berlin by avedon

Continuing my series of old book reviews that I am publishing while I am away in South Africa, here is my review of Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 25 October 1998.

Review of
Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life
Independent on Sunday, 25 October 1998

In the autumn of 1951 Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay in the Jewish Chronicle putting the case for Zionism. Until the founding of Israel, he observed, no Jew had been free to live a purely Jewish life, free from scrutiny and repression. Berlin was particularly scathing about Gentile intellectuals, such as the poet TS Eliot, those ‘souls filled with terror’ who feared that a Jewish presence undermined Christian civilisation.

When Eliot protested that he was no anti-Semite, Berlin was sharp in his rebuke. ‘Am I profoundly mistaken’, he wrote to Eliot, ‘that you thought it a pity that large groups of “free thinking Jews” should complicate the lives of otherwise fairly homogenous Anglo-Saxon Christian communities? And that it were better otherwise? And that if this could be done by humane means, and persuasion and without coercion, it would be better for such communities if their Jewish neighbours, or a sufficiently large proportion of them, were put “beyond the borders of the city?” .’

Forty years later Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Was it possible, Lukes asked, for peoples of different cultures, such as Arabs and Jews, to live together? ‘When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures’, Berlin replied, ‘it is difficult for them to live together in peace… it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity.’ Black immigration to Western Europe was ‘a problem’ because ‘cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided’. These considerations, Berlin observed, had led him to question ‘the 19th century [idea] that multicultural societies were desirable’.

Berlin has come to be seen as the pre-eminent philosopher of modern liberalism. Yet, as his interview with Steven Lukes reveals, Berlin’s liberalism was highly ambiguous. The defence of pluralism all too easily gave way to a desire to exclude minorities. A cynic might argue that the difference between Eliot and Berlin was less about whether minorities should be put ‘beyond the borders of the city’ than about which minorities should be so excluded.

There are few people better equipped to chew over these problems than Michael Ignatieff. The ambiguities of pluralism and the contradictoriness of identity have been issues central to much of his work. For the last decade of Berlin’s life, the two men held regular conversations in which Berlin reminisced at length about his life and work. The result is an intelligent and sympathetic biography. But while Ignatieff is not blind to the inconsistencies of Berlin’s philosophy, his affection for the man, and empathy for his ideas, constrains his ability fully to explore its more problematic aspects.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, on the Baltic coast, in 1909, into a virtually-assimilated Jewish family. His father Mendel was a timber merchant who, as a member of the business elite, exempted from the restrictive laws that applied to lesser Jews. With the coming of the First World War, however, this secure, ordered life was pitched into turmoil. The family was forced to flee, first to Petrograd and then, following the Bolshevik revolution, to London.

The young Isaiah took to English life with all the fervour of a convert. On his first morning in England, Ignatieff relates, Isaiah ate an English breakfast, a defiantly non-kosher plate of bacon and eggs. Then the 12-year old boy went over to the piano in the hotel salon and, with one hand, picked out ‘God Save the King’. This might be an apocryphal story, but it reveals both the intensity of Berlin’s desire to become English, and the ease with which he did so. So much so, in fact, that William Waldegrave wrote after his death that ‘if you had asked me to show you what I meant by the ideal of Englishness… I would have taken you to see Isaiah Berlin.’

Waldegrave had been a colleague of Berlin’s at All Soul’s College, Oxford, to which Berlin was elected as a Fellow after his graduation from Corpus Christi. All Soul’s provided Berlin with his entry into the upper echelons of English social and academic life and the social network with which he surrounded himself for the rest of his life. But however English Berlin might have seemed, it was his early East European experiences that shaped the dominant themes of his work – in particular his opposition to Soviet tyranny and his commitment to a Jewish identity.

The first of these themes gave rise to Berlin’s trenchant defence of liberty as a good in itself and his distaste for ‘Utopian’ schemes. The second led to his deep-seated belief in the need for people to ‘belong’ to a group and in the importance of history and tradition in people’s lives. Berlin was one of the few modern liberal philosophers sympathetic to nationalist yearnings.

ignatieff berlin

In the fifties – after a war spent working for the Foreign Office in Washington and a brief time as a British official in the Soviet Union – Berlin expanded these themes in a series of lectures and essays, including ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and ‘Historical Inevitability’. For many, the two dominant themes in Berlin’s philosophy seemed horribly at odds with each other. How was it possible to have a commitment to individual liberty and also be sympathetic to the idea that individuals should aspire to a group identity? For Berlin, however, such contradictions were inevitable because contradiction was the very essence of the human condition. Liberty and fraternity, for instance, were both desirable, but each undermined the other and one always had to make choices between them. Moreover, Berlin believed, conflicts between different political goals arose from the contradictory nature of the human psyche itself. Humans by nature desired conflicting goals and freedom, in part, was the freedom to choose between conflicting desires.

For Ignatieff, it is Berlin’s acceptance of the conflicting nature of human desire that makes him a truly great and humane thinker. For both men the human condition is tragic in the sense that the achievement of one aim always entails a loss somewhere else.

But what if the contradictions lie not in the human condition but in Berlin’s own philosophy? And what if tragedy is the consequence, not the cause, of the kind of contradictory politics he espoused? Ignatieff does not explore these questions too deeply. But they are key to understanding Berlin’s work. Their significance becomes clearer if we consider more closely Berlin’s attachment to Zionism.

Unlike many Zionists, Berlin did not fool himself that that Israel was founded by a ‘people without land on a land without people’. He acknowledged that the land was already occupied by Palestinians who had suffered grievously as a consequence of the establishment of Israel. This might be seen as one of the insoluble conflicts in human life, a conflict between the desire of Jews, six million of whom had been murdered in the Holocaust, to establish a safe haven and the aspiration of Palestinians to live, with full national rights, in their homeland. But the problem here was not that an individual, or a community, had to make a choice between two desirable aims. It was that for one people to realise their dreams, another had to lose almost everything. As a consequence of the creation of Israel, thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland; those that stayed were deprived of many of their basic rights.

Berlin’s solution to this conundrum was to argue for the establishment two states, one for Jews, one for Palestinians. But as the current peace process reveals, the two state solution, far from minimising conflict between Palestinians and Jews, has entrenched and, indeed, intensified it. And therein lies the fundamental problem of Berlin’s pluralist philosophy: it encourages people, to search for differences between them, rather than frame their identities around what they might have in common. As Berlin’s interview with Steven Lukes suggests, there is a thin line between viewing people as different and viewing people as unacceptably different, so different that they must be put ‘beyond the borders of the city’.

berlin by freud

One solution to the problem might be to encourage people to recognise their commonalities rather than celebrate their differences. Berlin, however, deemed such a solution ‘Utopian’– the attempt artificially to engineer solutions to irresolvable human problems. His experience of the Bolshevik revolution had set him against any form of social engineering or political ‘fanaticism’. But this often amounted simply to distaste for political action. There was an element of truth to EH Carr’s complaint that a thinker who warned against the dangers of strong belief was unlikely to believe anything very much at all. Berlin’s refusal to take a clear public stand over issues such as McCarthyism or the Vietnam War – preferring, in his own words, to be safe in his Oxford college, ‘sublimely unaware of the outside world’ – appalled his more radical friends. Given this distaste for political action, it was almost inevitable that Berlin would see human conflicts are irresolvable.

Berlin’s pluralism and his hostility to political commitment were considerably more problematic than many people, including Ignatieff himself, acknowledge. His commitment to individual freedom, however, remains unquestionably important. For Berlin, history was not the product of vast impersonal forces, but the result of human action. Out of human beings’ capacity to make their own history arose human freedom. Particularly important was Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty. The best way to entrench freedom, Berlin insisted, was to free people from obstacles to the exercise of their own free choice, not to tell them how to use their own freedom.

Berlin’s stress on the importance of freedom often led him into indiscriminate denunciations of ‘historical determinism’, believing as he did that all theories of historical development denied the notion of free will. But however crass such arguments were, there can be no questioning the significance of his defence of freedom. Human beings, Berlin believed, had the capacity to face the truth and make their choices even in the darkest of moments. This is why, he wrote, the deception of Nazi officials who persuaded Jews into cattle trucks by assuring them that they were being ‘resettled’ was so pernicious. The deception may have ‘diminished the anguish of the victims’ but it nevertheless produced an ‘unutterable kind of horror in us’: ‘We cannot bear the thought of human beings denied their last rights – of knowing the truth, of acting with at least the freedom of the condemned, of being able to face their destruction with fear or courage, according to their temperaments, but at least as human beings, armed with the power of choice.’


The photo of Isaiah Berlin is by Richard Alvedon, the drawing by Lucien Freud.

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