John Gray, Isaiah Berlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
The best known anecdote about Isaiah Berlin refers to the occasion during World War II when his work at the British embassy in Washington caught the attention of Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister expressed a wish to meet Berlin, and this was arranged. At the lunch that followed, Churchill asked: "Berlin, what do you think is your most important piece you've done for us lately?" The surprising response: "White Christmas." The invitation had been sent in error to the wrong I. Berlin.
Funny as it is--especially as one contemplates Churchill's bewilderment at the answer--and familiar as it has become, the story is also especially apt today. In recalling and celebrating Berlin, it is important to make sure that we have the right man.
When Berlin died last November, there was a cascade of adulatory essays and obituaries, all of them well deserved. Yet there is a sense in which, once again, the wrong Berlin was being celebrated; or if not exactly the wrong Berlin then only a half of him showed up in the many commemorative essays about his life. His contributions to the history of political thought were extolled, especially his brilliant "Two Concepts of Liberty" and his memorable essay on Tolstoy, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." His studies of romanticism were appreciated, and the renewed interest he sparked in such neglected thinkers as Vico and Herder was applauded. Some focused on his support of Zionism. Others commented on his early work in analytical philosophy, while a few recalled his lively personal essays on FDR, Einstein, Churchill, and Akhmatova. But very few of his admirers, or detractors for that matter, bothered to mention what was undeniably important about the man: his unique grasp of the horrors of communism and his unwavering conviction that Western intellectuals must oppose communism or, at the very least, not confuse it with liberalism.
Berlin's critique of communism was nearly unmatched in the West. He saw, before most did, that communism was as liable to undertake sadistic genocidal campaigns as any fascist regime--a proposition that many liberals even today refuse to accept. In his 1959 essay "European Unity and its Vicissitudes", he captured the genocidal logic inherent in Marxism by speaking hauntingly in its own voice:
"It is idle for the progressives to try to save their reactionary brothers from defeat: the doomed men cannot hear them, and their destruction is certain. All men will not be saved: the proletariat, justly intent upon its own salvation, had best ignore the fate of their oppressors; even if they wish to return good for evil, they cannot save their enemies from 'liquidation.' They are 'expendable'--their destruction can be neither averted nor regretted by a rational being, for it is the price that mankind must pay for the progress of reason itself: the road to the gates of Paradise is necessarily strewn with corpses."
Some of his admirers last fall, most notably Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post and Michael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books, did not overlook Berlin's anti-communism. But a few such as Stuart Hampshire did, while Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Leon Wieseltier, and Marilyn Berger for the New York Times settled for general allusions to his opposition to "monism" or "totalitarianism" or "holism", at least for the most part. A critical Paul Johnson went so far as to dismiss Berlin's opposition to communism, claiming that Berlin "had little to say about the rights and wrongs of the cold war."
What nearly everyone wrote about instead was his development of the idea of "pluralism", so much so that in their discussions of Berlin this seemed to overshadow nearly everything else about him. The New York Times epitomized the trend with its first-page headline: "Isaiah Berlin, Philosopher And Pluralist, Is Dead at 88." Now there can be no doubt that his opposition to communism was of one cloth with his philosophy of pluralism, and thus to discuss the latter is to imply the former. Yet it remains a puzzle: Why so little mention of what he actually had to say about communism and so much discussion of his philosophy of pluralism?
A good place to begin, and a masterly study of Berlin's political thought as well, is John Gray's book, which appeared shortly before Berlin's death. A philosopher and a close friend of Berlin's, Gray brilliantly expounds in highly condensed prose Berlin's theory of pluralism, developing its direction and course, even where Berlin is silent, and explaining its political relevance.
Berlin is famous for dividing thinkers into hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many smaller things. It has always been assumed that Berlin was a fox, in part because of his obvious opposition to anything smacking of "system" or "single central visions", as he once put it, but also simply because of the astounding range of his interests. However, Gray makes a convincing case for viewing Berlin as a hedgehog, because "all of Berlin's work is animated by a single idea of enormous subversive force." That idea is, he says, "value-pluralism", the idea that the values to which peoples, as well as individuals, devote themselves are real, diverse, and in conflict. More than that: within a single culture or the soul of a single person, values can be, and frequently are, at war with each other. Yet there is no standard--or as Gray puts it, "no Archimedean point"--for judging which values should prevail or which are superior. To choose one ideal, say that of the devout Christian, is to say good-bye to another, say that of the Roman soldier.
According to Gray, this understanding of the way the world is gives rise to a political doctrine he calls "agnostic liberalism", a form of liberalism that has jettisoned all claims to universalism. No more are the classical liberal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be thought of as grounded in natural right, natural law, or human nature. Instead, liberalism under Berlin's pluralist dispensation is to be considered one possible way of life among many other ones, developed by certain peoples to suit their particular time and place. As Gray arrestingly puts it, Berlin's theory of value-pluralism "goes all the way down, right down into principles of justice and rights." And it thus follows "inexorably" that "a liberal form of life is a contingent matter, not a privileged expression of universal human nature." To the extent that liberalism remains desirable, it does so precisely because of its capacity to accommodate diverse life styles. That is, it is compatible with the truth of value-pluralism.
Gray repeatedly emphasizes the "subversive" quality of Berlin's theory of pluralism, a theory that often seems to come perilously close to relativism. Indeed, almost every writer who takes up Berlin's thought at least pauses to consider whether his theory of pluralism shares something with relativism. Gray himself does so, and then argues that it does not. But whether or not it is relativistic, Berlin's theory of value-pluralism might still undermine liberalism. (Gray confronts this question as well, arguing that though it could, it generally does not.) What is clear about Berlin's theory is this: It allows for much greater diversity and a much wider tolerance of other (non-liberal) ways of life than anything countenanced by Locke, Kant, or John Stuart Mill. All of these older liberalisms have, as Gray points out, a notion of "rational choice" at their core. But since for Berlin there can be no "Archimedean point", such as rationalism, from which to distinguish right choice from wrong choice, rational choice is replaced in Berlin's philosophy with "radical choice"--"choice without criteria, grounds, or principles." "That is the heart of Berlin's liberalism", argues Gray.
And that, I believe, perfectly sums up why Berlin has been remembered almost exclusively as the high priest of pluralism, rather than for, say, his anti-communism. No theory imaginable could be more supportive of the right to choose, which has become, argues William Kristol, the "hollow core" of contemporary liberalism. Berlin's theory of value-pluralism, it seems, perfectly complements, or lends support to, current intellectual fashions--our postmodern way of thinking, our aversion to being judgmental, our increasingly multiculturalist cast of mind. Gray at various points even translates Berlin's theories into "the jargon of post-modernism" and quotes Richard Rorty, the dean of American postmodernism, to explain the general drift of Berlin's thought.
But if full honor is to be paid to Berlin we should remember the whole of his politics, not just its philosophic core denuded of circumstance and setting. This means recalling the historical context in which he lived and wrote and the political uses to which he put his theory of pluralism. For as Berlin himself once warned, "Political words and notions and acts are not intelligible save in the context of the issues that divide the men who use them."
The context, as he himself describes it in his "Two Concepts of Liberty", first published in 1958, "is the open war that is being fought between two systems of ideas which return different and conflicting answers to what has long been the central question of politics--the question of obedience and coercion." One system, called by Berlin "negative liberty", held that liberty was the freedom to do as one wishes with a minimum of interference from the state. The rival system, called by Berlin "positive liberty", held that liberty was not freedom from but freedom to. Such freedom was the equivalent of "self-realization", not of the empirical self with its actual wishes and desires, but of some theoretical "true self." Under such a regime of "liberty", if one can really call it that, individuals would, in Rousseau's phrase, be forced to be free, "free", that is, to take part in political causes, in the class struggle, or in the destiny of the race, tribe, or nation. While Berlin did not deny the value of positive liberty, he made clear that it could lead to political tyranny and the obliteration of the actual person with his actual preferences.
The distinction drawn between negative and positive liberty was no mere academic exercise in logic chopping for Berlin; it reflected "the great clash of ideologies that dominates our world." The world of which he spoke was riven by the Cold War, in which a liberal West confronted Soviet and Chinese communism and various Marxist struggles for national liberation in the Third World. The liberal West represented the cause of negative liberty; communism the claims of positive liberty. And it was also a world, Berlin pointed out, in which many "contemporary liberals" were blind to the fundamental differences between the "two systems."
Tony Judt recently recalled the extent of that blindness. "I well remember", he wrote in the New York Times, "sitting in the graduate lounge of Cambridge University in 1969 while a tenured member of the economics faculty assured us that the Chinese Cultural Revolution, then at its paroxysmic height, was the last best hope for humankind." According to the best estimates, as many as a million Chinese perished in that last best hope, but many Western liberals chose to shut their eyes or close their minds to these horrific events. After all, communism was on the march, to recall a phrase, and a great many liberals were convinced that justice and history were on its side. Into that world turned upside down Berlin unleashed his theory of value-pluralism, publishing his book Four Essays on Liberty (which included the essay "Two Concepts of Liberty") in 1969. It would prove to be, as I am sure he intended, an immensely appealing defense of liberalism, especially to Western elites, for he emphasized the great freedoms liberalism allowed and the generous toleration for diversity that it recommended; never did his defense of liberalism become a brief for capitalism, as did Hayek's or Milton Friedman's. No doubt it saved many a young intellectual from falling under the sway of Judt's Cambridge University professor and many others like him. Value-pluralism proved to be a powerful curative against the spreading sense among Western intellectuals that liberal values were inferior to Marxist ones.
But how much should we emphasize Berlin's value-pluralism today, now that communism is a thing of the past and totalitarian systems are everywhere in rubble? In his 1949 essay, "Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century", Berlin argued that "every situation calls for its own specific policy, since out of the crooked timber of humanity, as Kant once remarked, no straight thing was ever made." He went on to argue that what his age called for was not more faith or stronger leadership--there was already plenty of that to go around--but "less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies." Enlightened skepticism and toleration are good things, to be sure. But is our "situation" the same as Berlin's? Does it call for the same "policy", the same "subversive" value-pluralism, as Gray describes it, that Berlin's did? Gray takes note of this question and answers in the affirmative: "Agnostic pluralism is hardly likely to be less appropriate to our needs at a time when the historical theodicies of the political religions, such as Marxism, have been supplanted by resurgent fundamentalisms as threats both to individual liberty and minimal human decency."
A danger of fundamentalism there always will be, but, for my part, I am not sure what are those "resurgent fundamentalisms" with which agnostic liberalism must do battle. Perhaps radical Islam. But unlike Marxism, Islamic fundamentalism holds no appeal for Western intellectuals, and so it is hard to imagine a need for an agnostic liberalism to woo Western liberals away from its enticements. (The threat that Islamic fundamentalism poses to individual liberty and human decency is strictly a foreign policy matter and is best countered by, for example, a strong naval presence in the Persian Gulf.) If Gray has in mind the threat of Christian fundamentalism in America, it is again hard to imagine Western liberals finding anything attractive in it. And if Christian fundamentalism poses a threat to individual liberties, a debatable point, it hardly does so on the same scale as communism. If the West suffers from anything today it is not fundamentalism or Messianic idealism or monistic ideologies but a care-free relativism and a general loss of purpose. What is needed is not an agnostic liberalism that only confirms popular prejudices, but a reinvigorated liberalism that will appeal to the growing herd of agnostics.
Joseph Brodsky once wrote in a tribute to Berlin that opponents of pluralism charge that such a theory "is pregnant with moral relativism." Brodsky did not defend Berlin's theory from the charge (as does Gray). He responded simply: "It is. But then moral absolutism is not so hot either." It seems to me that that is the heart of the matter: to develop a practical politics that avoids both the folly of fundamentalism and the abyss of relativism. With moral absolutism in retreat throughout the liberal West, it is appropriate to wonder whether Berlin's value-pluralism still has much to recommend it to us. We might also wonder whether Berlin himself, a man who was exceptionally attuned to the false idols of his own times, would not have asked the same question had he come of age in our postmodern times.
Brodsky held that Berlin's Four Essays on Liberty "was more the product of a gut reaction against an atrocious century than a philosophical tract." As for the man who wrote it, he was "neither a philosopher nor a historian of ideas, not literary critic or social utopian, but an autonomous mind in the grip of an outward gravity." Perhaps that's the Berlin we should remember: not the philosopher of value-pluralism, a theory that is now so congenial to us anyway, but the gentleman who rose to liberalism's defense in a dangerous time, and caused others to do the same.Essay Types: Book Review