BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
, October 12, 2013
ISAAC AND ISAIAH:
The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic
by David Caute
(New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press)
Hardcover: 352 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
This is the story of the Cold War rivalry between two Eastern European non-religious Jews who found refuge from political oppression in Britain: the historian Isaac Deutscher and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
It is reminiscent of the 2001 book on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, Wittgenstein’s Poker, which also used an incident involving two eminent protagonists to evoke an issue and an era.
The book’s subtitle does not augur well for its contents, for two reasons.
First, while Deutscher can be seen as a “heretic” for dissenting from the West’s official attitude toward communism, Berlin could just as easily be designated as a maverick for his refusal to go along with the intelligentsia’s prevailing infatuation with Marxism (“the opiate of the intellectuals”).
Second, the “punishment” suffered by Deutscher consisted merely of missing out on an academic appointment which, as Caute points out, might well have caused more trouble for him than it was worth, had he accepted it.
The real victims of the Cold War were neither Western academics, nor Hollywood directors and actors, who experienced career disruption, but the tens of millions who endured dictatorship, imprisonment, enslavement, starvation, torture and execution under Stalin, Mao and their imitators.
Don’t be put off by these ill omens.
Caute makes a transparent effort to present his story fairly, despite his left-wing sympathies which emerge in details such as putting inverted commas around the term “Free World” but not around the term liberation movements.
He does not flinch from exposing Deutscher, not as a doctrinaire Stalinist or Trotskyite (despite his famous biographies of both Joseph and Leon), but certainly as an unreconstructed apologist for Lenin, Bolshevism, 1917 and the USSR.
Berlin, of course, is also thoroughly analysed and critiqued.
His best-known works, the essays Two Concepts Of Liberty and The Hedgehog And The Fox, are both intelligently dissected, and his antipathy toward Hannah Arendt (“I am not ready to swallow the idea of the banality of evil…. The Nazis were not banal”) is carefully examined, as are the accounts of his legendary meetings with the poet Anna Akhmatova in the post-World War II Soviet Union.
Illuminating biographical backgrounds are provided for both men, including description of their alien and exotic origins outside the Anglosphere in which they carved out their subsequent careers, and discussion of their different conceptions of Jewishness (including their attitudes toward Zionism and Israel).
In the context of the Cold War, Berlin was caricatured as a doctrinaire “right-winger”, although actually being a liberal who, despite his reservations about full-blown socialism, enthusiastically supported the welfare state.
Deutscher, on the other hand, ticked nearly all the boxes when it came to representing a militant, ideological, left-wing Cold Warrior.
In Caute’s words, he “denounced Nineteen Eighty-Four for exciting Cold War hysteria” and “insisted that Orwell had failed to understand Stalin’s purges because, as a provincial English rationalist lacking Marxist education, he was incapable of analysing the real motivation behind the seemingly irrational”.
While Deutscher was not wholly uncritical of Stalin, his Lenin could do no wrong.
Berlin wrote: “Karl Marx did not advocate mass murder.… The true author of this is Lenin. Under Lenin more innocent people were exterminated than in any previous revolution.”
Caute then gives chapter and verse for Deutscher’s approval of Lenin’s use of dictatorial terror, including the use of the Cheka, to obliterate dissent and democracy — measures which Deutscher regarded as justified by the imperative to preserve Bolshevik autocracy.
(In this section, Caute commits a rare error in placing the 1918 forcible dissolution of the democratically-elected Constituent Assembly in 1917).
As for post-World War II communist imperialism, here is Deutscher’s take on America’s involvement in the Korean War, following North Korea’s launching of an unprovoked invasion in an attempt to impose a particularly virulent form of Stalinist totalitarianism on South Korea.
He writes: “[The Korean war] gave one a sense of solidarity with a small nation so ruthlessly crushed by the most powerful, the greatest, the richest nation in the world.”
As for Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe, it was necessitated by the only alternative to Soviet satellisation: “bourgeois restoration… reactionary tyranny”.
Deutscher had little to say about Soviet anti-semitism; and, as for the Gulag, Caute observes that in the index to Deutscher’s biography, Stalin, “one draws a blank under ‘camps’, ‘concentration camps’, ‘labour camps’, ‘forced labour’, ‘Gulag’, ‘penal system’, ‘prisons’, ‘penal servitude’, ‘courts’.”
Like his French colleague Jean-Paul Sartre, Deutscher argued that certain “‘facts’, even if correct, did not serve the cause of ‘peace’, of ‘socialism’.”
Unlike Berlin, Deutscher did not live to witness the collapse of the Soviet empire.
He died in 1967, just as he was establishing a guru-like status amongst the nascent soixante-huitards (“sixty-eighters”) of the New left and the anti-Vietnam War movement, despite his scepticism about their identity politics (blacks, women) and lack of emphasis on the primacy of the proletariat.
Caute’s account, at the end of the book, of the actual incident of Deutscher’s “covert punishment”, is oddly anti-climactic.
It appears that in 1963 Berlin, who was a member of Sussex University’s academic advisory board, exerted behind-the-scenes pressure on its vice-chancellor to refuse Deutscher, whom he personally loathed, a lecturing position.
This was unprofessional and wrong, and Berlin should have known — and done! — better.
At the same time, in the shadow of Caute’s foregoing saga of the ways in which the two men publicly strove and differed over one of the 20th century’s prime sources of evil and suffering, it is difficult to feel that this incident, the book’s ostensible raison d’être, really has all that much significance in the grand scheme of things.
That being said, this is a richly informative story, which I unhesitatingly recommend.