The late 1980s weren't the most auspicious times to be on the left in Britain. The memory of Thatcher's routing of the miners and Murdoch's smashing of the print workers still loomed large.
And we were still some time from the joy of defeating Thatcher over the Poll Tax.
In those days keeping the faith meant keeping up the routine: going on demos, many of them not very well attended, selling the Socialist Worker newspaper at King Cross' tube on Friday night, and being told to "go back to bloody Russia."
Britain's left press -- except the newspaper I used to sell -- was in a terrible state and that's when I found The Nation magazine in my college library in London. God only knows what possessed me to pick up this very unglamorous looking magazine that always had a rather shipwrecked appearance when it arrived in the library.
Anyway, that's where I found Daniel.
So every week I would go into the library, to see if a new issue had arrived and I would get my quick fix of Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn and Katha Pollitt but then usually once a month there was the big fix: these marvelous, Balzacian letters from Europe which I hope someone will put between covers soon.
But here's what was so special about Daniel's dispatches. And especially to a teenager like myself. They were counterblasts against many received wisdoms, especially those on the liberal and social democratic left, crafted with such élan, such stylistic confidence, conveying ideas that my comrades and friends were struggling to articulate.
This was so true about his writing on Eastern Europe. Many on the left were confused about what was going on there, especially in Britain, where a professor of mine thought his hopes that the local fish-and-chip shop would be put under collective state ownership were dashed. Was it the fall of socialist aspirations though? Daniel's analysis, schooled in the finest traditions of the left opposition was that you could not conflate the crimes of Stalin and the bureaucratic regimes of his successors with a genuinely democratic and revolutionary socialist project, a project that we still had to urgently dream and fight for.
We all know how clairvoyant Daniel's writings were. Daniel's brilliant, learned work was a refreshing change from the sectarian bog that so much of the revolutionary left was stuck in. But here's the thing: there was such youth, bounce and vigor in his writing that Daniel became something of a mystery to me.
All I knew of Daniel was that he was The Nation's Europe Correspondent. That's it. I never saw any of Daniel's autobiographical writings because after leaving college I only picked up The Nation on my holidays to the United States.
So I build up this image of Daniel in my head of this youthful roving reporter with the best job in the world -- a sort of Dustin Hoffman circa All the President's Men filing frontline reports from Europe in revolution, not just reporting the revolution but writing the revolution as well.
A decade later I found myself in New York with my fiancée Stefanie and due to an incredibly restrictive student visa the only kind of gainful employment permissible to the INS, odd as it sounds, was as aNation intern.
When I had to fill in my intern option form saying whom I wanted to intern with, Daniel was an automatic choice and I was delighted when my wishes were honored. You can imagine the excitement the first time I called Daniel's number in Paris. And I was intrigued by his accent, which sounded English but I couldn't really place it. The mystery was solved finally on meeting him on one of his periodic trips he and Jeanne would make to The Nation's offices. He told me, and I'm sure he delighted in telling many of you this, that he was "a rootless cosmopolitan with a British passport."
Now one of the things he loved about visiting the Nation offices was his chance to meet the new intake of Nation interns. His specialty was his seminar where he spoke to us of his life and career. I was amazed by his life story, especially when he spoke of escaping the Nazis. I think I rather foolishly said, "Wow, you must write your autobiography" but he insisted that he was too young to write one.
But his seminar was fabulous. He must have done it dozens of time but he took such pleasure in describing the events of May '68 in Paris and how important they were to his own career -- how they made him re-evaluate his own beat at The Economist -- and how they illuminated what he learnt from Rosa Luxembourg, Victor Serge, Leon Trotsky, his mother and father and, of course, his mentor Issac Deutscher. I don't know how many young people Daniel introduced to the events of May '68 through the medium of that seminar. I'm sure many of us found his words infectious, even though some probably, though not all of us, may have found Daniel's Marxism very different to their own political viewpoint.
But during that seminar May '68 would appear to us as a living thing -- he loved telling us especially about how the young students and workers of Paris chanted "We are all German Jews!" he loved invoking Rimbaud's appeal to "change life!" There was nothing dull or musty about his recollection. And this brings me to this thought I have been playing with in my head. Why the exuberance, why the confidence, why such optimism? Look at the end of Whose Millennium? and the faith he has in young people like myself to remake the world we live in. It's rather daunting actually. Well, I suppose something of those days in Paris never rubbed off him -- in fact in a way, every day for Daniel was Mai '68. And he so wanted to share that with us youngsters. Here's something else about Daniel, which makes him so appealing. These aren't my words but the words of Daniel's last intern Laurence Pantin, who I hope doesn't mind me sharing them: She says "I know Daniel is not the kind of person who, like so many others I know, would have politely listened to what I had to say with a smile and then said, 'Oh, you're so idealistic. You'll see that you'll think differently when you're my age.' I think he would have encouraged me, on the contrary. He has given me a lot of hope, the hope that I'm not going to change my mind when I grow older, that there are still beliefs and principles to be fought for and worth talking and writing about."
Daniel really took me under his wing and I'll never forget the advice and support he gave me. He did this so often. Over e-mail, on his trips here, even in the last months of his life, he was extremely energetic and kind in his thoughts. What I loved was when he would sit me down and cross-examine me about what I was writing, ask about my career and life plans, and he would give me background for a piece I was writing on, say, the Italian far left of the 1970s. For instance, on his last trip to New York I remember we found ourselves in an empty office and he poured through a draft of an article of mine where I attempted to write about the politics and aesthetics of the French New Wave cinema. There was a lot of stuff in the piece about the French communist party and Mai '68 and you can imagine how nervous I was as he read it. But it was like a college tutorial where he kindly sat down and read my article aloud in that wonderful voice of his --correcting my grammar, adding depth to my sentences, but overall being very warm and encouraging.
Often he would stop in his tracks and say "You see," and then one of his marvelous anecdotes would begin.
Here's the best advice Daniel gave me: One: Specialize in something. He wasn't dismissive of my interest in writing about cinema because as he said when we were discussing Kristof Kieslowski, "We are fighting the same battle ond ifferent fronts." Two: Make sure you're never wrong. Those on the right can always make mistakes and their friends will always bail them out. We on the left don't have that luxury. Three: Make sure you can look yourself in the mirror in the morning. Four: He warned that writers can get very cranky, especially around deadline time; and that left-wing writers generally make a paltry amount of money so it helps to have a spouse who can tolerate your moods and more importantly, financially help you out.
The last time I saw Daniel was when he and Jeanne invited my wife and I to spend an evening with them in their apartment in Paris. It was a fabulous evening. I can still taste the potatoes Jeanne made that night. And I remember, after I eulogized the beauty of the Church of Sacred Heart in Montmartre, Jeanne telling me that she thought it was the ugliest building in Paris. And Daniel then telling me it was built to atone for the sins of the Paris Commune. Anyway it was about two weeks after the events in Seattle and naturally we turned to those events over the course of the evening. Daniel was cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of Seattle. He was wary that the tasks ahead were tremendous. The Establishment, he said, would try every little trick in their book to counter-attack. And yet he believed the protesters in Seattle, and elsewhere, had revived the forgotten belief that people can shape things through collective action. Over the next year, sadly his last, he showed a lively interest -- even when the going was very tough -- in the debates after Seattle, especially the one generated by Perry Anderson's provocative and gloomy editorial in the New Left Review.
Well, I miss those conversations, and I especially miss the conversations that Daniel and I never got round to having. But I keep turning tothe poetic final passages of his first, scandalously out-of-print book, Prelude to Revolution. It's an antidote to the overwhelming feeling of loss all of us probably feel at the moment. But I love these words of his as he describes the end of May '68, on the last of the marches: Daniel describes the sun shining over Montparnasse, red flags flying, students and workers chanting in a fearless mood, "This is just the beginning...the struggle continues." Daniel writes:
"Don't run, young comrades. Don't climb onto exposed barricades just to be shot at. Watch your step, because the ground is full of pitfalls.... Watch out and learn. But go on advancing together, in a fighting formation, because your generation can take us on the road to socialism and freedom. And the alternative is still a relapse into barbarism, with or without nuclear doom."Tributes * >danielsinger.org