Isaiah Berlin
on Liberty, Nationality and Compromise

Face to Face, in The Late Show, BBC 2, 1992, re-broadcast on BBC 4, 6th September 2003, with Isaiah Berlin interviewed by Michael Ignatieff.

The interview took place in the year after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of East European nationalism. Isaiah Berlin had maintained his liberal-realist pluralist views during the time when Marxism and Socialism were popular in the West, and indeed they were at some stretch from the New Right, but here his views were moving more into the intellectual mainstream. He died in 1998.

The questions are bypassed or incorporated, and this text comes from my notes. There is a reflection afterwards.

Isaiah Berlin began by saying he was pleased that communism had ended. He had been restrained in his criticism because he had relatives in the old Soviet Union.
He was opposed to both Lenin's and Stalin's Russia. The main ideas and especially Socialist ideas came from the West, but the Russians transformed them by believing them, as an effort to catch up with the West. They took up Marxism with enthusiasm, or at least some Russians did.
A new Russia cannot find new ideas from scratch. It could again become centralised and authoritarian. Many people had remained intelligent, liberal minded and civilised into the time of centralisation. They did not want centralisation and authoritarianism but individualism. He thought that Stalin had crushed any literate people, what they understood by "intelligentsia", but this libertarian desire and sympathy to civilised Western values was still there.
People and groups ought to be allowed to live the kinds of lives they want to lead: they are held from anarchy by laws, customs, habits and mainly moral conditions.
It is not wishy washy. There are many different views and they collide. Control should only be extended to the most dangerous and the most destructive, and the rest should be compromise. Compromise does not excite but it is very necessary. Values collide so it is very difficult to have perfect liberty and perfect equality. We should try to prevent intolerable choices and alternatives.
A liberal has to fight when threatened by the totalitarian, centralised and authoritarian. In the case of Salman Rushdie liberals were of course against the suppression of liberty of speech. He has been threatened with death; it is totalitarian.
Toleration is required because people do have to respect other views. Even if a view is regarded as totally mistaken, if you at least "respect" then you find some values in it.
Some values are cross-cultural. The British were right to fight against sati in India, which was something below the minimum standard. It is not foreign imperialism but about the minimum in any decent human society. There are cultural differences but these can be exaggerated. By common values people can succeed. Universal is too strong a word, as most called universal values are accepted by most people most times.
Nationalism is to be explained that some countries advance more quickly than others. The more advanced patronise more backward countries. The humiliation they receive leads to resentment and a feeling of inferiority. They do not want to believe the inferiority so they start to copy the superior countries. Then they say, why imitate those countries when there are one's own traditions and resources by which to gain superiority. Nationalism is a danger when it becomes aggressive and feared. Not all nationalism is dangerous because it can be a peaceful national consciousness. A dangerous nationalism is a pathological condition of national consciousness after suffering wounds and humiliation.
Smaller Soviet nationalities were suppressed. Stalin did this more. Leninism-Stalinism was all that held them together in a Soviet Union. Self-determination may not always lead to separation. Chauvinism was a well known disease as seen in decolonialisation. The hope is that it will subside as people gain some degree of progress, stability and decent living. This comes by degrees and so wounds heal.
As regards multi-culturalism working here as elsewhere empires divide, English culture is actually English: English language, history, Shakespeare, painting and music. This is a core. Enough people follow the core to make it dominant; it affords subsidiary cultures  that do not damage the core. As regards the core being fractured, and its alleged lack of clarity, we do know what is English culture. The majority of people are not nervous. There are limits within. If a person part of a minority culture contributes then there is respect and becomes a part of it to some degree. A few insulated people can be tolerated. Some people completely assimilate. Some people do not assimilate at all but do not affect it.
Some Jews do assimilate and some don't, or at least a bit. Whilst Isaiah Berlin stated he is not assimilated, he is totally loyal. He did not fully belong, coming from Russia. It is not a contradiction to support the State of Israel (in respect of Zionist nationalism). All minorities suffer and are minoritarian. There is nothing wrong with that but the Jews are different in that they have been a minority everywhere and a unique case of oppression everywhere. There has always been some difference. The only country where this is not so is Israel. Jews have had more trouble than others receive and are sensitive to threat, but in Israel they are at home. Israel is important because anti-semitism follows oppression of minorities around the world. England is the least anti-semitic country.
Rootedness is favoured over being cosmopolitan, which is empty and contains no real values. However, there is a European culture, from which much that is called Western comes. More people could become conscious of it. This does not mean abolishing nations. People need food, drink, secuity, liberty and to move. They need to belong in a group and feel at home. They do not want an Esperanto. People with roots produce art, whereas science is cosmopolitan. There has to be some community.

In essence this comes across as a sociobiology of humankind, that born of African Apes we need to live in groups, and when we do this successfully we produce culture and art. There is no economic analysis in this, and not much regarding formation into classes or the exercise of power. The problem of liberty as such is how to restrain unequal economic power from being socially damaging, and indeed this has an international dimension. Marxism may have been oppressive, at least as Lenin introduced it, but some basic insights did concern the questions of technology, economics and social formation. Of course the experience of Lenin was that he could not export socialism to Poland: they just became nationalistic showing a prime loyalty to the national tribe.

Nationalism has settled somewhat since 1992, contained in many places without bloodshed and the war in the former Yugoslavia can be seen as what happened when an inferiority feeling strident leadership upset the balance of forces. It will take more time to heal, another scar on top of scars.

His view of liberty shows that there are contradictions regarding compromises. This is not postmodernism (though it can be argued that the analysis tips on the brink) and this avoids having to define a thoroughgoing pluralism that postmodernism generates. There are no universal values as such either, but there are values which most people believe most of the time and there seem to be minimum standards that most people recognise. This is pretty close to universal values without, again, having to define and defend the principle. Indeed, much of Isaiah Berlin's analysis is pragmatic and about adjustments and compromises. Values run deep within cultures (but always not exclusive to them) and there are clashes. A better world is about people coming together to talk about them and compromise.

This programme was recorded in 1992 and he died in 1998. One wonders what Isaiah Berlin would have made of an Israel, apparently democratic, which carries out an assassination policy without recourse to the law, which occupies territory and crushes its neighbour and overlapping ethnic group, and which is a place now increasingly dangerous, and has been able to do this virtually without criticism under the United States presidency of George Bush and the support of the dangerous American Christian right wing. Zionism became more and more strident in response to a perceived threat and extreme Islamic terrorism, and so reactive to make the country less like a home to feel safe within. One suspects that if a policy outcome is a Palestinian State it will be born shattered and incapable of self management and will never be free of its neighbour's intention to keep it emasculated. One suspects that Isaiah Berlin would call upon Israel even under pressure to respect basic rights and the law and that only this way can it achieve some sort of basis for a settlement at least with the majority of Palestinians with a viable State, rather than alienating them.

This is the view then that we defend the right to have a liberal space, but that space is for as much freedom as possible, and that anarchy is restrained by custom and practicality. These pragmatic principles leave a lot unsaid, but in the end enjoyment of liberty just mean differences and the need to negotiate how to manage them and how to get on with different neighbours.

Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist Website - Liberal and Thoughtful

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