A Jewish Radical, a Jewish Liberal, and Russian History

By Rubenstein, Joshua | Kritika, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

A Jewish Radical, a Jewish Liberal, and Russian History


Rubenstein, Joshua, Kritika


David Caute, Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic. 335 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0300192094. $35.00.

This is an unsettling book. David Caute set out to explore the careers of two iconic figures of the Cold War, Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher, each a refugee from a different dictator, whose careers unfolded in England. Elegantly written, based on comprehensive research, and displaying empathy and respect for both Berlin and Deutscher, Caute's book is infused by a current of sadness and disappointment over how each conducted himself. As Caute argues in Isaac and Isaiah, they each compromised their integrity over Cold War concerns. In the case of Berlin, Caute uncovers a serious lapse in academic ethics when his intervention at Sussex University in 1963 cost Deutscher a position he was seeking. In the case of Deutscher, we learn how his strong opinions about Soviet culture and history crossed the divide between the writing of honest-minded, objective history and the polemics of a partisan. Caute brings the conflict to the fore against a background of two lives in which the similarities are as striking as the differences.

Their brilliance was never in dispute. Born in Riga in 1909 to a wealthy, Russian-speaking Jewish family, Isaiah Berlin spent five years in Petrograd, where he witnessed the revolutionary turmoil of 1917, before his family escaped to England in 1920. Within a year, Berlin was fluent in English. His memories of Russia and his family's experiences sealed his hatred of communism, while the triumph of Stalinism confirmed his worst fears of Lenin's and Trotsky's legacy. (1) Throughout his life, Berlin resisted any romantic notions about the consequences of the Bolshevik revolution. As a resolute liberal and historian of ideas, Berlin wrote eloquent essays in defense of liberty and made an equally significant contribution to the study of Russian culture. His collection of essays, Russian Thinkers, focused on several of his intellectual heroes, most notably the journalist and revolutionary activist Alexander Herzen, the writers Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoi, and the literary critic Vissarion Belinskii.

Berlin found a commitment in Herzen's life and work to the kind of expansive liberalism that he championed himself. His study of Herzens career also colored his responses to the challenge of Marxist and communist beliefs that enjoyed adherents during the Cold War. Berlin abhorred the notion that a single, unifying theory or idea could organize human society in a positive or productive manner, as Marxists insisted. As Berlin wrote about Herzen, they both understood that

   nature obeys no plan, that history follows no libretto; that no
   single key, no formula, can, in principle, solve the problems of
   individuals or societies; that general solutions are not solutions,
   universal ends are never real ends, ... that short-cuts and
   generalizations are no substitute for experience; that liberty ...
   is an absolute value; that a minimal area of free action is a moral
   necessity for all men, not to be suppressed in the name of
   abstractions or general principles so freely bandied by the great
   thinkers of this or any age, such as eternal salvation, or history,
   or humanity, or progress, still less the state or the Church or the
   proletariat--great names invoked to justify acts of detestable
   cruelty and despotism, magic formulas designed to stifle the voices
   of human feeling and conscience. (2)

At the height of Berlin's career, he was among the most famous and respected academics in England. Embraced by the British establishment, he was knighted in 1957 and later became president of the British Academy. He was also a widely sought-after lecturer on both sides of the Atlantic. His speaking style was as renowned as his essays. His biographer, Michael Ignatieff, called his diction "rapid fire gabble. …

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