In a new book, Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, David Caute contrasts the ideas and lives of Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin, two famous essayists of the 1950s and 1960s, who resembled one another in many ways, although Deutscher believed in revolutionary Marxism, Berlin in liberal democracy. They were both secular Jews, of the same generation, who had fled totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe to exile in London. About the only ideological point they had in common was Zionism, though Deutscher later turned against Israel as being an imperialist pawn.
Berlin was loaded with academic laurels and a knighthood, while Deutscher was essentially an independent journalist and writer. His only attempt to obtain a post in a British university was frustrated by the intervention of Berlin, says Caute, although Berlin denied this. Hence the reference to punishment in the book's title.
The book is interesting, but envenomed by Caute's patent antipathy toward Berlin. He lays it on rather thick about Berlin's frivolity, his buttering up of millionaires, his frequent fatuity and arrogance toward his intellectual inferiors. He also argues that some of Berlin's most important contributions, notably his distinction between "positive" and "negative" liberty, were neither original nor important. Berlin and Deutscher only met twice, and never debated. Their ideas, though incompatible, were in their own contexts coherent, and elegant in exposition. Time has shown Berlin to be the winner, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and China's conversion to authoritarian capitalism.
Time has shown Berlin to be the winner, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and China's conversion to authoritarian capitalism
Yet Deutscher's loss in no way diminishes most of his work, or the courage with which he defended it. He was that rarity, an anti-totalitarian Marxist, expelled for that reason from the Polish Communist Party, and the bête noire of Stalinists. He never denied the crimes of Stalin. His books speak of them at length. But he was always convinced that sooner or later Communism would reform itself and, returning to the sources of Marxism, would establish more just and decent societies; and that capitalism, whose success demanded the exploitation of the many by the few, was sooner or later doomed to extinction.
But in his condemnation of colonialism and of the corruption and abuse of economic power in the Western countries; in his insistence on the need not to measure progress in terms of mere economic growth, to give democracy a creative content, constantly renewed by the ideal of justice and solidarity with the poor, the ideas of Deutscher are abidingly valid today. As Caute says, his own life was one of exemplary consistency, requiring huge sacrifices. But he was often wrong, as when he saw the US movement against the war in Vietnam as the birth of a Socialism that would unite American students and workers in a revolution against capitalism.
Why did Isaiah Berlin feel so profound an antipathy to Deutscher, speaking of him as "repellent" and "despicable?" Not the mere difference of ideas. Berlin spent more time trying to understand the enemies of liberty than its defenders, and devoted scrupulously honest essays to Marx, Comte, Herder, Hobbes and Sorel. Caute gives us to understand that the reason might be a negative review that Deutscher published about Berlin's essay on "historical inevitability," but this seems a poor hook on which to hang so much hatred. Berlin also heaped arrogant, vicious abuse on Hannah Arendt, who hardly deserved it.
Great men, and Berlin was one, are also human. We learn little of any use to us, and are apt to be demoralized, when we delve into the private lives of Picasso or Victor Hugo. They were great in the work, but in all else, they were made of the same clay as the rest of us.
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© Mario Vargas Llosa, 2013.