Isaiah Berlin: The liberal gilder of dung heaps

Issue 

Isaiah Berlin: A Life
By Michael Ignatieff
Chatto & Windus, 1998. 356 pp., $49.95 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Since the death of Sir Isaiah Berlin in 1997, there has been a publishing flurry of Berlin's philosophical and historical essays, celebrating the contribution of this "apostle of freedom" to the political philosophy of liberty. A new biography of Berlin, by an admiring Michael Ignatieff, gives further reasons for Marxists, who have never joined in the Berlin festivities, to put the party hats and streamers on hold.

Berlin was born in 1909 in Latvia to a prosperous business family, who were in Petrograd at the time of the Russian Revolution. The Berlins' apartment block, which included a princess and an assistant minister of Finnish affairs, was democratised with a house committee headed by the coal stoker from the basement.

All tenants now had to stoke the stoves, remove the garbage and sweep the yard. This was clearly intolerable despotism, and the Berlins fled to London, their hoarded jewellery sewn into young Isaiah's overcoat.

"Two years in Lenin's Russia, waiting for the Cheka to knock", says Ignatieff grimly, "inoculated Berlin against Marxism". "English virtues" — fairness, decency, pluralism — were much more to Berlin's taste, the refined taste formed at Oxford (All Souls College — one of the most select ruling-class clubs in England), where Berlin intoned the self-approving myths of a privileged minority.

The shadow of the Depression, however, eventually reached even Oxford, but Berlin remained disengaged and mocking towards the progressive causes of the '30s — to display sympathy for the unemployed hunger marchers, for example, was "sentimentalism".

Marxism was the danger, and Berlin's biography of Marx, one of the least factually reliable and one of the most politically misrepresentative of its kind, caricatures Marx as a dogmatic ideologue (unlike the open-minded cabinet ministers, Times editors and City bankers of All-Souls, who carried no ideological pitch for any class interest) and who believed in revolution as coup d'etat by a small band of ruthless professional revolutionaries.

In the shabby tradition of anti-Marxist Marxologists, Berlin wilfully missed the essence of Marx the democratic revolutionary for whom mass action by the working class and oppressed was fundamental to their emancipation.

Berlin's anti-socialism and hostility to revolution were built by equating Stalinism with socialism. This shallow error, whether made by frothing-at-the-mouth reactionaries or amiable liberals, is compounded by ignoring the historically specific context of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration (and the Marxist opposition to Stalin led by Trotsky), and by misunderstanding, or fearing, the real nature of revolution as popular working-class democratic power.

Berlin's particular obsession was to crusade against Marx's alleged concept of "historical determinism" in which "vast impersonal forces", not individuals (of the "great men" variety), are said to determine history.

Berlin did not understand that social forces are made up of millions of people in political activity, making history by turning ideas into a material force. There is nothing "impersonal" about these people just because we don't know their names.

Berlin's polemic with a straw Marx had more to do with his dislike of mass social forces in revolutionary motion than thinking up ideas from disinterested philosophical contemplation. In a much praised essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox", Berlin classified people into two categories — those who know many things (foxes) and those who know one big thing (hedgehogs).

Marx was a hedgehog who knew One Big Thing — class-based historical "inevitability" — but this was the wrong thing because it created an "all-embracing" and "totalitarian" system like communism. Berlin, however, had discovered a morally superior Big Thing. Freedom.

Communism suppressed the individual right to moral sovereignty and snuffed out the individual's power of choice. Individual liberty blared from Berlin's trumpet. But hold the fanfares, please! For, as Berlin's life was to show, the elite theorists of individualism, of "freedom" and "liberty", are but spokespeople for minority class interests.

By never asking the basic question "whose freedom?" or "liberty for whom?", Berlin obscured the realities of class society and justified liberty for the rich few at the expense of the poor majority. How did Berlin stack up in the world outside Oxford? On the side of capital and its "freedom" to exploit and oppress.

Berlin worked for the English state (the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office) to persuade US workers to renounce strike action during World War II. Zionism was his passion; the terroristic expulsion of Palestinian Arabs when Israel was formed in 1948 was "a victory for freedom". He joined in the Soviet spy mania, became a public defender of "Western liberalism" during the Cold War and, just before the 1949 elections in Britain, he praised Tory would-be prime minister Winston Churchill as "the largest human being of our time". Berlin wrote for CIA-funded Cold War magazines.

Ignatieff argues that Berlin's articles on the 19th century Russian intelligentsia were "not blows in the ideological struggle". But Berlin favoured those Russians he saw as a "humane" alternative to Bolshevism. Berlin's articles, which were "not simply Cold War propaganda" but "serious analyses of totalitarianism" according to Ignatieff, were conveniently quiet on the tyranny of capital.

In the '50s, the BBC gave Berlin a microphone and the queen gave him a knighthood. Berlin opposed the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament, arguing that the West's "liberal values" were so important in the struggle against "Soviet collectivist totalitarianism" that humanity's "very survival must be risked in their defence"!

Berlin was the darling of his fellow liberals in JFK's White House in the early '60s, and he supported their efforts to spread "freedom" and "democracy" in Cuba and Vietnam by military terror. During the late '60s, Berlin was the voice of "liberal moderation in a radical era", once lecturing, protected by cops, at Columbia University in the US during a student strike. In his last decades, Berlin was rewarded for his intellectual services to the state with honorary doctorates, prizes and awards by the truckload, and he was on the guest list of Buck Palace and Downing Street.

Berlin's biggest personal test, and failing, was in 1963. The University of Sussex had offered a professorship and head of its Department of Soviet Studies to Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist, renowned author of a brilliant biography of Trotsky and expert analyst of Russian society.

The offer, however, was withdrawn. Berlin, who was on the board of the university, had provided confidential advice to the vice-chancellor that he would find Deutscher "morally intolerable" because Deutscher, a committed Marxist, "subordinates scholarship to ideology". Ignatieff defends Berlin's intervention as "a fair enough application of the standards of liberal tolerance in a university because Marxists can't be trusted to teach fairly about non-Marxist concepts".

Yet Ignatieff sees no problem with letting anti-Marxists like Berlin teach about Marxism. "Liberal tolerance" turns out to be a one-way street when liberals like Berlin, born to privilege and marinated at high table at Oxford, are put to the test.

Berlin deplored communism because of its Orwellian "thought control". Yet it was Berlin who practised thought control by banning Deutscher from the university. And people like Berlin percolate to the top of the ideas pool and get on the BBC because the ideas they express provide ideological cover for the interests of capitalist power.

Exploitation of the working class, oppression of minorities and imperialist war are protected by verbal camouflage about freedom, democracy and liberty. Visiting Russia following the war, Berlin sang the hit tune about the "toadying atmosphere of intellectual life" under "communism", but he was mute on the more sophisticated intellectual toadyism under capitalism.

Like Berlin's awful style — windy platitudes, elaborate sentences and the elitist habit of using Latin epigrams just to remind the plebs of who the boss thinker is — his equally awful biography reveals Berlin as an ideological servant of power whose job was to gild with liberal philosophy the dung heap of capitalism.