Comrade Isaac and Sir Isaiah

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century" (University of California Press, 2012).


isaiah_isaiahIt is hard to find two more strikingly different intellectual personalities than the author of Trotsky’s classic biography and one of the “Russian Thinkers.”  Comrade Isaac (Deutscher), as he was called by like-minded left-wing thinkers, was enamored with grandiose Hegelian-Marxist  generalization and worshipped great men (a category in which he included Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky). Sir Isaiah (Berlin) was by nature skeptical, suspicious of utopianism, abhorred radicalism of any shade, and valued, more than anything else, the sense of reality. Deutscher was committed to monistic determinism, Berlin cherished agonistic pluralism.

During the Cold War years, these two thinkers, both born in the Russian empire to Jewish families with long rabbinical traditions, both émigrés (at different ages, to be sure) to England, both magnetized by Russian culture, came to embody incompatible visions of politics, history, and morality.

One important distinction needs to be made from the very outset: whereas Deutscher joined the underground Polish Communist Party in the 1920s, Berlin was never a member of a Leninist sect. True, comrade Isaac broke with the Stalinists and became an independent Marxist, an influential journalist and an acclaimed historian, but he never jettisoned a romanticized vision of early Bolshevism as a fountain of revolutionary hope. He admired intransigence, arduous pursuit of an ultimate revolutionary dream meant to fulfill a secret plan of History. For Berlin, this was nonsense. He abhorred any grandiose teleology and admired Alexander Herzen, a Russian thinker who opposed reckless radicalism. Like Herzen, in many respects his intellectual hero, Berlin refused to believe that history (not capitalized) develops in accordance with an esoteric libretto. Whereas he acknowledged, without sharing, Karl Marx’s philosophical insights, he regarded Lenin not only as a delusional Jacobin, but also as the founder of a despicable totalitarian experiment.

David Caute offers in this new book, Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (Yale University Press, 2013), a thrilling, though sometimes debatable, story of passionate acrimony, fierce hostility, and bitter disagreement which may explain Isaac Deutscher’s failure to achieve the academic recognition that many thought he fully deserved and others considered to be totally unjustified. In other words, Caute suggests, it was Isaiah Berlin’s adamantly formulated refusal to support Deutscher’s hiring by the University of Sussex that killed the historian’s professorial prospects.

In fact, what Berlin did was to share with the academic powers-that-be his profound and enduring dislike of Deutscher as an historian of Bolshevism and as a public intellectual. He worded his message in utterly harsh terms and they definitely had an immediate impact. That Sussex cut off negotiations with Deutscher was not Berlin’s responsibility. Yet, one can assume, had he not written that confidential note to Vice-Chancellor John Fulton on March 4, 1963,  Deutscher might have joined, as initially planned, the Sussex faculty.

In fact, for years after the incident, Berlin agonized over widespread rumors that he may have been the villain in a story of  ideological persecution. Whereas there is no doubt that being a Marxist was not, in Berlin’s eyes, an impediment for one to be a bona fide academic, he had no patience for Lenin’s apologists. And, in his eyes, Deutscher was emblematic for this species that he despised. His letter was unsparingly frank, yet undoubtedly candid:”Your letter puts me in a cruel dilemma. The candidate of whom you speak (i.e., Deutscher) is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable. (…) The man in question is the only one about whom I have any such feeling … and of course I do not think that personal opinions, especially left-wing ones, should be any barrier to academic appointment by you or any other university in England at the present moment” (p.279). These, to me, are hardly the words of a dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warrior instigating an academic vendetta.

An intellectual historian himself and a former fellow of All Souls in the early 1960s, when he and Berlin were colleagues, Caute explores in this captivatingly provocative book two individual destinies involved in the definition of some of the most agonizing questions of our time: Why did the Bolshevik Revolution fail? Was Stalin Lenin’s genuine heir or the arch-traitor of a presumably humanist Bolshevism? Was the Soviet Union reformable?

Some, like Deutscher and his dear friend Ralph Miliband, thought that there was a pristine socialism which had been tainted by the Soviet tragedy (“the actually existing socialism”). Berlin, like Leszek Kolakowski, after his break with the early illusions, found the seeds of Stalinism in the Leninist totalitarian pedagogy and even in Marx’s immoderate historical hubris. Yet, he never wrote about Marx with the same sense of moral outrage reserved to Lenin. Idealizing Lenin was for him an offense to the millions of victims of totalitarianism. When Deuscher wrote a condescending review of Boris Pasternak’s novel “Doctor Zhivago,” Berlin was scandalized. For Berlin, Deutscher was not a genuine heretic, but rather a super-gifted Leninist preacher.

Deutscher died at the age 60 in 1967. We don’t know how he would have reacted to Gorbachev’s revolutionary changes. Or, actually, we know: he would have hoped that the flame of October could be rekindled and that Lenin’s unfulfilled testament could finally be carried out. Trotsky would have finally been vindicated. We know, of course, that none of these expected outcomes did occur. In fact, all Deutscher’s important predictions turned out to have been utterly wrong.

Until his last day, Deutscher hoped that a redeemer would come to power in Russia to save what he arduously believed to be the abandoned promise of universal liberation. For Berlin, this was simply nonsense. In his view, communism was a historical catastrophe, “a total failure, and there are more horrible crimes on its conscience–if it exists– than on that of any other movement in history, not even the great religious persecutions” (p. 78). Furthermore, like political writer Leo Labedz (another Polish émigré), he considered Deutscher an intellectual fraud, a manipulator of historical evidence and an ideologue masquerading as a scholar. This is in fact the key point: Isaac Deutscher’s interpretation of communism remained tainted by the romanticization of Lenin’s times. He lambasted Orwell and despised Koestler. The former, he argued, cultivated the “mysticism of cruelty.” The latter was a neurotic renegade who converted his own obsessions into moral arguments.

In times when moral clarity was desperately needed, Deutscher preferred to provide anti-anti-communist obfuscations and ironies. No wonder that Berlin had little patience for him. The issue was not that Deutscher was a Marxist. Caute mentions Berlin saying that he would have no quarrel with E. H. Carr and Eric Hobsbawm. These two historians, Marxist as they undoubtedly were, remained faithful to the facts, did not twist them to suit an ideological agenda. If, by omission or by commission, Berlin really made impossible Deutscher’s appointment at the University of Sussex, he did it not because of intellectual intolerance. He was really convinced, as most great Sovietologists, that Deutscher was a propagandist first, and a scholar second.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. It could suggest a secretive, conspiratorial undertaking motivated by petty, retaliatory, vindictive motives. You don’t need to be a Berliner (as Timothy Garton Ash once called those like himself who admire Sir Isaiah’s writings) to see why he was so reluctant to endorse the academic career of a person he found irretrievably disingenuous. And Deutscher was not a choir boy, either: he threatened Labedz with a calumny suit –it did not happen because of  Deutscher’s unexpected death in 1967–because the editor of Survey had questioned his intellectual honesty. In fact, Deutscher was pugnacious, cantankerous, and utterly contemptuous of those whom he disagreed with. For him, Boris Souvarine, the French ex-communist author of a classic, truly formidable biography of Stalin, a genuine anti-Bolshevik socialist, was nothing but a “scribbler.”

Part of the story was deeply personal: Berlin could never forget or forgive Deutscher’s condescending review in the Observer of his lecture on “Historical Inevitability.” From that moment on, Isaiah regarded Isaac as a “wicked man.” Yet, at a deeper level, the issue was, as Caute insists, their incompatible perspectives on historical determinism and human agency.

For Berlin, nothing was more deleterious to history as an intellectual enterprise than the ambition to discover historical laws and to link causally human behavior to such impersonal, mysterious norms. The ostensible target may have been Marx’s oracular doctrine, the immediate one was the increasingly influential Deutscher and his teleological musings. As for Soviet studies, Berlin highly admired works by Leonard Schapiro and the American Sovietologists. For Deutscher these were irredeemably shallow and partisan, imbued with Menshevik prejudices and Cold War phobias. For Berlin, receiving lessons about Hegel and Marx from a person whom he regarded as a philosophical dilettante was truly unpalatable. Add to this their irreconcilable views on Jews, Zionism, and Israel, and one gets a sense of how Berlin’s animosity reached an intensity unparalleled in his reactions to any other scholar.

Deutscher fancied himself as the great historian of the twentieth century’s main revolutionary saga. For Berlin, this was simply not true. He saw comrade Isaac as an unrepentant servant of a God that failed, a crusader for a cause that he found atrociously and inescapably wrong. I talked recently with David Horowitz about Deutscher. He knew him well, during the times of his leftist illusions; Deutscher was his mentor. A man of certain generosity, to be sure, comrade Isaac was nevertheless a true believer. He never approved of  the apostates, found them morally dishonest and politically repugnant. His tolerance of heresy was limited to those who chose not to radically break with the Bolshevik gospel.

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  • Judahlevi

    Quoting from Isaiah Berlin as he wrote in “The Pursuit of the Ideal” in speaking of utopians (progressives), “I know the one true path to the ultimate solution of the problem of society…since you are ignorant of what I know, you cannot be allowed to have liberty of choice…if the goal is to be reached.”

    The utopian dream is achieved only by the authoritarian dystopia of “1984″ where you cannot have freedom because it would interfere with the plans of those who know better.

    To allow human freedom, we must allow dissent. In fact, dissent is to be encouraged not discouraged. Utopia to progressives envisions groupthink not dissent. If we value freedom, we will never have the progressive utopias of the Stalins or Hitlers.

  • Texas Patriot

    The phobia of utopia, shall we call it “Utopiphobia”, is as harmful to human progress as the blind belief in it. The entire idea of the American Dream as envisioned by Jonathan Winthrop and Ronald Reagan which sees America as a “shining city on a hill” could be regarded by the Utopiphobians as a bizarre aberration of human thinking that should be avoided at all costs. Simply put, the Utopiphobians have it all wrong.

    In 1776, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson both published what might be called by the unnecessarily paranoid as utopian blueprints for and American destiny of economic progress and human rights. Adam Smith, who was also one of the greatest moralists of his day, published the classic “Wealth of Nations”. Thomas Jefferson. one of the greatest philosophers of all time, penned his classic “Declaration of Independence.” Within those two documents, are the ingredients for a powerful combination of individual freedom and economic freedom that have the potential of creating a future of economic and human progress unimagined by even the most grandiose utopians.

    No, the future belongs to economists and humanists who long to stretch the boundaries of human achievement, to push the envelope of science and technology, to harness the energy of our planet and to build great societies of prosperity and human achievement. Those who are afraid of that vision of the future because it reminds them of “utopia” will no doubt wander aimlessly in the backwaters of fear and despair, never hoping, never planning, never working for the fantastic future lying at their fingertips.

    Hope is not the enemy of the future. Hope is the key to the future. Hope is the fire that drove the genius minds of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Howard Hughes, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs and every other American genius to imagine new frontiers in science and technology, in education and sports, in art, in music, and in philosophy. Hope is the basis of all legitimate human endeavor, and hope for a better future is the essence of the American Dream yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

    • Judahlevi

      This is a very positive message, and I like it, but there is no perfect world in the future for leftists or for those on the right. We live with the constraints of human nature. We can have a very positive future, better than the present day, but we will never have utopia.

      • Texas Patriot

        Judalevi: “We can have a very positive future, better than the present day, but we will never have utopia.”

        Whether we ever achieve “utopia” is beside the point. That’s not an achievable objective, so it’s irrelevant. What is achievable is putting the revolutionary economic and humanist principles of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson into practice and creating an economic juggernaut that provides a substantially better quality of life for all Americans.

        However, as a result of a pronounced phobia of anything resembling utopian thinking, most conservative politicians are deathly afraid of talking about any positive goals for the future whatsoever, which means we are totally dropping the ball and getting hammered by Leftist politicians who do offer hope for the future whether they are sincere about it or not. We might as well face the fact that “utopiaphobia” is the genetically programmed disease of unenlightened conservatives who are afraid of change of any kind, and that is why the conservative movement today is so completely dead in the water and sinking so fast. Here’s a tip. There’s nothing conservative about having no dreams, no hopes, and no goals you’re willing to work for. It just means you’re dead and have no ideas that anyone is going to get excited about.

        In order to provide leadership at this critical juncture of American history, conservatives are going to have to come up with a “Blueprint for America” that puts our nation in a position to lead the world in economic growth and prosperity in the 21st Century, and that’s something that a majority of all Americans could get on board with.

        • Judahlevi

          Without getting too much into a semantic digression, I would recommend the term ‘visionphobia’ rather than “utopiaphobia.” As you admitted, utopia is unachievable and therefore an “irrelevant” goal. A “Blueprint for America” can be a very positive vision for the country which will motivate those who see it.

          I would also say that conservatives by nature are more hopeful than liberals. Studies have shown that conservatives are generally happier and more generous people who live longer lives. You are right that hope is necessary, but a positive vision of what America can be with a plan to get there would also be inspirational.

          • Texas Patriot

            The reason I prefer to call it “utopiaphobia” is that it’s the argument conservatives usually come up with when they get nervous about something new. When for example someone talks about transforming the educational system of America to being the best in the world, they invariably say, “It’s utopian, it will never work.” Likewise, when someone talks about improving the health and physical fitness of Americans, so that we can avoid the currently unsustainable levels of health care expenses, conservatives say, “It’s utopian, it will never work.” Or even if someone talks about improving the productivity of American workers so that instead of losing millions and millions of jobs and even entire industries to foreign competition, America can once again attract foreign manufacturing operations, conservatives will invariably say, “It’s utopian, it will never work.”

            Regardless of what it is, if the idea is new and has the potential of radically transforming America for the better, some conservatives will automatically hate it. And I’m not sure that even they know why they hate it, they just do. The idea of change just makes them nervous and they don’t like it. I don’t know if you recall, but it was in George H. W. Bush’s second campaign for president in 1992, he was challenged by Bill Clinton as not having any “vision” for the future of America. He really didn’t know what Clinton was talking about, and I think his comment was “What is this vision thing?”

            Why conservatives are that way, I have no idea. But whatever it is, it is a psychological malady that is killing the Republican Party and making it very easy for very poorly conceived Democratic campaigns dominate American elections. From my perspective, conservatives will either be able to get over their pronounced and irrational “utopiaphobia”, or the real future they inevitably face will be horrific beyond their worst nightmares.

    • emptorpreempted

      You’re completely right.

      In the words of Alfred North Whitehead: “when ideals have sunk to the level of practice, the result is stagnation.”

      • Texas Patriot

        Thank you.

  • Wolfthatknowsall

    As a former professor of philosophy, I can tell the reader that this article “spoke” to me. My colleagues? They would have sat in on a Deutscher seminar with wide-eyed wonder at the wisdom of the “great man”. Berlin? They likely would have boycotted his lecture.

    We, on the Right, can become Utopians, also. It is a fate devoutly to be avoided, because both the Left and the Right seem to view government power as the means of arriving at the “ideal”. Only the individual knows what utopia truly is (though I admit that even that view is grossly utopian). But an individual utopia at least has the virtue of requiring the least amount of coercion from bureaucrats and politicians.

    The beauty of the individual utopia is that it doesn’t need people like me to envision it, or the government to enforce it.

    • Judahlevi

      I agree that utopia is to be avoided. Utopia for one individual or for one group would always be an authoritarian state.

      Hopefully, we may all be able to achieve our own individual happiness by having a state with recognizes our personal freedoms and respects them; where individual rights are supreme with state rights a distant second.

      Political correctness reminds me of Newspeak in “1984.” This is not a good path we are on.

      • Wolfthatknowsall

        I agree wholeheartedly that utopia is, by definition, authoritarian. Given the differences between people, everyone’s utopia is going to be different, even the different views are close. Utopia must be enforced.

        Even among the Amish people, utopia has enforcement mechanisms. The worst thing that can happen to them is to be shunned. But yet, these people live in a close-knit community of like-minded people.

        Your second paragraph says it all. It is a description of the United States, at its foundation. I do admit to being found of the Articles of Confederation …

    • emptorpreempted

      That’s actually sobering, if what you say about your erstwhile professorial colleagues is true. Can they all be that radical and that stupid?

      • Wolfthatknowsall

        Radical is the word. The truly shocking thing about them is that they’re not stupid. They should know better. They choose not to …

  • emptorpreempted

    Doesn’t every high-IQ person like obfuscations and ironies, preferring them to moral clarity any day of the week?

  • Texas Patriot

    Judahlevi: “We are both interested in a better America, much better than where we are today, and on that we hopefully can agree.”



    I don’t see why we can’t. From my perspective, the
    lack of vision, the lack of leadership, and the lack of a coherent plan for revitalizing and re-industrializing America in the 21st Century is the single greatest political failure in the history of the United States, and the consequences of that failure are far more profound and advanced toward the negative than most people think. 



    In that regard, I would direct your attention to a recent book entitled “Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage” (Yale University Press, 2012) in which the authors outline in great detail the catastrophic results of our failure to invest in high value-added manufacturing industries in America. If you’re not inclined to read the book, then I think it would be well worth your time to watch the following video of Dr. Robert Atkinson, one of the co-authors, introducing the book last year.



    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWM08DzTuhY



    If after watching the video and/or reading the book, you still don’t share my sense of urgency about this subject, I will be very surprised.

    • Judahlevi

      As you are aware, economists are not all in agreement on almost anything. Watching the first part of this, Dr. Atkinson mentions that he thinks the 2008 financial crash was caused by a lack of capital investments in manufacturing. Coming from the finance side, we saw it as a real estate bubble driven by too much capital into a market which could not sustain it.

      In other words, home ownership went from an average of about 60-65% to over 70%. Loans were being given to people who did not deserve them nor could pay for them. The markets collapsed due to lack of any kind of qualified borrower and leveraged mortgage bonds sold by Wall Street which found out their mortgage holders could not pay them back. This was not a lack of capital, but sending too much liquidity into a market which became weaker and weaker. The capital went there chasing yields. This is the story of 2008 according to most economists.

      We have moved from a manufacturing/industrial economy to a services economy. Whether we can sustain our economy on a services basis and hire out manufacturing to the third world is an interesting question. We have so far because I don’t think 2008 had anything to do with manufacturing. Is this a house of cards or can we continue to maintain the economy on a services basis? Add to this the ability of the US to print money and the issues become more complex. I do agree we need a balanced economy with both services and manufacturing.

      Thank you for sharing the video.

      • Texas Patriot

        Judahlevi: “Watching the first part of this, Dr. Atkinson mentions that he thinks the 2008 financial crash was caused by a lack of capital investments in manufacturing.”

        I think you should watch the rest of the video.