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Learning a Lot About Isaiah Berlin

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis
Isaiah Berlin, 1992

Another aspect of the man, and another and harmonious new note sounded in these letters, is his late-flowering uxoriousness. Aline Berlin, née de Gunzbourg, was the daughter of a Paris-based, Russian-born banker and his French-Jewish wife. Aline had been married twice before, and had three sons by her previous husbands. She and IB had met in America during the war, and became close when they found themselves together aboard the Queen Mary en route to New York in 1949. At that time Aline was still married to the nuclear physicist Hans Halban. She and IB fell in love, but IB had to endure a long wait before, in 1955, Aline’s marriage collapsed and she agreed to marry him. The momentous occasion is marked by a laconic entry in IB’s diary on February 18, 1955:

Midday. Very cold.
Proposed. 11.50.
Accepted. 11.55.

The marriage was a tremendous success, and transformed IB’s life. Building is the first volume in which Aline Berlin has allowed a selection of her husband’s letters to her to be published. It was a wise decision. The letters are utterly charming, touching, and funny, and make of IB an even more endearing figure than he appeared in the previous two volumes. In the autumn of 1962, seven years into the marriage, IB spent a term at Harvard as the Ford Visiting Research Professor. As is usual in such cases he was lonely and at something of a loss. Having gone on a shopping expedition to furnish his rooms at Lowell House with household necessaries he writes to Aline, with comic lugubriousness:

I sit surrounded by my electric gadgets: radio, telly, shoe-shiner, teapot, coffee pot, immersion plugs etc. & am subject to homesickness…. Funny. I used to be where my body was geographically. This division of body & feeling, physical process & real personality is queer. How much more can one love?

But he loved America, too, and had many friends there, including Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Joseph Alsop, Robert Silvers, and Charles “Chip” Bohlen. During the war he had been posted to the British embassy in Washington, and often declared that Washington was his favorite city, a new Rome on the Potomac, although he recognized how petty the capital could be, and how overseriously it took itself. His position, if not at the center of power then at least deeply embedded in the fringes of it, is indicated by a letter to Aline on October 17, 1962, the day after he had attended a White House dinner and met President Kennedy and his wife. He liked them both, with reservations. Of Jacqueline Kennedy he wrote: “She is very nice indeed…. Easy, sincere & amusing,” while JFK—“amused & delighted young tycoon…. Not my style at all”—seemed “rather tense.”

I don’t think [JFK] was as impressed with me as our friends hoped he wd be. The whole idea of my début was appalling. He gave me up fairly early, I thought: & with relief turned me over to his wife saying “you go sit with Jackie. She wants to bring you out, or somep’n.”

That the president should have been tense that evening is not surprising, since October 16 was the day on which the Cuban missile crisis began. Perhaps it was JFK’s coolness, allied to his own cheerful skepticism, that persuaded IB the situation was not as perilous as practically everyone else knew it was. On the night of October 22, after the president had gone on television to inform the world that it was teetering on the brink of nuclear devastation, we find IB writing to Aline, “My God, but it is dull here,” and going on to chat about their future plans together and to offer some ruefully amused gossip about his evening spent among the anointed ones at New Camelot.

America in general, and Washington in particular, were a source of fascination and attraction to IB throughout his life, and this westward leaning, along with his unwavering opposition to the Soviet Union and all it represented, led him to be considered an intellectual cold warrior. Certainly he knew where his allegiance lay, and had nothing but contempt for lazy-minded fellow travelers—his disgust with much of the student “revolution” of the late 1960s provokes a number of the strongest passages in these letters,2 passages that some readers will take to show him to have been just another old right-wing reactionary. However, looking back on the “Sixties,” who in his or her heart will deny that overall he was right?

Revolting students were not the only cause of outrage for IB in the 1960s and 1970s. The noirest of his bêtes noires was the Polish historian Isaac Deutscher—“the horrible Deutscher,” as he called him—a Marxist specializing in Soviet history and society, and author of a three-volume life of Trotsky. Although the two men met on only a few occasions, IB’s animosity toward him was unrelenting. In a letter to the teacher and translator Elena Levin, Harry Levin’s wife, in 1954, in which he bitterly disparaged a paper Deutscher had given on Trotsky, IB, speaking of Trotsky but also doubtless of Deutscher’s account of him, declared: “I do hate conscientious, coherent, high-minded doctrinaire torturers of human beings into neat and tidy shapes….”

Matters were made much worse when in 1955 Deutscher, in an article in the influential London Observer newspaper, wrote a highly critical review of IB’s essay Historical Inevitability, which provoked IB to fire off a controlled but furious letter of protest to the newspaper’s editor, David Astor. “I assumed that Deutscher’s article would be unfriendly,” IB wrote, “since the whole gist of my thesis was directly aimed at his own cherished beliefs…. The review duly appeared and I must confess was nastier than I had conceived possible.”

The next episode in the unappetizing saga came in 1963 when Deutscher applied for the chair in Soviet studies at the University of Sussex. The college authorities were inclined to hire him. J.S. Fulton, vice-chancellor of the university, wrote to IB, who was on the Academic Advisory Board at Sussex, asking for his views. IB replied in no uncertain terms:

The candidate of whom you speak [Deutscher’s name is not mentioned anywhere in the letter] is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable. How much of this is founded on objective judgement of his academic and intellectual activities, and how much on personal feeling, I find it difficult to say…. But 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.

His objection to the appointment was based on his conviction that Deutscher, because of his views of Soviet history and ideology, could not be trusted to teach Soviet studies in an unbiased fashion. In this he was probably justified. It hardly needs saying that after IB’s letter, Deutscher did not get the job. Six years later, after Deutscher’s death, an article appeared in a British left-wing gossip magazine accusing IB of having destroyed Deutscher’s chances at Sussex. IB considered suing the magazine, but thought better of it. However, he did write to Deutscher’s widow Tamara, denying the truth of the article. The anguished tone of the letter, and the convoluted language in which the denial is couched, testify to IB’s horror at being discovered to have condemned Deutscher behind the scenes. The affair is best summed up by Michael Ignatieff:

The difficulty lay in supposing that Deutscher could be counted on to teach non-Marxist concepts with the fairness requisite in a university teacher. This was a fair enough application of the standards of liberal tolerance in a university, but Isaiah muddied the waters considerably by claiming that he himself remained a man of the left. In reality, as the Deutscher affair shows, he was not of that political family at all.3

This was not the first time IB had maneuvered in secret to prevent an appointment he disapproved of—in 1958 he had written a letter aimed at preventing the composer Benjamin Britten from being granted the post of musical director at Covent Garden. The letter does not make for pleasant reading. IB’s objections are openly based on the fact that Britten was homosexual: “Not to put too fine a point upon it, opera is an essentially heterosexual art, and those who do not feel affinity with this tend to employ feeble voices, effeminate producers etc….”4 This does not mean that IB was homophobic—some of his closest friends were homosexual, including Maurice Bowra, Stephen Spender, and Joe Alsop—but the intervention leaves a bad taste nevertheless. Here and in his denial of his part in excluding Deutscher, IB was certainly treading in the mire.

Yet it would be unjust, indeed wrong, to end on such a sour note. IB was one of the great affirmers of our time, a man to be admired not only for his intellectual achievements but for his loyalty, his humor, his modesty, his delight in the world and the people in it. He was neither a temporizer nor a meliorist, yet all his thought was directed toward a humane estimation of life and its possibilities. Here he is, writing in 1969 to his friend Dorothea Head:

Nothing is less popular today than to say that there is no millennium, that values collide, that there is no final solution, that one can only gain one value at the expense of another, that whatever one chooses entails the sacrifice of something else—or that it is at any rate often so. This is regarded as either false or cynical or both, but the opposite belief is what, it seems to me, has cost us so much frightful suffering and blood in the past.

It was certainly unpopular—it still is—to say such things, but IB never faltered in his determination that they should be said, and said again. Building is a wonderful edifice in his honor, meticulously, indeed lovingly, edited and annotated by Henry Hardy, IB’s hardiest champion, and his colleague Mark Pottle, along with a phalanx of researchers, consultants, and transcribers. That such a book could be assembled, and thereafter handsomely produced by a commercial publisher, is a little light of hope in a dark cultural time.

  1. 2

    To the historian Alexander Gerschenkron, January 24, 1973: “You think that there can be no comparison between the real horrors of tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century, which bred the avenging Bazarovs, and our world in the West, with its pathetically underbred, underdeveloped, pseudo-revolutionaries—absurd human casualties battening on their parents, miserable nedorosl ’s [young ignoramuses], who need, at worst, sexual education or psychiatric treatment, or perhaps just a sharp slap from some exasperated adult…. You judge too much by the long-haired louts, the disturbed and the barbarous generation which is now mercifully passing away.” On other occasions, according to a friend, he took a much less harsh view of the young people of the New Left. 

  2. 3

    Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Henry Holt, 1998), p. 235. Relevant here is David Caute’s forensic but fair-minded examination of the Deutscher affair, Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (Yale University Press, 2013), where at the close of his preface the author writes: “I was fond and admiring of [IB], like almost everyone, and perhaps can do no more in these pages than trim the giant’s untended toenails. The affectionate recall, sometimes breathless adulation, he still engenders will rightly survive the narrative set out in these pages—bearing in mind that we were not entirely surprised when we learned that the far side of the moon, the side hitherto unseen, carries the deepest craters.” 

  3. 4

    See Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960, edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes (London: Chatto and Windus, 2009), pp. 641–642. 

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