Comrade Isaac and Sir Isaiah

A new book explores two individual destinies intertwined with the most agonizing questions of our time.

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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Tags: Berlin