The Cold War on Campus

Isaiah Berlin's childhood home in Riga, Latvia (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr)

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

by David Caute
Yale University Press, ­­­2013, 352 pp.

In March 1963 Isaiah Berlin asked David Caute what “in principle should disbar a man from holding a senior academic post.” It was, he explained, Isaac Deutscher he had in mind, a man “peddling pernicious myths” and “falsifying evidence—deliberate falsification!” He was “not fit to teach,” indeed “dangerous.” Deutscher, author of the three-volume life of Trotsky, one of the great biographies of the last century, was applying for a teaching post at the University of Sussex. There was unanimous enthusiasm in the faculty for appointing Deutscher, and Berlin was asked by Lord Fulton, the vice-chancellor of the university, to participate in the committee to appoint a new chair in Soviet studies. In the archives, Caute has found Berlin’s reply containing these sentences: “The candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable. . . . I think there is a limit below which lack of scruple must not go in the case of academic teachers. . . . The man in question is the only one about whom I have any such feeling—there is literally no-one [else], so far as I know, to whom I would wish to urge such objections.” Deutscher’s appointment was effectively vetoed. Three months later, Fulton wrote to Deutscher explaining its impossibility “in the light of our other commitments.”

Six years later, after Deutscher’s death, a brief, garbled version of the story appeared in the left-wing magazine Black Dwarf. This caused Berlin intense distress. He wrote several self-exonerating letters to Deutscher’s widow, Tamara, denying he had vetoed the appointment and claiming not to know why the decision had been made. Had the university wished to appoint her husband, he wrote, it knew that “no opposition to this would come from me.” He even enlisted a friend “to make it all right for me with Mrs. Deutscher.” When Christopher Hitchens picked up the story in the New Statesman, he was forced to issue a retraction because Tamara Deutscher, though skeptical of Berlin’s disclaimer, lacked evidence. Deutscher had sought the Sussex appointment in order to focus on his planned, but never written, biography of Lenin. Instead, his time was consumed with journalism and speeches at teach-ins about Vietnam in several countries. Caute comments that it is hard to imagine him abandoning all that for humdrum professorial duties and suggests that, leaving aside his motives, Berlin may even have “done the University of Sussex, or its students, a small favor.”


Berlin and Deutscher—two immigrants from the Soviet world, both non-believing Jews who remained attached to their Jewish identity, and both preoccupied, each in his own way, with the legacy of Marx and Marxism—were fully absorbed into British public life, where they exercised huge influence in their time, both domestically and internationally. They were embraced by prestigious publishers and the highbrow media, sometimes working with the same editors and producers, and they were both members of adjacent London clubs and users of the London Library, though, as Caute notes, it is Berlin’s portrait that hangs there. Their lives barely touched—they met only twice, and briefly. Berlin was of little interest to Deutscher, who probably never knew of his role in his non-appointment. He viewed his ideas, alongside Sir Karl Popper’s, as taking the form of “extreme subjectivism, of a moralism which expects the historian to act as ‘hanging judge’ (especially vis-à-vis the leaders of the Russian revolution),” of hostility to “a scientific treatment of history” and determinism, and of the “naïve view” that “only ‘individuals,’ as opposed to ‘social forces,’ are the historian’s proper theme.” This last point is somewhat ironic, given his métier of political biography and his predilection for top-down history involving, as Caute remarks, “great men, great battles, great events.” It was Berlin, by contrast, who was obsessed with Deutscher and his influence. So it is worth asking: why did Deutscher matter so much to Berlin?

For Berlin at the height of the Cold War, the dangers of the monist mode of thinking were not merely, as they say, “academic,” but real and present

Berlin’s standing in postwar Britain was already considerable. A rising academic star at Oxford, Berlin had published his vivid and engaging life of Marx and was celebrated for his wartime reports to the British government from Washington on the state of American opinion. In the course of the 1950s and 1960s, his rise to the summits of British academic and social life was uninterrupted: the Chichele Professorship of Political and Social Theory at Oxford, a knighthood and then the Order of Merit, the presidency of the British Academy and of the newly founded Wolfson College in Oxford. His writings about the history of ideas and Russian writers and thinkers and his rapid-fire radio talks reached a wide audience. He became an ever more celebrated and respected public intellectual, but not one who pronounced, or even took a public position, on political issues of the day or who sought to intervene in current events in Britain or the wider world—with the sole exception of Israel and Zionism. He was, in Caute’s words, “inclined to a donnish withdrawal into Oxford’s quadrangles whence his eloquence would periodically gallop forth,” and he was a most reluctant signer of letters of protest and petitions. I recall once asking him to sign a letter to the London Times, alongside several other liberal luminaries (yet another letter, people would say, signed by “A. J. Ayer and others”), in protest against the bombing of North Vietnam. He replied, “No, I’ll sign at the next outrage.” (He didn’t). Only much later did we learn (from Kai Bird) that he was closely involved with a group of very influential hard-line Vietnam war hawks (Joseph Alsop, the Bundy brothers, and Chip Bohlen), one of whom (Mac Bundy) wrote to another (Alsop) that he wished he possessed Berlin’s “wonderful self-confidence.”

This came as a surprise because, as Caute writes, he “liked to describe himself as a man of the Left, or ‘left of centre’ assailed by both Left and Right” (though, Caute adds, not unfairly, “his right-wing detractors are difficult to locate”). But it should really not have been surprising, considering Berlin’s life experience and the circles in which he had moved since childhood, when his family had lived through and fled the Russian Revolution. Nor should one unquestioningly accept Michael Ignatieff’s verdict that Berlin “certainly had no official or unofficial relationship with either British Intelligence or the CIA.” His anticommunism was both visceral and deep, and for entirely understandable reasons. As he later wrote of himself, his early years

had completely inoculated me against illusions about Soviet reality—I remained passionately anti-Stalinist, and indeed, anti-Leninist, for the rest of my life; but my words fell on deaf ears; my contemporaries thought that there was something curiously perverse in my failure to understand who were the sheep and who the goats in the political world. There is no doubt that Soviet propaganda remains the most successful hoax ever perpetrated on the human race.

His was, in Caute’s phrase, “one of the presiding voices of Anglo-American liberalism.” As a liberal thinker during the Cold War he is often compared with Popper, Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, J.L. Talmon, and Friedrich Hayek. Yet he never liked to be viewed as one of their company (much preferring that of Turgenev and Herzen). In one letter, to Jean Floud, he wrote of “the Left” as “Trotsky’s labour battalions” and its theoretical acceptance of “the ideal of fully developed human beings” but only “after the terrible wars are over: when the enemy has been routed: after the corridor of the dictatorship of the good: when, we all know, it will be too late.” How, he asked her,

does one show that this is naïve & it all costs seas of blood not followed by the reign of universal love? This is what the miserable centrists, the contemptible moderates, the crypto-reactionary skeptical intellectuals have always agonized over. Popper, Hayek are too dogmatic, & too conceited & removed from the actual lives of the people they are prescribing for: & blind, complacent, & scholastic.

Berlin’s way of showing this was indeed distinctive. His forte, Caute rightly observes, was “the intellectual and historical origins of disasters.” He accorded a remarkable—and, it must be said, utterly implausible—importance to the role of ideas in accounting for such disasters. His task was to warn his readers, and in particular those of us on the left, of the consequences of dangerous ideas. Like the hedgehog, he discerned “one big thing” underlying the disasters of our times. The great danger, he thought, lay in a mode of thinking, a view in meta-ethics—a deep structure that could, he was convinced, have ramifying and terrifying consequences. He traced it, counterintuitively and paradoxically, to the Enlightenment, the very source of the rationalism and secular humanism he embraced (and also, of course, of Marxism). But he also saw it as an “old perennial belief,” placing it in a philosophical tradition reaching back to Plato. He summed it up in a motto-like phrase he found in Condorcet (whom he called “one of the best men who ever lived”): “Nature binds truth, happiness and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain.”

The view in question he called monism—the attractive, seemingly innocent conviction that “all positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another”—most eloquently described and attacked in the last section of his famous lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty.” The antidote to this supposedly deadly poison was value pluralism—the belief that in the world of ordinary experience we are “faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others.” Hence his identification with Herzen’s deep distrust of all general formulas, of “principles and slogans in the name of which men have been, and doubtless soon again would be, violated and slaughtered, and their forms of life condemned and destroyed.” This undeviating concern drove his selection and brilliant interpretations of thinkers “against the current” in the past, several of them anti-liberal and hostile to the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, Hume, Vico, Herder, and also Machiavelli, Hamann, de Maistre, and Sorel—all are presented as value pluralists avant la lettre. For academic political philosophers interested in his ideas, this posed, and continues to pose, the puzzling question of how to reconcile, as he sought to do, the three thoughts that values are plural, objective, and not relative to differing perspectives, or to different times and places or cultures.

While acknowledging his place “in the highest rank of historians,” Caute repeatedly suggests that there were several Deutschers—historian, pundit, prophet, polemicist, and street fighter.

But for Berlin at the height of the Cold War, the dangers of the monist mode of thinking were not merely, as they say, “academic,” but real and present. This was Berlin’s version of Aron’s “opium of the intellectuals,” Popper’s “closed society,” and Hayek’s “fatal conceit,” and Isaac Deutscher was its living embodiment. The danger did not lie in the exhausted rhetoric of the spokesmen and apostles of official Communism, whose langage de bois was increasingly outmoded. It came from a renewed form of Marxist or marxisant thinking, a new illusion of the epoch that threatened to tarnish the appeal of liberal values and ballot-box democracy and render plausible the prospect of a transformative social future whose foundation, according to Deutscher, had been laid in the early years of the Russian Revolution. Deutscher did indeed have a commanding presence on the left. He was much admired by the editors of New Left Review and Les Temps modernes, his Trotskyist credentials seemed to absolve him of Stalinist and pro-Soviet sympathies, and his gifts as a writer and speaker rivaled Berlin’s own, as did his access to the wider public through the BBC and the pages of newspapers and journals.


Deutscher wrote a hostile review of Berlin’s lecture Historical Inevitability—Berlin’s critique of historical determinism—in which he argued that Berlin neither analyzed nor argued his case but proclaimed and declaimed it and that, like other great rhetoricians, “he is not over-scrupulous or over-precise.” Berlin found the review “nastier than I had conceived possible” and a “travesty” of his views. But while Berlin was always thin-skinned about criticism, his animosity toward Deutscher had far deeper and more complicated roots. His letters, so far filling three fat volumes, offer abundant evidence of its virulence and its basis. He suffered, he wrote, from “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.” He would not reply to an article of Deutscher’s about Lenin because “I hate him too much.” He had “the greatest contempt for Deutscher,” who was a “full-sized charlatan.” He was “dishonest even in terms of his own Marxist framework,” a “complete Bolshevik of Lenin’s time.” “Beneath his appearance of cool judgment and the temperate tone,” there was “an icy fanaticism.” He was one of the “perverters of truth who squeeze the facts into iron frameworks of doctrine, against all that their hearts or consciences tell them.” He lacked “integrity and independence” because of his commitment to a “total creed.” His Stalin was “a deception,” and “his articles on the contemporary Soviet Union have been falsified by events more frequently than those of any other Soviet expert.” He “hurls poisoned darts into the left and the right, all except his own tiny faction of Trotskyists and semi-Trotskyists.” He was an “incurable hater, who really does abominate the West.”

The intensity of Berlin’s motives is all too obvious, but what are we to make of his judgments? Caute offers two contrasting answers. One is that Deutscher, without falsifying the facts, had a different perspective. So of Deutscher’s view that Soviet forced collectivization was cruel but necessary, he writes that “it is a view, a historical perspective, not a ‘falsification.’” Deutscher’s endorsement of Lenin’s crushing of popular resistance was, he writes, “quite candid about the facts. No falsification is involved.” Disagreement with Deutscher must be over “his overriding ideological perspective—Lenin and Trotsky heeded the call of necessity and saved the revolution.” He had “little patience with what he regarded as Menshevik equivocations,” and, in general, “the virtues of ballot-box democracy never weighed with Deutscher.” His “basic perspective on the Cold War was that an exhausted and depleted Russia had no intention of expanding or attacking anyone,” while America was “spoiling for global dominance.”

But a second answer is that “sometimes Deutscher’s credibility seriously falters.” As examples Caute cites the absence of the Gulag from Deutscher’s Stalin, his exclusive concern with the fates of “the Old Bolsheviks and their factions, seen as the guardians of Lenin’s values,” the silence about “those millions who had suffered from collectivization or in the labor camps,” his lack of candor over the crushing of the Kronstadt rebels, and his claim that in 1917 “the idea that the ruling party was entitled to form public opinion did not yet enter anyone’s mind. (“Really!” Caute writes, “Nobody’s mind?”) Deutscher’s review of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (which outraged Berlin) denied the horrors and tyranny of the civil war period in Russia, although he did describe them graphically in The Prophet Armed, the first volume of his Trotsky biography.

Caute goes on to list many such assertions and silences. Deutscher remained “resolutely silent in public” about the East European show trials, described Imre Nagy and his faction in Hungary as counterrevolutionaries, and discounted claims of Russian anti-Semitism in Stalin’s last years—this last making, Caute writes, “unhappy reading.” All of which, however, raises a knotty question: what, exactly, counts as “falsification”? As for Berlin’s negative judgments about Deutscher’s reliability as a Soviet expert, Caute basically endorses them. Commenting, for instance, on Deutscher’s prediction that few Soviet Jews would emigrate, given the prospect of “evolution to a genuine social democracy,” he writes that one is struck “by how much, across the preceding years, Deutscher knew yet had chosen not to say.” Deutscher never swerved from his faith in the “unfinished revolution”—in “the inevitable process of Soviet democratization”—and his “predictions were relentlessly wrong.”

While acknowledging his place “in the highest rank of historians,” Caute repeatedly suggests that there were several Deutschers—historian, pundit, prophet, polemicist, and street fighter; that he was given to “changing his opinions when he encounters a new debating companion”; and that increasingly often he got carried away and, as his fame as a left-wing celebrity grew, his “ego expanded to the frontiers of vanity.” The question is: did the first Deutscher know what the others denied or concealed? Caute’s answer is not easily distinguishable from Berlin’s judgment when he writes that for Deutscher, as for communist writers such as Louis Aragon, “strategic calculations constantly molded what he said and did not say.” That Deutscher took what Caute calls “a strategic view of the truth” is revealed in his private correspondence with Heinrich Brandler, whom he would advise, discussing the facts about the forced labor camps, not to go “too far in explaining and justifying.” As with Sartre, aware of these facts about the Gulag, “what counted was who deployed these indubitable facts against whom.” It was vital to remain a heretic and never become a renegade.

Caute’s thought-provoking, meticulous study tells the story of the conflict between the two dominant ideologies of the last century through the lives of two of their most eloquent adherents, and the deceptions in which each of them allowed himself to engage. The deceptions—one secret and protected by confidentiality, the other out in the open—were, of course, at different levels with consequences at different scales. On the scale of personal morality, Berlin, it is clear, did not act in accordance with elementary liberal principles, first in vetoing Deutscher’s appointment, rather than leaving his ideas to compete freely with others at Sussex, and then in his subsequent embarrassed cover-up. Deutscher, by contrast, as a public figure with influence on the public stage, took Trotsky’s view of the “dialectical interdependence of ends and means” as set out in his pamphlet Their Morals and Ours: that there can be no “ready answer to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case” since “problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics.”

The story is also about the Cold War, the battles of which seem ever more remote. It is, as we have seen, multi-layered. But the writings of its two larger-than-life protagonists remain and will continue to interest and inspire generations of readers. It is one of Deutscher’s ironies of history that the legacy of Berlin, unrivaled in his academic eminence, is a series of brilliant essays, lectures, memoirs, and now letters, while Deutscher, who never made it to a chair at the University of Sussex, is remembered for a magnificent work of scholarship.


Steven Lukes, former fellow in politics and sociology at Balliol College, Oxford, is currently a professor of sociology at New York University.