Click to enlarge

"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

























John Gray

A Professor of Principles

Building: Letters 1960-1975
By Isaiah Berlin (Edited by Hardy and Mark Pottle)
(Chatto and Windus 680pp 40)

Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic By David Caute (Yale University Press 336pp 25)
Berlin: no cautious trimmer

I am happily married, I have stepchildren, I live in a large house in Headington, I hate being Professor, I hate lecturing, I hate work, I see fewer people than I used to, I tick over, I go to the same place in the summer and the same place in the spring, and on the whole enjoy monotonous routine ... Really there is nothing to say about me, I am much as you left me, only older and weaker. I do not feel in the least professorial.

So writes Isaiah Berlin, in a letter to the American philosopher Irving Singer in November 1960, in this third volume of Berlin's letters. More selective than the previous two because many more letters have survived, this volume covers the period in which Berlin became one of the most commanding figures in British academic life, giving up his professorship in political theory at All Souls to become the first president of a new graduate college in Oxford and taking on the presidency of the British Academy.

For some readers the most surprising revelation to emerge from these absorbing letters may be that Berlin was in no sense a natural academic. He loved Oxford and relished college life. At the same time he loathed the routine responsibilities that go with being a university teacher. Partly this was a matter of temperament. Celebrated as a lecturer, he hated public speaking. He writes of the 'fearful time-eating occupations' of the average university day as 'devouring one's substance'. (How he would react to the unending bureaucratic chores of the current academic regime can be left to the imagination.)

Berlin's revulsion from academic life had another source, which was biographical rather than temperamental. When he returned to Oxford after having worked as a British official in Washington, operating at the epicentre of global events, he found the academy a dispiritingly small world -so much so that for a time, when unsettling self-doubt made him almost a ghost in Oxford, he could hardly imagine how he would make the remainder of his life there. Yet he turned down other careers, opting instead to change his intellectual self-description from philosopher - 'I couldn't be another ordinary Oxford philosopher,' he used to say - to historian of ideas. He did not actually give up philosophy, but used intellectual history as a vehicle for a philosophy of his own - a liberalism that refused to sacrifice individuals for the sake of grand visions of human progress, whose roots were not in the English life he knew and loved, but sprang, as Berlin wrote to Nicholas Nabokov in June 1970, 'from the heart of the Russian intelligentsia, like everything else that I believe'. As much as anything else, it was this distinctively Russian liberalism that led him to take up arms in the intellectual battlefield of the Cold War.

Consistently interesting and at times strikingly unexpected, these letters show sides of Berlin that have not been seen before. Often viewed - not always without reason - as avoiding conflict on matters of principle for fear of alienating institutions that were important in his life, we find him in 1972 resolutely resigning from the Old Pauline Club in protest against the imposition of a numerical quota on non-Christian entrance candidates for admission to his old school. Severing a more than forty-year-long association, he does so because of his inability to 'acquiesce ... in a principle that seems to me morally intolerable'. This is not the voice of a cautious trimmer. In fact, as anyone who knew him moderately well was aware, Berlin was a man of strong emotions, who liked and disliked people and views with a passion - a dimension of his nature rarely expressed in public. The letters collected here between him and his wife, Aline, display deep and intense devotion, which made the later decades of his long life - he married in 1956, when he was in his late forties, and died in 1997 - a time of unanticipated contentment.

Berlin's emergence as one of Britain's foremost public intellectuals occurred alongside the intensification of the Cold War. Given his wartime work and continuing contacts with British, American and Israeli diplomats and politicians, it was perhaps only to be expected that he should be seen by some as enjoying too close a connection with power. In later years he became for his more imaginative detractors a faintly sinister figure, a donnish Machiavelli moving events secretly from behind the scenes. David Caute's Isaac and Isaiah may have been written to support this view, but in many ways it can be read as a defence of Berlin's consistent integrity. As Caute writes, 'Whereas Isaiah Berlin tended to be consistent in his prime values whatever platform he chose - book, essay, lecture, broadcast, newspaper article - there were several Isaac Deutschers.'

It is a comment that captures the paradoxes of his well-balanced, informative and vivid book, which makes interesting use of Caute's memories of conversations he had with Berlin when they were both fellows of All Souls in the early 1960s (Caute resigned his fellowship in 1965). The short last chapter reproduces letters between Berlin, the University of Sussex and others which, Caute thinks, tend to support the accusation that Berlin vetoed the application of Trotsky's biographer Isaac Deutscher for a position in Soviet studies at the university, where Berlin served as external member on the academic advisory board. Focusing on Berlin's personal and political animosity to Deutscher - which Berlin freely acknowledged in his response to the Sussex authorities - Caute seems determined to uphold the received view on the Left, echoed in the book's subtitle, in which Deutscher figures as an intellectual martyr of the Cold War. Ironically, the account Caute presents undermines this view at every important point.

Berlin always maintained that he would have had no objection to Deutscher's appointment as a professor of Marxist studies - it was Deutscher's appointment as a Soviet specialist that he could not support. Viewing Stalin as (in Caute's words) 'a legitimate heir to the work of Lenin', Deutscher always avoided any mention of the Gulag. 'In the index to Stalin', Caute notes, 'one draws a blank under "camps", "concentration camps", "labour camps", "forced labour", "Gulag", "penal system", "prisons", "justice", "penal servitude", "courts" ... Even before the Second World War, the Soviet press itself had set a figure of 250,000 prisoners working on the Baltic-White Sea Canal.' Less candid about the larger crimes of the Soviet state than the regime's own heavily controlled media, Deutscher - who travelled in Russia and the Ukraine during the Stalin era and undoubtedly knew of the atrocious repression that was under way at the time - was interested only in the communist casualties of the purges, which he estimated to run into thousands. 'The terror', Deutscher wrote, 'amounted to political genocide: it destroyed the whole species of the anti-Stalinist Bolsheviks.' The millions who languished and died in the camps - listed after the war by the American Federation of Labor as including social democrats, liberals, active members of Jewish, Bund and Zionist organisations, theosophists, industrialists, shipowners, owners of hotels and restaurants and others - are not even mentioned. Deutscher was 'not concerned' with such people, Caute observes. 'After all, a revolution is not a teddy bears' picnic.'

Reflecting the anti-sacrificial Russian liberalism that was part of his nature, Berlin did care about such human beings. It was very likely this concern that lay behind his describing Deutscher in his letter to Sussex as 'the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable'. Berlin believed Deutscher's neglect of the scale of Soviet repression compromised his ability to teach Soviet studies in an intellectually rigorous manner. Interestingly, Caute goes some distance towards endorsing Berlin's view. 'Can one easily imagine Deutscher handing out Soviet studies reading lists extending to the "Cold War" scholars,' he asks rhetorically, 'to Wolfe, Schlesinger, Kennan, Fainsod, Laqueur, Schapiro, Ulam, Katkov, Seton-Watson, Keep, Zeman, Utchein, Hayward? To Berlin and Popper? One can doubt it.'

As Caute also notes, Deutscher's failure to gain the Sussex post hardly left him in poverty and obscurity. He was earning a substantial income from journalism: 'his desk swarmed with invoices, statements from his agent, handwritten lists of earnings.' If he had taken up the Sussex position, the celebrated biographer of Trotsky might have suffered a decline in his standard of living and the overall quality of his life. 'Compiling reading lists, marking essays, setting exams, sitting on committees' might be something of a comedown for one who was enjoying a 'late-in-life emergence as a public celebrity'. Summing up the case, Caute concludes, 'If we leave aside Isaiah Berlin's motives, he may have done the University of Sussex, or its students, a small favour.'

There is no need to leave aside Berlin's motives, which were consistent with the moral views he expressed throughout his life. While he may not have vetoed the appointment at Sussex, he must have known that his letter would have had the effect of denying Deutscher a position in Soviet studies there - and possibly elsewhere. If so, Berlin acted honourably. Appointing anyone with Deutscher's intellectual record to a position in Soviet studies would have been a travesty. The irony of the affair lies in its impact on Deutscher himself. For all his late celebrity, he was an insignificant figure, lacking the scholarly gifts of other Marxist historians such as Hobsbawm and would soon have vanished from memory. Instead, while passing over mass slaughter in faraway countries with magisterial indifference, Deutscher became an acclaimed victim of liberal persecution - a teddy bears' picnic if ever there was one.


Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!


John Gray's most recent book is The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (Allen Lane).


Lewes Speakers Festival


Royal Literary Fund