Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, by David Caute

Roger Morgan on how a liberal doyen blackballed a Red rival

July 18, 2013

On the final page of this fascinating book, David Caute mentions that in May 1966 the veteran Marxist scholar and campaigner Isaac Deutscher spoke at an anti-Vietnam War teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley. By chance this reviewer, there on a short visit, was in the audience. Leaving the faculty club in the late afternoon sunshine, I found myself in a huge and excited crowd surrounding the campus’ central campanile, where an impassioned orator was performing from a small podium. Short, vigorous, with an aggressive goatee, Deutscher was delivering an encyclopedic survey of the prospects for world revolution: the sort of interminable progress report, I thought, with which Grigori Zinoviev would have harangued the Communist International. After an hour I had to leave, but a final look back across campus as the light faded left a lasting impression of a revolutionary firebrand, arms (and beard) still gesticulating, irresistibly recalling jerky black and white images of Lenin or Trotsky in action.

This charismatic crowd-puller, as Caute observes, was by now not only the author of substantial academic studies of Stalin and Trotsky, but also “a public celebrity, a tribune”, someone “born to write, to announce his views, to propagate his prophesies – to be himself”. Three years before that day at Berkeley, the newly founded University of Sussex had nearly appointed Deutscher to a professorship. This book explains why and how a more established scholar, with equally passionate but diametrically opposed views and a very different way of operating, played a decisive part in preventing that appointment.

Would the travelling prophet of protest and revolution have fitted into the ‘hidden-away routines of a very small, new university’?

Superficially, Deutscher (1907-1967) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) had a fair amount in common. Similar in age, they shared an East European Jewish background of a non-believing but powerful kind whose influence never left them. Both migrated to the UK (Berlin aged 11, Deutscher in his thirties) and both, in remarkable literary outputs, achieved stylistic distinction in a language other than their native one. But Deutscher’s and Berlin’s life courses, and their political and other views, were in stark contrast.

Berlin began life in a prosperous merchant family in tsarist Russia, with parents who emigrated to the West in 1920 to escape Bolshevism: throughout his life, he regarded the Soviet Union as the epitome of evil, and was preoccupied by the fate of relatives still living there. Prodigiously gifted, he sailed through St Paul’s School to the University of Oxford, which provided him with a secure and prestigious base (or rather an escalating series of them) for the rest of his life.

Deutscher’s experience could scarcely have been more different: born in Austrian-ruled Polish Galicia, he grew up in the anti-Semitic Polish Republic headed by Marshall Józef Piłsudski. Without formal academic training or qualifications, he wrote prolifically, first for Jewish publications, then (having steeped himself in Marxism) for the central organ of the clandestine Polish Communist Party, which he joined in 19. Expelled from the party in 1932, he was associated with Trotsky, although he opposed (for tactical reasons) the creation of the Trotskyite Fourth International in 1938. Reaching London just before war broke out, he worked for the exiled Polish government and then joined the staff of The Economist, as well as writing for The Observer and other papers. While supporting himself – sometimes precariously – by journalism, he wrote his substantial life of Stalin, a three-volume life of Trotsky and other works. He acquired an international reputation and was in growing demand in the US academy as a visiting professor and – increasingly – as a political campaigner. He never held a regular academic appointment.

Caute shows his mastery of the history of ideas as well as his gift for biography in dissecting, chapter by chapter, the dozen or more issues on which Berlin’s and Deutscher’s views were irreconcilable. Marxism, for instance, was for Deutscher a scientific guide to humanity’s history and prospects, whereas Berlin saw it as representing the egregious fallacy that any all-embracing doctrine or vision can be valid. For Berlin, the USSR was an irredeemably totalitarian regime led by evil dictators, whereas Deutscher saw it as a system that had immeasurably benefited Russia and whose evolution towards democracy and freedom he constantly prophesied. On the state of Israel, the two also differed: Berlin felt a deep attachment, whereas Deutscher saw it as a mistake, a distraction from socialism, built on Jewish expropriation from a million Arab refugees. The two men’s differences extended from the philosophy of history to the question of responsibility for the Cold War and the merits of works of literature (Berlin greatly admired Boris Pasternak, whereas Deutscher despised him). There was also a specific incident that rankled with Berlin: in 1955, Deutscher wrote a sardonic and even brutal review of Berlin’s important work, Historical Inevitability. But behind these intellectual disagreements there lay, on Berlin’s side, something deeper. In a letter of 1959, he wrote of Deutscher, in the kind of terms he used often: “I suffer from a profound, perhaps exaggerated antipathy to all his writings – I think him specious, dishonest, and in any case possessed of some quality which causes some kind of nausea within me.”

This was the context in which John Fulton, Sussex’s first vice-chancellor, wrote in February 1963 to Berlin, by now Sir Isaiah and an influential member of the university’s academic advisory committee, asking for his opinion on Sussex’s strong wish to appoint Deutscher to a chair in Soviet studies. During the convoluted sequence of events that followed, carefully disentangled and evaluated by Caute, it was clearly Berlin’s reply, accusing Deutscher of a “lack of scruple” and calling him “the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable”, that delivered the fatal blow to the proposal.

In conclusion, Caute raises a new and pertinent question: would the world-renowned travelling prophet of protest and revolution have fitted into “the undramatic, hidden-away routines of a very small, new university with only (at that time) about five hundred students”? Sussex agreed in principle to Deutscher’s wish, for family and research reasons, to continue to live in London, but he in turn agreed, under pressure, to do the 12 hours a week of tutorial teaching that the dean, Martin Wight, explained was the norm expected of the whole teaching faculty. (In practice, some of us were doing as much as 16 hours.) But how balanced would Deutscher’s teaching have been? What would his Soviet studies reading list have looked like? And how would the new professor have coped with the demands of liaising with colleagues, vetting student candidates, marking exams, supervising theses, sitting on committees, writing recommendations and the rest of it?

As Caute puts it, “if we leave aside Isaiah Berlin’s motives, he may have done the University of Sussex, and its students, a small favour”. In any case, Caute’s book will make a lasting contribution to our knowledge of the lives and actions of two remarkable figures of the Cold War era, perhaps particularly of the better known and more highly regarded one, Berlin. Indeed, Isaac and Isaiah has already become one of the very few secondary studies to get a footnote reference in the massive, just-published third volume of Berlin’s correspondence.

The author

“To say that one lives in London is not to say much, since there are so many Londons,” says David Caute, Londoner, historian, novelist, playwright and journalist. “My wife Martha and I have occupied the same Victorian terraced house in Hammersmith since 1975, and when we venture forth to the wilder enclaves where our children are raising their families, we find different Londons where most women wear headscarves or dress in black from top to toe.

“It is easy enough to glibly denounce ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’, but you name me a part of the world where ethnic or tribal or sectarian instincts do not thrust their heads above the parapet. I got to know the Muslims of Bradford when I was writing my [1998] novel Fatima’s Scarf: they are both utterly British and utterly foreign. A man of 76 who can remember the London Blitz is bound, I suggest, to suffer some tremors when he now travels into the London Library and hears scarcely a word of English spoken on the way. Even the platform announcements about routine signal failures are unintelligible.”

Caute was born Alexandria, Egypt of Army parents, “but was shipped home at the age of one month. From almost every angle I am a hybrid, three of whose grandparents were immigrants, although my parents were both born in England. My own inclination towards culture and the life of the mind is almost entirely down to my mother Rebecca’s influence, she being a scientist whose Jewish parents had immigrated from Galicia and Vienna in the 1890s – her father was a cantor in a North London synagogue, and a composer. My father Edward (whom I saw rarely due to war service) came by contrast from French and Irish Catholic stock, graduated as a dentist, made his career in the Army, and put my name down for the most military of English public schools, Wellington, where you wore long trousers and detachable collars. Christened a Catholic to please my father’s parents, I was confirmed into the Church of England long after I embraced atheism. I recall long, heated arguments with my Jewish uncles and aunts who insisted I was a Jew whether I liked it or not.”

His mother encouraged him to write from a young age. “Despite losing a lot of her books in a wartime warehouse fire, the remains of her library surrounded me as I idled through the school holidays. I think my historical and literary imagination was first fired by reading about feudalism at the Edinburgh Academy: the discovery that a villein was not a villain and could gain his freedom if at large for more than ‘a year and a day’ lent that title to my first ‘novel’, which ran out of steam after three pages.

“The balance of my mother’s books inclined towards the left-wing culture of the 20th century – science, history, literature – and there, if you like, I myself have remained into the twenty-first century. Isaac and Isaiah is the most recent example. This fellow-travelling, pro-Soviet outlook survived the intensely conservative ethos of Wellington College (the trick was to be good at team games, therefore a good chap, and you could then believe what you liked). As a historian of intellectual movements (which is what I am), I hope that this hybrid background has enabled me to grasp different sides of an argument, certainly the litmus test for Isaac and Isaiah.”

On the subject of other early mentors, Caute says, “Like most writers, I owe a debt to supportive school teachers and, in my case, Oxford dons. I was lucky to be an undergraduate at Wadham College during the Maurice Bowra era, and to be tutored by Lawrence Stone, Christopher Hill and John Hale. But when after graduation I converted myself from the 16th and 17th centuries to ‘recent’ history, I suspect that my ideological formation owed most to writers I never met: Sartre, Camus, Brecht, Orwell. My main debt in the field of fiction writing was initially to Norman Mailer, later to Patrick White, both of whom I met briefly. Yet one’s mind always belongs to forces too dark to be distinguishable.”

Caute was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford in 1959. He recalls: “My intellectual horizons were of course expanded, along with my waistline, by eating lunches and dinners in the company of so many leading scholars, but after six years I resigned in protest at the college’s refusal to embrace reform and open its doors to graduate students. In retrospect I can see that my rather noisy resignation sealed my academic fate for the next 50 years.”
He adds: “This may have made me doubly sensitive to the Berlin-Deutscher affair described in Isaac and Isaiah. But what is the moral dimension of this sorry story as I have told it? The reader must judge. Having known Berlin quite well, should I write about him so intimately, a question rendered more sensitive by his hostile reaction to my resignation from All Souls? He called me a Jacobin and a regicide (because I wanted the college to dispense with his friend of 30 years, the serpentine reactionary Warden John Sparrow).”

While personal and political antipathy between scholars is not an unusual tale in the academy, the hostility between Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher was particularly pronounced. Caute considers: “Is what Berlin did to prevent Deutscher’s appointment to a chair at the University of Sussex at all unusual? Their enmity, particularly Berlin’s, was exceptionally intense…Berlin surely should have disqualified himself as an assessor on the grounds of personal animosity. When the story of his fatal intervention half-broke some years later, and Berlin had to justify himself to Deutscher’s widow, Tamara, he did so by obfuscating his own actions.”

Caute has a longstanding scholarly interest in the ideological clashes of the 20th century, and has considered them in works both early (1978’s The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower) and more recent (The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, published in 2003, and 2010’s Politics and the Novel During the Cold War). In the 21st century, it would appear that the old fondness for battle, both in the academy and society at large, remains.

“Is the Cold War over? you ask. That is indeed an excellent question. It reverberates through the pages of Isaac and Isaiah. If the Cold War survives within our academic ranks, it must, surely, have assumed a different form since the demise of the Soviet system. Even in the 1950s and 1960s Isaac Deutscher was unusual in his commitment to the Soviet system. Eric Hobsbawm was later prepared to lay a wreath on it. Since no viably coherent socialist party now exists, anywhere, the new ‘Cold War’ must, I suspect, derive its energies from the crimes of global capitalism and the ongoing hypocrisy of the liberalism that wails yet does nothing.”

Karen Shook

Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic

By David Caute
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300192094 and 95347 (e-book)
Published 28 June 2013

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