The Ambiguity of Intellectual Engagement: Towards a Reassessment of Isaiah Berlin’s Legacy

Eras Journal – Hogg, J.: “The Ambiguity of Intellectual Engagement: Towards a Reassessment of Isaiah Berlin’s Legacy”

The Ambiguity of Intellectual Engagement: Towards a Reassessment of Isaiah Berlin’s Legacy
Jonathan Hogg
(The University of Liverpool)

It could be argued that the peculiarities of the western Cold War intellectual milieu arose, in part, from a sustained process of cultural formalisation; the creation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom being the clearest single crystallisation of the phenomenon.[1] The process of formalisation resulted in the activation of an acutely realised cultural Cold War. It is critical to realise that “the cultural cold war was shaped by the new primacy of ideology…never before had (the two superpowers) felt so compelling a need to prove their virtue, to demonstrate their spiritual superiority, to claim the high ground of ‘progress'”.[2]

In Lionel Trilling’s words, “this conflict of ideas, genuine as it may be, suggests to both sides the necessity of believing in the fixed immutable nature of the ideas to which both sides owes allegiance. What gods were to the ancients of war, ideas are to us”.[3] With the unique intellectual forces of Cold War, the perceived autonomy of ‘ideas’ became a crystallised, and often unacknowledged, psychological orthodoxy. Even with the western conception of the role of God as a continual psychological foundation to Cold War discourse,[4] the traditional lines between ‘politics’, ‘culture’ and morality fade. This continually shifting ‘Cold War culture’[5] had at its core certain values elucidated by intellectuals such as Isaiah Berlin,[6] whose use of language expressed the politicised nature of the cultural Cold War, and whose methodology[7] reinforced the conservatism of the era.

Whilst it is increasingly tempting to dispense with ‘the Cold War’ as a frame of analysis, it is clear that intellectuals living in the post-war world were acutely aware of ‘the Cold War’, and were unavoidably affected by their vision of it. Whilst intellectuals such as Trilling clearly outline their vision, other intellectuals were less forthcoming in admitting their part in the cultural Cold War; intellectuals such as Berlin presented a ‘quieter’ liberalism that was as necessary to anticommunist discourse as more polemical work.

So, whilst anticommunist discourse was anything but passive, the role of intellectuals within certain areas of discourse acquire the illusion of passivity, or at least a wide enough separation from contemporary politics to seem irrelevant or impotent. Relatively ‘passive’ British intellectuals (this ‘passivity’ may explain the relative absence of interest in the scholarly field) were often faceless, even anonymous, yet, in actual fact, it was their role which allowed discourse to develop and grow in the specific direction it did. Much has been written on the more ‘active’ intellectuals who legitimise and bolster ideology in explicit form,[8] yet the study of the peculiar ‘passive’ British intellectual, who plays a forceful implicit role, has been neglected. My argument hinges on the belief that any conception of ‘Cold War culture’ must identify ‘passive’ intellectuals as a vital foundation for the evolution of the western value system and ‘self-image’.[9]

Furthermore, the need to isolate each intellectual figure is confirmed by the complicated interplay of Berlin’s Zionism and his liberalism. It is with this in mind that I reject the possibility of a comparative approach with, for example, the New York Jewish Intellectuals. It is clear that attempting a worthwhile comparison of intellectuals whose ideas, experiences and influence diverged hugely would amount to a token gesture in the limited context of this article.[10] A broader approach would require locating each intellectual in their specific sphere of Cold War discourse (through an appreciation of their textual contribution), before analysing their specific role. This article condenses some thoughts towards one such role: that of Isaiah Berlin.

Admirers and Detractors

Expressions of personal affection for Berlin are not hard to find. A rather embarrassing example of Berlin sycophancy comes from Maurice Bowra, who wrote: “Though like Our Lord and Socrates he does not publish much, he thinks and says a great deal and has had an enormous influence on our times”.[11] Cracroft has called Berlin’s work “so it happens, prophetic”.[12] Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration is a collection of essays, some of which seek to elevate Berlin to some higher place. Encounters with the great man are described as “wondrous” or “pivotal”, and Berlin should be read with “delight and instruction”.[13] Here, we can observe the residues of ‘traditional’ conceptions of the intellectual presented by Shils.

However, Berlin has also been viewed as a problematic thinker. A. L. Rowse, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said and Thomas L. Dumm criticise Berlin for very different reasons. Rowse criticises the lack of substance in Berlin’s academic-intellectual approach.[14] Hitchens attacks Berlin for concealing his opinions on contemporary political problems by hiding behind a detached self-professed ‘liberal’ scholarship.[15] Hitchens is also critical of Ignatieff’s sympathetic biography of Berlin, which skims over Berlin’s attitude towards the Vietnam War.[16] Said, attacking the more subtle political dimensions of Berlin’s work, views a tension between Berlin’s avowed liberalism, and his illiberal attitude (but mainly his silence) towards the plight of the Palestinian people – the unacknowledged ‘victims of the victims’.[17]

Often, however, the volume of supportive voices seems to ouweigh any criticism. Certainly, in the field of political theory, numerous academics cite Berlin’s philosophy as one for a peaceful, tolerant future.[18] As for Rowse’s claims over ‘originality’, away from the distinctive ‘conversational’ style of Berlin, the content of his work can seem thin. Berlin’s methodology, in the light of the kind of history he practised, became inadequate in the light of academic advances – ‘post-modernist’ or otherwise. Dumm contrasts the ‘Berlinian’ approach to that of Foucault. Explaining that Berlin’s insistence on ‘neutral space’, where liberty is part of the natural ‘normalcy’ of human society, represents a belief in free-floating absolutes. Dumm places Berlin at odds with Foucault, to whom ‘space’ is contested and problematised.[19]

‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ Intellectuals

More research effort has been directed towards visibly ‘active’ intellectuals within the Cold War context: intellectuals who ‘made a difference’. Shils, who represents a ‘traditional’ view of intellectuals, states:

there are some persons with an unusual sensitivity to the sacred, an uncommon reflectiveness about the nature of their universe and the rules which govern their society. There is in every society a minority of persons who…are inquiring and desirous of being in frequent communion with symbols which are more general than the immediate concrete situations of everyday life.[20]

The members of society Shils discusses have different concerns and priorities, and presumably operate as part of an elite who are capable of ‘uncommon reflectiveness’. Conversely, according to Said, intellectuals are, or should be, acutely aware of their social responsibility, unafraid to highlight universal inequalities:

the intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public.[21]

‘Men apart’, these individuals perform their ‘tasks’ in response to past societal problems, with the aim of achieving political goals situated in the present. Whilst Said does ascribe the intellectual a more radical and urgent role of responsibility, there is still a sense of the ‘communion with symbols’ discussed by Shils. Said believes that:

standards of truth about human misery and oppression were to be held to despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties…the attempt to hold to a universal and single standard as a theme plays an important role in my account of the intellectual.[22]

Berlin himself seemed to view the ‘intellectual’ as more of the ‘free-floating’ thinker of Mannheim, distinct from the thinker who is attached to ‘certain social ideas’ (who is a member of the ‘intelligentsia’). Interestingly, his writing on the ‘intelligentsia’ seems to assume that as a group they encompass a western liberal-democratic set of values:

The intelligentsia, historically, are people who are united around certain social ideas, who believe in progress, in reason…free criticism, individual liberty, in short oppose reaction, obscurantism, the Church and the authoritarian state, and see each other as fellow fighters in a common cause – above all for human rights and a decent social order.[23]

The suggestion from Berlin is that the ‘intellectual’ must consciously defer to a social cause to affect ‘social ideas’. This goes against the conception of the cultural Cold War as characterised by the increasingly complex relationship between ‘the intellectual’ and ‘social ideas’; the intellectual is continually presented as ‘active’ and morally bound, not ‘passive’ and ideologically bound.

Ironically, Berlin was always careful to distance himself from ‘social ideas’, but was nonetheless an intellectual embedded in the cultural Cold War. The ostensibly apolitical stance Berlin adopted means he can be called a ‘passive’ intellectual – one who does not appear actively ‘politicised’ as such.[24] As Lipset and Basu have written,

commentators on the comparative role of intellectuals have suggested that British intellectuals, though given little formal role recognition…have long been accepted as part of the Establishment…regardless of differences in opinion or roles…British intellectuals, handled more ‘sensibly’ than their compeers elsewhere, are better able to play the ‘preserver’ role, to explicate the national tradition in a positive fashion.[25]

Coser has written on the close-knit community of British intellectuals, where “frequent interchange encourages the development of certain common assumptions and shared views that transcend institutional affiliations”.[26] Limited and enclosed by this liberal intellectual arena, the national tradition is reinforced and supposedly illuminated by these ‘preservers’, who underpin political culture. Berlin, in the context of the cultural Cold War, contributed to this ‘intellectual inertia’ with the conservatism of his methodology. Furthermore, viewing Berlin in this way nullifies the illusion of the invisibility, or impotence, of the ‘passive’ Cold War ‘intellectual’. It is through the deconstruction of Berlin’s contribution to Cold War discourse that we can understand both the significance of his discursive contribution, and the intricacies of his role deep within the ‘relations of power’.

Methodology: ‘Reconstructive Imagination’ and the Language of ‘Normality’ [27]

For Berlin, ‘method’ is something central to his exposition of ‘value pluralism’ (unlike Derrida, where “the question of ‘method’ is an ‘exorbitant’ one”[28]). Berlin takes the view that “reconstructive imagination”[29] is the “correct” form of scholarship. With this approach, Berlin claims he is creating “depth of insight” or, as he terms it “‘deep’ historical writing”.[30] With this ‘humanistic’ method, Berlin sought to “enter into the mind of” the thinkers he interpreted.

Berlin wrote that he believed the “specific arguments of a theorist less important than their general outlook, and the origin of ideas less interesting than their echoes”.[31] This is integral to the pattern of Berlin’s ‘modernist plurality’. Moreover, it is the assumed ‘normality’ of the language Berlin deploys which can steer us towards the prickly ideological reality which allowed the text to emerge as it did. Berlin’s methodological approach – ‘reconstructive imagination’ – sustains the modernist use of “‘metanarratives’ whose secret terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a ‘universal’ human history”.[32] His work also displays – if we are to follow Foucault – how Berlin contributed to the “complex strategical situation in a particular society”.[33] Through this approach, we can more fully understand his conservative methodology, which itself reflected unique configurations within Cold War culture.

A fascinating insight into Berlinian methodology is the moral judgement process undertaken by Berlin when selecting subjects for his writing. Berlin delineates the humane from the inhumane: “There are two authors whom I make propaganda for: one is Herzen, the other is Shestov. They are both totally decent, open-minded, open-hearted human beings, as Dostoevsky was not”.[34]

The implication is that Berlin gives primacy to those thinkers who enter into his ‘moral sphere’; those he judges to be “open-minded, open-hearted human beings”. This is not incongruous in itself, but problems arise when the reader realises that Berlin’s elaborations on the specific role of the thinker may be an exaggeration or, worse, a fabrication based on the ‘reconstructive imagination’ employed by Berlin. This is where we can begin to see the politicised nature of the ‘passive’ intellectual. For instance, Berlin often viewed thinkers as predecessors to his own ideological position:

seeing them [Vico and Herder] essentially as precursors of cultural pluralism, the tradition in which he situates himself, Berlin is disinclined to pay much attention to the themes of mental identity and emergent universality in their writings, which point in another direction.[35]

By presenting Vico and Herder as nascent modern liberals, Berlin fabricates the continuity and naturalness of the liberal tradition. The quote on Vico that follows surely mirrors Berlin’s own methodological beliefs, rather than a balanced portrayal of Vico: “[he] uncovered a species of knowing not previously clearly discriminated…empathetic insight, intuitive sympathy, historical Einfuhlung, and the like”.[36]

In direct contrast, according to Said, Vico argues that “every text…stands between the scholar and the historical past – or rather, the text in its didactic simplicity, is often interpreted (because of its seeming clarity) as the reality of a past that its textual form misconstrues”.[37] It is clear that Berlin does not recognise – in the sense that Said does – that texts can, and will, ‘misconstrue’ the ‘reality’ of the historical past. With this in mind, it seems that Said can be seen as methodologically opposed to Berlin.[38] Whilst Said would advocate careful, specific readings of texts – precisely because of their clarity – and afford them no special isolated value, Berlin is happy to afford special value not only to certain texts, but also to authors. In the “Concept of Scientific History” Berlin compares “historical method” with “linguistic or literary scholarship”. He writes:

no scholar could emend a text without a capacity (for which no technique exists) for ‘entering into the mind of’ another society and age…how do gifted scholars in fact arrive at their emendations? They do all that the most exacting natural science would demand; they steep themselves in the material of their authors…in the end what guides them is a sense (which comes from a study of the evidence) of what a given author could, and what he could not have said; of what fits and what does not fit into the general pattern of his thought.[39]

Again, we are presented with the impression of a natural way of observing human history, a proper course of action. Also, we see authors reconstructed as figures to revere. Part of Berlin’s skill was to reconstruct an impression of (rather, Berlin’s conception of) a given author, offering us a ‘general pattern’ of their thought; yet prominence is often given to the authorial role. In stark contrast, Foucault has inquired as to why the text should be thought of as an “authored” piece at all. He calls for the isolation – perhaps even the dehumanisation of a text – whereas Berlin calls for the expansion, the ‘deepening’ of insight through humanising the text; by heavily stressing the role of the author.[40]

It is clear that Berlin represented a specific ‘liberalism’ of the Cold War era. The ‘normality’ of Berlin’s language is based around the assumed naturalness of both the liberal tradition, and his own methodology. The limitations of Berlin’s liberalism stem from the nature of his methodology. When Berlin employs the textual device of ‘reconstructive imagination’, thinkers will not only filter through his ‘moral sphere’, but his ideological sphere too. This restrictive approach functions as a form of ‘modernist’ inertia, ideally suited to the intellectual milieu surrounding Cold War culture. Representing freedom, humanist morals, and ‘ground(ing) and legitimat(ing) the illusion of a ‘universal’ human history’, Berlin’s value system is in sharp contrast to Marxist dogma, or the ‘amoral’ theoretical advances of radical postmodernism.

This begins to explain Berlin’s ‘passive’ contribution to the creation and nourishment of the ‘western self-image’ in the cultural Cold War context. The implicit message from Berlin’s work is that ‘unnatural’ alternatives to liberalism must be resisted at all costs.[41] After all, Berlin’s first foray into broadcasting, in 1949, would be on the ‘Anglo-American predicament’, in which he argued that Britain must accept American hegemony, and concentrate on fostering a successful partnership with America. Wavering towards characteristics of the ‘active’ intellectual in the post-war period, Berlin was also closely linked with Zionism. As I will demonstrate, the tone of Berlin’s liberalism alters further when we consider the nature of his Zionist beliefs.

Berlin’s Zionism

Cracroft concludes that Berlin’s early academic work on Marx – “the Marx project, on which Berlin laboured furiously for several years”[42] – “appealed directly to the Russian and particularly the Jewish sides of his character”.[43] Berlin’s early interest in the way in which Marx’s ‘Jewishness’ influenced his work, is echoed in a later essay.[44] It was here that Berlin “stressed the Jewishness of these two giants of the nineteenth century [Disraeli and Marx] and what he saw as the psychological and other consequences of their repression of it”.[45] Elsewhere, commentators have stressed that Berlin’s “reflections on his own identity, and on Jewish identity in general, [are] central to the understanding of his philosophy”.[46] It is here that we find the ‘appreciation of difference’ which combined to create Berlin’s humanistic ‘value-pluralist’ variety of liberalism. One of the themes of Berlin’s writings is the hope that conflict will be averted by the rise of a gentler, benign nationalism. His analyses of Herder discuss the hope that violent nationalism will become an outdated mode of political mentality.[47] In Millar Jones’s words, Berlin was “wistfully optimistic that diversity will not lead to conflict”. It is hoped that “toleration and understanding will somehow prevail”.[48] In the harsh glare of the Israeli-Palestinian question, this seems abstract, detached, and idealistic. As Richard Wollheim has commented, Berlin liked institutions, not communities, but he made an exception with Zionism.[49] This is a telling insight because, for Berlin, the rules changed where Zionism was concerned; his role as intellectual became more ‘active’ than ‘passive’.

As Margalit writes, “Berlin was wary of expressive politics”.[50] But with the political movement of Zionism, Berlin found a nationalism he considered – in what he viewed a ‘mild’ form – acceptable, and felt comfortable supporting. From his formative years as an émigré Jew, he was sympathetic towards Zionism, and later sustained Zionist loyalties which, in the public domain at least, can be observed in his numerous publications on the subject, as well as his close acquaintance with figures such as Chaim Weizmann and L.B. Namier. His belief in, and advocacy of, the Israeli state was based on the firm conviction that Jews must be allowed to act freely, and this freedom of action could flourish only if the Jews had a geographic place called home:

The creation of the State of Israel has rendered the greatest service that any human institution can perform for individuals – it has restored to Jews not merely their personal dignity and status as human beings, but what is vastly more important, their right to choose as individuals how they shall live.[51]

For some critics, Berlin’s support of Zionism is a serious blot on his otherwise good intellectual reputation:

The one discordant note for me about Berlin was that in public he was a fervent, unquestioning, and unskeptical Zionist, a true believer, whose close involvement with Israel as a country and a cause contributed in a major way to the positive image and structure of feelings created in the West about the Jewish state.[52]

Berlin’s thought on this subject was ambivalent and, at times, at odds with the liberal worldview he expounded. As Margalit highlights, the problem of “how to reconcile Berlin’s objection to a priori blueprints with Zionism given that Zionism was a blueprint ideology” is a genuine tension.[53] Berlin was acutely aware of, and opposed, the emergence of politically intransigent individuals. These individuals, some of which came to represent extreme, unshifting axioms, did not represent the strand of Zionism in which Berlin believed.[54] As Wollheim writes:

Zionism is a discrete nationalism, and one which Berlin supported, despite his hostility to the Jewish religion…Berlin further supported the state of Israel, though he strongly disapproved of some of the means by which it came about, and a number of the means by which it sought to preserve itself.[55]

Berlin was indirectly (at least) involved in post-1945 Jewish political controversies.[56] and was acutely aware of the “new pressures forcing him to choose between his Jewish and British identities” playing on his conscience.[57] Berlin already felt an unbridgeable distance between himself and the emerging Israeli citizens, but many senior Israeli politicians continued to attempt to persuade Berlin to live in Israel.[58] However, from Oxford he used his influence, through Leo Amery, “to see whether pressure could be put on the Arab governments to relax their grip on the city [Jerusalem]”.[59]

As well as his ‘passive’ intellectual role as liberal academic, Berlin also ‘actively’ made his influence felt in the academic world when Zionist issues were at stake. Said speaks of two telling incidents involving Noam Chomsky:

In the late 1960s while giving a series of lectures at Oxford, Chomsky devoted one to the Middle East situation and was extremely critical of Israel. The next morning Berlin visited him and said that even though he might not have agreed with some of what Chomsky said, he had come to tell the celebrated intellectual dissident that Jews should not speak about Israel that way in public…the two men remained friends…in the mid-1980s, when Chomsky wrote a solicited article for Index on Censorship about the way Israel’s actions either are not reported properly or are covered up in the Western media. From behind the scenes Berlin organised a campaign to try to stop the magazine from printing Chomsky’s article; he got influential friends of his to write letters of protest, and in many ways attempted to harm the magazine (which did publish Chomsky afterall [sic]) and even tried to get it closed.[60]

Whether or not you agree with Said’s observation that Berlin was acting with “the kind of unblinking zeal that fanatics of either the Right or the Left might have felt”,[61] it is certainly hard to reconcile this covert aspect of Berlin’s intellectual role with the conventional view of Berlin as a ‘passive’, apolitical, ‘gentleman scholar’. How directly politically involved was Berlin? Should this cast a shadow over his variety of liberalism? The question is to what extent we agree with Said:

It was not only that Berlin supported Israel and never raised a question about the morality of what it did in dispossessing and oppressing an entire people, it is also that he tried to prevent others from doing so, using his enormous prestige and influence to stifle dissent and opposition.[62]

With these layers in involvement in mind, there can surely be no argument that, to some degree, Berlin was an active “intellectual for Israel”.[63]

Disagreeing with Koestler’s ultimatum on Jewish identity, Berlin realised that ‘westernised’ Jewish intellectuals could help the ‘Israeli cause’ through a steady stream of writing and avowed affiliation from afar.[64] Berlin was one of the Jews who:

stood at the very authoritative centre of Western society, where their prestige as intellectuals…gave weight and credibility to their support for the Zionist project. No comparable body of opinion or opinion-makers existed on the Arab side, with the result that for years the Palestinians were both invisible and silent insofar as their ‘desires and prejudices’…were represented in the West.[65]

Berlin was an integral part of this imbalance. He was not an uncritical, passive observer of ‘Zionism’, but an impassioned voice, a western intellectual representative for the moderate-Zionist cause. At the practical-political level Berlin was occasionally active but, in general, his writing was characterised by an ostensibly ‘apolitical’ approach. A fascinating exception came in the form of his last published words in 1997 when, Margalit believes, Berlin “simply wanted to stand up and be counted”.[66] The statement, published in Israeli newspapers, read:

Since both sides begin with a claim of total possession of Palestine as their historical right, and since neither claim can be accepted within the realm of realism or without grave injustice, it is plain that compromise, i.e. partition, is the only correct solution, along Oslo lines – for supporting which Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish bigot.

Ideally, what we are calling for is a relationship of good neighbours, but given the number of bigoted, terrorist chauvinists on both sides, this is impracticable.

The solution must lie somewhere along the lines of reluctant toleration, for fear of far worse -i.e., a savage war which could inflict irreparable damage on both sides.

As for Jerusalem, it must remain the capital of Israel, with the Muslims’ holy places being extraterritorial to a Muslim authority, with a guarantee from the United Nations of preserving that position, by force if necessary.[67]

This public political message – one of reconciliation and coexistence – also tallies with some of his private political stances.[68]Yet, his public and private tones are at odds on several issues. He seems to have had deep misgivings about Weizmann, but still published a long and highly positive article on the Zionist leader after his death (although Berlin did turn down the request to write Weizmann’s biography).

In letters to Felix Frankfurter he was very candid about the ‘Israeli’ mentality: “the trouble about the Israelis is not only their partly unconscious conviction born of experience that virtue always loses and only toughness pays, but a great provincialism and blindness to outside opinion”.[69]

Berlin may have had reservations about the plight of the Palestinian population with the flood of Jews into Israel, but he never published work which seriously engaged with problems – philosophical, political or otherwise – regarding co-existence in Palestine. His work is myopic towards the existence of the Palestinian people. He does not attempt to extensively define or interrogate his Zionism, nor acknowledge the existence of the swelling historiographical currents surrounding the study of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Nor does he show he has absorbed and challenged ‘Leftist’ opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian question. To have done so would have added a complexity, legitimacy, and thoughtfulness to his brand of Zionism. Yet, as Said comments, “for him they [the Palestinians] seemed to have been the inevitable clutter that, once swept away in a higher cause, need never be mentioned or thought of again”.[70]

The language of cultural superiority permeates Berlin’s writing. In “The Origins of Israel”, he discusses the birth of the Israeli ‘State’:

The ideals which the Jews imported, and the culture they were able to build and in the relative vacuum of Palestine- with a minimum of counter-influence on account of the evident feebleness of the Muslim culture in this corner of the Arab world – were founded upon typically nineteenth-century principles.[71]

This is very disparaging; Berlin, without qualm, discusses “the evident feebleness of the Muslim culture” and the perceived Arab cultural “vacuum” which the Jews were right to fill. Written originally in 1953, these sorts of sentiments are symptomatic of a wider trend within Zionism: the phrase employed by Berlin is the ‘existence’ of the Jews, not the ‘co -existence’ of Jews and Palestinians. He does not approach the Palestinians as people whose right to a home should also be respected. He does not acknowledge that the Palestinians may be the ‘victims of the victims’. It is this contradiction that must be remembered when considering the nature of Berlin’s liberalism. Margalit believes that:

Berlin’s Zionism was not an ideology which derives from primary principles such as nationalism or liberalism…Yet Berlin’s version of Zionism tallies with the emotions that underlie his version of nationalism. For Berlin the emotional underpinnings of nationalism are the most important element in nationalism…[his interest] was in the emotions, feelings, and moods which motivate social movements, even more than in their ideas.[72]

Berlin is clearly concerned with cultural prowess, as both “Origins of the Israeli State” and “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation” attest. However, whilst discussing the need for the Jews to live within a ‘normalised’ society of their own, so that “Jews could create cultural conditions similar to those of other nations”,[73] he does not see that this process of ‘normalisation’- in the form presented by the Zionists – had ignored the consideration that co-existence with the Palestinian people would have enriched the immature Israeli cultural landscape. Said uncovers Berlin’s blindness towards the Palestinian people through an examination of Berlin’s ‘idolatrous’ depiction of Weizmann:

Weizmann presided over the colonisation of Palestine, he knew about the eviction of the Palestinians, and of course he must have felt all along that had those things been done to Jews, he would have been the first to call them injustices.[74]

As Margalit writes, “for the Jews to regain a home meant for Palestinian Arabs to lose theirs. This troubled Berlin, but not to the point of seriously questioning his Zionism”.[75]

It is in this sense that Berlin’s belief in ‘incommensurable values’ (central to his value-pluralism) is an easy way to justify the naturalness of conflict between Arabs and Jews. If values are incommensurable, there will always be conflict, and this should come as no surprise.[76] Again, using the language of ‘normality’, Berlin exacerbates a type of ‘warrior discourse’. Similar to his implicit rejection of unnatural doctrines in the cause of Cold War liberalism, Berlin implicitly rejects the “feebleness of the Muslim culture” in favour of a ‘superior’ value system.


It is clear that Berlin’s intellectual role was layered and complex. Dominated by the intellectual milieu created by the cultural Cold War, the construction of his writing betrays ideological preoccupations synonymous with self-satisfied Anglo-American liberal discourse. The way in which he spoke of ‘cultural superiority’, the primacy he placed on the role of the author, and the naturalness of certain modes of thinking and living, demonstrate the persistent moral dimension to be found within Berlin’s texts. However, the style of his work ensures Berlin appears a ‘passive’ intellectual in the Cold War context.

His variety of Cold War liberalism is complicated by the strength of his Zionist beliefs. His role as an ‘active’ intellectual for Israel has implications for his ‘liberal-pluralist’ legacy, which were neither explored nor acknowledged through his writings. Berlin believed that Jewishness is an identity never to be discarded.[77] He said, late in his life, “I remain totally loyal to Britain, to Oxford, to Liberalism, to Israel, to a number of other institutions with which I feel identified”.[78] He was deeply affected by these affiliations and his role seems to be one of consistent intellectual ‘mobilisation’ for these causes.

It is difficult to reconcile the contradictory areas of Berlin’s thought. Margalit considers them belonging “to different layers in his soul”.[79] However, we should not view these ‘layers’ as isolated, or even necessarily contradictory. Instead, we should understand that Berlin’s Cold War liberalism impacted on his Zionist beliefs, just as his Zionist beliefs influenced his thought on pluralism, identity, and freedom. Connections between these ‘layers’ can be sensed through the position ‘normality’ held in his form of expression. It is in this sense that Berlin offered a consistent intellectual vision, which had at its foundation strong Jewish identity, and Cold War values.

The differences in the perceived ‘role’ of Berlin can be quite telling. The ‘active’ Zionist role he assumed is the firmest indication we have of his political ‘mobilisation’. Crucially, on the level of discourse, if we agree that Berlin offered a consistent form of expression, then we can conclude that Berlin’s ‘passive’ Cold War role was equally politicised. It is in this sense that Berlin’s methodology, function, and ‘passive’ role, should be taken into consideration when judging the efficacy of his ‘liberal-pluralist’ legacy.

Write a response to this paper

(the email you send to will be read by the Eras editorial committee and published on the “Discussion” page)


[1] See Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy, Free Press, New York, 1989, passim .

[2] David Caute, The Dancer Defects, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, p. 1-3.

[3] Lionel Trilling, “A Sense of the Past” in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 198.

[4] For ideological theology, see Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, Scribners, New York, 1952, and his two volume The Nature and Destiny of Man, Scribners, New York, 1941, where his ‘Christian Realism’ is elaborated. Just one example of the language of religion being used in Cold War discourse is in the title of Richard Crossman (ed.), The God That Failed, Bantam, New York, 1959, originally published in 1949.

[5] Excellent new scholarship stressing the importance of the ‘cultural cold war’ includes: Giles Scott-Smith and Hans Krabbendam (eds), The Cultural Cold War in Western Europe 1945-1960, Frank Cass, London, 2003; Frances Stoner-Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Granta, London, 1999; Walter L. Hixson,Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1997, and “‘Unwitting Assets?’ British Intellectuals and the Congress for Cultural Freedom”, Twentieth Century British History, 11, 2000, pp. 42-60.

[6] There is no space, or need, to elaborate Berlin’s biographical detail in this article. See Michael Ignatieff,Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Vintage, London, 2000, for an accessible and sympathetic biography.

[7] For a recent article championing the ‘Berlinian’ method see James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”, History and Theory, 41, Oct. 2002, pp. 277-300.

[8] One example being Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, Penguin, Middlesex, 1969.

[9] Berlin’s part in the creation of the ‘western self-image’ is elucidated in Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, Vintage, New York, 2001.

[10] See Hugh Wilford, The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995; Nathan Abrams, “‘A Profoundly Hegemonic Moment’: De-Mythologizing the Cold War New York Jewish Intellectuals”, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring 2003, pp. 64-89.

[11] Part of a letter written to Noel Annan in 1971: see Noel Annan, “A Man I Loved”, in Hugh Lloyd-Jones (ed.),Maurice Bowra: A Celebration, Duckworth, London, 1974, p. 53. Source:

[12] James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”, History and Theory, 41, Oct. 2002, p. 279.

[13] Edna Margalit and Avishai Margalit (eds.), Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration, Hogarth Press, London, 1991, p.1.

[14] Independent on Sunday, June 8, 2003, p. 17.

[15] Christopher Hitchens, “Goodbye to Berlin” in Christopher Hitchens (ed.), Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Verso, London , 2000, pp. 138-164.

[16] Christopher Hitchens, “Goodbye to Berlin”, passim.

[17] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process, passim.

[18] There is a large amount of affirmative literature concerning the thought of Berlin. The impact of the sympathetic publications of John Gray, for example, Berlin, Fontana, London, 1995, is important. The cumulative work of Gray, Alan Ryan, Michael Ignatieff, and Edna and Avishai Margalit, and too many more to list here, has helped generate a Berlinian ‘orthodoxy’ bolstered, or at least rarely challenged, by recent publications such as: James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”; Michael Kenny, “Isaiah Berlin’s Contribution to Modern Political Theory”, Political Studies, 48, 2000, pp. 1026-1039; Yael Tamir, “A Strange Alliance: Isaiah Berlin and the Liberalism of the Fringes”, Ethical theory and Moral Practice, 1, 1998, pp. 279-289.

[19] See Thomas L. Dumm, Michael Foucault and the Politics of Freedom, SAGE, London, 1996, chapter 2.

[20] Edward Shils, The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1972, p. 56.

[21] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, Vintage, London, 1994, p. 17.

[22] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, p. xi.

[23] Ramin Jahanbegloo,Conversations With Isaiah Berlin: Recollections of an Historian of Ideas, Phoenix, London, 1992, p. 183.

[24] In an attempt to understand the various intellectual ‘roles’, I have adapted a sociologiocal model from S. Lipset and A. Basu, who explored the “variations of behaviour among those involved in high cultural institutions”: S. Lipset and A. Basu “The Roles of the Intellectual and Political Roles” in A. Gella (ed.), The Intelligentsia and the Intellectuals: Theory, Method and Case Study, SAGE, New York, 1979.

[25] S. Lipset and A. Basu, “The Roles of the Intellectual and Political Roles”, p. 139-40.

[26] Lewis Alfred Coser, Men of Ideas, Free Press, New York, 1965, p. 352.

[27] See Thomas L. Dumm, Michael Foucault and the Politics of Freedom, passim.

[28] Irene Harvey, Derrida and the Economy of Difference , Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1986, p.29.

[29] Claude J. Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism , Clarendon, Oxford, 1994, p. 19.

[30] Isaiah Berlin quoted in Galipeau,Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism, p. 19.

[31] Perry Anderson, A Zone of Engagement, Verso, London, 1992, p. 230.

[32] Terry Eagleton, “Awakening from Modernity”, Times Literary Supplement, 20 Feb. 1987, quoted in David Harvey,The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, p.9.

[33] Michel Foucault, The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Vol.1, Penguin, London, 1998, p. 92-3.

[34] Ramin Jahanbegloo,Conversations With Isaiah Berlin: Recollections of an Historian of Ideas, p. 175.

[35] Perry Anderson, A Zone of Engagement, p. 232.

[36] Isaiah Berlin, “Vico’s Concept of Knowledge” in Against the Current, Pimlico, London, 1997, p. 116. Essay originally published in 1969.

[37] Edward Said, Beginnings, Granta, London, 1997, p.203.

[38] For an accusation regarding Berlin’s exaggeration of Vico’s originality see Hans Aarslef, “Vico and Berlin”, inLondon Review of Books, 3, 5-18 Nov. 1981, pp. 6-7. Berlin replies to the criticism in the same issue. See also A. H. Scouten’s review of Vico and Herder, in Comparative Literature Studies, 15, 1978, pp. 336-40. Reply in 16, 1979, pp.141-5. Peter Burke has also attacked this ‘myth making’ in Vico , PM Series, 1985.

[39] Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History” in Concepts and Categories, Hogarth Press, London, 1978, p. 137. Essay originally published in 1960.

[40] See Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London, 1991, pp. 101-120.

[41] See Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, OUP, Oxford, 2002, pp. 166-218. Essay originally published in 1958. In Chapter 2 of Michael Foucault and the Politics of Freedom, Thomas L. Dumm reflects on the language of ‘normality’ to be found in liberal writing.

[42] James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”, p.280.

[43] James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”, p. 280-1.

[44] Isaiah Berlin, “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity” in Isaiah Berlin,Against The Current .Essay originally published in 1970.

[45] James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”, p. 282.

[46] Yael Tamir, Liberal Nationalism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993, p. ix-x, quoted in James Cracroft, “A Berlin for Historians”, p. 284.

[47] John Millar Jones, Assembling (Post)modernism: The Utopian Thought of Ernst Bloch, Peter Lang, New York, 1995, p. 4. Also see Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder, Hogarth Press, London, 1976.

[48] John Millar Jones, Assembling (Post)modernism: The Utopian Thought of Ernst Bloch, p. 173.

[49] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, New York Review of Books, New York , 2001, p. 168.

[50] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.) The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 158.

[51] Isaiah Berlin, “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation” in Isaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas, Pimlico, London, 2001, p. 182. Essay originally published in 1951.

[52] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, p. 219.

[53] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 156.

[54] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 80.

[55] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 162.

[56] Weizmann turned to Berlin for help with speech-writing: see Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 177.

[57] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin A Life, p. 76.

[58] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 181.

[59] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 181.

[60] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, pp. 220-1.

[61] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After , p. 221.

[62] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After , p. 220.

[63] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After , p. 221.

[64] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 183. As Ignatieff points out, Berlin answers Koestler within his “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation” in The Power of Ideas. Originally published in 1951.

[65] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, p. 217.

[66] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 158.

[67] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 157-8 and see Michael Ignatieff,Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 298.

[68] See Ramin Jahanbegloo Conversations With Isaiah Berlin: Recollections of an Historian of Ideas, passim , for an impression of Berlin’s ‘private’ peaceable and reflective tone.

[69] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin : A Life , p. 182. Letter cited as IB to Felix Frankfurter 10.1.51.

[70] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, p. 220.

[71] Isaiah Berlin “The Origins of Israel” in Power of Ideas, p. 150. Published in its earliest form in 1953.

[72] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 150.

[73] Isaiah Berlin ,”Jewish Slavery and Emancipation”, p. 175.

[74] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, p. 219.

[75] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 149.

[76] Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, passim.

[77] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin : A Life, p. 88.

[78] Ramin Jahanbegloo,Conversations With Isaiah Berlin : Recollections of an Historian of Ideas, p. 87.

[79] M. Lilla, R. Dworkin, and Robert B. Silvers (eds.) The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, p. 157.