It’s Complicated: Isaiah Berlin and The Journey of a Jewish Liberal
October 24, 2012
The cover of Arie Dubnov’s book Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal shows Steve Pyke’s familiar portrait of the philosopher and historian of ideas—the public face of the Anglo-Jewish sage in old age, his bald dome and shaggy eyebrows grave above owlish glasses, his mouth pursed as he gazes somberly sideways into the distance. The iconicity of the photograph is marred only by its exclusion of Berlin’s signature waistcoat.
The image will be familiar to readers of Michael Ignatieff’s sensitive biography of Berlin. So will the story of Berlin’s journey from his upbringing as the son of a Jewish timber merchant in Riga to his late-life venerability as a British intellectual grandee. Born in 1909 to descendants of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Berlin (who passed away in 1997) came to Britain with his parents in 1921, following scrapes with the Bolsheviks and Latvian anti-Semitism. Within months of arriving, he was fast on his way to achieving the idiosyncratic mastery of the English language that would win him fame as perhaps the most dazzlingly erudite and vivid conversationalist of his time. Berlin seems to have gone everywhere, met everyone from Winston Churchill to Greta Garbo (often at crucial moments, as when he attended a dinner with John Kennedy on the first night of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and impressed them all—even when they could not follow his rapid-fire, Oxbridge-accented delivery. Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker, is reported to have told the young Berlin, “Young man, I don’t understand a word you’ve said, but if you write anything, I’ll print it.”
Charm and affability had their dangers. It was cattily said that Berlin had been knighted for “services to conversation”; Berlin himself admitted that he had “always been prone to coloured descriptions of unimportant phenomena” and never stopped protesting that he had been “systematically over-estimated.” Yet his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” has shaped liberal political theory and dominated theoretical discussions of political freedom for more than half a century; and in his account of moral conflict and loss he offered, in the opinion of one contemporary, “the truest and the most moving of all the interpretations of life that my own generation made.”
Berlin’s legacy is more considerable than either he or his critics predicted, but it is also ambiguous. His liberalism was complicated and enriched by his fascination with romantic, anti-rationalist critics of the temperate, humanitarian, rationalist ethos with which he was identified. Admirers and critics alike continue to debate whether Berlin remained a faithful liberal. Did his romantic sympathies lead him to adopt a relativistic or crypto-reactionary stance? And did his insistence on rationally irresolvable moral conflict support liberalism’s affirmation of toleration or reduce it to one contender among a multitude of equally valid value systems?
These questions have fueled a minor scholarly industry. Dubnov brings something new to this crowded field by going behind the familiar picture and concentrating on Berlin’s early years. In doing so, he shows how Berlin came to be who he was, and what it meant for him to make the choices that he did. The selection of jacket illustration aside, Dubnov digs beneath—and calls into question—the standard account of Berlin’s life as presented in Ignatieff’s biography.
Ignatieff, Dubnov charges, “made very limited and selective use of archival sources,” instead relying “heavily and not critically enough” on his own interviews with “the aged, celebrated” Berlin. This, combined with Ignatieff’s “highly apologetic interpretation of Berlin’s actions,” led him to produce a book that “avoid[s] uncomfortable reports of touchy or painful events.” Against what he regards as a too-smooth portrait, Dubnov stresses Berlin’s “ambivalence”—the “gaps, inconsistencies, and negotiation between contradictory forces that work simultaneously in one’s soul.” In tracing the emergence of Berlin’s mature thought and identity, Dubnov pays particular attention to the interaction between Berlin’s British affiliation and Jewish roots, and between his liberalism (seen as a reflection of British acculturation) and Zionism. He seeks to achieve a “dual perspective” that will come to terms “not only with the ‘British’ dimension of Berlin’s life and thought, but also with his Jewish upbringing and identity, and with his deep ambivalence toward Jewish nationalism.” While even a “dual perspective” may be too simple in dealing with so “complex, multilayered, and not necessarily consistent” a thinker as Berlin, it does represent an advance.
Dubnov is thoughtful, as well as searching, in his exploration of Berlin’s ambivalences. But his impulse to question received impressions of Berlin’s life sometimes leads him to give too little credence to Berlin’s own testimony. This is especially true in his treatment of the Russian dimension of Berlin’s consciousness, against which Dubnov stresses the specifically “Baltic” character of his upbringing in the Jewish community of Riga. This is fascinating, but its relevance is questionable. Multi-ethnic, mercantile Riga—which Berlin left at the age of 6 and for which he displayed little nostalgia—had less claim on his imagination than Petrograd, where he lived between the ages of 6 and 11 and witnessed both Russian revolutions. Until the end of his life he would remember seeing both the great bass Feodor Chaliapin’s performance as Boris Godunov and a tsarist policeman being dragged off to be lynched by a revolutionary mob.
Dubnov casts doubt on the significance of such memories, which were “shadows more than concrete experiences.” Yet, on the evidence of Berlin’s own writings—the only evidence available to us—it was Riga that was the “shadow” and the experiences of Petrograd that informed his consciousness.
Dubnov’s tendency to discount the importance of Berlin’s Russian connection is also reflected in his surprisingly skimpy treatment of his much-recounted night-long meeting with the poet Anna Akhmatova and other survivors of the Russian intelligentsia on his return to postwar Leningrad. Berlin identified these experiences as life altering and felt impelled to recount them again and again. There is a new note of seriousness that appears in Berlin’s postwar writing, which sets the mature thinker apart from the often frivolous young don, a shift in emotional tenor that seems impossible to account for without reference to his first-hand encounter with victims of Stalinism, as well as his guilty knowledge that his own recklessness had provoked further persecution for those he had met. Berlin’s absorption in Russian culture was genuinely deep—he felt “at home” in Russian thought and culture, with which he maintained ties throughout his life. Tellingly, while the library in Berlin’s house outside Oxford was filled with Western works of intellectual history and philosophy, his private study—his “inner sanctum”—was lined exclusively with works of (largely 19th-century) Russian scholarship.
Dubnov is inclined to treat this “Russian-Jewish” affiliation not as something deep and spontaneous but as a constructed identity that Berlin developed in order to navigate the elite world of British society—and, more specifically, Oxford, which combined its own sort of meritocracy with forbidding exclusivity. It was a social minefield—and, as with all minefields, the invisibility of the mines made them all the more frightening. Dubnov suggests that Berlin’s celebrated wit was a survival mechanism in this atmosphere. If so, Berlin—who always lamented his eagerness to be liked as his greatest failing—seems to have come to feel that he had overdone it, and to chafe at his public image:
“Wittiest man in Oxford”—I am not particularly witty—nobody can ever remember a single epigram I have ever made—and it annoys all the other really witty men. Anyway it is the last reputation I wish to have—I should like to be thought of as grave, deep, serious etc., and not as an agreeable talker. However one’s view of oneself and the view taken by others are strangely dissimilar…