Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin were two of the most prominent intellectuals living in the West at one of the high points of the Cold War during its first two decades. Though Deutscher remained a convinced Marxist until his relatively early death in 1967 while Berlin would espouse a deeply anti-Communist version of Anglo-American liberalism, there was much which they ostensibly shared in their personal backgrounds. Both were refugees from the upheavals in Russia and Eastern Europe between the two world wars. Berlin’s parents fled the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd in 1920, when Isaiah was 11 years old; they subsequently settled in London. Deutscher, born in Polish Galicia (then part of the Austrian Empire) in 1907, was two years older than Berlin. By the age of 25 he had already been expelled from the Polish Communist Party. In April 1939 he was fortunate enough to be able to leave Warsaw for London at almost the last moment, as the correspondent of a Polish Jewish newspaper.
Between 1947 and 1967, both Berlin and Deutscher became oracles of wisdom on Cold War issues in their respective camps. Since Berlin would live for another 30 years as a pillar of the British academic establishment, his fame and impact would naturally be that much greater, although Deutscher’s own legacy to the Western New Left remained substantial.
The premise behind David Caute’s new book is to claim that in March 1963, Berlin secretly and decisively blocked Deutscher’s academic appointment to a proposed chair in Soviet studies at the recently established University of Sussex, describing the candidate in stinging terms as being politically unscrupulous and “morally intolerable”. Although Berlin’s vehement distaste for Deutscher is not unknown and public rumours concerning his intervention over the appointment had already surfaced in the late 1960s, Caute is the first historian to flesh out the story in such detail. Indeed, he manages to transform what at first sight might seem to be a fairly banal case study in academic intrigue into a gripping tale of two Jewish intellectuals holding passionately opposed views on a vast range of topics such as Marxism, Soviet history, historical inevitability, Lenin, Stalin, post-Stalinism, Vietnam, the New Left, the Jews and Israel.
The strength of Caute’s book lies primarily in its interweaving of central ideological issues in the Cold War debate with pertinent biographical details concerning his two chief protagonists. In the case of Deutscher, who first made his name in 1949 as the biographer of Stalin and then of Trotsky (in three volumes), Caute conveys some of the forcefulness of his style, his flamboyant pathos and identification with the Bolsheviks. At the same time, he does not conceal Deutscher’s more obvious weaknesses — the overconfident, sweeping generalisations, the false prognostications, imaginative excesses and dogmatic pronouncements-all attributes which Berlin, with his ingrained scepticism, keenly distrusted. Some of the more exasperating features of Deutscher’s outlook (aspects which Caute believes aggravated Berlin’s antipathy towards him) were manifest in his Marxist contempt for Judaism and the state of Israel. Although Deutscher, in the wake of the Holocaust, had briefly modified some of his pre-war opposition to Zionism, in the 1960s, he once again became a fierce critic. On the eve of his death, in a vitriolic interview in the New Left Review (June 23, 1967) he effectively inaugurated a new era of New Leftist anathemas against the Jewish state. With stunning partiality, he accused the Israelis of “belligerence”, arrogance, “fanaticism” and “racial-Talmudic exclusiveness”, while virtually ignoring the bloodcurdling threats of Nasser and the Arabs to destroy Israel in the run-up to the Six Day War.
Berlin, on the other hand, was a consistent liberal supporter of the Jewish state, a disciple of the moderate Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, seeing Israel as indispensable for Jewish survival in the modern world. While privately critical in later life of Likud-oriented Israeli settlement policies, Berlin found Deutscher’s harsh judgments on Jewish themes to be as distasteful as those of the increasingly influential German-American Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt.
Caute’s portrait of Isaiah Berlin does not, in itself, break much new ground for those already familiar with Michael Ignatieff’s landmark biography or with the publication of Berlin’s extensive correspondence in recent years. (The third volume, Building: Letters 1960-1975, has just been published by Chatto & Windus, edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle.) But it does vividly remind us of how antithetical Berlin’s core values were to Communism both as an ideology and as a political system. All his life Berlin had fought against the totalitarian cult of certainty, the belief in absolute truths, historical determinism, and intellectual uniformity, vigorously opposing any denial of individual choice, cultural diversity and political pluralism. Yet despite his own liberal individualism, Berlin openly empathised with the need to belong, to be part of a community, to enjoy the sense of a common national consciousness and culture, a feeling of connection with one’s ancestors. This may explain Berlin’s lifelong fascination with thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder or the German Romantics, as well as his preoccupation with the dilemmas of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia. It also helps to elucidate Berlin’s repeated disapproval of any radical assimilationist form of Jewish self-negation, despite his own successful integration into English academic and social life.
From personal conversations with Berlin, I can confirm not only his dislike for Marxist “cosmopolitans” like Deutscher but also for those intellectuals like Arthur Koestler who sought to purge Jewish “otherness” by insisting Jews either emigrate to Israel or totally assimilate. Berlin was far too conscious of his own multiple identities — Russian, English, and Jewish — to accept such coercive choices. Zionism, for Berlin, was psychologically important precisely as a corrective to the neuroses, “abnormalities” and dualities that he felt burdened the Jewish condition in exile, but it was not the solution for all Jews.
Caute’s book is at its most compelling in his dissection of the Cold War battles of the intellectuals. He is sharply critical of Deutscher for turning a blind eye to the Stalinist purges, the Gulag, and the post-Stalin thaw. The same blind spot, he emphasises, also affected Deutscher’s idealised perception of Lenin and the October Revolution as a grandiose “progressive” achievement. The same objections could, of course, be made against E.H. Carr (with whom Berlin remained on good terms), Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Berlin, uprooted and traumatised as a youngster by the events of 1917, was completely free of such illusions. His 1945 visit to Soviet Russia had left an ineradicable mark, enabling him concretely to grasp the ravages of Stalinist terror against the classical Russian culture of which he was so enamoured. Berlin’s empathy with the great Russian poet and novelist, Boris Pasternak (regarded with contempt by Deutscher as a renegade), shows just how far apart Caute’s two protagonists remained.
Naturally, these differences do not justify Berlin’s action in vetoing Deutscher’s academic prospects 50 years ago — something about which he may have felt some twinge of remorse. Caute is, on the whole, reasonably balanced and not overly judgmental in his account of this lapse. Wisely, he uses it essentially as a backdrop for vividly depicting the broader issues at stake in the never-ending dilemma of how to reconcile democratic freedoms with radical social change.