Mosaic Magazine

Better to be Wrong than Right?

For some intellectuals, it all depends.


How many pages of print need be devoted to an event that amounts to no more than a small footnote, if that, in the history of British academic life? In the case of the dueling protagonists of Isaac & Isaiah, a new book by the British historian and novelist David Caute, the unfortunate answer is: quite a few. Luckily, there is much else of inadvertent interest in the story Caute tells.

Both Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) and Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) were born to Jewish parents in Eastern Europe, but otherwise they had little in common. Berlin, who arrived in England as a schoolboy, eventually became a central and much celebrated figure of the British intellectual and academic establishment and was knighted in 1957. Deutscher, who arrived in his thirties, established himself within a few years as a well-known biographer and political commentator and a self-proclaimed exemplar of the human type known as the “non-Jewish Jew,” a term he may have coined.

Caute presents his chosen pair as the “most influential scholars of cold-war politics.” This is not accurate. Berlin, whose many interests included Russian social and political thought, was not and never claimed to be an expert in Soviet politics—the field that preoccupied Deutscher almost entirely. Nor was Berlin ever a political activist, while Deutscher, by contrast, had been a member of the Polish Communist party, later a Trotskyite, and thereafter a faithful fellow traveler and well-wisher of the Soviet Union. Finally, although Deutscher acquired a remarkable mastery of the English language—in a 1967 review of one of his biographies, I noted not only his forceful style but his unique ability to make his protagonists come alive—whether he was a scholar by inclination or accomplishment has remained a matter of controversy to this day.

Which brings me to the anecdote that is the animating issue of Caute’s book. In the 1960s, Isaiah Berlin, then at All Souls College, Oxford, was asked whether Isaac Deutscher merited appointment to a professorship at Sussex University. Berlin was vehemently opposed to it, not on grounds of Deutscher’s Marxism—as Caute suggests and others have charged—but on grounds of his scholarly dishonesty in concealing the crimes of the Soviet regime. And here Caute raises another question: since, at an earlier date, the writer Deutscher had published a negative review of a book by the academic Berlin, should not the latter have disqualified himself and abstained from providing an opinion in the case? The issue is much worried, not to say tormented, by Caute; but in fact it is easily dispatched.

Berlin had not volunteered his view but was asked to do so by a member of the appointment committee. Nor was the issue whether a Marxist should be allowed to teach at a British university—dozens of them did, schooling generations of young minds in such esoteric subjects as surplus value, commodity fetishism, the young Hegelians, and Karl Marx’s relations with Bruno Bauer. No, the issue was the justification of one of the most brutal dictatorships in modern history. Isaiah Berlin was not known as a person of extreme views—had Deutscher been in line for a professorship in creative writing rather than Soviet studies, Berlin might well have supported his candidacy. But the notion that it might have been unethical for him to express an opinion in the given circumstances is far-fetched, to say the least.

I might mention in this connection an accidental encounter I had with Isaiah Berlin in 1976. (Caute at one point calls me a friend of Berlin’s, but while I greatly respect the latter’s work in the history of ideas, I met him only a few times.) On this occasion, the subject on Berlin’s mind was Arthur Koestler’s just-published The Thirteenth Tribe, a book whose thesis is that European Jewry originated not in the ancient Middle East but with the medieval tribe of the Khazars, who were Turkic converts to Judaism. Berlin was agitated over Koestler’s mischief-making attempt in this book to mount an argument against Zionism by severing the historical connection of the Jews with the land of Israel. I offered that the book might best be taken as an elaborate joke; no, Berlin insisted in return, you do not know Koestler, he wants to annoy people.

The point for our present purposes? For Berlin, ideology was secondary to intellectual honesty: he was perfectly capable of disliking the anti-Communist Koestler as much as the pro-Communist Deutscher.


David Caute’s effort to construct an entire history of ideas on the basis of the antagonism between his two protagonists is deficient in other ways as well. For one thing, he seems not to be on equally familiar terms with other, arguably weightier characters who make an appearance in his book. One of them is the late Leopold Labedz, a preeminent Sovietologist whose debating style Caute likens to that of a terrier. But Labedz, with all his weaknesses (they included an almost incurable writers’ block), was a man of encyclopedic knowledge in the social sciences and the humanities, and his own polemic against Deutscher—who threatened to sue him over it—was sharp and powerful.

But the real problem lies in Caute’s treatment of Deutscher himself, who he believes was underestimated as a thinker and was badly if not viciously used by Berlin. (The none-too-delicate subtitle of Isaac & Isaiah is “The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic.”) Let us see.

In the summer of 1953, Deutscher published a little volume, Russia after Stalin (this was shortly after the Soviet dictator’s death). Although not uncritical of Stalin, Deutscher argued that he had fulfilled a historically necessary role. Economically and ideologically, the system Stalin left behind was sound, and the nationalization of industry—which to Deutscher seemed the regime’s most important achievement—could not be undone. A military or other form of dictatorship was quite unlikely; nor would there be a post-Stalin struggle for power—Georgy Malenkov, the dictator’s immediate successor, would see to that. Indeed, thanks to Stalin’s legacy, the Soviet nation had now “outgrown authoritarian [sic] tutelage,” and the path lay open to a reform from above that would soon lead to a “breathtaking resurgence” of democratic socialism. Elsewhere, Deutscher held out the sunny prospect of a return to a “pristine Leninism” or to the “Soviet democracy of the early days after the Revolution.”

Reviewing this book of Deutscher’s in the October 1953 issue of the British monthly Encounter, I called him naïve. Beginning in 1855, with the accession of Tsar Alexander II, every new ruler of Russia had been hailed as a savior by ever-hopeful observers; given Deutscher’s knowledge of Russsia, how could he believe that history worked this way?

Understandably, Deutscher did not like my review and replied at length, suggesting from the assumed name under which it had been published that I was an unreconstructed old Menshevik. (I had used the pseudonym “Mark Alexander” so as not to endanger close relatives in the Soviet Union.) And one can appreciate his pique at my dissent. For, at the time, Deutscher’s “heretical” writings (to use Caute’s phrase), far from being slighted, were evoking very strong sympathy and had gained him a considerable following in Britain, even in the so-called bourgeois press.

Indeed, together with his friend, the historian E.H. Carr, Deutscher was for many years the most influential British commentator on Soviet affairs—influential, that is, as far as the British intellectual scene was concerned. Whether his writings had any impact on the conduct of British policy may be doubted; and they did, to be sure, generate dissent from other critics of Stalinism besides myself, one of them being Isaiah Berlin. But one can appreciate this, too. For, thanks to the impression of objectivity Deutscher managed to create, readers of his biography of Stalin would never learn that the Soviet leader was, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, responsible for untold misery and millions upon millions of deaths; that his dictatorship was a grotesque failure; and that his policies and actions would end by utterly discrediting the ideology so close to Deutscher’s heart.

I believed then, and rightly or wrongly I tend to believe now, that Deutscher was not merely pretending to be objective but genuinely believed that he was the epitome of objectivity. In contrast to Berlin and others who found him devious, I thought that politically he was simple-minded, less a Machiavellian than a true believer. In fealty to that true belief, he was prepared not only to deny reality but to wriggle out of positions no longer tenable without surrendering an iota of his core faith. By the time he replied to my review, two months after its publication, he was already being forced to retreat somewhat from his predictions in Russia after Stalin. But his optimism endured: eventually, all would turn out well. He went through similar gyrations in writing about Mao’s China.


Looking back from the perspective of 2013, one feels a bit like Leoncavallo’s Pagliaccio, torn between laughter and weeping. To engage today in a discussion of the fate of Marxism in Russia (where the last statue of Marx is about to be removed from Moscow) or China is to flog a dead horse. What is happening in Russia under Putin is hardly indicative of a renaissance of revolutionary internationalism, and today’s Russian ideology is much closer to Tsarism with its emphasis on autocracy (samoderzhavie) and the Orthodox church than to anything Marx ever wrote.

But revisiting Deutscher in 2013 is still a matter of fascination—if only as an exercise in the sociology of knowledge. Writing about him in 1967, I noted his indestructible optimism, which could well be one of the keys both to his personality and to his misjudgments. Deutscher’s ideological outlook was formed in the 1920s, a period when many young intellectuals with his background, including some of the brightest of them, turned to Communism as the great hope for the salvation of mankind. Neuroscientists tell us that optimism is hardwired in the human brain; they also tell us that this pervasive bias is responsible for our overestimating the likelihood of positive events and underestimating the likelihood of negative ones. (See Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, 2011.)

But if a youthful infatuation with Communism is easily explained, how to explain the fact that 30 and 40 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, after so many brutal setbacks and disappointments—preeminently the murderous rise and consolidation of Stalinist rule—Deutscher-style optimism should have continued to paralyze the critical judgment of so many? And more fascinating yet: how to explain that, even today, despite everything that another half-century of scholarship has disclosed, Deutscher and his friend and alter ego E.H. Carr still have their defenders? Deutscher, after all, only misinterpreted Stalin; Carr managed to get both Stalin and Hitler wrong—no mean achievement—and yet he is still regarded as a towering figure in the so-called realist school of international affairs.

The special indulgence granted to intellectuals who have been consistently wrong emerges from things big and small. In the 1950s, for example, an industry developed that specialized in the fabrication of Soviet memoirs. Some were produced by enterprising individuals out for material gain; others may have involved intelligence agencies.(Grigory Besedovski,a Soviet diplomat who defected in the 1920s but then seems to have re-entered Soviet employ, is frequently cited as a main author.) Although a number of these productions were quite sophisticated, most were so primitive that no deep knowledge of things Soviet was needed to spot them as fakes. Nevertheless, Deutscher was taken in by a book by Stalin’s nephew, Budu Svanidze (My Uncle Joseph Stalin), whom no one had ever met because he did not exist, and another (I Was Stalin’s Bodyguard) by Ahmed Amba, likewise non-existent. He also believed the rumor of Stalin’s third marriage to a Rosa Kaganovich. Carr, for his part, was fooled by the fake memoirs of Maxim Litvinov, the longstanding Soviet foreign minister.

Such slipups can occur at any time to busy writers, but they also point to a certain inherent credulity. What differentiates them and makes them of interest is the way they are received by others. A similar misfortune happened in 1983 to the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who authenticated a forgery entitled The Hitler Diaries; the mistake nearly ruined his formidable reputation. No such fate met Deutscher and Carr, whose howlers were all but ignored.

False optimism, then, can explain the Deutscher-Carr syndrome only in part, and their enduring reputation in some circles not at all. Similarly unhelpful are explanations that appeal to the perfectly natural reluctance of authors to admit mistakes—another hardwired tendency. In the end, the most crucial factor may be just this: being in tune with the right crowd.

As the leftist French journalist Jean Daniel once put it: better to be wrong with Jean-Paul Sartre than right with Raymond Aron. Sartre might have been consistently wrong in his political judgment and his intellectual opponent Aron almost always right. But Sartre, like Deutscher, was pro-Soviet during the cold war while Aron, like Isaiah Berlin, was pro-American (and also, like Berlin, pro-Israel). And that settled the matter.

This is how reputations quite often develop in the world of ideas, and how they endure—an interesting issue itself, and certainly one in need of further investigation.


Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of Terrorism, Fascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, is due out from Transaction in January.


  • Anna

    What a nasty and unpleasant review from someone I usually respect. The only remaining option is to order the book and make up my own mind.

    • Paul Austin Murphy

      That was one of the most un-nasty and pleasant reviews I have read.

      Anna, are your mistaking your political differences with Walter Laqueur, with him also being nasty and unpleasant? In other words, do you find Laquer’s political interpretations of this Communist apologist (whom I’ve never heard of) ‘nasty’ and ‘unpleasant’? That’s a very nasty and unpleasant position to take.

  • Marion Garmel

    So nice to discover Walter Laqueur again, especially in a new (to me) forum. Thanks. — Marion Garmel

  • Michael G. Dworkin, Ph.D.

    I was astonished to read Prof. Laqueur claim that Rosa Kaganovich was non-existent. As a once-upon-a-time Soviet Studies specialist, I can remember reading almost everything he published in the field. I am always interested in whatever he has to say about almost anything. But he is incorrect here, I believe.

    According to the recent JVS biography written by Simon Sebag Montefiore, there actually were two (2) Rosa Kaganoviches: A sister of Lazar Kaganovich who died in 1924 and Lazar’s niece by that name, Morever, in “The Wolf in the Kremlin,” written by Stuart Kahan, a distant cousin of the old Bolshevik, Rosa Kaganovich, a physician, may have contributed to Stalin’s death. Since so much of Soviet history turns out to have been in a continual state of fabrication it is not always possible to separate fact from fiction. But it does seem that Prof. Laqueur may have erred here.

    • Mosaic

      Please see Walter Laqueur’s response at the top of the comments section.

    • VT

      Where in his article does Laqueur claim the Rosa Kaganovich did not exist?

      Very careless reading…..

      • Beatrix17

        Isn’t he joking?

    • Hershl

      Rosa Kaganovich lived in our basement.

      She made a modest living for over 30 years translating the collected works of Stalin into Esperanto as well as producing thousands of pins with many angels dancing on them. She could often be heard whistling the Internationale much to my mother’s disgust. She once told me that she had erotic dreams involving Deutscher but maybe it was another Deutscher than the one mentioned here. There were quite a few Deutschers living in our neighborhood at the time. Sam Deutscher, a retired seltzer delivery man, was a close friend of the family.

      Maybe this is not the RK to whom Laqueur refers but it is the only one I have ever known.

  • heavenlyjane

    With all due respect, I find Professor Laqueur’s defense of blacklisting (that is what it amounts to) Deutscher for his politically incorrect views problematic. In today’s university, should supporters of the Castro brothers’ regime regime be barred from teaching Latin American history? But why stop there? Leftwing teachers of Latin American literature might infect their students with pernicious views. Should not they also be barred? Shall we set up committees of politically approved inquisitors to root out from the academy those ideas deemed unacceptable? Unacceptable by whom? And who precisely will be given the power to decide what it is permitted to think and what not? As a liberal, I generally find myself sympathizing with conservative academics who claim that their views are stigmatized in the university. But replacing a dictatorship of the leftist professoriat with an equally or more oppressive dictatorship of the right is not a model of academic freedom. Better to tolerate a deviant than set up an inquisition to root out and suppress deviancy.

    • Richard Ong

      Mr. Laqueur makes clear that Berlin’s opposition was not because of Deutscher’s politically incorrect views but because of his scholarly dishonesty. Where did you get “politically incorrect views” from?

    • Former Academic

      Declining to hire or promote someone because you think he’s a fool and a moral incompetent is not “blacklisting,” and a hiring committee is not an inquisition. A hiring committee merely has the power to deny you a job to which you are in no way entitled.

    • observenter

      I am American and hardly have a place to decide how you Brits make judgements. On our side of the Atlantic, it appears that extreme socialists and Marxists get themselves appointed to significant positions and perpetuate their kind by appointing others of like thinking (this occurs with any ideological group).

      It seems that the fact that Marxism is viewed by friend and foe as utopian (good or bad as to which side you are on) lends some evidence as to why the facts did not deter belief. The theory is good, even if the Russians (or Chinese) seemed to get its application wrong in some serious aspects. It has to do with infallibility of the theory, really.

    • VT

      I understand from Prof. Laqueur’s piece here that Deutscher was guilty of suppressing knowledge of factual matters concerning the then Soviet Union; and I’m sure I wouldn’t want to learn about that (or any) part of the world from someone who won’t even trust me with the facts.

  • Stuart S

    Perhaps Mr. Laqueur, whom I have read over the years and admired, can answer this question: How was it that the Soviet Union won World War II, while Tsarist Russia was defeated by a far less powerful Imperial Germany that really was fighting a 2-front war?

    The answer is far more complex than……some mythical attribution to western, especially American, aid, Lend Lease, etc.

    E.H. Carr attempted to answer this question in a serious way (see “The Legacy of History,” the opening chapter in Volume 1 of his “Socialism in One Country,”) and he is castigated for not rendering “moral judgments” against Stalin, though he actually did (see “The New Soviet Society” in Volume 2 of “Foundations of a Planned Economy” and elsewhere among his remarkable intellectual opus).

    There are great problems in associating Carr and Deutscher too closely. Their affinity probably had more to do with both of them being socially outcast among the British academic establishment at the beginnings of the careers as historians than any meaningful ideological affinity. (See Deutscher’s review of Carr’s first 4 volumes of his history, and Carr’s response in his review of Deutscher’s volumes on Trotsky.)

    And it is here that Mr. Laqueur grossly misunderstands Carr’s career. The reason Carr is “is still regarded as a towering figure in the so-called realist school of international affairs” has nothing to do with his writings on the Soviet Union; rather, his reputation in that field is based almost entirely on one very important book, “The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919 – 1939.” Though Carr himself deemed the book a “period piece” in what was a new, brief preface written in 1981 (the book was first published in 1939 and has remained in print since), it is rightly regarded by many as a timeless classic, doing for international politics what Machiavelli did for political science with “The Prince.” The very concept of “timeless classic” in the non-fiction world is an immeasurably higher hurdle than the same concept applied to fictional writing. Whether one agrees with this or not, the book certainly lives up to its subtitle – “an introduction to the study of international relations” – and it is on this basis, if no other, that the book can still be profitably read today.

    Lastly, it should be pointed out that of the handful of books published about Carr since his death in November, 1982, two of them bear very intriguing titles: “E.H. Carr and International Relations: A Duty to Lie,” by Charles Jones and “The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892 – 1982,” by Jonathan Haslam. In short, Carr was a very complex, subtle thinker who was never fully captured by the childish fantasy of a social revolution made by the western “proletariat.”

    • kevinalterfritz

      The Soviet Union did not defeat Nazi Germany because of Joseph Stalin, but despite him. The disastrous consequences of his purge of the officer corps in the late 1930′s became evident with the huge German advances of 1941-42. Moreover, Stalin cast the many warnings of the impending German invasion to the wind, choosing instead to trust Adolf Hitler — of all people. While the impact of Lend-Lease is indeed often overstated (the supplies only starting pouring into the Soviet Union after the German invasion had been halted), Winston Churchill’s refusal to conclude peace with Hitler tied down hundreds of thousands of German troops in France, a factor which must also be considered. Moreover, the brutality of the Nazi occupation in places like the Ukraine turned many locals, who had first cheered the Germans, into their mortal enemies. Ultimately, the Soviets bled the Germans to death, but they were more than aided by the incompetence of the German military leadership. Stalin could have won the war in smarter ways. And we must never forget, that the war in Europe began when both Adolf Hitler and his ally Joseph Stalin attacked Poland without cause, destroying countless cities, towns, and villages, and massacring tens of thousands of defenseless Poles.

  • Steve Foulger

    Isaiah Berlin clearly felt a little uneasy about the Deutscher affair – David Caute’s book opens with a discussion he had with Berlin on this topic but it is hard to justify too harsh a judgement on him, Berlin was approached for his views on the appointment and although his views carried weight with the Sussex authorities he was not on the appointment panel and they made the final decision. It is also clear that Berlin’s concern was specifically about Deutscher’s appointment as a lecturer in Soviet Studies – he would not have had a problem had the appointment been for a lecturer in politics and it is just wrong to suggest that Berlin’s problem was with Deutscher’s Marxism. It may not have been Berlin’s finest moment but to remain silent when directly asked for his opinion on a subject he felt very strongly about would have been pusillanimous.

    • Pulseguy

      It also appears to be hearsay, too. So, who knows what he actually said.

  • Jerry Blaz

    Back in the forties, when I wrote term papers for fellow students, I found Isaac Deutscher to be a great source for term papers dedicated to socialism and communism. And my clients got good grades. We all have our changes in views of people. For instance, I once thought that Walter Laqueur was actually a former official in Israel’s government, which may color his views of the men he writes about, particularly when he compares Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin, both first-rate intellects, favorably because they were pro-Israeli. Unfortunately, there are some first-rate minds who are anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli for reasons which have little to do with their intellectual competence or academic status.

    • TakuanSoho

      Congratulations, you have won the “completely misunderstood what the writer wrote” award!

      Laqueur’s only comparison of Aron and Berlin (and for that matter Trevor-Roper) was that both held positions that were very unpopular with their European intellectual brethren and he speculated that this was the reason they have been attacked and downplayed while people who held more favorable positions to other intellectuals (Deutscher and Carr) have had their gross errors overlooked and their reputations inflated. He never said that the former were right because they were pro-American or (pro-Israeli), nor that people who are anti-zionists /anti-israeli are wrong (though he does hint strongly that people who were pro-Soviet were wrong, but I find it hard to fault him for that view).

  • Walter Laqueur

    My apologies to Michael Dworkin and other readers. About Rosa Kaganovich, what I meant to write was that Stalin was never married to this person. The rumor was an invention either by the Nazis or an individual entrepreneur.

  • Stogumber

    Daniel’s saying about “better to be wrong with Jean-Paul Sartre …” expresses a sombre aspect of our conditio humana.- sombre above all because nobody can escape it completely. Aron was right in a lot of things, but Aron for his part decided that it was better to be wrong with Israel than to be right with the Palestinian people.

    • Shmalkandik

      The Palestinian people have democracy, which they used to elect Fatah and Hamas.

  • Roy_Cam

    Great article.

    I read the 3 volumes on Trotsky by Deutscher decades ago. I knew he was a pro-Marxist historian, but I credit him with documenting all the key incidents that made for the Leninist betrayal of Marx that Trotsky foresaw (“commie party substituting itself for the proletariat, central committee for the party and Lenin substituting for the central committee, making himself a dictator”).

    If only Marxists completed that critique of Lenin and then Marx, then, gee, maybe they would allow a substantial swath of humanity move on and let the rest of us concentrate on real problem solving instead of solving the problems of the “crypto-Marxists” of today.

    I have just finished rereading the Russian section of the Black Book of Communism.
    Yes. Deutscher’s intellectual history of the revolution creates much distance from the reality of Lenin. I had never heard of the “Green Army” of the peasants and some kulaks. Lot of significance to that.

    And, yes about the problem of optimism.

    I suppose that combining elements of psychopathy with that optimism and an addiction to idealism would account for Deutscher’s and so many others’ incapacity to admit to error and, more importantly, to the extent of their errors.

    We call such errors “crimes” and, in his case, “crimes against humanity”.

  • Eero Iloniemi

    Although the protagonists here were and are unknown to me (except for Mr. Laqueur), the paralells to Finnish-Soviet anf Finnish Russian relations are uncanny. The very same politicians who in 1990 said the Soviet Union will not be going anywhere are still in power and give us sage opinions about Russia, while those who predicted the Soviet systems downfall were cranks then and remain outsiders now.
    The eternal irony in expertise is that when something cataclysmic happens people turn for advice to the same experts who did not predict the very event they with hindsight pontificate upon.

  • Jonathan_Briggs

    The gullibility of intellectuals never fails to astound me. Of all classes, they seem the easiest to sell a pig-in-a-poke.

    • Roy_Cam

      Jung said something like the greatest disease of Europe was idealism.

    • Pulseguy

      They spend their lives making decisions, such as they are, about things that the correct answer lies in a book, or at least it seems that way. Consequently, they can be sold in the same way. Lay out a good argument, even if it takes someone to an absurd conclusion, and the academic thinks he has done his homework and will toss his hat in the ring.

      Real life isn’t like that. It is a big messy affair that reeks and smells beautifully, and is ugly and brutish and sensual and full of love. Most of life can’t even be known. Do you know yourself? Do you know your spouse? You might know very accurately what he or she might do in most situations but you don’t know who she is inside. And, you don’t knew her thoughts.

      Most everything in life is within a constantly changing infinitely complicated system. There are few if any correct answers. Just some that appear to be less stupid than others.

      The academic spends his time looking for the right answer, and grading papers as if right answers exist anywhere outside of math problems, and crossword puzzles.

  • louisproyect

    But if a youthful infatuation with Communism is easily explained, how
    to explain the fact that 30 and 40 years after the Bolshevik
    Revolution, after so many brutal setbacks and
    disappointments—preeminently the murderous rise and consolidation of
    Stalinist rule—Deutscher-style optimism should have continued to
    paralyze the critical judgment of so many?

    Maybe the explanation is that for most people who are not professional anti-Communists the capitalist future looks like hell.

    • Pulseguy

      As it continues to produce one good thing after another.

  • Pulseguy

    Many people, including academics, have little or no empathy. A person with empathy who hears about a Stalin-like character abhors the man. A person without empathy can easily look past his little flaws and see him for the great man he is, as he is carrying the torch in some way for something the one lacking in empathy desires.

    I saw a man in the street interview done before the last election. In it the interviewer interviewed Obama supporters and listed a number of things Obama has done, but declared them all things Mitt Romney has said he will do if elected President. Everyone was horrified at the vile crassness of Romney. One woman said, ‘He is a psychopath. There is no other explanation. Only a psychopath would want to do these things.’ Then, it was revealed it wasn’t Romney that wanted to do these things, in fact he opposed them. But, it was Obama who had already done them. The woman who called ‘Romney’ a psychopath, was taken aback. She said she needed a moment to think about this. She came back to the camera and said she would still vote for Obama, because although she might disagree with him she still thought on the whole his policies were better. So, she was quite willing to overlook someone who ‘…is a Psychopath’, as ‘…there is no other explanation’. It turned out the policies she liked directly benefited her.

    I guess it takes one to know one. A psychopath, I mean.

    • observenter

      Hence the still 40 to 50 per cent of people that say they approve of Obama handling of anything. His foreign “affairs” record is very poor and his leadership on his flagship program, ACA (so-called) apparently was nonexistent. He feigns ignorance on every debacle on his watch. We don’t know as mere citizens, but we know he is at least incompetent. Because he is anti-capitalist, he is a hero.

      • VT

        Only in the States could someone call Obama anti-capitalist…. A strange epithet for a president who has used taxpayer billions — to the tune of hundreds of billions, in fact — to prop up and subsidize private enterprise (big banks, the big auto makers, etc.).

        • observenter

          Does the name Armand Hammer ring a bell. This dichotomy is actually real on our soil. One benefits mightily from one system, while espousing the other. I suppose it’s part of the dialectic.

      • Bruce S

        This is pretty much an insane perspective. Obama is “anti-capitalist”? You’re not even living on the same planet as the minimally informed.

        • observenter

          You just don’t acknowledge the schizophrenia of the left.

  • Pulseguy

    A well known academic, teaching in a Canadian university, and a big name in the International Communist movement, gave a seminar which I attended. The seminar was to a post-grad group of adults, many of whom had successful careers already. The prof was talking about the fall of Communism and said, (and I paraphrase), “Those of us in the International Communist Movement have recently had to come to terms with some of the failings of the communist system, especially with Stalin. It has been a struggle.” We all were politely silent for a moment and then we burst out laughing, as a group. He then said, “No. Seriously. I’m not trying to be funny. There are shortcomings and until we face up to them and deal with them we will continue to slide on the International scene.” We went from laughing to incredulity. We pointed out most people knew by 1940 the shortfalls of the communist movement, (this was in 1995 by the way), and we asked how he could just now be coming to grips with such self-evident truths. He was aghast. He said how is this so obvious to everyone? How could we have known what he was just coming to?

    It was weird. He was in a state of denial that reminded me somewhat of an alcoholic denying his alcoholism. But, he was a big shot. He knew Joe Slovo and Mandela and three or four Russian leaders. He was feted in Moscow when he went there. Admitting the evil which he had helped promote meant giving up a lot of perks. Perks that might mean nothing to me, or you, but which meant a lot to him.

  • Northcroft

    Five years ago, I read about some research about how happy people were in the countries that were behind the iron curtain – East Germany, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary etc. I remember that only 11% preferred life in the new world – a huge majority preferred life under the communists!

    A very recent study into happiness revealed that the most important factor was security.

    Everybody writing here is in some sense an alpha male or female – a self selected group. A part of the weird phenomenon. Western, educated? Democratic.

    Stalin was a monster etc etc – but he did a rather (too?) good job of getting rid of the elite – which always prevent the bottom two thirds of society getting a good deal. Look at the USA today – if I was in the bottom 75%, intellectually, genetically etc, I would probably prefer to live in a modern, improved version of the old USSR! Where I would be guaranteed a job, a place to live, food and heat, and medical treatment. If you are poor and ill in the USA, life is absolutely miserable. You have to join a cranky religious group to get the help you need!

    The USA has taken selfishness – by the most well off – to extraordinary places.

    The right-wing press in Anglo-Saxon countries is a painful thing to watch.

    I am not, never was, in favor of Stalin. Or Mao. But I understand where they were coming from, and why they were so paranoid of the bourgeoisie! They are not easy to get rid of!

    Our “free” society is full of secrets. Most of the hugely overpaid managers etc do not warrant what they are paid – the high pay generates an obscene sort of gambling culture at the top that really threatens the rest of us. All we need for the most part is simple good management. The obscene wealth disparity we now have is justified by elites everywhere – because that is what they want for themselves. It just goes on and on!

    Long live the people who want to make the world a good place for all humans and all nature to coexist happily – now – and in the long term future.

    • observenter

      The serfs are happy with nothing. And nothing requires very little thinking.

      I am one of those cranky religious persons. It might surprise you to learn that I am neither socialist or capitalist, but a Christian. Both systems are materialistic at their heart.

      If you were an old Russian when the USSR broke up, your pathetically poor pension was in peril or lost. Something was better than nothing.

      Clever people will always fleece the less clever and despots correctly seek to repress and kill the smart class as a way to reduce competition.

    • Pulseguy

      “Five years ago, I read about some research about how happy people were
      in the countries that were behind the iron curtain – East Germany,
      Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary etc. I remember that
      only 11% preferred life in the new world – a huge majority preferred
      life under the communists!”

      Such nonsense. If it were true, the people would have risen up against the ones who overthrew the regime.

      1. Any research coming out of Communist countries was tainted. No one could publish research saying anything but that. To believe that research is ridiculous.

      2. There were incredible lies spread in the communist countries about the poor plight of the average North American. When Igor Larionov, a great Russian hockey player, was allowed to leave Russia and play in the NHL, where he had an amazing career, and first came to Vancouver his wife was taken to a supermarket by some of the other hockey wives. She was amazed. She ran around and filled a shopping cart to the top with frozen meat. The other wives were a bit startled and asked why she was doing that. She replied, ‘They have meat today. Fill your carts.’ They explained to her that the supermarkets are that full everyday. Mrs Larionov could not believe it, and then thought it might be somewhat true, but only for elite families, not for the average person. They drove her around to different neighborhoods, even poor neighborhoods and showed her that every grocery store everywhere was full every day. She was amazed and said she had grown up with the idea that people in the West were nearly starving and they had been so lucky to live in Russia under communism. And, her husband had regularly traveled to various international tournaments.

    • Beatrix17

      Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Being poor in America is different from being poor in a non-developed country. Drug addicts, alcoholics and the seriously mentally ill without family or concerned neighbors or friends may have trouble accessing agencies designed to help them, but anyone who is old, poor, jobless, a single parent, handicapped, etc. has many options for receiving aid and support. You have no idea if the well spoken, well-dressed, well mannered people you interact with every day are receiving government aid or not. Our government doesn’t make us nearly classless—TV and the Internet do.

  • Doug Doakes

    Beautifully written and chock full of pure wisdom!

  • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq

    “Deutscher was not merely pretending to be objective but genuinely
    believed that he was the epitome of objectivity. In contrast to Berlin
    and others who found him devious, I thought that politically he was
    simple-minded, less a Machiavellian than a true believer.” Laqueur gets Deutscher exactly right. A person of strong convictions and a believer in his own objectivity, like Berlin, has a tendency to see his intellectual opponents as careerists and opportunists. If they were truly objective, he thinks, they would agree with him. Deutscher was not unaware of at least some of Stalin’s deficits, writing perceptively about his paranoia, for instance, but certainly he was appallingly ingenuous. The explanation, I think, for Deutscher and all the other apologists for Stalin, is that they had put all their idealistic eggs in the USSR basket. In terms of their vision of a new world built to the specifications of economic justice for all, the Soviet Union was the only game in town. This made them blind, but not necessarily unscrupulous.

  • Roger

    When I was in high school, Deutscher’s biography of Stalin was touted as the best available. From today’s perspective, who has written the best Stalin biography?

  • Bruce S

    “What is happening in Russia under Putin is hardly indicative of a
    renaissance of revolutionary internationalism, and today’s Russian
    ideology is much closer to Tsarism with its emphasis on autocracy (samoderzhavie)…than to anything Marx ever wrote.”

    Of course, the same could be said of Russia under Stalin. Stalinism embodied the philosophy of Marx about as well as the Inquisition embodied the philosophy of Jesus.

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