August 9, 2013 7:06 pm

The wit and wisdom of Isaiah Berlin

How the cold war shaped Isaiah Berlin’s thought – and tested his integrity
Isaiah Berlin photographed in Paraggi, Italy, in 1969©Michel Strauss

Isaiah Berlin photographed in Paraggi, Italy, in 1969

Building: Letters 1960-1975, by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, Chatto RRP£40/Random House UK RRP$59.95, 704 pages

Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, by David Caute, Yale £25/$35, 336 pages

A Mind and its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought, by Joshua Cherniss, OUP £60/$110, 288 pages

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IN Essay

By the 1960s Isaiah Berlin was assured in his fame, a shining star in an unusually cosmopolitan academic and cultural firmament. His professorship at All Souls in Oxford, where he held the chair in social and political theory, was only one, rather small component of his life. Berlin was globally connected, particularly in Washington, where he had worked in the British embassy during the war, and he would reap rewards from his numerous networks in the decades that followed. Friends in the Ford Foundation secured him the funding, matched by the British businessman Leonard Wolfson, for the construction of a new graduate college in Oxford in 1965, which he served as the first president. Wolfson College is a tremendous legacy and a fitting monument to a life whose achievements were recognised across continents.

 

In Building, a new and weighty volume of letters written between 1960 and 1975, all of Berlin’s characteristic gifts are on display – as well as some of his darker moments. Already, he was looking back, drawing the threads of his intellectual preoccupations together. Writing in 1969 (after turning 60) to the painter Dorothea Head, he laments the aimless “dashing about” of the day’s secure and prosperous youth, and reflects on the pressures faced by his own generation. “We feared something: war, economic collapse, totalitarianism. But ennui is worse.”

This snippet of vintage Berlin finds echoes across the correspondence. Serious and sceptical, wry and self-aware even when pessimistic, he is revealed once again as a captivating presence. Berlin was famed in Oxford as one of the most phenomenal conversationalists of his age and he lectured as he talked, with an idiosyncratic rapid-fire delivery combining a mid-century BBC style with hints of his Latvian roots. On stage (where he was, often) he spoke from skeletal notes, staring out to the far right-hand corner of the room as a way of managing his professed fear of public speaking. Clearly, he wanted to be near the centre of things but he always worried whenever he or his views were in the spotlight.

He sought company and feared loneliness and introspection. “I, too, am an authority on solitude,” he wrote to the philosopher Stuart Hampshire but, from this correspondence, you’d struggle to believe it. When he really is physically alone, he usually writes to his wife Aline, a welcome newcomer to the letters (they married in 1956) to whom he is clearly and passionately devoted. Intellectually, though, a frisson of exile and solitude comes through his self-presentation not as a political theorist but as a historian of ideas. For in this subject, he writes, “there is in England no interest whatever, and there never has been”. He seems to have enjoyed presenting himself as marginal, perhaps because it freed him from the conventions of more rigid fields.

His claims did not go unchallenged – particularly those made in his most famous essay, a lecture given in 1958 as “Two Concepts of Liberty”. Some of the criticism was hasty, some friendly, but most was firm. A revealing correspondence with Bernard Crick, professor of political theory and institutions at Sheffield, will be a highlight for scholars mining Berlin’s letters for this purpose.

Perhaps the fascination is that beneath the barrage of detail, he defends a very general claim with a political edge: that having more scope for choice means you are freer; and that the most open and free society, able to tolerate the fact that what looks like more choice and value for me might not look that way to you, is a liberal one. This required a form of “negative” liberty, concerned with the extent to which one might remain free from interference. The counter-argument, central to another strand of liberal thought, was “positive” liberty. That measured freedom more as a capacity or, rather, as the exercising of one’s capacities, in pursuit of the noble goal of self-realisation.

Both traditions were complex but the key contemporary problem was that originally liberal ideas about freedom as self-realisation had been captured by the ideologies of totalitarianism, turning freedom as self-realisation into the realisation of collective freedom under the direction of party and state. That liberty might come from obedience to ideology was a frozen choice, or no choice at all, according to Berlin, and it chafed.

 

The binaries of this cold war struggle structured his field of vision but there was more to it than that. Joshua Cherniss, a graduate student at Harvard whose Oxford doctoral thesis forms the basis for a very smart new intellectual biography of Berlin, A Mind and Its Time, mines these deeper layers. Cherniss is interesting on Berlin’s early lectures on technical philosophy at Oxford, following their traces into his later concern with the history of political ideas as it developed after the war. What became an abiding fear of governments trying to act as “engineers of human souls” led Berlin to reject all professions of political faith as moralistic or utopian but also to take sides in a postwar struggle over liberal freedoms. Ever wary, though, Berlin feared that even the mundane victories of liberalism – “stability, peace, contentment” – might themselves be antithetical to freedom.

For all Berlin’s faith in the power of ideas, he saw imaginative leadership as crucial; indeed, he described himself as a “natural hero worshipper”. When introduced to John F. Kennedy, his anxiety was acute. As the president quizzed him about intellectuals in Russia, weighing up who had stayed strong and measuring men for their practical use, Berlin was both attracted and repelled. He viewed JFK occasionally as a latter-day Alexander the Great, more often as a Napoleon, and, while friendly with many of Camelot’s inner circle, Berlin remained reluctant to be publicly pinned down to any political position.

 

In the sphere of academic politics he was a true master, bamboozling or silently targeting those who played Moriarty to his Holmes. One such figure was the Polish-Jewish Marxist émigré Isaac Deutscher, and Berlin’s back-channel attacks upon him are the subject of David Caute’s Isaac and Isaiah. Caute, a prolific historian, novelist and journalist, has written widely about the cold war, and was a fellow at All Souls with Berlin between 1959 and 1965.

Unlike other celebrated Marxists such as the historians E H Carr and Christopher Hill, with whom Berlin had tense but civil relations, Deutscher consistently aggravated him. The two men had superficial similarities: both Jewish émigrés from eastern Europe, both spellbinding speakers feted by the cultural establishment. Deutscher worked as an expert correspondent with the Economist and the Observer during the 1940s; he was also invited to give the prestigious Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge, and commissioned early (with a large advance) by Oxford University Press to write a biography of Stalin. Yet no academic job, or steady income, was ever forthcoming.

Deutscher’s first (and never forgiven) sin was to attack the published version of Berlin’s anti-Marxist lecture “Historical Inevitability” in the Observer. From then on, battle lines were drawn. Berlin dashed off letters regularly over years to editors and friends, denouncing Deutscher as a Marxist hack for hire, willing to bend principles for money and fame.

The narrative hook of Isaac and Isaiah comes from a personal reminiscence: a conversation between Caute and Berlin in All Souls in March 1963. Berlin questioned the younger man about Deutscher, giving voice to his own harsh judgments, but why he should have asked about him at all was opaque to Caute back then. The missing context was Berlin’s role in attacking Deutscher’s proposed appointment to teach at the University of Sussex shortly afterwards.

Deutscher had indicated an interest in a lectureship at Sussex and faculty members there were so supportive that he seemed set fair to become their new professor of Soviet studies. Completing the appointment looked like a formality, and it was a mainly procedural matter when John Fulton, the vice-chancellor, sought the counsel of Berlin, who was a member of Sussex’s academic advisory board. Berlin’s response was caustic. “Your letter”, he wrote, “puts me in a cruel dilemma. The candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.”

Recognising that his antipathy was personal, Berlin said it also reflected a deeper concern for intellectual integrity. His response shocked Sussex so much that the post was quickly withdrawn. Deutscher didn’t mention it again but, 18 months after the Marxist writer’s death in 1967, allegations over Berlin’s private pronouncements were publicised in the pages of the leftwing journal Black Dwarf. Berlin was quick to defend himself and even wrote to Deutscher’s widow, Tamara. He denied making the statement attributed to him (he was alleged to have said: “You can’t have a Marxist teaching Russian history”) but didn’t deny his reservations about Deutscher’s suitability to be sole professor of Soviet studies at Sussex (or indeed anywhere) in the absence of a countervailing academic presence.

In this wider correspondence, Berlin never refers to the “cruel dilemma” outlined in the first letter, and Caute wonders whether he should not have recused himself from the appointments process. The apparent sophistry is too much for the editors of Building: “Does IB dissemble or forget?” they wonder, but you know what they really think. Caute also questions Berlin’s motivation. He nevertheless ends with the rather homiletic injunction that, independently of his motives, Berlin may have done Sussex a “small favour” because Deutscher’s politics were likely to conflict with his professional responsibilities. Maybe.

Whether Berlin’s reputation is tarnished by his politicking, readers must judge for themselves. But, as Berlin wrote in a letter to the Labour politician Richard Crossman: “what stands up to the ravages of time is intellectual depth and power”. In this, at least, history’s favourable verdict is already quite clear.

Duncan Kelly teaches political thought at the University of Cambridge. He is author of ‘The Propriety of Liberty: Persons, Passions, and Judgement in Modern Political Thought’ (Princeton)

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