Knowledge Without Knowledge

Dalrymple’s new piece on the communist writer Isaac Deutscher, in New English Review, is in keeping with his recent, excellent work for that site. We see therein a recurring, unspoken theme of his work: that in trying to make sense of our world, neither intelligence nor education nor talent, nor even the combination of all these things, is nearly enough. One also needs practicality, open-minded self-criticism, a sense of proportion and probably a lot more besides.
Deutscher was an infant prodigy, brought up as a religious Jew but losing his faith at an early age. He transferred his religious longings at about the age of twenty to the secular faith of Marxism, and never lost that faith to the day he died. Happy the man who lives in his faith, but unhappy the man who lives in a country in which his faith has become an unassailable orthodoxy.
When one reads Deutscher aware of the fact that English was his sixth or seventh language, one is truly astonished, for his prose in his sixth or seventh language is lucid and even elegant, with absolutely no hint that he is not a native-speaker, and a highly-educated one at that. As a sheer linguistic feat this is, if not completely unexampled, very remarkable indeed. Although a Marxist, he modelled himself as a stylist on Gibbon and Macaulay, and if he does not quite reach their level – well, who does nowadays?
His language was clear, but his thought was not. He was what might be called a dialectical equivocator, made dishonest by his early religious vows to Marxism. This made him unable to see or judge things in a common-sense way. His unwavering attachment to his primordial philosophical standpoint, his irrational rationalism, turned him into that most curious (and sometimes dangerous, because intellectually charismatic) figure, the brilliant fool. He was the opposite of Dr Watson who saw but did not observe: he observed, but did not see. He was the archetype of the man, so common among intellectuals, who knows much but understands little.
A good example of this capacity to misunderstand despite a great deal of knowledge occurs in his posthumous short book, Lenin’s Childhood. When he died, Deutscher was working on a projected biography of Lenin, but only the chapter devoted to Lenin’s childhood existed in anything like publishable form; it was edited by his wife and collaborator, Tamara.
From the purely literary point of view, the fragment is characteristically excellent, the very model of its type, written in beautifully balanced prose and with a judicious amount of detail. Of course, an account of so factual a matter as Lenin’s childhood must be influenced deeply by the biographer’s overall assessment of Lenin’s character and achievements, for the child is father to the man and it is the final character and achievements of that man that the childhood in part is to explain or at least prefigure. In Lenin’s case, we are interested in the childhood because of what he became, not for its own sake; and it is inevitable that we shall look for different germs of the future in it if we consider Lenin the nearest man to the devil incarnate who has ever existed from those that we shall seek if we regard him (as Deutscher did, according to his wife) as ‘the most earthly of all who have lived on this earth of man’ – clearly a religious way of putting it, incidentally. What is to be explained differs completely in the two cases: the person who thinks of Lenin as the frozen-blooded murderer who could order executions by the thousand without so much as the flicker of an eyelid will look for different things in his childhood from the person who thinks that he was the brilliant saviour of the world.
For Deutscher, by contrast, the ideal of a society in which people were completely undifferentiated by class, in which a spontaneous abundance arose in which people produced for use and not for profit, in which no one exercised more power than any other person, remained not what it always was, an adolescent and not terribly intelligent dream, but real, something directly to be aimed at; and never mind if people initially possessed of this vision (the product, usually, of profound and often unbalanced resentment) had so far killed millions of people. They had merely gone about it the wrong way. Deutscher, the most egocentric of men despite a pretended humility, would show them the right way:

He [the ex-communist renegade] no longer throws out the the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster than must be strangled.

The death of tens of millions becomes mere dirty bath-water; the baby – presumably the core of the Soviet Union, its ideal, not its practice – is still beautiful.
You will most definitely want to read the whole thing.

One thought on “Knowledge Without Knowledge

  1. Henry Reardon

    “…McCarthyism is not to be compared with (say) the forced construction of the White Sea Canal, in which up to 100,000 people died, just one – of many – of the episodes of Soviet de facto mass murder.”

    As I recall, Solzhenitsyn’s discussion of the White Sea Canal in The Gulag Archipelago stated that not 100,000 but 250,000 people died building that canal. I also recall that he visited that canal in the 1960s and noted how few vessels were using it. He asked a local resident who said that the canal was too shallow (or was it too narrow?) for all but the smallest boats. So not only did a very large number of people die to construct this canal, the canal itself was almost completely useless as constructed.

    To compare this to McCarthy’s activities is bizarre at best. After all, as far as I’ve been able to determine, McCarthy’s “witch hunt” didn’t kill _anyone_, although I understand that one man killed himself allegedly out of fear that McCarthy would successfully prove the charges against him and get him sent to prison. A far cry indeed from the millions who suffered in Stalin’s Great PUrge.


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