Of fallible men and pure ideas

Intellectuals with their bloated egos are as blemished as the rest of us


The clash of ideas of Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher is the central theme of this elegant book written by David Caute.
The clash of ideas of Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher is the central theme of this elegant book written by David Caute.

Isaiah Berlin was the archetypical Cold War liberal. Isaac Deutscher was a Marxist intellectual. Both were Jews who fled to England when things began to get hot for them in their native countries. Berlin left Russia as a young boy a few years after the communists overthrew the old regime. Deutscher left Poland a few months before the German invasion of his country in September 1939. Many members of their respective families perished in the gas chambers of the Third Reich.

Berlin became an academic star after he abandoned technical philosophy to become a historian of ideas. He was also an energetic networker. A friend described him as an intellectual acrobat in the society circus. Deutscher was less famous though he became something of a celebrity for the New Left that emerged from the student protests against the Vietnam War. He died too soon. Their clash of ideas is the central theme of this elegant book written by David Caute.

The two intellectuals disagreed on most issues. Berlin was a strong critic of the Soviet regime. Deutscher believed that Stalin was a historical necessity to take Russia forward even though he professed no love for the Soviet dictator. Berlin was suspicious of the sort of historical determinism that Deutscher embraced.

Karl Popper had already written a sharp critique of thinkers such as Plato, Hegel and Marx where he showed their commitment to the notion of historical inevitability was a threat to open societies. Berlin sometimes came across as an apologist for the Western status quo while Deutscher played a similar role for the communist regimes. They even disagreed on the literary merits of Boris Pasternak. Israel was another contentious point between the two Jewish intellectuals.

Caute was a young scholar when Berlin lashed out at Deutscher in a private conversation. He later learnt—and now offers documentary proof—that Berlin had successfully blocked Deutscher from an academic job at the University of Sussex. It was a personal rather than just an ideological issue. Berlin had no problems with Marxists scholars such as Eric Hobsbawn but dismissed Deutscher as a liar who defended the brutal Soviet system.

The roots of their conflict were petty rather than high-minded. Deutscher had clashed with Berlin during an Oxford seminar held in 1954. He later wrote a stinging review of a Berlin lecture on historical inevitability. These two events set off something that became deeply personal, especially for Berlin. Berlin did not forgive Deutscher for his sharp review. Deutscher seems to have been less obsessed with Berlin.

In Isaac and Isaiah, Caute uses the story of his two protagonists to help readers relive that forgotten era that saw grand ideological battles even as American and Russian soldiers stared at each other in Europe. Caute also enlivens the story with witty asides, as in this observation about the historian E.H. Carr: “When Carr sent Berlin cricketing metaphors to back up his theory of history, Berlin was tickled (though not pink).”

There are two larger messages in this book. First, there are moral dilemmas when pure ideas are tempered in the fire of historical events, as is evident when Berlin was quiet about many Western acts during the Cold War while Deutscher was soft on communist crimes. Second, their clash is another example of how deep personal dislikes set off episodes of intellectual fratricide that seem to be based on differences in ideas. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus became unnecessarily bitter towards one another. Ludwig Wittgenstein flung a poker at Popper during a debate on the nature of philosophical inquiry. Mario Vargas Llosa gave Gabriel García Márquez a black eye after the two former friends got into an argument. There is a lot of egotism in the intellectual world as well.

In one of his most celebrated essays, Berlin used a sentence from the philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”. Berlin used this insight to build his case against people such as Marxists who try to build heaven on earth, often a society that is a mirror image of their own (flawed) selves. It is ironical that Berlin himself, in his behind-the-scenes campaign to prevent Deutscher from getting an academic job, was himself a case study of that crooked timber. Intellectuals are as blemished as the rest of us.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is Executive Editor of Mint.

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