book cover imageIsaiah Berlin and the Politics of Freedom
edited by Bruce Baum and Robert Nichols.
Routledge, 2013.
Hardcover, 284 pages, $130.

Among Anglophone political theorists who lived in the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) stood out for the breadth of his scholarly interests and his multi-faceted engagement with the world. Even though some considered him a quintessentially sheltered Oxford don, Berlin worked for the British Government during the Second World War and befriended several Russian writers who were persecuted by the Soviet secret police before and after the war. He also suffered personal loss during the war when Nazi death squads killed several relatives who were members of the Latvian Jewish community.

Having spent several years in Russia as a boy, Berlin later helped to secure the British publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. He also took steps so that both Anna Akhmatova (in 1965) and Andrei Sakharov (in 1989) received honorary degrees from Oxford.

Berlin’s reputation as a political thinker derives from the many essays he wrote. With the exception of his biography of Karl Marx, he did not write books, and his published books are collections of his essays and lectures. Those essays often combine normative theory with textual interpretation and intellectual history. At his best, Berlin brought ideas to life in a way matched by very few scholars or public intellectuals in recent times. Here one thinks of such remarkable essays as“The Originality of Machiavelli,” “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” and “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life.”

At least one of Berlin’s essays has achieved near-canonical status as a contribution to normative political theory. “Two Concepts of Liberty” was first presented as a lecture at Oxford on 31 October 1958 and later appeared in the author’s Four Essays on Liberty. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the lecture, several scholars organized a conference in autumn 2008 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The essays in this volume were presented as papers at that conference and later revised for publication. They consider different aspects of Berlin’s thought, including his theory of “value pluralism,” and several offer unusually close reading of “Two Concepts.” There are also pointed critiques, including the lead essay, written by James Tully, a political theorist of some distinction.

“Two Concepts of Liberty” is not unduly long, but a few sections are dense and gave rise to certain confusions. To the credit of the editors and most of the contributors, this book clears up certain misunderstandings about Berlin’s thought and “Two Concepts” in particular.

Berlin had both philosophical and political goals for his lecture. Nearly everyone agrees that his overarching objective was to champion and vindicate the Western idea of “negative” freedom. He posited a battle of ideas, involving rival conceptions of freedom, between the liberal democracies of the West and the revolutionary regimes linked to European fascism and communism. But even if there is wide agreement about Berlin’s central goal, many disagree about whether he succeeded and whether that goal should have been pursued in the first place.

Berlin argued that freedom in the “negative” sense has historically meant the absence of obstacles to possible activities and choices. It is a distinctly modern understanding of freedom, closely resembling Benjamin Constant’s account of “modern freedom,” put forth by him in 1819 and classically expressed in the first eight amendments to the United States Constitution.

Freedom in the positive sense is a more abstract though still intelligible idea. As delineated by such disparate thinkers such as the ancient Stoics, Rousseau, Kant, and T. H. Green (1836–1882), freedom in this sense refers to an individual’s rational self-governance. Implicit in this account is the image of a “divided” person: someone who is a slave to inner passions and desires or whose conduct is determined by external influences, but who can nonetheless transcend those obstacles and become free.

Berlin argues that this idea of freedom became corrupted or “perverted” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and thereby contributed to the savage policies of totalitarian states and the crimes associated with European imperialism. How this development took shape is perhaps the most interesting theme of “Two Concepts of Liberty.”

To substantiate his argument, Berlin outlined the two main ways in which persons have sought to become free in the positive sense. Rational self-governance can be attained through an individual’s steadfast control or elimination of passions and desires, as the Stoics argued. But the political implications of this way of life are seemingly modest; at most, Berlin suggests, it gives rise to a political quietism.

By contrast, when large numbers of persons sought to become free by whole-heartedly identifying themselves with a principle, doctrine, or institution said to embody “reason,” the political implications were sometimes enormous. Examples include mass identification with the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism or the institution of the Communist party. This may have resulted in the total loss of individual identity, but sometimes that was precisely the goal. (Recall the allegedly rational and scientific bases of Marxism and the scorn that Marxists long directed at “bourgeois” rights, dismissed as ideological justifications for capitalist exploitation and ultimately “unreasonable.”)

As several of the contributors to this volume acknowledge, Berlin’s narrative about the dangerous evolution of positive conceptions of freedom could have been clearer. His account was both allusive and elliptical, making it engaging to some, puzzling to others.

Because many of the essays fill in gaps in “Two Concepts” and place Berlin’s lecture in historical and philosophic context, this book has genuine merit. But nearly all of the essays are written by scholars on the Left, some of whom are inclined to see Berlin as a stodgy conservative, a judgment that many conservatives in the United Kingdom and United States would dispute.

Furthermore, certain arguments based on the “progressive” or left-liberal views of the contributors are hard to accept. Consider, for example, Berlin’s attitude towards democracy. Because of the corruption or distortion of positive freedom, Berlin had ample reason to be wary of state power, including the terrifying spectacle of the party-state. This scarcely meant that he was opposed to representative democracy, but he stressed in many of his writings that democracy (whether direct or representative) is logically uncommitted to individual rights.

Several of the contributors fault Berlin for failing to appreciate the potential in democracy for promoting progressive politics, including a progressive understanding of freedom. The paper “Berlin and Democracy” by Ella Myers is one example. Despite her favorable references to “pluralist democracy,” scholars such as Myers should admit that representative democracy can yield many different outcomes, not all of them congenial to progressives. A single example: few if any of the contributors likely want the question of same-sex marriage to be left to the legislatures of the American states. Rather, progressives typically favor a sweeping ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States, making same-sex marriage a fundamental right in all fifty states.

Berlin was fastidious about certain conceptual distinctions in politics. He was also wary of redefining foundational concepts and core political values—terms such as “democracy” and “freedom”—so that they encompassed too much. This fastidiousness was plainly related to his theory of value pluralism and the anti-utopian streak in his thought, which derives from his value pluralism. (When taken together, these elements of Berlin’s thought might have made him something of a conservative, but if so, he was an atypical conservative, as evidenced by his strong support for the welfare state.)

At the heart of his theory of value pluralism are a few key ideas: (1) That human values are diverse and complex, often in tension with one another, and sometimes in conflict with one another; (2) That because of the diversity of values, there are many different ways for people to live and still be fully human. The anti-utopianism of Berlin’s thought stems from his conviction that a complete harmonization of values (social or political or moral) is simply impossible.

Value pluralism is so fundamental to Berlin’s political thought that it is folly to try to understand “Two Concepts of Liberty” without reference to it. This point is forcefully argued by George Crowder here, writing in response to James Tully.

Most of the contributors to this volume do not dwell on the anti-utopian strand in Berlin’s thought. As progressives, they are hopeful or optimistic about what can be achieved in politics, and they don’t like being told that some of the things they desire from politics are either logically incompatible or in serious tension with one another.

On that basis, some conservatives might be inclined to ignore or dismiss this book. That would be regrettable, because the essays here are consistently thoughtful (with special mention going to those by Crowder, Gould, Orlie, Nichols, and the co-editors for the introduction). More importantly, the contributions attest to the richness of “Two Concepts of Liberty” and the capaciousness of Berlin’s mind. If one wants to explore the dimensions and legacy of an important essay in the history of political thought, this book provides an opportunity. As a final thought, all conservatives could benefit from the views into the contemporary liberal mindset afforded by this book. 

David L. Tubbs is a Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and Associate Professor of Politics at King’s College in New York City.