berlin’s letters


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.

more from John Gray at Literary Review here.