Tag Archives: Isaac Deutscher

Closing the Sussex Gate


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

            In “Issac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic,” David Caute seizes upon a seemingly banal episode in university hiring in the 1960s to take his readers on an intellectual tour of post-World War II Britain at the height of the Cold War, roughly from 1945 to 1970, a time when “scarcely any branch of thought and learning . . . remained unaffected by the schism between the ‘Free World’ and the Soviet sphere of influence” (p.37). Caute shows his readers debates and differences within elite British intellectual, academic and political circles over such matters as the Soviet Union and communism, the Anglo-American alliance, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel. The catalyst for this tour was the refusal of Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers – or, as he began calling himself in the latter portion of his career, an historian of ideas — to endorse Isaac Deutscher for a position at Sussex University, where Berlin served as an external advisor to the university’s academic board. Berlin’s refusal to endorse Deutscher, a self-proclaimed Marxist and highly respected journalist and author – albeit one without academic degrees — does not appear to have been based on the quality of Deutscher’s scholarship. Deutscher’s study of Joseph Stalin was widely acclaimed, even by stringent academic standards. Nor was it based on Deutscher’s lack of academic credentials.

            However, in 1955, Deutscher reviewed unfavorably one of Berlin’s best known works, Historical Inevitability. Caute concludes that “[w]ithout doubt” this review was the “killer event in Berlin’s attitude to Deutscher” (p.64). Berlin wrote subsequently that he suffered “from profound, perhaps exaggerated antipathy to all his [Deutscher’s] writings – I think him specious, dishonest, and in any case possessed of some quality which causes some kind of nausea in me” (p.152). Berlin’s writings are laced with similarly vitriolic references to Deutscher, which Caute has amassed here, all of which post-date Deutscher’s 1955 review of Berlin’s book. Yet, the two men had little personal inter-action, and there is nothing in the written record to suggest that Deutscher reciprocated Berlin’s personal animus or was even aware of that animus. Rather, Deutscher appears to have regarded Berlin as an “ideological opponent whom he scarcely knew . . . not a figure to be despised and loathed” (p.36). After Deutscher died prematurely in 1967, his wife confronted Berlin, asking why he had refused to endorse her husband’s candidacy at Sussex. Berlin’s obsequiously disingenuous response was little more than “I did no such thing.”

            Caute has a personal stake in the effort to shed light upon Berlin’s animosity to Deutscher. As a graduate student at Oxford University in March 1963, Caute had an exchange with Berlin in the commons room of All Souls College, in which Berlin declared that he could never recommend Deutscher for a university position, or any other, for that matter. Berlin told Caute that Deutscher was the “only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (p.4). In that conversation, Berlin contended that Deutscher’s adherence to Marxism was not the issue for him. “To be a Marxist is a legitimate stance for an academic,” Berlin told Caute (p.4), adding that he was an admirer and on friendly terms with E.H. Carr, a Marxist and Russian history specialist. But if not Deutscher’s Marxism, what was Berlin’s problem with Deutscher? The conversation danced around that question, without answering it. A half century later, with both Deutscher and Berlin deceased (Berlin died in 1997), Caute tries to find an answer to the question that eluded him in his conversation with Berlin in the All Souls Commons in 1963, a question that only sounds biblical: why did Isaiah so despise Isaac?

* * *

            Caute’s protagonists, Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin, were:

of the same generation, both refugees, both British by adoption, both multi-lingual, opinionated Jews, one Latvian-Russian, the other Polish. Both came to exercise influence not only in academic circles but among the wider British and American public. Both can be viewed as missionary spirits in contention to convince or convert the ideologically naïve English and American natives (p.36).

In addition, both lost close relatives to the Holocaust — both parents in Deutscher’s case. Early in their careers, each published a biography of a leading communist figure, Berlin on Marx, Deutscher on Stalin, with Deutscher later writing a widely acclaimed three volume biography of Trotsky.

            Berlin was born in Latvia in 1909. His family left Latvia for St. Petersburg in 1916, then left Russia for Britain with his family in 1920, after the Bolshevik Revolution. Although only 11 years old at the time of his family’s departure from St. Petersburg, the deleterious effect of the Revolution on his family shaped Berlin’s thinking and world view for the remainder of his life. In Britain, Berlin became more than just a revered philosopher and historian of ideas. He was also the quintessential academic establishment figure, well-known in the media and a familiar face in the halls of power, in Whitehall, Westminster, and Washington.

            Caute describes his portrait of Berlin as “somewhat revisionist” (p.xiii) and, true to his words, the Berlin who emerges from these pages is an “impeccably conforming British citizen” (p.39) and far from an endearing figure. “[O]utgoing, gregarious and socially ambitious” (p.15), Berlin plainly enjoyed the company of the rich and well-born. Further, Caute observes, the more one digs into Berlin’s writings, the more one finds a “passionate defense of the status quo, an extended plea that the things we enjoy and value should not be taken from us” (p.15). Berlin seemed to regard active political commitment as the “enemy of clear thinking” (p.40), and left little public record of his views on most of the social and political issues that dominated Britain in the quarter-century after World War II, such as capital punishment, homosexual law reform, rules governing divorce, immigration into the United Kingdom, or rising racial tension.

            Deutscher was a near contemporary of Berlin, born in 1907. He fled his native Poland for Britain in 1939, at the time of the Nazi invasion. Seven years earlier, in 1932, the Polish Communist Party expelled Deutscher after he had published The Danger of a New Barbarism in Europe, which called for a common front between communists and socialists in opposition to Nazism and the Pilsudski dictatorship in Poland. Deutscher’s sin was that, as the party’s indictment read, he had “exaggerated the danger of Nazism and was spreading panic in the communist ranks” (p.21). Deutscher did not enjoy Berlin’s fame or insider access in Britain, but nonetheless became a successful journalist for mainstream and elite media outlets, building a “remarkably respectable” image for an avowed Marxist (p.24).

          Deutscher also became a highly-respected scholar whose work drew praise from those who did not share his Marxist world view. His biography of Stalin was greeted on both sides of the Atlantic as a “deeply researched and compellingly written objective study, the first definitive study of the most powerful man in the world” (p.27). As Caute emphasizes, however, there was a scrappy, polemical side to Deutscher. He enjoyed a good intellectual fight and loved to goad those he considered knee-jerk anti-communists and apologists for capitalism, of which Berlin was surely one. In this capacity, Deutscher was a “speaker of spellbinding power and a debater of great argumentative force” (p.33). But the polemicist Deutscher had a “tendency to overlook what he had written as a historian – or to count on his readers overlooking it” (p.175). Was it Deutscher’s Marxism that rendered him insupportable to Berlin?

* * *

            Caute describes the differences between Marxists and anti-Marxist liberals in post-War Britain as an “intimate family quarrel akin to that of Catholics and Protestants at war over Christ’s heritage” (p.38). Both camps were “children of the European Enlightenment. . . [who] subscribed in the abstract to education, justice, freedom” (p.38). Berlin’s childhood experience with the 1917 Russian Revolution led him to an unabated opposition to the Soviet Union and communist ideology throughout his adult life. He reserved special ire for Lenin, whom he found worse than Stalin – worse than Hitler, Caute argues at one point. For Berlin, Lenin was the “great contaminator, the self-confident doctor of poisonous medicine, who had in effect chased the Berlins from their family home, their roots” (p.74). Thus it was only natural that Berlin would become a leading Cold War warrior in the post-war period, very comfortable with the Anglo-American alliance and its firmest anti-communist stands. Throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, for example, Berlin supported the United States, while most of his academic peers adopted anti-war positions. Berlin’s “heartbeat belonged to the Anglo-American alliance,” (p.199), Caute writes.

            If Berlin was a consistently anti-communist intellectual, Deutscher remained conflicted by the realities of Russia and the Soviet socialist experiment throughout his professional life. For Deutscher, Lenin was the “builder of the Soviet Republic, the originator of the New Economic Policy, the revolutionary turned into a supreme diplomatist” who embodied the “salvation and consummation” of the Russian revolution (p.83). Slowly, and reluctantly, however, Deutscher recognized that Stalin had committed unspeakable crimes. Yet, in Russia after Stalin, which Deutscher wrote shortly after Stalin’s death, he contended that Stalin nonetheless remained the “guardian and the trustee of the revolution. He consolidated its national gains and extended them . . .[E]ven his opponents, while denouncing his autocracy, admitted that most of his economic reforms were essential for socialism” (p.72). Deutscher “insisted that Stalinism rescued subjugated peoples of Eastern Europe from feudalism, ‘savage poverty and darkness’” (p.161). In a high-powered seminar at Harvard in 1959, Deutscher argued that Western students of Soviet affairs, including his critics, had tended to “overrate the totalitarian aspect of the Soviet system and its capacity to resist popular pressures” (p.190).

            Caute notes that Deutscher made many private concessions, for example that most German workers would prefer American capitalism to East German socialism. But he could never bring himself to state these concessions publicly because, as he once wrote, “disclosure would not serve ‘peace’ or ‘socialism’” (p.163). Even as Deutscher modified his apologetics for Stalin, he remained largely enamored of Lenin – Berlin’s bête noire—Trotsky and, later, Mao Zedong who, he contended, stood for the “inevitability of gradualness” (p.189). Throughout the Cold War, Deutscher was a harsh critic of both Great Britain and the United States, “intransigently” rejecting the “entire Western system and its international policies, [and] dismissing the ‘Free World’ as the cosmetics of an expansionist, colonialist monopoly capitalism” (p.37). Deutscher’s perspective on the Cold War was that “an exhausted and depleted Russia had no intention of expanding or attacking anyone. America, by contrast, emerged from the war unscathed, buoyant and spoiling for a global fight” (p.159). Deutscher “never modified his analysis of the Cold War, repeating the same phrases and arguments across twenty years” (p.162).

            Berlin expanded his hostility to Bolshevism into a theoretical opposition to utopian ideologies of all sorts. Berlin’s professional legacy revolves in no small measure around his abhorrence of systems of thought that purported to spell out how a society should be structured or how individuals can attain a moral life. Individual liberty to do what one wants to do, without harming others, and what he called “value pluralism” were at the heart of Berlin’s political philosophy. He argued that society can be structured in any number of different ways, consistent with respect for individual liberty, and individuals can pursue any number of different paths to a moral life. Berlin warned against the “claims of philosophers, social engineers and revolutionaries who professed to understand men’s objectives needs and aspirations better than they did themselves” (p.110). But, as Caute cheekily points out, few have been “more dogmatic about the perils of dogmatism [than Berlin]. No one has more clearly insisted that historical outcomes are inevitably not inevitable” (p.43).

       It was this insistence that Deutscher pounced on in his 1955 review in the Observer of Berlin’s Historical Inevitability.  Under the title “Determinists All,” Deutscher noted much dogmatism in Berlin’s attack on dogmatism and termed his work a “tirade” (p.64). Berlin “protests on almost every page against the generalizations and abstractions of others, but he himself sins in this respect to quite an extraordinary extent,” Deutscher wrote. He “lumps together scores of philosophical ideas and systems, determines in a few sentences of sweeping generalization what is the ‘common denominator,’ and then roundly condemns them all. . . Mr. Berlin does not analyze. He does not even argue his case. He proclaims and declaims [and] . . . is not over-scrupulous or over-precise in his statements” (p.64-65).

           Deutscher’s review of Historical Inevitability is plainly Exhibit A in answering the book’s fundamental question, why Isaiah detested Isaac. But the chapters on communism and the Cold War fail to yield anything close to an Exhibit B. The two men saw Marxism, communism and the Soviet Union in diametrically different terms but, as Berlin says on several occasions in this book, he would never judge another on this ground. In the final chapters of the book, on Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, Caute comes closer to pinpointing an Exhibit B.

* * *

        Caute suggests that the Jewish heritage which the two men shared “exacerbated their antagonism, imparting a fratricidal intimacy to their wider ideological quarrel” (p.235). Neither Berlin nor Deutscher came close to being religious in any conventional sense, but Jewish identity was plainly a significantly stronger force in Berlin’s life and world view that it was for Deutscher. Berlin was a strong Zionist and proponent of Israel in its early years, the only two political issues which he regularly addressed publicly. Deutscher, in contrast, opposed both Zionist tendencies and establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Although his opposition to the State of Israel softened in his later years, Deutscher’s view was that after the calamities of World War II, the last thing the post-war world needed was another nation-state fueled by patriotic national fervor. He once described his “intellectual opposition to Judaism” as part of an overall “opposition to all forms of theological thinking” (p.155). On another occasion, however, Deutscher described himself as a Jew “by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated” (p.241).

         Berlin maintained a particular aversion to Jewish Marxists who, as Caute phrases it, sought to “escape from their pariah status as Jews by inventing an alternative, more universal allegiance” (p.47). Berlin criticized Marx himself on this ground in his biography. Caute also highlights a snobbishness that Berlin shared with his well-to-do Anglo-Jewish friends, leaders in financial, banking and media circles, who tended to look down on less refined Jews. Berlin acknowledged his aversion to large crowds of Jews and, on one occasion, expressed his disdain for “Jews with colossal noses” (p.237). In 1959, a friend requested that Berlin reply to an article which Deutscher had written on Lenin. Berlin declined with a venomous ad hominem attack on Deutscher. “I hate him [Deutscher] too much,” Berlin wrote. “I cannot be sure that it is only his hateful personality. . . his Communism (which is that mean, dead talmudical ‘parshivy yevrey” type) . . . I am sure I shall find fault with whatever he does” (p.88). The Russian phase “parshivy yevrey,” Caute indicates, means “mangy Jew.”

* * *

        In the last chapter, “The Sussex Papers,” Caute comes full circle to Deutscher’s non-appointment at Sussex University – we’re at Sussexgate! The “smoking gun” was Berlin’s letter to Sussex University’s Vice-Chancellor, written the same month that he had his conversation with Caute in the All Souls Commons. Without mentioning Deutscher by name, Berlin declared that the “candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (p.279). Berlin’s statement effectively killed the Deutscher appointment. A few weeks later, with no news from Sussex, Deutscher – who had recently turned down an offer for a tenured position at the University of Wisconsin — told the university that he was “disappointed at your being unable to make any offer, especially as I was given to understand that what was under discussion was only the particulars of the offer” (p.281).

           In 1969, two years after Deutscher’s death, a leftist publication, Black Dwarf, published an anonymous article in which it alleged that Berlin was responsible for Deutscher being refused a university post at Sussex. Black Dwarf quoted Berlin as saying “You can’t have a Marxist teaching history” (p.282). Berlin considered a libel suit over Black Dwarf’s allegations. But with these allegations in the public domain, he crafted an argument that he would have preferred to have seen Deutscher appointed to a department where there would be another, more politically correct, colleague to balance him.

           In response to an inquiry from Deutscher’s wife after the Black Dwarf article, Berlin explained to Mrs. Deutscher that her husband’s “remarkable gifts would benefit the [Sussex] University if he were not called on to create a field of studies but to reinvigorate an existing discipline. . . I know nothing of the circumstances; the only point I wish to make is that if the University had wished to appoint Mr. Deutscher to be Professor of Soviet Studies, they could have done so, in the knowledge that no opposition to this would come from me” (p.284-85). Berlin reiterated for Mrs. Deutscher that her late husband’s Marxism was for him an irrelevant consideration, writing that it “would have been a betrayal of every intellectual value in which I believe if I had allowed this to sway my judgment consciously in judging his fitness for an academic post” (p.285).

* * *

            Readers may conclude that Caute provides at best only a partial answer to his initial question. Deutscher’s dogged Marxism was plainly a major contributor to Berlin’s antipathy to Deutscher, notwithstanding his protestations to Mrs. Deutscher, Caute himself, and others. To this, one could add Deutscher’s unfavorable 1955 review of Historical Inevitability and Berlin’s intra-Jewish prejudices. The rest of the explanation seems to lie somewhere in the deeper recesses of Berlin’s psyche and is unlikely to be discovered. But this book is only partially about Sussexgate.

           For those who relish the academic equivalent of “inside baseball” — and I must confess that I include myself in this eccentric group, especially when the academic is someone of Berlin’s stature – Caute’s look at the non-hiring decision at Sussex University half a century ago makes for entertaining reading. Caute also adds good overviews of Berlin’s thinking, as well as a peek at the darker side of Sir Isaiah. How brilliant minds like that of Deutscher could cling stubbornly to Marxism is also fascinating subject matter and Caute’s portrayal of Deutscher convinced me that this lesser-known figure deserves a full length biography. Moreover, as a depiction of the zeitgeist of post-war Britain and the country’s polarization over such matters as the Soviet Union and communism, the Anglo-American alliance, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, Caute’s book is erudite and engaging, even for readers who may not care why Isaiah so despised Isaac.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 6, 2014


Filed under British History, European History, History, Intellectual History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized