Katrina vanden Heuvel
Daniel once told me, "I can write about anything happening from Vladivostock to Land's End and beyond." And he was right. For twenty years, Daniel was much more than The Nation's European correspondent. He informed us wth his profoundly humanistic and democratic passion for a socialist project and idea. He had Balzac's regard for detail, and a keen but gentle eye that saw through posturing on the left and right and in between.
Daniel had a mind that gave the lie to conventional wisdom. As an intern at The Nation in 1981, I read Daniel's book The Road to Gdansk. Remember that in the spring of 1981 people like Henry Kissinger, indeed virtually every policy wonk in the foreign policy establishment, was characterizing the Soviet Union as the permanent enemy. the cold war, these hardheads assumed, was destined to go on forever.
Daniel didn't think so. He proclaimed that Stalinism was dead and he predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire nearly a decade before it happened -- and he accurately explained why this was going to happen and even how. At a time when most Americans have bought the big lie that Ronald Reagan ended the cold war, Daniel's insights should be honored.
He understood our world better than most of us--and remarkably he could still retain a sense of optimism about the future. Never defeatist, ever naïve. "Let us never be carried away by enthusiasm...the contradictions will rapidly appear, say, between trade unionists and the Greens," he wrote after Seattle.
Daniel cherished what he affectionately called "my readers." And for someone who wasn't a natural businessman, he always had some advice about how we could and should double our readers...and he took pride in being one reason for what he called "the paper's" spurt from 28,000 or so readers in the early 80s to nearly 100,000 today...
The last time I talked to Daniel, he was dictating his final piece for The Nation from his hospital bed. He was having a difficult time breathing -- but he wanted to talk about Russia and tell me that, yes, he had finally been defeated but that was no reason not to fight until the last moment... He wanted to finish the piece he had promised the magazine. He wanted me to know that his final words were a statement, a word, a call to readers present and future, and to young ones in particular, who refused to resign themselves to the established order.
I did not have the good timing to be around when Daniel experienced what was a defining moment in his life -- the French student-worker revolt of may 1968...but I did know the Daniel who was exhilarated by the protests in Seattle and the French workers' winter of discontent and -- as he saw it and wrote about it for The Nation -- the new internationalism in which people were learning once again to dream big dreams and there were seeds of a mass democratic effort.
It was exhilarating to see these events through Daniel's eyes and words, because in his optimism -- which was never ever soft or rosy -- he understood that in history and politics there are always alternatives... -- I remember learning from Daniel what the acronym "TINA" meant --"there is an alternative to capitalism," he would say with courtly, sometimes sweetly caustic passion...and when the workers in Paris went on strike he wrote that what they were saying was "if that is the future you offer us, to hell with your future." He loved to say that and roll the words around a bit.
But Daniel was never content simply with exposing the injustices of the established order -- he not only insisted in his writing that there was an alternative but he raised the development of that alternative to the level of an imperative. As Boris Kagarlitsky, the Russian writer and activist and longtime friend of Daniel, wrote me last month, "Now without Daniel, we have to keep doing what he called for: struggling for justice and for a different social order."
Daniel was a courtly radical -- a socialist, a dreamer with few illusions, a colleague of unfailing grace and courtesy and courage -- in his ideas, in his tenacious insistence on not cutting his ideological sails to fit the latest and passing political winds. I think of Daniel's words in a forum The Nation published to take on and debate and discuss Susan Sontag's speech at a Town Hall gathering in New York in 1982 -- a gathering convened in support of Solidarity -- at which she delivered a speech equating fascism and communism and accusing the left of double standards in its views of communism.
"Being myself the son of a zek," Daniel wrote, "I gained no merit from knowing about Russia's concentration-camp universe. I am in the more comfortable position of assuring Sontag that the problem of fellow travelers is not as simple as it is now being painted by ex-Stalinists converted to the capitalist creed; assuring her too that it was most difficult for a socialist to remain critical and unattached during the years of the cold war. Today, fortunately, it is easier to proclaim a plague on both their houses, though Sontag may no longer be interested.... Her other catchy definition, 'fascism with a human face,' was obviously meant for stubborn suckers like myself who refuse to swallow the cheap, fashionable equation between Marx and the barbed wire..."
"Stubborn suckers like myself"--can you just see the pleasure Daniel must have taken in crafting that fine phrase?
in the last few years, Daniel took to sending me a weekly memo, often about Russian politics. We loved to gossip about who was up and down and what was up -- and though he had a soft spot for Rosa Luxemburg and I had one for Nikolai Bukharin, he never considered me a renegade, and we always agreed about the perils of Yeltsin... These memos were quite brief, but with meticulous attention to detail and history. In one of them of a year or so ago, Daniel wrote something which expressed more about Daniel and how he saw his role and that of The Nation than about the particular subject at hand that particular day:
"The fundamental division within the left (which should not preclude common actions) remains the same. it is between the tinkerers, implicitly or openly resigned to Tina and those realistic enough to ask for the impossible, that is to say for what it is to say for what it is the duty of our preachers and punditsto convince us is impossible, namely the radical transformation of society...."
Neither tinkerer nor sucker was Daniel.
In his last book, a book he considered his political testament, Daniel wrote, "We are not here to tinker with the world. we are here to change it!"
In conventional obituaries--those somber and sober words in newspapers...there are hard facts about a life lived but few words about political projects, hopes, struggles, ideas... it seems as if only what has been realized matters.
As Daniel would have said about these obits, and as his life tells us, There is an alternative. He lived his project and he stood for what he believed. And Daniel would ask us all -- and ask The Nation -- to carry on. Contradictions and all.Tributes * danielsinger.org