Giants with feet of clay

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  • Published 2.08.13

Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a cold War Heretic By David Caute, Yale, $35

The title of this book could convey the impression that it is about a Biblical story. But once the surnames of the two individuals are put in place, the title resonates differently. It is about Isaac Deutscher (picture, top) and Isaiah Berlin (picture, bottom). This immediately gives the subtitle a salience since both individuals were known to be major intellectual figures in the Cold War landscape.

Berlin was the most celebrated Oxford don of his generation — a fellow of All Souls, the founder of Wolfson College in Oxford, he walked with ease in the corridors of power in London, Washington and Tel Aviv, and was frequently seen in the fashionable dinner parties in the east coast of the US and in Britain. He was known as the best liberal thinker of Britain in the 20th century.

Deutscher was the marginalized figure, who never held a proper academic job in spite of his well-researched and well-received biographies of Stalin and Trotsky; he lived in London writing freelance for newspapers across the world and by lecturing. He was widely seen in his time as the voice of anti-Stalinist communism.

It would thus seem that Berlin and Deutscher inhabited two very different worlds. They were born within two years of each other —Deutscher, born in 1907, was two years older than Berlin. Both were Jews: Berlin from Russia, Deutscher from Poland. Both abandoned their ancestral faith but not their Jewish identity. Berlin’s immediate family fled from the onslaught of the Bolshevik takeover. Some of the family members who had stayed back became victims of Stalin’s terror. Deutscher managed to escape but lost his family to the Holocaust. He arrived in Britain in April 1939 when Berlin was already an established figure in Oxford and the author of a short biography of Karl Marx.

The similarities end there except that throughout their lives, they had a common friend, the historian, E.H. Carr. The intellectual differences between Isaac and Isaiah were vast and irreconcilable. Deutscher was an unrepentant communist and Marxist. He believed that there was one unifying Truth and Marxism was the only access to this Truth. Berlin was a life-long critic of all ways of thought, beginning with the Enlightenment and including Marxism that argued for one Truth. He believed such ideologies laid the ground for totalitarianism, both in politics and in the world of ideas.

It is not clear, David Caute’s detailed researches notwithstanding, whether Berlin and Deutscher had more than a passing acquaintance with each other. Deutscher kept the differences at the intellectual level. But not so Berlin. In personal correspondence and conversation, he heaped abuse upon Deutscher, calling him a fabricator and a falsifier. He once told Caute, “I must tell you frankly that Deutscher is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable. I will not dine at the same table as Deutscher.’’

Berlin translated his animosity into action when he formally objected to Deutscher getting a professorship at the University of Sussex. Berlin, in his letter to the vice chancellor, used the same words he had used in his conversation with Caute regarding Deutscher. The matter did not end there. Later, after Deutscher’s death, when his objection came to light, Berlin, to exonerate himself, wrote to Deutscher’s widow, Tamara, denying ever having written such a letter. To a friend he wrote, “I disliked him [Deutscher] personally, read his books with some admiration, was not prepared to vote against him for any post, and would have voted for him for e.g. a Fellowship at All Souls or Nuffield or St Antony’s.’’ As Caute shows, this was disingenuous on Berlin’s part. He had objected to Deutscher’s appointment in Sussex and had nothing but contempt for what Deutscher wrote. Caute’s point in revealing this rather sad episode is to demonstrate how in the charged atmosphere of the Cold War (the incident occurred in 1963) even the best liberal thinker could hit the limits of liberalism because of bias and prejudice.

Deutscher too floundered, as Caute so amply brings out, because of his own prejudice. Every single prediction he made about the Soviet Union proved to be wrong. He was known as a critic of Stalin but a close reading of his texts reveals — and Caute does this rather well with apt quotations — that he always sought to justify the violence and the brutality associated with the communist regime. To this purpose he often turned a blind eye to evidence that could not have been unknown to him. This is one reason why in the current world of Soviet Studies, Deutscher is a discredited figure. He could never overcome his starry-eyed admiration for Lenin and Trotsky and this proved to be his nemesis as a biographer, as a historian and as a commentator.

Caute recounts how these two men of learning engaged with the same themes — communism, liberty, Zionism, Pasternak, Vietnam and so on — and how invariably their perspectives and interpretations were different. Caute relates these differences to the ambience of the Cold War.

Caute is even-handed in his criticism as he delves deep into the details of their intellectual engagements. The writing is lucid with some lovely anecdotes. It is a biography of two different individuals who were coincidentally brought together by the times and their backgrounds.