Liberal Understanding For Troubled Times

Isaiah Berlin’s Insights And Our Moment Of Populist Revolt

By Professor Joshua L. Cherniss (Georgetown University)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Steve Pyke/Getty.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture & An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

We often expect much of those identified as philosophers: profundity, wisdom, originality – and prescience. That a thinker has been able to foresee developments many years, or even centuries, in the future is often cited as a reason he or she is worthy of serious study and wide readership; failure to anticipate and “speak to” subsequent generations often appears as a major failing in a philosopher, a reason for justified neglect. We might think that this is mistaken, or at least reflects only one way in which intellectual artifacts can be useful: they can also, by their very foreignness or untimeliness, even in their predictive mistakes, remind us of the unpredictability of the future, the sharp differences between historical moments, and the uniqueness or novelty of our own time. Nevertheless, it remains the case that we as readers often intuitively turn to past thinkers for insight into our own lives and time. We are particularly apt to do this at moments of crisis and disorientation, when the sages (or pundits) of the present day seem insufficient. Where they fail, perhaps earlier thinkers, who have been through something we perceive as similar to our own time, yet do not share our particular blind spots, will offer better guidance.

The Russian-born British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin may seem to be such a thinker; at least, he seems so to some (as I gather from having been asked by the editors to write about his thought for this issue of The Critique). Berlin’s reputation has in fact gone through a series of crests and troughs, many of which have reflected the perceived relevance of his work. A sort of guru to policy-makers, intellectuals, and cultural nabobs from Washington to Jerusalem during the early Cold War period, in the late 1960s and 1970s he suffered eclipse as a typical “Cold War liberal,” hyper-vigilant towards the evils of Communism and blind to the injustices of Western democracy, the dissatisfactions of Western youth, and the threat of the New Right. Somewhat surprisingly, his reputation enjoyed a revival with the end of the Cold War, as his skepticism of grand narratives of historical progress, his insistence on the lasting importance of nationalism, and his attention to the intractability of conflicts of values and identities in even stable, well-functioning democratic societies came to seem more timely than ever.[1] The last two decades have seen continued ebbing and surging of interest in Berlin. But what, if anything, can this twentieth-century thinker, deeply absorbed both in seemingly timeless philosophical questions and in the particularities of eighteenth and nineteenth-century intellectual history, tell us about the recent resurgence of illiberal or anti-liberal populism in the Western world?

The answer must come in three parts. The first is concerned with Berlin’s failures of prediction. Recognizing these is not only important in assessing Berlin’s adequacy as a guide to our present situation, they may also help us to see just how novel our present situation would have seemed to a learned and perceptive observer of the past – and prompt us to reflect on whether these developments really are so novel after all. The second is to bring out elements of Berlin’s analysis of anti-liberal intellectual traditions and psychological impulses that may help to explain, or at least illuminate, recent phenomena. The third consists in retrieving aspects of Berlin’s thought that contrast with our current populism – and which may furnish material for intellectual responses to these threats. My discussion of each of these will be far from exhaustive, but will–I hope—be suggestive.


I. How Berlin May Miss the Mark

Both Berlin’s relevance and his shortcomings as historical prophet are apparent in an address he delivered at the University of Toronto in 1994, published twenty years later as “A Message to the 21st Century”.[2] The title (not Berlin’s own) suggests that here, at least, is a place to look for prediction of, and guidance through, the problems that our age will face. Yet the lecture turns out to be mostly about the twentieth century, and also about Berlin’s recurrent (even omnipresent) theme: the evils of monism and dogmatism as nearly universal, and universally dangerous, intellectual orientations. And to the extent that Berlin engages in forecasting, he strikes a note that will now strike many of us as far too optimistic. After seeking to explain the intellectual-psychological origins of the horrors of the twentieth century, Berlin concludes on a hopeful note. The horrors of the twentieth century, the refutation of the promises of nineteenth-century historical prophecies (above all, those of Marxism), the exhaustion of ideological passion and revulsion at the horrors this passion had produced, had, Berlin suggested, laid the stage for a revival of a humane, pragmatic liberalism. The liberal values of rationality and tolerance (which, Berlin reminds us even in this hopeful moment, are “rare enough in human history”) were “not despised;” liberal democracy, “despite everything, despite the greatest modern scourge of fanatical, fundamentalist nationalism,” appeared to be spreading. This presented a cheering contrast to the years of Berlin’s youth, the interwar period, when democracy appeared beleaguered and incapable of mounting an effective practical, or inspiring theoretical, defense of itself, and when (as Berlin had earlier written) “fierce left and right-wing propaganda” insisted that “the conquest and retention of political power is not compatible with human qualities,” and that political efficacy demanded the sacrifice of human lives and liberties “upon the altar of some ruthless ideology, or the practice of despotism.”[3] In contrast to those dark days, in the post-Cold-War order freedom – even if only the modest freedom of the protection of private rights – appeared to be on the march: “Great tyrannies are in ruins, or will be – even in China the day is not too distant.” Berlin evinced confidence in predicting that “the twenty-first century … can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been.” Berlin concluded by telling his younger audience, “I congratulate you on your good fortune; I regret that I shall not see this brighter future, which I am convinced is coming … I am glad to end on an optimistic note. There really are good reasons to think that it is justified.”[4]

Things look different today. Liberal democracy seems to be in retreat, both in nations where it has been a later, incomplete and fragile (or abortive) growth – Russia, Turkey, Hungary, to a lesser degree Poland and India – and in much of the traditional heartland of liberal democracy itself.[5] The international order that arose out of the charnel-house of World War II (which Berlin played a small role in instituting)[6] now seems to be undergoing a period of crisis. Both the upsurge of right-wing, xenophobic and authoritarian populism sweeping Europe and the U.S. (and the more left-wing, but similarly authoritarian, populism that has taken root in much of Latin America), and the revival of murderous and oppressively theocratic religious fundamentalism, seem to give the lie to Berlin’s valedictory optimism about our ability to learn from the mistakes of the past, rather than (almost immediately) repeating them. Murderous ideology is too much with us, as is contempt for democratic norms of decency, tolerance, appreciation of variety and difference, and respect for others.

Berlin thus did not see our present moment coming. His thought may also be a less than ideal guide to contemporary politics insofar as he was centrally preoccupied with the political (and the broader psychological) power of theories – especially rationalist or (pseudo-)scientific theories of history and morality. What we might call Trumpism has its intellectual adherents; and Putinism owes much to the influence of Aleksandr Dugin, a latter-day adherent of the Russian nationalism and authoritarianism with which Berlin was familiar (and to which he was deeply antipathetic), who also has a following among the American neo-Nazi “alt-right.”[7] But contemporary authoritarian populism does not appear to have the same sort of philosophical inspiration, or aspiration to force human societies and individuals into the patterns prescribed by systematic social and political theories, that marked Communism. As a left-leaning liberal worried by illiberal tendencies on the Left, Berlin was focused on the potential for perversion of ideals to which he was himself attracted – justice, equality, rationalism. The ideals that Berlin gently and sometimes anxiously sought to clarify and demystify are, in many instances, comprehensively rejected and attacked by contemporary authoritarian populists. If Berlin was a penetrating analyst of tyrannical impulses (and, in my opinion, he was), it was primarily a very different sort of tyranny from that threatened by contemporary populists.


II. Berlin’s Lessons for Understanding Our Moment of Populist Reaction

Nevertheless, many of the themes and phenomena with which Berlin was centrally concerned throughout his intellectual career are relevant today. I now want to briefly survey some of the most significant of these – most significant both in Berlin’s thought, and in their relevance to recent political events in America, the United Kingdom, and beyond. These are the role of human agency in politics; the political importance of what we might call cultural, psychological, and ideological or ideational factors, as opposed to economic factors; the intractable power of national feeling and populist resentment; the psychological and intellectual roots of the human propensity toward intolerance; and the allure and danger of a mindset characterized by certainty and ruthlessness. Berlin was strongly opposed to theories of “historical inevitability.”[8] He objected, first, to the intellectual hubris of such theories – the claim to be able to identify a single direction in which history was moving (and, very often, a single driving force of this historical development), and thus to be able to predict, and in effect master, the future. This hubris was closely related to a misleadingly simplistic conception of how history unfolds, which in turn reflected a discomfort with complexity, uncertainty, and messiness. Berlin insisted, borrowing the phrasing of his hero the nineteenth-century Russian radical Alexander Herzen, that “history has no libretto” – no single, tidy, coherent direction and ultimate meaning. Events unfold unpredictably, in complex and contradictory ways. And the unfolding of events reflects many factors – including accident and human choice. This brings us to the final element of theories of historical determinism that provoked Berlin’s dissent: the disempowering, passivity-fostering denial of human agency by such theories. It was important to recognize that events might have gone differently, given different conduct on the part of individuals and groups. This applied both to positive achievements, which were more fortuitous – and more vulnerable – than believers in inevitable progress supposed; and also to evils and horrors, for which human beings should recognize their responsibility. Thus Berlin asserted that the horrors of the twentieth century “were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.”[9] On the other hand, despite Berlin’s moments of optimism, there was no law of historical progress that foreclosed a repetition of or return to barbarism.

One of Berlin’s main targets, from his first (and only full-length) book onward, was Marxism.[10] For Berlin, Marxism represented the sort of deterministic and monistic philosophy of history to which he was generally opposed. It also presented a powerful, but paradoxical, denial of the power of ideas as independent agents of historical development. This denial was powerful because Marx really did offer an effective critique of Hegelian Idealism. Marx’s emphasis on the importance of material factors in historical development, while (in Berlin’s opinion) neither as original or conclusive as Marx himself suggested, was valid to some degree, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the human past. But this denial was also paradoxical – and ultimately somewhat self-refuting – insofar as Marxism itself was a powerful historical force which could not be explained solely in terms of the determining influence of economic conditions. Marxism indeed offered one of the most dramatic examples of the “power of ideas” to reshape world history. But Marxism was not the only example of this. And the sort of example it provided – of how a system of explicit doctrine, articulated with a high degree of sophistication and coherence, could inspire and guide political action – was not the only model of how non-material factors can influence human history. Another example, of a very different sort of ideological or “ideational” historical force, was provided by another nineteenth-century doctrine with which Berlin was also preoccupied throughout his life: nationalism.[11]

Nationalism fascinated Berlin partly because he himself felt its pull – he was, throughout his life, a Zionist (albeit a liberal Zionist who was often deeply critical of Israeli policy, even as he was persistently loyal to the idea, and reality, of a Jewish state). He was also attracted to nationalism as a topic because it illustrated, for him, the power not only of ideas, but of ideas that derived their power not from reason but from their appeal to the emotions; and because the persistent power of nationalism falsified so many confident theories of historical development. But there was a simpler reason for his focus on nationalism: his conviction of its contemporary, and lasting, importance. Nationalism, he asserted, was “the strongest & most dangerous force at large today,”[12] “not merely one of the most powerful but, it seems to me, the most powerful of all the influences upon the public life of the West; and today of the entire world.” And not only the most powerful, but “perhaps the most destructive”: “If there is a danger of the total annihilation of mankind it is more likely to arise from an irrational explosion of hatred against some real or imaginary enemy or oppressor of the nation.”[13]

Berlin also wrote persistently, and insistently, about nationalism because he judged that, in large part because of the belief that it was a force that had been eclipsed by the forward march of history, nationalism had not received adequate attention. This, at least, is no longer the case – there is an enormous academic literature on nationalism (which, while it often departs from Berlin’s approach and conclusions, also owes much to his early championing of the topic). Yet there is still a tendency to see nationalism – and the related phenomena of nativism and xenophobia – as epiphenomenal, and more specifically as reflecting more fundamental economic factors. This is at the root of the tendency – common to many contemporary Marxists, but also to all who adopt a fundamentally economistic perspective – to explain recent political moves away from liberal democracy and towards various forms of nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism in terms of economic anxiety and socio-economic (or class) status. Berlin’s work suggests that such approaches, while not wholly invalid – economic concerns and interests surely do play some role – are insufficient. This is both because they ignore or subordinate factors that cannot be traced or reduced to economics, such as nationalism (or racism, or anti-elitism, or bellicosity, or fear of violent threats); and because they tend to conceptualize economic concerns themselves in terms of objective conditions rather than perceptions conditioned by ideas and emotions (thus, “economic anxiety” may indeed be a significant motive for the embrace of nationalist populism – but this economic anxiety should be understood in terms of perceptions of declining prospects, insecurity and insult, rather than the objective economic well-being and opportunities of those who have embraced populism).

Berlin’s studies of nationalism thus emphasized not only the importance of the history of nationalist theories – particularly the influence of the late-eighteenth-century German thinker J.G.Herder, as well as other German critics of the cosmopolitanism (or, viewed differently, cultural imperialism) of the French Enlightenment – but also the psychological roots both of what Berlin termed “national sentiment” or “national consciousness,” and of the “inflamed” form of this sentiment or consciousness that he tended to call “nationalism” (what we might call nationalist ideology).[14] Both national sentiment and, more problematically, nationalist ideology reflect what Berlin identified as a basic human craving for belonging, understood as consisting in membership in, and the sort of mutual understanding and sense of connection and common interest and identity that grows up within, a group of human beings who share a common way of life. Berlin believed that such a sense of belonging, of being at home within a particular human community, was for most human beings a basic condition for happiness and a sense of dignity; without it, individuals were prey to loneliness, insecurity, painful self-consciousness, a sense of being misunderstood and excluded.

In addition to the desire to belong, Berlin linked national sentiment to a related but distinct desire for recognition of one’s (or one’s people’s) status by those outside the national group; and to a quest for collective self-determination, which offers (or so nationalists believe) protection against domination, dependence, and humiliation. Desire for recognition and self-determination was often sharpened by the experience of defeat or conquest, and the humiliation that these inflicted. Once it was thus “inflamed,” national sentiment – which, Berlin insisted, was “intrinsically neither evil nor dangerous” – could develop into the “pathological condition” of aggressive, chauvinistic nationalism, which asserted that one particular nation (one’s own) was superior to all others, and elevated “the interests of the unity and self-determination of the nation to the status of the supreme value before which all other considerations must … yield at all times.”[15]

How useful is this account to understanding recent developments in American and British public life? If nationalism does, as Berlin suggests, reflect “a state of wounded consciousness” engendered by defeat, national subjection and humiliation, it would seem difficult to explain the rise of nationalism in a proud, leading superpower such as the United States, or a relatively secure, stable, respected nation such as Great Britain. (And indeed, Berlin suggested that aggressive nationalism – as opposed to a sort of smug sense of superiority over foreigners – was not at all characteristic of Britain.)[16] This may suggest that Berlin’s account is too simple – as it almost surely is.

Yet it may be more relevant, and revealing, than we are first apt to think. Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” and the whole premise and tenor of his campaign, reflects a belief that America has fallen from its former greatness – that “We don’t win anymore,” that America has been outsmarted, cheated, in short humiliated by its rivals. Democratic retorts to Trump that America “is already great” failed because they were deaf to this sense of national eclipse and decline which Trump perceived and captured – a sense born both of perceived losses in economic competition (on the part of the nation as a whole, and not just individual Trump voters), and of military failure. The latter has been too little noted in analyses of the Trump phenomenon. The administration of George W. Bush presented itself, after September 11 2001, as engaged in a “war against terror,” which America was destined to win. The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, presented as decisive death-blows to the terrorist enemy, proved to be nothing of the sort, but costly, inconclusive, morally and strategically dubious quagmires. The rise of ISIS/Daesh – on which Trump continuously harped – confirmed not only that America was still in danger, but, perhaps more significantly, that it had failed in its efforts to avert it. That this sense of failure and frustration, of being thwarted and foiled by opponents regarded as inferior, reflected an unrealistic and hubristic sense of America’s power and virtue, makes it no less real and painful for many Americans. Matters are more complex in Britain: but a sense of being subordinated to the condescending bureaucrats of the EU, of losing national sovereignty and thus losing face, appears to have been a sentiment on which British nationalists such as Nigel Farage effectively played – and which, again, insistence on the economic benefits of the EU utterly failed to address.

In seeking to explain aggressive, bellicose nationalism, Berlin also acknowledged – though he did not devote as much attention to, and possibly under-weighted – another element, beyond a desire for belonging and communal self-determination and a sense of collective humiliation or wounded pride, that informed national chauvinism: an innate human tendency towards “dislike for the dissimilar,” and an accompanying propensity to distrust, stereotype, and seek to assert one’s own superiority over those who are regarded or defined as different and foreign. National (or ethnic, racial, religious, or indeed political) prejudice or bigotry might be irrational (and, perhaps, primal). But it also, Berlin suggested, reflected a longing to justify, or rationalize, sentiments of dislike, aggression, and arrogance: “Tribes hate neighbouring tribes by whom they feel threatened, & then rationalize their fears by representing them as wicked or inferior, or absurd or despicable in some way…Conquest, enslavement of peoples, imperialism etc. are not fed just by greed or desire for glory, but have to justify themselves to themselves by some central idea: French as the only true culture; the white man’s burden; communism & the stereotypes of others as inferior or wicked.”[17] Human beings are often cruelest and most savage, Berlin suggested, when they have been able to convince themselves of their superior virtue, whether as victims of injustice, or champions of a higher set of values or way of life – or both at once. The capacity – indeed, the sometimes convulsive compulsion – of contemporary populists to simultaneously claim victimhood and outraged innocence, and to assert mastery over and lash out at (vulnerable) others, would likely not surprise or bemuse Berlin.

Berlin – most of whose family were murdered by the Nazis in Latvia in 1941 – was fully aware of the evil that nationalist ideology could inspire. But he insisted that not all nationalism should be stigmatized as equally evil – and that in any case nationalism, and the conditions and ideas which inspired it, must be understood. This was a warning particularly directed toward his fellow liberals. Liberals who dismissed nationalist claims and impulses were guilty of a dangerous, if benevolent, blindness – a failure to understand what others aspire to and live by. Their failure to recognize the “psychological and political fact” of nationalist longings and resentments had “blinded some contemporary liberals to the world in which they live. Their plea is clear, their cause is just. But they do not allow for the variety of basic human needs.”[18] This lay behind the slowness of many Western liberals to sympathize with, or indeed comprehend, the grievances – and the turn to political violence and extremism – of victims of colonization and imperialism. The same failure to understand nationalist sentiment may be seen in liberal proponents of globalization, European integration, and international government, who have been blind to the resentment and resistance their programs and policies have provoked – and have now been blindsided by the furious reaction against their enlightened liberal vision.

Latvian-born British philosopher, historian of ideas and Fellow of New College, Oxford, Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997), Oxford, 25th November 1950. Original publication: Picture Post - 5159 - Eternal Oxford - pub. 1950 (Photo by John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Image)

[Latvian-born British philosopher, historian of ideas and Fellow of New College, Oxford, Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997), Oxford, 25th November 1950. Original publication: Picture Post – 5159 – Eternal Oxford – pub. 1950 (Photo by John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Image)].

“The capacity – indeed, the sometimes convulsive compulsion – of contemporary populists to simultaneously claim victimhood and outraged innocence, and to assert mastery over and lash out at (vulnerable) others, would likely not surprise or bemuse Berlin.”

Despite his many disagreements with them, Berlin was drawn to Romantic and revolutionary thinkers of the past by what he perceived as their passionate protest against “any form of despotism, however benevolent and rational, not because it diminishes … happiness but because it is intrinsically degrading.”[20] Much of his work – particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s – took aim at technocratic elitism.[21] Berlin expressed – and located within liberalism, despite its own elitist tendencies – a distrust of ‘all the great managers of society, all those who confidently and tidily arrange the destinies of others.”[22] The evil of paternalism – the fact that it ‘degrades’ those subjected to it – was “the central reason for pursuing liberty in the first place.”[23] This was something that liberals should never forget. Paternalist elitism shared with Communism the belief that there is a single correct “progressive” path of historical development, discoverable by “experts wise enough to detect the direction of history,” and that “the individual soul” had to be engineered to follow it, regardless of “its own conscious desires, ideals, aspirations.” Such a view, however well-intentioned, and based on genuine knowledge of and insight into political (and economic, and technical) facts, denied individual dignity and threatened individual liberty, insofar as it held that those who dissented from this direction were “not worth listening to,” a “nuisance,” who should be “swept away as an obstacle to progress.”[24]

“The evil of paternalism – the fact that it ‘degrades’ those subjected to it – was “the central reason for pursuing liberty in the first place”– something that liberals should never forget.”

This is not to say that Berlin would have approved of, or counseled appreciation of or alliance with, the contemporary populism represented by Trump, UKIP, or their kindred spirits in Europe and beyond. Berlin’s work points to a version of “populism” – an anti-elitist, anti-statist, anti-authoritarian position represented both by Herder and by Russian “Populists” (Narodniki) such as P. L. Lavrov and N. K. Mikhailovsky, which affirmed the competence and right of ordinary people to determine the course of their own lives, individually and collectively, and rejected claims to unchecked tutelary power and unquestioned authority on the part of political and intellectual elites. This sort of populism, as expounded by Berlin, is closer in spirit to liberalism than to xenophobic authoritarianism.[25].

Berlin recognized that populism can inspire opposition to the tyranny and moral pretensions of elites; but that it can also fuel its own sort of tyranny and moral pretension. So too with the cultural nationalism to which Berlin saw Herder’s “populism” as intimately linked. Berlin (like some earlier liberals, such as Benjamin Constant) sympathized with the cultural-nationalist opposition to the imposition of uniformity and the denial of human variety and complex, troublesome allegiances.[26] But he also recognized that nationalism as an ideology could itself produce just such “vivisection,” as the nationalist ideal itself was imposed on resistant populations and individuals.[27] Both a dogmatic rejection of and attempt to eradicate national sentiment and identity, and a dogmatic or romanticized embrace of a fantasy of national wholeness or greatness, represented a self-maiming attempt to deny complex and uncomfortable human realities.

Berlin thus recognized not only in both many nationalist and populist movements, but also in left-wing authoritarianism, and even in some forms of liberal or progressive paternalism, the dangerous force of dogma, self-righteousness, an inability to admit doubt or fault, and discomfort with uncertainty. An attack on dogmatism, and the righteous ruthlessness it inspires, was one of the central themes of Berlin’s work as a whole. He summed up his lesson in “A Message to the 21st Century”, observing that those who are truly convinced that they (and they alone) know the way or hold the key to solving pressing human problems are apt to believe that “no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of … paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them.” If those who resist prove immune to persuasion, or to rational legislation, “then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used – if necessary, terror, slaughter.”[28] As he wrote in another summation of his views,

“Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be & do – & that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad & need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree … Compromising with people with whom you don’t sympathize or altogether understand is indispensable to any decent society: nothing is more destructive than a happy sense of one’s own – or one’s nation’s – infallibility, which lets you destroy others with a quiet conscience”[29]

Intellectual arrogance and an inability to admit (or even consider the possibility of) error breed intolerance and tyranny. While Berlin often stressed the danger of such tendencies in technocratic or rationalist elites, he was also aware of the hostility of populist movements to doubt, ambiguity, nuance, disagreement, and open-endedness – a tendency that has recently been stressed in the illuminating work of political theorist Jan-Werner Mueller, who depicts populist political movements as essentially defined by “anti-pluralism,” the denial of the validity of disagreement and the insistence on the part of some individuals, movement, or party that they alone possess the truth and can legitimately speak for the true will of the people, which Berlin attacked in “Two Concepts of Liberty” and elsewhere.[30]


III. (How) Does Berlin’s Liberalism Speak to Us, Now?

What is the proper way to respond to threats to liberty and pluralism? For Berlin, it consists in a reaffirmation of liberalism – but of a chastened, self-critical, more widely and generously comprehending liberalism. Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” is a great statement and defense of core liberal values – a commitment to an individualist conception of liberty, and to the protection of vulnerable individuals against the tyranny and cruelty of arrogant elites and intolerant majorities. But it also presents a plea to Berlin’s fellow liberals to stretch beyond their comfortable presuppositions in order to understand the powerful appeal of nationalism, to appreciate the experiences and enter into the outlook of those they would preach to. Berlin’s warning is all the more compelling and beneficial in being accompanied by a lucid insistence that while both nationalism and insistence on democratic self-rule[31] reflect deep and (at least partially) valid human impulses, they also often conflict with, and pose genuine threats to, the fundamental values of individual liberty and respect for human equality. “Everything,” Berlin repeatedly insisted (quoting the 18th-century British philosopher and bishop Joseph Butler) “is what it is, and not something else” and we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that, in advancing the cause of greater democratic or national self-rule, we are also doing our best to secure liberty and justice for individual human beings.

“Both a dogmatic rejection of and attempt to eradicate national sentiment and identity, and a dogmatic or romanticized embrace of a fantasy of national wholeness or greatness, represented a self-maiming attempt to deny complex and uncomfortable human realities.”

Berlin’s insistence on the need to recognize the validity of, difference between, and conflict among different human values has led some to doubt that his thought can provide us with any useful guidance in choosing among – in embracing and championing, or condemning and combating – these values. Some have concluded that Berlin was basically a relativist – or that, at the least, there was an unhealthy tension in his thought between commitment to liberalism and a relativizing of and excessive tolerance toward all (subjective) human values. Defending Berlin against such charges is a complicated and arduous task, in part because Berlin never spelled out or defended a full account of the nature and basis of moral values.[32] But it is worth noting that alongside his pluralist commitment to affirming the validity and independence of and difference between a variety of human values, Berlin’s moral outlook was also marked by what we might call an individualist humanism. This position begins from the belief that human individuals are “the sole source of all morality, the beings for whose sakes alone whatever is worth doing is worth doing,” and whose rights are “worth fighting and, if need be, dying for.”[33] Or, as Berlin wrote (expressing his own convictions through his hero Herzen):

“all that is ultimately valuable are the particular purposes of particular persons; and to trample on these is always a crime because there is, and can be, no principle or value higher than the ends of the individual, and therefore no principle in the name of which one could be permitted to do violence to or degrade or destroy individuals – the sole authors of all principles and all values”.[34]

This opposition to trampling on individuals and their values led Berlin to reject the oppression of individuals by groups in the name of nationalism, democracy – or indeed justice, or virtue, or social or moral perfection. It made Berlin a liberal, but a self-critical and undogmatic one. For he believed that respect and concern for individual human beings and their intrinsic value demanded that one seek to understand and, as far as possible, appreciate and respect these individuals’ own values and sense of themselves – even when these uncomfortably diverge from, and even conflict with, liberalism.

“This opposition to trampling on individuals and their values led Berlin to reject the oppression of individuals by groups in the name of nationalism, democracy – or indeed justice, or virtue, or social or moral perfection. It made Berlin a liberal, but a self-critical and undogmatic one.”

This does not mean that Berlin would advocate a rapprochement of liberals or progressives with angry populists. Self-criticism and sympathetic understanding are different things from capitulation, or even compromise on certain fundamental moral values. Nor would Berlin agree with those who have called upon opponents of the new, authoritarian populism to fight fire with fire – to put forth a progressive or left-wing program that emulates and matches the bellicosity, and oversimplification, which figures such as Trump, Farage, or Marine Le Pen have had such success peddling. Berlin’s resolute anti-Communism, and his embrace by leading American “Cold War Liberals” (an embrace he hardly discouraged) has led some to stereotype him as a rigid Cold War ideologist. In fact, he resisted attempts to enlist him as an intellectual Cold Warrior who would articulate a simple, dogmatic “fighting faith” to answer that offered by Communism. Replying to one such request, he warned that “the answer to Communism” was not “a counter faith, equally fervent, militant, etc. because one must fight the devil with the devil’s weapons”. On the contrary, there was “no point in defeating the other side if our beliefs at the end of the war are simply the inverse of theirs, just as irrational, despotic, etc.”[35] If fire was fought with fire, too much of value – the fruits of a liberal, tolerant, complex civilization – would be incinerated. Berlin acknowledged that this presented liberals with a difficult predicament. But he insisted that to defend liberal ideals while remaining decent and humane, though difficult, and in no way guaranteed to succeed, was not impossible.

Berlin, I wish to suggest, still has much to teach us. But we would be wrong to look to him for precise prescriptions of how to contend with the challenges that face us, or predictions of what will come next. Berlin himself would demur if asked for such – not just out of the characteristic modesty that made him insist that he had always been overestimated, but because he would regard the search for such intellectual authority, and hence security, as ill conceived. His vision of history and of life emphasized unpredictability, and a complex mix of possibility and limitation which made him reject both utopianism and fatalism. To the extent that he has an easily encapsulated lesson to offer, it is not to be too certain in our predictions or in our sense of the security of present arrangements, or of the sufficiency of our proposed solutions. For, Berlin concluded,

“any study of society shows that every solution creates a new situation which breeds its own new needs and problems, new demands. The children have obtained what their parents and grandparents longed for – greater freedom, greater material welfare, a juster society; but the old ills are forgotten, and the children face new problems, brought about by the very solutions of the old ones, and these, even if they can in turn be solved, generate new situations, and with them new requirements – and so on, for ever – and unpredictably. We cannot legislate for the unknown consequences of consequences of consequences. Marxists tell us that once the fight is won and true history has begun, the new problems that may arise will generate their own solutions, which can be peacefully realised by the united powers of harmonious, classless society. This seems to me a piece of metaphysical optimism for which there is no evidence in historical experience”.

Given this, and the tensions that will always persist between genuinely valid human values, “[t]he possibility of a final solution – even if we forget the terrible sense that these words acquired in Hitler’s day – turns out to be an illusion; and a very dangerous one.”[36] This stands as a warning both to complacent liberals who for too long failed to recognize or reckon with the dissatisfaction, resentments, and frustrated aspirations simmering within their own societies – and to the furious populists who seek social redemption (or, as they picturesquely put it, to “drain the swamp” or “take back our country” or “make America great again”) through an expenditure of unreasoning passion and brute force.

“To defend liberal ideals while remaining decent and humane, though difficult, and in no way guaranteed to succeed, was not impossible.”

Berlin was neither simply an optimist nor simply a pessimist: he believed that conflict, loss, error and mistakes were an ineradicable and sometimes tragic part of human life, but also that human beings had the power to alter their world for the better – as well as for the worse. As his hero Herzen wrote, “The future does not exist; it is created by the combination of a thousand causes, some necessary, some accidental, plus human will … History improvises, she rarely repeats herself … she uses every chance, every coincidence, she knocks simultaneously at a thousand gates . . . Who knows which may open?”[37] Berlin’s account of politics laid special emphasis on the possibilities of human agency – above all, the way in which individual political leaders could change the course of events. His writings tended to focus on those who had, in his view, changed the world for the better – Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, Weizmann – but he was also all too aware of the power of demagogues and fanatics.[38] Such a personalizing approach is not always a good guide to analyzing political developments – but it does point to an important factor (or, as the social scientists would say, variable) in events, which should never be overlooked: strong – or weak – leadership in advancing or opposing a trend such as populism can make a difference. Trusting in – or surrendering despairingly to – demographic trends, or economic might, or skillful “messaging,” would be, on Berlin’s view, mistaken – and a denial, and evasion, of our responsibility. Those who would defend liberal democracy cannot trust in its natural superiority or some friendly law of historical development. Politically canny and principled champions of liberal democracy will be needed if there is to be any hope of stemming the recent authoritarian-populist tide.

Berlin’s is a great humanist voice. It counsels humility, but not despair. It teaches us to attend to difficult and dark aspects of human aspiration – wounded pride and resentment, the desire for certainty, security, and superiority, and intolerance of complexity, conflict, and doubt – and to discern these elements in ourselves as well as our opponents. It suggests, hopefully but not (the conclusion of “A Message to the 21st Century” notwithstanding) with sanguine optimism, ways in which we can cultivate a spirit that stands opposed to these impulses and reactions, without denying the difficulty of sustaining, and the discomfort of inhabiting, such a liberal position. And it reminds us how exceptional such a position is, and how endangered it will always be. It does not point to any easy analytical conclusions or practical solutions: it reminds us how rare, and frequently implausible and impossible, these are. For this reason, Berlin’s work cannot provide full guidance in or understanding of our current situation – or, indeed, any other. But in seeking to live, think, and act with decency, respect, and understanding, it provides a valuable start.[39]

Footnotes & References 

[1] For a summary overview of Berlin’s thought, see Joshua Cherniss and Henry Hardy, ‘Isaiah Berlin’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Book-length studies of Berlin include Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), a perceptive and accessible biography; John Gray, Isaiah Berlin (2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) and George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004), both of which offer critical reconstructions of Berlin’s thought; and Joshua Cherniss, A Mind and Its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 2013) and Arie Dubnov, Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), intellectual biographies which trace the genesis of Berlin’s political ideas.

[2] “A Message to the 21st Century”, (All books and essays cited are, unless otherwise noted, by Berlin.)

[3] “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt”, in Personal Impressions, ed. Henry Hardy (3rd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 48.

[4] “A Message to the 21st Century.”

[5] See Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect”, Journal of Democracy 27:3 (July 2016);; Mounk and Foa, “The Signs of Democratic Deconsolidation,” forthcoming in the Journal of Democracy 28:1 (January 2017).

[6] See Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, chapters 9–13.

[7] On Dugin’s influence see e.g. Dina Newman, “Russian Nationalist Thinker Dugin Sees War with Ukraine”,; on Dugin’s thought, Anton Shekhovtsov, ‘The Palingenetic Thrust of Russian Neo-Eurasianism: Ideas of Rebirth in Aleksandr Dugin’s Worldview’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 9:4 (2008), 491–50, available online at

[8] Berlin’s major discussion of this theme is “Historical Inevitability” (1953), republished in Berlin, Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford University Press, 2002), 94–165. See also “Introduction”, ibid 4–30; and “From Hope and Fear Set Free”, ibid., 252–79.

[9] “A Message to the 21st Century”.

[10] Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939); fifth edition, Karl Marx, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[11] On Berlin’s views on nationalism, see Stuart Hampshire, “Nationalism,” in Edna Ullmann-Margalit and Avishai Margalit, eds., Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration (London: Hogarth Press, 1991), 127–34; David Miller, “Crooked Timber or Bent Twig? Isaiah Berlin’s Nationalism,” Political Studies 53 (2005), 100–23. I discuss Berlin’s nationalism in Joshua L. Cherniss, “Isaiah Berlin: Russo-Jewish Roots, Liberal Commitments, and the Ethos of Pluralism,” forthcoming in International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, on which my discussion of Berlin’s views on nationalism here draws.

[12] “Notes on Prejudice,” online at

[13] “A Note on Nationalism,” The Power of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 302, 309.

[14] For Berlin’s discussions of both the history of nationalist ideas see “Herder and the Enlightenment”, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 208–300; “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Nationalism” and “Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality”, The Sense of Reality, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 232–48 and 249–66, respectively; “Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power,” Against the Current, ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) 420–448; “The Bent Twig: On the Rise of Nationalism,” The Crooked Timber of Humanity, ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 253–78.

[15]“A Note on Nationalism”, 310; “Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power”, 427.

[16] “The Problem of Nationalism”, online at, 3

[17]“Notes on Prejudice”.

[18] “Two Concepts of Liberty”, 208; for Berlin’s full argument to this effect, see ibid 200–8.

[19] Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 135; Freedom and its Betrayal, ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edition (Princeton University Press, 2014), 43. Berlin’s take on Rousseau has been invoked in seeking to understand contemporary developments: see Pankaj Mishra, “How Rousseau Predicted Trump”, at

[20] Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, 193; see also ibid. 205.

[21] On this see Cherniss, A Mind and Its Time op. cit., chapter 4, on which the remainder of this paragraph draws.

[22] “Montesquieu”, Against the Current, 187

[23] “Introduction”, Liberty 54.

[24] “Democracy, Communism and the Individual” (1949), online at

[25] On Herder’s “Populism,” see “Herder and the Enlightenment,” 218–33, 275–8. For Berlin’s account of nineteenth-century Russian populism, see “Russian Populism”, Russian Thinkers ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly (London: Penguin Classics, 2008). On Berlin’s affinities with and debt to (the more liberal wing of) Russian populism, see Cherniss, A Mind and its Time, 37–9.

[26] “Herder and the Enlightenment”, 248–9, 254, 283.

[27] Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, 291.

[28]“A Message to the 21st Century”.

[29] “Notes on Prejudice”.

[30] Jan-Werner Mueller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). Mueller does not refer to Berlin in this work; but it is possible that his sensitivity to anti-pluralism as the heart of populism is informed by his study of Berlin’s (and others’) defenses of pluralism. See Mueller, “Value Pluralism in Twentieth-Century Anglo-American Thought”, in Mark Bevir, ed., Modern Pluralism: Anglo-American Debates Since 1880 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 81–104. For a broadly similar account on populism, see Nancy L. Rosenblum, “Amid Outbreak of Populism, Keep Faith with Democracy”, at 20161205_Commentary__Amid_outbreak_of_populism__keep_faith_with_democracy.html Rosenblum lays more emphasis than Mueller on the role of Trump in creating (or, one might more modestly say, catalyzing) a populist identity – an analysis that works less well in the British case. This differs from Berlin’s more “impersonal” account – but is sympathetic to Berlin’s emphasis on the creative and decisive role of individual leaders, discussed briefly in the conclusion of this essay.

[31] On democratic sovereignty and its relationship to individual liberty see “Two Concepts of Liberty”, 208–12.

[32] For a very brief overview of the debate, see Cherniss and Hardy, “Isaiah Berlin”, at and For the claim that Berlin falls into relativism, see e.g. Leo Strauss, ‘Relativism’, in Relativism and the Study of Man, ed. H. Schoeck and J. Wiggins (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1961); Ernest Gellner, “Sauce for the Liberal Goose”, at of the fullest and most careful defenses of Berlin is offered by Crowder, op. cit. See also Jason Ferrell, “The Alleged Relativism of Isaiah Berlin”, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy 11:1 (2008), 41–56; Jonathan Riley, “Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Minimum of Common Moral Ground,” Political Theory 41:1 (2013), 61–89. For Berlin’s own self-defense against charges of relativism, see “The Pursuit of the Ideal” and “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 1–20 and 73–92.

[33] Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, 145, 259.

[34] “Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty”, Russian Thinkers, 128.

[35] Berlin to Herbert Elliston, 30 December 1952, in Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960, ed. Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes (London: Chatto and Windus, 2009), 349–51.

[36] “The Pursuit of the Ideal”, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 15.

[37] Herzen, From the Other Shore and The Russian People and Socialism, trans. Moura Budberg [with extensive, unattributed revisions by Berlin], online at

[38] I discuss this aspect of Berlin’s work at greater length in a chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Isaiah Berlin, edited by Joshua L. Cherniss and Steven B. Smith.

[39] I am grateful to Henry Hardy for comments on this piece, as well as to Nancy Rosenblum and Vladimir Tismaneanu for discussion which informed it.

Joshua Cherniss
Joshua Cherniss
Joshua L. Cherniss is an Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University, and a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton for the academic year 2016-2017; he has also taught at Harvard and Smith College. His teaching and research centers on the history of political thought, especially political thought in the twentieth century and the history of liberalism; and on political ethics, with particular emphasis on the moral problems of violence and ruthlessness. He is the author of A Mind and its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin's Political Thought, and of articles and book chapters on Berlin, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Max Weber. He is also the co-editor (with Steven B. Smith) of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Isaiah Berlin. He is currently working on a book examining the challenges to and defense of liberalism as a political-ethical outlook in the twentieth century. He holds a D.Phil in history from the University of Oxford and a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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