AUGUST 10, 2013
THEY WERE BOTH refugees from political tyranny: Isaiah Berlin escaped with his parents from the Bolsheviks, while Isaac Deutscher fled the Nazi genocide, the lone survivor among his family. They both reached England immersed in central and east European culture, especially Russian and German. They were both instantly recognizable as sage-like yet convivial Jewish presences in the upper crust circles of London, both men of intellectual distinction acclaimed as leading lights of their age. Berlin was a proud New Deal liberal; Deutscher was a radical leftist. Berlin’s dispatches from Washington during World War II on behalf of the British Foreign Office amused Churchill with their opulent, witty style. In the lecture hall and on the radio his rapid-fire Oxonian patter enlightened and sometimes mystified his audiences; gossipy and gregarious, compared by his friends to a quizzical baby elephant, he guided generations of students at Oxford’s All Souls College. Deutscher’s fire-breathing commitment to Marxism inspired fellow travelers and Party members, including those who had been disillusioned by Stalin’s tyranny.
The two men knew each other, although not well, Deutscher nonetheless loomed large and malignant in Berlin’s mind. Deutscher was hardly concerned with Berlin beyond panning his work in print, but Berlin took Deutscher’s presence much more personally, so much so that he blackballed him, apparently preventing Deutscher from getting a university appointment at Sussex in 1963. (Deutscher was by this time a very high-profile journalist, so it is rather surprising that he would have been interested in a job as a professor at a fledgling university like Sussex.) Berlin, in a letter to a friend at Sussex, wrote that Deutscher was:
the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable. How much of this is founded on objective judgment of his academic and intellectual activities and how much on personal feeling, I find it difficult to say.
Berlin added that he had no objections to Marxists and that “personal opinions, especially left-wing ones,” should not bar any scholar from a university appointment. But Deutscher was beyond the pale: he had made a point of concealing the crimes of the Soviet state.
David Caute’s Isaac & Isaiah is a riveting account of Berlin and Deutscher, a dual intellectual biography. Caute clearly admires both and appreciates their virtues as well as their faults. Deutscher’s work is easier to poke holes in, but Caute mightily tries to come down just as hard on Berlin as he does on Deutscher.
The faults, in Deutscher’s case, were massive, and they stemmed from his embrace of Communism at its most oppressive. Deutscher claimed to see a compassionate side in Bolshevism, but this led him into even worse moral confusion, seeing a humane side to totalitarian violence: notoriously, he said about Trotsky, “in his most ruthless deeds and most severe words there still glowed a warm humanity.” But even if their politics are repugnant, Deutscher’s books still remain enthralling. His acclaimed biographies of Stalin and Trotsky are masterful, gripping works: vividly written narratives by an author who spoke only a little English when he left Warsaw for Britain in 1939, at age 32. As Neal Ascherson writes, “the power and excitement of his prose knock the reader down”; Deutscher’s style, Ascherson adds, has a “majestic urgency” that sweeps all before it. Deutscher’s books were esteemed even by his political opponents, who saw them as definitive accounts of Soviet Russia (as Caute reveals, Deutscher was a surprisingly popular speaker at Tory gatherings; like Berlin, he was eminently clubbable). But Deutscher’s writings are also examples of ardent special pleading on behalf of the Soviet system; even when Deutscher criticizes Stalin he remains what Berlin called him, an “anti-Stalinist Stalinist.” He sees the brutal collectivization of the Soviet Union as a harsh but necessary effort to transform society for the better; he defends the Hitler-Stalin pact (as did Trotsky); he says that Stalin relied on anti-Semitism only because Soviet Jews were too pro-American. Worst of all, in his biography of Stalin he mentions the prison camp system that terrorized millions only in passing, as if it were a minor, though regrettable, detail of history. Deutscher was a dangerous, dyed in the wool anti-democrat. As Caute writes, he believed that:
Firm, even ruthless leadership is indispensable. [. . .] the Party must rule over the masses in a dire emergency (but there is always a dire emergency). Government must be top-down.
Deutscher only balked when Stalin directed his terror against the Party itself; he had no objections to terror as such.
Was Deutscher, as Berlin alleged, a “falsifier”? Caute hedges on this one. But Berlin’s allegation stands up. Deutscher certainly misrepresented the facts about Stalin’s rule, facts that he himself knew very well. On Berlin’s own principles of intellectual honesty, he was right to bar Deutscher from the teaching job at Sussex. As Berlin was careful to explain, he would have had no objection to Deutscher teaching Marxism; but Deutscher teaching Soviet history, which he had systematically falsified, could not be tolerated. There was a crucial difference, as Berlin saw it, between writing history and making propaganda for an enemy state, especially for the Soviet Union, the state that Berlin loathed beyond all others.
Caute also has an indictment of Berlin, though this is less convincing than his condemnation of Deutscher. He suggests that Berlin’s vaunted pluralism, his belief in the good that stems from a variety of cultures and ways of life rather than a uniform rule for all humankind, is contradicted by the fact that there are some societies that Berlin rejects: barbaric ones that rely on torture and oppression. But you can exclude barbarism from the realm of the good, as Berlin did, and still be a pluralist. The crucial point for Berlin is that we must refuse the temptation to say that every good society must have the same form, to think that we can impose a more perfect order by discovering values that everyone will be compelled to agree with and share. To dream of such a universal order is to take a step down the road that Deutscher traveled — a road that ends in the Gulag whose significance Deutscher deliberately minimized.
Berlin decided not to be engagé, though Caute wishes he had proclaimed, Sartre-like, on the political squabbles of his time. Berlin made almost no recommendations about public policy: this was not the point of his life and work. The track record of engagé intellectuals is not a great one (see the above-mentioned Sartre), and one can respect Berlin’s decision. On the few occasions when he did make a public statement about a topical political issue, he got into trouble (he declared that the American decision to intervene in Vietnam had been wrong, but now that it was there, America ought not to leave too quickly — a statement that satisfied no one). His brand of reflective, moderate opinion was not made for the hot-tempered, loose-hanging 1960s. Deutscher, the admirer of pitiless revolutionary tactics, was more esteemed in that era, in spite of the fact that he kept his distance from the New Left.
Caute paints Berlin as something of an elitist snob, in his words a “coddled bourgeois.” Surely Berlin reveled in the good life, but to imagine with Caute that this fact invalidates his arguments is rather silly. And on Berlin’s aesthetic preferences Caute falls down completely. Caute faults Berlin for spending too much time in his most famous work, The Hedgehog and the Fox, discussing Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf, with their upper-class milieux, rather than (this is Caute’s suggestion) Walter Greenwood’s “memorable Love on the Dole (1933),” which Berlin’s Soviet hosts were shocked he had not read when they asked him about it on a 1945 visit. Caute laments the fact that Berlin never referred to Gorky and sees class prejudice in this omission. But Berlin would surely argue that his favorites Tolstoy and Turgenev tell us far more about the reality of human life than Gorky or the justly forgotten Greenwood. Caute seems to yearn for the good old days of socialist realism, when the worth of a piece of fiction could easily be deduced from whether it sympathetically portrayed working-class life and showed the wealthy to be corrupt fiends. These are the standards of propaganda, not art, and they had a devastating effect on writers in the Soviet bloc. Berlin, whose 1945 meeting in Leningrad with Anna Akhmatova was, according to his biographer Michael Ignatieff, the most important event of his life, cared deeply about the writers persecuted by Stalin. Deutscher, by contrast, seemed indifferent to the fate of art under Communism.
Berlin and Deutscher also differed on Israel. Berlin was an enthusiastic Zionist, and a close friend and collaborator of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, though at the end of his life Berlin expressed strong criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. Deutscher as a loyal Marxist argued against the plan for a Jewish state, but after the Holocaust he admitted that it was impossible for him to be opposed to Zionism, and he happily visited Israel. Caute’s book is marred by his unrealistic attitude toward Israel, which, he argues, should have become an Arab-majority country by welcoming back the Palestinian refugees in 1948, even after five Arab nations had tried to eliminate all Jews from Palestine, and ought to now give citizenship to foreign-born Palestinians rather than Jewish immigrants, despite continued Arab aggression. He condemns Israel’s refusal “to accept a final partition of land with the Palestinians,” ignoring the fact that Palestinians have never made such an offer, while Israel has. Caute properly criticizes Deutscher for his dismaying suggestion, following Marx himself, that Jews, because of their economic activities, were partly responsible for anti-Semitism — an especially shocking statement from a man whose entire family had been murdered by the Nazis. But Caute makes the same error: he blames Israel for the eliminationist attacks directed against it.
Berlin will forever be known best as the author of The Hedgehog and the Fox. Which beast was he? the reader inevitably asks. It might be reasonable to expect that a pluralist like Berlin would be a fox (according to the apothegm of the Greek poet Archilochus, the fox knows many things, unlike the hedgehog, who knows one). But Caute wittily calls Berlin a hedgehog, since “time and again he comes back to one big thing: namely, that big things are recipes for travail and tyranny.” There are few better examples than Deutscher of the hazards of subscribing to the one big thing, the socialist utopia, at the cost of freedom, human rights, and civilized values. Despite its flawed treatment of Zionism and its rather unconvincing critique of Berlin, David Caute’s book deserves attention as a balanced, thoughtful study of an intellectual feud for the ages.