Tag Archives: Isaiah Berlin

So Much in Common, So Little Common Ground

Kei Hiruta, Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin:

Freedom, Politics, and Humanity

(Princeton University Press)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), two of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals, had much to say that still resonates today on such big picture subjects as the human condition, the conflict between good and evil, the nature of freedom, and how modern democracy can go off the rails.  Arendt and Berlin’s writings on these and related subjects are “often found close to each other in libraries and bookstores across the world” (p.198), observes Kei Hiruta, presently Assistant Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, in Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics, and Humanity, a work which  examines both the background and thinking of the two.  Arendt and Berlin, Hiruta demonstrates, rose to prominence from similar backgrounds.

Both were born into Jewish families in the first decade of the 20th century, Arendt in Germany, Berlin in Riga, Latvia, then a part of the Russian Empire.  Berlin fled Russia with his family as a boy in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Arendt left Nazi Germany as an adult in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. Both lost family and friends in the Holocaust; both considered themselves Zionists; and both made their professional reputations far from Central and Eastern Europe, Arendt in New York, Berlin at Oxford, where English was an acquired language for each.

Although deeply schooled in traditional philosophy, moreover, by mid-career Arendt and Berlin both felt they had left behind the abstract philosophical world.  Arendt began to consider herself a political theorist, Berlin an historian of ideas. Hiruta characterizes his two protagonists as “political philosophers” whose common discipline was the history of political thought.  In the often-provincial Anglophone world, he writes, both Arendt and Berlin were “multilingual Europeans” and “cultured cosmopolitans” whose foreign backgrounds “boosted their reputation as intellectuals with broad horizons” (p.200).

Despite similarities in background, the two were polar opposites in disposition and temperament.  Arendt was, in Hiruta’s words, “brave, charismatic, upright, assertive, impulsive, tactless and argumentative;” Berlin “skeptical, ironical, humorous, charming, good-mannered and thin skinned” (p.199).  As far as we know, the two found themselves together in direct face-to-face encounters only twice, even though they had many mutual friends and acquaintances.  Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a friend of Berlin and an acquaintance of Arendt, arranged one encounter in 1949, which he later described as a “disaster from the start” (p.1).

Schlesinger attributed the disaster to the “sheer difference between the personalities and dispositions” (p.17) of the two.  Arendt was “too solemn, portentous, Teutonic, Hegelian for him,” Schlesinger wrote.  She “mistook his wit for frivolousness and thought him inadequately serious” (p.17).  In the only other recorded meeting, which occurred in 1941, Berlin had found Arendt overly intense in her Zionist commitment — “too much for me” (p.15), he said shortly afterwards. He remembered her in the 1949 meeting, by contrast, as seeming to have cast aside her Zionist convictions entirely, attacking the new Israeli state which had come into existence the previous year.

But if the two had few face-to-face encounters, there is no shortage of instances where Berlin expressed hostility toward Arendt in strikingly vitriolic terms. He once wrote that he had an “allergy” to Arendt that was “absolute and her mere presence in a room gives me goose-flesh” (p.45).  On another occasion, he described himself as a “profound non-admirer of both her work and her personality” (p.9).  She “produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought” (p.2), he wrote.  He described his loathing for Arendt as so intense that he was unwilling to “enter into any relations with [her], not even those of hostility” (p.6).  In 1991, 16 years after Arendt’s passing, Berlin reaffirmed that she remained in death a “real bête noire to me . . . I really do look upon her as everything that I detest most” (p.2).

Arendt for her part never expressed anything remotely similar about Berlin. She was probably at least vaguely aware of his hostility through her friend, the American writer Mary McCarthy.  But Arendt knew she was a lightning rod for criticism, a role she assumed willingly.  Among her many critics, she did not rank Berlin as an “especially important or worthy one” (p.2), Hiruta writes. Arendt appears to have considered Berlin a learned scholar, especially in Russian intellectual history, and a moderately important member of what she called the “Jewish establishment.”  But for the most part, Arendt reciprocated Berlin’s animosity toward her with indifference to him, “accompanied by occasional skepticism” (p.3).

Neither Arendt nor Berlin was an armchair philosopher detached from the world about which they wrote. For both, the personal and the intellectual consistently intertwined as they grappled in their different ways over how to make sense of the murderous 20th century.  Hiruta deftly links the personal to the intellectual in his compact and tightly argued book, presenting Arendt and Berlin’s differences over the pressing issues of their time as outgrowths of their differing personal experiences.  He explores Arendt and Berlin’s divergent interpretations of the nature of freedom (or liberty; the two used the two words interchangeably), totalitarianism, the Holocaust, nationalism, imperialism, the founding of Israel in 1948, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the 1968 student rebellion.

But Arendt and Berlin for the most part argued past one another on these issues, approaching them from entirely different perspectives.  Neither engaged the other directly.  To contrast their thinking, therefore, Hiruta constructs a sort of hypothetical dialogue between the two, building, as he puts it, “interpretive bridges” which allow the ideas of the two thinkers to “speak to each other” (p.32).  Their substantive differences begin with the different philosophical traditions with which each identified from their university days onward.

* * *

The minds of Arendt and Berlin were “nurtured in very different cultures and schools of thought” (p.31), Hiruta writes, on opposite sides of what is sometimes termed philosophy’s “analytic-Continental” divide.  Arendt came of age on the Continental side, a circle of primarily German philosophers influenced by the Phenomneology of Edmund Husserl and his student Martin Heidegger.   Arendt absorbed this tradition first-hand as a student of Heidegger, with whom she also had a now well-documented romantic relationship from her first year of university onward.  Berlin was grounded in the analytic side of the divide, a distinctly Anglophone tradition, albeit with Viennese roots.  Sometimes termed “empiricism,” this side is associated with Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and A.J. Ayer.  Like adolescents from rival schools, each looked down upon the philosophic school on the other side of the divide.

Berlin’s “unwillingness to concede the significance of the phenomenologists’ work was matched by Arendt’s unwillingness to appreciate the Anglophone empiricist tradition” (p.30), Hiruta writes.  Britain for Arendt was “something of a philosophical desert” (p.2).  She took for granted the “superiority of German philosophy over its Anglo-American counterpart,” seeing “little merit in the analytic movement inaugurated by Russell, Moore and others” (p.2).  Berlin for his part was generally unwilling to engage seriously with contemporary European thinkers because he thought they were “bogus, hollow and ‘metaphysical’” (p.29).  This difference in philosophical grounding looms in the background as Hiruta explores the thought of the two on a host of substantive issues.

* * *

 Hiruta considers the alternative visions of freedom which Arendt and Berlin proffered as the “most fundamental” among their substantive differences because, as he puts it, “to be free is to be human in the full sense of the term, and to deprive one of freedom is to deny one’s humanity” (p.49).  Because Arendt and Berlin disagreed on the “most satisfactory meaning of freedom” (p.80), their views of the human condition were bound to differ significantly.  Berlin was known for his famous – although not entirely original – distinction between “positive” and “negative” freedom, outlined in his influential 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,” in which he argued that  negative freedom was more compatible with modern liberalism.

Negative freedom for Berlin had different dimensions but can be reduced to the proposition that freedom involves the ability to choose among multiple options without interference – one is free to the extent that one’s ability to act is unimpeded by others.  Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, entailing “self-mastery,” a form of rational control of one’s life, but not including freedom to do “what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong” (p.58).  Positive freedom was troublesome for Berlin because some of its iterations can be linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, a linkage that reflected utopian thinking which tyrants and dictators could all too easily appropriate.

Berlin traced positive freedom to the 18th century Genevan philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose notion of the General Will encapsulated the “grotesque and hair-raising paradox, whereby a man is told that to be deprived of his liberty is to be given a higher, nobler liberty” (p.116) – “forcing men to be free” (p.60), as Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract.  The excesses of the French and Russian Revolutions were for Berlin graphic manifestations of positive freedom at work.

Although negative freedom was less vulnerable to abuse than its positive counterpart, Berlin’s strongest argument in its favor was anchored in “value pluralism,” his “flagship idea” (p.62).  Berlin argued that the human beings pursue and live according to a plurality of values, neither infinite nor singular, and that these values are often irreconcilable.  Humans must often choose between competing notions of the good — between, for example, liberty and equality, or efficiency and spontaneity.

Arendt also delivered an important statement on freedom in 1958, in a lecture which she later turned into an essay, “What is Freedom,” from which she distilled her guiding principle as: the “raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action” (p.48).  Arendt was no value pluralist in the Berlinian sense. For Arendt, pursuit of political freedom was the only choice that distinguishes the free from the non-free.  One is politically free in Arendt’s sense when one is “acting and interacting, and speaking and deliberating with others about matters of public concern in a formally or informally institutionalized public realm” (p.66).  Political theorists since Arendt’s time have argued that her notion of political freedom could be seen as a subset of Berlin’s notion of positive liberty.

Political freedom for Arendt began with citizenship, a status which she lacked from the time she left Nazi Germany in 1933 until she became an American citizen in 1951.  Citizenship for Arendt “makes people equal for political purposes,” enabling citizens to “construct public personae to appear before and among fellow citizens” (p.66).  Those who do not have citizenship, for example, slaves, women and manual laborers in the ancient Greek city states, and refugees and the stateless in modern times, are “excluded from an established public realm” (p.66)  and hence lack the bedrock condition for political freedom.

The phenomenon which both Arendt and Berlin termed “totalitarianism” might be considered freedom’s antithesis.  In analyzing totalitarianism, Berlin’s starting point and primary frame of reference was Soviet Russia, whereas Arendt’s model was Nazi Germany.  Arendt’s seminal 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which established her reputation in the United States, argued that totalitarianism was an unprecedented 20th century phenomenon, unknown prior to the emergence of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and thus something more than an extreme form of authoritarianism or tyranny.

Totalitarianism for Arendt was simultaneously a lawless and lawful form of government: lawless in that it “dismisses the principle of the rule of law and defies all positive laws,” yet lawful in that it “strictly follows a purportedly ‘higher’ law, such as the law of nature in Nazism and the law of history in Stalinism” (p.89).  Domination achieved through terror exercised over “harmless citizens without political opinions” (p.91) was the “immoral heart of totalitarianism” (p.101).  Ideology in a totalitarian system “determines over whom terror will be exercised, paying no attention to victims’ behavior or feelings” (p.91).  Individuality and spontaneity are to be “destroyed to the extent possible” (p.97).  Concentration camps, where the objective is to “eradicate the concept of the human being” (p.95), represented for Arendt the epitome of total domination and hence of totalitarianism.

Arendt entertained what Hiruta considers an odd view that neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia was totalitarian at the outset but morphed into totalitarian states at some point in their histories, points she never identified. Lenin gets a complete pass in Arendt’s totalitarian analysis and even Stalin was not in her view a full-fledged totalitarian at the outset.  As World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Arendt considered the primary totalitarian danger to be over.

For Berlin, by contrast, who traveled to Moscow in 1945-46 on behalf of the British government, the menace of totalitarianism was “only beginning to grow” (p.122) as the Second World War ended..  He considered the totalitarian system that emerged in the Soviet Union to be a manifestation of utopian thinking – and thus positive liberty – taken to its logical end point.  Berlin rejected Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism was a unique 20th century phenomenon, categorically different from its tyrannical precursors. He perceived a continuity between the late 19th and early 20th century thinkers frequently termed the Russian “intelligentsia” and the Bolshevik regime that came to power in 1917.

In their “enthusiasm for ideas,” late 19th century Russian thinkers like Alexander Herzen were “prone to an extremism” that in Berlin’s view “gradually undermined their original humanist outlook and paved the way for Bolshevism” (p.118).   Like the 19th century intelligentsia, the Bolsheviks, Berlin’s “archetypical totalitarians,” were “idea-driven fanatics” (p.119).  Lenin’s paranoia turned the Russian intelligentsia’s “moral integrity” and “intellectual seriousness” (p.118) into fanaticism and dogmatism and transformed its passion for social reform into an “indifference to the human costs deemed necessary for realizing the communist goal.” (p.119).

Totalitarianism in Germany is inescapably associated with the Holocaust, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  After Israeli operatives captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, Arendt and Berlin came close to a direct clash over the import of the Holocaust.  Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps, was brought to trial in Jerusalem, where he was charged with crimes against humanity and the Jewish people, all committed prior to the founding of the Israeli state, and executed in 1961.

The series of articles which Arendt wrote for The New Yorker on the 1961 Eichmann trial became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963.  Probing the nature of evil itself, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology.  Eichmann demonstrated that one did not need to be extraordinarily evil to commit extraordinarily evil acts.   Arendt’s term “banality of evil” became commonplace after the trial.  Many interpreted the phrase as devaluing the seriousness of Eichmann’s crimes, often forgetting, as Hiruta notes, that Arendt unambiguously supported the execution of the mass murderer, whereas Berlin lobbied Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion against the death penalty for Eichmann.

Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation.  She was vilified for the rest of her days for the notion that she was blaming the Jews for their own persecution. Even if Arendt was blaming only Jewish leadership, not the Jewish people, in the eyes of her critics her tone was “utterly inappropriate, showing disrespect for and even cruelty towards the victims of the Holocaust” (p.38).

Berlin attended a few trial sessions (even Arendt did not witness them all) where he too was struck by Eichmann’s “ordinariness and mediocrity” (p.35), but he was not a central player in the ensuing controversy.  Berlin doubted that the trial benefited Israel’s national interests and feared that imposition of the death penalty would worsen Israel’s international standing. He wholeheartedly endorsed the widespread accusation that Arendt, “sitting safely in New York,” (p.131), as he put it, had “arrogantly and patronizingly blamed the victims of the Holocaust.” (p.2).   In the aftermath of the controversy, Hiruta writes, Berlin “began using ‘Arendt’ as a general noun to refer to something like perversity and deformation” (p.160).  He suggests that Berlin might not have seen Arendt as his “‘real bête noire’ had she not written Eichmann in Jerusalem” (p.160).

Arendt felt “gravely misunderstood” (p.39) by the controversy and came to be convinced that the “Jewish establishment” had carried out an organized campaign to distort her work.  She suspected Berlin had played a role in the manipulation of public opinion, especially in Britain. But Hiruta notes that Arendt lived under Nazism both in Germany and occupied France, whereas Berlin never set foot on the continent during World War II.  Berlin claimed after the war to have been unaware of the Holocaust until late in 1944 or early 1945, for which he said he felt “ashamed” (p.140).  One does not have to be a psychoanalyst, Hiruta astutely observes, to see that Berlin’s “troubled conscience stiffened his attitude towards the outspoken survivor who wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem.” (p.141).

* * *

If Arendt and Berlin agreed upon little substantively, they shared what Hiruta describes as a determination to “face up squarely to the most urgent challenges of their times and think them through, unhindered by intellectual cowardice” (p.203).  Each produced works that have “immediacy, urgency, integrity and authority” (p.202) – reason enough for readers of this thoughtful volume to appreciate both figures, even though neither appreciated the other.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

December 22, 2022






Filed under Biography, European History, German History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Russian History, Soviet Union

Lenin’s Century


Vladmir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History:
Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century 

             The sub-title of this book should be a tip off that Valdimir Tismaneanu is wrestling with arguably the most critical question in 20th century European history: how did so much of the continent, where the Enlightenment two centuries previously had provided the blueprint for democratic governance based on religious tolerance and respect for individual rights, stray so far from the Enlightenment’s ideals? In The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, Tismaneanu locates the answer in 20th century communism, from its inception quite simply a “criminal system” (p.69), he writes. Tismaneanu’s searing critique hones in on the impact of Bolshevik and Leninist thinking throughout the 20th century, and describes the rethinking that went on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when most of the countries of the former Communist bloc committed themselves to democratic governance.

            A professor of political theory at the University of Maryland and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, Tismaneanu is a native of Romania brought up under the odious regime of Nicolae Ceaușecu, and thus knows more than a thing or two about how totalitarian governments operate. Tismaneanu indicates in his Forward that he was born after World War II to “revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values” (p.ix). His father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, losing an arm, while his mother served as a nurse in that conflict. At age 14, Tismaneanu started to think about the implications of communism after a chance reading of a clandestine copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

            The book’s cover contains an ingenious photo of Stalin and Hitler staring at one another. If you’re talking about the devil in history, you’ve got to start with these two guys, right? Actually, an argument could be made that neither should be on the cover. Despite its sub-title, the book is only secondarily about Fascism and Nazism, emphasizing primarily how, despite ideological differences, they were influenced by the communist model. Moreover, it would have made way more sense to put Vladimir Lenin on the cover rather than Stalin. Stalin in Tismaneanu’s analysis was a ruthless implementer who “carried to an extreme Lenin’s intolerant logic” (p.230). But Lenin was the devil in 20th century European history – “the twentieth century was Lenin’s century” (p.90).

* * *

            Tismaneanu describes Leninism (or Bolshevism; Tismaneanu uses these terms inter-changeably) as a “self-styled synthesis between Marxian revolutionary doctrine and Russian tradition of nihilistic repudiation of the status quo” (p.90). If there had been no Lenin, he goes on to contend, “there would have been no totalitarianism – at least not in its Stalinist version. The October 1917 Bolshevik putsch . . . was “the event that irreversibly changed the course of Western civilization and world history” (p.92). Thanks to Lenin, a “new type of politics emerged in the twentieth century, one based on elitism, fanaticism, [and] unflinching commitment to the sacred cause” (p.90). Leninism was “inherently inimical to political liberties. It is not an accidental deviation from the democratic project but its logical, direct and unequivocal antithesis” (p.120).

            Leninism was rooted in Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and progress. Leninists “knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense” (p.46). But Leninism was equally rooted in Marx’s theories of transformation and the Russian anarchistic revolutionary tradition, with its “utilitarian nihilism and a quasi-religious socialist vision of the transformation of mankind” (p.112), a tradition which Steven Marks described in How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December. Lenin took Marx’s broad theories and emphasized the “organizational element as fundamental to the success of revolutionary action” (p.97). Leninism was precisely the type of utopianism which Isaiah Berlin abhorred, sanctifying “ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes could be justified in the name of a radiant future” (p.70). More than a revolutionary response to the inequities of the Tsarist state and the injustices of capitalism, Leninism was an “experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering” (p.30). Never was a political doctrine “so ambitious, never a revolutionary project so much imbued with a sense of prophetic mission and charismatically heroic predestination” than Leninism (p.90), Tismaneanu concludes.

            Lenin’s diabolical influence extended to both Hitler and Mussolini. In times of moral and cultural disarray, Tismaneanu argues, Communism and Fascism can “merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939” (p.x). The party played a different role under the two regimes. Under Communism the party leader incarnated the wisdom of the party, whereas under Fascism and Nazism the party was entirely secondary to the leader as the charismatic center of power. Fascism and Nazism also lacked the recurring party purges and show trials of the ruling elite as a “mechanism of mobilization, integration, and scapegoating” that characterized Communist regimes (p.53). Nonetheless, the ideologies of Communism and Fascism held in common a “belief in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of transforming it in accordance with a utopian blueprint” (p.162). Both “identified with the revolution as an irreversible moment breaking with the past and creating a totally new world” (p.118). The two movements were alike in being “essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions and practices” (p.21) – the “antithesis of the Western humanist legacy” (p.62).

            By the end of Khrushchev’s rule in the fall of 1964, both in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it was clear that reform within party-defined boundaries had “ceased to be a viable option”( p.136). Tismaneanu sees 1968 as a pivotal year, during which Eastern Europe saw an “explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism,” setting in motion forces that led to the “gradual decomposition of the Communist regimes” (p.142). Futile attempts to find ways of reforming Communism from within were replaced by an emphasis upon human dignity and the inviolability of human rights. The soul of Communism died in Prague in August 1968, Tismaneanu concludes. From that year onward, Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a spent force, with stagnation and immobility becoming its main characteristics.

          If the Communist soul died in 1968, its emaciated body survived until 1989. The changes which Europe underwent that year start with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tismaneanu regards Gorbachev as a “genuine Marxist revisionist, who, while paying lip service to Lenin’s iconic figure, moved away from Bolshevism as a political culture based on fanaticism, sectarianism, and volunteerism toward a self-styled version of Marxist revisionism” (p.145-46). Gorbachev tried to offer “antidotes to the rampant pathologies of cynicism, corruption and cronyism,” but was “utterly confused as to how to bring about political pluralism while sustaining state socialism” (p.153). Gorbachev’s version of Marxist revisionism was directly inspired by Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, but he was “unable to fully abandon the outworked Leninist model, desperately searching for ‘socialism with a human face,’ torn between nostalgia for old ideals and the tragic awareness of their hollowness” (p.153). Neither a neo-Menshevik nor a Western-style Social Democrat, Gorbachev remains the “last and most influential of those East European Leninist leaders who tried to humanize an inherently inhuman system” (p.153).

            Twenty-five years after the changes of 1989-91, pluralism seems to have settled solidly throughout the former Eastern European Communist bloc, Tismaneanu argues, with democratic practices widely recognized, accepted and practiced. The revolutions of 1989-91 dealt a mortal blow to the “ideological pretense according to which human life can be structured in accordance with scientific designs proposed by a general staff of revolutionary doctrinaires” (p.171). Tismaneanu emphasizes the centrality of civil society to the success of the 1989 transformation, replacing the existing political, social, and economic system with one “founded on the ideals of democratic citizenship and human rights” (p.223). The core value restored, cherished and promoted by the revolutions of 1989 was “common sense. The revolutionaries believed in civility, decency, and humanity, and they succeeded in rehabilitating these values” (p.223). In so doing, they also managed to bring about the “rebirth of citizenship, a category abolished by both Communism and Fascism,” which also involved “re-empowering the truth” (p.221). What we have learned from 1989, Tismaneanu concludes, represents an “unquestionable argument in favor of the values that we consider essential and exemplary for democracy today” (p.221).

             Still, Tismaneanu cautions, a “residual Bolshevism” (p.114) lingers in the formerly Communist world, certainly in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has instituted a regime euphemistically termed “managed democracy,” an “increasingly aggressive version of neo-Stalinist and neo-imperialist restoration” (p.218). But even in Eastern Europe, the “utopian reservoir of humanity has not been completely exhausted: refurbished ideologies have resurfaced, among them populism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism of different shades” (p.164-65). Communism’s demise has given rise to “disenchantment, dispirited political cultures, the rise of new collectivisms, marginalization of former heroes, and the return of former Communists” (p.194). In brief, the “battle for the soul of man after Communism has not ended” (p.205).

* * *

            As perceptive as Tismaneanu’s insights are, as critical as his subject matter is, a few caveats are in order before you rush out and plunk down something like $20 for the paperback edition of his book. Tismaneanu’s prose is often dense, bordering on turgid. It is riddled with sentences such as: “The disintegration of the Stalinist gnosis as a key self-sufficient system of authoritarian norms and quasi-mystical precepts impelled revisionist intellectuals toward the construction of what Kolakowski called an agnostic Marxism, actually a quixotic attempt to salvage the humanistic kernel of the doctrine lest the whole Marxist utopia fall apart” (p.177); and “The theoretical manifestations of these undercurrents provided a new semantic horizon, the coalescence of a new emotional and intellectual infrastructure that was translated into a resurgence of repressed philosophical topics, above all humanism as a privileged metaphysical concern” (p.134).

           To be sure, the nuances of Marxist thinking and applications of Communist theories do not always lend themselves to crackling prose. Further, English is not Tismaneanu’s native language, and he has my full admiration for establishing a distinguished career and earning numerous academic distinctions in an acquired rather than native language. This is by itself a remarkable achievement. But some writers achieve genuine fluency and elegance writing in an acquired language. Valdimir Zubok, whose book Zhivago’s Children I reviewed here in November 2012, is one example. Tismaneanu is not there yet (incidentally, Tismaneanu frequently cites Zubok’s work).

            Further, Tismaneanu over-relies on quotations from other works. For example, the following string of quotations is contained entirely on a single page, page 103:

. . .as A.E. Rees showed. . .To paraphrase Eugen Weber. . .as the Catholic intellectual Adolf Keller wrote. . . as sociologist Michael Mann underlines. . . As Lesek Kolakowski puts it. . .. Paul Berman explains . . .

           There is of course nothing wrong with one author occasionally quoting another’s work – it is way better than using another’s words without quoting the other writer. The over-reliance on quotations is a common characteristic of too many college term papers and university dissertations. An author writing for general readers should be providing primarily his or her own thoughts, not those of other writers.

* * *

            Born and raised in a particularly virulent form of Communism in Romania, Vladimir Tismaneanu has a wealth of insight to offer readers on the implications of that and other repressive systems of government. But this book, while treating an enticing and still-critical subject, is unlikely to gain the affection of most general readers.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 21, 2015

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Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union, Uncategorized

What Was So Enlightened About That?


Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment
Why It Still Matters 

            I remember being introduced to the Enlightenment during my senior year in college, in a course officially denominated 18th Century European Intellectual History or something to that effect. In this course, the professor, a kind, scholarly gentleman whose specialty was Diderot, introduced his clueless undergraduate charges to a sort of Hall of Fame of Enlightenment philosophes and other enlightened figures. In addition to his beloved Diderot, we met Voltaire, Montesquieu, Frederick the Great (an “enlightened despot”), and a host of others. I recall that our professor even allowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a brief and tightly-regulated appearance. I couldn’t help but like the Enlightenment figures’ emphasis on science, reason, and empirical thinking rather than religion; their belief in the equality of all men – for some, even the equality of all men and women; and their willingness to rethink the “timeless verities” that had been handed down from century to century in Europe.

            But as I identified with the enlightened figures of the 18th century, I was consistently brought back to a harsher reality: hadn’t I learned in a previous year’s introductory European History course that the 18th century ended rather badly for France, the epicenter of the Enlightenment? Didn’t the French Revolution that began so nobly with a Declaration of the Rights of Man degenerate into a guillotined bloodbath, with some of the revered Enlightenment figures finding themselves on the chopping block for politically incorrect thinking or insufficient revolutionary zeal? Wasn’t our text punctuated with several gruesome sketches of the guillotine in action? And didn’t that revolutionary zeal inspire a pesky little guy named Napoleon to launch a European war of conquest? What was so enlightened about that?

            In the decades since that course, I have instinctively felt the need to check my natural enthusiasm for the ideals of the Enlightenment by reminding myself of the ignominious ending to the French Revolution, followed by Napoleonic wars of conquest. Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters seeks to uncouple the Enlightenment from the darker chapters of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Pagden’s answer to why the Enlightenment still matters, his somewhat aggressive, in-your-face title, is that it continues to be the baseline for the “broadly secular, experimental, individualist and progressive intellectual world” we inhabit today (p.x-xi). By insisting on “its own unfinished nature,” the Enlightenment “quite simply created the modern world. It is . . . impossible to imagine any aspect of contemporary life in the West without it” (p. 408). In particular, Pagden concludes that modern liberal democracy, the form of political system which, “for better and sometimes for worse, governs most modern societies,” is a “creation of the Enlightenment, refined and institutionalized during the course of the nineteenth century” (p.412-13). Nonetheless, the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment remains one of the “most persistent, most troubling, and increasingly most divisive” of the ideological divisions within the modern world (p.ix).

            For Pagden, the Enlightenment arose during the “long” 18th century, the last decade of the 17th century through the first decade of the 19th, in the aftermath of the 17th century’s religious wars and the accompanying breakdown of the authority and intellectual unity of the Catholic church. These wars, the Reformation, the “theologically destabilizing impact of the revival of Skepticism,” and the discovery of the Americas had “dealt all the self-assured claims of the theologians a blow from which they never recovered’ (p.96). By the end of the 17th century, Christianity was no longer able to provide the “intellectual and consequently moral certainty that it once had done” (p.406). Pagden describes two broad, intertwined intellectual trends which marked the Enlightenment: reliance upon science and reason, rather the religion and theology, to explain the human species and the universe; and what he calls the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, its emphasis upon what unites the human species across a vast array of cultures and languages. Pagden sets out these trends in eight erudite if sometimes difficult to follow chapters, each with a snappy title (e.g. “Bringing Pity Back In”; “The Fatherless World”). The most argumentative portion – and for me the most enticing – is his conclusion, entitled “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” evoking Karl Popper’s World War II-era defense of liberal democracy, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            The Enlightenment can be studied from numerous angles, but most encompass the study of the thinking of Europe’s enlightened figures, a “self-appointed elite” whose members were, as Pagden phrases it, marked by their “intellectual gifts, their open-mindedness, their benevolence toward their fellow human beings. . . and their generosity” (p.322). Each student of the period has his or her own favorite figures. My undergraduate course seemed to turn around Diderot, whereas Pagden’s interpretation gives preeminent place to two philosophers who thrived outside France, the Scottish David Hume and the German Immanuel Kant. Although the thinking of each ranged broadly, Hume personifies for Pagden the secular thread of the Enlightenment, the effort to supplant religious and theological explanations of man and the universe with a “science of man,” based on such notions as “sentiment,” “empathy, “and “virtue,” rather than simple self-preservation, as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher and quasi-atheist, had posited. In somewhat different terms, both Hume and Kant articulated the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitan universalism.

            Hume became the “single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ which the Enlightenment ever produced” (p.153), Pagden writes. For Hume, the world’s religions – those “sick men’s dreams,” as he called them (p.125) — had only muddled, corrupted and complicated human lives. His demolition of religion was, Pagden argues, “more assertive, better argued, more profound, and has been more long-standing than that of any philosopher besides Kant” (p.146). Moreover, unlike Kant, Hume was “able to demonstrate that religious belief could not exist ‘within the limits of reason alone,’” using Kant’s phrase (p.146). Hume agreed with the Old Testament view that “however varied actual human beings might be, they all shared a common identity as humans,” with “no universal difference discernible in the human species” (p.162). For Hume, “habits,” “manners,” “customs,” are the stuff of which our worlds are made. All that distinguished the “wisest European from the most ignorant ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ is precisely the same as that which distinguishes one ‘civilized’ people from another . . . custom, law, habit, and social expectations” (p.163).

          Pagden cautiously endorses the view of Kant as the “first of the modern liberals” and the first to claim that “modern liberal democracy was bound eventually to become the form of government that all enlightened and civilized peoples would one day embrace” (p.358). Kant’s “cosmopolitan right,” the vision of humanity moving steadily toward a future free of strife and hostility, in which all humans might pursue their own individual ends without endangering those of others, was the “inescapable conclusion of the Enlightenment project” (p.370). Kant, who paradoxically never traveled more than 30 miles away from his native Konigsberg in Germany, also foreshadowed the 20th and 21st century movements toward international justice.

            Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace, written in the aftermath of the 1795 Peace of Basel, which ended the War of the First Coalition between Europe’s principal monarchies and revolutionary France, set out Kant’s views on ending the scourge of war. In this tract, Kant laid out the case for a hypothetical universal peace treaty that could “ensure the future and inescapably cosmopolitan development of the human race” (p.349). The influence of Toward Perpetual Peace can be seen not only in “contemporary discussions over global governance and global justice but also in the creation of the universal institutions to sustain them, in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and perhaps most closely of all, the European Union” (p.349-50). In bringing the secular, scientific and cosmopolitan threads of the Enlightenment together, Hume and Kant enunciated the Enlightenment objective of creating a “historically grounded human science that would one day lead to the creation of a universal civilization capable of making all individuals independent, autonomous, freed of dictates from above and below, self-knowing, and dependent only on one another for survival” (p.371).

            After setting forth the essential threads of the Enlightenment and highlighting its most consequential thinkers, Pagden finishes with his provocative conclusion, “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” in which he discusses the case against the Enlightenment. The case amounts to an assault against modernity, Pagden contends, based on “some caricature of a project to reduce all human life to a set of rational calculations” (p.406). Under this view, the Enlightenment produced a culture “devoid of direction and purpose” because the Enlightenment was “fundamentally wrong about morality” as being discoverable by reason alone (p.397). Without the guidelines of tradition, custom and systems of religious belief which the Enlightenment sought to strip away, “humans are lost” and the Western world has been “suffering for it ever since” (p.398). What might be termed the German 4H club, Herder, Heine, and Hegel in the 19th century, and Heidegger in the 20th, propounded the view of the Enlightenment as a “cold, toneless, monstrous and calculating . . . It had tried to crush all of human life, difference, heroism, and desire” (p.387). Over the centuries, Enlightenment, the “Rights of Man,” “Republicanism,” and Kant’s “Cosmopolitanism” all came to be identified in the minds of conservative elites with the destructive power of the French Revolution. Or, as Friederich Karl von Moser, an 18th German jurist and government official, more succinctly put it, Enlightenment “begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism” (p.381).

            In response, Pagden comes to what is for me the crux of his argument on behalf of the Enlightenment. Any direct causal link between the Enlightenment and the darker side of the French Revolution, he asserts, is “spurious” (p.389). Had the Enlightenment in fact been a precursor to the Revolution and to Napoleon, he writes, “it would not be of much lasting importance” (p.389). For all its excesses, the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were a “necessary evil” that “ultimately cleared the way for the liberal-democratic order that ultimately came to replace the ancient regime throughout Europe” (p.389). That doesn’t sound to me like an argument that the links between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are “spurious” (which my dictionary defines as “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin”). Rather, Pagden’s account seems to acknowledge that the Revolution and Napoleonic era were intertwined with the Enlightenment, and it is difficult to see how one could argue otherwise.

            The Enlightenment itself was a complex phenomenon, and the interpretation of its legacy some 200 years after the end of the “long” 18th century still excites passions. Given this complexity, we should not be surprised that many paths can be charted from the Enlightenment. I accept as well-founded the link which Isaiah Berlin perceived between the Enlightenment’s utopian universalism and the game plan which Vladimir Lenin devised for Russia. That another path from the Enlightenment leads to modern notions of liberal democracy, Pagden’s primary contention, seems unassailable. And it is not unreasonable to contend, as Pagden does, that the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were necessary disruptions to clear that path. But that is a more modest contention than that links between the Revolution and the Enlightenment are “spurious.”

            After the horrendous wars and genocides of the 20th century, we know that we cannot always count on reason to prevail. There is still tribalism of many sorts that precludes us from seeing the common humanity linking individuals across the globe, and atrocities are committed in the name of religion nearly every day. But the Enlightenment impulses represent for me now, as they did in that classroom several decades ago, the more noble side of human beings and human experience – if only I could only rid my mind of those guillotine sketches in my college textbook.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 24, 2015


Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Uncategorized

Are We All Value Pluralists Now?


John Gray, Isaiah Berlin:
An Interpretation of His Thought

            A year ago, I ranked Isaiah Berlin near the top of my 20th century intellectual heroes, a thinker with profound insight into liberal democracy and its European antipodes, Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Then, I read David Caute’s “somewhat revisionist” portrait of Berlin in Isaac & Isaiah, The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, reviewed here in December. The Berlin in Caute’s book is, I wrote, “far from an endearing figure,” a smug, vindictive, slightly arriviste member of the British establishment. Having finished Caute’s book, I discovered that John Gray, an eminent professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, now retired, had updated his 1996 analysis of Berlin’s thinking, Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought, with a new introduction (in a review of Caute’s book, Gray also mounted a vigorous defense of Berlin: http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/gray_07_13.php).

          The republication of Gray’s book thus seemed an opportune moment to deepen my understanding of Berlin’s thinking. Alas, after reading the book, Sir Isaiah continued his downward slide on my heroes list. Although I noted no further personal deficiencies, I found Berlin’s thinking anachronistic, a still-useful reminder perhaps that utopian schemes based on man’s perfectibility can lead to totalitarianism, but not much more. The chief insight which Gray attributes to Berlin, that no overarching principles can reconcile conflicting values, may represent solid armchair philosophy but seems of little utility in the real if messy world in which liberal democracies function.

* * *

            Berlin was born into a prosperous Jewish merchant family in Latvia in 1909, and spent formative young years in St. Petersburg, which his family left for Great Britain in 1921 amidst the chaos that followed in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Berlin spent most of his adult life at Oxford, except for brief stints in New York and Washington during World War II and an even shorter period in Moscow in 1945, after the war. Berlin lost both grandfathers, an aunt, an uncle and several cousins in the Holocaust. Having seen the havoc precipitated by the Bolshevik Revolution close up and first hand as a young boy, as an Oxford scholar Berlin retained a life-long aversion to Marxism and Communism, an aversion which he extended to utopian schemes and ideological thinking of all stripes.

          Berlin liked to say that he transitioned in mid-career from a political philosopher to an historian of ideas. The difference can sometimes be difficult to grasp, but the six chapters in Gray’s book seem to fit neatly into one or the other category. The first two, “The Idea of Freedom” and “Pluralism,” along with the last chapter, “Agnostic Liberalism,” capture Berlin’s thinking as a political philosopher. The three middle chapters, “History,” “Nationalism” and “Rationalism and the Counter-Enlightenment” seem to describe Berlin working as an historian of ideas. The core principles which Gray attributes to Berlin, his idea of “value pluralism” and his elevation of “negative” over “positive” freedom as the ultimate liberal value are primarily those of Berlin the political philosopher.

* * *

            Gray considers Berlin’s notion of “value pluralism” to be his “idée matrîssse” (p.158, his master idea), predicated upon the irreconcilability of fundamental human values. Value pluralism presumes that “ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable, and that sometimes when they come into conflict with one another they are incommensurable; that is, they are not comparable by any rational measure” (p.36). Berlin’s value pluralism constitutes for Gray a “single idea of enormous subversive force” because it challenges the basic claim of the “dominant liberalisms of our time” that “fundamental liberties, rights or claims of justice are (or indeed must be) compatible and harmonious” (p.36).

            Negative freedom for Berlin involves “choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others” (p.51; Gray uses the words “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably). Berlin once argued that the “fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is an extension of this sense, or else metaphor” (p.55). Although the liberal tradition, complex and itself pluralistic, accommodates many conceptions of freedom, the negative one for Berlin is the “most defensible and most congenial to liberal concerns of diversity and toleration . . . most consistent with the rivalrous diversity of human purposes and goods” (p.57-58). Negative freedom “facilitates human self-creation by choice-making among goods and evils that are rationally incomparable” (p.177).

          Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, which Gray defines as the “freedom of self-mastery, of rational control of one’s life” (p.52). Positive freedom implicates “collective self-rule” (p.56). But positive freedom can be utopian-prone, linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, “one, and only one course of action, one form of life, for the individual” (p.57). Berlin muddied the distinction, however, when he contended that the two forms are at “no great logical distance from each other – no more than negative or positive ways of saying the same thing” (p.53-54).

            Gray wraps Berlin’s core principles together into an approach labeled “agnostic liberalism” — that there can be “no overarching principle of liberty, and no structure of fundamental rights or set of basic liberties, fixed or determinate in their content and harmonious or dovetailing in their scope” (p.61). Agnostic liberalism rejects the idea of a “perfect society, or a perfect human life” (p.106), and substitutes a “stoical and tragic liberalism of unavoidable conflict and irreparable loss among rivalrous values” (p.36). But to temper what might sound like nihilism, and avoid a collapse into overtly anti-liberal forms of governing, such as Hitler’s National Socialism, Berlin allowed that an agnostically liberal society must maintain a “minimal universalism” (p.191), or “minimal standards of decency” (p.202).

           Berlin’s anti-utopian, agnostically liberal approach is reflected in his ambivalent interpretation of the 18th century Enlightenment. Berlin was committed to the Enlightenment’s “central element,” which Gray describes as “illumination of the human world by rational inquiry” (p.45). But Berlin rejected what he saw as the “universalist or uniformitarian anthropology of the Enlightenment” (p.165), its expectation that human beings would “converge on a universal identity as members of a cosmopolitan civilization” (p.199). The Enlightenment in Berlin’s view “consistently underestimated the significance of cultural difference” (p.144). Differences in culture and language should be preserved and lauded, Berlin contended, not suppressed or reduced to a common denominator. In this sense, Berlin’s thought aligns with that of the German Romantics and thinkers hostile to the Enlightenment. But Berlin’s agnostic liberalism and value pluralism were also a challenge to religious traditions which posit a “best way of life, one force good for all human beings” (p.153), and in this sense are entirely consistent with conventional views of the Enlightenment.

            Berlin’s view of history reflects this skepticism toward the universalism of the Enlightenment (and also reflects his value pluralism, agnostic liberalism, and anti-utopianism). Berlin regarded history as a discipline apart from both the natural and social sciences, affirming a method of inquiry based on “empathy and imagination” (p.116). He rejected as “indefensible” theories of development which postulate general historical laws, whether of progress or decline (p.115). Berlin thus had no use for Whig interpretations of history as embodying improvement or progress. He found such interpretations incoherent because of the lack of “any overarching standard whereby global progress or regress could be judged” (p.118). The idea of a “single human history” was for Berlin as “misconceived and incoherent as the idea of a perfect human life, which it is the deepest import of his pluralism to subvert” (p.109).

* * *

            Berlin’s value pluralism may still be an idea of “enormous subversive force” because of its underlying premise that there can be no overarching standard to harmonize conflicting values. But modern liberal democracies have built into their systems a soft version of Berlin’s value pluralism, allowing room for divergent views to express themselves and compete for influence. Democracies can accept Berlin’s fundamental premise that a collision between basic human values that are legitimate and worthy of respect in the liberal state may not reconcilable by any overarching principle. Democracies, however, do not have the luxury of fretting over the lack of such principles to resolve value conflicts. Accommodating competing values is what democracies do; or, more precisely, liberal democracies should provide a process by which conflicting values can be accommodated. That the accommodation may be imperfect and impermanent is itself consistent with Berlin’s notion of value pluralism.

            Liberty and equality are for Gray the prototype examples of “inherently rivalrous goods” which “often collide in practice” and “cannot be arbitrated by any overarching standard” (p.79). But the list goes way beyond to include national security versus the right of the individuals to spheres of privacy and to know what their government is doing; the right of criminal suspects to a fair process versus the general right of the public to security; the right to exercise one’s religion versus the right of unwilling citizens to be free from state imposition of religion; and the “hate speech” conundrum, the right of unfettered free speech versus the right of minorities to be free from verbal vilification. And on and on.

         Although Berlin was himself no proponent of an unregulated capitalism, his negative freedom aligns closely with the classical liberal view of a minimalist state, associated with such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner in the 19th century, and Friederich Hayek and Ayn Rand in the 20th (sometimes termed “libertarianism” in contemporary North America). If liberal values of equal good are inherently irreconcilable and incapable of harmonization, it becomes difficult to argue that the state should privilege any one such value over any another. Instead, the state should privilege “choice-making as the embodiment of human self-creation” (p.176). The counterpart to the minimalist view is by definition more statist. It can embrace Marxist models that verge into totalitarianism, but also includes modern social democracy, in which the state regulates economic activity in the public interest and provides some sort of social safety net to meet “minimal standards of decency” (p.202), to use Gray’s phrase.

           Berlin’s preference for negative freedom was a direct outcome of his aversion to Marxism and Communism, which elevated a statist notion of positive liberty and dismissed negative liberty as an artifact of bourgeois, middle class liberalism that perpetuated economic inequalities. Marxism, however, is no longer with us as a serious argument for structuring the modern state. But if Marxism has largely been confined to the dustbin of history (and to scattered academic departments around the world), so too has the model of the entirely or even predominantly negative state. Outside of active libertarian movements in the United States and Canada, supported by some portions of today’s Republican party, there is almost no enthusiasm for an unregulated capitalist state or one that does not recognize the legitimacy of some sort of social contract between the state and its citizens, establishing “minimum standards of decency” by providing at least a modicum of social welfare benefits to its citizenry

          When they work well, modern democracies accommodate Berlin’s two notions of freedom, maximizing to the extent possible the spheres in which the state abstains from constraining individual choice while regulating economic activity in the public interest and providing some sort of safety net to cushion capitalism’s vicissitudes, so that even the least economically fortunate have the opportunity for the self creation which lies at the heart of Berlin’s preference for negative freedom. This is the model of modern social democracy, the model underlying the European Union’s approach to governance, and one embraced, however timidly, by elements of today’s Democratic Party in the United States.

* * *

          Political theory need not be a blue print for day-to-day governance, but it should nonetheless have some relevance to governing. Berlin’s warnings about the dangers of ideological and utopian schemes, based on misplaced notions of human perfectibility, remain useful reminders. But in today’s democratic world – a significant portion of the planet – ideological and perfectionist schemes of the type that worried Berlin have little influence. The insight underlying Berlin’s value pluralism, that we will never satisfactorily harmonize conflicting values, appears oddly detached from the world in which democracies must operate. From the perspective of the mid-point of the 21st century’s second decade, the agnostic liberalism which Gray attributes to Berlin may still be stoical and tragic, but it also seems to border on irrelevance.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 27, 2014


Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory

Closing the Sussex Gate


David Caute, Isaac & Isaiah:
The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic 

            In “Issac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic,” David Caute seizes upon a seemingly banal episode in university hiring in the 1960s to take his readers on an intellectual tour of post-World War II Britain at the height of the Cold War, roughly from 1945 to 1970, a time when “scarcely any branch of thought and learning . . . remained unaffected by the schism between the ‘Free World’ and the Soviet sphere of influence” (p.37). Caute shows his readers debates and differences within elite British intellectual, academic and political circles over such matters as the Soviet Union and communism, the Anglo-American alliance, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel. The catalyst for this tour was the refusal of Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers – or, as he began calling himself in the latter portion of his career, an historian of ideas — to endorse Isaac Deutscher for a position at Sussex University, where Berlin served as an external advisor to the university’s academic board. Berlin’s refusal to endorse Deutscher, a self-proclaimed Marxist and highly respected journalist and author – albeit one without academic degrees — does not appear to have been based on the quality of Deutscher’s scholarship. Deutscher’s study of Joseph Stalin was widely acclaimed, even by stringent academic standards. Nor was it based on Deutscher’s lack of academic credentials.

            However, in 1955, Deutscher reviewed unfavorably one of Berlin’s best known works, Historical Inevitability. Caute concludes that “[w]ithout doubt” this review was the “killer event in Berlin’s attitude to Deutscher” (p.64). Berlin wrote subsequently that he suffered “from profound, perhaps exaggerated antipathy to all his [Deutscher’s] writings – I think him specious, dishonest, and in any case possessed of some quality which causes some kind of nausea in me” (p.152). Berlin’s writings are laced with similarly vitriolic references to Deutscher, which Caute has amassed here, all of which post-date Deutscher’s 1955 review of Berlin’s book. Yet, the two men had little personal inter-action, and there is nothing in the written record to suggest that Deutscher reciprocated Berlin’s personal animus or was even aware of that animus. Rather, Deutscher appears to have regarded Berlin as an “ideological opponent whom he scarcely knew . . . not a figure to be despised and loathed” (p.36). After Deutscher died prematurely in 1967, his wife confronted Berlin, asking why he had refused to endorse her husband’s candidacy at Sussex. Berlin’s obsequiously disingenuous response was little more than “I did no such thing.”

            Caute has a personal stake in the effort to shed light upon Berlin’s animosity to Deutscher. As a graduate student at Oxford University in March 1963, Caute had an exchange with Berlin in the commons room of All Souls College, in which Berlin declared that he could never recommend Deutscher for a university position, or any other, for that matter. Berlin told Caute that Deutscher was the “only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (p.4). In that conversation, Berlin contended that Deutscher’s adherence to Marxism was not the issue for him. “To be a Marxist is a legitimate stance for an academic,” Berlin told Caute (p.4), adding that he was an admirer and on friendly terms with E.H. Carr, a Marxist and Russian history specialist. But if not Deutscher’s Marxism, what was Berlin’s problem with Deutscher? The conversation danced around that question, without answering it. A half century later, with both Deutscher and Berlin deceased (Berlin died in 1997), Caute tries to find an answer to the question that eluded him in his conversation with Berlin in the All Souls Commons in 1963, a question that only sounds biblical: why did Isaiah so despise Isaac?

* * *

            Caute’s protagonists, Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin, were:

of the same generation, both refugees, both British by adoption, both multi-lingual, opinionated Jews, one Latvian-Russian, the other Polish. Both came to exercise influence not only in academic circles but among the wider British and American public. Both can be viewed as missionary spirits in contention to convince or convert the ideologically naïve English and American natives (p.36).

In addition, both lost close relatives to the Holocaust — both parents in Deutscher’s case. Early in their careers, each published a biography of a leading communist figure, Berlin on Marx, Deutscher on Stalin, with Deutscher later writing a widely acclaimed three volume biography of Trotsky.

            Berlin was born in Latvia in 1909. His family left Latvia for St. Petersburg in 1916, then left Russia for Britain with his family in 1920, after the Bolshevik Revolution. Although only 11 years old at the time of his family’s departure from St. Petersburg, the deleterious effect of the Revolution on his family shaped Berlin’s thinking and world view for the remainder of his life. In Britain, Berlin became more than just a revered philosopher and historian of ideas. He was also the quintessential academic establishment figure, well-known in the media and a familiar face in the halls of power, in Whitehall, Westminster, and Washington.

            Caute describes his portrait of Berlin as “somewhat revisionist” (p.xiii) and, true to his words, the Berlin who emerges from these pages is an “impeccably conforming British citizen” (p.39) and far from an endearing figure. “[O]utgoing, gregarious and socially ambitious” (p.15), Berlin plainly enjoyed the company of the rich and well-born. Further, Caute observes, the more one digs into Berlin’s writings, the more one finds a “passionate defense of the status quo, an extended plea that the things we enjoy and value should not be taken from us” (p.15). Berlin seemed to regard active political commitment as the “enemy of clear thinking” (p.40), and left little public record of his views on most of the social and political issues that dominated Britain in the quarter-century after World War II, such as capital punishment, homosexual law reform, rules governing divorce, immigration into the United Kingdom, or rising racial tension.

            Deutscher was a near contemporary of Berlin, born in 1907. He fled his native Poland for Britain in 1939, at the time of the Nazi invasion. Seven years earlier, in 1932, the Polish Communist Party expelled Deutscher after he had published The Danger of a New Barbarism in Europe, which called for a common front between communists and socialists in opposition to Nazism and the Pilsudski dictatorship in Poland. Deutscher’s sin was that, as the party’s indictment read, he had “exaggerated the danger of Nazism and was spreading panic in the communist ranks” (p.21). Deutscher did not enjoy Berlin’s fame or insider access in Britain, but nonetheless became a successful journalist for mainstream and elite media outlets, building a “remarkably respectable” image for an avowed Marxist (p.24).

          Deutscher also became a highly-respected scholar whose work drew praise from those who did not share his Marxist world view. His biography of Stalin was greeted on both sides of the Atlantic as a “deeply researched and compellingly written objective study, the first definitive study of the most powerful man in the world” (p.27). As Caute emphasizes, however, there was a scrappy, polemical side to Deutscher. He enjoyed a good intellectual fight and loved to goad those he considered knee-jerk anti-communists and apologists for capitalism, of which Berlin was surely one. In this capacity, Deutscher was a “speaker of spellbinding power and a debater of great argumentative force” (p.33). But the polemicist Deutscher had a “tendency to overlook what he had written as a historian – or to count on his readers overlooking it” (p.175). Was it Deutscher’s Marxism that rendered him insupportable to Berlin?

* * *

            Caute describes the differences between Marxists and anti-Marxist liberals in post-War Britain as an “intimate family quarrel akin to that of Catholics and Protestants at war over Christ’s heritage” (p.38). Both camps were “children of the European Enlightenment. . . [who] subscribed in the abstract to education, justice, freedom” (p.38). Berlin’s childhood experience with the 1917 Russian Revolution led him to an unabated opposition to the Soviet Union and communist ideology throughout his adult life. He reserved special ire for Lenin, whom he found worse than Stalin – worse than Hitler, Caute argues at one point. For Berlin, Lenin was the “great contaminator, the self-confident doctor of poisonous medicine, who had in effect chased the Berlins from their family home, their roots” (p.74). Thus it was only natural that Berlin would become a leading Cold War warrior in the post-war period, very comfortable with the Anglo-American alliance and its firmest anti-communist stands. Throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, for example, Berlin supported the United States, while most of his academic peers adopted anti-war positions. Berlin’s “heartbeat belonged to the Anglo-American alliance,” (p.199), Caute writes.

            If Berlin was a consistently anti-communist intellectual, Deutscher remained conflicted by the realities of Russia and the Soviet socialist experiment throughout his professional life. For Deutscher, Lenin was the “builder of the Soviet Republic, the originator of the New Economic Policy, the revolutionary turned into a supreme diplomatist” who embodied the “salvation and consummation” of the Russian revolution (p.83). Slowly, and reluctantly, however, Deutscher recognized that Stalin had committed unspeakable crimes. Yet, in Russia after Stalin, which Deutscher wrote shortly after Stalin’s death, he contended that Stalin nonetheless remained the “guardian and the trustee of the revolution. He consolidated its national gains and extended them . . .[E]ven his opponents, while denouncing his autocracy, admitted that most of his economic reforms were essential for socialism” (p.72). Deutscher “insisted that Stalinism rescued subjugated peoples of Eastern Europe from feudalism, ‘savage poverty and darkness’” (p.161). In a high-powered seminar at Harvard in 1959, Deutscher argued that Western students of Soviet affairs, including his critics, had tended to “overrate the totalitarian aspect of the Soviet system and its capacity to resist popular pressures” (p.190).

            Caute notes that Deutscher made many private concessions, for example that most German workers would prefer American capitalism to East German socialism. But he could never bring himself to state these concessions publicly because, as he once wrote, “disclosure would not serve ‘peace’ or ‘socialism’” (p.163). Even as Deutscher modified his apologetics for Stalin, he remained largely enamored of Lenin – Berlin’s bête noire—Trotsky and, later, Mao Zedong who, he contended, stood for the “inevitability of gradualness” (p.189). Throughout the Cold War, Deutscher was a harsh critic of both Great Britain and the United States, “intransigently” rejecting the “entire Western system and its international policies, [and] dismissing the ‘Free World’ as the cosmetics of an expansionist, colonialist monopoly capitalism” (p.37). Deutscher’s perspective on the Cold War was that “an exhausted and depleted Russia had no intention of expanding or attacking anyone. America, by contrast, emerged from the war unscathed, buoyant and spoiling for a global fight” (p.159). Deutscher “never modified his analysis of the Cold War, repeating the same phrases and arguments across twenty years” (p.162).

            Berlin expanded his hostility to Bolshevism into a theoretical opposition to utopian ideologies of all sorts. Berlin’s professional legacy revolves in no small measure around his abhorrence of systems of thought that purported to spell out how a society should be structured or how individuals can attain a moral life. Individual liberty to do what one wants to do, without harming others, and what he called “value pluralism” were at the heart of Berlin’s political philosophy. He argued that society can be structured in any number of different ways, consistent with respect for individual liberty, and individuals can pursue any number of different paths to a moral life. Berlin warned against the “claims of philosophers, social engineers and revolutionaries who professed to understand men’s objectives needs and aspirations better than they did themselves” (p.110). But, as Caute cheekily points out, few have been “more dogmatic about the perils of dogmatism [than Berlin]. No one has more clearly insisted that historical outcomes are inevitably not inevitable” (p.43).

       It was this insistence that Deutscher pounced on in his 1955 review in the Observer of Berlin’s Historical Inevitability.  Under the title “Determinists All,” Deutscher noted much dogmatism in Berlin’s attack on dogmatism and termed his work a “tirade” (p.64). Berlin “protests on almost every page against the generalizations and abstractions of others, but he himself sins in this respect to quite an extraordinary extent,” Deutscher wrote. He “lumps together scores of philosophical ideas and systems, determines in a few sentences of sweeping generalization what is the ‘common denominator,’ and then roundly condemns them all. . . Mr. Berlin does not analyze. He does not even argue his case. He proclaims and declaims [and] . . . is not over-scrupulous or over-precise in his statements” (p.64-65).

           Deutscher’s review of Historical Inevitability is plainly Exhibit A in answering the book’s fundamental question, why Isaiah detested Isaac. But the chapters on communism and the Cold War fail to yield anything close to an Exhibit B. The two men saw Marxism, communism and the Soviet Union in diametrically different terms but, as Berlin says on several occasions in this book, he would never judge another on this ground. In the final chapters of the book, on Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, Caute comes closer to pinpointing an Exhibit B.

* * *

        Caute suggests that the Jewish heritage which the two men shared “exacerbated their antagonism, imparting a fratricidal intimacy to their wider ideological quarrel” (p.235). Neither Berlin nor Deutscher came close to being religious in any conventional sense, but Jewish identity was plainly a significantly stronger force in Berlin’s life and world view that it was for Deutscher. Berlin was a strong Zionist and proponent of Israel in its early years, the only two political issues which he regularly addressed publicly. Deutscher, in contrast, opposed both Zionist tendencies and establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Although his opposition to the State of Israel softened in his later years, Deutscher’s view was that after the calamities of World War II, the last thing the post-war world needed was another nation-state fueled by patriotic national fervor. He once described his “intellectual opposition to Judaism” as part of an overall “opposition to all forms of theological thinking” (p.155). On another occasion, however, Deutscher described himself as a Jew “by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated” (p.241).

         Berlin maintained a particular aversion to Jewish Marxists who, as Caute phrases it, sought to “escape from their pariah status as Jews by inventing an alternative, more universal allegiance” (p.47). Berlin criticized Marx himself on this ground in his biography. Caute also highlights a snobbishness that Berlin shared with his well-to-do Anglo-Jewish friends, leaders in financial, banking and media circles, who tended to look down on less refined Jews. Berlin acknowledged his aversion to large crowds of Jews and, on one occasion, expressed his disdain for “Jews with colossal noses” (p.237). In 1959, a friend requested that Berlin reply to an article which Deutscher had written on Lenin. Berlin declined with a venomous ad hominem attack on Deutscher. “I hate him [Deutscher] too much,” Berlin wrote. “I cannot be sure that it is only his hateful personality. . . his Communism (which is that mean, dead talmudical ‘parshivy yevrey” type) . . . I am sure I shall find fault with whatever he does” (p.88). The Russian phase “parshivy yevrey,” Caute indicates, means “mangy Jew.”

* * *

        In the last chapter, “The Sussex Papers,” Caute comes full circle to Deutscher’s non-appointment at Sussex University – we’re at Sussexgate! The “smoking gun” was Berlin’s letter to Sussex University’s Vice-Chancellor, written the same month that he had his conversation with Caute in the All Souls Commons. Without mentioning Deutscher by name, Berlin declared that the “candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (p.279). Berlin’s statement effectively killed the Deutscher appointment. A few weeks later, with no news from Sussex, Deutscher – who had recently turned down an offer for a tenured position at the University of Wisconsin — told the university that he was “disappointed at your being unable to make any offer, especially as I was given to understand that what was under discussion was only the particulars of the offer” (p.281).

           In 1969, two years after Deutscher’s death, a leftist publication, Black Dwarf, published an anonymous article in which it alleged that Berlin was responsible for Deutscher being refused a university post at Sussex. Black Dwarf quoted Berlin as saying “You can’t have a Marxist teaching history” (p.282). Berlin considered a libel suit over Black Dwarf’s allegations. But with these allegations in the public domain, he crafted an argument that he would have preferred to have seen Deutscher appointed to a department where there would be another, more politically correct, colleague to balance him.

           In response to an inquiry from Deutscher’s wife after the Black Dwarf article, Berlin explained to Mrs. Deutscher that her husband’s “remarkable gifts would benefit the [Sussex] University if he were not called on to create a field of studies but to reinvigorate an existing discipline. . . I know nothing of the circumstances; the only point I wish to make is that if the University had wished to appoint Mr. Deutscher to be Professor of Soviet Studies, they could have done so, in the knowledge that no opposition to this would come from me” (p.284-85). Berlin reiterated for Mrs. Deutscher that her late husband’s Marxism was for him an irrelevant consideration, writing that it “would have been a betrayal of every intellectual value in which I believe if I had allowed this to sway my judgment consciously in judging his fitness for an academic post” (p.285).

* * *

            Readers may conclude that Caute provides at best only a partial answer to his initial question. Deutscher’s dogged Marxism was plainly a major contributor to Berlin’s antipathy to Deutscher, notwithstanding his protestations to Mrs. Deutscher, Caute himself, and others. To this, one could add Deutscher’s unfavorable 1955 review of Historical Inevitability and Berlin’s intra-Jewish prejudices. The rest of the explanation seems to lie somewhere in the deeper recesses of Berlin’s psyche and is unlikely to be discovered. But this book is only partially about Sussexgate.

           For those who relish the academic equivalent of “inside baseball” — and I must confess that I include myself in this eccentric group, especially when the academic is someone of Berlin’s stature – Caute’s look at the non-hiring decision at Sussex University half a century ago makes for entertaining reading. Caute also adds good overviews of Berlin’s thinking, as well as a peek at the darker side of Sir Isaiah. How brilliant minds like that of Deutscher could cling stubbornly to Marxism is also fascinating subject matter and Caute’s portrayal of Deutscher convinced me that this lesser-known figure deserves a full length biography. Moreover, as a depiction of the zeitgeist of post-war Britain and the country’s polarization over such matters as the Soviet Union and communism, the Anglo-American alliance, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, Caute’s book is erudite and engaging, even for readers who may not care why Isaiah so despised Isaac.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 6, 2014


Filed under British History, European History, History, Intellectual History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized