A tale of two intellectuals

David Caute tells the little-known story of Isaiah Berlin’s secret war to prevent Isaac Deutscher from getting an academic appointment.

isaiah berlin 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
isaiah berlin 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin had a lot in common. Born just two years apart, both were Jews, refugees (Berlin from Latvia/Russia, Deutscher from Poland) who settled in England, multilingual, highly opinionated intellectuals. They exerted substantial influence in academic circles and with the educated lay readers in Great Britain and the United States.
The differences between them, however, were far greater than the similarities, as Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic reveals.
Best known for his essays on 19th-century liberalism, his playful references to hedgehogs and foxes, and his “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin became an Oxford don and an internationally recognized public intellectual. The biographer of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, Deutscher was a committed Marxist and defender of the Soviet Union.
While Berlin “habitually walked through open doors,” journalist and historian David Caute indicates, Deutscher “hurled himself against gates genuinely padlocked by the prevailing Cold War doctrine.”
The two men met two or three times and no correspondence between them has been found. Berlin did not mention Deutscher’s name in print, but his animosity was so intense that he expended a considerable amount of emotional, intellectual and political capital to damage him. In his work, Caute tells the little-known – and fascinating – story of Berlin’s secret war to prevent Deutscher from getting an academic appointment. Along the way, Caute provides a probing and provocative analysis of Berlin’s version of liberalism, Deutscher’s brand of history and political prognostication, and the attitudes toward Israel and Zionism of these two non-believers attached to their Jewish identities.
As Caute demonstrates, Berlin’s hatred of the ideas and practices of Soviet communism “fell across almost every page.” Berlin insisted, however, that he respected the academic freedom of Marxist intellectuals, and cited the cordial relations he had with several of them. But he did not believe that Deutscher deserved such respect. The “killer event” responsible for this conclusion, Caute reveals, was Deutscher’s 1955 review of Berlin’s book, Historical Inevitability, which concluded that “Mr.
Berlin does not analyze. He does not even argue his case. He proclaims and declaims it. Like some other great rhetoricians, he is not over-scrupulous or over-precise in his statements.”
From then on, Caute indicates, Berlin did not deviate from his damning verdict: Deutscher was a “falsifier.” Caute provides a judicious assessment of Deutscher’s virtues and vices as a historian.
And Deutscher’s stance “as a revolutionary tribune before a mass audience” reminds Caute of “Aesop’s fable of the daddy frog who puffed himself up to impress his son until he burst.”
Nonetheless, he makes a strong case that Deutscher’s interpretations were just that, perspectives on the past, subject to criticism, of course, but not falsifications grounded in substantial alterations or suppression of relevant information.
Therefore, Caute implies, Berlin was not justified in intervening (surreptitiously) to block Deutscher’s appointment to a chair at Sussex University.
Berlin’s vendetta against Deutscher was clearly personal as well as professional.
The antagonism between them, Caute reveals, was also exacerbated by their quarrel over “the Jewish question.”
Maintaining his Jewish identity while assimilating into British society, Berlin “never bent in the face of anti- Semitism.” Deutscher, by contrast, subordinated his Polish Jewry to his conviction that class trumped ethnicity and expressed contempt for the enslavement of Jews to market capitalism.
While he condemned the “Jewish doctors’ plot” of 1951-1952 and Moscow’s complaints about a conspiracy of Jews against the Soviet Union, Deutscher insisted that Stalin was not an anti-Semite and that few Soviet Jews wished to emigrate.
Deutscher’s contention that European Jews paid a “horrible price” in the 1930s and ’40s for the role they played in past ages, in effect allowing the Nazis to magnify this image to “colossal dimensions” because the portrait of “bloodsuckers was to all too many people still an actuality,” turned Berlin’s stomach.
Making some unverifiable claims of his own, Caute notes, Berlin asserted that Deutscher believed “it was a pity that 6 million perished as they did, but history will not be cheated and they were on the wrong side and deserved (‘objectively’) to be exterminated.”
Ideologue, outsider and polemicist, capable of nuanced judgments, psychological insights and masterful prose, a man who also abandoned doubts and qualifications “in a volley of prophetic declarations,” Deutscher died in 1967. He preferred an academic’s life and he never knew that the invisible hand of Berlin had made that life an impossible dream.
Berlin lived on until 1997, the joyous recipient of accolades and honorary degrees. In 1966 he was a guest at Truman Capote’s exclusive “party of the century” at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The London Library displays a portrait of Berlin at the top of the main stairway.
But it would be a mistake, Caute reminds us, “to conclude that whereas Deutscher was demonstrably wrong about a great deal, because events proved him wrong,” Berlin “kept his card clean.” ■
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Li twin Professor of American Studies at Corn ell University.