15 June, 2006Issue 5.2HistoryPhilosophy

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Isaiah Berlin

Joshua Cherniss

Over-praise is dangerous. There are few things that intellectuals, academics and journalists love more than pricking what they regard as an inflated ego or reputation (so long as it is not their own). Grand claims arouse suspicion, especially when combined with the appearance of authority.

The tribulations of Isaiah Berlin’s reputation since his death in 1997 are therefore unsurprising. Berlin had the disadvantages of public prominence and a long life, which provided ample opportunity for periodic and fulsome tributes. Berlin—the distinguished Russian-born British philosopher, historian of ideas, and liberal political thinker—was a popular intellectual; indeed, he became a byword for cleverness and sagacity. Much of his reputation was based on the force of his personality, so that many who celebrated his virtues when he was alive have been quick to discover his bad qualities now he is dead. Discussions of Berlin’s ideas were once almost inseparable from praise of his charm, generosity, warmth, breadth of sympathy, and wisdom. Now, criticisms of his work, most of it produced by intellectuals or journalists with strong political allegiances to either the Left or the Right, harp on his (alleged) charm (regarded as a bad thing), selfishness, coldness, shallowness, and frivolity.

There is nothing wrong with evaluating Berlin’s character, or counteracting the tendency towards beatification that marked many portrayals during his life. Nor is it wrong to draw connections between his life and ideas. This is worth attempting in the case of any thinker, and particularly worthwhile in the case of Berlin, whose thought was closely connected with his experiences and personality.

The problem is when judgements pronounced on personal behaviour or character substitute for serious evaluation of ideas. Berlin’s own approach to thinkers was deeply personal, but he was concerned with an individual’s vision, not his peccadilloes. Berlin excelled at both gossip and philosophy, but he knew how to tell the difference. He used insights into personality to illuminate ideas, rather than as ammunition for ad hominem attacks. One wishes one could say the same of his critics.

Berlin, the standard argument runs, was lazy, cowardly, and shallow. Worst of all, and as a result of these personal failings, he held views different from those he would have held had he been less hopelessly frivolous—the views held by the serious, the profound, the righteous (namely, the author). This line of assault, while tiresome, is appropriate. Berlin spent most of his life fighting against such ideological arrogance. He was, in the metaphor of the Greek poet Archilocus, which he made famous, a ‘fox’, who knew many things. The posthumous attacks on Berlin are an intellectual foxhunt.

The charges against Berlin tend to centre on his responses to several crucial political issues of his day, and the alleged failures in his approach to life in general. Here I will focus on two of these issues—the politics of the Cold War, and debates about social policy and social justice—that have particularly drawn the fire of Berlin’s critics, and on the implications of Berlin’s stance, both on these issues and on politics more generally, for contemporary dilemmas and debates.

Berlin as Cold Warrior

Opposition to totalitarianism and political violence, particularly to Soviet Communism, was the lynchpin of Berlin’s political and moral outlook, from when he witnessed the Russian Revolution as an eight-year-old boy in Petrograd onward. This seems a point in his favour: surely, given what we know now (and clear-sighted people realized then), opposition to one of the most murderous regimes in history and the ideology behind it was a good thing. Nevertheless, Berlin has been attacked from both sides for his anti-Communism. From the ‘Left’, he has been reviled as a typical liberal Cold Warrior who, in the name of anti-Communism, supported—even colluded with—myriad misdeeds. From the ‘Right’, he is condemned as insufficiently anti-Communist.

Thus, in her book Who Paid the Piper?, journalist Frances Stonor Saunders alleges that Berlin knew about, accepted, and deceived his friends over the CIA’s bankrolling of liberal anti-Communist intellectual organisations. While Christopher Hitchens harps on Berlin’s alleged support of the Vietnam War, charging that had he spoken out against the war to his highly-placed American friends, Berlin might have brought that folly to an end sooner. The latter charge absurdly over-rates Berlin’s influence. Berlin’s friends Arthur Schlesinger and George Kennan—who had rather more influence on American foreign policy than Berlin—did speak out against the war and it continued in earnest until the Ford Administration.

There is no evidence that Berlin knew of the CIA’s activities, considerable evidence that he was deceived by those who did know, and he was indignant when the truth was revealed. This may have been an elaborate charade, but to claim so requires more evidence than Stonor Saunders marshals. The evidence is the opinion of one former CIA operative that Berlin must have known what was going on. Berlin’s position on Vietnam was ambivalent. He believed that the US should not have become involved, but once involved, had a responsibility to protect its allies from reprisals. He supported a U.S. withdrawal, but worried about its repercussions. This is far from the gung-ho hawk drawn by Hitchens.

From the Right, some critics—under the spell of Friedrich Hayek’s argument that all forms of socialism lead inevitably to totalitarianism—have equated Berlin’s support for social democratic parties with softness on Communism. Others have charged that Berlin was insufficiently intolerant and too mild in his treatment of those intellectuals and academics who, in the words of conservative guru Roger Scruton, ‘pollute[d] the world of scholarship’.

Part of the problem is that Berlin was a liberal; many of his critics are basically illiberal. That is, they elevate intolerance to a virtue. Liberals insist on, and regard as crucial, a distinction between conviction and intolerance; anti-liberals deny this distinction. Thus both the pro-Soviet historian E.H. Carr, and conservatives such as Michael Beran (Berlin’s latest conservative critic) and Scruton, charge that Berlin’s resistance to calls for orthodoxy and ideological unity amounts to an attack on conviction—that one who warns against dogmatic belief can’t believe much at all.

Such critics apparently fail to realize that this liberal critique of fanaticism actually expresses moral conviction. What appears to them an attack on principle is a principled attack on their own intolerance. Berlin did not equate McCarthy with Stalin: he recognized that it would be a hollow victory if, in fighting Communism, the Western democracies became as intolerant, dogmatic and single-minded as their opponents.

Parallel to this ideological intolerance is personal intolerance. Not all men are, or should be, fighters. There is much to admire in the virtues of warriors, but it would be an impoverished (and unpleasant) world if everyone were a warrior. It therefore seems unfair to criticise Berlin for not being personally bellicose. To demand that everyone share both one’s own beliefs and temperament reflects a tyrannical impulse which is out of place in avowed defenders of freedom.

The criticisms from the Right form part of a larger attempt to use the fight against totalitarianism—one of the great moral causes of the last century—for partisan gain. Liberals and non-Communist socialists were among the most perceptive, determined, and honourable opponents of Communism. But, as Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon proved, tarring liberals with the pro-Communist brush was a sure-fire recipe for political success. Hayek’s argument allowed for an expansion in this direction, so that any opposition to free-market economics could be labelled as pro-Communist. This line of argument continues on the American Right today as the stock-in-trade of pundits too numerous (and unpleasant) to name.

In Berlin’s case, the charge is obviously obtuse in confusing opposition to Communism with belligerence. It is also somewhat stomach-churning when polemicists without personal experience of Communism accuse someone who witnessed the Russian Revolution and fled the Bolsheviks, whose uncle was literally frightened to death by Soviet persecution, and who was deeply attached to—and felt personal guilt over the persecution of—members of the Russian intelligentsia, of being insufficiently anti-Communist.

It is an error to assume that sound judgements can invariably be reached by splitting the difference between available extremes. Nevertheless, in this case the fact that doctrinaires on both the Left and the Right object to Berlin’s liberal anti-Communism seems a point in his favour. Though his conduct was not above reproach, Berlin’s political stance and behaviour were generally in keeping with liberal ideals. If one accepts those ideals, he will appear admirable; if one rejects them, it is unclear on what basis one can condemn the illiberalism of either Communist or anti-Communist repression—as critics on the Left and Right do.

Social Policy and Social Justice

While the conflict between Communism and its opponents dominated international affairs for much of Berlin’s life, domestic politics were dominated by attempts to navigate between the extremes of complete state control of the economy and complete laissez-faire. For his position on these questions of social policy and social justice, too, Berlin has come under attack.

Berlin’s championing of ‘negative’ liberty—liberty as freedom from interference—and critique of ‘positive’ freedom, which was central to many defences of welfare legislation, led many to perceive him as a proponent of classical liberalism or libertarianism. This, combined with his attacks on ‘scientism’—the application of the model of science to human problems—has made him seem to some indistinguishable from such conservative or classical-liberal thinkers as Hayek and Michael Oakeshott.

Despite the appearance of libertarianism, Berlin enthusiastically admired the New Deal, and less enthusiastically supported the British Welfare State. Given this, it is not surprising that he is distrusted or resented on the Right. More surprising is Beran’s claim that defence of the Welfare State was the central, motivating goal of Berlin’s political and moral thought. This disregards two obvious facts: that opposition to Communism played at least as large a part in Berlin’s political thought as support for the Welfare State, and that Berlin was deeply worried by trends towards collectivism in Western society.

These opposed perceptions—of Berlin as mild-mannered libertarian, and as apologist for state intervention—reflect a more general tendency to misunderstand his position on liberty. Berlin described ‘negative’ freedom as closer to the ‘basic’ or ‘essential’ meaning of freedom: ‘the ability to choose as you wish to choose’ without being coerced or bullied. ‘Positive’ liberty, on the other hand, was prone to perversion. This was, first, because one variant of positive liberty identified liberty with fulfilment, and so with the attainment of goals other than, and possibly conflicting with, liberty. Another variant of positive liberty defined freedom as self-mastery. This meant that the nature of freedom depended on conceptions of the self. If the self were identified, not with the actual wishes of individuals, but with what individuals ‘really’ desired—that is, what they should desire—or with entities other than individuals (such as races, classes, or nations), the idea of self-mastery became an alibi for coercion.

This has led many to see Berlin as a simple advocate of ‘negative’ liberty and opponent of ‘positive’ liberty. But his position was more complex. He acknowledged the dangers of negative liberty, whereby certain exercises of this liberty could lead to drastic deprivations and inequalities, making the enjoyment of liberty impossible. And he held that positive liberty was a genuine and valuable version of liberty, so long as it was identified with the autonomy of individuals rather than the achievement of goals that individuals ‘should’ desire.

Berlin also recognised what dogmatic adherents of laissez-faire ignore—that certain interventionist economic policies could be (and often were) justified on morally individualist, rather than collectivist, grounds. He was able to differentiate between moral individualism and economic individualism. He acknowledged the importance of values such as equality and social justice that could conflict with and, in some cases, should take precedent over, liberty. Yet he was no uncritical proponent of the welfare state. He was deeply worried by a repressive conception of society and social service, which viewed political and moral problems in technical and therapeutic terms, aimed at promoting ‘social health’ through regulation and conditioning. This concern reflected his opposition to paternalism and elitism, which was at the centre of his thought.

Though the Left and Right critiques of Berlin’s thought offer opposed pictures of his politics, they share one prominent feature: both associate him with the status quo or the ‘establishment’. Hence all the harping on his social accomplishments and the particular bitterness of critics, whose disagreement with Berlin is exacerbated by envy.

Their focus on Berlin’s social standing obscures a crucial element in his outlook. Despite his comfortable position at the heart of the Establishment, he distrusted the authority of ‘all the great managers of society …who confidently and tidily arrange the destinies of others.’ He sympathised with underdogs, misfits, and eccentrics. He hated bullies. Berlin’s thought reflected his elite perspective, both in its neglect of questions of social and distributive justice, and its celebration of the untidiness of human affairs that is often much easier to appreciate when one is insulated against the damage that untidiness can do. But it also contains resources for challenging injustice, elitism, and overbearing authority.

Like Hayek and Oakeshott and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, Berlin attacked political rationalism, instrumentalism, and technocracy. Unlike these other thinkers, he did not regard the values he advocated or the tendencies he condemned as necessarily connected to a particular economic system. His failure to grapple with questions of economic policy was a weakness; his failure to be captivated by the abstractions of, or dichotomy between, ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ was one of his strengths. Berlin was opposed to imposing theoretical systems on human life. It seemed better to him to modify doctrines in response to particular problems and needs. Thus he admired the pragmatism and eclecticism of the New Deal, which largely avoided the dogmas of both laissez-faire and socialist economics.

Berlin and Contemporary Politics

One test of a political thinker’s work is whether it can be applied, after the circumstances surrounding its construction have receded into history, to the problems of subsequent ages. Berlin’s work speaks to current problems in several ways.

Berlin was concerned with the problem of political ethics, particularly the relationship between ends and means. His pluralism held that the pursuit of a single, absolute goal, without consideration for other values, was a sign not of ‘moral clarity,’ but blindness. He equally insisted that while pragmatism was necessary, action must be guided by ethical considerations, respect for individuals above all. He insisted that morally wrong means can undermine or negate the ends to which they are directed, but he also recognised that the pursuit of political purity was delusive. Politics involves tough choices, compromises, and sacrifices. It is vital to keep all of this in mind as we seek to navigate our way through a ‘war on terror.’

Another feature of Berlin’s work was his attack on theories of historical inevitability. He warned against both optimism and fatalism—the belief that what is right will invariably come to pass, and the belief that current trends, however unpleasant, must be accepted, even embraced, rather than resisted. He sympathised with those who were crushed under the wheels of ‘progress.’ He protested against attempts to justify the imposition of suffering, or neglect of misery, with the excuse that such things have to be—and that, in the end, everyone will be better off. This critique of the myth of historical inevitability, directed against Communism, also applies to the great historical narrative of our day: globalisation.

Berlin’s attacks on elitism and paternalism encourage scepticism of, and the erection of safeguards against, those who claim the right to exercise vast authority, because they are worthy of doing so, or have the best interests of those they rule at heart. Berlin warned against imposing morality, coercing or victimising people ‘for their own good.’ When governments seek to violate the rights of their citizens on behalf of morality or security, or wage war on people in the name of their freedom, Berlin’s work warns us to be sceptical and resistant.

Berlin’s work also cautions against the self-righteousness of all who claim to have a monopoly on virtue, whether they be rulers or dissidents. It also condemns the craving for similarity, and intolerance of those who think differently from oneself. It thus suggests that even when we encounter policies that we feel confident in condemning—and that Berlin’s principles suggests we should condemn—we should do so moderately and humbly, while retaining doubts about our own program and resisting the lure of our own certitudes. Most people, at all points along the political spectrum (including the liberal centre), could profit by this advice.

Finally, Berlin’s pluralism warns against the imposition of a single pattern—or one’s own wishes—on the world. This does not mean abandoning the pursuit of humane values but respecting the beliefs, experiences, and agency of others. ‘All we can know for certain is what men actually want,’ Berlin wrote, and we should therefore begin decisions of policy ‘by listening to them carefully and sympathetically, and understanding them and their lives and their needs, one by one individually. Let us at least provide them with what they ask for, and leave them as free as possible.’

Berlin’s message is discomfiting for those who crave certainty, simplicity, and uniformity and who treasure the conviction of their own righteousness. Ideological criticisms of Berlin reflect this. They also confirm the continuing relevance of his work. His critics, coming to bury him, inadvertently vindicate him. While Berlin would not have enjoyed the venom, he would have relished the irony.

Joshua Cherniss is a DPhil student in Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, and a PhD student in Government at Harvard University. His research deals with Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual development.