In Memoriam: Daniel Singer

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Michael Löwy

DANIEL SINGER, EUROPEAN correspondent for The Nation, died Saturday, December 2, 2000, at the age of 74.  His life story is a remarkable capsule portrait of the Jewish condition in the middle of the 20th century.

Born September 26, 1926 in Warsaw, Poland, the son of a well-known journalist, Bernard Singer (pen-name “Regnis”), Daniel Singer was in France with his mother and sister when the World War II broke out. Fleeing from the German Army, his family took refuge in Marseille, where the police came to arrest them in 1942.

The young Daniel Singer succeeded in escaping to Switzerland, joined later by his family, who were helped by the French Resistance.  Meanwhile, his father had stayed in Poland.  He was in hiding in Riga at the moment of the Third Reich’s invasion of his country.

Bernard Singer was arrested in Riga in 1940 by the Soviets, and deported to Vorkouta, a prison camp that was only liberated when the Hitler-Stalin pact broke down with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1940.  Bernard Singer then left for London.

As the son of a “Zek,” or Gulag prisoner, Daniel was never prey to illusions about the nature of the Stalinist regime.  After his studies in Geneva, Singer joined his father and in 1948 he replaced Isaac Deutscher (a close friend of the family’s) as an editor of The Economist, where he published articles on Russia, Poland and France.

In May 1956 he married a French economist, Jeanne Kerel, a researcher at the National Center for Social Research, and settled down in France as the French correspondent for that English magazine.

In 1970 he published his first book, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, a work which, according to the Washington Post, succeeded in communicating the extraordinary enthusiasm of liberated spirits during those feverish days. After writing this book he resigned from The Economist.

In 1981, Singer became the European correspondent for the major publication of the American left, The Nation. In fact, however, Daniel Singer was much more than a journalist: At once historian, writer, and political essayist, he distinguished himself by the verve, caustic spirit and biting irony of all his writings.

Unlike so many others who were swept along by the prevailing current, whose politics were blown in whatever direction the winds dictated and who adapted themselves to the spirit of the times, Singer remained faithful his whole life to the socialist dream, to the democratic, revolutionary and internationalist ideal of a new world.

He remained faithful to the critical Marxism embodied by another Polish Jew who recognized neither country nor borders, and whom he loved so much: Rosa Luxemburg.

One of his few publications in French was an essay on [Russian opposition writer Alexander] Solzhenitsyn—in support of the witness of Stalinist crimes, but against the reactionary prophet—which appeared in the Esthetic Review (no. 2-3, 1976).  This text was reprinted in his 1981 work, The Road to Gdansk: Poland and the USSR (Monthly Review Press), which concentrated on the workers’ opposition in Poland.

From his Luxemburgist-inspired socialist perspective—a position opposed to Stalinism, but also hostile to the Social Democrats—Singer drew an uncompromising balance sheet in 1988 of the “Mitterand Years:” Is Socialism Doomed?  The Meaning of Mitterand.

His final book, published in 1999, Whose Millennium?  Theirs or Ours?  was written in reaction to the defeatist belief that “There Is No Alternative” to capitalism, the infamous “TINA” formula proclaimed by Margaret Thatcher.

This work was at once a critical balance sheet of socialism’s heritage, and a discussion of the possibilities of building an internationalist, egalitarian and truly democratic society.  The book was greeted as a fundamental contribution to the debate over the future of socialism by, among others, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich.

For Eduardo Galeano, “[t]his book helps us to believe that tomorrow is not another name for today.” Gore Vidal praised Singer’s “Balzacian eye for detail” and the charm of his prose.

Singer’s friends have decided to create a “Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation” to award a prize every year to an essay written in this same spirit.

Daniel Singer was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, not far from the grave of Jean Paul Sartre, in a simple and moving ceremony at which some of his friends spoke: K.S. Karol and Rossana Rossanda to recall his collaboration with the creation of “Il Manifesto;” Istvan Meszaros to honor his lifelong fight for socialism; Pierre Vidal-Naquet, to remember his rejection of “Judaism in One Country.”

Among others who spoke in his memory and to pay homage were Samir Amin, Daniel Bensaid, Olivier Revault d’Allones, Suzanne de Brunhoff and Eleni Varikas.  Messages from Tariq Ali, George Steiner and Fausto Bertinotti were read.

The author of this memorial first met Daniel Singer in 1976, and was gifted with a quarter century of the warm friendship and exceptional generosity of a man who struggled his whole life against the capitalist system.  His weapons were the pen and the word, and his ammunition, humor, lucidity and intelligence.

Michael Löwy is the author of many books on socialist theory, history and liberation theology, among other topics.  This tribute first appeared in French in Le Monde and was translated for Against the Current by Abra Quinn.  Some other brief tributes appeared in our previous issue (ATC 90).

ATC 91, March-April 2001