The Center and the Margins: Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought

By Aurelian CraiutuMarch 26, 2014

The Center and the Margins: Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought

A Mind and Its Time by Joshua L. Cherniss

An “Academic Saint”

ISAIAH BERLIN (1909-1997) was a moderate man who lived in an age of extremes, marked by the rise of totalitarianism and two devastating world wars. Understanding the roots of these evils has remained a daunting task to this day. Who exactly is to blame? Nobody can deny that a few deranged individuals played an outsized role in spreading violence and terror across the world, but they could not have done it if the spirit of the age had been against them. And how are we to account for the fact that well intended and honest thinkers, too, fell under the sway of grand schemes of social and political improvement? Speaking sometimes in the name of the Enlightenment’s ideas, they followed in Plato’s footsteps in search of their own Syracuse, be it Moscow, Berlin, Havana, or Beijing. In so doing, they defiantly ignored the lessons of history, often choosing “authenticity” and adventure over prudence and moderation. They abdicated their responsibility as public intellectuals and became advocates of schemes of social improvement that turned out to be disastrous.

That’s why we cannot help but admire the intellectual trajectory of someone like Isaiah Berlin, who embraced political moderation and did not succumb to the sirens’ songs of ideology, left or right. While moderate minds are usually solitary and isolated figures, Berlin was a fortunate exception. He offered no grand theory and did not seek to create a school of his own, but his writings and lectures had such a wide appeal that, by the time of his death, Berlin had acquired the reputation of the world’s most important historian of ideas. Inducted into the great academic halls of fame — he served as president of the British Academy and received prestigious prizes such as the Lippincott, Erasmus, and Agnelli — Berlin was respected by academics, writers, and politicians alike. He was an Oxford don, but also on familiar terms with prominent American dignitaries and intellectuals, from George Kennan to Arthur Schlesinger; he met President Kennedy on several occasions. The Cambridge historian and cultural critic Stefan Collini went so far as to claim that “probably no one in our time has come nearer to being regarded as the academic equivalent of a saint than Isaiah Berlin.” Nonetheless, Berlin was far from immune to worldly temptations. For one thing, this consummate Oxford insider was no stranger to academic gossip and intrigue, as evidenced by his recently published correspondence, just as he was fascinated by power and prestige.

Born in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Tsarist Empire), to a Jewish family, Berlin witnessed the unfolding of the Russian Revolution firsthand in Petrograd. It would eventually determine his family to immigrate to England. There he attended Oxford’s Corpus Christi and ended up staying on for the rest of his life. During World War II, a short diplomatic stint took him to Washington, where he witnessed from within how major political decisions were made. Shortly after the war, he traveled to Moscow, where he met two of Russia’s most important living writers, Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak (both of them were evoked in Personal Impressions). Professionally, Berlin started out at Oxford as an analytical philosopher. Yet, disenchanted with the apolitical and abstract philosophizing practiced there in the 1930s, he quickly switched to the history of ideas. In the 1950s, he became the holder of Oxford’s most prestigious chair in political theory — the Chichele Chair; subsequently, Berlin accepted the presidency of the new Iffley College (later renamed Wolfson College), which he would lead for a decade.

Berlin had the uncanny ability to turn what we would normally consider bad luck — living in Petrograd during the Revolution or witnessing the tragedies of the last century — into an opportunity to reflect on what it means to live in a decent society. This allowed him to meditate on politics while remaining politically disengaged and disinterested in the practicalities of politics. Berlin’s embrace of a moderate liberalism came from a long study of some of the radical ideas that shaped his time. Indeed, Berlin’s intellectual project was an attempt to redefine political liberalism in light of the 20th century’s failed soteriologies. In this respect, along with Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Raymond Aron, he represented a distinctive form of Cold War liberalism. These thinkers were all anxious to understand how individual freedom could be preserved in an age of radical ideologies. Berlin maintained cordial relations with most of these thinkers, although he was rarely generous in his assessment of their works. He regarded Aron as a “superior journalist” and ignored his original theoretical contributions to sociology and political science. Berlin was particularly critical of Arendt, disliking profoundly her Eichmann in Jerusalem. What irritated him above all was the arrogance he perceived in Arendt’s unconventional critique of the complicity of the Jewish Councils in the Holocaust.

For all the accolades he received from distinguished academic institutions, Berlin remained an idiosyncratic academic who distrusted many aspects of university life. He was also skeptical and reserved in political matters, even though at times he enjoyed making political points under the guise of historical scholarship. He admitted to being bored by his “allies,” who held views similar to his, and being more attracted instead to “enemies” from the other side of the political spectrum. He read with much interest the writings of both those with whom he agreed (John Stuart Mill, for instance) and those with whom he did not (Joseph de Maistre and J. G. Hamann, for example). Berlin published relatively little until the 1970s, when he was fortunate to find an ideal editor in Henry Hardy. A fellow Oxford man, Hardy brought to publication many of Berlin’s previously uncollected essays and, until his death, continued to publish new collections as well as second editions of Berlin’s works. 

Berlin’s Main Idea

Berlin was not a systematic thinker. Some critics have complained that he failed to produce a magnum opus, something similar to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, while others feel that he went too far denigrating the Enlightenment. Berlin was also taken to task for failing to offer an adequate account of communism or the Holocaust in his writings. And still, he excelled at writing essays and had a special talent for interpreting writers such as Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Herzen, who are not usually read by political theorists. He would focus on what he took to be the central animating vision of these writers, highlighting their sensibilities rather than their arguments and seeking to see the world through their own eyes. “The goals and motives that guide human action,” Berlin writes in “The Pursuit of the Ideal” (included in The Crooked Timber of Humanity), “must be looked at in the light of all that we know and understand; their roots and growth, their essence, and above all their validity, must be critically examined with every intellectual resource that we have.” This viewpoint accounts for Berlin’s unique ability to understand life’s contradictions. It also allowed him to grasp the fruitfulness of conflict, the persistence of violence and irrational instincts in human nature, as well as the power of faith and the force of tradition. These qualities are eminently displayed by Berlin’s best essays on Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Herder, Sorel, Tolstoy, and Maistre, collected in Against the Current, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

It would be an understatement to say that Berlin was someone who took ideas very seriously. Contrary to Marx, he was convinced that ideas, right or wrong, were often more powerful and more dangerous than commonly understood. The great movements of the past three centuries were not mere historical accidents, he thought, but the outcome of a certain set of ideas about justice, equality, and freedom. These ideas were not born in the void but in people’s minds as personal visions of what a good society should be. In Berlin’s view, Marxism or nationalism might very well have been the “opium” of the intellectuals, but they also offered an explanation of how society worked and proposed concrete solutions to how our world could be improved. As such, Berlin believed, thinkers’ worldviews ought to be studied in detail and should never be dismissed as mere expressions of utopian inclinations.

One idea in particular caught Berlin’s eye. Studying the Enlightenment philosophers, he was surprised to discover that they shared the monist belief according to which all social and philosophical questions must have one and only answer — necessarily rendering all other views erroneous. These philosophers thought that “there must exist a path which leads clear thinkers to the correct answers to these questions.” Accordingly, once the “correct” answers to questions of liberty or justice had been discovered, they would represent the “final solution to all the problems of existence.” Berlin was deeply skeptical of such a Platonic ideal, which had roots in the Enlightenment and came to dominate the vision of many 19th- and 20th-century political thinkers and practitioners. He found the very notion of a “perfect” life (or “final” synthesis of values) suspect and doubted that social, moral, and political questions could ever have final, unambiguous answers.

For Berlin, such a view was not merely impossible in practice but also flawed in theory. The belief that there must be a set of universally valid answers, Berlin argued, is conceptually incoherent. His study of Vico and Herder, of the German Romantics and the Russian writers, led him to realize that values are not always compatible with each other, that there will always be a conflict between what people consider the “true” answers to their social, political, and moral questions. “We are doomed to choose,” Berlin wrote, “and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” We cannot have equality, justice, and absolute freedom at the same time; trade-offs between these values and priorities are necessary and unavoidable. Claims for social justice should be balanced with those for liberty and noninterference in such a way that a decent compromise can be achieved and maintained over time. This can never be more than a precarious and uneasy equipoise, “constantly threatened and in permanent need of repair.” Yet, for all of its limitations, it may suffice to avoid the extremes of suffering and cruelty, which is the first requirement of any decent society. This, Berlin believed, could only be achieved through political moderation. 

Interpreting Berlin’s Political Moderation

Was Berlin’s praise of balance and moderation simply a matter of temperament, or did it reflect a deeper, principled outlook? The question is worth examining in further detail. Over the past few decades, Berlin’s life and works have been the subject of several books by Robert Kocis, Claude Galipeau, John Gray, and Michael Ignatieff. Now entering the field: a younger scholar, Joshua Cherniss. His first book, A Mind and Its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought, consists of eight tightly argued chapters and a conclusion and traces the development of Berlin’s thought through the late 1950s. Gracefully written and based on solid archival research, Cherniss’s outstanding book is attentive to both detail and grand narratives. While revealing the many facets of Berlin’s works, Cherniss regards political moderation as the key to understanding his writings.

This comes to the fore in chapter five (“Between Realism and Utopianism: The Political Ethics of Moderation”), where Cherniss argues that Berlin’s writings articulate a “moderate but principled course between relativistic cynicism and moral absolutism,” while opposing determinism and utopianism. That is, Berlin grasped the dangers of monism and utopianism, and embraced pluralism and a “liberalism of fear” (to use Judith Shklar’s phrase). He was convinced that politics always retains a significant potential for cruelty and tragedy, which must be countervailed through intelligent political action. Life, Berlin argues, may be seen through many windows, none of which is absolutely clear or opaque. While some of these lenses are more distorting than others, one should never put one’s entire faith in any one of them. To do so would amount to “a wilful betrayal of the intellect.” At the same time, Berlin was never a relativist in the usual sense of the term, since he believed that “there are, if not universal values, at any rate a minimum without which societies could scarcely survive.”

As Cherniss deftly shows, Berlin’s political moderation stood in sharp contrast to many of the 20th century’s political dogmas. He challenged the agendas of those who believed not only in a perfect “omelet,” but also in the need to impose political and ideological conformity upon others. Indeed, these monists saw themselves entitled to break an unlimited number of “eggs” in order to build a radiant future and perfect society. In their search for an earthly paradise, they invented new myths that allowed no dissent or opposition and required absolute faith. They believed not only that the course of history is determined by iron laws, but also that they were the only ones to know these laws. For a political moderate and defender of freedom such as Berlin, all this was anathema.

Cherniss is right to remind us that Berlin’s staunch opposition to ideological abstractions owed a great deal to his reading of Alexander Herzen. The latter thought that the real center of society was not the collectivity but the individual, and argued that individual lives should never be sacrificed for “big ideas,” however attractive these may appear in theory. Berlin could not agree more. He, too, believed that:

 [H]uman lives and relationships are too complex for standard formulas and neat solutions, and attempts to adapt individuals and fit them into a rational schema, conceived in terms of a theoretical ideal, […] always lead in the end to a terrible maiming of human beings, to political vivisection on an ever-increasing scale.

Berlin saw a particular danger in those doctrines that defended historical inevitability and used the alleged laws of history as an alibi for justifying the pursuit of power for power’s sake. He reaffirmed the Kantian belief that human beings are ends in themselves and maintained that we should always concentrate on attainable goals rather than distant and elusive ones.

A good example of Berlin’s moderation was his attitude toward communism during the Cold War, a subject amply discussed in Cherniss’s book. Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” was seen by many as an anti-Communist manifesto, and for good reason. Yet the image of a Cold Warrior, Cherniss points out, fits Berlin imperfectly and does not do justice to the complexity of his thought. It is revealing that he refused to pay heed to the calls for a stronger faith in the fight against communism. In a letter to Herbert Elliston, he says: “I do not think that the answer to communism is a counter faith, equally fervent, militant […]. I see no point in defeating the other side if our beliefs at the end of the war are simply the inverse of theirs, just as irrational, despotic, etc.” Our age, Berlin argued elsewhere, does not call for more faith, or for tougher leadership or more scientific organization. The opposite may be the case: what we need is “less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies.” In other words, the real solution is more prudence and moderation rather than less.

The Importance of Moderation

Ultimately, Berlin’s moderation was not synonymous with indecisiveness and weakness, even though he was notoriously prudent in taking clear-cut political stances. He was committed to freedom and toleration and defended the widest possible degree of self-determination and individual choice. He regarded negative liberty (freedom from interference) as essential but also acknowledged the importance of positive liberty (self-determination, self-rule, and freedom to). At the same time, his moderate agenda proposed no calls to heroic action and amounted to a defense of what he took to be the values of a decent society. Much like his hero Herzen, Berlin was never a party man. As Cherniss points out, he was too liberal and too civilized, too ironical and too skeptical to commit himself fully to a particular platform. Berlin feared those who had an inner certainty about the “right” course of action in any circumstance. Above all, he disliked all calls to conformism and indoctrination. He loathed Communism but could not go as far as Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who rejected the welfare state as a step toward totalitarianism.

The portrait of Turgenev that Berlin sketched in Russian Thinkers could also be construed as a self-portrait. Like the Russian writer, Berlin was “amiable, skeptical, courteous, too self-distrustful to frighten anyone. He embodied no clear principles and advocated no particular doctrine, had no panacea for social problems.” He saw the many sides of each issue. Despite his sympathy for the party of progress, he could not cross unreservedly to either side in the conflict of ideas. Instead, he was content to reiterate a few basic truths he held to be essential to maintaining freedom and decency. If we are to respect individual dignity, we must oppose any attempts to treat human beings as material for grand political schemes. Nobody has a monopoly on virtue or truth, and we must never forget our human fallibility when seeking to impose our values and plans upon others. That is why Berlin insisted that it is always important “to be vigilant against one-sidedness” and warned against becoming fanatical in our moral and political commitments. If the questions we address are complex, we ought to recognize that their answers should also be complex. The best thing we can do is to strive for decent and reasonable compromises and trade-offs and to treat other human beings as ends in themselves, never as means to others’ ends.

Moderates are ideally suited to do all this. As I tried to demonstrate in a recent book, A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830, they are “trimmers” who seek to adjust the cargo of the ship of state and trim its sails to keep it on an even keel. In times of crisis, Berlin points out, “these are the men who, when the battle grows too hot, tend either to stop their ears to the terrible din, or attempt to promote armistices, save lives, avert chaos.” Their adjustments may seem unheroic, but they may well save the state from ruin. And this, we can all agree, is no small matter.


Aurelian Craiutu is professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington.

LARB Contributor

Aurelian Craiutu is professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author, most recently, of A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748–1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).


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