The Case for Decency

Unfinished Dialogue

by Isaiah Berlin and Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, with a foreword by Henry Hardy
Prometheus, 317 pp., $28.00

Russia, Poland and Marxism: Isaiah Berlin to Andrzej Walicki, 1962–1996

in Dialogue and Universalism, Vol. 15, No. 9–10, 2005.Warsaw University Press, 196 pp., $5.00


Western political thinking between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of communism was shaped by the experience of totalitarianism. The rise of National Socialism and Stalinism produced a sense of the fragility of liberal civilization that persisted after the Nazi regime had been destroyed and Soviet power contained. The question that troubled many was how liberal values could have collapsed so precipitately and completely in much of Europe, while Communist regimes that claimed to embody Enlightenment values repressed freedom on an unprecedented scale. It was clear that if the disasters of the twentieth century were not to be repeated, the intellectual roots of totalitarianism had to be uncovered and destroyed, even if this meant relinquishing some cherished Western beliefs.

Among those who took up this challenge Isaiah Berlin occupies a highly distinctive place. On both the right and the left there have been many who have dismissed Berlin as a thinker whose ideas are irretrievably dated, and in recent years it has become fashionable to question the idea that the twentieth century witnessed the rise of a new, totalitarian type of dictatorship. For his part Berlin never doubted the reality of totalitarianism. Given the background of his life he could hardly have done so. Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin was part of the generation of European Jews that experienced the twentieth century at its most destructive and horrific. When he was six his family moved to Petrograd, where in 1917 he witnessed the liberal revolution in February and the Bolshevik seizure of power in November. In 1921 his family moved to England and he was educated at Oxford, where he obtained his first academic post. Apart from his years abroad during World War II he remained in Oxford for the rest of his life.

In 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis murdered both his grandfathers and several other family members. During World War II, Berlin worked for the British government, first in New York and Washington and then for a time in Moscow. When in Russia, he came into contact with Anna Akhmatova and other members of the Russian intelligentsia who lived in an environment where intellectual and personal freedom had been almost wholly eclipsed. The events of these years had a formative influence on the work in political theory and the history of ideas he did after resuming his academic life in Oxford after the war. In conversation Berlin used to observe that in its mass murders the twentieth century was the worst in history, and to an extent that has not been appreciated the view of liberty and ethical pluralism that he developed in the 1950s was an attempt to undermine the beliefs that helped engender the crimes of totalitarianism.

Those who argue that Berlin’s thought was shaped by the history of the last century are not mistaken, but in dismissing it as dated they neglect the larger historical perspectives that informed it and miss its…

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