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ISAIAH VS ISAAC: A PHILOSOPHERS' CATFIGHT CHRISTOPHER BRAY REVIEWER AND AUTHORA new book on Isaiah Berlin's run-ins with Isaac Deutscher confirms what a bitch Berlin could be.O
11 JULY 2014
One evening in December 1966, the great American writer and critic Edmund Wilson had Sir Isaiah Berlin over for dinner.

And a good time they doubtless had of it, but later that night Wilson recorded in his diary that he found Berlin prone to 'violent, sometimes irrational prejudice against people'. On the evening in question the object of Berlin's ire was the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose book about the trial of the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann,Eichmann in Jerusalem, he excoriated without, Wilson claimed, his ever having troubled to read it.
On that last point at least, Wilson seems to have been wrong. Granted the evidence marshalled in David Caute's Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, it is fair to conclude that Berlin had not only read Arendt's bestseller, but had also likely arranged for his close friend John Sparrow, then warden of All Souls College at Oxford, to give the book a kicking in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Since TLS reviews were printed without bylines back then, why didn't Berlin write about the book himself? Because, Caute argues, he had for some reason 'always avoided referring to Arendt in print'. Privately, though, he was happy to rubbish her work. A few years earlier, he had written Faber & Faber a report on Arendt's The Human Condition. It opened by telling them he 'could recommend no publisher to buy the UK rights of this book. There are two objections to it: it won't sell, and it is no good.'
Fans of Berlin's waspish wit will relish those last two clauses (invert them, as the logic of the sentence dictates, and the wit is gone), but did Arendt's most considered work really merit such a stinging rebuke? Did Eichmann in Jerusalem, whose insights into what its subtitle calls 'the banality of evil' are still potent, really deserve that TLS hatchet job? To be sure, subsequent research has disproven many of the book's claims about Eichmann himself. But half a century ago nobody save Eichmann was in a position to know that Arendt's belief that he was no more than a stupid, anonymous cog in the Nazi machinery was quite wrong.
Caute believes that the antipathy Berlin felt for Arendt was largely explicable by the fact of his fealty to Zionism and her belief that
nationalism was past its sell-by-date. But even though history proved Arendt wrong on this count, oughtn't the philosopher who made his name by arguing that incompatible values can all be valid have been less ready to take offence over the disagreement? Nationalists need not be nasty, but nor is everyone who longs for a better tomorrow willing to worsen the here and now in order to bring it on.

But what of people who lie about yesterday in order to pretend that today is better than it is? Such was the gist of Berlin's loathing of the historian and journalist Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher 'worship[ped]' Lenin, Berlin told Caute one day in March 1963 in the All Souls common room, and his three-volume biography of Trotsky was designed to make its subject look like
'Jesus on the cross', his story 'the great modern tragedy'. Was Berlin, Caute asked, hostile to Deutscher because he remained loyal to Marxism? Not at all, said Berlin, saying that he had the greatest respect for the work of C Wright Mills and Eric Hobsbawm, and that a few years earlier he had supported EH Carr's candidature at Trinity College. 'To be a Marxist is a
legitimate stance for an academic', Berlin told Caute, 'but Deutscher parades as a soothsayer. [Nobody] knows the whole truth - but Deutscher does.'

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