At All Souls in 1932, Lewis Namier provoked Isaiah Berlin by scornfully dismissing the history of ideas – dismissing it in German, though the rest of the conversation (or rather harangue) was conducted in English – as ‘what one Jew cribs from another’. But for some unpredictable migrations and a few world-historical hiccups in the previous decades, this exchange might have been taking place – quite possibly in French – in, say, Warsaw or St Petersburg. One could no doubt imagine other circumstances which would have resulted in few English readers now being interested in the opinions of Ludwik Bernsztajn Niemirowski (he had, in fact, already changed this name twice by the time he became a British subject in 1913). Yet the distinctive flavour of the scene depends upon the Englishness of its setting, in an intellectual as well as a physical sense.
The context of the remark, as Berlin recounts it, was Namier’s passionate exposition of a favourite theme: the contrast between the practical, sober, interest-based English political tradition and the ideologically-riven, over-dramatised, ultimately catastrophic politics of continental Europe. For Namier, notoriously, this contrast had what would now be called a methodological as well as a political significance. He took English history to have endorsed, in an appropriately practical way, the unimportance of ideas in moving men to action, and he made it a maxim of his own historical researches that expressions of principlewere to be treated as rationalisations or, as he put it (characteristically choosing the gruff demotic of the average practical Englishman who owned a thousand acres), mere ‘flapdoodle’. In 1932 he was exasperated at the thought that a clever young man with an Oxford fellowship (which he clearly envied) was going to waste his time by writing a book about a frothy ideas-monger like Marx, whom he dismissed as ‘a typical Jewish half-charlatan who got hold of quite a good idea and then ran it to death just to spite the Gentiles’.
The picture of Namier which this scene discloses may appear entirely consonant with the resonances which ‘Namierism’ seems to have for those who have never read a word by or about the man himself: an animus against abstract ideas, sneers at intellectuals in politics, schadenfreude about the outcome of European revolutions, snobbery about the English governing class, and, finally, the historical ‘method’ (‘finding out who the chaps really were’, as his Russian wife engagingly described it). But the references to Jews in both quoted remarks introduce a disturbing element into the apparent integrity of this picture, as well as contributing to the ironies enfolded in that opening scene. For Namier was not only proudly assertive of his own Jewishness and scornful of Jews who hoped to ‘disappear’ into English society: he was also, for most of his mature life, a passionate Zionist. In fact, as Norman Rose’s meticulous book shows, Namier was prominently and energetically involved, at times to the exclusion of all else, in organised Zionist political activity from the mid-l920s to the mid-1940s.
Some indication of the scope of this political involvement has already been given in Lady Namier’s biography of her husband, published in 1971, but as the involvement had almost ceased by the time she met him, and as she did not draw on anything like the range of manuscript collections and official archives which Professor Rose has so profitably mined, it did not bulk very large in her account. Her narrative did bring out the uneven, harassed nature of Namier’s career up to the publication in 1929 of The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in a way that made the relation between the man and the work more than usually intriguing. Throughout the gestation and writing of what was, by any standards, an austerely professional piece of scholarship, Namier had had no experience of the tranquillity and freedom of a secure academic position: he lived, by turns, on teaching, journalism, political commissions, subsidies from remarkably faithful well-wishers, and even had a spell as a sales representative in Central Europe for English cotton interests. He complained more than once of the strain of his divided life, yet always tried to give priority to his long-projected book. The politics of 18th-century England clearly mattered to him in ways that were not altogether obvious.
With the details of his commitment to active Zionism before us, the divisions within his personality become all the more striking, though this is not really explored in Rose’s deliberately spare account. For it meant not only that Namier’s own most sustained public activity was largely prompted by adherence to what looked to most observers at the time to be a quite unrealistic, romantic, essentially doctrinaire idea – politics by the book and a pretty funny book at that – but also that he spent much of his life engaged in drafting manifestos, issuing protests and writing letters to the press: taking part, in short, in the kind of politics without power which, as the sponsor of ‘Namierism’, he could have been expected to despise. The extraordinary history of Zionism has a fascination all its own, but in the form in which Namier was involved with it this can hardly be said to have been a consequence of its exercise of power. Power was exercised by the British Government, through the Palestine Mandate. Namier could praise or, more often, blame the Government’s decisions, but he was constantly, humiliatingly reminded that he had no part to play in making them. Namier the Zionist who sat in Foreign Office ante-rooms simmering with rage at the latest piece of duplicity or inhumanity, only to receive a cool dismissal from some lofty junior official, may, perhaps, have found some solace in Namier the historian’s reconstruction of a very different and very much more satisfactory pattern of political behaviour; and if so, he would not have been the first, or the last, political historian to find in an intimacy with those who exercised power in the past some compensation for an often unacknowledged frustration at being so remote from it in the present.
The tensions in this picture are heightened when one discovers that Namier had several of what he regarded as the characteristic weaknesses of the intellectual in politics: he was inept at the arts of intrigue and compromise, remote from the prejudices of the rank and file, prickly and liable to get on some very high horses. It could not be said, however, that he had that breed’s noted squeamishness about the use of force. He vehemently insisted that a Jewish state would have to fight for its existence, though here too one senses from time to time the presence of frustrated, unavowed energies and a consequent posturing and self-deception. He was, by all accounts, an aggressive man, even something of a bully, and like many such people he enjoyed exaggerating his own hard-headedness: according to Berlin, he would, devastatingly, ask candidates for a lectureship in English at the University of Jerusalem: ‘Can you shoot?’
Whatever the sources of these tensions, the passion, sincerity and centrality of Namier’s commitment to Zionism is beyond dispute. What also emerges from Rose’s nicely-judged use of private correspondence is how far this was bound up with the hypnotic spell cast over him by Weizmann. (Lady Namier, who seems to have disliked Weizmann – Namier’s marriage was the cause of a serious breach with him – may have given a somewhat muted picture of this consuming attachment.) It was Weizmann who drew the younger man into Zionism, and his favour was always crucial to Namier’s never very popular or secure place within Zionist organisations. Their friendship was not without strain, as none of Namier’s friendships could be, it seems. Yet after exchanges which would have had more easy-going men cutting each other in the street, Namier could be flattered and inspired into fresh acts of co-operation. In the end, Weizmann was always seen as the only possible Moses for the return journey, and that, for Namier, overrode all else.
One of the things that bound them together was a deep, almost pious Anglophilia. For both, as Rose observes, ‘the British connection was basic,’ and it was surely not for reasons of practical advantage alone that Namier was for so long an advocate of the idea of a Jewish National Home in Palestine as the ‘Seventh Dominion’ of the British Empire. Here the different strands of his emotional allegiances could come together. As late as 1957, when the Israeli Government had decided to build a new Knesset, Namier urged Ben Gurion ‘to adopt the British not the Continental arrangement of benches in the House’, on the grounds, among others, that, as he had put it in an earlier essay on the subject, ‘the arrangement of benches in the House of Commons reproduces the lay-out of a playing-field and fosters a team spirit.’ The more usual circular pattern (which, of course, the Knesset adopted) he sneered at, in typical vein, as ‘one of those clever, logical Continental “improvements” which make Parliaments “representative” and unworkable’. As this suggests, much of the pathos of Namier’s life came from wanting to be Burke in a situation which demanded that he be Bentham.
This admiration on the part of European Jews for an idealised picture of Britain and its history (essentially, of course, the very Whig celebration of that history which, in its specialised form, Namier was to help to undermine) is a theme to which Isaiah Berlin returns several times in this the fourth volume of his collected essays, which includes pieces on Namier and on Weizmann as well as an address on ‘Einstein and Israel’. Namier’s acknowledgment of the immense effective power of such ideas did not sit easily with his preferred historical approach, whereas for Berlin the extraordinary story of Zionism, including its curious involvement with an ideal of the English past, serves to illustrate his own very different understanding of history. For not only is intellectual history an ineliminable part of any adequate telling of this story, but the very improbability of the founding of Israel constitutes, for Berlin, a standing rebuke to all those determinist or reductionist social theories which he has always so eloquently denounced.
It would, however, be disingenuous to pretend that all the pieces in this collection contribute to the argument for this or any other of Berlin’s views, and ungrateful to endorse any implication that they should. For they are, as he aptly terms them. éloges – ‘addresses commemorating the illustrious dead’. As such, they can roughly be divided into three categories: those on Oxford contemporaries (Austin, Bowra, Pares, Plamenatz); those on world figures whom Berlin knew (Churchill, Weizmann) or had cause to celebrate (Einstein, FDR); and those on otherwise unclassified friends (Auberon Herbert, Aldous Huxley, Namier himself). The collection ends with a long memoir, specially written (or perhaps ‘composed’: few, one is tempted to suggest, could make such good use of a dictaphone) for this volume, though shortened versions have since appeared elsewhere, of his meetings with Russian writers in 1945 and 1956, especially with Akhmatova and Pasternak. These essays allow a very enjoyable indulgence of curiosity, as well as producing from time to time the kind of melancholy yet inspiriting frisson that comes from overhearing any deeply felt tribute to the cherished qualities of a dead friend.
Since an inevitable pressure towards monism prevades all attempts at systematic moral and political theory, those like Berlin who are deeply averse to such tendencies have found a less formal, less ambitious genre a more congenial and appropriate medium for their own views, and these pieces, partly because they do not appraise their subjects on a single scale of human worth, exemplify the moral pluralism which in his more abstract (though never, of course, very abstract) writings Berlin has been confined to describing. The celebratory voice is now a thoroughly unfashionable one, and it is good to have such a splendid demonstration that ‘unmasking’ is not the only possible exercise of a critical intellect not befuddled by wishful thinking or mere complacency. The friendship, indeed the very existence, of these people has, Berlin implies, been a moral education in itself, and one that has left a recognisable legacy in the sensibilities which have informed his influential essays in political theory. The pieces here are not, as anyone unacquainted with his other work might imagine, Augustan miniatures, polished, witty and exquisite: they contain too much sheer vitality and unabashed seriousness for that, and they remind us that Berlin’s own sympathies have always been more readily engaged by the troubled, mentally untidy intellectuals of the Romantic and post-Romantic generations than by the serene sociability of Enlightenment men of letters.
A solemn inventory of significance would, however, be entirely at odds with both the slightness of the pieces and the simple pleasures of reading them. Collectively, Berlin’s friends might seem a pretty awesome lot, especially when one discovers that, although, as he nicely puts it, ‘not naturally taciturn’ himself, he was on various occasions driven to silence by the irresistible power of the talk of one or other of them. What chiefly dispels the rather chilling and daunting impression that this might give is the fact that, amid the proverbial richness of the vocabulary which he deploys to recapture the qualities he admired or cherished in each of these figures, it is ‘natural’ and ‘naturalness’ to which he returns most often and with most evident approval. Formidable dinner-parties seem to have been, in more than one sense, the material base upon which these friendships flourished, but the disarming simplicity and warmth of Berlin’s attachments come through very clearly. There is no merely conventional endorsement of the world’s assessments in these tributes, and few readers glancing at the table of contents would, I suspect, accurately predict of which of its subjects Berlin concludes: ‘he was the best and most admirable man I have ever known.’