Moderation or Death
- Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff
Chatto, 386 pp, £20.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6325 9
- The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin by György Dalos
Murray, 250 pp, £17.95, September 2002, ISBN 0 7195 5476 4
In The Color of Truth, the American scholar Kai Bird presents his study of McGeorge (‘Mac’) and William Bundy. These were the two dynastic technocrats who organised and justified the hideous war in Vietnam. Cold War liberals themselves, with the kept conservative journalist Joseph Alsop they formed a Three of Hearts in the less fastidious quarters of Washington DC. Another player made up an occasional fourth man. Isaiah Berlin was happy, at least when Charles (Chip) Bohlen was unavailable, to furnish an urbane ditto to their ruthlessness. Almost as if to show that academics and intellectuals may be tough guys, too – the most lethal temptation to which the contemplative can fall victim – Berlin’s correspondance with this little cabal breathes with that abject eagerness that was so much a part of the one-time Anglo-American ‘special relationship’. To Alsop he wrote, on 20 April 1966, an account of a dinner with McGeorge Bundy:
I have never admired anyone so much, so intensely, for so long as I did him during those four hours ... his character emerged in such exquisite form that I am now his devoted and dedicated slave. I like him very much indeed, and I think he likes me, now, which was not always the case.
Looking back on the fantastic blood-letting in Indonesia in 1965 – an event which Alsop and the Bundys later decided was confirmation of their own sapience in Indo-China – Mac Bundy returned the compliment, writing to Alsop in 1967 that he wished he had Berlin’s stout resolution:
I think more and more the truth of Vietnam is in the nearby countries ... I don’t have the wonderful self-confidence of Isaiah – ‘I’m a terrific domino man’ – but I share the feeling that’s where we have done best.
There were fainthearts, of course, as there always are when great enterprises of the will are afoot. As an ever-increasing number even of Establishment types began to sicken of the war, Alsop reflected bitterly that he might no longer be able to claim the standing of stern prophet and moral tutor to the military-industrial (and military-intellectual) complex. Berlin responded in the same tones of seasoned statesmanship:
I can see the thin red line, formed by you and Mac and me, and Chip Bohlen – four old blimps, the last defenders of a dry, and disagreeably pessimistic, tough and hopelessly outmoded position – one will perish at least with one’s eyes open.
‘Take my arm, old toad. Help me down Cemetery Road.’ Except that it was actually many thousands of conscripted Americans, and uncountable numbers of Vietnamese, and not the intellectuals at the elbow of power, who were marched down that road before their time. Almost everything is wrong with the tone and address of the above extracts: the combined ingratiation and self-pity no less than the assumed and bogus Late Roman stoicism. A ‘terrific domino man’ indeed! What price ‘negative liberty’ now? And what of the sceptical humanist who warned incessantly about the sacrifice of living people to abstract ends, or totemic dogmas?
As against all that, the pleadings of Alsop to Mac Bundy did succeed in getting the latter to release a huge tranche of Ford Foundation money to endow Wolfson College, Oxford, the foundation of which was Berlin’s noblest enterprise. So perhaps he was on to something when he expatiated about ethical ‘trade-offs’ between contrasting or alternative positions: the one transaction that he really did believe was historically inevitable. (The ‘Colour of Truth’, you will not be astonished to learn, was ‘grey’ in the opinion of the Bundys.)
Now, I know that Michael Ignatieff was aware of the existence of the above correspondence at least a year ago. And I also urged Bird to send it to him. But the Vietnam drama takes up less than a page of his biography, and mentions Berlin’s real positions not at all. We are given, instead, a familiar impressionist sketch of an honest and troubled man – the word ‘detachment’ makes its appearance – unable to ally himself with the extremists of either camp. There is scarcely a hint of his actual influence in post-Camelot Washington, or of the way in which it was actually employed. We hear that he ‘joked’ in Oxford about being ‘an old mastodon of liberalism ... a last feeble echo of J.S. Mill to be treated gently as a harmless, respectable old relic’, which is certainly stylistically congruent with the more embarrassing letters to Alsop and the Bundys. (Please keep in mind, also, Berlin’s choice of forebear in that last instance.) Typical is Ignatieff’s sentence: ‘Berlin congratulated himself on remaining on good terms with friends who could barely stand to be in the same room.’ Ah yes, by all means: to be remote from both sides is a tremendous reinforcement of one’s own rectitude and a tribute in its way to one’s own lonely and yet somehow – yes – brave and upright objectivity. ‘Congratulated himself,’ however: isn’t that slightly to give the game away? This congratulation was not, after all, being bestowed for the first time. Look up Berlin’s essay on Turgenev in Russian Thinkers, and you will find yourself enlisted on the side of
the small, hesitant, self-critical, not always very brave, band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of centre, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left ... This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonising, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition.
Whether being rueful about Mill in some sheltered quadrangle, or vicariously biting Turgenev’s bullet in the pages of any number of respectable quarterlies or, indeed, while seconding the efforts of unscrupulous power-brokers in Washington, Berlin could not discard the affectation of the embattled, the lonely and even the agonised. Of liberalism and its quandaries and dilemmas it deserves to be asked, in this century in particular, and no less than of other ideologies: agonising for whom?
Woe is me and lackaday. There is a sense in which, if you chafe at the present complacently ‘liberal’ consensus, the reputation of Isaiah Berlin stands like a lion in your path. But the task of confronting said lion is not at all easy or simple: by no means as much as the preceding paragraphs may have made it appear. True, he was simultaneously pompous and dishonest in the face of a long moral crisis where his views and his connections could have made a difference. True, this is the kind of story that never, ever, gets told about Berlin by his legion of memorialists and admirers. I admit that I turned first to Ignatieff’s scanty passage on Vietnam and, having some private knowledge, became incensed and thought for a while that his whole sodding book was going to bleed on in the same, so to speak, vein. But then I flipped back to the beginning and settled in. It swiftly broke in upon me that the lion was still there, in all his mingled splendours, part mangy, part magnificent. Isaiah Berlin may have been designed, by origin and by temperament and by life experience, to become one of those witty and accomplished valets du pouvoir who adorn, and even raise the tone of, the better class of court. But there was something in him that recognised this as an ignoble and insufficient aspiration, and impelled him to resist it where he dared.
The anecdotal is inescapable here, and I see no reason to be deprived of my portion. I first met Berlin in 1967, around the time of his Bundy/Alsop pact, when I was a fairly tremulous secretary of the Oxford University Labour Club. He’d agreed to talk on Marx, and to be given dinner at the Union beforehand, and he was the very picture of patient, non-condescending charm. Uncomplainingly eating the terrible food we offered him, he awarded imaginary Marx marks to the old Russophobe, making the assumption that he would have been a PPE student. (‘A beta-alpha for economics – no, I rather think a beta – but an alpha, definitely an alpha for politics.’) He gave his personal reasons for opposing Marxism (‘I saw the revolution in St Petersburg, and it quite cured me for life. Cured me for life’) and I remember thinking that I’d never before met anyone who had a real-time memory of 1917. Ignatieff slightly harshly says that Berlin was ‘no wit, and no epigrams have attached themselves to his name’, but when he said, ‘Kerensky, yes, Kerensky – I think we have to say one of the great wets of history,’ our laughter was unforced. The subsequent talk to the club was a bit medium-pace and up-and-down the wicket, because you can only really maintain that Marx was a determinist or inevitabilist if you do a lot of eliding between sufficient and necessary conditions. But I was thrilled to think that he’d made himself vulnerable to such unlicked cubs. A term or two later, at a cocktail party given by my tutor, he remembered our dinner, remembered my name without making a patronising show of it, and stayed to tell a good story about Christopher Hill and John Sparrow, and of how he’d been the unwitting agent of a quarrel between them, while ignoring an ambitious and possessive American professor who kept yelling ‘Eye-zay-ah! Eye-zay-ah!’ from across the room. (‘Yes,’ he murmured at the conclusion of the story. ‘After that I’m afraid Christopher rather gave me up. Gave me up for the Party.’)
Many years later, reviewing Personal Impressions for the New Statesman, I mentioned the old story of Berlin acting as an academic gatekeeper, and barring the appointment of Isaac Deutscher to a chair at Sussex University. This denial had the sad effect of forcing Deutscher – who had once given Berlin a highly scornful review in the Observer – to churn out Kremlinology for a living: as a result of which he never finished his triad or troika of Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin biographies. In the next post came a letter from Berlin, stating with some anguish that while he didn’t much approve of Deutscher, his opinion had not been the deciding one. I telephoned Tamara Deutscher and others, asking if they had definite proof that Berlin had administered the bare bodkin, and was told, well, no, not definite proof. So I published a retraction. Then came a postcard from Berlin, thanking me handsomely, saying that the allegation had always worried and upset him, and asking if he wasn’t correct in thinking that he had once succeeded more in attracting me to Marxism than in repelling me from it. I was – I admit it – impressed. And now I read, in Ignatieff’s book, that it was an annihilatingly hostile letter from Berlin to the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University which ‘put paid to Deutscher’s chances’. The fox is crafty, we know, and the hedgehog is a spiky customer, and Ignatieff proposes that the foxy Berlin always harboured the wish to metamorphose into a hedgehog. All I know is that I was once told – even assured of – one small thing.
Close reading is necessary with a customer like this. The First World War was, like the abattoir in Vietnam, quite describable as a liberals’ war. Any medium-run view of history will show that it did more damage to ‘Western civilisation’ than any form of ideology, not least in clearing the very path, through the ruins and cadavers, along which totalitarians could later instate and militarise themselves. (In that sense, and by his insistence that a gutted and humiliated Russia should stay in the war and meet its obligations to imperialism, Kerensky can be described as a little more bloody than merely ‘wet’.) As a small Jewish boy, an only child with a defective left arm, tenderly raised in Riga and removed to St Petersburg because of the exigencies of combat and of disruptions in the timber trade, Isaiah Berlin saw a terrified tsarist cop being dragged away by a mob. The sight – it recurs in numerous interviews and reminiscences, including those recorded here – powerfully coloured his view of disorder and insurrection; the more so, perhaps, because his infant imagination furnished the subsequent scene of lynching or drowning that he did not in fact witness. In only one interview (‘Recollections of a Historian of Ideas’, uncited by Ignatieff) did he remember to say that these cops were fond of firing on civilians.
One could argue that if he had been exposed to another contemporary scene of cruelty – the mass slaughter of peasant conscripts at Tannenberg, for example, or the Cossacks dealing with a demonstration, or perhaps the Black Hundreds falling to work in a shtetl – the formative effect would have or might have been different. Yet I think it’s clear, from his own recurrence to the story, and from other evidence, that it was the disturbance to the natural order that made the young Isaiah tremble and flinch. Other members of his family, including a much-loved uncle and aunt, were quite active supporters of the SR (Socialist Revolutionary) movement. Neither then nor in retrospect did he register any allegiance of that sort. Ignatieff is surely right to say that the episode with the arrested policeman ‘continued to work within Berlin, strengthening his horror of physical violence and his suspicion of political experiment’. But it would have been more precise to say: only for certain sorts of physical violence and political experiment. Policemen are supposed to control crowds, not crowds policemen. Vietnam, for example, was not just an instance of horrific premeditated violence. It was a laboratory experiment run by technician-intellectuals and academic consultants, who furnished us with terms like ‘interdict’, ‘relocate’, ‘body count’ and ‘strategic hamlet’. To cope with the ensuing calamity, the Bundys and McNamaras later evolved the view that, while the war might have been a blunder, the error could, for reasons of state and for reasons of face, not be admitted. In this, too, they were seconded by Berlin. No doubt his reassuring ‘blimp’ line came in handy here, as well. It’s astonishing how often the men of power need, and appreciate, and also get, a hit of solid senior-common-room emollience.
The lifelong strength that Berlin drew from his 1917 baptism was, however, often applied in less obvious ways. I was fascinated to learn, from Ignatieff, that his Latvian family had a direct kinship with the Schneerson clan who ran, and still run, the fanatical sect known as Lubavitch or Chabad. (This family tree also includes Yehudi Menuhin, who might in other circumstances have become a mere fiddler on the roof.) So the charismatic loony rebbe from Brooklyn Heights, the late Menachem Schneerson – he who opposed blood transfusions because they compromised unique Jewish DNA – was Berlin’s cousin. Any mention of these Hasidic fanatics, according to Ignatieff, would cause Berlin’s face ‘to tighten into a rare and uncharacteristic expression of dislike’. That’s good, and good to know. (Leon Wieseltier, in his gushing goodbye to Berlin last year in the New Republic, could not have been more wrong than in depicting him as a medieval Jewish sage.) There are probably two additional and reinforcing reasons for Berlin’s disdain. One is that the Russian rabbinate had historically supported the anti-semitic Tsar against Bonaparte, viewing the French as bearers of secularism and enlightenment. The other is that he saw, in the attachment of many Jewish intellectuals to Marxism, a sort of displaced messianic impulse. This certainly aided his persistent misreading of Marx and of what he thought of as Marx’s teleology. But it also, by way of an internal mutation, made him distrust the zealotry of Zionism whether this was offered in political nationalist or black-coated Orthodox form, let alone in the nasty synthesis of the two that now defines the Israeli Right.
‘Synthesis’ was Berlin’s especial gift, while an educated wariness of any ‘tyranny of concept’ larger than the human was his essential admonition: indeed constitutes his chief bequest. Yet, in his work and in his life, syntheses were often eclectic agglomerations and his allegiances – transferred not so much to England as to the Anglo-American supranational ‘understanding’ – frequently bore the stamp of realpolitik and, well, calculation. He, did, however, understand this part of himself and I was surprised at how often Ignatieff made a puzzle where none exists:
He liked to say that his success – professorships, a knighthood, the Order of Merit – depended upon a systematic over-estimation of his abilities. ‘Long may this continue,’ he always said. Self-denigration came naturally, but it was also a pre-emptive strike against criticism. ‘I am an intellectual taxi; people flag me down and give me destinations and off I go’ was all he would ever offer, when pressed to say what his intellectual agenda had been.
Ignatieff, himself a Russo-Canadian exile or émigré, never seems quite able to make up his mind about whether this was a joke, and (if it was) whether it was one of those jokes that are revealing and confessional. His confusion is expressed in the choice of the term ‘self-denigration’. To deprecate self is one thing, while to denigrate self is masochistic. Without self-deprecation much English literary and academic conversation would become difficult to carry on. ‘Pre-emptive’ comes closer to the mark: you say this sort of thing about yourself before anyone else can. But that’s public, and a recognised ‘act’. In 1978, Berlin wrote a private letter to the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, wondering why he, a beloved only child, should still be visited with the feeling that his many attainments were ‘of very little or of no value’. This takes us some way beyond the pose of false modesty, but nowhere near as far as self-hatred.
I propose that Berlin was somewhat haunted, all of his life, by the need to please and conciliate others; a need which in some people is base but which also happened to engage his most attractive and ebullient talents. I further propose that he sometimes felt or saw the need to be courageous, but usually – oh dear – at just the same moment that he remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere. That this was imbricated with both his Jewish and his Russian identities seems probable. He may also have felt that luck played too large a part in his success – a rare but human concession to superstition.
The difficulty with Berlin’s views on political matters is that they are vulnerable to the charge not so much of contradiction as of tautology. (And perhaps of want of originality: Berlin’s favourite, Benjamin Constant, proposed a distinction between the ‘liberty of the ancients’ and the ‘liberty of the moderns’; T.H. Green spoke of liberty in the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, and the same antithesis is strongly present in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom – the title page of which quoted Lord Acton saying that ‘few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.’) The greatest hardship experienced by a person trying to apprehend Berlin’s presentation of ‘two concepts’ of liberty is in remembering which is supposed to be which. I know of no serviceable mnemonic here. When Berlin delivered his original lectures on the subject, at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1952, he divided ideas about liberty between the ‘liberal’ and the ‘romantic’. Positive and negative were the successor distinctions. To be let alone – the most desirable consummation in his own terms – is the negative. To be uplifted by others, or modernised or forcibly emancipated, is, somewhat counter-intuitively, the positive. Yet it is readily agreed, even asserted, that laissez-faire can lead to the most awful invasions and depredations of the private sphere, while an interventionist project like the New Deal can be a welcome aid to individual freedom. In a long interview, originally published in Italy, which has just appeared in full in the excellent Salmagundi, Berlin says that he likes the ‘positive’ examples of Lloyd George and Franklin Roosevelt, not least because they insulated their respective societies from socialism tout court. One assumes that, with his sense of history, he means the Lloyd George who was the patron of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, and the guarded admirer of Hitler, just as much as he means the Lloyd George who was the father of Welsh Disestablishment. And one must suppose that he comprehends FDR the originator of the war economy, and FDR the prime mover of American acquisition of European empires, in the avuncular figure who proposed the Tennessee Valley Authority. At any rate, keen endorsement of either statesman is a distinctly bizarre way of registering any kind of objection to social engineering. Thus, there are contradictions in his view, but they languish from being untreated by their author. At least Lloyd George and Roosevelt, when they ordered up slaughters and conquests, or when they used authoritarian tactics, did not do so in obedience to any fancy theory. Once again, I think we may see the ghostly figure of that mobbed policeman – much more unsettling than a policed mob.
As it happens, Rosa Luxemburg in her great disagreement with Lenin said roundly that there was a real peril of practice hardening into theory, and vice versa. And, if you care, I agree with her. Dogma in power does have a unique chilling ingredient not exhibited by power, however ghastly, wielded for its own traditional sake. But the ‘two concepts’ don’t bridge the gap between the divine right of kings, overthrown by the Enlightenment, and the age of ideology. It’s especially unhelpful, in this regard, that Berlin should have assumed that all Marxists were mechanists and determinists, and that there could be no quarrel in principle among them. (I don’t recall him being so harsh on the fatuous and also tautological slogan about the ‘Inevitability of Gradualness’ with which the Fabians advanced their own version of a managed and graded society. But then, the Fabians were quintessentially English, and their quiet authoritarianism was not threatening to power so much as envious of, and ancillary to, its customary exercise in these islands.)
In 1971, in an episode not explored by Ignatieff, Anthony Arblaster published a review of Four Essays on Liberty in the journal Political Studies. ‘Vision and Revision: A Note on the Text of Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty’ was in some ways a minor-key achievement; it took the form of a meticulous study of the alterations made between the different editions of Berlin’s best-known work. But it resulted in a major-chord huff, with Berlin making no effort to be urbane about his annoyance. It is easy to see what gave rise to his irritation. Arblaster instanced the following textual emendation:
From Zeno to Spinoza, from the Gnostics to Leibniz, from Thomas Hobbes to Lenin and Freud, the battle-cry has been essentially the same; the object of knowledge and the methods of discovery have often been violently opposed, but that reality is knowable, and that knowledge and only knowledge liberates, and absolute knowledge liberates absolutely – that is common to many doctrines which are so large and valuable a part of Western civilisation.
The earlier printed version had begun the list ‘From Plato to Lucretius’, had stuck with the Gnostics and Leibniz, but had had Thomas Aquinas instead of Thomas Hobbes, almost, as Arblaster woundingly put it, ‘as if it had to be Thomas somebody’. He went on, detailing other reworkings of the same passage, ‘Reality was ‘wholly knowable’, not just ‘knowable’, and this alteration, while typical of the general toning down, almost destroys the point of the sentence, for what is distinctive, let alone sinister, about the belief that reality is knowable?’ Rather than taking Berlin up on the slothful prose that had led him to use clichés like ‘battle-cry’, and to recycle the most worn and familiar Actonian trope, Arblaster inquired, mildly for him: ‘Where in the works of Hobbes is there anything which suggests that he believed that knowledge and only knowledge liberates, and absolute knowledge liberates absolutely?’ It was Whitman, I think – I really must check this when I get the time – who said:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)
Berlin, it seems, had a huge capacity for internal multitudes and for torrents of reference but, whoever he lit on or deployed, they turned out happily to confirm, in the first place one another and in the second place whatever he was going to say anyway. Have you ever read an article on Berlin which did not mention his extraordinary facility with cross-fertilised ‘thinkers’ – the conjuring names usually beginning with H rather than T? A biographer might have examined his subject more closely on the question: did an English society, and indeed academy, deeply wedded to compromise and to consensus, overvalue a polyglot chap who could mention a lot of Continental theorists and still come out with sound and no-nonsense views? I can’t call to mind anybody in the native empiricist tradition who ever challenged Berlin on his high-wire juggling, or on his role as official greeter, waving the new arrivals through a normally rather suspicious customs. Ernest Gellner, however, always said he was a fraud. Berlin returned the lack of cordiality, perhaps feeling that it was uncomfortable having too many Central European polymaths about the place. (His distaste for George Steiner took something of the same form.) Incidentally, Perry Anderson’s general matrix of the ‘White’ intellectual emigration, which suggested that the radical exiles went to America while the conservative ones – with Gellner exempted – settled in England, understates the manner in which Berlin’s Washington period was the making of him.
Berlin’s promiscuous capaciousness also shows itself in his rather shifty attitude to Mill. In ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’, one of his essays on liberty, he could not lay enough stress on Mill’s opposition to ‘some kind of hegemony of right-minded intellectuals’. Again, it’s not as if Mill’s defenders continually and stupidly insist on this one point. Nor, on the other hand, is it the case that there is no evidence for his intellectual ‘élitism’. Berlin merely fails to cite any of it. And Mill possessed, in common with Marx and in bold contrast to Berlin, a consciousness of class. He clearly thought that the ends, of female suffrage, freedom for the Jamaicans, and other such utopian objectives, might require somewhat more discipline than could be summoned by mere appeals to reason or good will. It’s quite possible to imagine him regarding the positive/negative duet as a distinction somewhat lacking in a difference. In the Salmagundi interview Berlin was asked his opinion about Mill:
I took Mill almost for granted.
But you wrote about him and gave a rather existentialist reading of him.
Well, I didn’t think he was the utilitarian he thought he was. I didn’t enjoy Mill. Save for the essay on Liberty. I didn’t read Bentham properly. I read – who were the important names? – Carlyle, Emerson; who else was there in England?
I was not deeply impressed by him, nor by Hobhouse, admirable as they are. You see, it’s the enemy who interests me; brilliant opponents who so to speak put their swords, their rapiers into one and find the weak spot.
Do you think that description applies to Marx?
Yes, up to a point it does. The point is that his particular criticism of the liberals he wrote about did not seem to me to be particularly effective. His positive ideas were of great importance but the idea that liberty is a bourgeois concept and all that sort of thing, or that it was a capitalist concept – no. But I did read Lassalle and I was impressed by his concept of profit and marginal utility. I want to retract what I said about J.S. Mill. I admire him immensely. He is a major, great, positive British thinker.
Whew! Not a moment too soon. Hobhouse and Green admirable in their way, even Marx quite impressive apart from some things he never said, and Mill not merely plucked from the burning, but hurriedly garlanded with the multiple encomia of being major, British and positive. Or should it be negative? The question is not merely sarcastic. Berlin supplied many admonitions that were strictly in the negative, most of them warning liberals against the hazard and fallacy of monism. But who can remember anything he suggested about what liberalism, or liberals, might actually accomplish? Rawls, Dworkin and Galbraith have all laid out avenues of potential meliorism. Berlin’s design omits these spacious features.
The Oxford debating tradition does possess one great strength, drawn indirectly from the Symposium. You are supposed to be able to give an honest account of an opposing or different worldview, and even as an exercise to be able to present it as if you believed it yourself. It is a striking fact about Isaiah Berlin that, in his first and most serious and only full-length book, he is unable to meet this condition, even in the exegetical sense. The essay ‘Isaiah’s Marx, and Mine’, written by his pupil, and successor in the Chichele Professorship, Gerry Cohen, is full of love and admiration for the man. But it cannot acquit Berlin of the charge of elementary misrepresentation, or at best misunderstanding. The fact that all the mistakes and omissions (alienation did not feature in the first edition, and is sketchily discussed in the second) are hostile is unlikely to be accidental. Berlin himself told Salmagundi:
In 1933 Mr [H.A.L.] Fisher, the Warden of New College, asked me to write a book on Karl Marx for the Home University Library. I said: ‘What is the audience for the book?’ He said: ‘Squash professionals.’ I had never read a line of Marx ...
One sees the famous charm at work. But not even a line, by 1933, even after St Petersburg? Anyway, it shows. And it’s of interest that Berlin repeatedly describes his subject, admiringly for once, as a synthesiser. ‘A thinker of genius. I don’t deny that. But it was the synthesis that was important. He never acknowledged a single debt.’
Coming from the fabled synthesiser who acknowledged all debts and none, and could change his indebtedness from Hobbes to Aquinas at the drop of a hat, this is of interest also. Without checking, I can think of Marx’s open indebtedness to Hegel, to Adam Smith, to the ‘Blue Books’ of the Victorian factory inspectorate, to Balzac and to Charles Darwin. In other words, Berlin was being vulgar when it must decently be presumed that he knew better. Of his other subjects, not even Joseph de Maistre receives such offhand treatment.
Oddest of all, Berlin presents Marx and other ‘utopians’ as apostles or prophets of ultimate harmony, while offering his agreeable and consensual self as the realistic man who recognises the inevitability of conflict and contradiction. It is only the radicals who allegedly believe in the following prospectus:
A society lives in a state of pure harmony, in which all its members live in peace, love one another, are free from physical danger, from want of any kind, from insecurity, from degrading work, from envy, from frustration, experience no injustice or violence, live in perpetual, even light, in a temperate climate, in the midst of infinitely fruitful, generous nature.
It is not possible to cite any authority for this florid caricature. Nobody, except the Christian Church (by law established in his adored and adopted England), has ever proposed such an idiotic stasis as desirable, let alone attainable. But Berlin’s facility for citation again chooses this moment to desert him. In the presentation of himself as the guardian of complexity and of unintended consequence, and of the inescapable clash of interests and desires, there may even be some element of displacement or transference. It was the despised Hegel who told us that tragedy consisted of a conflict of rights. It was Berlin, whenever faced with a conflict of rights, who sought to emulsify it. In other words, his emphasis on complexity had a strong element of ... simplification.
I said earlier that Berlin was lucky. He did not actually consider himself fortunate, when posted as a diplomat to wartime Moscow on Guy Burgess’s initiative, to find himself stranded and unwanted in New York instead. But, when told to make the best of his American contacts, he found himself in the perfect milieu. Ignatieff’s passages on this period are excellent. Berlin’s networking skills and, it’s not unfair to say, his ability to be all things to all men, were ideally suited to address an American pluralism which exhibited multiple ambiguities about the war, and about the British. Once transferred to Washington, he could rotate – we would now say ‘spin’ – between tough but stupid isolationists, between the old guard at the British Embassy and the new Churchillian bosses in London, between the Anglophile hostesses of Georgetown and the anti-Nazi émigrés from Central Europe. In what must have been at the time a dizzying subplot, he also involved himself intimately in the quarrel between Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion over the project of a Jewish National Home, and in the attempts by both to play off the British against the Americans. And, though he showed himself able to take risks in leaking classified material that favoured the Zionist cause, he also found himself acutely sensitive to any suspicion, even on his own part, of a dual loyalty. (In a memo to Churchill on some Berlin cables from Washington that were thought to be too clever by more than half, Anthony Eden minuted his view that there was too much of the ‘Oriental’ about this subordinate.) The resolution of this internal conflict took the form of backing Weizmann’s moderation against Ben-Gurion’s pugnacity, and also of repressing or postponing too much thought about the Final Solution. There was a small battle to be won in Palestine, and a larger one to be won in Europe, and the first had to wait, morally and tactically, upon the latter. There was much to be brilliantly sublimated meanwhile.
This talent for compromise, and also for diplomatic and drawing-room manoeuvre, was to equip Berlin superbly for his later career in academic and intellectual politics. His slogan might well have been ‘surtout, pas de zèle’, but muttered rather zealously. He had an instinct for multiplicity, and a liking for intrigue, but a need for conciliation. No wonder he was to write so contemptuously of those who saw a problem-free society, while so freely depicting himself as a proponent of hard choices. A foot in both camps of the Atlantic alliance, furthermore, was the ideal postwar ‘positioning’ for a cosmopolitan, who had been a fluent and persuasive Greek at the initial moment of the new Rome. In the Cold War years, indeed, Berlin often found himself quite close to the throne. There are several accounts of an evening of electrifying embarrassment, when he was questioned about Russia in a close but philistine way by the young President Kennedy. Ignatieff puts the most lenient construction on these engagements with power. Describing an exchange between Berlin and the old mandarin George Kennan, he writes that ‘it was a fixed principle of his that so-called élites – intellectual or otherwise – had no business presuming that they knew better than the man or woman in the street.’ A recently unearthed interview between Berlin and Arthur Schlesinger shows that he omitted to clarify this fixed principle to the intellectuals of Camelot. When asked by Philip Toynbee and others to take a position on nuclear disarmament, as Ignatieff describes it,
Berlin replied – with rather uncharacteristic bravado – that liberal principles were of little meaning unless one was prepared to risk one’s very survival in their defence:
‘Unless there is some point at which you are prepared to fight against whatever odds, and whatever the threat may be, not merely to yourself, but to anybody, all principles become flexible, all codes melt, and all ends in themselves for which we live disappear.’
This is bluster, not bravado. With its loud talk of ‘survival’, also, it is casuistry of a low order. The whole case against nuclear weapons is that they threaten to melt everything and make everything disappear, and thus that their use in geopolitical contests is or would be unpardonable. There was always another essential element to the critique: namely, that ‘nuclearism’ creates an unaccountable and secret priesthood or élite which doesn’t just think it ‘knows better’ than the man and woman in the street, but is prepared to annihilate all of them, including all non-combatants in all other countries and indeed all people who have been born or might be born. The positive-negative poles, as you might say, are highly charged here. Rather feebly, Ignatieff attributes this vaporous reply to Berlin’s hatred of the Soviet system. A non-sequitur. Apart from anything else, it was Andrei Sakharov who educated millions of people to see the obviousness of the points I’ve just made.
(Incidentally, and on a point that often gives rise to gossip, Ignatieff asserts that Berlin was as shocked as anybody by the surreptitious CIA funding of Encounter, to which he often contributed, and farther asserts that ‘he certainly had no official or unofficial relationship with either British intelligence or the CIA.’ He doesn’t give an authority for this flat (and unprovoked) denial, but if we presume that its source was Berlin himself, the following inductive exercise might be permitted. It is improbable in the highest degree that Berlin was never even approached by either Smiley’s people or The Cousins. So, if he turned them down, would that not have made a fine anecdote for his biographer? The Encounter disavowal, if taken literally, would mean that Berlin was abnormally incurious, or duller than we have been led to suppose, or had wasted his time in Washington. If you look up Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, though, you will find a record of some affable chinwags with Berlin, tending to confirm Auden and MacNeice’s award, in Letters from Iceland, of a ‘dish of milk’ to the feline Isaiah. And some other living cloak-and-gown experts can tell a tale or two. Ignatieff’s own respectful credulity on this minor point is a microcosm of the shortcomings of his approach.)
In every instance given by Ignatieff, or known to me, from the Cold War through Algeria to Suez to Vietnam, Berlin strove to find a high ‘liberal’ justification either for the status quo or for the immediate needs of the conservative authorities. (I’m reserving the Israel-Palestine question for the moment.) There is a definite correlation between these positions and his scholarly praise for what he disarmingly termed the ‘banal’: his general view that the main enemy was activism. At a State Department reception I once met a gloomy Argentine banker, a certain Señor della Porta, who discoursed about his country’s greatest failure. With a good climate and much natural wealth, Argentina had failed to evolve a liberal and stable party of the middle class. ‘One day, however,’ he said, ‘we will indeed succeed in having such a party and such a leadership. And our slogan will be’ – here he brightened up a bit – ‘ “Moderation or Death!” ’
A lapidary phrase from Immanuel Kant – ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’ – served Berlin almost as a mantra. It appeared once in Russian Thinkers, twice in Against the Current, three times in Four Essays on Liberty and even more frequently in a 1990 volume entitled The Crooked Timber of Humanity. It features three times in lgnatieff’s biography, in circumstances that are severally illuminating.
In November 1933, writing to Elizabeth Bowen, he advanced in capsule form his two chief propositions or preoccupations: I quote Ignatieff’s summary:
The philosopher Malebranche had observed that since the moral ends which human beings commonly pursued were in conflict with each other, the very idea of creating a perfect society was incoherent. This seminal idea had also cropped up elsewhere. Hadn’t Kant said, he wrote to Bowen, that ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’? These were the chance encounters with ideas – not the fevered discussions with Ayer and Austin – that generated his later thought.
In 1950, Arthur Koestler gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he said that every diaspora Jew had a choice, but that it was only one choice, and a hard one at that. One could either assimilate fully into the non-Jewish world, and abandon Jewishness altogether. Or one could emigrate to Israel and there lead a fully Jewish life. In between, there was no room. Berlin wrote a reply to this, entitled ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’. He described Koestler’s counterposing of the issue as coercive. Surely, if there was a point to Israel, it was that it increased freedom of decision for Jews. ‘There are too many individuals in the world who do not choose to see life in the form of radical choices between one course and another and whom we do not condemn for this reason. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said a great philosopher, “no straight thing was ever made.” ’
In 1969, he came upon a piece of moral idiocy from Herbert Marcuse – or at any rate a piece of moral idiocy from Marcuse quoted in Encounter – and went into a towering rage, writing that people like Marcuse and indeed Hannah Arendt were products of:
the terrible twisted Mitteleuropa in which nothing is straight, simple, truthful, all human relations and all political attitudes are twisted into ghastly shapes by these awful casualties who, because they are crippled, recognise nothing pure and firm in the world!
It may be relevant that Berlin detested the assimilated German Jews, like Hannah Arendt, while pressing his hardest for assimilation in England. It may also be relevant that he always refused to reprint ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’, partly because his All Souls colleague Keith Joseph had been upset by an anti-assimilationist joke it contained. (Steinmetz the hunchback and Kahn the ‘accepted’ converso are walking past the synagogue on Fifth Avenue. Kahn says, ‘I used to attend services there,’ and Steinmetz retorts: ‘And I used to be a hunchback.’ Every Jew, said Berlin, has his or her own hump: some deny it, some flaunt it and some – ‘timid and respectful cripples’ – wear voluminous cloaks.)
In 1933, the date of the first known reference, Berlin was only 24, but he had obviously found and seized on his essential dictum. It is of course a thoughtful and provocative one, and full of implication. By the November of that particular year, however, it must have occurred to many people that politics and policy could indeed succeed in making humans more crooked, not to say more twisted. And, this being true, is it worth considering whether the converse might ever apply?
In the second extract, Berlin is making a perfectly intelligible attack on the Procrustean faction and the either/or tendency, as he would have been bound to do on general principles but as he felt additionally moved to do when faced with Jewish absolutism. The Kantian allusion is near-superfluous, however. Koestler is not trying to make people grow straight at all. He is telling them that they must warp in one pronounced and final manner, from their current pattern of growth, or in another manner that is no less strenuous.
In the third case Berlin is suddenly willing to grant that there is purity and firmness to be attained, though not by people who are twisted and misshapen partly by environment. The specific location of this in Mitteleuropa is odd.
I shall not be able to improve on Perry Anderson’s review of The Crooked Timber of Humanity, which appeared in these pages eight years ago, except perhaps to broaden his point with help from these later gleanings. Briefly, in his ‘Idea for a Universal History in a Cosmopolitan Perspective’ – one sees how the very title might have magnetised Berlin’s omnivorous attention – Kant stated that humanity was indeed capable of overcoming its tribal and backward heritage, and of realising a latent common interest. However, the need for leadership in this great task is a problem in itself, because the innate brutishness that ‘we’ need to overcome is also manifestly present in each one of us, and therefore poses a practically insuperable contradiction. ‘Das hochste Oberhaupt soll aber gerecht für sich selbst und doch ein Mensch sein’ – ‘The highest magistrate should be just in himself and yet be a man.’ (I note, at the risk of attracting a raised eyebrow from Anderson, that the concept of an individual, no less than a class, needing to be für sich rather than an sich, seems in this rendering to invert Marx’s later usage.) There is but one way to assuage this need for a double positive that must still be derived from a double negative. As Kant phrases it, in Anderson’s translation:
Only in such an enclosure as civil unification offers can our inclinations achieve their best effects; as trees in a wood which seek to deprive each other of air and sunlight are forced to strive upwards and so achieve a beautiful straight growth; while those that spread their branches at will in isolated freedom grow stunted, tilted and crooked.
There may be a slightly dank and collectivist timbre to the above, and the German forests may not have been greenhouses either of generous solidarity or of robust free thought, but that irony would seem to count at Berlin’s expense. Kant is explicitly saying the opposite to what he supposes. At different points, indeed, in the Four Essays on Liberty Berlin returned the ‘compliment’ by describing Kant both as an advocate of ‘severe individualism’ and of ‘pure totalitarian doctrine’. Then again, having found the rationalism of the Enlightenment to be forbidding and authoritarian, he invested his hopes in a Romantic movement that could hardly claim to be immune from visionary and unsettling temptations. But the wonder, even in a career as intellectually eclectic as Berlin’s, is that he should have cut so many crutches (and so many cudgels) from such a frail – not to say, distorted – trunk as this.
Anderson amusingly, and I trust intentionally, describes the repetitive woodcutter and carpenter image that Berlin took from Kant as ‘a saw’. It is an old saw of the English Tories, and their empiricist and pragmatist allies, that ‘you can’t change human nature.’ Rightly or wrongly, it was confirmation of this stout and hearty assertion that they took from the anti-prophet Isaiah. The ur-Tory, Samuel Johnson, phrased it most prettily in the lines he added to Goldsmith’s poem, The Traveller:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
Still to ourselves in every place consigned
Our own felicity we make or find.
(Of course, if the human timber can only grow crooked, then there’s no need for the exertion of the conservative interest to maintain the situation.)
A word that rises naturally to the mind, in considering the foregoing, is ‘insecurity’. Despite his great and confident presence on the podium – which we know always put him into an anticipatory state of nerves until the end of his days – and despite his legendary performances in the salon and at table, Berlin was uncertain of his welcome, unsure of himself and, possibly, uneasy about the uncritical admiration he received from some acolytes. Ignatieff makes it abundantly plain that Jewishness lay at the bottom of this unease. Using much new material this time, he also demonstrates that Berlin suffered much private anxiety over Zionism. Though he felt that his adopted England was uniquely tolerant of the Jewish presence, he never allowed himself quite to relax. And, though he thought that a Jewish national home in Palestine was a necessary and even a good thing, he was acutely aware that it was as much a project of the positive – the interventionist – as of the negative, or the right to be let alone.
Two instances illustrate this to perfection, and both involve his friend and ally Lewis Namier. In the Salmagundi interview, Berlin said of the problem of assimilation:
Sir Lewis Namier explained this extremely clearly. He said that Eastern European Judaism was a frozen mass until the rays of the Western Enlightenment began to beat on it. Then some of it remained frozen, some evaporated – that meant assimilation and drifting – and some melted into powerful streams: one was socialism and the other Zionism. That’s exactly right.
Score one for the poor old Enlightenment, at least: it emancipated Jews not just from legally imposed disabilities but from the control of their own stasis-oriented clerical authorities. (It wasn’t the anti-semites or Christians, after all, who persecuted Spinoza.) Then there is the single story which Berlin was most fond of relating. In the Thirties, a number of supposedly suave Germans were sent over to England to work on élite opinion. There was one academic setting in which they were always sure of a hearing. In the Ignatieff version of this much-repeated anecdote:
He remembered one particularly clumsy member of the German aristocracy who, in the common room of All Souls, happened to say that he thought German territorial demands in Europe were as reasonable as British imperial claims overseas. This remark, delivered into the stillness of the common room, was suddenly interrupted by a guttural growl from a man whom Isaiah had never seen before, seated in one of the window recesses. ‘Wir Juden und die andere Farbigen denken anders,’ (‘We Jews and the other coloured peoples think otherwise’) the stranger growled, and stalked out. This was Isaiah’s first encounter with the Polish-born historian and devoted Zionist, Lewis Namier.
One sees at once the utility as well as the beauty of such a piece of raconteurship. It puts the British, the Jews and the ‘coloured peoples’ all on one side, in a pleasingly multinational manner. It leaves the fish-faced outsider gasping for air. It is an instance of a good return of serve, delivered across a celebrated common room. And it shows how even Galicians can become, if you like, Englishmen. It’s the echt Berlin tale; arousing the same warm emotions as Chariots of Fire while illustrating grand matters.
This is of course the same Namier who not only became plus anglais que les anglais – no shame in that, one naturally hopes – but who wrote that ‘the future of the white race lies with Empires, that is, those nations which hold vast expanses of land outside Europe.’ If he ever advocated Zionism as a movement for the emancipation of coloured peoples, I think I would have read of it.
An ambivalence on this score is palpable in Berlin’s own attitudes to Palestine, and to the British Empire of which it was for a long time a province. Benjamin Disraeli, proposed by Berlin in a famous essay as the Jew who overcame outsiderdom by identifying with the British upper class (a far more agreeable choice than Marx’s rancorous allegiances in the opposite direction), was a stern racial nationalist as well as a mustard-keen promoter of imperialism. And Arthur Balfour, author of a famous Declaration on the subject of Palestine, had been the British politician most opposed to Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. (Berlin never alludes to this as far as I know, but he must have been aware of it.) Furthermore, whether or not the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was to be mainly dependent on British imperial goodwill, what were its founding principles to be? To his credit, Berlin never lied about Palestine being ‘a land without a people’. But, if Jews were to demand, in that same land, not the equal rights that they demanded in America or Europe, but special and transcendent proprietorial rights, how could this claim be founded? It could only be founded on (a) the claims of revealed and prophetic religion or (b) the claims of an unbreakable tie of blood, and of that blood to that soil. Yet what could be less agreeable, to Berlin, than language or argument that originated from those ancient and superstitious sources?
An immediate answer to this conundrum of atavism was supplied, for Berlin and for many others, by the homicidal atavism of Christian and conservative Europe, which became infected with the madness of Fascism and thus made Palestine a question of safety for Jews. Yet Berlin, again to his credit, did not allow this consideration to silence all of his misgivings. Visiting Mandate Palestine in 1932, he found the perfect English assimilationist metaphor to describe the conflict of rights. The place was an English public school, with the British High Commissioner as headmaster, and two ‘houses’. Most of the masters preferred the Arab house, whose boys were ‘gay, affectionate, high-spirited and tough, occasionally liable to break out and have a rag and break the skulls of a few Jews or an Englishman perhaps’, while the Jewish house was full of clever rich boys, ‘allowed too much pocket-money by their parents, rude, conceited, ugly, ostentatious, suspected of swapping stamps unfairly with the other boys, always saying they know better, liable to work too hard and not to play games with the rest’. Golly. In one way, this illustrates a talent for stereotype. In another, it shows his gift for imagining the workings of other, opposed minds. Leaving Palestine by sea:
He met a handsome, poetic young man named Abraham Stern, travelling to Italy to take up a scholarship in classics at the University of Florence, offered by Mussolini’s government. When they got talking, Isaiah asked him what Stern thought of the recent British move to create a legislative council in Palestine. We shall fight that, Stern said. Why? Because it would give the Arabs representation in proportion to their demographic superiority. But, Isaiah countered, the council was merely advisory. It does not matter, Stern replied. We shall fight and fight, and if blood has to be shed ...
Stern, and his distinctly less aesthetic deputy Yitzhak Shamir, went on to offer military and political collaboration to Hitler in the battle to expel the British and to make a manly, even skull-breaking nation out of the Jews. And Berlin, normally so eager to please, was later to refuse to shake Menachem Begin’s hand when he met him in the lift of the King David Hotel. For as long as seemed feasible, he took the part of those Jews who favoured a bi-national state. It could be argued that he adopted this ‘moderate’ line to try and defuse any quarrel between his new English home and a putative Jewish national one, but – though such a conflict was indeed an agony to him, especially during the war years in Washington – it would be paltry to reduce his dilemma to this proportion. He clearly saw it in the light of an issue of conscience, and also of a serious challenge to his own ‘philosophy’, personal and political.
I was, however, quite surprised to read lgnatieff’s disclosures under this heading. In public, Berlin always seemed to take the same ‘damage control’ positions on the issue as he adopted on so many others. For example, in Personal Impressions he says of Chaim Weizmann that he ‘committed none of those enormities for which men of action, and later their biographers, claim justification on the ground of what is called raison d’état’. Well, that’s true only if you compare Weizmann to the usual suspects of this and other centuries. By the standard of mild and tolerant Jewish idealists, though, he justified a fair bit of ethnic cleansing on precisely that ground. (In 1944, he complained to FDR that ‘we could not rest our case on the consent of the Arabs.’ That consent was specified in the Balfour Declaration.) I know that Berlin once complained earnestly to the editor of the TLS about a fairly neutral review of a collection on Palestine edited by Edward Said and myself. I remember the huge row he forced, at the offices of Index on Censorship of all places, concerning an essay by Noam Chomsky which happened to mention in passing that Israel, under Weizmann’s Presidency, was only admitted to the UN on condition that Palestinian refugees would either be compensated or permitted to reclaim their homes. And there were many comparable instances. He even once told Susan Sontag that he had caught himself thinking of Israel as the old fellow-travellers thought of the Soviet Union. (In the context, or any context, a more than startling admission.) He kept his admonitions, and his reservations, extremely private until the very last possible moment when, on the verge of death, he dictated a statement critical of Netanyahu and in favour of a utilitarian two-state partition. The letter, I was recently told by its Israeli recipient Avishai Margalit, contained, as he drily put it, ‘nothing to write home about’. Coming well after the Oslo Agreement, and stressing Muslim holy places in Jerusalem rather than the actual Arab inhabitants of many denominations, it was little more than a coda to the loveless Arafat-Netanyahu embrace. But Margalit told me also that, before releasing it to the press, he decided to solicit Berlin’s express permission. The request arrived as the old man was being taken to hospital in his last crisis. So his signal to go ahead and publish was his very last act on earth. Gerry Cohen tells me that at about the same time, Berlin was trying to evolve a petition calling on the British Government to institute a major ‘New Deal’ programme of public works, in order to eradicate unemployment. Neither appeal was very muscular or particularly bold. However, the making or signing of public appeals had never been his practice. (A friend speculates that he avoided signing letters to the Times because his name began with B.) So at the very end, Berlin seemed to believe that he had an unredeemed debt to the friends on the left whom he had so often disappointed.
There’s another instance of that same impulse, in a story told on tape to Ignatieff. Berlin claims that in 1968, while lecturing at Columbia during the campus rebellion:
He gave a lecture so close to the police lines that his friends told him to wet a handkerchief to place over his mouth and eyes in case teargas canisters were fired in his vicinity. His Marxist graduate students Bert Ollmann and Marshall Berman attended the lecture, ready to defend him against hecklers and if necessary against physical attack. It was not an auspicious time to be a liberal philosopher.
Well, I know Bertell Ollmann and Marshall Berman, both of them members of that strange and interesting sub-set, Berlin’s Marxisant diaspora, and I’ve asked them about this episode. They both love ‘Isaiah’, and they would both gladly have done that for him, and more. But they say they can’t recall the event, and Ignatieff has certainly not checked it with them, and my own view is that – vertiginous though the times undoubtedly were – they are unlikely to have forgotten it. Had Berlin been menaced with martyrdom in the manner that he fondly invents, and Ignatieff fondly sets down, it would not, really, have been for his liberalism. (I don’t know how to break it to the comrades about the Bundys.) One begins to see how myths are made.
Avishai Margalit was giving a lecture when I met him, at a New York conference on ‘Post-Zionism’ organised for the centennial of Herzl’s romantic Viennese project. He spoke with great brio about the startling proposition that European Jews – the luftmensch – could only be made healthy and whole by becoming farmers and peasants in the Levant. This, he said, both detached the Jews from their historic occupations and made it inevitable (because the land to be tilled had to come from somewhere, or rather from somebody) that there would be a confrontation with dispossessed Arabs. ‘If this is not the original sin,’ he remarked, ‘it is certainly the immaculate misconception.’ I close my eyes and think of Berlin’s character and upbringing and preferences. To take educated and musical Latvian Jews and put hoes in their hands? Never mind the dire fate of the indigenous Palestinians, as Berlin’s friend J.L. Talmon always painstakingly emphasised that he didn’t. Does this not mean that the shtetl and the ghetto, and sooner or later the magical rabbi, will be back? And isn’t there a class question involved?
Many people’s attitude to Zionism is conditioned by their exposure to anti-semitism and here, too, Berlin registered certain insecurities and uncertainties. He maintained two positions about Britain: first that it was the most ‘tolerant’ country in which to be a Jew and, second, that you never knew when you might not get an old-fashioned reminder of your outsider status. In 1950, he was refused membership by the St James’s Club, even though ‘put up’ by Oliver Lyttelton, and had to settle for Brooks’s. The St James’s committee was blunt enough to leave Berlin in no doubt as to the reasons for his rejection. The following year, he became involved in a difficult correspondence with T.S. Eliot, to whose prose work he alluded in the same article on ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’ that had served as a rejoinder to Koestler. Eliot protested in a letter that, for him at least, ‘the Jewish problem is not a racial problem at all, but a religious problem.’ In that case, returned Berlin, why did his notorious lecture, ‘After Strange Gods’, delivered at the University of Virginia in the year after Hitler’s accession to power, insist that ‘reasons of race and religion make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’? Other considerations apart, how did this observe a distinction between race and religion?
Eliot’s reply mumbled some words of contrition for the odious sentence, asserted that Judaism had been made redundant by the marvellous advent of the foretold Christ, and warned that assimilated secularisation would be death to both Christians and Jews. To this sectarian arrogance Berlin did not respond, at least not in public. (He wrote to Eliot in 1952, effusively complimenting him on ‘your most effective and fascinating letters about the Jews’.) I said earlier that Berlin suppressed republication of ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’, which in English at any rate he did. But in the essay’s one Israeli republication, he removed all the offending references to Eliot. ‘Much later in life,’ Ignatieff observes rather briefly, ‘he felt that his politeness had shaded into obsequiousness.’ I admire the choice of ‘shaded’.
Anglomane that he was, Berlin may have unconsciously felt that Eliot was a native squire. He certainly did not suffer from Jewish self-loathing. (That is, if one exempts the strictly physical dislike which, Ignatieff reveals, he felt for his soft and, as he thought, sexless and effeminate appearance.) It is more that he wished to be English than that he yearned to be other than what he was. In the essay contrasting Disraeli and Marx, where every allowance is granted to Disraeli and nary a one to the old incendiary, and where incidentally Berlin refers unaffectedly to ‘the colonisation of Palestine’, there appear the following lines, in praise of the ‘Jew d’esprit’ who stole the Suez Canal and proclaimed the Empress of India:
He wanted recognition by those on the inside, as one of them, at least as an equal if not as a superior. Hence the psychological need to establish an identity for himself, for which he would secure recognition, an identity that would enable him to develop his gifts freely, to their utmost extent. And in due course he did create a personality for himself, at least in his own imagination. He saw before him a society of aristocrats, free, arrogant and powerful, which, however sharply he may have seen through it, he nevertheless viewed with bemused eyes as a rich and marvellous world.
The only inept word there is ‘bemused’, which applies neither to the brilliant and amoral Tory statesman nor to the man who wrote of him with such vicarious, almost voluptuous admiration.
A crucial element of good form, in the case of those fortunate enough to have become ‘securely recognised’, is the ability to be light-hearted and lenient about some controversies over Jewishness, while reserving the right to be heavy-handed, even juridical, in others. (In case I’m being too elliptical, I mean to say how to avoid being thought of as ‘chippy’, while knowing when to call in your chips.) Berlin made himself master of the nuances of this code. I know of a pointed example. In 1960, Professor Norman Birnbaum, then at Oxford and a friend of Berlin’s, wrote an article for Commentary about the English scene. In it – I possess the original typescript – he proposed to make the following observation for his readers in New York:
It is a philosophical feat of no small order to celebrate, simultaneously, the essential Britishness of British politics and to derive from it prescriptions applicable to all of mankind’s ideological ills. Not surprisingly, this feat has been accomplished by a very cosmopolitan group of philosophers long resident in the British Isles. The writings of Professor Isaiah Berlin, Michael Polanyi and Karl Popper are adduced wherever British self-congratulation seeks intellectually reputable credentials. Foreign voices have also been heard. Professor Jacob Talmon’s writings have been praised by the Times itself, and Professor Raymond Aron has been honoured as if he were a jazz-age Montesquieu, looking admiringly across the Channel from Paris.
One pauses to note that Commentary was once a critical magazine. Anyway, Birnbaum sent the essay up to Headington House, in draft form, in a friendly manner, as one does. I also possess the excitedly annotated original reply:
If you publish your piece as it stands I shall certainly find myself compelled to write to Commentary to point out the following things ... You speak of us all as ‘cosmopolitans’ who have lived for various periods in England. The latter words are perfectly true. You do not add the adjective ‘rootless’; but since all the persons mentioned by you are Jews, the expression too strongly reminds one of the fact that this is how it is used by the professional anti-semites in the Soviet Union – and indeed everywhere else. This I shall certainly have to point out to Commentary, which is the very journal for such points. It would be better if instead of saying ‘cosmopolitans’ you openly said ‘Jews of foreign origin’. Other Jews, ‘ideologues’ of equally foreign origin from Marx onwards: Namier, Laski, Deutscher, Shonfeld [sic], Hobsbawm – I need not go over the list – oppose ‘us’ and dominate the discussion and influence gentiles. It may be a sound point, but it is certainly anti-semitic; and as Commentary enjoys lacerating itself, it will surely not decline to print my letter.
Where to begin? With the idea of a point being simultaneously ‘sound’ and anti-semitic? With the objection to the word ‘cosmopolitan’ from the fan of Disraeli? Or with the bracketing of Namier and Deutscher? (Those lists of names, again.) The article, which must have made Norman Birnbaum wish that he had expended more fire on Michael Oakeshott, later appeared in a version only slightly toned down. Mark the sequel.
In the Seventies, when Hugh Trevor-Roper put up his frightful Christ Church friend Zulfikar ali-Bhutto for an honorary degree, there was a row. Richard Gombrich and Steven Lukes led a petition to deny Oxford’s imprimatur to the man who had – among his many other crimes – displayed lethal chauvinism over Bangladesh. After the vote in the Sheldonian, which went heavily against Bhutto, I saw Trevor-Roper stalking away and asked him, in my journalist capacity, for a comment. ‘We’ve been ambushed,’ he yelled, ‘by the Left. The Left and the Jews.’ I invited him to repeat this, which he did, and which he did many times later on when the initial fury had abated. There was then another row. Lukes and others circulated a petition critical of the Egregious Regius, and of his ... want of circumspection. It was Isaiah Berlin who spent many patient hours trying to persuade them that this did not constitute prejudice. There are times to wheel out the big moral gun, and there are times to be discreet. And there are those who can decide which time is which. And that’s power, of a kind.
In the long Salmagundi interview by which I help keep count, there appears the following exchange:
Do you think that liberalism is, in this sense, essentially European, then? Or Western?
It was certainly invented in Europe.
Historically, of course. But, I mean now – is it an essentially Western principle?
Yes. I suspect that there may not be much liberalism in Korea. I doubt if there is much liberalism even in Latin America. I think liberalism is essentially the belief of people who have lived on the same soil for a long time in comparative peace with each other. An English invention. The English have not been invaded for a very very long time. That’s why they can afford to praise these virtues. I see that if you were exposed to constant pogroms you might be a little more suspicious of the possibility of liberalism.
Here is the rich man’s John Rawls. Liberalism is for those who don’t need it; free to those who can afford it and very expensive – if even conceivable – to those who cannot. But the clash of ideas here is more chaotic than confused. Should one deduce that liberalism can’t be derived from the experience of pogroms? In that case, why did Berlin argue that liberalism was the answer to the experiences of this uniquely grim – as he thought – century? Meanwhile, if liberalism is geographically and even ethnically limited, where is its universality? (And what became of Namier’s ‘Jews and other coloured peoples’?) Should one be an English invader in order to be a carrier of liberal ideals? Finally, what’s the point of a tumultuous and volatile and above all ‘cosmopolitan’ society, like that of America, if high liberalism can only be established with common blood and on common soil?
Again, one gets the queasy impression that Berlin’s opinions were a farrago: an unsorted box raided for lucky dips. Incidentally, ‘people who have lived on the same soil for a long time in comparative peace with one another’ must be close kin to ‘the same people living in the same place’ – Eliot’s sine qua non for a stable and organic (and static) society in ‘After Strange Gods’.
I’ve kept for last Isaiah Berlin’s most luminous moment: his encounter with Anna Akhmatova in St Petersburg, as it was called when Berlin first saw it and as it is again called today. When he made his visit in November 1945, as a First Secretary at the British Embassy, it was called Leningrad and had, under that name, resisted and thrown back the Nazis. During the unspeakable siege, Stalin and Zhdanov, in that mad way they had, took personal steps to rescue Anna Akhmatova and evacuate her to Tashkent, where she shared quarters with Nadezhda Mandelstam. But they did this insincerely and pedantically (and in Stalin’s own case perhaps superstitiously), regarding her as part ‘asset’ and part witch. Many people were not sure that she had survived. Berlin himself only discovered her whereabouts by accident, while visiting a rugged and bohemian bookstore. Wherever he travelled, Berlin carried a certain idea of Oxford. He had not yet read any of Akhmatova’s poems, but he knew that they had been kept in print by his friend Maurice Bowra. (Score one, then, for the Wadham man so often described as having squandered his gifts.)
When he set off to call at N.44 Fontanka, therefore, Berlin stepped out of his usual cocoon. He was taking a risk, leaving everything to chance, acting on human instinct. The resulting meetings are much better rendered by Ignatieff than by György Dalos. Not only was Berlin, in a later phrase of an Akhmatova poem, ‘the guest from the future’, he was also a revenant from the past and a catalyst for the fusion of the Russian intellectual diaspora with those, like Akhmatova, who had decided to stay on, no matter what. He brought her some Kafka. They disagreed vividly about Turgenev and Dostoevsky, with Berlin naturally preferring the more vulpine Turgenev. In a freezing flat with nothing to eat but cold spuds, the emotional thermostat was set very high. Dalos doesn’t mind pruriently canvassing the possibility of a tryst, but it’s very clear that this was one of those few occasions where that really would have spoiled everything. Ignatieff, who gives us the impression that Berlin was a virgin until middle age, is emphatic and on good authority. Berlin, he writes,
remained on one side of the room, she on the other. Far from being a Don Juan, he was a sexual neophyte alone in the apartment of a fabled seductress, who had enjoyed deep romantic entanglements with half a dozen supremely talented men ... Besides, he was also aware of more quotidian needs. He had already been there six hours and he wanted to go to the lavatory. But it would have broken the mood to do so, and in any case, the communal toilet was down the dark hallway.
At last, a Boswellian moment. Berlin’s subsequent report to the Foreign Office, instead of processing political intelligence in the conventional way, was a learned and spirited brief on the artists and writers of the Soviet Union, and on the thuggish nullity of those who tried to break them. And this was prescient, as well as fine. (The only really stupid critique of Isaiah Berlin that I have ever read was by that recreational vulpicide, Roger Scruton, who accused him of being soft on Communism.) Nothing can spoil this memory. If Akhmatova was persecuted afresh as a result of the rendezvous, she had no illusions, and had not been trapped into anything. Berlin’s Uncle Leo was later treated barbarously during the Jew-baiting that surrounded the Doctors’ Plot, but Soviet anti-semitism was sui generis. The only subsequent meeting between Berlin and Akhmatova was an anticlimax as, given her queenly manners, it more or less had to be. But without her vanity, an aspect of her irreducible courage and confidence after all, she would not have proved that an individual may outlast both a state and an ideology.
There was one moment of bathos during the Leningrad meeting, which was the fault of neither participant. As Berlin and Akhmatova talked, there came disconcerting bellows of ‘Isaiah’ from the courtyard below. This was Randolph Churchill, puce and solipsistic, demanding that his friend come without loss of time to the Hotel Astoria, there to explain to the domestics of the famine-stricken city that Mr Churchill’s newly-purchased caviar should be placed on ice. Berlin actually broke off conversation with Akhmatova to go and see to the matter. But then, poor dear Randolph was very much a part of that same ‘package’ of Englishness which he had already bought.
If it is fair to say, as Ignatieff does, that Berlin never coined an epigram or aphorism, it is also fair to add that he never broke any really original ground in the field of ideas. He was a skilled ventriloquist for other thinkers. Still, even in proposing wobbly antitheses (‘positive v. negative’, ‘liberal v. romantic, Enlightenment v. Counter-Enlightenment’, incomparable goals as distinct from incompatible or incornmensurable ones) he turned over some mental baggage. The letters, too, promise to be a magnificent trove, even if they contain some rude shocks to his liberal fan club. Perhaps, then, to paraphrase Wilde, the real genius was in the life and not the work: ‘a real 20th-centuty life’, as Avishai Margalit puts it. Fearing that English liberalism on its own was too diffuse and benign and insipid, he tried to inject it with a dose of passionate intensity, much of it necessarily borrowed from some rather illiberal sources. Convinced also that pluralism of values was inescapable – a ‘relative’ commonplace – he helped to refresh the sometimes arid usage of irony which the English regard as their particular discourse. In our native terms, the ironic style is often compounded with the sardonic and the hard-boiled; even the effortlessly superior. But irony originates in the glance and the shrug of the loser, the outsider, the despised minority. It is a nuance that comes most effortlessly to the oppressed. Czeslaw Miloscz, Isaiah Berlin’s non-Jewish Baltic contemporary, went so far in his poem ‘Not like This’ as to term irony ‘the glory of slaves’. He did not, I am certain, intend to say that it was a servile quality. But Berlin’s aptitude in this most subtle of idioms was conditioned in part by his long service to a multiplicity of masters.
[*] Simon and Schuster, 480 pp., $27.50, 8 October 1998, 0 684 80970 2.