Better to be Wrong than Right?

For some intellectuals, it all depends.
October 30, 2013 | Walter Laqueur
Isaac and Isaiah by David Caute.

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.