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Getting Isaiah Berlin Wrong

Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s London
Isaiah Berlin, 1955

A marvelous raconteur famed for his opulent intellect and brilliant wit, Isaiah Berlin could easily give the impression of being an intellectual dilettante. He often endorsed such criticism self-mockingly; asked by his biographer about the source of his serene well-being, he replied that he was happy because he was superficial. In a letter to a close friend he presents a very different self-image:

The only truth which I have ever found out for myself is, I think, this one: of the unavoidability of conflicting ends…. The contrast between my cheerful and feckless façade, and unquiet constant perturbations and apprehension within, is too odd.

This truth became the basis of a liberalism deviating sharply from the Anglo-American tradition. What the philosopher John Gray has termed Berlin’s “tragic liberalism” inspired his seminal Four Essays on Liberty, directed against the faith (common to liberal and radical doctrines founded on European Enlightenment optimism) that all rational goals can ultimately be harmonized. To this monistic vision he opposed the notion of value pluralism: the necessity of difficult choices between ultimate ends equally good but incommensurable and often irreconcilable.

Writing in 1994, Gray argued that the full originality and subversiveness of this view had yet to be appreciated. The process continues even sixteen years after Berlin’s death. A 2011 symposium in Beijing on Berlin and contemporary China drew a mixture of speakers from East and West, including a generation of scholars not yet born when his essays on liberty were first published.

Arie Dubnov, an assistant professor of European Intellectual and Modern Jewish History at Stanford, belongs to this generation. His study begins with a sweeping rejection of previous attempts to define Berlin’s legacy, which, he claims, have turned him into “a sacred cow, revered by students and epigones, and gleefully butchered by foes.” Critics and worshipers alike are “missing a key point” by ignoring the unresolved tension in his thought between his defense of individual freedom and his recognition of humans’ need to belong to a larger whole.

Since philosophers such as Gray and Bernard Williams have identified precisely this feature of Berlin’s work as the source of its enduring interest, this is an astonishing claim, even if allowances are made for the hyperbole of a young scholar anxious to proclaim the originality of his biographical approach to Berlin’s thought up to the early 1950s, an approach aimed at reconstructing the intellectual journey leading to his essays on liberty. Berlin’s plural identity—Russian, Jewish, and English (“the three strands in my life,” he called them in an article published in the Jewish Quarterly)—is often cited in this regard. Centrally for his argument, Dubnov reduces the number to two, insisting repeatedly on a “dual perspective” for Berlin’s thought via British philosophy and Zionism.

Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin moved with his family to Petrograd in early 1916 and thence to London in 1921 to complete a traditional English middle-class education, followed by degrees at Oxford and a prestigious fellowship at All Souls College. His family background had given him a strong sense of Jewish identity, though not including attachment to the Jewish faith. His resistance at school to suggestions that he adopt a less foreign-sounding name (James, for instance) reflected his determination to retain his ethnic distinctiveness. Neither assimilated nor isolated, his public persona came to be based on erudition, wit, and what Dubnov calls a “certain ‘un-Englishness.’”

Dubnov’s reappraisal of Berlin’s philosophical position in his early Oxford years starts from “grave doubts” about his description of himself in an interview in 1992 as having been “a strict empirically minded analytical philosopher” (Dubnov’s words). Berlin’s actual words were that he was “a kind of realist”—not incompatible with Dubnov’s contention that he occupied a complex position “suspended” between British idealist thought as represented by such figures as F.H. Bradley and R.G. Collingwood, and its realist opponents such as A.J. Ayer. In his essay “My Intellectual Path,” Berlin records that with respect to the empiricism of his realist colleagues, he remained “a heretic, though a friendly one.”1 Empirical observation seemed too narrow a criterion of meaning, and he suspected that the search by philosophers for absolute certainties was an illusory quest.

This suspicion strengthened when, commissioned in 1933 to write a biography of Marx, he began to investigate Marx’s predecessors, especially the eighteenth-century philosophes. Without losing his admiration for the Enlightenment, Berlin came to reject the foundation of its certainties with their logical and social consequences. The critical empiricism he had imbibed as a student in philosophy (that each genuine question had one true answer, and that these, when discovered, must necessarily form a coherent whole) was shaken by his reading of Machiavelli’s distinction between political effectiveness and Christian virtue.

Vico’s Scienza nuova opened his eyes to something new: the notion of a succession of civilizations whose cultures were shaped by values that could not be combined in any synthesis. Vico led him to Johann Gottfried Herder and the insistence of the Counter-Enlightenment on the self-sufficient value of every national culture. In the same interwar period he discovered the writings of the Russian socialist Alexander Herzen. Berlin’s distinctive pluralism would draw on all these sources.

None of these four thinkers gets credit in Dubnov’s account of Berlin’s philosophical development in the 1930s. He squeezes Berlin’s book on Marx into his binary schema through a novel interpretation of its main thrust as the presentation of Marxism along with Hegelianism as being “fundamentally alien to ‘Englishness,’ which stood for commonsense, empiricism, pragmatism, and skepticism.” He dates Berlin’s discovery of Vico and Herder to the 1950s, likewise Berlin’s decision to abandon conventional philosophy and turn toward the history of ideas. The latter Dubnov presents as the result of “an enthusiastic postwar return” to English idealism via the “prism” of the Oxford philosopher R.G. Collingwood. The distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom (freedom from interference versus freedom as self-mastery) in Berlin’s groundbreaking essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” is attributed to the same source. But that distinction (traceable at least back to John Locke, and taking recognizably modern form by the time of the nineteenth-century Oxford Hegelian T.H. Green) had become sufficiently internationalized by the 1920s to figure in the Italian historian and antifascist politician Guido de Ruggiero’s history of European liberalism.

The factual basis for Dubnov’s insistence on Collingwood’s “crucial” influence on Berlin amounts to an inference from his attendance at Collingwood’s lectures on the history of philosophy and his invitation (refused) to Collingwood to attend informal philosophical meetings in his college rooms. Dubnov also maintains that Berlin once admitted explicitly to finding much inspiration in Collingwood as a historian of ideas. His source (Berlin’s contribution to a philosophical debate at the Hebrew University) refers to Collingwood in the context of intellectual history but contains no such admission.

This imaginative use of sources by Dubnov fails to convince the reader that what Berlin once described as Collingwood’s “peculiar” idealism had any crucial influence on his thought, except in one respect that Dubnov fails to mention. It was Collingwood who introduced Berlin in the mid-1930s to Benedetto Croce’s book on Vico—a thinker of whom, Berlin recalls, “scarcely anyone in Oxford had then heard”—thereby activating the process of germination from which his value pluralism would emerge.

Equally unconvincing is Dubnov’s belief in Winston Churchill’s responsibility for inspiring Berlin to rethink the notion of liberty. His source is a letter of 1949 enthusing on the great man’s contribution to a dinner party discussion on world politics: “Winston was splendid on the subject that what we need is greater multiplicity of choices—choices which may many of them be bad, but choices nevertheless.” Berlin, Dubnov claims, borrowed “this exact idea” from Churchill, making it “his philosophical trademark.” But it is safe to assume that Churchill’s oratorical gift, rather than his originality, was what impressed Berlin on that occasion. It would be surprising if he had not already encountered the same idea in the works of a somewhat earlier Englishman not mentioned by Dubnov: John Stuart Mill. As Berlin wrote elsewhere, “What Mill seems really to be asking for is diversity of opinion for its own sake.”

In connecting Berlin’s Zionism with his distinctive liberalism Dubnov is on solid ground, although this is scarcely a novel insight. Berlin’s own essay of 1951, “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation,” anticipates his notion of “negative liberty.” In that essay, he rejected the teleological interpretation of the state of Israel as the promised land to which all who saw themselves as Jews were morally bound to migrate. He argued that the creation of Israel had restored to Jews “the basic freedom of choice, the right to…go to the good or the bad in one’s own way, without which life is a form of slavery.”

Dubnov contends that on the rare occasions when Berlin’s Zionism is mentioned in connection with his liberalism, the standard view, expressed by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, is that these belonged to “different layers in [Berlin’s] soul.” But this is not a standard interpretation. Margalit’s viewpoint was one of several in a panel on Berlin’s Zionism in the conference on his legacy sponsored in 1998 by The New York Review. There the political philosopher Michael Walzer forcefully put the contrary case: that his pluralism cannot be separated from his personal position as a liberal nationalist.

Berlin first visited Palestine in 1934, summarizing his impressions to a friend: “I do think that the Palestine Jews are the happiest & securest people I have ever met. I don’t feel absolute kinship, alas, but if I lived there for a bit I am sure I should.” He continued to maintain a strong emotional tie with the Zionist political project as providing a haven for the persecuted Jewish masses. He became an ardent admirer and close friend of Chaim Weizmann, with whom he kept in regular touch during the war years while working as a temporary official attached to the British embassy in Washington and responsible for writing the first drafts of many of the weekly dispatches sent to London by the British ambassador.

Dubnov sees his behavior in this post as casting a shadow over his legacy. In view of Britain’s unwillingness to alter its policy of restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine as persecution of European Jews intensified, it seems to him remarkable that Berlin apparently did not take account of a shift in American Zionism toward David Ben-Gurion’s intransigent defiance of the British. He also finds it remarkable that Berlin remained faithful to Weizmann’s policy of moderation and cooperation in negotiations with Britain over an eventual Jewish homeland. According to Dubnov, Berlin excluded Jewish issues from his dispatches as far as possible in order to downplay Jewish criticism of the British position and persuade his superiors that he was not influenced by “Zionist agitation.”

Dubnov puts great emphasis on the importance of context in intellectual history: “If we want to understand the…tension in Berlin, we must read him historically.” Sadly, he neglects to follow his own advice. There was nothing remarkable or morally reprehensible about Berlin’s position. As is clear from his introduction to a volume of his wartime dispatches, what he wrote was the consequence of his role as a junior official employed to draft his embassy’s weekly political summaries of American political, administrative, and public opinion for the benefit of British government officials.

Norman Parkinson Ltd./Norman Parkinson Archive
Isaiah Berlin and David Cecil, Oxford, December 1949

Zionist activities, as Berlin’s biographer Michael Ignatieff has written, occupied a minute place in these reports. This was a fair reflection of their degree of interest to the British Foreign Office. Only in private conversations with his colleagues and superiors, he recalled, could he put a case for opposition to British policy on Jewish immigration to Palestine and remark on the difference between the position of the most moderate American Zionists and the stonewalling tactics of the British government, “which all of us in the Embassy were obliged to reflect, and the Diplomatic Mission to implement.”

Yet this was not the last word on Berlin’s Washington activity. In August 1943 an Anglo-American understanding to produce a joint policy announcement deferring any movement on the status of Palestine until after the war was dropped when news of the plan was leaked to American Zionist circles. Late in life Berlin admitted (as Ignatieff records) that the leak, made in that expectation, was his. Dubnov mentions the event only briefly and in passing, with nothing about how it fits or fails to fit his moral strictures elsewhere in the same chapter. Perhaps one should not be surprised.

On Berlin’s personal support for Weizmann’s position, Dubnov could learn a useful lesson in contextualization from Berlin’s reminiscences in a 1972 lecture published as “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington,” where he attempted to recapture his state of mind at that period. He shared Weizmann’s opposition to the anti-British propaganda of some Zionists on the ground that war against Hitler was a goal transcending all other causes, even that of independence. Efforts to provoke dissension among the Allies would be “foolish and wrong,” he wrote:

The [Zionist] extremists, both of the right and of the left, who, out of bitterness or for temperamental reasons, advocated ruthless policies…seemed to put the satisfaction of their own emotional needs above the attainable goals of the cause which they supported…. The politics of the extremists seemed to me politics of despair at a time when sanity could still prevail; their goals seemed to me utterly Utopian, their methods horrifying, and likely to lead to results which only fanatics could desire. I was, and remain,…a convinced gradualist. The attractiveness to me, therefore, of Weizmann’s outlook was obvious.

It was not foreseeable that, with the rise of Jewish terrorism, such as the assassination in 1944 of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East, by the Stern Gang, as well as other militant activity in Palestine and particularly the advent of a strongly anti-Zionist British Labour government, the ideas he shared with Weizmann would come to seem irrelevant.

Dubnov charges Berlin with lack of moral courage in his response to the Holocaust. He accuses him at one and the same time of culpable ignorance about its magnitude and “determinedly downplaying the historic drama that was taking place around him.” Aside from the difficulty of convicting anyone on two such counts at once, this moral high ground is easy enough to occupy if one judges 1943 according to the secure knowledge available to us in 2013. The first charge is based on a sentence in a private letter of 1972: “the holocaust—the real, unspeakable disaster…was not known, at least in my world, until 1945.” Dubnov interprets this as an unconvincing attempt to claim ignorance of the clamor aroused by increasing news of the killings in Europe, the implication being that he would otherwise have been impelled to take some form of action.

What useful action could he have taken? Two of his official dispatches are relevant in this connection. In August 1943 he wrote: “PM [a New York newspaper] prominently displays articles on slaughter of Jews in Europe and the New Republic has issued a special fifteen-page supplement on ‘The Jews in Europe—how to help them.’ …The tone is relatively moderate with criticism of His Majesty’s Government and the United States Government about evenly divided.” In December he recorded:

Senate Foreign Relations Committee has…passed a resolution to recommend to President establishment of a committee composed of political, military and economic experts to assist rescue of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, a motion previously blocked in Foreign Affairs Committee of House…. An official of State Department told member of my staff that in his considered opinion nothing would come of Jewish resolution.

It is hard to see what pressure a foreign junior embassy official could have exerted to affect American realities; it is logical to read the sentence about the Holocaust quoted by Dubnov as referring just to the dimensions of the horror that confronted the world only after Allied armies entered the death camps in 1945 and photographs of them were circulated around the world. Indeed, in a dispatch from April 28, 1945, Berlin wrote:

The horror stories of treatment of prisoners in German prison camps, accompanied by a large number of grisly photographs in the press of the victims, have made the profoundest possible impression and are so far the greatest factor contributing to a hardening of sentiment [against the Germans].

Given Dubnov’s selective attitude toward sources, one may fail to be impressed by his revelation that while writing the book he had a “response, triggered by disturbing revelations of Berlin’s lack of moral courage and far-from-gracious real-time actions during times of acute crisis, including during the Holocaust, in which I felt appalled by his frosty bureaucratic attitude.” This is apparently in part a reference to Berlin’s reporting of the positions taken by American Jews and support of Weizmann against Ben-Gurion. Dubnov writes, “I subsequently realized I would not like, nor would I be able, to immortalize him in marble, on a plinth.” He apologizes for this “narcissistic digression” into his personal reactions but not for throwing objectivity to the winds in return for the satisfaction of displaying righteous indignation.

There is sufficient material on Berlin’s Zionism in this book to show that the subject deserves a full-length study. Regrettably, in the present work it comes second to an unsustainable argument on the dual origins of his liberalism. Dubnov’s account of Berlin’s intellectual journey has no place for his Russian cultural heritage. He is critical of Ignatieff’s authorized biography, maintaining that Ignatieff (child of Russian émigrés) overemphasized his subject’s “Russianness,” which Dubnov mysteriously claims “has more to do with immigration dilemmas than with an ‘authentic’ upbringing in prerevolutionary Riga.” What Dubnov appears to mean is that Berlin’s “outsider” identity was intensified by the simple fact that he was a foreign Jew. But we find a very different image in a letter seemingly (from the context in which Dubnov sets it—and with two mistakes in transcription) to Chaim Weizmann:

[It] is our Russian conversations which I adore & look forward to & think about and remember the longest…I can never talk so…to anybody in England…Russian to me is more imaginative, intimate and poetical than any other [language]—& I feel a curious transformation of personality when I speak it—as if everything becomes easier to express, & the world brighter and more charming in every way….

In fact, as a footnote near the end of the book concedes, the letter was to Weizmann’s wife, Vera, the third participant in “our conversations.” Naming her in the text as the recipient of this “touching” letter might have sat oddly with Dubnov’s colorful belief in Berlin’s “appalling” misogynistic attitude to her, earlier on the same page.

Dubnov cites the passage as evidence of the intimacy between Berlin and Chaim Weizmann, in which “Russian proved to be a powerful interpersonal glue.” He seems unaware of the inconsistency between the quotation and his contention that Berlin’s self-image as a “Russian” Jew was a façade created to impress (adding gratuitously: “It was quite nice to be mistaken for a high-class ‘white Russian’”). We are told that while many of Berlin’s English students and colleagues in later years saw him as a Russian philosopher, the Polish scholar Andrzej Walicki was undeceived, describing this spiritual Russification as “a chosen stance, adopted already on British soil [and inspired by his studies of Russian writers and thinkers, mostly Herzen, whom he had chosen as his intellectual guiding light].”

Unsurprisingly, Dubnov simply omits the phrase in brackets. The result is that Walicki, a distinguished historian of Russian thought and Berlin’s friend and correspondent since the early 1960s, is represented as saying the opposite of what he actually meant. A uniquely valuable source on the evolution of Berlin’s ideas, Walicki’s memoir from which the quotation is drawn shows that while Berlin’s study of Russian thought and literature began in earnest only after he arrived in England at the age of eleven, it was no “façade,” but a primary source of his ideas, his appreciation of literature, and particularly his insights into the problem of freedom. Dubnov’s “dual perspective” excludes Berlin’s Russian inheritance; hence, presumably, the truncated citation.

The same selectivity lurks behind a footnote referring to an article in Polish by Walicki on Berlin and the Russian intelligentsia. Could this be because Walicki’s far more accessible essay on this theme (in a collection published in New York in 2007) directly contradicts Dubnov by presenting the influence of the intelligentsia—a subject that, as Berlin wrote to him in 1981, was “still…closer to my heart than any other”—as the origin of his lifelong interest in ideas and a key inspiration for his distinctive view of liberalism?

Walicki observed that Berlin’s classic “Two Concepts of Liberty” is often misinterpreted: the main tenet of his value pluralism is that no single value should be regarded as absolute and dominant over others. Walicki remarks that “like a truly Russian intelligent… [Berlin] was peculiarly insistent that individual freedom should not be pursued at the expense of social justice.” His essays on Russian thinkers define the distinctive quality of the radical intelligentsia as a sense of mission inspired by a “positive” ideal of freedom as the unity of public and private purposes in the pursuit of progress.

While this found a perverted outlet in Communist totalitarianism, it also led, Berlin argued, to acute critiques by Russian intellectuals of the emphasis by contemporary Western liberals on the primacy of “negative” liberty. It is no coincidence that Berlin published seven major essays on the Russian intelligentsia during the decade culminating in “Two Concepts”: Russian thought, not British idealism, is an obvious moral inspiration behind that work. According to his own account, his outlook was largely shaped in late adolescence by the concern of Russian novelists and social thinkers with injustice and oppression.2 Throughout the 1930s he continued to quote “my noble 19th century Russians” as the source of wisdom on the conduct of human relations.

The Russian socialist Alexander Herzen had a privileged place in Berlin’s thought: he once wrote of Herzen that “there is no writer, & indeed no man I shd like to be like, & to write like, more.” Yet Dubnov mentions him only in passing as a “noble-minded democrat” who clashed with Marx. He remarks that Herzen was Berlin’s “most beloved thinker,” although what he thought or what Berlin thought of him we are never told.

Berlin’s enthusiasm for Herzen runs through his letters of the 1930s. Working on his biography of Marx, he wrote to the philosopher Stuart Hampshire: “I read Herzen when I am not writing about Marx, & I cannot say how much I sympathise, how admirable I find his vigorous moral standards about both life & politics.” A letter of 1941 described him as “vainly searching in New York for a copy of…Herzen’s memoirs a book which altered my life and became a point of reference both intellectually & morally.” He would refer to no other thinker with such unqualified enthusiasm. If we want to understand Berlin’s position on the question of moral courage with regard to the choices confronting Zionism at that time, it helps to look at why he identified so closely with the thought of the man he would often refer to in conversation as “my hero.”

The work Berlin cites most frequently is From the Other Shore, Herzen’s postmortem on the European revolutions of 1848. Like Four Essays on Liberty, it focuses on mankind’s enduring resistance to the notion of incompatible values and the sacrifices involved in its acceptance. Herzen insists that to accept that there are “no solutions,” no final answers to human problems, demands a painful sacrifice involving the whole personality: the surrender of certainties which in religious or rationalist forms have been a source of hope and comfort throughout human history. It is time to put on trial “all our notions about the citizen and his relations to other citizens and to the State.”

Such passages from what Berlin described as Herzen’s “great polemical masterpiece” are close in style and substance to his own reflections on an incurable human need: the wish to escape from “an untidy, cruel, and above all seemingly purposeless world, into a realm where all is harmonious, clear, intelligible, mounting towards some perfect culmination.” Where there is no choice, “there is no anxiety; and a happy release from responsibility.” We escape moral dilemmas by denying their reality.

To borrow the distinction made in Berlin’s celebrated essay on Tolstoy, Berlin recognized in Herzen a fellow pluralist fox who saw many things; both had to contend with intellectual cultures dominated by monist hedgehogs, who saw only one big thing. John Gray and Bernard Williams regard Berlin’s view of the irreducible diversity and conflict of values as being in direct opposition to the rationalist universalism that has permeated thought in philosophy. Where the relevant literature treats conflicts of values, as Williams says, it has typically regarded them as “a pathology of social and moral thought, and as something to be overcome.” Modern departures from that outlook are due partly to Berlin’s posthumous influence.

In retrospect, in “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington,” Berlin saw the conflicts between the American followers of Ben-Gurion and Weizmann as illustrating

the relative influence of leaders of different psychological formation on events: for example, of men of inflexible and even fanatical conviction who, intent upon their goal, shut their ears to prudent advice, ignore dangers and drive on fearlessly and relentlessly—in contrast with men of cautious temper,…instinctive revulsion from overstepping accepted moral bounds, humane men endowed with practical wisdom, suspicious of heroic attitudes.

In one of his essays on Russian thinkers he makes a similar comparison between Herzen and the firebrand Bakunin, who accused him of insufficient radical fervor. Herzen had retorted that in their circle to call for gradualism required “if no more, then certainly no less courage and independence than to take up the most extreme of extreme positions on every question.” Dubnov’s attack on Berlin invites the same response.

It is puzzling how a work with so many scholarly defects passed the inspection of a reputable academic publisher. This is a book about a fox written by a would-be hedgehog, blinkered by a method designed to impose order on what he describes as “a patchy corpus…without a clear organizing principle.” The complicating factor of the third, Russian strand in Berlin’s cultural identity is simply jettisoned in the process, but the fox remains elusive, straying across centuries and cultures in his passion for ideas. This openness merely attracts Dubnov’s condescending assessment of the continuing growth in his posthumous reputation: “In an unstable market of ideas and ideologies like ours, [his] hard-to-pin-down quality…helped Berlin maintain a relatively stable and high market value.”

Berlin’s value has sounder foundations. Williams saw his pluralism as built on his “powerful sense…of the reality of the past.” It is his empathy with ages, cultures, and systems whose values he did not necessarily accept (a characteristic he extolled in Herder and Herzen) that accounts, as I observed during a recent visit there, for his rapidly increasing popularity in China. The last essay he wrote, “My Intellectual Path,” was composed in response to a request for a summary of his ideas for publication in Chinese; there followed in quick succession translations of most of his essays and the first volume of his letters.

One host of the 2011 Beijing symposium remarked that his triple identity as Englishman, Russian, and Jew had equipped him admirably for his role as a “cross-cultural” fox whose comparative approach, fortuitously coinciding with the rise of interest in Western philosophy in China, sets a pattern for dialogue on the theme of East versus West—a significant and new part of his legacy.

There is a saying credited variously to Mark Twain, Abraham Maslow, and Jewish folklore: “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Dubnov’s book suggests irresistibly the hybrid proverb: “Beware hedgehogs bearing hammers.”


On Isaiah Berlin September 26, 2013

  1. 1

    Published as “ The First and the Last ” in these pages, May 14, 1998. 

  2. 2

    On the Pursuit of the Ideal,” The New York Review, March 17, 1988. 

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