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The Dishonesties of Isaiah Berlin


David Caute, author of Isaac and Isaiah: the Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic,  has long been a historian of ideas and a novelist. I always preferred the latter persona, in particular Comrade Jacob, a generally sympathetic account of Winstanley and the Diggers during the English Revolution (his history tutor at Oxford was Christopher Hill). Caute was alienated by fanaticism of any sort. Passions paralyzed reason. The need for certainties often meant the abandonment of truth. The logic of all this is that opinions are preferable to convictions. But opinions, even if slyly expressed, are never built on air.  Some of these characteristics are on display again in his new, fascinating account of a spat between two intellectuals—conservative and marxist– in the early Sixties. The debate is an old one. A French friend who died a few years ago used to tell me that a great deal revolved on one’s attitude to ‘the masses’: what his great-grandfather called the ‘rabble’, his grandfather referred to as  ‘Communards’ and his children were being taught was ‘terrorism’.

Caute has expanded a cold war footnote has been expanded into an entire volume and has performed a valuable service for all students of the period.  The work is essentially a portrait of the late Sir Isaiah Berlin with whom the author shared a perch at All Souls College, Oxford and where they occasionally engaged in lofty conversations. One of the less elevated talks concerned Isaac Deutscher. It troubled Caute at the time.

The liberal political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin and the Marxist historian, Isaac Deutscher were both asylum seekers, given refuge and residence in Britain during the early decades of the last century. That was about all they had in common. Their intellectual trajectories pointed in opposite directions. Berlin was escaping the Russian Revolution.  Deutscher was in flight from the armies of the Third Reich, poised to take Poland. Both of them were Jews, the first a Zionist, who annoyed Chaim Weizmann by refusing all his requests to shift to Tel Aviv as an adviser, the second famously defined himself as a ‘non-Jewish Jew’, and despite arguing with Ben Gurion, remained sympathetic to Israel till the 1967 war. His next-of-kin had perished in the camps. His surviving relations lived in Israel. He died later that year at 60. His last interview in the New Left Review took the form of a prescient warning to Israel, comparing its intransigence to that of old Prussia:

“To justify or condone Israel’s wars against the Arabs is to render Israel a very bad service indeed and harm its own long-term interest…The Germans have summed up their own experience in the bitter phrase ‘Man kann sich totseigen!’ ‘You can triumph yourself to death’.”

Sir Isaiah Berlin became an influential figure in British and American public life. To this day he is worshipped by Silvers et al at the NYRB. His packed early morning lectures on Marx that one attended at Oxford were bracing. He was a witty raconteur, intelligent and not averse to replying to hostile questions. His speaking style was confected, a parody of an upper class English voice replete with stutter and a disjointed laugh. Even his loyal biographer, Michael Ignatieff, was compelled to remark on his over-the-top Anglophilia.  He was a liberal fanatic, a staunch empire loyalist, gliding effortlessly from Britain to the United States when the time came. He was at his happiest when close to power, an berlininstinctive courtier, unless insulted or ignored. During the 1970’s he was invited to Iran, then under the iron heel of the Shah, when dissidents were being hung naked or toasted on racks by the hated secret police. He accepted. His fee was never disclosed, but the subject of his talk, ‘On the Rise of Cultural Pluralism’ irritated the Empress Farah Dibah, no doubt after she realized that Vico and Herder were not brand names of the latest nail polish from Paris. He was barely halfway through his talk when the Empress signalled a courtier to bring her torture to an end. Berlin later confided to a friend that it was as ‘if stung by several wasps.’  Why did he go in the first place?

Berlin has been much written about. Michael Ignatieff’s 1998 biography was itself the subject of a savage assault by Christopher Hitchens in the London Review of  Books, probably the finest essay he ever wrote, underlining all that  Ignatieff had left out. This included justifications of the 1965 massacre of over a million Communists and other leftists in Indonesia as well as the horrors of the Vietnam war, a conflict planned and carried through by the liberal technocrats of the Democratic Party who Berlin adored. Isaac Deutscher has yet to find a biographer.  Deeply hostile to American imperialism, he was never uncritical of the Soviet Union and, as a consequence, was often slandered in the Stalinist press. He had a visceral dislike of ex-Marxists who supposedly saw the light and became cold war pawns, subsidized by the CIA via the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Encounter was a particular bête-noire. Forced to live off free-lance earnings writing for The Economist and The Observer, Deutscher sometimes cut corners to meet a deadline, but the prose was always meticulous. His Trotsky trilogy is beautifully written, leading to comparisons with Joseph Conrad.

The everyday journalism detracted from his research. His disabled young boy needed specialist care and Deutscher had to write continuously to earn the money.  That is one reason why he wanted the stability of a university post. He was offered one by the University of Sussex, but as I wrote at the time in The Black Dwarf, Berlin blackballed him. And as Caute reveals, consistently denied the accusation. His detailed excavation of the archives leaves no doubt whatsoever that Berlin lied. He was guilty as charged. When the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex consulted him on Deutscher, he let the guillotine drop without any hesitation: ‘The candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.’  But he wanted to be helpful: he would not object to Eric Hobsbawm or C.Wright Mills. End of story. But why? It was not just the politics.  Caute suggests, plausibly, that the reason for the bile was personal. Despite the mask and self-denigration, Berlin was insecure and vain. His first book, Historical Inevitabilty, was critically reviewed by Deutscher in the Observer.  The insult would never be forgiven.

Caute’s account of Berlin’s earlier vendetta against Hannah Arendt is a real eye-opener. She and Albert Einstein had in 1948, together with other prominent Jewish intellectuals, criticized Israel for its encouragement of  ‘fascist’ style nationalists who had carried out massacres in Deir Yassin and elsewhere. Berlin was a loyal Zionist from afar, Arendt was anything. But that could not be the only reason. She was never impressed by his intellect and may well have made this clear at some private gathering.  Consulted by Faber and Faber as to whether they should publish The Human Condition, her book on political theory, Berlin responded: ‘I could recommend no publisher to buy the UK rights of this book. There are two objections to it: it will not sell and it is no good.’ The book was never published in the UK. Later when Eichmann in Jerusalem, created a storm in US literary circles, Berlin stoked his close friend John Sparrow (the Warden of All Souls) to rubbish it in the TLS (all reviews were at that time anonymous). Arendt and Mary McCarthy did some detective work, and discovered the identity of the reviewer.  McCarthy wrote later that ‘Hannah was convinced that several passages could not be the work of a gentile.’

In Caute’s words, Berlin regarded Deutscher as a ‘specious, dishonest, arrogant charlatan and an enemy of Israel.’ He should have come clean, but ‘such was his high standing that the effect of the frankness might have been no less fatal.’ Readers of the book will judge for themselves which of them was the specious, dishonest, arrogant charlatan.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

 This review originally appeared in the Guardian.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

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