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Amazement

In response to:

Bad Behavior from the July 20, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Bernard Williams, reviewing Paul Johnson [NYR, July 20] refers to an article which I wrote in the London Times, “written to mark Isaiah Berlin’s eightieth birthday and mostly devoted to an attack on him.” He adds that “the attack itself has no substance—it merely applies to one of the least appropriate targets conceivable the old line about liberals committed to free speech being soft on communism.” I have been astonished to discover the number of people who believe that any praise of Sir Isaiah that is less than adulatory is really an attack on him. Whatever the reasons for this, I should point out that Williams misrepresents me. Here’s what I wrote about Sir Isaiah and communism:

If he exonerated Marx, however, Berlin never exonerated the communists. A war-time spell at the British embassy in Moscow fuelled his distaste for the system which Lenin forged and Stalin managed. Fluent in Russian, he was able to perceive that the source of Soviet tyranny lies deeper than the Leninist contempt for laws, rights and constitutions. It lies in the destruction of language itself.

I went on to add that Sir Isaiah “deserves credit for his lifelong attempt to vindicate the liberal order against the fanaticism which constantly threatens to destroy it.” Nevertheless, I maintain, Sir Isaiah—like Bernard Williams, for that matter—is far quicker to perceive the threat as coming from the right than from the left, and this bias (which characterizes the liberal establishment generally) has had long term intellectual and institutional consequences.

Roger Scruton
London, England

Bernard Williams replies:

Scruton’s criticism comes down, it now seems, to claiming that Berlin is “far quicker to perceive the threat [to liberal values] as coming from the right than from the left.” I cannot see how he can suppose this to be true of someone who has, for instance, constantly denounced Soviet injustices. The left, at any rate does not aggree with Scruton. Berlin has been more frequently attacked from the left than from the right, while it is a Marxist platitude that his attack on “positive freedom” is reactionary. In his article, Scruton went beyond this single falsehood, suggesting that Berlin was partly responsible, in some unexplained way, for the influence of left-wing historians such as E.H. Carr, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill, who—Scruton said—“pollute the world of scholarship.” The tone of chaste amazement he now adopts toward my own and other people’s reactions to such stuff is not appropriate.

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