‘Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic’ by David Caute

This is an odd, engaging book. It involves one native Englishman (the author) and two immigrants, a Polish Jew and a Russian Jew, who both became Englishmen, though of very different kinds. It is set in a postwar world of British intellectuals, Oxbridge dons and intense Cold War antagonisms, a world now slipping into history. The author’s argument, bluntly summarized in his subtitle, is unpersuasive and, to this reader, unsympathetic. And yet Caute has written an illuminating, interesting and entertaining book.

Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), a philosopher and historian of ideas who was admired and adored by the British and American establishments for more than half a century, was the Russian and the most interesting of these three characters. Born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, into a family of Hasidic Jews, he grew up in St. Petersburg before it became Leningrad. His father, Mendel Berlin, was a successful merchant whose business was disrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 1920, when Isaiah was 11, the family escaped to London. Mendel Berlin had managed to send a substantial sum out of Russia, which launched the family’s new life in Britain. He enrolled his precocious son in an elite London school. Though Isaiah began his studies without knowing any English, he was soon the school’s top student, at the beginning of a brilliant academic career. He became a fixture at Oxford University and a world-famous thinker. His formidable combination of intelligence and charm won friends, accolades and eventually a knighthood.

"Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic" by David Caute

Isaac Deutscher (1907-67) was a scrappier sort, a Polish communist in his youth and a committed Marxist throughout his life. Deutscher, too, had a big brain, but charm was not his specialty, and he had no appetite for cultivating the rich and powerful — perhaps Berlin’s favorite pastime. Deutscher was also a product of a middle-class Hasidic family but was drawn into radical left-wing politics in his youth. He came to London in 1939 as a correspondent for a Polish newspaper. Where Berlin studied at the best English schools and at Oxford, Deutscher taught himself English and never studied at a British university. His status in British society was that of an outsider.

Deutscher became a well-known commentator on communist and Soviet affairs after the war, writing for the Economist and the Observer, and giving lectures. He never abandoned his sympathy for the Bolshevik Revolution and often defended Stalin, whose iron-fisted rule he considered “essential to Soviet modernization,” in Caute’s words. “Deutscher relentlessly disparaged Western positions while prophesying a true socialist democracy in post-Stalin Russia.” His analyses of events in Moscow invariably proved wrong, often wildly so, but he remained a favorite of the Labor Party’s left wing for years. His three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s early rival whom the dictator eventually had murdered in Mexico, was his best scholarly contribution. It was sympathetic to its controversial subject.

David Caute, the author, is the son of a British army officer who was serving in Cairo when Caute was born in 1936. He, too, is a smart man of the left. He was appointed a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford, one of the most prestigious academic posts in Britain, when he was just 23. This made him a colleague of Isaiah Berlin’s. But Caute gave up his fellowship six years later, apparently uncomfortable in the cushy, elitist surroundings of All Souls. Caute has written extensively about left-wing causes and right-wing excesses — 17 books in all, including this one. Some are novels, some nonfiction. Probably the best-known in this country was his study of McCarthyism in America, “The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower” (1978).

Caute builds this book around one episode involving Berlin and Deutscher to which he was, by chance, an odd sort of observer. In early 1963, a distinguished group of British academics was busily creating a new public university at Sussex, south of London. Berlin served on a committee of academic grandees who gave advice to the men organizing Sussex and hiring its faculty. In March, Berlin received a letter from the head of the new university, a personal friend, reporting that his colleagues wanted to offer a new professorship in Soviet studies to Deutscher and soliciting Berlin’s opinion.

Berlin’s reply is fascinating. It begins: “Your letter puts me in a cruel dilemma. The candidate of whom you speak [Deutscher] is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable. How much of this is founded on objective judgment of his academic and intellectual activities and how much on personal feeling I find it difficult to say.” Berlin invites Sussex to ignore his advice, but a man of his stature was not easily ignored. Deutscher never got the job.

Caute has no sympathy for Berlin’s hostility toward Deutscher and chooses to interpret it as a sign of jealousy, a manifestation of “a fratricidal rivalry.” This is dubious. Berlin and Deutscher were far from brothers; indeed, apart from their Hasidic, East European origins, they had almost nothing in common. Berlin was a bourgeois gentleman to the bone; Deutscher was a real radical. And Caute offers no evidence that either man was preoccupied by his animus for the other during the 30 years they both lived in England. He pins too much on a hostile review Deutscher wrote of some Berlin lectures, implying that Berlin wanted to pay him back for that long-ago insult.

But Berlin obviously believed that a man like Deutscher — who refused to acknowledge most of the horrors of Soviet rule, apologized for Stalin’s excesses and continued to insist, even in the early 1960s, that Russia was destined to be a true socialist democracy, and who blamed only the West for the Cold War — was not ideally suited to teach Britain’s young. Caute, by contrast, assumes that Deutscher deserved the professorship. And he is certain that Berlin’s letter sealed his fate, though he also offers evidence that Deutscher was never willing to make the commitment of time to Sussex that a normal professorship would have entailed. As Caute’s account makes clear, the record is simply incomplete, and the principal actors are almost all dead.

Caute does not disguise his sympathy for Deutscher or his distaste for Berlin, even as he acknowledges how wrong Deutscher was on many important issues. One senses that Caute, an outsider himself, is drawn to the outsider Deutscher as an ally or soulmate. Berlin thought Soviet Russia was the enemy; Caute seems to feel it was the West’s Cold War animus that was the problem. He likes the fact that Deutscher “hurled himself against gates genuinely padlocked by the prevailing Cold War culture” by defying conventional wisdoms.

Caute treats this story as a sort of historical scoop — he found the Sussex correspondence in Berlin’s papers and writes as though he is providing a dramatic revelation. But the whole matter was aired (without these letters) years earlier in the press and was described again in Michael Ignatieff’s 1998 biography of Berlin.

Caute’s one real scoop is his recalled conversation with Berlin in the common room of All Souls in early 1963, when he was a young fellow. Berlin, for reasons never explained, used Caute as a sounding board to test his view that Deutscher should not be a professor in a British university because he was guilty in his writing of “deliberate falsification.” Caute reconstructs their conversation half a century later as though he had a tape recording of it. His account fills four pages.

This reader found Berlin’s rationale in that conversation persuasive. Caute obviously did not. When, decades later, Caute found the letter that Berlin had written to Sussex criticizing Deutscher, he realized its connection to that long-ago conversation and evidently decided to write about it. His book sets the scene, introduces the two characters and recounts his unconvincing story of “covert punishment.”

As the British say, Caute gives good value, even if he doesn’t persuade you.

Robert G. Kaiser , an associate editor of The Washington Post, is the author, most recently, of “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t.”

ISAAC & ISAIAH

The Covert Punishment
of a Cold War Heretic

By David Caute

Yale Univ. 335 pp. $35

More books content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying