Books

Isaac & Isaiah, by David Caute - review

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

The scene is the common room of All Souls College, Oxford, in the first week of March 1963. It is the idle half-hour after lunch when fellows slump into armchairs and gaze out of the window at the sparrows in the Fellows’ Garden. David Caute, a young first-class mind in his mid-twenties, is buttonholed by the revered figure of Sir Isaiah Berlin. What did Caute think of Isaac Deustcher? Did he admire him, as so many young scholars on the left did? Well, Caute replied cautiously, he knew Deutscher’s book on Stalin and his trilogy on Trotsky.  ‘Quite sufficient.’ And Berlin bounded off into one of his rapid-fire bombardments: there were Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and E.H.Carr whom Berlin liked and even admired, though he completely disagreed with them. But Deutscher was different; he was a liar, a distorter; he twisted the truth to make Trotsky look like Jesus on the Cross. Berlin would not dine at the same table with the man. Deutscher had to be stopped.

From this unnerving tirade, the young Caute gathered only that Berlin would do anything he could to prevent Deutscher from corrupting the minds of the young. And indeed he already had. When Deutscher had applied for a job as senior lecturer at Sussex University, Asa Briggs and the other professors in the department had jumped at the prospect and proposed to offer him a professorship in Soviet Studies. Isaiah Berlin was an external adviser to the board and the natural person for the vice-chancellor, John Fulton, to consult. Would Deutscher be suitable? No, Berlin replied on 4 March 1963, Deustcher would not: ‘The candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.’ Coming from a man of Berlin’s eminence, that put the kybosh on Deutscher’s chances. He died four years later, never having held an academic post. When Berlin burst into the All Souls common room, he had either just put the knife in, or was on the point of doing so.

This disagreeable little incident may seem like a slender foundation for a sizable book 50 years later. One is tempted to repeat the wisecrack attributed to Henry Kissinger (though there are other claimants, going as far back as Woodrow Wilson) that ‘academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small’.

But Caute is really writing about something larger and more fascinating. I cannot quite agree, as the blurb claims, that the book ‘brings to life for the first time the full severity of Berlin’s action against Deustcher’. The correspondence was published in Tariq Ali’s journal Black Dwarf back in 1969, and the history of the affair was summarised in Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin in 1998. But what Caute does do, rather ingeniously, is to deploy the Berlin-Deutscher spat to deconstruct the attitudes of the intelligentsia to the Cold War during its years of maximum intensity — a demolition job he first embarked on 40 years ago in his marvellous book The Fellow Travellers. There, Deutscher had barely a walk-on part. He was, after all, rather more than a fellow traveller on the great red train. He was right up in the driver’s cab, helping to shovel in more coal.

In Isaac & Isaiah, Deutscher certainly gets a well-deserved pasting. Caute shows in abundant detail that he was guilty as charged, of callous and cynical gulag denial. But the book’s real thrust is its sustained and somewhat feline attack on the reputation of Berlin. He is portrayed here as something of a social butterfly, deplorably at home in the salons of London, New York and Washington, more famous for his talk than for his scholarly work (an accusation he was fully aware of and unhappy about). Berlin, we are told, failed to speak out on the great political issues of the day. When he was prodded to offer a view, he either equivocated or changed his mind when the operation began to go wrong, over Suez and Vietnam for example. In his only consistent public stance, his support for Israel, he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the plight of the Arabs.


As for his famous Two Concepts of Liberty, his distinction between negative liberty (not being bossed about, silenced or locked up) and positive liberty (access to food, health and work) is a phoney one. How can you be said to be free if you don’t have enough to eat, or a roof over your head? Under the guise of being a liberal independent spirit, Berlin was really only reinforcing the comfort and complacency of the rich and powerful. In any crunch, he always came down on the conservative side. And his persecution of Isaac Deutscher, whom he scarcely knew, does not look like the action of a defender of the free-speech sort of liberty.

For this onslaught, Caute marshals the combined cadet force of the high left: Perry Anderson, C.B. Macpherson, Charles Taylor. And on first inspection, the attack seems to be doing a fair bit of damage. Yet in the final analysis, I find most of it less than compelling.

To start with Deutscher, does there not come some point at which you ought to block the appointment of a scholar whom you regard as dishonest, especially for his shameless prettifying of the record of a ghastly tyrant? This, after all, is the argument put by those who would deny a platform to Dr David Irving. It seems to me that Berlin was entirely entitled, if not obligated, to veto Deutscher at Sussex. He is more open to criticism for his later efforts to pretend that he had not done so, in order not to upset Deutscher’s widow, Tamara. But reluctance to give offence is not exactly a deadly sin.

Then is it really the duty of an academic to make kneejerk public pronouncements on every  issue of the day? Caute’s own brilliant research over decades demonstrates how academics are liable to be even more blinded by prejudice than the rest of us, to have less knowledge or understanding of the outside world, and to go on backing evil regimes long after everyone else has seen through them.

In terms of political ideas, the insistence that ‘freedom’ ought to include everything desirable in life has, time and again, led to the most brutish suppressions of freedom in the ordinary sense. Millions have been butchered in the name of that fuller freedom. I persist in regarding Berlin’s famous footnote in Two Concepts of Liberty as the beginning of political wisdom (to be fair, Caute does quote the footnote):

To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all of my freedom, but it is freedom that I am giving up. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience.

Nor is it true that, when Berlin died, he was reviled by the New Left but adored by everyone else. On the contrary, robust conservatives such Roger Scruton and Paul Johnson despised him for precisely the same sin: that he refused to stand up for his beliefs. The hard men of both sides were united in their refusal to contemplate Berlin’s last lesson: that the things we want don’t necessarily gel with one another. Our ideals and principles may be incompatible. In real-life politics, trading off is the name of the game.

And it is not even true that Berlin’s indignation was reserved for his enemies on the left. I hope readers will forgive my recalling once again a personal encounter with Berlin which presents an eerie parallel to Caute’s ordeal in the All Souls common room. I had just written an enthusiastic article somewhere about the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and I was queuing at the issue desk in the London Library, when Berlin buttonholed me, almost shaking with urgency and annoyance: ‘You were far too kind to Oakeshott, far too kind, the man’s a complete fraud, he has no doctrine at all, nothing resembling a doctrine, he has nothing to say.’  This outburst was all the more remarkable, since what Berlin  and Oakeshott had in common, it seemed to me, was that they passionately rejected the idea that a single doctrine could provide all the answers. What they both taught was that the world is a complicated place. And indeed their unexpected antipathy, which was mutual, showed just how true that is.

As a picture of the intellectual life of half a century, Isaac & Isaiah is a beguiling guide, superbly written and never less than absorbing. But I do not expect that it will change many minds, one way or the other.

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Show comments
  • Indian

    Mount says:

    “In Isaac & Isaiah, Deutscher certainly gets a well-deserved
    pasting. Caute shows in abundant detail that he was guilty as charged,
    of callous and cynical gulag denial.”

    Has Mount actually bothered even to scan Deutscher’s biographies of Stalin and Trotsky?

    Those who slanderosly assert that Isaac Deutscher
    was indifferent to Stalinist repression of the mass of ordinary people
    should have read the chapter of Deutscher’s famous biography of Stalin
    called “The Great Change”. Here he describes how Stalin set about
    imposing collective farms on the peasantry. The pages are 324 to 325 of
    the Penguin edition. I quote Deutscher:

    ” He [Stalin] dispatched tens of thousands
    of agents to the countryside, instructing them to “liquidate the kulaks
    as a class” and to drive the multitudes of reluctant middle peasants
    into the collective farms. The spirit of his instructions can be
    recaptured from a speech he gave to the party’s rural agents in December
    1929. He used the bluntest words to dispel the scruples of his
    listeners who apparently felt a revolution may and must deal ruthlessly
    with a handful of exploiters but not with millions of small proprietors.
    Stalin quoted with vague irony the following lines from Engels: ” We
    stand decisively on the side of the small peasant: we will do everything
    possible to make his lot more tolerable and to facilitate his
    transition to the co-operative, if he decides to take this step. If he
    cannot as yet bring himself to take this decision, we will give him
    plenty of time to ponder it on his small holding.” Engles’ “exaggerated
    circumspection”, Stalin told his listeners, suited the conditions of
    Western Europe but was out of place in Russia. The small peasant was not
    to be given time to ponder over collectivism on his own holding. The
    kulaks, Stalin elaborated his point, must not only be expropriated; it
    was ridiculous to suggest, as some Bolsheviks did, that they should be
    allowed to join the collective farms. He did not tell his audience what
    would happen to the two million or so kulaks, who with their families
    may have numbered eight or ten million people, after they had been
    deprived of their property and barred from the collective farms.

    Within a short time rural Russia became a pandemonium. The overwhelming
    majority of the peasantry confronted the Government with desperate
    opposition. Collectivization degenerated into a military operation, a
    cruel civil war. Rebellious villages were surrounded by machine-guns and
    forced to surrender. Masses of kulaks were deported to remote
    unpopulated lands in Siberia. Their houses, barns and farm implements
    were turned over to the collective farms – Stalin himself put the value
    of their property so transferred at over 400 million roubles. The bulk
    of the peasantry decided to bring in as little as possible of their
    property to the collective farms, which they imagined to be state owned
    factories, in which they would become mere factory hands. In desperation
    they slaughtered their cattle, smashed implements and burned their
    crops. This was the muzhik’s [peasant’s] great Luddite-like rebellion…..Vast tracts of land were left untilled. Famine stalked the
    towns and the black soil steppe of the Ukraine.”

    Deutscher adds this vivid personal footnote: “In that critical period the author travelled in Russia and the Ukraine. He remembers a striking account of the
    collectivization given to him, in a railway carriage on the way from
    Moscow to Kharkov, by a colonel of the GPU (political police). The
    colonel was completely broken in spirit by his recent experiences in the
    countryside. “I am an Old Bolshevik”, he said, almost sobbing, “I
    worked in the underground against the Tsar and then I fought in the
    civil war. Did I do all that in order that I should now surround
    villages with machine guns and order my men to fire indiscriminately
    into crowds of peasants? Oh, no, no!”

    If Isacc Deutscher wanted to hide Stalin’s crimes against ordinary folk he could have made a better job of it, no?

  • Indian

    Here is what Wiki has to say about the supposed Marxist fanatic Isaac Deutscher:

    “In April 1939, Deutscher left Poland for London as a correspondent for a
    Polish-Jewish newspaper for which he had worked as a proof reader for
    fourteen years. This move saved his life and paved the way for his
    future career. He never returned to Poland and never saw any of his
    family again. In London, he worked as a correspondent for the Polish
    newspaper, and for a while he joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary
    Workers League.

    When Germany occupied Poland in September 1939,
    and his connection with his newspaper was severed, he taught himself
    English and began writing for English magazines. He was soon a regular
    correspondent for the leading weekly The Economist. In 1940 he joined
    the Polish Army in Scotland, but was interned as a dangerous subversive.
    Released in 1942, he joined the staff of The Economist and became its
    expert on Soviet affairs and military issues, and its chief European
    correspondent. He also wrote for The Observer as a roving European
    correspondent under the pen-name “Peregrine” “.

    The Economist has published proud articles about its correspondent Isaac Deutscher. Some fanatical Marxist he must have been.

  • Indian

    A big reason for Berlin’s spiteful blackballing of Deutscher was simply jealousy.

    One of the more sympathetic aspects of Berlin was that he had a recurrent
    awareness of his own triviality and lack of real scholarship.

    He was all too aware that he was but an entertainer who gave the upper
    thousand the agreeable feeling that they were interested in serious
    things like philosophy. He chattered and gabbled for the rich and the
    elite, shamelessly piling on the flattery by the dump truck load. Read his
    nauseating “Personal Impressions” if you doubt me.

    When Berlin came across Isaac Deutscher he felt ashamed and inferior: both were East European Jewish immigrants to the UK born around the same time, but
    Deuscher was an infinitely more serious person. Unlike Berlin who
    learned English when young and notoriously had elite schooling,
    Deutscher arrived in England in the late Thirties knowing little of the
    language. But he learned it so well that by the late 1940s he had
    produced the best biography of Stalin, still holding the field to this
    day, amazing for the excellence of its English prose as well as its
    scholarly judgement.

    By the early 1960s, Deutscher had produced
    the vast three volume biography of Trotsky that is widely regarded as
    the greatest political biography in English. He had also produced many
    fine, superbly readable, essays on Russian and Marxist themes.

    What had the knighted Berlin to show in comparison? A few slim essays and
    the endless frantic snobbish social climbing and backbiting gossip and
    chatter.

    No wonder that “Sir Isaiah” was wretchedly jealous.

  • Indian

    I for one would have infinitely preferred Isaac Deutscher as a teacher – a
    man whose ideas even when wrong are stated with crystal clarity and so
    can be learned from – than the whimsical, incoherent gabbling of Isaiah
    Berlin, perpetrating a pitiful confusion per paragraph.

    Berlin’s central idea: that freedom is freedom and should not be confused with
    equality or community or welfare however desirable those might be – is
    duck soup for the very rich whom he entertained.

    But it is a trivial and obviously wrong idea.

    Freedom for the rich is not the same as freedom for the poor.

    Isaiah Berlin and the poor are equally free to stay at the Ritz, but the freedom is
    illusory in the case of the latter. If the rich are free beyond a
    certain point, their power will harm the poor. On the other hand,
    equality too becomes self-contradictory when taken beyond a certain
    point: if it has to be imposed by dictatorship, in the long run there will be
    no way to stop inequality returning.

    Berlin’s ideas are simplistic : he does not factor in the play of class power or the fact that freedom’s reality depends on material conditions. Deutscher, a sophisticated Marxist, would not have made that childish mistake. Berlin sensed Deutscher’s intellectual superiority and knew he could not answer him effectively. Hence the covert academic vendetta.

  • Indian

    We are told:

    “there were Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and E.H.Carr whom
    Berlin liked and even admired, though he completely disagreed with them.”

    Hobsbawm was a life long member of the British Communist Party, an organization notorious for following the Kremlin line to the very end. Hobsbawm remained with this party – Stalinist to the hilt as long as the Kremlin was – to the last day of its existence.

    Hobsbawm rarely if ever criticised the Soviet Union as long as it existed. Isaac Deutscher did so endemically. Deutscher was expelled by the Polish Communist Party as far back as 1932 for “exaggerating the threat of Nazism.” (Auschwitz was a few miles from his home and his family in Poland perished in the Holocaust.)

    The Soviet Union strictly banned Deutscher’s books.

    If Deutscher was a “fellow traveler” of Communism it was of a rather unusual type.

  • Abe Bird

    Berlin supported Israel although the Arab plight. Why their plight should turn one to be Anti – Israel? The Arabs denied UN resolutions 194 and rejected any Jewish offer for compromise. 7 Arab Armies invaded Israel eager to throw the Jews into the sea (to do Nakba to them), but the Jews won the war. Most of the Arabs who left did it by the call of their local and Islamic leaders operating from Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. So why blaming Israel for your own fault and misbehave?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVWL9VWdXc4

    ·
    Khaled al-Azm, a former Syrian Prime Minister, states in his memoirs
    published in 1973 that:

    “Since 1948, it is we who have demanded the return of the refugees, while it is we who made them leave. We brought disaster upon a million Arab refugees by inviting them and bringing pressure on them to leave. We have accustomed them to begging…we have participated in lowering their morale and social level…Then we exploited them in executing crimes of murder, arson and throwing stones upon men, women and children…all this in the service of political purposes…”

    ·
    * Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Abbas wrote in March 1976 that

    “The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny, but instead they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, imposed upon them a political and ideological blockade and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live in Eastern Europe.”

    ·
    * Mahmud Al-Habbash, a columnist for the official PA paper, Al-Hayat
    Al-Jadida, has confirmed that the Arabs left Israel in 1948 only after Arab
    leaders persuaded them to do so by promising them a speedy return to their
    homes in Palestine; as Habbash puts it:

    “The leaders and the elites promised us at the beginning of the ‘Catastrophe’ [the establishment of Israel and the creation of refugee problem] in 1948, that the duration of the exile will not be long, and that it will not last more than a few days or months, and afterwards the refugees will return to their homes, which most of them did not leave only until they put their trust in those ‘Arkuvian’ promises made by the leaders and the political elites. Afterwards, days passed, months, years and
    decades, and the promises were lost with the strain of the succession of
    events…” [Term “Arkuvian,” is after Arkuv – a figure from Arab tradition – who was known for breaking his promises and for his lies. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 13, 2006].

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