few days before he died.

1988 brought the publication of Is Socialism Doomed? The Meaning of Mitterand, once again about the betrayal of a socialist movement, this time in France.

Daniel’s last book, his magnum opus, was Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?, published by Monthly Review Press in 1999. In it Daniel refutes those who believe that There Is No Alternative to capitalism. (He always referred to this idea by its acronym, TINA.) This masterful work not only proclaims that there is indeed an alternative but raises the development of that alternative to the level of an imperative.

Additionally, Daniel was a standout in the lineup of heavy hitters at the annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York for many years and during the eighties and nineties, he contributed articles to Monthly Review and lectured at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

It is customary when examining the life of a writer to break it into five parts: Childhood and Education; Embarking on a Career; Early Work; In Full Flower as an Established Writer; and, finally, Loss of Illusions. I have described the first four of these segments. As for loss of illusions, Daniel never had any. He never believed that the Stalinist endeavor was a socialist paradigm. “More like Paradigm Lost,” he quipped, ever the Restoration scholar.

Although Daniel did not think the May 1968 events in France would have any immediate effect, he insisted upon their longterm significance. “Internationalist, egalatarianist, spontaneous and libertarian,” he wrote, “the May Movement suddenly recalled what socialism once stood for and showed what it could mean again in our times. It accomplished next to nothing, yet it holds a promise for the future.” He felt and wrote similarly about the betrayal of Solidarnosc.

Daniel further insisted that socialism hasn’t failed, because it has never been tried. He identified himself with the stream of socialism represented by Rosa Luxemburg. As noted earlier, he was never a member of any political party, but when Staughton Lynd mused at the 1999 Socialist Scholars Conference about starting a Marxist-Luxemburgist party, Daniel swiftly said, “I’ll join.” That was very likely as close as he ever came to signing up.

My wife Gladys and I spent the last two weeks of November 2000 in Paris in order to visit with Daniel and Jeanne each day during his final hospitalization. Daniel knew his life was ending. He was quite lucid and eager to talk and be talked to. He spoke, for instance, of his regret that some people have an almost mystical belief in inevitability. “It’s true,” he said, “that capitalism has within it the seeds of its own destruction, but only seeds in the sense of awareness and consciousness. Capitalism will have to be pushed off the stage.” He went on to say that

it will require a revolution. But not a revolution that necessarily requires bloodshed. Rather a revolution in the consciousness of people. And that will take time. And when that time comes, let’s hope they get it right. But there is no guarantee. Rosa Luxemburg predicted socialism or barbarism. I happen to be a socialist, but if a better idea is produced, so be it. I would not want to foreclose on the future.

And he added,

There is no certainty about the future. Humanity has the capability of destroying itself, and it may very well do so. The hope is with the younger generation. They will not be able to run away from the problems of the world the way our generation did and the next generation has. But our grandchildren will have to deal with the contradictions.

In Whose Millennium?, he wrote, “On the ground littered with broken models and shattered expectations, a new generation will now have to take the lead.” And additionally he wrote, “Egalitarianism—not to be enforced with levelling and uniformity—-must be at the very heart of any progressive project.”

Michael Löwy said at the time of Daniel’s death,

Daniel Singer was more than a journalist. He was at the same time a historian, writer, political essayist, and he distinguished himself with his verve, caustic spirit, mordant irony, and an obstinate fidelity to the socialist dream.

Daniel’s close friend István Mészáros summed up Daniel’s character and life:

Daniel had a rare gift for relating to people and carrying them with his logic and passion. He was able to live in a world that is basically hostile to his ideas and yet hold strongly on to his beliefs. He could convince not only with the way he wrote, but could convince people also by touching them with the way of his life and the style of his life.

István added,

Daniel had a marvelous sense of proportion which could put even the most disheartening events in historical perspective. That is why, notwithstanding the critical distance which he always maintained from the Stalinist developments in Russia and elsewhere, including his native country, the adversaries of socialism could never receive even one word of comfort, nor derive one gram of ammunition for their cold war efforts from his books and numerous other writings.

Daniel was an exemplar of the aphorism that the essence of life lies not in the defeat of our dreams, but in the joy that they were ever there at all. With virtually his last breath, he envisaged a socialist future for humanity.

He loved to end his public lectures with the words spoken by Rosa Luxemburg the day before she was murdered, and I think it fitting to end now with them.

Your order is built on sand. The revolution will raise its heart again, proclaiming to the sound of trumpets, I was, I am, I shall be.

The Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation, Inc., is being established to further expand on the ideas explored by Daniel Singer in his last book Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?

The purpose of the educational foundation is to encourage and develop ideas which enhance and extend democratic, civil and economic rights, and social justice, to all the peoples of the world.

A prize of $2,500 will be awarded annually for an essay of not more than five thousand words, submitted to the Foundation, which continues Daniel’s examination of the development of the new millennium. The Foundation will be established as a endowment to fund the annual $2,500 prize.

Scholars/activists will compete in an annual essay contest, with the winner selected by a committee composed of distinguished writers on both sides of the Atlantic. The committee will select the essay which best explores and augments the Singer thesis. The winner will then deliver a public lecture based upon the winning essay.

The award will be announced annually in the month of December. Daniel Singer died on December 2, 2000.

Application is being made to establish the Foundation as a 501 c3 Charity to accept donations and appreciated securities.

Financial contributions both small and large will be welcomed by the Foundation. Contributions should be made out to , and can be sent to the Treasurer of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Albert Ruben, at 285 Central Park West, Apt. 6W, New York, NY 10024.

Board of Trustees

Percy Brazil, Chairperson, Connecticut
Adrian DeWind, Secretary, New York
Albert Ruben, Treasurer, New York
Frank Fried, California
Maurice Lazarus, Massachusetts
Jeanne Singer, France

2001, Volume 52, Issue 09 (February)
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